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Taekwondo Kale (8/9/2013)

I don’t really know for sure, but my Taekwondo teacher does not seem like a man easily impressed by other martial artists. However, the one person who he has repeated spoken highly of is Grandmaster C.K. Choi, his senior from their ITF demonstration team days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Grandmaster Choi was then in his early 40s and the elder statesman and anchor of the team that traveled around the world teaching and demonstrating Taekwondo to audiences and countries unfamiliar with the Korean martial art. He was capable of performing all the patterns, executing high-flying breaks and acting as General Choi’s unofficial “body guard,” which I have good reason to believe meant handling all comers who wanted to really “test” what “Korean Karate” was all about… or something like that.

For all of Grandmaster Choi’s skill and competence, my teacher was also impressed by his daily conditioning routine. Every morning while on the road, Grandmaster Choi would perform an hour of leg raises in the hallway outside his hotel room. Then he would spend as much time as possible sitting in full side-splits… while eating meals, reading the newspaper, watching television, hanging out with other team members. And that was it.

I have been told this underwhelming tale of Taekwondo conditioning many times, and I remained underwhelmed until I tried to duplicate the same. Holy cripes is it hard to do leg raises for 15 minutes, let alone an hour! Usually as a warm-up in our regular classes, we do 10 leg raises on each side to loosen our hamstrings. In 15 minutes, I got up to 500 leg raises and started seeing stars and thinking I tore my hip flexors.

I am now up to 25 minutes, and I am beginning to see the value of the exercise. Not only does it loosen your legs muscles, but it also helps improve flexibility, forces you to breathe correctly if you want to last more than 5 minutes, requires good balance control, forces you to contract every muscle in your body in order to lift your foot as high as your head and is ultimately an meditative exercise in patience and perseverance. That being said, I have yet to complete an hour, due possibly to the failure of one or more of those elements.

Sitting on the ground for an extended period of time was an easier challenge to conquer. It does however require much more hip flexibility than sitting in a chair, and an incorrect posture will eventually lead to various parts of your legs falling asleep. Shifting to sitting in full-splits for an extended period of time on the other hand is just mind-numbingly painful.

Why are the best things for you oftentimes the most bitter and hard to swallow?

Taekwondo Candy (8/8/2013)

Life is always better when you have a pocketful of candy, I think…. still.

As kids my sister and I would pool our money and then take turns hopping the backyard fence in order to escape to the local park and buy concession stand candy. I am not quite sure why we felt the need to scale the 6-foot fence instead of using the front door, but I’m guessing that machination was just another part of the romance of those candy runs.

That was the era of Pixie Stix, Abba Zabbas, Gobstoppers, Red Vines, Fun Dips, Nerds, Jaw Breakers, Lemonheads, Red Hots and a whole bunch of other tooth-rotting balls of corn syrup colored with Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 40. It was glorious! So much so that I actively remember thinking that it must be even more wonderful being an adult with unlimited buying power and no backyard fence to constrain your candy-purchasing desires.

But, a strange thing happened on the way to adulthood. Candy lost some of its appeal. When given total control over grocery shopping and meals and snacks, I now tend to eat far more healthy than my 12 year-old self could have ever imagined.

The same phenomenon occurred when I was a beginning Taekwondo practitioner. I was enamored with what I now think of as Taekwondo candy. More than anything else, I wanted to learn how to jump, spin and do the fanciest, most empty-caloried techniques possible. If a kick could be sugar-coated with a 360-degree entry I was all about it. Instead of learning timing, distance and control, I worked on speed, power and height. I loved head kicks, spinning head kicks, jumping spinning head kicks and breaking boards with all of the above. On that diet, my sparring philosophy became all about speed and flash.

But, a strange thing happened on the way to becoming a black belt. For all the cool kicks I wanted to do, my mind did gradually open up to the concepts of footwork, timing and the elegance of a well-placed counter-punch. My practice was initially inspired by the acrobatics I saw in movies, but while learning from actual masters of the martial arts (and not the Hong Kong movie versions) I realized that the beauty and subtly found in true skill might actually be more exhilarating than sheer athleticism.

