Tai Chi in the Time of Covid-19

Hello, Friends.  Hope you are all keeping well in these trying times.  I was talking to a former student of mine from my days as a university professor.  She is now a senior person in a big cheese engineering firm, working on many of their “green projects”.  Her team actually won first prize in the “Best Environmentally Designed School” a few years ago.

Like many, she is working from home nowadays. I called her up and asked her how she was doing.  Never one to mince words she said, “I have three kids under the age of 7 keeping me company all day.  How do you think it is going???”

Okay, I get it.  Trying to be a 21st Century professional in a high tech company with the life of a 1940s homemaker…it’s like trying to blend oil and water.  But, I know she will make the necessary adjustments and come through with flying colours.

I’m sure many are finding themselves in a similar situation.  “Working from home” is HARD.  It is, as a friend from long ago said, “like swimming through fudge”.  It can be done but it IS work.

For those who are able – or wanting – to take a break during the work day at home, I include the following video.  It is of the Tai Chi adept, Gao Jiamin, doing a basic tai chi pattern involving, essentially, only 10 elements.  This video is actually quite well-known in tai chi circles.  You just have to go to YouTube and search for “tai chi pink lady” and a number of her videos will pop up.  I think this “10 Element Form” is one of the best ones.

For starters, there aren’t that many techniques – just 10, as I said.  Second, she does it with such fluid grace, even a complete novice can’t help but do a pretty close approximation the very first time just by following her in a relaxed way.

When we were kids being taught the intricacies of internal arts like tai chi, we would be shown the moves to be taught that day and be asked to emulate them to the best of our ability.  There’s nothing magical to learning tai chi: you just have to try.  You don’t even have to try hard: just relax and follow along.

That’s what you should do while learning from Sifu Gao.  Just follow along to the best of your ability.  If you get lost, just stop and watch the rest of the pattern.  Then repeat the process a couple more times in the hopes of learning a little more each time.

Try to learn at least one move per session.  You will notice there are left and right versions of the moves here.  Even if you learn just, say, going left in one move…that’s perfectly okay.  Learn going to the right another day.

If you don’t get very far, don’t fret.  Just repeat what you can do one or two more times that day and then get on with the rest of your day.  Come back tomorrow or the day after to try again.  Little by little, piece by piece, layer by layer, you will get it.  The key to success is not natural skill, athletic ability or anything of the sort.  The secret is to just keep at it, at a pace that suits you such that you feel good after every session.

Let’s say a session is about 10-15 minutes.  It takes a few minutes to watch the video.  Then a couple more to zero in on the move you want to learn that session.  And then another 2or 3 minutes at the end to watch the video again.  Watch, Do, Repeat.  Easy, peasy.

The goal is not to LEARN the pattern.  Rather the objective is just to DO the pattern.  You will find that, in time, just by following along you will have unconsciously learned how to do the entire FORM without forcing yourself.

One advantage of practising at home is that there is zero pressure in trying to keep up with the rest of the class.  You ARE the class.

So, here is the Yang Style 10 Form as presented by Ms. Gao Jiamin, the Pink Lady.  Enjoy.

Many thanks to Robert C. Martin for this video.

Raus! Raus!

I am being “investigated”.  You see, after nearly a quarter century of having a small acreage in the local county, we were annexed by the neighbouring town.  The majority of we county types were not interested in being assimilated but somehow the town politicians convinced provinical (i.e. state) authorities this would be a good thing.  I suppose for them it was a good deal: more land, more taxes.

As a consequence of now going from being designated “rural” to “urban”, apparently some souls saw fit to lodge a complaint about our natural grassy field that fronts our acreage.  Essentially, our former field of wavy grass is now considered an unmowed lawn and in contravention of community (i.e. town) standards.  SPQR.

While pondering how best to address the complaint – after all, the lives of many, many butterflies, other pollinating insects and migrating birds passing through as well as the preservation of precious, rare and healthy green space need to be considered – it turns out one of the community by-law officers began checking me out on social media and the Web in general.

I suppose it is flattering to be scouted out as one might a suspected criminal or a known but unindicted criminal like Donald Trump but I DO find it a little creepy.  It’s all very legal to look someone up on the internet, of course, but if it is not done in a truly friendly way, one can’t help feeling a bit creeped out.  As an attorney friend said, it is borderline stalking.

