Monday, April 18, 2022

Film: Thoughts on The Batman

It’s been nearly a year and a half since I’ve posted anything, and four years since I’ve posted a film review. So here’s both!

As of today, The Batman is available for digital download, as well as streaming on HBO Max.

I have been a Batman fan for as long as I can remember. He is by far my favorite superhero.

My gateway drug was the classic Adam West TV series from the ‘60s, which I discovered as a young child. I loved that show. My grandmother even handmade a cape and cowl for me to wear, which I did often. 

While my fondness for the character somewhat tapered off for a while, it was renewed with a vengeance with the publication of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One when I was in high school. Though there will always be a warm place in my heart for the campy Batman of Adam West, my preference is for a darker, moodier interpretation of Batman.

Outside of the comics, my favorite version of Batman has always been Batman: The Animated Series, which I consider damn near perfect. That being said, big screen, live-action Batman movies have tended to leave me a bit cold. I didn’t share the widespread love for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, finding Christian Bale’s take on the character a bit too normal. I didn’t watch any of the Zach Snyder movies with Ben Affleck, because quite frankly I can’t stand Snyder as a director. And I don’t think Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies are worth commenting on.

I really liked Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, his first Batman less so. Besides the visuals and twisted atmosphere, what really worked for me with the Burton films was Michael Keaton’s performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Keaton understood the fundamental weirdness of the character. I always thought a theme of the best Batman stories was that they were essentially about a mentally ill hero battling mentally ill villains. Burton and Keaton got that, as did the animated series to a certain degree.

That brings me (finally!) to Matt Reeves’ The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson in the title role. This is quite simply the live-action Batman I’ve been waiting for for the last 35+ years. 

I won’t delve into the plot too much, as that’s been covered in countless other reviews. In overall feel, it owes quite a bit to Jeph Loeb’s excellent comic series Batman: The Long Halloween without being a direct adaptation. 

One thing too many Batman movies seem to forget is that the character is known as “The World’s Greatest Detective.” After all, he first appeared in the May, 1939 issue of Detective Comics. From the very beginning, he was something of an amalgamation of Zorro and Sherlock Holmes, something creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger readily acknowledged. 

Director Reeves told MovieMaker he specifically wanted to tap into the noirish sensibilities of films such as Chinatown and Klute

“This idea of a place that is corrupt, and you try to swim against the tide in order to fight against it and make a difference, is quintessential Batman. And at the center of those noir stories is almost always the detective, right? And that’s why he is the world’s greatest detective. And so this story is, in addition to being almost a horror movie, and a thriller, and an action movie, at its core, it’s also very much a detective story. It’s very narrative.”

Pattinson said of The Batman, “It’s a detective movie. It happens all the time in the graphic novels, but it’s always kind of on the back-burner in the movies.”

Want another, even nerdier source for Batman’s persona as a detective? Check out his stats from the long out-of-print DC Heroes Role-Playing Game by Mayfair Games (which I once owned). Notice that his skills as a detective and scientist are higher than his skills as a martial artist. He may be a great fighter, but he’s an even better thinker. Why else would Batman even be in the Justice League, considering he’s physically outclassed by most of its members? Superman has flat-out stated that he considers Batman to be one of the most brilliant minds on the planet.

The Batman is definitely a mystery movie. In fact, many of the action sequences could conceivably be cut without really impacting the plot of the overall film. Not that I’d want the action sequences cut; quite the contrary. I thought they were very well done. One highlight was a car chase that was reminiscent of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin or William Friedkin’s The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A.

The fights were brutal and more or less believable, especially considering this is a superhero movie. According to stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo, "The goal of fight training with Rob Pattinson was to allow the jeopardy to come in much closer than he’s used to in order to eliminate anticipatory movement and heighten his close proximity reactivity. With this as a primary goal, we trained him in FMA – Escrima/Kali/Arnis, Penjak Silat, Muay Thai, JKD, boxing, and kickboxing. For Rob, we avoided kicking and used more hammer fists, elbows, and knees, while also drilling with sticks that would later enable him not only to improve his reaction time in closer pockets of engagement, but also to pick up anything and use it as a weapon." As someone who has trained in all of those arts, I heartily concur with Alonzo’s approach. In addition, Pattinson trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the legendary Rigan Machado. Also, it was refreshing that Pattinson’s Batman wasn’t invincible. Going against multiple opponents, he got knocked down and he got hurt. 

