Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes: Quiller

There are two extremes of espionage fiction. On one hand, there is the glamorous, exciting, yet totally unrealistic world of Ian Fleming and James Bond. On the other, there is the believable, realistic, but occasionally dull realm of John LeCarré. Straddling the middle is Adam Hall (pen name for Elleston Trevor) and his flawed, vaguely neurotic spy Quiller.

Quiller a fascinating character. His creator describes him as "In his forties, he is as fit as an alley cat and his whole makeup is tense, edgy and bitten-eared." Unlike James Bond, he doesn't drink or smoke, nor does he engage in relentless womanizing. In fact, Quiller is quite respectful of women. In the words of Adam Hall...

Nor is he macho, and this may explain why more than half the people who write me are women. In Murmansk, where Liz is applying Tiger Balm to our bruised and bloodied espion, she asks him if he doesn't find it irksome to have his wounds licked for him by a mere woman. He scarcely understands her. "Where else would a man go, but to the earth mother?"
And while Quiller had few possessions and little wealth, anything he had was to go to a shelter for battered women should he die on a mission. This was a cause close to the author's heart as well. According to Elleston Trevor's obitituary, "Late in life he took up the cause of battered women, campaigned vigorously for that, and was generous with money."

Quiller hardly every uses a gun, preferring to use his wits or martial arts skills. (The author of the series was well-versed in both Shotokan Karate and Aikido.) Quiller is also the type of individual who relies on herbs and traditional Asian massage to deal with injury and illness. At one point he even mentions he once traveled to Tibet to meditate.

Often referring to himself as a ferret, Quiller had an affinity for animals. To again quote Adam Hall...
Quiller is at home with wild animals. He feels a brother to them and knows their ways, their fears. What he calls "mission feel"— the sixth sense of the working executive — is closely related to the instincts of the animal. "Mission feel is never wrong," he says. "It's the instinct we develop as we go forward into the dark like an old fox sniffing the wind and catching the scent of things it has smelled before and learned to distrust. The forefoot is sensitive, poised and held still above the patch of unknown ground where the next flicker of a nerve can spring a trap."
Quiller seems to have a particular fondness for cats. (So do I, though in my case "particular fondness' is a massive understatement.) In one of the novels, he pauses in the middle of a mission to feed a stray kitten. Quiller contemplates adopting the kitten and taking it back to England. However, he realized that having a cat would spell the end of his spying career, as he would just want to stay home with the kitty. It's a melancholy moment, and one that shows the depths of Quiller's character.

So with Quiller you essentially have a tough, capable yet sensitive secret agent with some rather hippy-trippy, New Age tendencies. And that's exactly what makes him such an inspirational character to me. By far, he is the literary series spy I most relate to. I am way more Quiller-like than Bond-like.

A word of advice: It's best to read at least two or three of the books before passing judgement on the series. Hall has a very distinctive writing style, and the novels have a stream-of-consciousness quality that takes getting used to. Many people don't take to them at first, but come to love them.

You can learn more about this great series here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Self-Hypnosis and Zen Breathing

My mom taught me many valuable things (such as standing up for myself, which helped save me from a would-be child molester). One of the the particularly useful skills she taught me when I was a child was self-hypnosis. 

It may sound like I'm about to veer into Derek Flint territory, but there isn't anything particularly weird or mysterious about simple self-hypnosis, at least not the method I use. 

Here are the basics:

  1. Lie down or sit comfortably.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Begin concentrating on your toes. Think about them. Then imagine them falling asleep. almost as if they are disconnecting from the rest of your body.
  4. Once you are done with your toes, move on to your feet, your legs, etc.

That's it. Often, you are either deeply relaxed or asleep before you ever make it to your face and head.

I've found self-hypnosis particularly useful on nights I couldn't get to sleep and on long airplane trips.

Where did my mom pick up this offbeat skill? I don't really know. She was an accomplished nurse, and accumulated all sorts of medical knowledge over the years. Self-hypnosis was probably just one of those things she picked up.

Zen breathing is sort of a cousin of self-hypnosis. It's also a rather fancy way of simply referring to the practice counting your breaths. 

I was introduced to the concept in the works of Robert Aitken.  Aitken (1917 - 2010) was the master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Honolulu in 1959. He advocated the counting of breaths to people who were new to sesshin, or intense Zen meditation.
If you are counting your breaths, then count "one" for the inhalation, "two" for the exhalation and so on but let the count do the counting.  In other words, let that point one count one, let that point two count two, let that point three count three and so on up to ten and then repeat.  It's like the musician seeks to let the music play the music but he or she must practice a long time before that can happen.  So you must practice letting the count do the counting.
Let me be honest: I don't meditate as much as I should, and I don't use the exact breath count method Aitken recommends. However, I do find the basic principle useful.

