Last night, my wife Cathy and I passed our level 5 test in kuntao. That’s a halfway point to level 10, which is the first “guro” level, roughly equivalent to black belt in a Japanese or Korean art. Ranks aren’t the big deal in kuntao that they are in most Americanized martial arts, but this is still a good point to pause for reflection.
Kuntao is, for those of you new here or who haven’t been paying attention, the martial art my wife and I have been training in for two years this month. It’s a fusion of traditional wing chun kung fu (which is officially now Southern Shaolin, though I retain some doubts about the historical links even after the Shaolin Abbot’s pronouncement) with Phillipine kali and some elements of Renaissance Spanish sword arts.
It’s a demanding style. Only a moderate workout physically, but the techniques require a high level of precision and concentration. Sifu Yeager has some trouble keeping students because of this, but those of us who have hung in there are learning techniques more commercial schools have given up on trying to teach. The knife work alone is more of a toolkit than some other entire styles provide.
Sifu made a bit of a public speech after the test about my having to work to overcome unusual difficulties due to my cerebral palsy. I understand what he was telling the other students and prospective students: if Eric can be good at this and rise to a high skill level you can too, and you should be ashamed if you don’t. He expressed some scorn for former students who quit because the training was too hard, and I said, loudly enough to be heard: “Sifu, I’d be gone if it were too easy.”
It’s true, the challenge level suits me a lot better than strip-mall karate ever could. Why train in a martial art at all if you’re not going to test your limits and break past them? That struggle is as much of the meaning of martial arts as the combat techniques are, and more.
Sifu called me “a fighter”. It’s true, and I free-sparred with some of the senior students testing last night and enjoyed the hell out of every second, and didn’t do half-badly either. But the real fight is always the one for self-mastery, awareness, and control; perfection in the moment, and calm at the heart of furious action. Victory in the outer struggle proceeds from victory in the inner one.
These are no longer strange ideas to Americans after a half-century of Asian martial arts seeping gradually into our folk culture. But they bear repeating nevertheless, lest we forget that the inward way of the warrior is more than a trope for cheesy movies. That cliche functions because there is a powerful truth behind it. It’s a truth I’m reminded of every class, and the reason I keep going back.
Though…I might keep going back for the effect on Cathy. She is thriving in this art in a way she hasn’t under any of the others we’ve studied together. She’s more fit and muscular than she’s ever been in her life – I can feel it when I hold her, and she complains good-naturedly that the new muscle mass is making her clothes fit badly. There are much worse problems for a woman over fifty to have, and we both know that the training is a significant part of the reason people tend to underestimate her age by a helluvalot.
Sifu calls her “the Assassin”. I’m “the Mighty Oak”. Well, it fits; I lack physical flexibility and agility, but I also shrug off hits that would stagger most other people and I punch like a jackhammer when I need to. The contrast between my agile, fluid, fast-on-the-uptake mental style and my physical predisposition to fight like a monster slugger amuses me more than a little. Both are themselves surprising in a man over fifty. The training, I think, is helping me not to slow down.
I have lots of other good reasons that I expect to be training in a martial art until I die, but a sufficient one is this: staying active and challenged, on both physical and mental levels, seems to stave off the degenerative effects of aging as well as anything else humans know how to do. Even though I’m biologically rather younger than my calendar age (thank you, good genes!), I am reaching the span of years at which physical and mental senescence is something I have to be concerned about even though I can’t yet detect any signs of either. And most other forms of exercise bore the shit out of me.
So: another five levels to Guro. Two, perhaps two and half years. The journey doesn’t end there, of course; there are more master levels in kali. The kuntao training doesn’t take us all the way up the traditional-wing-chun skill ladder; I’ll probably do that. Much of the point will be that the skills are fun and valuable in themselves. Part of the point will be having a destination, rather than stopping and waiting to die. Anti-senescence strategy.
It’s of a piece with the fact that I try to learn at least one major technical skill every year, and am shipping software releases almost every week (new project yesterday!) at an age when a lot of engineers would be resting on their laurels. It’s not just that I love my work, it’s that I believe ossifying is a long step towards death and – lacking the biological invincibility of youth – I feel I have to actively seek out ways to keep my brain limber.
My other recreational choices are conditioned by this as well. Strategy gaming is great for it – new games requiring new thought patterns coming out every month. New mountains to climb, always.
I have a hope no previous generation could – that if I can stave off senescence long enough I’ll live to take advantage of serious life-extension technology. When I first started tracking progress in this area thirty years ago my evaluation was that I was right smack on the dividing age for this – people a few years younger than me would almost certainly live to see that, and people a few years older almost certainly would not. Today, with lots of progress and the first clinical trials of antisenescence drugs soon to begin, that still seems to me to be exactly the case.
Lots of bad luck could intervene. There could be a time-bomb in my genes – cancer, heart disease, stroke. That’s no reason not to maximize my odds. Halfway up the mountain; if I keep climbing, the reward could be much more than a few years of healthspan, it could be time to do everything.