While I’m on the subject of fight training and physical matters, YouTuber JaxBlade's did a video about Robert Pattinson's Batman physique which I totally endorse. Specifically, JaxBlade said he looks like a fighter, not a bodybuilder. It's more believable, and totally fits with this interpretation of the character. Plus, many combat athletes don't look super-chiseled or have six-pack abs. Even the great Georges St-Pierre said in an interview that he maintains his sculpted look more for endorsement deals than for fighting.  As for training, Pattinson ran, worked out with a weighted sandbag, and practiced martial arts. That's a practical, functional regimen. 

The Batman is perhaps the Batmaniest Batman movie so far. The majority of the time Pattinson is on screen, it’s as Batman. There are fewer scenes of him as Bruce Wayne. The characterization of Wayne is quite different than in the comics or other films. Gone is the rich playboy persona. Reeves has said that this Bruce Wayne is based in part on Kurt Cobain, and Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” is used to great effect early in the movie. While purists may balk, I found it to be a valid, perhaps even a bit more believable interpretation. 

As for Robert Pattinson’s overall performance, I thought it was all around excellent. Like Michael Keaton all those years ago, Pattinson understands the fundamental strangeness of Batman and Bruce Wayne. This is a dark superhero. More than a few commentators have described this as a Batman-for-Goths, and as an old-school Goth, I can’t disagree. The thing is, it works, and Pattinson’s performance is a major part of why it works.

The rest of the cast is uniformly great as well. This is a true ensemble film. ZoĆ« Kravitz is a strong, independent Selena Kyle, serving as both an ally and a foil to Batman. (As a side-note, a short but provocative scene features the Dark Knight getting to experience the creepiness of the male gaze through her eyes.) The always wonderful Jeffrey Wright as lieutenant James Gordon is on a roll, with equally strong recent performances in No Time to Die and The French Dispatch. Colin Farrell — who I’ve always thought was underappreciated as an actor — is totally unrecognizable in voice and appearance as Oswald "Oz" Cobblepot aka the Penguin. At times he seems to be channeling Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci simultaneously. John Turturro is spot-on as Carmine Falcone. My only disappointment was the rather limited screen time allotted to Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth. Hopefully we’ll see more of him in future films.

That leaves Paul Dano as Edward Nashton, the Riddler. He brings a true horror movie vibe to the film, especially during his first appearance on Halloween night. While the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is justifiably legendary, in some ways I found Dano’s performance more successful. Ledger’s Joker at times comes across as almost cool in a twisted way. Dano’s Riddler does not. He is a pathetic, evil individual. And his ultimate goals and plot are far closer to reality than people may realize. Without going into spoilers or details, suffice to say I’ve read a bit about the connections between social media and mass shootings, and the events shown in The Batman are not at all farfetched. (See, for example, this article by Malcolm Gladwell.)

Much of the location filming for The Batman took place in London and Liverpool. While I love the purposely anachronistic sets of Tim Burton’s films, this version of Gotham is more in line with what I imagined the city to be like. I always pictured Batman’s stomping grounds as being akin to the New York City of ‘70s films such as Taxi Driver or The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. That clearly is the vibe Reeves is going for, and thanks to the locations and the evocative cinematography of Greig Fraser, he succeeds. It's rather how I imagine Darren Aronofsky's aborted Batman: Year One movie would have looked and felt.

The thing that really struck me as I watched The Batman was that, for the very first time, I felt like I was watching a Batman comic, not a Batman movie. I’m not saying the film isn’t cinematic; far from it. However, it isn’t as beholden to current superhero/action movie tropes and cliches. Reeves does not feel the need to bombard the audience with non-stop action or cheesy humor. He concentrates on mood, allowing the story to unfold at a deliberate pace, and for characterizations to develop organically. A few viewers and critics have complained that The Batman is too long and boring. I strongly disagree. Of course, I readily admit to having something of a weakness for deliberately-paced cinema. Compared to some films I love — such as the 1974 French film ​​Celine and Julie Go Boating, which is over three hours long and basically plotless — The Batman is a fast-paced rollercoaster of thrills. 