“Today, we take care of people with grassy fields.  Tomorrow, we burn the books and issue security cards to keep track of everyone’s comings and goings.”  Of course, they’ve burned books in the past – as in the disturbing re-enactment of such behaviour in Nazi Germany in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” above.  And THEY already have assigned electronic tracking of people’s doings via personal i.d. cards.  This is the so-called “social credit” system implemented in mainland China…and in the West, it is called your credit card…or your bank card.

We delude ourselves into thinking we are free.  We are not, of course, but we think that if we try not to make trouble and leave other people alone then others will do the same in kind.  It is a good dream but it is only a dream.

Someone sooner or later will be cheesed off by the length of your grassy field, your skin colour, your gentle religious beliefs, the type of dog you own, or the simple fact that your breathe the same air they do.  It is, as Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Rosannadanna used to say, “always something.”

That is why the martial disciplines of the East – those that came out of Emei and Shaolin as well as from secular people like the Hakka and so forth – came to be.  They weren’t developed just to make us stronger or fighters of the good fight.  And certainly not so that some adept could make big dough being called Sifu or Sensei and teaching the (often) undeserving and (frequently) unthinking.

No.  They were developed, ultimately, so that good people could be…FREE.  Free to live in peace, free to be themselves and not be bugged by some arbitrary community standards.  Such freedom is a great, great gift.  Hard won and incredibly valuable.  Most people don’t see this and that’s why we as a species are in the Pickle we are in.

And, that is why they burden themselves with make work such as sticking their noses in other people’s business.  Such people are not just busy bodies like the farcical Alice Kravitz the Nosy Neighbour from the old “Bewitched” show.  They may be harmless initially but if left unchecked they can shake the very fabric of a truly decent society.  America is experiencing a societal earthquake because, through the confluence of a number of seemingly minor events, a profiteering bigot, misogynist, and not so small time sociopath has been elected their president.

It could easily happen to any of us.  Dull-witted but wily and manipulative autocrats abound.  They could make themselves felt in anywhere.  It could happen in Italy, France, Germany, the UK or even the so-called birthplace of western democracy, Greece.  What?  Oh…okay.  A day late and a dollar short, am I?  My bad.

By the way, given Greece’s location, I think an argument can be made that it is the EASTERN birthplace of democracy.  That leaves the West’s greatest invention to be…Velcro?  (The foregoing is, to those who are not so innocently spying on me and hence do not know me very well, is called ‘a joke’.)

What is not a joke is this:  For those who are serious about training – I mean REALLY serious: Remember that, whether you know it or not, you do it to be FREE.  You do it to cultivate freedom not just for yourself and loved ones but for everyone.  For the Weak and Innocent.  We hone ourselves to we elevate ourselves.  So that we evolve positively while not trying to screw up the planet too badly.

I realize this is a tall order.  Many lack the ability to do so.  Many more simply lack the will.  No one said it was easy.  But there is really no alternative.  If you sit on your butts and do nothing they will come for your garden..or your books…or you.

So…train hard.  Be brave.  Sail on.

Peace and blessings.

“Sticky Hands” with the Master

The standard spiel given to novices to the Chinese “internal” styles of martial practise is that there are three main disciplines:  Tai Chi, Ba Gua Zhang (Eight Trigrams Palm), and  Xing Yi Quan (Form-Mind Boxing aka Mind-Body Boxing).  To these three I would also add Wing Chun Kuen – Eternal Spring Boxing – so named because one of this discipline’s progenitors was a woman named Yim Wing Chun (Ms. “Eternal Spring” of the Yim clan).

Before some get their girdles tied up in knots, I am speaking very broadly here.  I have mixed Mandarin terms with Cantonese terms and I have glossed over the nearly interminable discussions of the origins of Wing Chun and it’s namesake.  So sue me.

The point is, IS that Wing Chun the discipline DOES have an internal aspect.  It is not all the “bang bang boom boom” thumping external martial approach I was exposed to – rather unceremoniously – back in the 1960s.  Perhaps no other exponent of this internal style of Wing Chun is the late master Chu Shong Tin (1933-2014) who spent most of his life honing and advancing his internal Wing Chun in cosmopolitan Hong Kong.

