Tuesday, June 23, 2009

MDA Camp Canceled / The Story "Maybe"

For those keeping up here rather than elsewhere, we received our next rude jolt from the Universe Friday evening.

We were sitting at the pool with friends while our kids splashed about when at 7 P.M., my wife's phone and my phone began ringing in sequence with numbers we didn't recognize. Checking the voicemail, it was the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) office in Maryland. My wife returned the call and relayed the message to me:

"Camp is canceled."

... that is, the MDA Summer Camp, our son's first, the one that was to start on Sunday.

Muscular dystrophy patients, particularly the older ones, are prone to respiratory problems as the cardio-pulmonary muscles deteriorate. The Swine Flu epidemic, we were told, had already affected several of the camps that had occurred across the nation, sending campers to the hospital for care. The MDA made the call to cancel the remaining camps to avoid endangering additional campers.

We were all devastated.

We only received my son's diagnosis just under two years ago. Naturally, we knew something was off, but to us he was normal. We moved through the first year of sadness like rocks through a tumbler, somewhat damaged, somewhat polished; yet, as his life increasingly deviates in form from that of other boys his age, we see forward a bit beyond his focus.

We were invited to apply last year to the MDA Summer Camp program, but declined. With him still very active and with us having some cash in hand, we wanted the time together---there would be time for the camps later. This year, though, the choice was harder. My son has only a few peer friends and his physical activities are increasingly limited; he reaches out for more contact and play, and loves the different activities associated with any camping adventure...

... but, was I ready to give my son such a glimpse into his own future?

It does not take a Zen master's insight to see the error in my thinking, but this issue is very real---and very common---to parents, and simply knowing this truth is not enough to clear the apprehension.

Unemployed for far too long, money and insurance are issues to us. The application itself was a bit overwhelming. What we would have to accomplish before the deadline seemed insurmountable at the eleventh hour. The stress even in considering it given every other issue was terrible. We put off one or two calls from the MDA, which was waiting for our decision. We were initially wait-listed, so this was something we did not have to consider---fate made the choice---but then the slot opened and we had to decide on our own. My wife handed me her phone one morning; the MDA representative was on the line... I took the call, ostensibly to tell her that we would decline, but ended up to agreeing to send our son.

The MDA knows our fears; after all, they have been working with parents in our position for many, many years. She told me very clearly what I already knew beneath my fear: in my words, the child does not yet suffer from the parent's disease; he does not see himself as handicapped. He knows he has limitations, of course, and he knows that he is different, but he does not handicap himself. Just as importantly, though, the MDA Camps and counsellors have broad experience in handling these situations, the parents and the kids.

We did the paperwork, engaging MDA and Children's Hospital in DC for their help, and we were approved for the camp---and we gave my son the celebratory news! He made a paper chain, tearing one link away each day in the countdown, and chatted incessantly about the coming adventure with everyone. We attended a "meet the counselors" event, and met wonderful people and fellow campers. The excitement continued to build: there would be horseback riding, Harley Davidson sidecar rides, swimming, arts & crafts, dancing, firehouses competing for the best meal made for the kids, ... Anyone would be envious!

As our own submission was delayed, so to was the notice of our application's acceptance---as well as the camp packing list. The free camp would not be entirely free to us... The packing list for a full week away is quite extensive. We lacked several items and had delayed buying new things while money is short. We scrambled to decide what was really necessary, to find the money, and to make some purchases...

... and then we received the news.

... and now we're trying to have a fun week with the boy at home.

These roller coasters are emotionally trying and exhausting, creating all sorts of friction when people are most vulnerable. Through it all, though, there is something to learn: What is the source of all of the feelings of elation and devastation?

There is an old story found in the Zen tradition known by some as "Maybe."

There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.


The story, of course, has no end.

Why do things unfold as they do? It is, of course, a mystery. How such an unfolding affects us, though, is where our work lies.

[The "Maybe" story has variants; the edition above was found here: http://www.renegadezen.com/zen-stories/maybe.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Children's Hospital Visit

We had a full day in the hospital as our son was in for full work-ups in cardiology and pulmonary departments. As usual, nothing went as planned, but that's not to say it was a terrible day.

Children's Hospital truly is an amazing place to visit, with so many levels of humanity operating simultaneously right in front of you. There are the ordinary people on the job, taking their breaks for lunch, walking between here and there in the halls. There are families most assuredly in despair with news of their children's prognosis. There are the old hats, people who are further along on the path with their children and their long-termed issues. There are kids on the mend. The hospital has all of the hustle of walking in a city, and there is also the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in trying to accomplish anything...

What is truly amazing, though are those professionals who interact directly with the children...

There really are no words.

And it is true: When we have encountered any difficulties with the administrative folks who may lose themselves temporarily serving the system rather than the people, we have found incredible support both from unique champions close to the professional staff as well as, in our case, from members of the Muscular Dystrophy Association who are present at the hospital. We can't thank them enough.