I am very much looking forward to seeing how Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson proceed with the Batman franchise. Rumor has it the Court of Owls might figure in the next installment, which would be interesting. I just hope the new owners of DC Entertainment don’t interfere too much. I admit to being something of an adherent of auteur theory, and believe a major reason The Batman succeeded and stands apart from other superhero films is due to Reeves being given a great deal of creative control. We’ll see if he maintains that level of control in the future.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Books Read, 2020

With pandemic-related lockdowns and an insane election cycle, 2020 was an especially great year for reading. In my case, it was specifically a good year for fiction, especially fantasy fiction. Why? Because more than ever, I find a bit of escapism to be very nourishing to the soul.  To quote the great J.R.R. Tolkien, 

"Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter."


  • The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander
  • The Blood of a Dragon  by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Book of Enchantments by Patricia C. Wrede
  • The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
  • The Brega Path by Dennis L. Mckiernan*
  • The Brotherhood of the Rose by David Morrell*
  • The Castle of Lyr by Lloyd Alexander
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  • The Darkest Day by Dennis L. Mckiernan*
  • The Dark Tide by Dennis L. Mckiernan*
  • The Dragonstone by Dennis L. Mckiernan
  • First Test by Tamora Pierce
  • The Forests of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip
  • The Fraternity of the Stone by David Morrell
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • The High King by Lloyd Alexander
  • Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz
  • Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce
  • Last Looks by Howard Michael Gould
  • The League of Night and Fog by David Morrell
  • The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis
  • Lullaby by Ace Atkins
  • Moth by James Sallis
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • Once Upon A Spring Morn by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Once Upon a Summer’s Day by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Once Upon a Winter’s Night by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Page by Tamora Pierce
  • The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst
  • The Queen of Sorrows by Sarah Beth Durst
  • The Reapers by John Connolly
  • Red Slippers: More Tales of Mithgar by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • The Reluctant Queen by Sarah Beth Durst
  • Sarah Jane by James Sallis
  • Shadows of Doom by Dennis L. Mckiernan*
  • Silver Wolf, Black Falcon by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia Wrede
  • Squire by Tamora Pierce
  • Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
  • Trek to Kraggen-Cor by Dennis L. Mckiernan"
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin*


  • Animal Sutras: Animal Spirit Stories by Stephen Levine
  • Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game by Nestor Capoeira
  • Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman
  • Foucault for Beginners by Lydia Alix Fillingham
  • Introducing Jung by Maggie Hyde
  • James Bond and Philosophy: Questions are Forever edited by by James B. South, Jacob M. Held
  • Just Enough: Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan’s Buddhist Temples By Gesshin Claire Greenwood
  • Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt
  • Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life by Robert C. Solomon
  • Surviving Armed Assaults: A Martial Artists Guide to Weapons, Street Violence, and Countervailing Force by Lawrence A. Kane
  • Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee
  • Unleash the Warrior Within: Develop the Focus, Discipline, Confidence, and Courage You Need to Achieve Unlimited Goals by Richard "Mack" Machowicz

(* reread)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Martial Misgivings: The Problem with Systems & Styles

Years ago I came across a quote I really like. It was something along the lines of,  “There are no martial arts styles, only human movement.” Either Bruce Lee or Dan Inosanto said it; I can’t find the original source anywhere online. Maybe I just made it up.

No matter where the quote came from, it reflects my own point of view. I have long been somewhat disenchanted with the idea of martial styles and nomenclature, something I’ve written about previously.

Specific styles of martial arts styles are, by their very nature, limiting. The idea of a “complete” style is fallacious; all of them have their strengths and weaknesses, no matter how seemingly well-rounded they are. A problem arises when those teaching an art refuse to acknowledge the gaps and holes in the curriculum and instead teach questionable techniques that reflect the style more than real fighting.

While this is especially an issue with traditional, closed systems, more modern, open systems are not immune. A perfect example is knife disarms. Both Aikido and Brazilian Jiujitsu have knife disarms. In my experience, none of them work very well against an aggressive, resisting opponent. They sure look nice though, and the Aikido knife disarms look like Aikido and the Brazilian Jiujitsu knife disarms look like Brazilian Jiujitsu. The style — not efficacy —  is dictating the technique. The basic knife disarm I practice and teach doesn’t really look like anything. Actually, it’s rather ugly. But it has been repeatedly pressure-tested and it works.