Back in the 1970s, there came into Master Chu’s studio the young American, Marty Anderson.  Not only was Marty the first American to be taught by Master Chu he was the first non-Chinese period to be allowed to receive the teachings.  For this, Master Chu sought the permission of HIS master, the redoubtable Yip (or Ip) Man, currently “enjoying” fame in a series of movies about his life exploits.

It has been, of course, many years since the 1970s.  Master Chu has crossed the Great Bridge and Marty has, well, aged – as all of us from that time have.  However, Marty’s memory and other mental faculties remain sharp.  He has a clear and stable recollection of those days with Master Chu.

Wing Chun is a relatively uncomplicated system as martial disciplines go.  It does not have endless kata (solo practise forms) like many Japanese and Korean styles.  It does not have endless varieties of weapons to master like some of the more Byzantine Chinese forms.  Wing Chun has only three empty hand forms, two weapons forms, and a self-training method using a wooden target dummy.

Oh yes…it also has a paired partner practise called Chi Sau (also Chi Sao) which is usually translated as “Sticky Hands”.  Short of full out sparring, Chi Sau is the sine qua non of learning applied Wing Chun: how to deal with an opponent’s attack while remaining sensitive, supple, strong, and alert to opening counters of your own.

Of the many videos on YouTube of Master Chu teaching or actually doing Chi Sau, I would say most are instructive up to a point.  That point being “Yes, but what is the ESSENCE of Chi Sau?”  Typically, the viewer sees hands moving up and down, left and right, back and forth in an effort to stymie the attempts of the opponent to reach the defender.  It is a sort of martial game in which you use your hands to keep your opponent from reaching your body, including your head and neck.

When performed by experienced practitioners, Chi Sau is done blindingly fast.  The novice or outsider has has a hard time figuring out what is going on.  Even for those of us who have experience doing something similar – as in push hands practise of Tai Chi – Chi Sau can be bit of a mystery.  Watching endless flurries of hand movements tells more about the actors than the discipline itself.

Marty commiserated with my dissatisfaction with these “Hey, Ma, look what I can do!” and “THIS is how Chi Sau is done, young Padawan” sorts of videos.  After some prompting from me, he found a video that he thought captured the essence of Chi Sau:

It shows Master Chu doing Chi Sau with a slight woman named Kitty Tam in the studio.  He is going slowly and gently enough that even the casual observer can get a sense of what is going on.  It is also clear Ms. Tam is sincerely working at getting through the Master’s hand defences.  She goes this way, he goes that way.  She moves to enter from the right, he redirects.  She reverses, he does something else.

In the early part of the video, he is even watching a movie on the tv as he holds her at bay.  I don’t think he was deliberately showing off or being rude – all I’ve been able to find out about him is that he was kind, gentle, and polite.  I think he just really wanted to see how the movie was going.

When he does return to the task at hand, you can see the joy in his face as he plays Chi Sau with his distaff partner.  (Don’t forge: Wing Chun was a woman.)  He is able to get between Ms. Tam’s hands and touch her at will.  Temple, face, neck, shoulders, even the back of the shoulders from time to time.  In contrast, Ms. Tam is working hard just to meet the Master halfway.

Master Chu laughs gleefully, without derision, as Ms. Tam speeds up her action.  At about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark she sends a flurry of punches into the mix of hands hoping to overwhelm the Master’s defensive shield.  She is rebuffed, deflected, bounced back, tied up, twisted this way and that – she does not get through.  Meanwhile, Master Chu is counting coup on Ms. Tam’s face and shoulders seemingly at will.  So much for “a good offence is the best defence”.  Ms. Tam’s offensive maneuvers are not getting through nor are they keeping his hands at bay.   All the while, the Master is having the time of his life.

“It was the same way he played Chi Sau with me,” Marty says.  “You just couldn’t get through.  Maybe I got through once or twice in all the hundreds of times I did Chi Sau with him but Chu Shong Tin was virtually unstoppable.  He was a juggernaut.”

I should point out at this juncture that Marty Anderson is no Wing Chun slouch himself.  The Wing Chun adept John Kaufman recounts that Marty once threw him across a room when THEY did Chi Sau.  I can only guess what it was like when Marty engaged Master Chu.  Some sort of titanomachy, I dare say.  Hulk versus Godzilla, if one wanted to use 1960s teen male metaphors.

