April 10, 2010

Four more

As regular readers of Goat Rope know, I've been following Massey's Upper Big Branch mine disaster from Okinawa, where I've been studying karate at its source. I've been hoping against the odds for a final bit of good news, a last minute rescue, but that is not to be. As the Charleston Gazette reports, the final four miners have been found dead.

I should probably be a better person than this, but I can't help thinking about the ancient Greek goddess Nemesis, who represents retributive justice. Her task is to punish excess, hubris and arrogance. When I think of hubris, I think of the trail of excess that led to this chain of events. If, as I suspect, corporate negligence contributed to this mass slaughter of working people, I hope that she flies swiftly.

Surfing the web, I found this poem to her by the 2nd century poet Mesomedes, which I am quoting purely for educational purposes and to promote a greater appreciation of classical studies:

Winged Nemesis, turner of the scales of life,
blue-eyed goddess, daughter of justice,
who, with your unbending bridle,
dominate the vain arrogance of men and,
loathing man's fatal vanity, obliterate black envy;
beneath your wheel unstable and leaving no imprint,
the fate of men is tossed; you who come unnoticed,
in an instant, to subdue the insolent head.
You measure life with your hand,
and with frowning brows, hold the yoke.
We glorify you, Nemesis, immortal goddess,
Victory of the unfurled wings, powerful, infallible,
who shares the altar of justice and, furious at human pride,
casts man into the abyss of Tartarus.

April 08, 2010

The point eyond fatigue

Minoru Higa Sensei and the students attending the karate seminar in Naha, Okinawa. Higa is fourth from the right on the second row. El Cabrero is in there somewhere.

As I try to follow events at the Massey mine disaster from the far side of the world, it looks like rescue efforts have stalled for now and things don't look good for finding survivors.

Several news reports have focused on Massey's safety record (or lack thereof), including the Charleston Gazette and the New York Times. WV Governor Joe Manchin has promised "very, very stern" action if an investigation determines that company negligence was involved. You go, Joe!

Several op-eds and columns have been written about the disaster. I'd like to give a shout to two. The first is by WV writer Denise Giardina, author of Storming Heaven and other novels and a long outspoken critic of coal company abuses. The second is by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

My thoughts continue to be with all those affected by this tragedy and I hope that both the rescue efforts and the wheels of justice move swiftly

Meanwhile, back at the Budokan in Naha, Okinawa, Thursday's training session was particularly exacting. The morning session was taught by Isamu Arakaki Sensei from the Shorin-Ryu tradition and emphasized proper technique, while the afternoon session was like an lesson in applied Zen.

The teacher was Minoru Higa Sensei, also of the Shorin-Ryu tradition, who has the deserved reputation of being one of the most demanding teachers on the island. It involved thousands of repetitions of basic techniques. It didn't take long to reach the point of fatigue and proceed well past that point.

As he explained through a translator, if one trains beyond the point of exhaustion, extraneous thoughts and wasted motion fall away and proper technique emerges. It reminded me of a saying of the Japanese Zen master Dogen, who write that "To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things."

After two hours of his regimen, we were burning, but I asked for and received permission to train at his private dojo tonight for more of the same.

This morning's schedule includes a session with Isshin-Ryu master Uechi Tusyoshi Sensei and the Main Event, a two hour morning session with Morio Higaonna Sensei of the Goju-Ryu style, who has the reputation for probably the most grueling training methods of all.

Let's roll. On all fronts.

April 07, 2010


A white crane at the park outside the Okinawa Prefectural Budokan. Karate is said to be influenced in part from a southern Chinese White Crane style.

"So fair and foul a day I have not seen" is a line from Macbeth, if memory serves. This is a strange time for me. On the one hand, I am fulfilling the dream of a lifetime by coming to Okinawa to study karate in the land of its birth. I have finished three days of training and the trip has already met and exceeded all I had hoped.

On the other hand, I had barely finished the first day of training when I learned of the mining disaster in my state at a mine owned by a company that embodies all the things I have fought against for many years. To be away from West Virginia and West Virginians is hard at times like this, which, sad to say, aren't all that infrequent if you've lived a while.

I know that even if I was there, there would be little I could do right now other than mourn and vent with other members of my tribe. This is the time for rescue and recovery workers, for religious leaders and counselors to do their work, and for a community to grieve. Later, not much later, there will be other work to do, and plenty of it.

So now? Train. To someone who is not a martial artist (and to many martial artists for whom it is only a sport), the connection between karate and the fight for social justice may seem to be two different things. In reality, they should be one.

Looking back, it was through the study of karate that my sense of social justice and even politics derived. Karate ni sente nashi--in karate there is no first attack--is the motto of Okinawan karate. And these words of Gichin Funakoshi have burned themselves into my core:

True karate do is this: that in daily life one's mind are body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility, and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.

It's a spring morning in Naha. I plan on heading early to the Budokan today. My body feels like its cooking itself but I want to train hard today and I want it to hurt.

And so far this trip, I've gotten what I wanted.

Follow the trail

Although I'm 8000 or so miles away from West Virginia right now, I spend every chance I get checking up on the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine. While this is the first disaster of this magnitude at a Massey mine, there has been a long trail of fatalities and safety violations by that company.

I'm linking three articles about this topic. Pride of place goes to my friend Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, who also puts out the excellent Coal Tattoo blog. New York Times reporters Ian Urbina and Michael Cooper prepared the following item, with help from others, including my pal Dan Heyman. Lawrence Messina, a WV AP reporter who puts out another must read blog from the Mountain State, looks at Massey safety issues here.