Another problem with systems is the fact that any martial art is effective against someone practicing the same martial art. This can lead to a false sense of security. If you are totally wedded to a specific style, you decrease the chances of training with someone with a different way of fighting. If you’re strictly a striker but have never gone to the ground, that’s a problem. The same goes for a grappler who’s never had to deal with punches. And note: Having one guy at your Karate dojo pretend to be a boxer so you can learn how to defeat a boxer is not the same as training with someone who actually knows how to box. Incidentally, I consider it imperative for anyone practicing unarmed self-defense to get some direct exposure to both boxing and Brazilian Jiujitsu. Many bad guys are would-be boxers and/or would-be UFC fighters.

Earlier I used the terms “closed” versus “open” styles. What did I mean by that? Closed styles are more or less done changing. They already have set curriculums, and while there may be some variations from school to school, in general there will be more similarities than differences. A Shotokan dojo is a Shotokan dojo no matter where you go. If you take a 5 year break from Aikido and then go back to it, the art probably hasn’t changed at all.

Enson Inoue
Open styles, on the other hand, have curriculums that are always changing. Sure, the basics remain the same, but techniques are regularly being added or dropped based on trial and error. A good example of this is reflected in Enson Inoue choosing to demote himself from Brazilian Jiujitsu black belt to purple belt. (He later reversed his decision.)  Inoue explained that he hadn’t trained exclusively in BJJ for a few years, and “didn’t want to go roll somewhere and be so out of the loop that it would put shame on the people who gave me my black belt.” He was legitimately concerned that the art had moved on without him, which it undoubtedly had. Essentially, if you take a 5 year break from training in an open style, expect that things will have changed when you go back, even if you go to the exact same school.

Closed systems are nice for historic preservation, but not for self-preservation. When it comes to real-world self-defense, techniques must change and adapt based on experience. I’ve come across instructors who teach techniques they acknowledge are, at best, questionable, and at worst don’t work, but they teach them because it’s part of the curriculum. I don’t subscribe to that approach. Anything I teach has been pressure-tested against aggressive, non-compliant training partners. If I don’t know first-hand that something works, I don’t teach it. If I learn a way to refine or improve a technique, I’ll change the way I teach it. To paraphrase retired United States Marine Corps general and former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, you can’t expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s thinking.

It should be obvious that I have a strong preference for open, evolving systems of martial arts. What arts fall into this category? In general, combat sports such as Brazilian Jiujitsu, Muay Thai, Sambo, Krav Maga, and of course Mixed Martial Arts tend to be open systems. Filipino arts such as Kali usually are, but not always. Jeet Kune Do should be the most open system in the world, but alas, that often isn’t the case. Too many JKD schools insist on simply copying what Bruce Lee did, which totally goes against his philosophy. Lee wrote, “I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see ‘ourselves.’”

Speaking of Bruce Lee, I find it interesting that there are still some Wing Chun practitioners who resent the fact that Lee moved on from the art before he finished learning the complete system. That sort of sentiment is echoed in a rather arrogant, reactionary book by Forrest E. Morgan called Living the Martial Way: A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think. Morgan, who for some reason believes he can tell his readers how they should think, argues that a student shouldn’t leave their current martial art to pursue a new one until they’ve obtained black belt level.

Walk on....
All of this is nonsense. If Lee felt he had gotten all he needed out of Wing Chun, why shouldn’t he move on? Similarly, why should anyone waste time with any art that they feel isn’t worthwhile? In Brazilian Jiujitsu, you will generally learn the bulk of techniques relevant to real-world self-defense by the time you reach the blue belt level. After that, you’ll mostly be refining your skills and focussing more on advanced techniques for competition. In fact, and I could be wrong, but I think the Gracie Combatives BJJ curriculum only goes up to blue belt. I’m not saying people should stop training in Brazilian Jiujitsu after achieving blue belt status, and I’m not saying they should keep training either. I’m simply observing that someone could get quite a bit of practical knowledge from Brazilian Jiujitsu without earning a high rank.

Black belt?
(Let me note in passing that I’m ambivalent about ranks and belts. Sure, it can sometimes be a useful way to track progress, but people put way too much emphasis on this sort of thing, such as the aforementioned Forrest E. Morgan and his “you can’t quit until you’re a black belt” dogma. Earning a black belt sometimes means a lot, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not like you’re a magic-user in Dungeons & Dragons and go up a level and can now cast new spells.)