The point, for me, is not that Master Chu was THE standard of how to CHI SAU in an internal way.  The impressive point is that he enjoyed it so much and that he gave that joy to whoever he touched hands with.  The delight was clearly radiating from him when he was confronted with a determined adversary – whether it was a small woman like Kitty Tam or a much bigger ex-Special Forces man like Marty Anderson.  It was all the same to Chu Shong Tin: another opportunity to manifest the art of Wing Chun in its myriad – and affirming – ways.  It was done without malice; with sincerity, respect and goodness of heart.

As a Visitor to the realm of Wing Chun, I would say Chu Shong Tin exemplified his accomplishments in an expansive, grand way.  Hence, he was not only a master but a truly grand master.  Which, of course, is what people call him.




Today, I had to let two people go from tai chi class.  They were an older couple (one 79, the other 80) and, on the surface, pleasant people.  However, both are badly out of shape and cannot do many of the simple movements of the “introductory tai chi” phase.  Obviously, if you cannot do the basic work you are not going to be able to handle the intricacies of intermediate practise much less advanced practise.

Physical limitation was not the prime reason for dismissing them however.  The main reason was that beneath their outwardly pleasant demeanors were spirits of hubris – or even arrogance.  One bone of contention was that I asked them to keep a running log of their at-home practise – an idea which they thought was a waste of time.

This was not simply a make work exercise to keep their interest up.  It was to see if they would make the effort to actually reflect upon and record their practise.  Students who do this typically find out two things.  First, when they pay attention to what they are doing, they quickly realize what they THINK they are doing and what they are ACTUALLY doing are two different things.  This leads to other revelations which sum up to the somewhat startling revelation that they are nowhere near as capable as they think.

Of course, in the old days, notes were typically not required.  This is because we had supervised practised three or four times a week.   The teachers could be rather severe, often saying things like “Your movement is no good” or more succinctly “YOU are no good”.  Try saying that now in any sort of class and you (more accurately…”I”) could end up in trouble.

Anyway, I tried to explain the importance of keeping good notes so that we could work together on having them move forward efficiently and effectively.  What I got back was:  “We’re too busy to write things down” and “No, I don’t want to do that.”

So, faced with the reality of two stubborn old people not wanting to help themselves – or more to the point – have them bumble about doing what they “think” is tai chi whether it is or not, I was presented with bit of a dilemma.  I decided that I could not let them just forge ahead in practising badly.  Good tai chi is wonderful.   Incorrect tai chi is, at best, worthless and, if it is very badly embraced,  may even cause problems in people with health problems or the elderly.

I did not want to be a part of that and told them as such.  They remained adamant in saying keeping track of their practise was a waste of time because they “had too much to do.”  So, I told them:  “Then there is nothing I can do for you.  You can find other tai chi classes in town.”  And I gave them one recommendation.

I’m not sure if I did the teacher of that other group any favours.  But that’s really out of my hands.  My immediate concern was can I give this old couple good and useful (i.e. health nurturing) training if they were intent on not listening?  My conclusion was: No.

Perhaps their view was “We made it to ripe old ages so we are not going to change now.”  If so, then – as we say – they came to the teahouse with their tea cups already filled.

The irony of all this is that they are retired teachers.   What would they think of students who did not follow instructions and were unwilling to follow tried and true methods of progressing steadily, completely and at a good pace?   I did not get a chance to ask them because they were out the door so fast after I told them I could not help if they were unwilling to be taught.

If anything, they seemed relieved they were dismissed.  I suspect they were already souring on the way traditional tai chi was practised.   For all I know, perhaps they not-so-unconsciously wanted to stop class but could not figure out a way to do it.

One of the senior students said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”  Another said, “They were going to be unteachable at some point because they were unwilling to listen, even to a teacher who has travelled the Path for many decades.”

The comment of the first student is a bit harsh it seems to me.  The old couple COULD have made steady progress and benefitted greatly IF they were willing to get with the program.  But the second student was right on the mark:  You cannot teach people if they really do not want to be taught.

I think it is too bad the old couple was so mulish but better to have them leave now than later.  It would’ve been a significant – and fruitless – grind teaching people so full of themselves.

