Saturday, July 31, 2010

Smelling the Flowers.

Here is a bit of Aikido-related writing I did a few months back, which was just published in our dojo newsletter.


There is a certain milestone that everyone reaches when they are Aikido beginners, where all of the basics of ukemi, stance, attacks, and blends begin to become second nature, and a wider sense of what is possible in the art first presents itself. For me, this happened about six months or so after I first started training. I don’t remember what exact technique I was working on, but I remember having a sudden flash of insight: if I moved that way instead of this way, I could have done a different technique. And if uke punched instead of grabbed, I miraculously had yet another technique waiting in the wings.

This is a fantastic place to reach in Aikido, especially for the first time. However, for me, it was also fraught with anxiety; instead of the rote 1-2-3 sequences I had entered into an uneasy alliance with, I was now aware (on a very basic level) of a more complicated algebra. With this new knowledge came my usual self-defeating tendency to over-analyze, and suddenly my Aikido became a lot more difficult. Pleasantly difficult, but still difficult. In order to proceed from there, I added a new tool to my toolbox.

Before every class, I use my time sitting in seiza before bowing in to meditate and clear my mind of the various irritations and tensions that have accumulated throughout the day. Though I’m not particularly a Zen adherent, I find that stepping onto the mat with a mind as serene as I can make it allows me to train harder and better. One of the things I started doing in order to get myself into a calm state of mind was to stare at the flowers arranged on the shomen, and attempt to smell them. I would concentrate on the color and texture of each flower until their aroma seemingly wafted into my nose; if I didn’t know what a particular flower smelled like, my brain would fill in the gap with a floral scent I did know. This exercise not only calmed me, but made me feel as if I were stretching my awareness across the dojo, preparing me to do the same as I trained.

As I progressed from an absolute beginner to a slightly more experienced beginner, I used this trick to help codify the blossoming variety of techniques that were imprinting themselves into my muscle memory. To avoid waiting for an attack and trying to think of a way to respond, I began considering how I “smelled” the flowers each night. Of course, I couldn’t really smell the flowers from where I sat, but I could approximate it by that combination of reaching my awareness out as far as it could go and letting my instinct take over. Similarly, I could not predict exactly how my partner would attack, but by remaining hyper-aware and operating from what my body already knew, I could effectively predict how I should react.

As it turned out, though, translating my flower-sniffing to the mat is a little more complicated than I initially thought. The problem lies in expectation. I have preconceived notions of what certain flowers smell like, and my own interpretations of what the aroma of an unknown flower could be. Thus, this exercise became fantastic for honing my awareness, but perhaps a little detrimental to developing my instinct.

When training, we are often warned against "working from a script”: engaging with the expectation of a certain, fixed outcome. By increasingly attempting to predict what would come next, this is the exact trap I began to fall into. As my toolkit grew, I naturally gravitated towards certain movements and techniques that felt more natural to me. As a result, I too often found myself hoping for specific resolutions to each engagement: this movement should ideally resolve as that attack, and that attack should ideally be answered with this technique, etc. The key word in that last sentence is “ideally.” Most situations are not ideal, which is why we place such a high importance on blending. Asking for specific attacks and forcing a specific technique are very important tools for learning the basics of that technique, but they increasingly got me in trouble during more intense, freeform practice. After all, just because I want the flower to smell like jasmine doesn’t mean it actually does.

Therefore, I’ve lately added a little twist to my meditation. I still breathe deeply to calm myself before class, but as I regard the flowers on the shomen, I attempt to perceive their aroma as something it should never be. Fresh paint, for instance, or a hot pizza. That way, I can mentally prepare myself for accepting and blending with the unexpected. My natural reaction of “there’s no way that flower could smell like a pizza, and if it did, that would be strange and disgusting!” gives way to “sure, a pizzaflower. Why not?” By immersing my mind with this sort of openness and aversion to prejudice, I find myself much more capable of dealing with unanticipated situations during training, be it a surprise attack, a technique that must change midway through, or even avoiding injury from wayward ukemi.

Every now and again, though, I go back to simply trying to smell the flowers. Thinking too hard, after all, is still one of my greatest weaknesses, and sometimes I have to remind myself that it is simply enough to relax, take a few deep breaths, and be as aware as I can.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How Not to Be a Good Librarian.

Gail Sweet, Library Director for the Burlington County Library System, has decided that she is the sole source of moral sanity in a gay rainstorm (a gaynstorm, if you will) of depravity. Or, at the very least, displayed her appalling lack of backbone in the face of criticism.

According to School Library Journal, Sweet has removed an anthology of LGBT teen essays from her library shelves, with the only official reason being her opinion that it is “child pornography.” Apparently, there was no formal complaint from a library patron about the book. Instead, this library director took this course of action after receiving a crotchety email from an elderly member of Glenn Beck’s “9.12” nutbags. Who, incidentally, have targeted this book at other libraries before.

Naturally, people are free to be offended by whatever they choose. I choose to be deeply offended that Gail Sweet is working in the information profession at all, never mind in a director’s position, when she is so cavalier with the core ideals of the library profession. I’m almost as offended that a fellow librarian would tarnish my Scotty-like image as a magical fact-finding wizard by offering such flawed reasoning for her unilateral decision. Child pornography? Really? Well, I found the Go Ask Alice Book of Answers in the Burlington catalog. Is that going away, too? How about the myriad teen fiction books that portray sexual awakenings among heterosexual teens; are those also breaking child porn laws? Is the director going to send cryptic emails about removing adult mysteries and thrillers that reference or depict illegal sexual behavior?

Now, if the community that the library serves demanded that the book be removed, and it was clear that nobody in the community was reading it or checking it out, that would be one thing. If the removal was the result of a formal review process overseen by more people than the director, her deputy, and a shit-stirring book-burner, that would be another thing. But the way this was handled not only betrays what librarians are supposed to be about, but encourages the ravings of like-minded lunatics who besiege libraries every day with attempts to control what everybody reads. Or, even worse, encourages similar, heretofore restrained lunatics who work in libraries and already have responsibility for shepherding information.

I mean, if I had my way, I’d take all of Glenn Beck’s insipid books off of my shelves, cut the pages into little pieces, rearrange the words into gay erotic haiku, and slip them back into the covers for kicks. Instead, I happily direct patrons who ask for them to where they sit, sliming up my political shelves. You know, because of that pesky code of ethics that reassures library patrons that I won’t inject my personal opinion into their information search.

And it’s certainly not as if the idea of somebody panicking about “THE CHILDRENZ!!1!” learning about sex is a new one. It’s pretty common knowledge that sex raises more hackles than violence among the ignorant and self-righteous. Just ask Fox News’s Diedre Behar, who is shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU, that a teenaged actress admitted to masturbating. Rantings about the “perversion” of allowing gay youth to read something that reassures them and teaches them about themselves should not be news to anyone who works in libraries. If we torched every book that someone decided other people shouldn’t read, we wouldn’t have any books on our shelves worth reading.

Librarians are not supposed to display this kind of hypocrisy. Library directors are certainly not supposed to display this kind of hypocrisy. We’re supposed to fight for the free dissemination of information, and encourage people to read things that strangers tell them they shouldn’t. Come on, Gail, we just got some indie cred from NPR; don’t fuck this up for us.