I spent ten uninterrupted years studying Kajukenbo.  When I started at the age of thirty, I was so achingly bad at it I would routinely lose myself in giggling fits whenever my Sifu tried to teach me a new technique.  She would demonstrate the proper way to, say, chamber a side thrust kick, which felt so absurdly impossible in my own body that all I could do was shake my head in disbelief, and try not to laugh.  The thought that anyone could balance on one foot while holding their leg at such an angle just seemed silly (knee drawn across chest, shin parallel to floor, standing foot pointed away from the target, kicking foot cocked to present the outside edge, then drive the leg out like a piston, with the power coming from the hip and core, not the knee – hey, you try it!)


I never did get it quite right, but a side thrust kick looks sort of like this (I’m the guy on the left).

I was a decent enough athlete – tall, still young, fast and strong; I’d played basketball and lifted weights and run for years.  I was also inflexible as hell (still am), and was very much a big person learning a small person’s art.  The story of Kajukenbo begins in post World War II Honolulu, where a group of black belts in traditional styles (Kung Fu, Karate, Judo, Ju Jitsu, etc.) began training together, in an effort to create the ultimate street fighting system.  It was a tough town, a tough time.  The black belt society, as they called themselves, had what was then a novel idea in the highly rigid world of martial arts:  keep only those techniques from each of their disciplines that actually worked, and throw away the rest.  Their testing ground was, in fact, the street – with occasionally tragic results, as when the founder’s brother was killed by a man with a knife (the result of which was, among other things, the inclusion of more soft blocks into the art).

History lesson aside, my point is while the founders of the art were decidedly serious about their business, what they weren’t, was tall.  I hadn’t really lived until I tried landing a roundhouse kick to the groin in mid-air, while at the same time throwing myself onto the ground.

At my height, the ground is, like, far.

Maybe I wasn’t built for it, but I always loved the art.  From the first day I knew I’d stick with it – forever, I thought, or at least as long as my body held out.  I never could do anything all that visually impressive, but the beauty of Kajukenbo is it is a highly adaptable system, with a certain brutal efficiency in its core.  There’s something there for everyone, even six foot two inch former basketball players with tight hamstrings and permanently busted toes.  The diving roundhouse kick I mentioned above is a distant memory; I gave up on it years ago.  There are, for my body, better ways to achieve the same objective.


Can’t kick the head? No problem. Start with the knee, and bring the head to you. (My left foot is in a really bad spot here, though – I’m up on my toe, and just begging to be tripped by the guy on the ground)

In fact I did stick with it.  Eventually I earned a second degree black belt, and in an effort to keep our community together after my Sifu semi-retired, teamed up with three other advanced students to form our own school.  We called it Ten Thousand Hours Kung Fu, a name that reflected my belief in the importance of simply putting in the time, which to this day is the only real training advice I have to offer:  just show up, and then keep showing up.  I took on the role of head instructor, and the four of us ran the program for a year, before various life events (jobs, children, etc.) conspired to make it impossible to continue.  Adult martial arts programs are exercises in devotion, not money-making enterprises; above all else they require time, and by the end of last year I was running out of time to give.

So we closed the program, I quit training, and I’m now seven months removed from the art.  To tell the truth, my mind and spirit miss it more than my body does.  Ten years spent jumping around (often barefoot) on hardwood floors took its toll, and I still have dreams of running another marathon, and climbing Mt. Rainier with my daughter someday, when she’s old enough.  I can only beat the hell out of my body in good conscience for so much longer.

But I do miss it.  I miss feeling the art in my body, right beneath the surface when I walk around, like a living thing inside me, an animating force innervating my limbs.  When I was at the peak of my training it was as if there was a bubble around me, a critical distance line of awareness, and if someone crossed into it, I knew everything about their body and their intention – where their knees were, their third point, if they were moving toward me in a manner inconsistent with passing a stranger on the street, all of it.

The art is still there, but buried a little, now.  It lies dormant, sleeping, waiting for its time to be awakened again.

But whether or not that time will ever come, I truly do not know.

Self Defense
I have for all intents and purposes never gotten into a fight in my life.  A kid shoved me down in elementary school once, and another kid punched me in the eighth grade, but both times I was too stunned to react, so it never escalated.  I don’t think either incident counts.

In fact I’d like to consider myself a bit of a pacifist.  I’d like to believe that there is essentially nothing beyond the imminent threat of physical harm to myself or a loved one that could provoke me into a physical confrontation.  What could anyone possibly say to me in a bar, that would make me risk legal trouble and injury?  And if a man with a knife demanded my wallet, hey – I’d give it to him.  And so should you.  Despite what you see in the movies, I am not at all optimistic about my or anyone else’s chances of disarming a determined assailant without getting seriously hurt, and maybe killed.

Does that mean all that training was wasted effort?  Anything but.  I use my self defense skills all the time.  Situational awareness, projecting confidence, not walking like a victim, making eye contact, verbal strategies – these are the everyday tools that martial arts training provides, the things that comprise 99% of taking care of yourself “out there”.  Knowing when to cross the street is self defense.  So is learning never to apologize when someone asks you for money or anything else you don’t want to give.  (Pro tip:  the “broken record” defense is a world-beater.  Next time you are asked for spare change, or a light, or if you want to hear a joke, or what the heck ever, simply say “I can’t help you.”  And keep on saying it, no matter how your assailant changes their tactics.  If you don’t alter your response, and you don’t apologize, there’s nothing for them to grab onto – no conversational hook to build on, and no weakness to seize upon.  Seriously – give it a try.  I.  Can’t.  Help.  You.  Practice on your friends.  You might be surprised how often you catch yourself saying “I’m sorry”.  We are all – men and women – much more heavily socialized than we care to admit.)