Reading this, one may construe that I am essentially in favor of training in mostly open systems, changing arts when appropriate, not being a slave to tradition, and altering techniques based on information gained from pressure testing. That’s exactly it. I am totally in favor of Bruce Lee’s mantra  “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” 

It’s important to note that I am not uniformly opposed to the idea of martial arts systems. Having a system with a name and general curriculum is a quick, convenient way to convey some basic information to prospective students. If it were up to me, I’d describe my own style as bladed and impact hand-held weapons techniques from the Philippines; striking techniques based on boxing, Savate, and Muay Thai; stand-up grappling using Silat, Brazilian Jiujitsu, and Greco-Roman wrestling; and ground fighting based on Brazilian Jiujitsu. Alas, all of that won’t fit on a business card, so I just say Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian Jiujitsu.

Friedrich Nietzsche
I think a good example of the right approach to martial arts styles can be to look at genres in films, fiction, and music. Both Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory came out in 1990. Both are examples of East Coast hip-hop. Yet while the two albums do share some characteristics, both is very much its own thing with its own sound.

I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers, whose writing has had a profound influence on me and helped me to overcome my nihilistic tendencies, Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Twilight of the Idols he wrote, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” 

Nietzsche wasn’t writing about martial arts, but he sure could have been.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Martial Misgivings: Faith-based Martial Arts

With this post I kick off a new series, Martial Misgivings, in which I'll look at aspects of the martial arts world that I have issues with. 

For this inaugural post, I want to take a look at what I call faith-based martial arts. By faith-based, I don't mean styles or schools tied to a specific religion, such as the "Christian Cajun Karate" dojo that used to operate out of my home town. Not that I don't have problems with that; I do. That just isn't what I'm referring to when I say faith-based martial arts.

What I am referring to are individuals whose belief in the validity of the techniques they are taught stems solely from faith as opposed to actual knowledge. 

An example: At the school I often train at, we once had a visiting student who had been practicing some form of Kung Fu for more than 10 years. Let's call him Grasshopper. He readily admitted that he had never sparred or tested any of the techniques he'd practiced against a noncompliant, resisting opponent. Before class started, I asked, in a polite way, if he ever questioned the efficacy of his art. Grasshopper admitted to having occasional flashes of doubt, but said in the end he had faith in his techniques because "Sifu says it works." He was sure he would do well in our class.

Sifu says....

Well, once class stared, I was paired with Grasshopper. He couldn't even deal with a very slow, telegraphed left jab that he knew was coming, much less a combination, and was totally lost in the clinch and on the ground. His sense of distancing was totally off when hitting focus mitts.

After class was over, we talked a bit more. Grasshopper said he felt a bit humbled, and thought he would have done better. His plan was to go back to his sifu and work even harder at getting better at the same techniques that hadn't worked in live training. This strikes me as an example of the sunk-cost fallacy. Grasshopper had already invested a decade of his life and who knows how much money learning ineffective techniques and no doubt uses that history to justify further investment of his time and money, despite new evidence — such as repeatedly getting hit in the head — suggesting that the future cost of continuing training outweighs the expected benefit.

(By the way, if you've trained for 10 years and are incapable of defending against even basic attacks, you aren't practicing a fighting art. You're practicing a dance.)

A few thoughts.... For one, having faith in a technique because "Sifu says it works" is, in my opinion, a straight-up cult-like way of thinking that has nothing to do with reason or logic. I'll post more on the cultish nature of some martial arts schools in the future, but suffice to say it's something I have no patience or tolerance for. I don't care how many "Supreme Mega Grandmaster Pompatus of Kung-Fu" made-up titles your instructor has in front of their name, that isn't an excuse to turn off your brain. Think for yourself. As Mikhail Bakunin wrote in his classic essay What is Authority?

"When it is a question of boots, I refer the matter to the authority of the cobbler; when it is a question of houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For each special area of knowledge I speak to the appropriate expert. But I allow neither the cobbler nor the architect nor the scientist to impose upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and verification. I do not content myself with consulting a single specific authority, but consult several. I compare their opinions and choose that which seems to me most accurate."

This way of thinking should absolutely apply to martial arts, especially if your principal goal is to learn practical techniques to defend yourself and others.