Instead of counting to 10, I use a simple "one-two" method: Inhale ("one"), exhale ("two"), repeat. Since I'm, like, angry at numbers, this system works better for me, as—unlike Nigel Tufnel's amps—this one only goes to two.

I have found this simple meditative technique even more useful than self-hypnosis. I frequently use it to calm my thoughts and emotions. The first (and last and only) time I went skydiving, I counted my breaths to steel myself for the fact I was about to jump out of an airplane. When I had to do seven brutal rounds of sparring to earn my Jeet Kun Do instructor certification, I counted my breaths in between rounds to slow my breathing and control the adrenaline.

I don't claim to be an expert on self-hypnosis, Zen meditation, or breathing methods. However, I have found both of the techniques I discussed above to be very helpful in a variety of circumstances, and to have in general made my life a little bit better. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thought of the Day, February 11, 2014: Mishima on Sun and Steel

If my self was my dwelling, then my body resembled an orchard that surrounded it. I could either cultivate that orchard to its capacity or leave it for the weeds to run riot in. I was free to choose, but the freedom was not as obvious as it might seem. Many people, indeed, go so far as to refer to the orchards of their dwellings as “destiny.”

One day, it occurred to me to set about cultivating my orchard for all I was worth. For my purpose, I used sun and steel. Unceasing sunlight and implements fashioned of steel became the chief elements in my husbandry. Little by little, the orchard began to bear fruit, and thoughts of the body came to occupy a large part of my consciousness.

—Yukio Mishima

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thomas Covenant, Martial Arts, and the Oath of Peace

Literary genre-wise, this blog has something of a tendency towards thrillers and mysteries. However, I am also a big fantasy fan. In fact, my love of fantasy predated my fondness for spy and detective stuff.

One classic series I never got around to reading until very recently was Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I tried to read the first one, Lord Foul's Bane, when I was in high school back in the '80s. I wasn't quite ready for it, and quit reading it after a certain infamous scene involving Covenant and and a girl named Lena.

This January, I decided to give the book a second chance. I'm glad I did. I quickly devoured both it and the follow-up, The Illearth War. I am in the middle of reading the final book of the first trilogy, The Power That Preserves.

Leaving aside the trilogy's important contribution to the genre, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant isn't just outstanding fantasy fiction; it's outstanding fiction, period. I really appreciate the complex moral and ethical themes, and the fictional setting of the Land is simply an outstanding and well-developed setting. Due to Donaldson's power of description, I—unlike Covenant—almost believe it is real.

Stephen R. Donaldson
In addition to being a novelist, Stephen R. Donaldson is also a martial
artist, holding a Black Belt in Shotokan Karate. (As a side note, Donaldson didn't start training until he was in his early forties. He wrote a nice essay about "The Aging Student of the Martial Arts" that's worth a read.) I was surprised to learn that he was not a karateka at the time he wrote the first Covenant trilogy, as the books have something of a martial arts sensibility.

For one, there are the Bloodguard. The Bloodguard are a group of elite bodyguards who do not age and do not sleep. They also eschew the use of weapons, preferring to use their hands and feet.

Even more interesting is the Oath of Peace. The Oath is taken by every inhabitant of the Land in an effort to avoid needless violence. It reads as follows:

“Do not hurt where holding is enough;
Do not wound where hurting is enough;
Do not maim where wounding is enough;
and kill not where maiming is enough;
The greatest warrior is he who does not need to kill.”

I think there is much in the Oath for the serious martial artist to ponder. Even though I train a great deal in Kali—which is very much a killing art—I have no desire to actually kill anyone. (Well, not usually!) Heck, one reason I'm a vegetarian is because I don't want to kill animals (or eat dead ones) either. Violence should remain a last resort, especially lethal violence.

I can't help but recall Bruce Lee's line from Enter the Dragon about "fighting without fighting." Hmmm... Bruce Lee as a Bloodguard. I could totally see it!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Martial Artists and the Arts

Enson Inoue.
I mentioned in passing to someone that mixed martial arts champion Enson Inoue is a talented jewelry maker who crafts very nice bracelets that he sells for charity. (Check out his website, Destiny Forever.) The person I was speaking to expressed surprise, saying that making jewelry "doesn't seem like something a fighter would do."

Enson Inoue's handcrafted bracelets.
Perhaps to a non-martial artist the idea of a fighter making jewelry seems odd, but it certainly doesn't seem odd to me. There is a long history of warriors creating art.

A self-portrait by Musashi.
One famous example would have to be Miyamoto Musashi. A 16th century samurai, Musashi is best known today as the author of Go Rin No Sho, or The Book of Five Rings. Musashi was a skilled fighter who is said to have fought over 60 duels and was never defeated. Yet Musashi wasn't merely a warrior. He was an artist,  excelling at calligraphy and classic ink painting. 