The sobering point to all this though is that my brothers and sisters in tai chi – as well as in art, music, dance and other disciplines – see more of this happening all the time.  “You can’t tell me what to do because I know what is best for me.  Just because you are the teacher doesn’t mean anything.”

Uh…unfortunately being the teacher DOES mean something.  That’s why we are called teachers  But, if even former teachers are unwilling to acknowledge this then contemporary society is in a real pickle.

Oh well.  Maybe it is time to get back to the Ship and remain in stasis until She determines it is safe for us to come back out again.  Homo sapiens may have wiped itself by then and been replaced by a more open, less tight-sphinctered species.  One can only hope.  Maybe it will be a line descended from Dolphins, or the felids or canids, or Parrots.  Anything seems preferable to something from the genus Homo.

But what do I know?  I’m just a teacher…from far away.  Far, far away.


Year of the Dog 4617

Belated Happy Lunar New Year, Everyone.  According to the Chinese calendar it is the year 4617 – Year of the Dog.  Earth Dog, actually, as opposed to Fire Dog, Water Dog, and so on but I will leave that for another time.  Of course, the happy Malamute above is a Snow Dog but snow doesn’t figure into the reckoning of the Chinese calendar.

Malamutes figure into MY calendar, however, because big dogs have been totems in our family for generations.  Big dogs…AND Cats, big and small.

The Malamute above is from the Polaris Alaskan Malamute Rescue group of Colorado.

More to come later I hope.  Right now, we still have to contend with an old time winter here.  Even hardened, long time prairie types are looking forward to Spring.  They brighten when I tell them that today (March 1) is actually the beginning of meteorological Spring….

Safe and fruitful practise, Everyone.

Star Wars: A celebration of reality

I hope everyone had a good Easter 2017.  Even for me and others who are not observant of any particular religious orthodoxy, Easter time has always meant the loosening of the hold of Winter and the coming of Spring – the beginning of greener, gentler, more expansive times.

During this Easter weekend past, the genie of the YouTube search engine suggested numerous videos of the recent Star Wars Celebration 2017 in Orlando, Florida.  There are hours and hours of panel interviews, special guests, behind the scenes looks at past and upcoming productions, tributes to Carrie Fisher and Kenny Baker, and so on.  It was really like a compressed undergraduate degree on the Star Wars phenomenon, the Star Wars universe and, I daresay, the Star Wars reality.

As YouTube streamed the activities, it occurred to me there were probably more people in attendance in Orlando than there were at either the Democratic or Republican national conventions in the U.S. of the summer before.  Perhaps more than both those political events combined.

Why not?  The Star Wars universe created by George Lucas and those who have come after him is one of hope, vision, and the triumph (usually) of good over evil.  It is one where there is acknowledgement of some “Force” greater than ourselves and yet is the stuff from which binds us together.  Indeed, it is the stuff from which we are made and from which we return to ultimately.

Far different from the “reality” that is spun out by the political heads in Washington, Moscow, London, Paris.  Perhaps less so in Berlin, Edinburgh or Ottawa.  Perhaps.

I can understand why the average person prefers the Lucas universe over the prosaic one we wake up to every day.  Though the Star Wars universe is full of bad guys and great terrors – like here – it is also filled with acts of honour, courage, sacrifice; heroes and heroines to balance the misguided and the purely evil.  It is, in essence, what most of us think reality should be: not this chaotic mishmash of flim-flam men (and women) and their unthinking, fear- and hate-filled minions.

Years ago, Big Boy Lim was rubbing his calves after a strenuous practise.  Master Yuen came over to him quickly and said, “Big Boy!  Don’t do that.  If your legs are cramping up just jiggle them gently and they will loosen up.  NEVER squeeze a muscle that is cramping.”

(Years later, exercise physiologists discovered that such ‘massaging’ can cause the lactic acid build-up in a cramp to damage the very muscle fibres we hope to uncramp.  Pressing toxins into fatigued flesh is not the way to go.  The old Masters knew it and now modern science knows it too.)

Big Boy, being a young hip kid born in a new land far from the ancient birthplace of our forebears, blithely replied:  “That’s all right, Sifu.  If I accidentally hurt myself we have free health care here.  I can just go to Emergency and they’ll fix me up.”

Master Yuen turned back to Big Boy and came up very close to him as if inspecting a dent in a newly painted door.  “What did you say?”