Real punches, real training.
So, how do you know if a technique works? You think like a scientist and you test it under pressure against a resisting opponent. Trav at Fight Smart puts it this way: Try your techniques on someone who wants to prove you wrong. I like that, and fully agree.

How do you pressure test a technique? The most obvious answer is sparring. Real sparring. Not Aikido randori or Tai Chi sticky hands. 

Some instructors I admire have issues with sparring. While I don't totally agree with their arguments (I'm definitely in the pro-sparring camp), I try to remain openminded and do not totally dismiss their points of view. However, sparring isn't the only way to pressure test techniques, nor should it be the only method used if you are serious about training. Another, possibly equally important tactic is to test techniques against a partner offering ever-escalating levels of resistance. 

Why even block that?
For example, if you're learning to parry a jab, I'll start off throwing fairly easy, somewhat slow open-hand jabs to your forehead. Note that I'll actually try to make contact with your head, and I won't leave my arm dangling out there either. That kind of training accomplishes nothing except to screw up a student's sense of distancing, yet you see it all the time. As you get better, I'll throw faster and harder. Then we'll put on helmets and gloves and I'll try to punch you in the face. Eventually I'll be throwing punches at about 70-80 percent power and speed.

Novelist and martial artist Barry Eisler did an excellent job summing up the need for this sort of live training:

"If you’re trying to learn how to weave off the line of an incoming punch, it helps if the punch is thrown by someone who’s really trying to knock your head off. If you’re trying to learn how to hit someone with a hip throw, it helps to learn how to do it against an opponent who’s trying his hardest to stop you. Yes, I know neither of these examples is the same as the 'real thing.' Training is an approximation. The closer the approximation, though, the better the training."

Some people will read all this and say, "But won't I get hurt?" Well, yes, sometimes. One of my martial arts mottoes is "If you always get hurt, you're training too hard. If you never get hurt, you're not training hard enough." Note by "hurt" I don't mean "injured." You shouldn't be breaking your bones (or your partner's!) or anything like that. On the other hand, expect  a few bruises, cuts, the occasional hyperextended joint, and other dings to your chassis. Yes, it will be tough, and you'll have to get used to a bit of pain, but as Alexander Suvorov, the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire, famously said, "Train hard, fight easy."

One of the most common arguments I hear against pressure testing is the "our techniques are too deadly" canard. Sure they are. Where is the evidence? Where are the reputable reports of someone being killed by by your sifu's patented Five Fingers of Death blow? Do you have a study from a reputable, peer-reviewed medical journal explaining how the Five Fingers of Death blow works? And are your saying you are incapable of defending yourself without killing someone? That strikes me as a pretty limited martial art. 

I've also seen some rather stupid arguments against pressure testing. A few years ago, I came across a YouTube video making similar arguments to the ones I'm making here. One snarky commenter thought he was being clever in arguing that not all self-defense techniques need to be pressure tested. He wrote something along the lines of, "I know pushing someone off a tall building will kill them without pressure testing it." For one, pushing a non-resisting, non-threatening person off a building isn't self-defense or martial arts. It's murder. As for pushing a resisting, threatening person off a building, you actually can pressure test that if for some reason you thought you should. Put a couple of judo mats on the ground, imagine the mats are a rooftop, and try to push or throw your partner off. It might not prove as easy as the commenter thought. 

If you pressure test all your techniques against a resisting opponent, you won't have to rely on faith. You can rely on knowledge. Boxers know jab-cross-hook combo works because they've done it countless times and had it done to them countless times. BJJ practitioners know how to apply a rear-naked choke and they know how to escape a rear-naked choke. It isn't a matter of faith or belief. It's a matter of knowing based on evidence derived from constant testing. 

Pressure testing a choke.

Martial arts schools aren't churches, and self-defense isn't a religion. Insist on facts, not faith.

(Standard Martial Misgivings disclaimer: I practice martial arts first and foremost to learn and hone skills I can use to protect myself and others. It is from this perspective that I'm writing. Other people practice martial arts for different reasons, such as sport, self-improvement, or mastering an esoteric tradition. There's nothing wrong with that, and I do not criticize those motivations. They just aren't mine. Please keep that in mind when reading my posts.)

Friday, August 14, 2020

Remembering Martial Artist Manny J. Valladares

My friend, fellow martial artist, and longtime training partner Manny J. Valladares died recently. He had been fighting a long, tough battle with cancer, but eventually succumbed to COVID-19.