April 06, 2010

Upper Big Branch mine disaster

I've been blogging this week from Okinawa, where the time is 13 hours earlier than in West Virginia. Yesterday morning (Monday evening WV time) as I was getting ready to go with my group to another day of karate training I got an email from my daughter that at least six miners had been killed, 21 were missing and 30 badly injured.

The news was on my mind all day. Things looked awful from that early report, but I never expected it to be this bad. With 25 deaths, this makes it the worst US mining disaster in 25 years. I hate to be out of state when something like this happens, even though there's nothing I could do at this point if I was there.

It looks like rescue efforts have been suspended for the time being as the methane problem is dealt with. I can only imagine the agony of family members and loved ones as they wait.

I have the good fortune to be training this week with many highly intelligent, compassionate and motivated people. Those I've spoken with have been horrified at the news, but unless you come from a place like West Virginia, stories about mine disasters must sound like something from another world rather than an all too familiar part of life and history.

For all our differences, I've always thought of West Virginians as a kind of tribal people who share things that are often unspoken but deeply ingrained. It's hard to be away from the tribe at a time like this.

I'm going to be following Ken Ward's coverage from the Charleston Gazette (www.wvgazette.com) and his Coal Tattoo blog. Here's the coverage from the NY Times and a good article on the mine's safety record by Ry Rivard at the Charleston Daily Mail.

Given the company's record, I can't say I'm surprised to learn of a fatality at a Massey mine, but I never expected anything like this. Again, my thoughts are with the injured, the missing and the dead and with all those who care about them.


I'm on the far side of the world from West Virginia with a 13 hour time difference but was horrified this morning (Okinawa time) to hear of a disaster at a Massey Energy mine that killed at least 25 miners. My thoughts and prayers are with those who were lost, those whose state is unknown and with their friends and families.

And if any corners were cut on worker safety, it is my desire that the ancient Greek goddess Nemesis is swift to render that which is due.

April 05, 2010

Live (for the moment) from the Budokan

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a civilized society is one that maintains a spacious and elegant martial arts training facility at the public expense. It's nice to be in such a place for once.

Today was day one of a five day seminar on traditional Okinawan karate do in the Holy Land itself. The items on today's menu were some of the main reasons I left home, kindred and even the iPhone (!) To travel to the far side of the world: an introduction to authentic Naha te karate, a strand of the tradition not taught in proximity to Goat Rope Farm.

The two main styles of Naha te are Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu. Since we're doing Uechi all day tomorrow as well, I'll save that one for later. Goju literally means hard / soft as in yin yang. It's an elegant and sophisticated fighting system much influenced by southern Chinese styles.

Our teacher for the morning session was Yoshio Kuba Sensei, who took us through a session that began with junbi undo or warm up exercises that literally started with the toes and worked methodically through the rest of the body. Then came kihon or basic movements similar to but different from the other Okinawan tradition of Shuri te that I'm more familiar with. In Goju, an apparently simple move can have several layers of meaning.

Next came a study of katas, which are pre-arranged series of fighting movements which form the essence of karate, followed by bunkai, which form the basis of karate. A well executed kata solo exercise is beautiful to watch but is also loaded with meanings and practical applications. We worked with the kata Sepai, which is one of my favorites. Kuba Sensei explained some of the traditional applications hidden within the movements.

One of my goals for the trip was to study authentic versions of the kata Sanchin, which means something like "three battles." It is a tanren or forging (as in metal) kata, which in Goju is performed with dynamic tension and special breathing . The movements are deceptively simple but hard to get right. Kuba Sensei gave us a tour through it today. More on that later.

Day Two is about to start. Once more unto the breech ...

April 04, 2010

In praise of bowing

Nice kitty. This one hangs out at Shuri Castle.

One of the things I really like about Okinawa so far is that people actually bow to each other here. Bowing has a bad name in the US, probably because of the connotations of expressions like bow and scrape, but to me it doesn't mean anything of the kind.

In karate we bow all the time, on entering and leaving the dojo, to instructors, opponents and training partners, before and after every sparring match and class. Gichin Funakoshi, widely considered to be the founder of modern karate do, said that karate begins and ends with rei, which means both bowing and courtesy. I've always liked the idea of bowing to one's opponent before and after every fight.

It' really a gesture of mutual recognition and respect, one that doesn't necessarily preclude going at it pretty hard. It's nice to be some place where it's a part of everyday life.


Toto, I've a feeling we're not in West Virginia anymore

Dragon guarding Shuri Castle in Okinawa.

In some cultures, a person going on a vision quest has to go through some kind of ordeal. I'm thinking flying coach class from WV to Atlanta to Tokyo to Okinawa might cover that.

Those airline seats are designed to encourage insomnia, which means I got through that pile of old New Yorkers and made a dent in two books. I was worried about the time change (13 hours different) but the timing worked out. I got here late night Okinawa time and was ready to crash.

I met this morning with a group of around 21 martial artists from the US, UK, Brazil and Portugal all here for a week of intensive karate training in the land of its origin with several of the greatest living masters. The "seminar" begins tomorrow.

Today was spent rambling around Naha, visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and touring Shuri Castle, where some of the greatest masters served the monarchy back in the day. For karate geeks like me, this really is the holy land.

The pain report begins tomorrow. No links today.

p.s. If this post looks weird, I think my computer is as confused as I am.