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Even If It Kills Me

book notes: Even If It Kills Me by Donivan Blair

Even If It Kills MeWhen offered for review Even If It Kills Me, a non-fiction book about a 40ish rock and roll bass player who decides to pursue a martial arts black belt, the only correct response is “hell yeah!”

Donivan (Doni) Blair is the bass player in question, playing for The Toadies as of the writing of his book. He decides to pursue a life-long goal of earning a martial arts black belt starting at the age of 40, and chronicles his progress from white belt to black in a series of vignettes that are not only insightful and entertaining but touch pretty close to home for me.

When my son was nine he decide he wanted to do Karate. We picked a studio that taught Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan, as it was close and the instructor had a good reputation.  As he was entering into the dojo for the first time, he turned to me and said “You’re going to do this with me, aren’t you Dad?” I had not intended to. but how could I resist? I was 37 or 38, so a bit younger than Doni. Four or five years later, Josh had his black belt and I had my 2nd degree black belt.

Doni’s journey, at age 40, takes him three years from white belt to black in Taekwando, training with a grandmaster who was head of the Texas branch of the World Taekwando Federation. His training takes place in lovely Amarillo, Texas where he and his wife had relocated to from Denton (north of Dallas).

Doni relates several dead-on perspectives on being an older martial artist:

  • Getting taught by kids. As an adult starting out in a martial arts class, this is bound to happen. Doni documents it, and it happened to me as well. Among others I remember “Mr. Pesko”, who was a third of my age and taught me (and my son) quite a lot.
  • Sparring with kids. Again, this is an opportunity to learn, but, as Doni puts it well “Sparing with kids still sucks. I wouldn’t try to hurt a teenager, but to a teenager an adult is a trophy.”
  • Teaching the kids. As an adult who continues to upper belt ranks in a martial arts class, this too is bound to happen. Doni describes driving the after school kids on the bus. I never had that joy, but I did call a lot of the kids test classes which was actually quite enjoyable. Our Sa Bom Nim had special boards for the young kids during their breaks. We’d recruit adult volunteers as holders, show them how to hold the special boards (which had a slight cut in the middle), and let them enjoy the look on the kids faces when the boards broke…after they sometimes hit a finger or two in the process.
  • Perseverance and determination. Doni is pretty consistent in citing this, not just for older martial artists, but for martial artists and practice in general (including playing the bass).
  • An appreciation for forms. I enjoyed the forms we learned (after we got past the very basic ones). Doni mentions those who dis forms (MMA guys, schools who have dropped forms) then provides a nice music to forms analogy

Forms are my favorite part of the night. They allow me to take my time, focus and concentrate on each step. The goal is perfection and ti’s easy to see the parallel with technical exercises on a musical instrument. You play scales, arpeggios and études over and over again. It’s not a race, just as taegeuk practice is not a death match. Both are meditative. Both train your body to get the details right.
Those notes are the building blocks of a song. Those steps are the building blocks of a taegeuk. Done correctly, it is a thing of beauty, an outlet for an accomplished martial artist to convey power, strength, speed and confidence.

  • The need for outside practice, in all things, not just martial arts.
  • Pain and longer recovery times. The one thing all older martial artists can identify with is that is takes longer to recover from the exertion and the inevitable injuries. Luckily Doni doesn’t have any major ones, but you can hear his joints cracking and popping has he describes the pain and recovery.
  • The inevitable decision after black belt of what’s next. For all martial artists, there’s the goal of getting to black belt, and, once there, the inevitable “what’s next?”. Many schools tell you that the real lessons begin at black belt, and to some extent I agree; I stayed on for quite a while after my son left to go concentrate more on high school studies, band and all. And I learned quite a bit. But Donivan hits the question head on – what else is out there? Should I continue on in the discipline I’ve invested time, energy and money in, should I explore other martial arts…or should I give my old body a rest? I’m curious what Donivan chooses (the book ends on this note); I did a bit of both.

Doni’s description of martial arts books (I’d like to compare libraries with him) and martial arts movies (another shared pleasure of my son and I) prompts me to go dust of some of both that I haven’t visited in a while.

There’s just a bit of rock and roll notes in here, some good pieces about how after a while life on the road just doesn’t seem worth it when you have a life you want to live back home (business travel is the same whether it is software or music). And LARGE kudos to Donivan for his description of that legend of bass players, Geddy Lee of Rush:

Practice became my religion – and my religion was badass. The apostles were Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath, Jaco Pastorius, and Geddy Lee of Rush. Our hymns included “Electric Funeral,”, “Continuum,” and “Working Man.”
I can’t even tell you all the hours I spent analyzing Geddy’s playing. “Lead bass” sounded like a bad idea, but in his hands, it’s brilliant. He weaves melodically through the song and still stays right in Neil Peart’s pocket. It’s mind blowing, like a rocket ride to Cygnus X-1.
Listen to the live version of “The Trees” from Exit, Stage Left. Listen to “Digital Man” from Signals. Then consider that these songs came out in 1981 and 1982, when the biggest hits were “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes and “Physical” by Olivia Newton John. (pg 101-102)

Overall, Even If It Kills Me is an enjoyable martial arts book written by an honest adult practitioner. If you are thinking about taking up martial arts at a somewhat older age…do it! And read Doni’s book before and during.

