He Pushed him Across the Room without Touching him

On entering the Chinese Martial Arts Association gym in East Hollywood, I couldn’t ignore the slippery waxed floors. One could always tell newcomers because they would walk as if on ice. Heavily waxed floors ensured that all maintained their balance at all times.

Sifu James Wing Woo told me that when the Japanese invaded China he was about twelve years old. Everyone was studying with the local masters then. He studied with about five of them. “They would cover the floor with motor oil. You didn’t want to fall.”

Traditional martial arts didn’t serve to resist the brand of warfare waged by the Japanese. His family returned to the United States.

I studied tai chi with Sifu (Master) Woo too briefly in the eighties and learned much. He was a direct and practical teacher who observed everything and missed nothing. He dismissed attempts to label him a ‘master’ by saying a master is someone who has stopped learning.

Students would ask him about Chinese mysticism or the ‘secret touch’ that killed Bruce Lee. He smiled and said Bruce Lee wasn’t murdered by any secret touch. He killed himself believing his own press. There is no secret killing touch, there is self-discipline, he said.

Sifu Woo dismissed the I Ching and other oracles but he was known to enjoy a trip to the race track.

He didn’t put any stock in colored belts or marks of status either. “Those things won’t help you in a fight”, he said.

He wasn’t one for long theoretical explanations. Someone asked him the best move if you are attacked with a knife. “Run.” That said it all.

Sifu always taught us to ‘root yourself to the center of the earth’. That advice came in handy one night at a party when three people decided it would be amusing to throw me into the pool. I didn’t struggle or resist them. I told them not to waste their time and rooted myself to the center of the earth. Don’t ask me how I accomplished that but they could not move me, lift me, knock me over, or throw me into the pool.

I witnessed something one session that sounds like the stuff of legend. There were about fifteen of us practicing in the gym when an exchange between Sifu and a new student drew our attention.

Sifu and a new guy were standing in the middle of the gym. Apparently the newbie challenged Sifu in some attitudinal manner. Rather than throw the bum out Sifu used it as teachable moment. Sifu produced a pair of chop sticks and placed the pointed ends up to his throat. He told the newbie to hold them firmly with the palm of his hand and not to let them fall for any reason.

Suddenly Sifu walked forcefully toward the newbie. The guy could hardly back pedal fast enough. Between the slippery floor and keeping the chop sticks in place it was all he could do to stay upright. Sifu backed him to the wall and stopped.

Sifu grabbed the chop sticks and turned with a chuckle. “See? I pushed you across the room without touching you.”

“No you didn’t. I had to back up. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“You don’t get it. You couldn’t hurt me. I wouldn’t let you.” There was nothing more to say.

No one knew what brought on this confrontation. But the results were evident. The guy left and everyone returned to their practice. I never saw the guy again.

Our Selfish Genes

Have you ever been faced with a choice between two good things? Everyone should have such problems.

I was pursuing a young lady, the youngest of three sisters. My two older brothers had gone out with her older sisters. It was destiny. We were meant to be together. Why weren’t we?

It was those damned selfish genes.

We went swimming in a local quarry one beautiful summer day. The blue water was warm. Floating on my back and watching the clouds billow against the deep sky inspired me. I felt I was floating amongst those clouds.

She told me she believed one should only do what felt good.

Wow! But something went wrong.

That statement inspired me and my brain went into overdrive. I embarked on an hours long verbal riff examining the fallacy of pleasure as the sole virtue. I became so enamored of my verbal cleverness that I completely missed her cues, oh yeah, the goal of pleasure.

We parted company. She was bored silly and I was still jazzed by the philosophical edifice I was building on the foundation of her absurd proposition. My head was still in the clouds and I missed my chance.

The irony was that I possibly derived more pleasure from my mental gyrations than if I had followed her lead. So, was she right?

Early in my film career I worked on a horror movie on location in Northern Louisiana. The director was from Shreveport and knew every creepy location to use. He took us to shoot in an abandoned Tuberculosis sanatorium. This place had not been used for thirty years or more. (Until recently Tuberculosis was all but eradicated in this country.) The building was huge and built of solid beige brick. Seeing it amidst the overgrowth was akin to discovering a lost city in the jungle. Except for a layer of dust it could have been open for business yesterday.  I almost expected to find a pot of coffee brewing in the break room. As if everyone, even the patients just stepped out. The immense silence was eerie as hell.

The rooms housed iron lungs and other obsolete methods to keep helpless people alive. It was a state of the art facility when it was built in the 1930s or 1940s. They cured everyone. One way or the other everyone left.