(Aaaaannnnnd, well, as I started competing against better and more seasoned practitioners, it was quite literally pounded into my dull being that athleticism and flash even when mixed with a considerable dose of guts and determination will only take you so far. Eventually, you meet the more skilled practitioners who will mercilessly pick you apart.)

So, as I watched and learned and practiced, I saw things that I never noticed before. When executing a simple kick or punch, I began to see the 5 or 10 degrees of difference in the angle of attack that could indicate a feint, a stall in rhythm, a variance in timing or a set-up for the next offensive or defensive move. Then after the attack, I saw how you can either reposition yourself (or better yet your opponent) to both protect yourself and open up another safe angle of attack. I saw how traps can be set several moves in advance and how attacks can be neutralized by simultaneous attacks and how blocks can actually also be attacks. And I learned how to anticipate and feel the opponent instead of relying on guesswork and visual cues. Taekwondo was revealing itself to me in much richer and more complex tones than my 1st degree self could ever have imagined.

Oftentimes, the techniques that I saw that were the most effective were the simple ones taught to beginners within the first month of their practice… front kick, reverse punch, front-turning kick. But it was the front kick, reverse punch or front-turning kick of an artist who unconsciously performed at a level accessible only to those who have spent thousands of hours contemplating and then experimenting with every angle and application and counter-application and combination of that beginner’s technique.

When you think about it that way, there is nothing simple about that pre-meditated and well-executed kick or punch. Like there is nothing simple about Ichiro slapping an opposite-field single, Greg Maddux delivering an 82 mph change-up for a called strike three, Lyoto Machida countering with the left cross, Pablo Casals playing the Bach Suites. Not always sexy, but certainly sublime.

I still somtimes indulge myself and my students in Taekwondo candy. But the focus of my practice and my thoughts has shifted to attaining skill, and hopefully one day mastery… of just one simple technique.

Roger Federer (2/6/2013)

Before you read this entry, please read this little piece on Roger Federer's work ethic...

New York Times Blog

Federer is a world-class athlete and arguably the best tennis player ever (most major titles), and he has been able to maintain that for the past 10 years because of his extraordinary dedication to practice and the refinement of his craft. But what happens when this incredible dedication is not enough to keep Federer at the top? Now at 31 years of age and in the twilight of his competitive tennis years, he has been bowing out earlier in major tournaments and winning fewer of the regular tour stops. In the recently concluded Australian Open semifinal, he raged valiantly against Andy Murray for four sets only to go gentle in the fifth and final set when younger and fresher legs prevailed.

Federer has stated a desire to continue competing through the 2016 Rio Olympics. And between now and 2016, we will continue to see a great athlete decline. He will begin to lose not only to other top-3 players, but eventually to top-100 and then unranked players, something that has not happened since he was a teenager. His own ranking will dip. Fans and sportscasters will start to whisper loudly about retirement or preserving a legacy. Young upstarts will relish the chance to take a scalp against the once-great Roger Federer. And eventually, the end will come, as it always does.

When some athletes approach the leaner, less-productive years of their careers they begin to ease into the premature comforts of retirement. Baseball players get pudgy and comfortable, basketball players save their legs on defense, football players start skipping the preseason, golfers spend more time at the 19th hole. Even musicians practice less and coast more on reputation and talent. Many professionals decide to quit while they are ahead. But somehow, I feel Federer is different.

After the Australian, Federer was asked about his more frequent defeats at the hands of the new generation. And the all-time winningest male tennis player answered that he will have to practice more and continue to sharpen his game.

But the younger guys practice just as much if not more and their games have caught up... to which the Swiss Maestro says simply that he will continue to practice.

I get it.

Olympics (8/15/2012)

I am not embarassed to admit that I usually shed a tear during the Olympics. I balled (in public) when Liu Xiang won the 110 meter hurdles in Athens. I jumped off my couch and almost out of my skin when Michael Phelps won gold medal number seven and then eight in Beijing. The Jamaican 4 x 100 meter relay team left me speechless this time around. If you missed it, Epke Zonderland's gymnastics high bar routine to win the individual gold medal in that event is outrageous.