Full disclosure: I review a lot of YMAA books and DVDs over the years, because I like them and find they are of a high quality. Sometimes they offer free books for review. This is one of those book

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REVIEW: Simple Qigong for Health: Enhanced Edition with video

Simple QigonAs a developer of enhanced eBooks, I notice it is easy to use too much media (an overabundance of non-germane videos, audio or pictures), or to not put it in the right places. The enhanced eBook medium should live up to its name: enhance the book and the reading/learning experience, not take it over.

The material in this book (Simple Qigong Exercises for Health: The Eight Pieces of Brocade) has been around for quite some time. Dr. Yang’s first edition was in 1988, his second in 1997. The enhanced version (available for iBooks, meaning it runs on iPads, iPhones and Macs) extends that material with the right amount of video and audio examples.

The contents of this version are the same as the recent 3rd edition printing, and follow Dr. Yang’s norms for structuring his books: Chapter 1 provides a general introduction to history, Qi and Qigong, the history of the Eight Pieces of Brocade, and information on Qigong Theory and Training. Chapter 2 goes deeper into training theory. Chapter 3 and 4 are the walkthroughs and descriptions of the Sitting and Standing versions of the Eight Pieces of Brocade. In all chapters, as he does in his other books, Dr. Yang presents the original Chinese descriptions, and offers translations for better understanding. Some of the Qigong information in the first chapters of this book are similar to his other qigong books, but repetition helps with memory.

“Remember that the most important thing in the training is not the forms themselves, but rather the theory and principle of each form, which constitute the root. Once you understand these, you will be able to use your wisdom mind (yi, 意) to lead the qi to circulate and bring you to health. Therefore, when you practice you should try to understand the poetry or the “secret words.” They have been passed down for hundreds of years and are the root of the practice. Because of cultural and language differences, it is very difficult to translate into English all of the meaning of the Chinese. We will try to keep as close as possible to the Chinese and hope that you are able to get not just the meaning, but also the taste of the original.” (pg 145)

This enhanced editions includes 23 video demonstrations, and additional still photos where appropriate. The videos were of high enough digital quality to watch them on a variety of devices (tried them on iPad air, on Mac, and on Apple TV through AirPlay with no noticeable drop in video quality).

This enhanced eBook version provides Dr. Yang’s straightforward explanations and translations of the material with demonstrations of each of the sitting and standing pieces. There are some intricacies that a student might miss just reading from a book; with the videos (and audio) demonstrations the pieces are made clearer and easier to follow. The multimedia examples on the second and third sitting pieces were particularly helpful, as they helped me to pick up a couple of things I was missing (Dr. Yang really clomps his teeth together; I was just closing my mouth!)

A screenshot from the enhanced eBook is below.

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This enhanced edition also provides (as all enhanced editions should) hot linked table of contents and index.

Though a student should almost always try to find an appropriate teacher (in my humble opinion), this enhanced edition is an excellent learning tool.

Full disclosure: I have attended two Qigong seminars with Dr. Yang and have read several of his books before going through this enhanced eBook. I have reviewed several of his books on my website and I am a fan of his fact-over-mystery teaching style. I was provided this enhanced eBook as a review copy.


Review of The Kensei by Jon F. Merz on SFSignal

Review of The Kensei by Jon F. Merz on SFSignal

My review of The Kensei, the 5th Lawson vampire novel by Jon F. Merz, has been posted on SFSignal.com.

An excerpt:

When you mention vampire and sword in the same sentence, most people will think Blade or they talk about hacking away in frustration at the last Twilight DVD (apologies in advance to my wife for the Twilight digs). The so-called “Urban Fantasy” genre has be overdone to death (pun intended) with either too much romance bordering on porn or repetitious scenarios.

The Kensei is not Blade, it is certainly not Twilight. It is a excellently paced action thriller that happens to have a secret agent vampire as the main character. It is written in a realistic fashion, where if you took the vampire-esque pieces out, an excellently paced action thriller would still be in place. It is also the first book I have read in one sitting in a long long time.

I am the default SF Signal recipient for books with a martial arts slant and am always ready for a story with well written martial arts dialogue, tradition and scenes.

The Lawson series provides an interesting take on the vampire world that mixes in some Qigong / martial arts culture. The genesis of the vampire “race” is that while some stone age hunters drank the blood of their animal kills thinking to gain their strength, others drank the blood of their human kills.