Next week, our son is off to his first MDA Summer Camp, a full week packed with enough activities to make even me jealous!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Aikido: Uke, Nage, and Mushin

The following is a bit ugly and unpolished, though hopefully useful in draft form. The short essay is part of an on-going discussion between Ron Ragusa and me on AikiWeb. Most recently, we are considering the roles of uke and nage---are they two sides of the same coin?---and we are questioning whether it is necessary to "hold" the state of mushin. Here are my latest thoughts:

Before there can be "just aikido," there is "learning aikido," which generally includes principles and techniques as well as the roles of uke and nage.

In "learning aikido," it is useful to experience "completely centered" and "completely committed" as two extremes of the "placement" of attention / intention---or "ki." I might call the absence of any particular intention or any particular attention to something---such as an adversary's wrist or weapon---mushin, or "completely centered;" and, I might call the laser-like focus upon something---such as "I will grab his wrist!"---"completely committed."

I believe that one type of valuable uke-nage interaction is for uke to practice being completely committed and for nage to practice being completely centered. Practicing in this extreme way, at whatever speed, is often perceived to be ridiculous from the self-defense or martial point of view; however, from the perspective of learning what it is to have mind and body integrated, learning what it is to be led (or, to have "ki led") versus what it is to be "centered," this is very valuable training.

In never practicing this way, we may never sense the full range of the continuum of attention / intention; however, in only practicing this way, we are subject to an equally terrible error: We may develop the habit either of always yielding / being led, or always remaining firm, seeing only the extremes, unable to handle situations in between.

In training we eventually experience what one might consider a third state: distraction. Whether distraction occurs by virtue of something "real" to the encounter such as the momentary blinding by a bright light," or by virtue of something "not real" to the encounter, such as wondering what is for dinner, we should see it for what it is, something essentially no different than focusing upon your adversary's grip or trying to make that technique work, knocking you from your centered (or focused) state most unproductively. Here again, though, if we can recognize the affects of distraction upon our state of mind and body, we can learn to use distraction to our advantage as well as not to be hindered by it.

As we progress from "learning aikido" toward "just aikido," I believe the roles of uke and nage naturally (and, hopefully) tend to dissolve in advanced practice. More time for both players is spent in mushin, attachment to distractions as well as to outcomes of launched attacks and defenses is relaxed, and focused intent becomes more of an impulse rather than sustained effort. This is not to say that attacks or defenses are necessarily less powerful; rather, like shooting an arrow, we are at the ready, and when an opening is noted, the arrow is let loose with only an impulse. Like this, the body is set into motion and immediately returns to its centered state, ready to adjust the action, to deal with a counter, or to launch the next blow. Every action, then, is generated from the centered state; this is mind and body integrated without resistance. Releasing focus upon performing a particular technique---once there is physical competence with that technique, of course---as nage, and feeling when your opponent is off-balanced in performing a technique upon you as uke, this is the foundation for being sensitive to changing conditions, which in turn is the root of changing technique (henka waza) and reversal (kaeshi waza) practices on the mats---as well as the prevention of the same.

Consider an example: I am not persisting with the Ikkyo technique, simply because I am doing Ikkyo---I am not doing anything. I launched what you might call "Ikkyo" (if you were forced to classify it) and returned to center; the body knows the rest from practice, and it is open to what happens next through relaxed mushin. To say, "I am doing Ikkyo," or forcing an interaction to resemble a model Ikkyo, or driving on toward completing a model Ikkyo past when the interaction calls for it or past it being an appropriate response, are all actions rooted in thought, concepts, and ideas, rather than the the situation and your center. Mushin is long gone; seasoned practitioners know the resulting difference in feeling.

The question has also been raised regarding whether mushin is something to be pursued or whether it is something that appears quite naturally when necessary. The active pursuit of being centered is in itself an off-balancing activity by definition---after all, we are focused upon the activity; however, in much the way that medicines are poisons to what they cure, there are focused practices to bring about centeredness. Does mushin naturally appear when needed? Insomuch as mushin is related to that "everything was moving in slow motion"-type experience we feel under extreme circumstances, I suppose it does; however, we should consider these points:

(1) Does mushin's appearance guarantee action, let alone an appropriate action? The clarity to see something falling and to grab it---is this mushin or simply instinct? What if the falling object was a hot pan from the stove? Can we improve the appropriateness of our responses with practice?

(2) Is there value in maintaining mushin under other-than-extreme circumstances? Arguably, most people spend most of the time distracted by some combination of their own senses and their own thoughts---sleep walking, so to speak. Is there value in practicing to maintain centered awareness under more ordinary circumstances?

It is hard to imagine an answer other than "yes" to either question.

But this discourse is very cloudy in itself. Let's consider a different way of responding: If you asked me, "Are the roles of uke and nage the same or different?" and I responded, "I hate when my partner throws himself," would you appreciate the meaning now given the above?