Who would want to live if they were stuck in an iron lung, for life? That life could only mean suffering. Who would want that for themselves, or anyone?

It is hard to let go of life. One gets used to it after all. It isn’t just another bad habit.

One of the most curious and horrifying objects to be found in the rooms were glass globes holding about a liter of what appeared to be water (salt water or carbon tetrachloride which turns to a poison gas when exposed to flame). Secured on a shelf, perhaps three to a room, their purpose was not immediately obvious.

Then it dawns that these were supposed to serve as ‘fire grenades’, primitive fire extinguishers. Can you imagine the terror at being confined to a room on fire and having nothing but these to protect you? Of course you would have to await an unselfish nurse to come to your aid and throw them at the fire.

But it’s very expensive to house such hopeless cases.

Wouldn’t it be merciful to put them out of their misery?

Oh, those great souls who promote a compassionate death for the suffering while reckoning how this efficiency will fill their wallets. The words ‘convenient’ and ‘efficient’ have become the most terrifying words in the English language because of some who seek to mask the most inhuman practices with the virtues of time and money saved.

The Nazis were efficient to a fault, rationally legalizing the disposal of the less able, the ill, the elderly, the weak, the ‘sub-human’ Gypsies and… the list goes on. All for their own good and for societies’ convenience. Are these really the virtues we strive to promote in our culture?

Churchill and others said variously, “Society is measured by how it treats its weakest members”.

I read of a study where the subjects were instructed to imagine they were aliens from another planet observing our world. They were to report how to resolve common problems our society faces. The unanimous ‘alien’ stance was that of compassion, patience and caring. All the subjects of the experiment drew on their higher selves to emulate the fictional ‘superior’ alien race.

I submit that there is greater evil than suffering.

Yes we are selfish. Dare we do better?

Did the Druids Invent Daylight Savings?

It was the dawn of history and the Druids once again gathered around Stonehenge to celebrate the invention of Daylight Saving Time.

Wait. That is not exactly correct. I don’t believe there is any evidence that the Druids ever gave thought to Daylight Saving Time. And I’m not sure they were the ones who loitered around the oldest picnic grounds in England either. But someone went to considerable trouble to celebrate the Summer Solstice by putting those stones in place. For sake of argument, I will give the Druids credit.

Stonehenge, for all its lack of portability, is a remarkable time piece. It has never lost a second. The i-Watch is really only an incremental improvement after all. (Take that Steve Jobs!) Pretty good for a crowd for whom the Kit Cat Klock was only a dream.

The Druids, (you gotta love ‘em) have been sort of a catch all for any practice considered obscure, fantastical, superstitious, or requiring the painting of yourself blue. (Blue Man Group, you are derivative!) They do take considerable heat for their practice of human sacrifice (everyone else was doing it too!). But in their defense, they did know how to plan ahead for a party.

But the point is (really, there is a point), with the rise of secular humanism, the culture has been leached of meaningful holidays. People are not satisfied with the vague and PC “Holiday Season” which has taken on the trappings of jockeying for last minute tax write-offs more than anything suggested by a word whose etymology is “Holy day”.

Since the pagans among us already have claimed the solstices (have they glommed onto the equinoxes too?), Christmas has become passé, Hanukkah is too exclusive, Ramadan leaves me unsatisfied and Kwanzaa is a little too prefab (ask me again in the next millennium), the hoy polloi are in clamoring need of a holiday on which to hang our spiritual hats. Even the secular President’s Day is a hybrid of Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. Who takes that seriously?

Yes, I know, Daylight Saving Time is controversial. It drifts from one month to another. Standard time is becoming an afterthought. What does it all mean?

In the ‘60s, when the Daylight Saving Time movement really took hold, people rebelled. Whole states refused to cooperate and refused to adjust their clocks in protest of the ‘Communist conspiracy’. The U.S. became a patchwork of mini-time zones. Chaos ensued for anyone daring to drive across country. Every time some hapless traveler crossed a state line a frantic scramble ensued to set the car clock right. Hawaii is the only hold out, claiming exemption since they are permanently on Aloha time.

I grew up in farm country. I’ll never know if the writer of the letter to the editor was joking, but he claimed that Daylight Saving Time made his cows cranky because they had to get up an hour early for milking. Well I say, those cows can just deal with it like the rest of us. That’s what coffee is for, damn it.

Incidentally, I am one of the few people I know who has actually milked a cow. We are so far removed from these basic life experiences. For me, it was on a school field trip and each student got to take a turn for a couple of squirts. Ahhh, back to the land and all that.