Manny, Karate Kid.
Manny had been practicing martial arts for about as long as I've been alive. He started practicing Goju-Ryu Karate in Spanish Harlem in the early '70s, eventually earning a 5th degree black belt. From there Manny moved on to Judo, earning a 3rd degree black belt. Manny's stories of training in those rough-and-tumble early days always fascinated me, and clearly influenced his development as a martial artist. He talked about how his Karate dojo would practice all the standard kata and drills, but at the end of the class would put on gloves and start sparring. If it was too hot, they would train on the rooftop. Manny said he quickly learned what parts of Goju-Ryu were effective and which parts were not, and how to differentiate between martial arts practice and actual streetfigthing. This, to me, this is exactly the right mindset for anyone  serious about the self-defense aspect of martial arts, and Manny kept this attitude  throughout his lifelong training.

In fact, it was probably this mindset that led me to meet Manny. I met him when he started training in Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Burton Richardson in Honolulu. Remember that Manny was already a more than accomplished martial artist, and was no longer a young man. Yet he dove right in, eager to learn new things and hone his formidable skills. And Manny trained hard, often harder than those decades younger than him. More than one eager young buck under-estimated the middle-aged Puerto Rican guy with a bit of a belly and quickly found themselves outclassed.
Manny scores a hit with a rattan stick.

I loved training with Manny. It wasn't just because he was a cool guy with an infectious laugh, which he was. It was also because he was skilled enough and mature enough that we could train and spar really hard without either of us worrying about injuring the other. For example, Manny was one of the very few people I felt comfortable stick sparring with real rattan sticks with. Yeah, we would get a bit bruised and beat up (well, mostly I got bruised and beat up), but we both accepted that as part of pushing yourself, facing your fears, and getting better. 

Sometimes when doing drills in which one person attacks and the other defends, Manny and I would get into trouble because we each kept attacking. We both definitely had an aggressive, not passive fighting style. Yet Manny also excelled at some of the more artistic, intricate aspects of martial arts, such as the dancelike, Kali drills known as Sinawali. We could get pretty fancy going through the partner Sinawali patterns, banging our sticks together and flowing with fluidity. 

When it came to Manny's fighting style, aspects of his Karate training definitely came through. If we were kickboxing, he would stay fairly stationary, not moving his feet very much. You would think you could step in, throw a punch to his face, and step out again. That was often not the case. Manny was incredibly skilled at distancing and moving his head just enough to avoid your punch, and fast enough with his hands to follow up with vicious punches of his own before you've had a chance to retreat. Manny had some of the fastest hands I've ever encountered. I can't help but think of the Wu-Tang Clan lyric, "And I'll be damned if I let any man come to my center, you enter the winter," because Manny kept his centerline so well-protected and those who tried to find a way in suffered the consequences. For a good example of his hand speed and coordination, check out this video of Manny and I practicing the Kali knife drill known as sumbrada:

This didn't just apply to kickboxing. Our main targets in knife and stick sparring are the hands, legs, and head. I hardly ever was able to hit Manny's head. In fact, one day after Manny and I had gone a few rounds with the sticks, a classmate asked me, "Why don't you ever go for Manny's head?" I replied, "You'll see after you two do a round." Sure enough, our fellow classmate did a couple of stick rounds with Manny and every attempt to hit Manny's head went badly.

Ow, my arm!
With his Judo background, it probably goes without saying that Manny easily took to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I had the honor of being his sparring partner when he took his blue belt test, and Manny definitely tossed me around a bit. On his own he worked on blending BJJ with Judo, creating a very potent personal fighting style. You can watch highlights of Manny's blue belt test here.

Despite the fact that Manny was big and strong and capable of being a very aggressive (in a good way!) sparring partner, he could still train and spar with those who were far smaller, weaker, and inexperienced without letting ego get in the way. Manny wanted to learn, and he wanted his partners to learn, too. If you trained with Manny, you were sure to come out of the experience with more skill and knowledge. Manny eventually earned his instructor certifications in Kali and Jeet Kune Do, adding to his already impressive martial arts resume.
Manny at his home gym.

A few years ago, Manny and his family left Hawaii and moved to Las Vegas, where he started his own JKD Unlimited school and began sharing his expertise with a new batch of students. He never stopped training, never stopped learning, and never stopped teaching. We kept in touch via social media, and I was always happy to see the photos he shared of himself and his students hard at work perfecting their skills.