My heart skips a beat when I watch footage of Haile Gebrselassie's world record 1,500 meter run, Jesse Owen's Munich Olympics, Team USA's epic ice hockey victory at Lake Placid. I have marveled at how an Ethiopian can be so much better than the entire rest of the world at running 10,000 meters. And I have wondered why someone would train a lifetime to ski jump into the ether.

It is the Jonathan Livingston Seagull type pursuit of undefinable greatness that so captures my imagination. Most of these athletes sacrifice normal lives for their training in order to push the human limits of citius, altius and fortius. And most, except for perhaps the product of sports machines in certain countries (and maybe even them too), do it for love. Love of that gosh darn useless sport of kicking people in the face, the sport of treading water for 2 hours, the sport of heaving a 16-pound ball of steel from a 7-foot circle, the sport of using the slowest swimming stroke in a race for speed. In a practical world with practical pursuits and practical annuity tables, it is this stupid love and its highly unprofitable pursuit of meaning(less/ful) greatness that nourishes my soul and makes glorious the human condition.

Strangeness (8/8/2012)

As almost a non sequitur a few weeks ago, someone I know and respect mentioned that he does pushups during commercials to counteract the effects of couch potato-ness. Although I don't place a golf ball on the floor for my chest to touch, I have always done pushups when I stay in front of the television for too long. I do sets of 20 and vary the style of pushups from one commercial break to the next. This practice forces my posture to be correct every eight minutes or so; it burns off some of the junk or adult beverages that go so well with television; and as my arms and core get progressively more tired after an afternoon of couch surfing, it encourages me to turn off the darn thing and read a book or do something more productive.

I thought I was strange.

It is comforting to know that I'm not the only one.

Maintenance Day (6/21/2012)

On some days I feel awesome. Energy just pours out of me. I want to jump all my kicks, sprint instead of walk, skip instead of being a grumpy New Yorker. I have the confidence of a superhero. I think I can put my fist through five boards, reverse-turning kick street signs and slam 200-pound bodies WWF-style. Everything feels sharp and alive.

Unfortunately, as I get older, those days seem to be fewer and farther between. Instead, I realistically have many more days when my right knee is a little balky; my mind is slightly distracted; everything seems to be just a smidge off somehow; and life's little daily headaches marginally outweigh life's little triumphs. On those days, Taekwondo practice is more like brushing one's teeth, doing the laundry, eating vegetables and dusting the floorboards... good habits that make for a better life.

Then there are the rare days when everything feels awful. I am tired and sluggish from a horrible night's sleep; my back aches in addition to my knees and right hamstring; I can feel a cold coming on; the bills are overwhelming; I feel vulnerable and alone and it seems impossible to please anyone, including myself. Those are the days I choose to perform my maintenance check. On maintenance day, I set a ridiculous standard and then go about killing myself trying to achieve it. Some past maintenance days have been 2,000 kicks on the bag or 200 patterns or 1,000 shadow combinations or 5,000 punches. If you ever try something like this, set aside 2-3 hours because it takes awhile.

To accomplish these numbers on your A-1 days takes quite a bit of effort, but to attempt and then finish these numbers on your worst days taxes a part of your mind and heart that you hope never fails you. It is tough to motivate myself into action on days like that. But once I start, my body knows the drill and the first hour passes like any other day. It is the second hour and beyond that makes me hate myself. At some point, my body hits a wall and pain and exhaustion starts to set off every emergency panic button in my brain. Then it becomes an interminable struggle not to quit. With no one else around and with no one else aware of this endeavor, the reasons why not to give up boil down to just one. I need to know that my mind and my heart and my will and my fighting spirit are still there.