You may scoff but my daughter told me her high school econ class was filled with students who were amazed to find that eggs come, not from the store, but from chickens! Who knew?

I submit that we have become so abstract in our understanding of how the world works, it wouldn’t surprise me if more people didn’t drown in a rain storm from looking up to see who turned on the sprinklers.

If you think that is far-fetched, my home town was one of the prime turkey producing towns in Minnesota. (Ask me about feather burning day when the wind shifted.) It would be huge news when some turkey farmer didn’t get his birds into their coop before a rain storm. A few thousand turkeys who didn’t get the memo might look up at the rain and tragically drown. Farmers have been wiped out from such events. Turkeys have been bred for their tastiness not for intelligence. And regardless of the weather, don’t bother asking them what time it is.

In any case, before the period of Daylight Savings expands to include the whole year, we should lock in the dates and create new holidays to replenish our rapidly diminishing supply. There are those who would protest that it is a moral hazard and that you cannot permanently borrow an hour. My answer to that is there are three barely used hours out in the Atlantic that wouldn’t be missed. We could use one of those and still have two to spare.

A Druid wizard like Merlin could handle that in no time.

Driving through the West

I grew up on the plains- rolling hills, sloughs with cattails and red-wing blackbirds, wind passing through tall grass like a giant hand through a healthy head of hair, hours spent driving down straight roads and seemingly never gaining on the destination (maybe visible in the distance). Endless miles of rows of corn. Towns, some mere wide spots in the road were made up of a grain elevator and maybe a gas station and maybe a lonely diner.

The scale of distance out on the plains is immense. Crossing it in a covered wagon must have been daunting.

In the ‘70s, I once camped atop a ridge in Montana. There was a thunder storm in the distance and the filtered sunset turned the rough brown grass magenta. Some distance away, at the bottom of the ridge stood the stump of what eons ago had been a mountain. There were no other mountains around, just this remnant, this little hill.

That next morning my friend and I were going to walk down and have a look at it and maybe climb it. We decided to drive to it so we could be on our way and save the walk back.

Two hours later we still hadn’t reached it. It took an hour to drive fully past it. That tiny, baby mountain, that bare remnant, that sliver of what once was, towered two or three hundred feet above us as our car crawled by.

My first trip west was in 1962. Burma Shave signs still gave one relief from that endless asphalt strip. “If hugging – On highways – Is your sport – Trade in your car – For a davenport – Burma Shave. Those and the ever present billboards urging a visit to the Reptile Gardens (world famous!).

Driving through North Dakota’s Badlands was eerie. The landscape was so bleak yet there was something strangely beautiful about the gulley ridden wasteland. Occasionally there would be a shack in the distance that looked long abandoned. One couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would build a shack in such a desolate place. And then I wanted to hike to it, see what was in there, get a feel of the immense isolation of the surroundings.

In Montana every mile or so would be a little cross by the road, sometimes a cluster. I was told they memorialized someone or several who died in an accident from losing control, drowsing, speed, drink. So many crosses!

Mount Rushmore is an amazing monument to our founders. It was envisioned and executed by the son of immigrants Gutzon Borglum, who acquired the site and completed the work with his son and crew, all without government funds. Imagine.

When I was there, a Native American man (we called them Indians back then) stood in buckskin clothes and a full chief’s feathered headdress. His job seemed to be providing a dignified presence representing the region’s past. He did it well. To my eyes, he looked just like the image on head side of the old buffalo nickel.

We kids were in awe of that Chief. It must have been a strange job being gawked at by little kids. My brother’s and I at least knew enough not to point our fingers at him and make shooting sounds like some of the other kids. I wanted to talk to him but what does one say? How do you strike up a casual conversation with someone whose people own such a tragic history? You don’t.

On that trip we also stopped to see the museum celebrating Custer’s Last Stand. It was kind of odd to see so much made of a military blunder made by such an arrogant fool. The movie “Little Big Man” summed up his character pretty well.

The museum displayed lots of dramatic bronzes by Frederick Remington. His work lent stark dignity to the Native Americans, the mountain men and their hard lives.

If my memory serves me, that museum also had quite a display of Buffalo Bill Cody’s exploits. He made quite a career of bringing a romanticized vision of the ‘Old West’ to the rapidly modernizing Eastern part of the country. His shows were an early version of what became the American circus. For his recreations of a buffalo hunt or settlers attacked by ‘Indians’ he employed some of the very warriors who were on the winning side at Custer’s Last Stand.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.