From page 12 (of the Advance Reader copy):

“Over time, our bodies developed a means of distilling the life force energy – what they call ki in Japanese, chi in Chinese or even prana in the yogic traditions – from the blood we drank. The ingestion of this life force energy meant we lived longer and had above-average instincts and reflexes. We can see extremely well at night. And we have incredible powers of regeneration.”

Wood kills them, and the casual explanation hearkens back to the philosophy of balance with the elements: Earth, Water, Wood, Fire (some descriptions put in Air, some have four elements, some five, some eight to match trigrams and some thirteen for martial arts postures/directions). Wood balances out Earth, which is why wood (and wood by-products!) kill vampires like Lawson.

Though my son and I will sit through any (and I mean any) martial arts movie for enjoyment, to describe this in words in a realistic way is difficult. Real fights never come off as choreographed, but an author must do his best to describe the action, the reactions and the thought that goes into this and make it as realistic and entertaining as possible. Jonathan Maberry (with the Joe Ledger series) has been my favorite on doing this beforehand, but Jon Merz gives him a run for his money.

Qi, focus and injuries

Qi, focus and injuries

In advance of World Tai Chi and Qigong Day (April 24th this year, and, no, Hallmark did not create this as a holiday to sell cards), I pose this question: what are you doing with the pinkie finger on your non-throwing hand when you are bowling?

A long-ago bowling teammate of mine used to ask that question of opposing players. For most, it drew their focus to a part of their anatomy that has absolutely nothing to do with the skill they were trying to execute. The good ones maintained their concentration; since there were very few good ones, most gutter balled their shot.

When and where you put your focus, especially during injuries, is the subject of this post. No answers are presented, just observations, so I would certainly appreciate any feedback. A recurrence of old knee problems and how they’ve affected my activities has led me to re-examine this.

Most everyone remembers the scene in The Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi places his hands on Daniel-san, healing his injury and allowing him to return to the ring. It makes for good theater, where the Master concentrates his power/chi into another to heal them. But, because of a recurrence of a knee problem, I’m wondering where the person who is injured should put their own focus.

A good part of martial arts is focus with intent, a concept that is mostly unknown to people in their everyday lives. We rarely focus our minds on a particular part of our body unless an external force causes us to, like a bee sting , a scratch or an injury.

If you have an itch, and you think about it, it taunts you and pulls you in to scratch it, i.e., if you focus on it, it becomes more intense. Of course, discipline can hold you back. But if you focus your attention on something else, the itch becomes less of a draw.

Injuries strike me the same way, but that concept is at the same time opposite and congruent to concepts I’ve learned in martial arts. While learning Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan, as students advanced we were trained to narrow our punching focus as our skill improved, narrowing it down from the arm to the hand, to the knuckles and ultimately to the striking surface of the first two knuckles. The idea was obviously that if your focus is exact, your power and accuracy will be more in line (you will actually send energy when, where and in the quantity that your mind intends).

In Qigong meditation, you focus on leading the qi. The overall goal is to have your qi circulation optimized for better health. In Small Circulation practice, the student is asked to focus on leading the qi around the body, with the goal of this practice being turning conscious practice into unconscious habit (i.e., better qi circulation). Dr. Yang, Jwing-ming’s excellent series of books on Qigong Meditation discusses this in detail (and I highly recommend this books as the best I’ve read in getting rid of the mystic mumbo-jumbo that sometimes comes along with these descriptions and gets down to actionable facts). But he only has a small section in the book on Small Circulation concerning injuries (from section 8-9, page 337):

There are a few ancient documents which record how you can use Small Circulation Meditation for effective self-healing. The theory is very simple. Since your mind can feel and focus on the affected area, it can lead the Qi there to improve circulation of Qi and blood. This is no different from physical massage, which also improves the circulation of Qi and blood.

Like any skill, this takes practice and experience. And focused concentration. Dr. Yang’s YMAA has done some studies utilizing Qigong meditation and tai chi for cancer and other patients. YMAA articles can be found here.

But, playing devil’s advocate on myself (those voices in my head again), is this better than concentrating on ignoring the injury?

I’m a part-time runner, not as long distance as my brother and other marathoners that I know. But I’ve gotten into “the zone” late in distance running,  where you are absolutely out of energy but you are focused on the goal so that the nagging pains do not draw your focus away. This has happened late in Rugby games, after 70 minutes of pounding and you focus on pushing for that one last try.

In these cases, you are not “being in the moment” but personally I find myself running longer and easier when not focusing on pain or injury. Undoubtedly, this is not good long term for the injury, but it does beg the question of focus: do you focus on the injury/pain or focus away from it? It would seem one should focus on it for healing (leading the Qi away or toward the pain/injury??) , focus away from it for performance or to carry out an activity in spite of the pain or injury .