During the deepest part of this struggle, I always think about this old man who shuffles around the Upper Westside doing errands with his push-cart every day. He looks older than dirt and is almost bent over in half, making him about four feet tall. Everyone who has seen him literally inch up the hill from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue has tried to offer assistance. Everyone who has seen him struggle to push his cart up the tiny ramp at Westside Market has offered to help him grocery shop. But always, without unbending himself (perhaps he can't anymore), he politely refuses and says that it is something he has to do for himself. Whenever I see him or think about him, I can feel his strength because I know he is testing his own spirit everytime he shuffles his feet foward.

To be truthful, I have quit on myself before on maintenance day. Sometimes my spirit just can't handle it, and the demons win. Afterwards, I lie on the dojang mats physically spent but also mentally defeated, and that is a horrible feeling. Most of the time I hit my numbers, and afterwards I lie on the dojang mats physically and mentally spent but relieved with the knowledge that I still have the capacity to keep fighting even on my worst days.

Blocking Part II (5/25/2012)

And then there came a day when I did not block at all. That was probably the result of many things. First, if you stop blocking with your forearms and shins all the time your body will heal itself, nerve endings will grow back and blocking will hurt again. Also, if you don't block often your blocks become sloppy, and sloppy blocks hurt.

This was also around the time when I started to think that I was really fast. Muhammed Ali fought with his hands down, and for some reason I had delusions of such speed. No, really. On account of my misguided youthful sense of invincibility, I figured there was no reason to block if I was fast and always hit first and most often.

This was also when I started competing in a lot of WTF tournaments that rewarded speedy, high-flying kicks while disallowing punches above the neck, all hits below the waist and all sweeping and throwing techniques. And because punches to the torso very rarely scored, this Olympic-style of competition spawned a new generation of players who were extremely dexterous with their legs but fought with their hands dangling by their sides. The chest-bumping clinch was favored over traditional blocks and punches.

I am in no way pillorying Olympic Taekwondo. In fact I think sport, with all its rules and regulations created to ensure the safety of the contestants and watchability of the event, is a fantastic outlet for martial artists who otherwise have limited legal or civilized outlets to test their skills (kids: do not beat up your siblings or start fights!). My mistake was that I focused all my training and thoughts on succeeding in a sport while not realizing that I was unintentionally sacrificing the martial art in my practice.

The denouement occurred in Cleveland at a national-level event. Fifteen seconds into my semi-final match, with my arms swinging below my belt line and my feet shuffling back and forth, I aggressively attacked with a straight-line technique. Here's my fastball, try and hit it...

And I got clocked!... by an illegal punch right between the eyes. I never saw it coming. If it was not for my sister's videotape, I might still not understand why one second I was scoring a point and the next I was on the mat staring at a puddle of my own blood. To make a long story short, I lost that match 0 to -1 because I could not stop bleeding in the one minute granted for medical timeouts. My opponent was penalized a point for the "unintentional" blow but advanced to the finals. I went to the emergency room with a broken nose and a migraine. Worse still, my face turned purple, then green, then sickly yellow in the course of the next two weeks, during which my law firm was decidedly not happy with me.

Although my initial reaction was indignation (why was I disqualified instead of my opponent!), my teacher made me see that even though I was competing at the national level, I had in fact regressed as a martial artist. In a combative situation, how did I allow my focus to narrow to such an extent that I was completely unprepared for the possibility of a straight punch to the face? Even if the punch was against the rules, was I not taught to block properly? Even a bad block would have mitigated the damage. Also, was I not taught to concentrate and be aware of my surroundings? Or, to paraphrase the kind advise my teacher gave me, "Even if you don't want to keep your hands up, at least keep your eyes open so you know what killed you."

I am now a born-again blocker. And just like everything else, vigilant practice (not just physical repetition, but also mental visualization and preparation) is needed if you ever hope to be able to perform the technique when you need it the most.

Kung Fu (5/19/2012)

I used to love kung fu movies as a kid. I still like them, but I used to live for kung fu movies and daydream as if I was in one. I thought ninja stealth and karate super powers were my birthright. During the course of my real life martial arts practice however, I have gradually made peace with the fact that I will never be able to perform rooftop acrobatics, harness my chi into a glowing blue ball of death and destruction or wield an iron spear with any alacrity. And as a result, I see those 1970s and 80s kung fu movies in a slightly different light now.