Quietly, Big Boy repeated himself:  “We have free health care.  Someone will take care of me if I accidentally injure myself.”

The Master was very quiet for a few heartbeats then said:  “Listen.  I was born at the end of the Empire.  Then came the warlords and infighting.  Then the fledgling Republic was formed before that dream ended, essentially, with Sun Yat-Sen’s death.  Then came more infighting, including the war between the Nationalists and the Communists.  There was also the war with the Japanese – who said they were there to establish a golden hegemony of a Great Asian State but really were just plunderers and murderers like the rest.

“The Allies came after that and, in time, beat the Japanese but then left so that the Communists rose to power with little in the way of challengers.  And, as you know, Mao is crazy.

“So what I am telling you is this:  Governments come and go.  Some are good.  Most are bad.  They all promise the same things and very few deliver on even a fraction of their promises.  Yes, we are in a new country now.  But the politicians sound much like the imperialists, the warlords, the democratic types, and the oppressors whether they are invaders or are homegrown.  In time, perhaps not soon, but in time the ones running this country will turn on its people as well.

“So we must prepare.  We train ourselves in these methods to make our bodies strong and our minds keen.  We must learn the new ways and do good.  And we must be on the watch for betrayal by the so-called leaders and the chaos and unhappiness that comes with such betrayal.  Do you understand me?  All we, the ordinary, good people, ever have is ourselves and each other.  If we forget this, we are doomed.  If we are slack-minded, we are doomed.  If we do not work at a better way, we are doomed.  As will be our families, our children, and grandchildren.  Assuming our lot is allowed to last that long.”

Then tapping pointedly on Big Boy’s chest with the fingers of one of his hardened and very large tiger-paw hands, he said:  “Do. You. Understand?”  Thump, thump, thump.

“Yes, Master.  I understand.”

“Then…do not forget.  Nor the rest of you either.”  Then he was gone out the door and into the night for some tea and possibly an apple tart.

Big Boy looked at the rest of us, held his arms up as he shrugged and blew his cheeks to let out air.  “Sheesh,” he said.

The Labour Party.  The Democrats.  The Conservatives.  The Liberals.  The People’s Party. The NEW Democrats.  The Republic.  The Empire.  The First Order.  …Only “the people” have worth, the Master said.  Ordinary people who just want an untroubled place to be and have a family.  To be among good friends.  And, the stars willing, to build a better future so that the world after us is better than the one we are in.

So…I get the Star Wars phenomenon.  It is about the hope for a better tomorrow.  Yes, yes.  We all get that it is “fake”.  That there are no Jedi knights, princesses, droids and Wookies…as presented.  But there IS a dark side to things and we must learn to deal with it.  Recognize it and fight it.

How?  Through the Force.  Call it chi or prana or aiki or nim lik or flow or whatever flavour or variation of this Greater Cosmic Stuff you choose.  Find it, nurture it – hopefully with teachers, mentors, and elders who are good, strong, and wise.  Use it to help the weak and innocent.  BE that Jedi knight.  BECOME that hero or heroine.

And, of course: May IT be with you.




Beyond the Internal Arts


I-Team: Dogs Used For Medical Research May Never Go Outside

I regularly tell my students that becoming proficient in the internal arts is just the beginning of the Journey.  “Help the weak and the innocent,” I tell them.  Almost none of them ever do.  They choose instead to lead self-involved lives with little if any capacity to extend to – to help – others.  Frankly, I find them largely to be…small-minded, thick-witted, and minimally sympathetic to others.  They lack lyricism and seem to have no interest in most of the higher human qualities of compassion and moral action.

The teaching goes on, however, in the hopes that SOMEONE will be influenced by what I learned from my own teachers as well as from other teachers – and of their teachers before them.  It just takes one good person to offset the depradations of many undesirable ones.

The lowest of the Hells, to paraphrase Dante, is reserved for those who could have acted but did not.  I would go even further to say that the deepest of that particular level is for those who would have only have done very little to make a big change but did not.

Perhaps it is in the DNA of most to be so lacking.  In the segment after the animal abuse report on W5 (a Canadian version of CBS’ 60 Minutes, often better) they ran a segment on hockey violence.  So…how can you expect a species to limit much less stop cruelty and abuse to other species when needless violence is inherent in its “recreational” games and entertainment?