Musashi's 'Shrike on a Dead Branch.'
Today, there are professional fighters who also create art. Mac Danzig is a skilled photographer. Eddie Bravo makes music. Personally, I have had the pleasure of training with many individuals who are writers, artists, musicians, glass blowers, and so on in addition to being martial artists. 

I believe it is important to balance the fighting arts with the non-fighting arts. As much as one may talk about self-development, mental discipline, etc., the truth of the matter is that most martial arts at their core are essentially about destruction. On the other hand, fine arts are at their essence about creation. By balancing these twin impulses—destruction and creation—an individual becomes a more complete person. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

America's Best Bargain Bourbon

First of all... I'm back! I neglected this blog over the holidays due to work and personal responsibilities, but I plan to get back in the swing of things and post some new materials over the next few weeks.

Now that I've got that out of the way... A big recent booze-related news story is the pending purchase of iconic American distillers Beam Inc. by Japan's Suntory. Beam is famous for it's boring yet reliable Jim Beam white label bourbon, as well as the underrated Jim Beam Black, the excellent Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, and the unfiltered 120+ proof powerhouse Booker's. Jim Beam was also shilled by none other than Sean Connery back in his 007 days.

Suntory is a well-established Japanese beverage company that offers a variety of products, and is especially known for their whiskies, which are apparently rather Scotch-like. They also feature in the wonderful film Lost in Translation. Alas, I don't recall ever having any of their offerings. 

I'm not going to get into the controversies of the purchase. Instead, I want to use this news as a springboard to discuss my favorite bargain bourbon: Evan Williams Black Label.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sprints for Fitness, Fat-Loss, and Emergencies

At this point, it's old news: Sprints are good for you. As Men's Health sums up,  sprints are better than jogging for weight loss, heart health, and maintaining muscle.

From a practical standpoint, I would add that sprints are a more vital life skill then jogging. Think about  it... How many situations can you imagine finding yourself in that would require you to run at a moderate pace for three or more miles? Probably not many. How many situations can you imagine having to run at a high speed for a short  time? If you see a child about to walk in front of a car, my  guess is you'll sprint, not jog, into action. You may sprint to catch the bus. When possible, one of the best options for avoiding violence is to run away as fast as possible.

So sprinting is a good thing. What spring routine is best? Do a bit of research, and you'll get all sorts of answers. The Polinquin Group has a good rundown of a few options on their website.

One thing that many sprint routines inadequately address is rest periods. Sprinting is tremendously taxing. You need to have recovery time built into your workout. For shorter sprints lasting just 10 or 15 seconds, a good ratio of work to recovery is 1:3. If you sprinted for 15 seconds, you would rest for 45 seconds. And by rest I mean rest. Do nothing more difficult then walk around. No jogging, no  push-ups. Rest! If you are really going all out during the sprints, you won't be able to do much more.

For many people, I think 10 or 15 seconds sprints with a minimum of 30 to 45 seconds of recovery, repeated for 10 to 15 minutes, is a good place to start. Longer rest periods are perfectly fine.

How about the famous Tabata Protocol, i.e. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off for four minutes? Two thoughts: 1. The original studies were done with Olympic level athletes, who don't really represent the general public; and 2. They were peddling on specially designed exercise bikes, not sprinting. Sprinting is a different beast entirely.

When you start getting into sprints of 20 or 30 seconds, things start getting trickier.  To be honest, many people cannot sprint at a sustained pace for that long. If you can, you will need to really up the recovery time. Coach Dos wrote an excellent post on this. I particularly like this part:
One of my pet peeves is when people tell me “oh, yeah I do HITT on the treadmill all the time…I jog for 30 sec. then I sprint for 30 sec. and I do this for 30 minutes“. Uh…..no you don’t. You’re doing aerobics and anyone who has ever ‘sprinted’ for 30 sec. (I would like to see that BTW) knows the only thing that you do AFTER this bout is to STOP and TRY to get your SH*T together for the next bout.
This is very true. If someone can sprint for 30 seconds (which is unlikely), they will need way more than 30 seconds of recovery.

If I do 30 second sprints, I will usually allow 3:30 minutes for recovery. I repeat this five times. But wait, you may think. That's just 2:30 minutes of work during a 20 minute workout! Correct, but you know what? It's still incredible grueling, far more so than the 15/45 routine I mentioned above. The 3:30 minute rests periods don't seem long enough, and by the fifth round of sprints, I'm lucky not to peter out before the time is up.

A key takeaway from this post should be that sprinting is hard. That's why it's effective, and that's why recovery is such an important component of sprint training.