First, I realize that most of those movies accurately portrayed kung fu, which is more of a Chinese philosophical concept than a system of martial arts. In the Chinese language, one can demonstrate "kung fu" through achievement with effort in anything, from martial arts to cooking, to sewing, to studying, to writing, to drinking and karaoke singing. What is important is the effort. That is why all kung fu movies start with the hero practicing his craft. No one, no matter how handsome or naturally gifted, ever gets to skip this phase. There is always a montage of our hero learning and then repeating the "monkey catches mantis in dragon lair" pattern (sometimes under a waterfall, sometimes atop a mountain) for the gazillionth time or our hero blocking and striking a wooden dummy for years on end.

Despite our astounding social and technological advances in every facet of life since the Ming Dynasty or the heyday of the Shaolin temple, the only way to master a martial art is still through practice and endless repetition and refinement of form. Somehow, I had missed that super-boring detail 20 years ago when I romanticized about kung fu. But I have to admit, those movies did not lie.

Other things that the movies correctly taught and I ignored were the importance of strength, balance, mental discipline and the capacity to learn. Why does every novice monk have to chop wood, carry water from the river and perform an endless array of creative calesthenics (like bunny hopping up a mist-covered mountain) before they are even allowed to learn kung fu? It seems like an elaborate hazing ritual, but the real purpose might be to strengthen the beginner's body so that he is ready to practice kung fu. Martial arts is not really a gentle enterprise, and to practice and fight as much as these monks and revenge-seekers did, their muscles and joints had to have been strong and supple. Would-be martial artists these days should take note (and groan less when I assign pushups and squats for homework!).

Then, when the sun rises, we find our acolyte standing on one leg atop a tree stump or balancing astride the sides of a boat. Sometimes, the student will perform a whole pattern ("one-legged mantis avoiding crane") across a field of uneven tree stumps. I used to find the tree stump segments cool and dangerous, but now I realize the movies are highlighting the importance of balance. In fact, my own Taekwondo teacher told me I should not kick above my waist unless I could demonstrate to him that I could write my name in marker with my foot at head level. My own students get a more basic version of that exercise, and I assume that they practice every night as prescribed.

Finally, mental discipline and the capacity to learn are also not-so-subtle messages conveyed in the kung fu movies. Sometimes the student has to outwardly prove that he is worthy of instruction by waiting outside the temple gates. Sometimes there is a ritual right of passage. Or sometimes the student practices his "monkey picking fruit" pattern for years before the teacher deigns to teach him anything (else).

Is it just a test? Maybe. The dirty little secret behind all the rooftop acrobatics and spiraling sword sequences is a practice based on sound fundamentals - something akin to Lang Lang playing an hour of scales every day before he starts on the real music, Michael Jordan shooting free throws for 30 minutes every morning, Phil Mickelson converting 100 consecutive 4-foot putts at the end of every practice session (miss one, start over). It takes tremendous discipline to show up every day and practice the basics, especially when there is not much to show for it at the beginning. It takes even more discipline to show up every day and practice when you achieve some modicum of success but then plateau for a long time. And it takes crazy amounts of discipline to show up every day and practice when you know you will never be Lang Lang or Michael Jordan or Phil Mickelson. But then again, kung fu is all about effort.

Beyond that, the movies tell us that learning kung fu is not a one-way street. Every great fire-balling hero was taught by someone. Now that I have become a teacher, I realize how demanding and how much effort it takes to really teach. It is not really hard to lecture to a class. It is also not difficult to bark out commands and count cadence so everyone gets a good workout. But real teaching, the stuff that imprints a way of doing and thinking into a student's practice, the stuff that can be carried on to another generation, the stuff that binds two people with one art, takes a tremendous amount of heart and effort on both the part of the teacher and the student. Those kung fu movies tell us that that is not a trivial matter. Maybe that is why there's a waiting period at the temple gates.