But there is a deeper truth here as well.  At the core, compassion.  I wanted to learn how to fight so I could make a powerful choice not to.  I wanted to be able to walk away from a position of strength, not weakness.  I wanted to know how to take care of myself, because in all of life, you have to do that first, before you can help anyone else.  And if I got even a little bit of that for the time I put in, it was more than fair.

Belt Tests
In our school, the belt progression went as follows:  white (given when you walk through the door the first time), orange, purple, blue, green, brown, black, and then degrees of black.  There are ten of those in theory, but it’s sort of one of those deals where only one person at a time has a tenth degree, and he (it’s always a he, thus far and for the forseeable future near as I can tell) becomes the sort of grand poobah of the whole system.  My teacher, incidentally, has a fifth degree black belt, and believe you me, that’s plenty.  She is the real deal, as martial artists go.

Anyway, all told, if you trained consistently it took seven or eight years to reach first degree black belt – slow by the standards of many systems, where belt tests are paid events, a way for the school to make money, and given at an accelerated pace in keeping with the inflationary style of the times.  As you can probably guess, I always liked that it took that long in our school.  And I appreciated the tests themselves, which were grueling affairs, particularly from green belt on.  A typical black belt test in our school lasted at least four hours.  Exhaustion, the thinking went, was a useful proxy for fear.  Get the body sufficiently tired and the conscious mind fades away, and when you can’t think anymore, whatever technique remains is what you truly know – and what will be there, should push come to shove and the adrenalin dump hit.

I was sick for my own black belt test.  It wasn’t uncommon – we all tended to over-train, and I was no exception.  For some reason I never managed to port the runner’s discipline of pre-race tapering into belt test preparation, and I woke up the day before what would be my last test with a sore throat and a bit of a cough.  I knew I was in trouble; I was also nursing a groin pull, and my plan (I actually discussed with my Sifu) was just to go all-out for the first hour of the test, and see whether it either loosened up and I could perform the way I wanted to, or I completely destroyed it, in which case I was looking at months of rehab, but at least no ambiguity about whether I could train or not.

It’s actively embarrassing typing those last couple of sentences; it seems such a ridiculous way to approach things now.  And this was only four years ago!  With age, wisdom, or perhaps repetitive injury is the mother of intervention.  In any case, when the day came I got up, pounded four Advil, ate a couple of caffeinated Gu chomps, headed off to school, spent about fifteen minutes trying to warm up on a heavy bag, broke out in a cold sweat, and realized I was screwed.

Oh, I got through the test, but it wasn’t pretty.  My hips seized up so badly (dehydration, I think) that my Sifu took pity on me somewhere in hour three, and let me show just the hand techniques for some of my forms, because I could no longer hold any kind of stance at all.  But I never stopped fighting, and I’m proud of that.

All of our tests ended the same way:  with questions (well, occasionally with injury, but truly only very rarely and it was almost always a fluke.  I did break an eardrum during my green belt test, but that’s a story for another post).


My green belt test, an hour before I broke my eardrum (again). I still have all my energy, and am apparently trying to flat murder that focus pad.

Some of the questions were personal:  Why do you train?  What are your goals and plans from here?  Then there were the things we were rightly expected to know about the history of our art – who founded it, where and when and why; what the component styles were, where in the discipline representative techniques of each could be found, and so on.

There was also, beginning at orange belt, the recitation of the significance of the elements of the Kajukenbo banner.  I won’t go over it all here – though I did, many times, dripping with sweat, legs shaking in a horse stance at the end of three plus hours of suffering.


The Kajukenbo seal. Each element has a specific meaning; for example, the yin/yang symbol represents the soft and hard elements of the style.

And then there were the interesting questions.  The ones that made you really think.  I would always pay special attention to what other people were asked during their tests, and imagine how I would respond if it were me.  At some point early in my training, Sifu asked another student – what is chi?  (It was in the context of the banner, as the red circle inside the yellow octagon symbolizes the continuous flow of chi.)

So I came up with this really snappy answer, and in all my subsequent tests hoped she would ask me the same question.  Now maybe you can sympathize with this.  Maybe you too have visualized that moment where you will utter something profound, and eyebrows will furrow, and a collective hush will settle over the audience while everyone thinks about what you just said, as a new idea occurs to them.  (Come to think of it, maybe you can’t.  This might be symptomatic of some deep egomania or narcissism, something endemic to writers perhaps, all of whom are cursed with this deep-seated belief that we have something to say that is worth listening to.  This is getting awkward – let’s just move on.)

Anyway.  “Chi,” I was going to say, “is a metaphor for intention.”

I’ve kind of forgotten what I meant by that.  I am vastly more physicist than meta-physicist, and I think I was trying to thread the needle between the fact that no, there aren’t actually mystical energy fields that advanced martial artists control but that science can’t explain (though after watching the Shaolin monks perform, one does start to wonder), while at the same time, the concept exists for a reason – there is some phenomenon there, that many cultures have been trying to describe for a very long time.

In any event, I never did get asked that question.  But I also never stopped thinking about it, and now I have a new answer.

Chi is the energy of your life.  And one of the great tragedies of life is that all too often, we are more aware of its absence than its presence.


Black belt at last. Old times; simpler times; vastly more complicated times in their own way. Also, less hair.

More on that next time.