In this post, I've mostly talked about Manny J. Valladares as a martial artist, because that's how I primarily knew him. He was also a husband, father, grandfather, and entrepreneur, as well as a former Marine and sheriff's deputy. I'll always remember him as one of the best training partners I've ever had and as a man I'm honored to have been able to call "friend."

Rest in peace, Manny....

Friday, January 31, 2020

Books Read, 2019

A couple of years ago I decided to log every book I read and then compile a master list at the end of the year. Below is my Master Reading List for 2019, in alphabetical order by title. As you can see, it was quite heavy on fantasy, with my initial forays into Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series taking up a fair amount of my time. I'll post a list of my favorite books read last year soon.

  • Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings
  • The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
  • Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce
  • Enchanter’s End Game by David Eddings
  • Eye of the Hunter by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
  • Fool Me Twice by Matthew Hughes
  • Fools Errant by Matthew Hughes
  • The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan
  • Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
  • Into the Fire by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Into the Forge by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Magician’s Gambit by David Eddings
  • Night of Madness by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz
  • Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
  • Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings
  • The Realms of the Gods by Tamora Pierce
  • The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan
  • Voyage of the Fox Rider by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce
  • Wolf-Speaker by Tamora Pierce
  • Ancient Magic: A Practitioner's Guide to the Supernatural in Greece and Rome by Philip Matyszak
  • Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life by Edith Hall
  • Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts by Jason Thalken
  • The Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classic Stories by Philip Matyszak
  • How Music Can Make You Better by Indre Viskontas, PhD.
  • A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May
  • Staying Alive: How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters by Safe Havens International Inc
  • The Tao of WU by RZA*
  • Tao Te Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Book of the Tao by Lao Tzu, translated by John Minford

(* reread)

Monday, October 7, 2019

Why I Finally Started Reading 'The Wheel of Time'

As I've mentioned in the past, I love fantasy novels. In fact, fantasy is my favorite genre of fiction. My fondness for the genre dates back to seeing the Rankin/Bass animated version of 'The Hobbit' as a young child, being totally enraptured by it, and then having my mom to read the novel to me out loud.

When it comes to fantasy, I'm definitely in the epic fantasy camp. While somewhat out of fashion these days, I still enjoy classic Good vs. Evil stories featuring long quests, magical items, Dark Lords, mythical peoples, Chosen Ones, etc. Professor Tolkien definitely left his mark on me!

Taking all that into account, it's odd that I never got around to reading the late Robert Jordan's 'The Wheel of Time,' one of the most beloved and important epic fantasy series of the last 30 years. 

I first heard about 'The Wheel of Time' in the early '90s, not long after the initial volume—The Eye of the World—had been released. My good friend (and then-roommate) Mike had read it and raved about it. He rarely recommended books to me, but he highly recommended 'The Eye of the World.' It was a recommendation I ignored. I don't know why. Maybe I was reading something else. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood. I really can't recall.

Mike continued with the series and kept recommending it, and I kept ignoring his recommendations. I don't know how far he got with the novels, but I know he didn't finish the series. By the time the last two volumes were published, Mike had committed suicide. 

Thanks to the upcoming Amazon series. 'The Wheel of Time' has once again been in the news recently. That got me to thinking about the books, and Mike's hearty endorsement of them. I especially found myself thinking about them around September 22, Mike's birthday. It was about that time that I decided to finally read The Eye of the World.

I'd tried reading it a couple of times before. For some reason, the book hadn't quite clicked with me. This time, I decided to commit myself to finishing it. 

They say the third time's the charm, and that was certainly the case here. This time around I zipped though all 780-plus pages of The Eye of the World in just over a week. I absolutely loved it, especially the characterizations and rich worldbuilding. And while Jordan is sometimes criticized for being overly descriptive, I didn't find that to be a problem. On the contrary, I found his descriptions added to the immersive quality of the narrative. 

I'm now well into the second book, The Great Hunt, and look forward to the rest. At some point, I'll probably take breaks in between volumes with works from other authors, just to keep things fresh. I do plan to finish the series though, all 14 volumes and 4.4 million words of it. My friend Mike wasn't able to finish 'The Wheel of Time,' so I guess I'll finish it for him.