Ramen (3/26/2012)

A gigantic bowl of springy noodles in a rich, cloudy homemade broth is one of the few things I would stand an hour in line for. I have done it in the rain, on sweltering summer days and even alone. And because it is so delicious and the wait is often so cumbersome, I have always asked about take-out or delivery possibilities. Invariably, at what I think are the best ramen shops in the city the answer to the take-out question is a polite, but categorical "no."

It has been explained to me by various chefs, owners, waitresses and even other ramen patrons that ramen must be eaten immediately after the noodles hit the broth. And for no amount of extra profit are they willing to degrade their product by letting it sit in a plastic container for even 15 minutes before consumption. And what if I brought my own container and just ordered an extra serving for the road? No (with a snarl).

So, I spent some time trying to find the ramen shops that do deliver and allow take-out. What I found was that the eat-in product was okay, but nothing to write home about. However, the eat-out product was universally gummy and clumpy. The crunchy elements in the broth (whether it be bean sprouts, pickled ginger, fried shallots, etc.) were soggy or otherwise completely dissolved into the muddled soup. Sigh, I could do better with a pack of instant and a microwave.

Maybe it was just the original product that was lacking. So, a friend decided to help my cause by smuggling an extra order of ramen from one of the best ramen joints in town into an illegal thermos that was strategically positioned under the table in a backpack. The resulting meal 30 minutes later was like the squishy bastard step-child of the original.

I am now back to traveling halfway crosstown or downtown to stand in line for my ramen (my favorite is Totto Ramen). This experience has taught me not to underestimate experience, expertise and the importance of quality and craftsmanship. I realize now that care and pride often define the master craftsman (in this case the ramen chef) and his superior product. And until I have spent years perfecting my own ramen, I should let the chef decide how his ramen should be eaten. As a martial artist, I should have known that. Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time polishing a skill should have recognized and respected the same in others.

Promotion for college and grad students (3/19/2012)

Because so many college students have shown interest in joining our school, we are introducing a permanent discount for all college and graduate students with a valid university ID. You can find this advertisement in the Baruch, Yeshiva and NYU newspapers over the next several months.

Blocking Part I (3/13/2012)

I started my martial arts practice with Shotokan Karate. I wanted to learn Kung Fu, but could not find a teacher so I settled for the only other martial art I knew of... Karate. Decked out in unassuming and definitely unpowerful sweat pants and T-shirt, I and the other beginners were taught a few blocks and a middle punch by Sensei John on our first day. Armed with that, he then showed us how to put it all together to form the first pattern, Heian Shodan. We then proceeded to perform our sloppy Heian Shodan together 100 times on a wooden gym floor. I emphasize the flooring, because the first part of everyone's body to give was their tender bare feet.

Then, after a short conditioning break (pushups and jogging around the gym with the other regular members of the Karate club who were just showing up for the non-beginner class), we beginners were paired with each other for one-step and three-step kumite during which the attacks and defenses are scripted. One person attacks and the other person blocks, then the roles are reversed. We were told to attack with the middle punch and to block with one of the three blocks we learned. The attacks were supposed to be with intent, as were the blocks. After 30 minutes of bashing our forearms while punching and blocking, we lined up to bow out of class. A call by Sensei John for a show of hands by those interested in continuing with the Karate club yielded three willing members. I could not wait to purchase a uniform.

Within a few hours of class ending my forearms were swollen and bruised beyond anything I had ever experienced in any sport I had ever tried. But really, I was so set on Karate that nothing short of a broken limb would have detered me from showing up to the next class. My second-ever Karate class was much like the first, however the rawness of the soles of my feet and the tender puffiness of my contused forearms made for a completely different and all together excruciatingly painful experience. If youth is not wasted on the young, the world would have far fewer martial artists.