I look forward to comments and insights.


Sword Fundamental Training – DVD by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming


This basic sword training DVD reviews the fundamentals about the weapon, taking common techniques and drills that should be applicable to all sword training. As always, Dr. Yang’s teaching style is excellent; his Engineering background provides a logical approach to his teachings of his wealth of martial arts knowledge. There is much knowledge to be gained from each of his books and DVDs that I have studied, and, now including this one, I highly recommend them.

As with many of his other DVDs, the drills and techniques are shown with Master Yang performing them, then with students of a variety of skill levels performing them. Yang will sometimes correct the students. I found the different displays and the corrections quite helpful during my own review of the lessons.

An outline of the DVD follows: (more…)

Chocolate (the martial arts movie, not the candy)

Chocolate (the martial arts movie, not the candy)

The same director and martial arts choreographer who did Tony Jaa’s Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong worked on this 2008 Thai film, which, like Ong-Bak has a sometimes difficult to follow plot, great fighting stunts and an unusual martial arts character. Zen (played by Nicharee “Jeeja” Vimistananda who was apparently discovered during auditions for one of the Tony Jaa movies) is autistic, her mother Zin is Thai, her father is a Japanese Yakuza gangster. Zin was formerly the girlfriend and money collector of a Thai gangster. Zin and Zen (yes, as confusing to watch with English subtitles as it is to type) hide in an apartment near a muay thai boxing school, where Zen begins to absorb and mimic their fighting style.

In excellent tongue-in-cheek, she also learns by watching both of the previous Tony Jaa films! (more…)

Quiet Teacher by Arthur Rosenfeld

Quiet Teacher by Arthur Rosenfeld

In the 2nd Xenon Pearl martial arts thriller from Mr. Rosenfeld, Xenon is presented not as the master martial artist of movie and legend, calm and reflecting inner quiet, but as a troubled human, spiraling like his art, but out of control and searching for a path, any path to self-control. A well written and sometimes disturbing look at a man on the cusp, of madness on one side and enlightenment on the other.

Beginning shortly after the end of The Cutting Season (the 1st Xenon Pearl novel), the story picks up with Dr. Pearl still banned from neurosurgery at the hospital, and trying to take care of his girlfriend Jordan (she was attacked and is now paralyzed in spite of Pearl’s surgical skills). Xenon is still fighting his inner demons, his other selves that force him to pick up his sword and right the wrongs that he sees. His cop step-sister Wanda tries to warn him off, taking him to a prison in a ‘scared straight’ sense; Jordan tries to stop him; Xenon even tries to stop himself, by seeking out new teachers to try and take the martial arts his nanny taught him (an unnamed art, with no roots given). But he cannot quell the need to ‘fix’ problems with his sword; he manages to alienate Jordan, and anger Wanda. He also finds that some of his victims from the 1st novel have a lawyer building a case against him. (more…)

Ong Bak 2 with Tony Jaa

Ong Bak 2 with Tony Jaa

A good martial arts movie doesn’t need subtitles or bad English dubbing to be enjoyed!

Martial arts movies can be campy or classy, too much wire or too much blood, short on story and long on boring fights. But we (the royal we, i.e., my son and I) watch Tony Jaa just to see what he will do next. He does not appear to use wires, and in his first films (Ong Bak and The Protector, using the American titles), his Muay Thai and athletic skills were entertaining enough to drown out meager stories.

I received a copy of Ong Bak 2 from my friend in Thailand (thanks Mark); (more…)


Simplified Tai Chi Chuan – DVD by Master Liang, Shou-Yu

Almost all martial artists will say that you need a good instructor. But ymaa_simplifiedtaichihaving a video or DVD at home that can help you remember or get through the rough spots is very helpful.

I was given a copy of the DVD Simplified Tai Chi Chuan featuring Master Liang, Shou-Yu for Tai Chi Day (thanks Barbara). It is an excellent companion study guide, well organized and detailed on both the Simplified 24 form and the Standard 48 form.

An outline of the content is below: (more…)


Baguazhang: Theory and Applications by Master Liang, Shou-Yu and Dr.Yang, Jwing-Ming

There are four well known styles of so-called “internal” Chinese martial baguaarts: Taichiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang and Lin He Ba Fa. While I have only practiced Taichiquan from this group, this book on Baguazhang gives particioners of other martial arts an excellent grounding in Bagua, and frankly gives motivation for further study.

In a long list of excellent books on Martial Arts from Dr. Yang and his YMAA, this book covering Baguazhang is one of the most thorough I have studied. In the style of most YMAA books, the book covers a genral introduction, a translation and discussion of ancient texts on the subject, fundamentals of the style, barehand form and weapons form.

Contents include: (more…)

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