Over time, for the few of us who did persevere our feet eventually became stronger and our forearms (and later on, our shins) became conditioned to the constant pounding of bone on bone. By the time I was a sankyu (brown belt), I was not afraid to stand my ground and block anything that came my way (well, as long as the person wasn't twice my size). Physically, I was much stronger (though I might have lost some nerve endings in my forearms and shins). Mentally, I knew that a good, sharp block would hurt my opponent much more than myself.

However, before I was eligible to test for my shodan in Karate, I had graduated and moved across the country where one evening I misread a class schedule and showed up late to find a Taekwondo class in the gym where I had expected a Karate club meeting. After answering my scheduling questions and seeing that I was carrying a Karate uniform, the instructor invited me to join his class.

I was surprised to find that the techniques and even the patterns were very similar. Everything seemed familiar until the sparring. I was paired with another brown belt during one-step and three-step sparring (this Taekwondo club had brown instead of red belts), during which I proceeded to block all his kicks and punches full force as I was taught. After complaining to the instructor about my blocks, I was told that blocks were not allowed during one-step and three-step sparring. Instead, the defender was encouraged to step just outside of the attacker's striking range. Okaaaayyyy....

I was then paired with another brown belt for free sparring. Instead of dancing and moving like he did, I just stood my ground and blocked all his kicks and punches. He also complained about the excessive contact, and the instructor took his place to face me. What the instructor then did was interesting. At first he blocked everything just like I did, fighting in the same style I was taught. Then, he started shifting just inside or just outside of my range without bothering to block anything. No matter what I did, he placed himself at just the right angle not to get hit by a direct blow.

After class, he pulled me aside and explained that while blocking is a tremendous weapon, a person his size (he was maybe 5'6" and 150 pounds) and definitely a person my size cannot survive against a bigger opponent by blocking. I needed to learn how to deceive, how to move, how to create angles, how to make an opponent miss and how to not take too much damage. I had never thought about martial arts in that way before. I was so intrigued that I decided on the spot to take his Taekwondo class instead of searching for the Karate club.

The blocking portion of this essay will continue, but I also want to highlight the undertone of all these eventual pieces about my thoughts on the martial arts. Teachers and the influence they provide through their inspiration, their experiences and their individual approaches to their life's passion are what has shaped me the most... usually subtly and without my noticing, until I reflect and write a piece like this. Even if he does not remember me from the thousands of students who came through his 0 credit physical education class, I want to thank my first Taekwondo teacher, Jerry Shine from Sommerville, Mass., for making me think about blocking.

The dojang's artists

People are always commenting on the school's artwork, so I would like to introduce the dojang's talented graphic design arists.

Sybil Yang, my long-suffering and un(der)paid little sister/graphic consultant, is responsible for most of the dojang's brochures, T-shirts and flyers. She is currently trying to teach me how to catch my own Adobe Illustrator fish. When she is not doing pro bono work for me, Sybil is a professor at San Francisco State University and does menu consulting work with Eight Top Consulting. You can find a more accurate account at sybilyang.com.

Yvonne Kwok is the little sister of Master William Kwok from Gotham Taekwondo. She contributed the calligraphy that is the dojang's logo (look left). Yvonne is also the calligrapher of all things Chinese on the website and promotional materials. Most impressively, she is the artist of the "enso" circle seen above. She is a second degree black belt and a children's instructor. You can find out more about her and her art on Gotham's Calligraphy Class page.

Louis Cannizzaro sketched the "kicking guy" once upon a time on a white board with dry erase markers. Despite his protestations that it was not his best work, kids adore the cartoon. I am eagerly awaiting "kicking guy 2.0," which has been commissioned. Louis is a trust and estates lawyer in Long Island and a third degree black belt.

Below are examples of their work (click on the images):

Grand Opening!

The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.
-- Steve Jobs

It is a wonderful, yet frightening, proposition to start out on one's own. After spending the last seven years learning everything I can about teaching Taekwondo and leading and inspiring students from Grandmaster S.J. Kim, I have left the safety of his nest to create a Taekwondo home of my own. Please join me on the next step of my Taekwondo journey.

Below are some pictures of the new dojang from construction to completion.