My answer is the one Grandma used to level on us when we were being callow little boys decades ago:  “That may be an explanation but it’s no excuse.”

Watch the W5 segment, read the CBS Boston article on beagles used for experiments.  Then go out and do something positive.  If you are already helping then continue to fight the good fight.  Blessings be upon you.




The Gung Fu of Matthieu Ricard


The scientist turned Tibetan monk, Matthieu Ricard, has very powerful gung fu.  Gung fu, that is, in its grandest sense: “refined technique achieved through sheer work”.  His gung fu is the gung fu of being a good human being and of teaching others how to cultivate our higher human qualities as well.

Watching this video is a welcome and refreshing change when so much news from out in the World centres around someone who, at best, is a master manipulator and narcissist.  Or, at worst, a dangerous, self-absorbed lunatic.  Certainly, THAT person is not following the path that Master Ricard advocates.

For one thing, Master Ricard pooh-poohs the worth of being self-referential and of advancing our parochial interests at the expense of those around us.  For another, just watching Master Ricard while listening to his lightly accented English, one is struck by the gentle yet strong humanity he radiates.  A far cry from someone who advocates a medieval adversarial approach, who whispers into our ears that the boogeyman can be kept at bay with walls, immigration police, and jingoistic chants.

Well, enough of THAT guy.  Sit back and enjoy the presentation about a grand approach.  Powerful tai chi…”pow-er-ful strong” as the Grandpa Walton might have said.

Happy viewing.

Year of the Fire Rooster


“Gung Hay Fat Choy” goes the Lunar New Year greeting in Cantonese.  “Felicitations and Prosperity.”  By my reckoning…using college notes from long ago…it is the year 4714.  Of course, after so many thousands of years, there might a year gained or lost here and there.

For other cultures, even more time has passed.  By some Hindu reckonings it is 5119.  In the Hebrew calendar it is 5777.  Long, long times.

In just the past few days, we have had a murderous nutcase kill Canadian Muslims at prayer in a mosque in Quebec City, an acting Attorney General fired from her post by the new American “president”, and the usual assortment of murders, fatalities, and the like reported in the regional news.  Not exactly an auspicious start to the New Year.  Shadows large and small seem to be falling upon us from all directions.

At such times I’m reminded of something Master Yuen once said.  He was admonishing Big Boy Lim for being inattentive but his comment is appropriate here as well:

“I remember the last days of the Empire.  Then came the lawlessness of the warlords.  Then there was the rise of the Republic.  Then there was strife between them and the Communists.  They all promised the populace this and that – prosperity, education, health, safety.  Meh.  Governments come and go.  ‘Great and fearless’ leaders and their cronies, too.  None are to be relied upon.

“So practise well.  Remember what you learn here.  These lessons will never let you down.  Treasure them and they will serve in all the years to come.  Ignore them or let them go fallow at your own risk.  Value them, polish them and they will shine upon you always.”

Yes, polish our avocations.  Whether it is tai chi, aikido, yoga or wing chun, sculpting or sketching, gardening or baking, singing or writing…polish away.  Hone the positive arts.  Banish the shadows.

It may not seem like much, this tending to our own little bailiwicks, but it adds up eventually.  There is not too much the average man or woman can do about the rest.  Emperors and promises come and go.  We have no control over them.  The truly wise probably would not even bother with such abstractions, truth be told.

So, perhaps this the best way to begin the New Year: with baby steps.  Not just this year but every year.  Not just today but every day.

By the way, some “modernist” speakers of Chinese (i.e. Mandarin types) pooh-pooh the phrase “Gung Hay Fat Choy”.  They say it is from an older, imperialist era that only a small group of people would recognize.  And find insulting.

Perhaps for these younger types it is true but for those of us of that “small group” (I think the writer was referring to traditional Cantonese), I’m not aware of any who are offended by the phrase.  For those who don’t know, there is a move afoot in certain circles to extinguish the influence of Cantonese in matters Chinese.  It is a peculiar form of internal genocide which some of us find repugnant.

But we will save that discussion for another time.  The Year of the Rooster is just newly hatched.  Opportunities await.  Work away at our own skills, culture our strengths, and wait for the appropriate times to apply them – to help the weak and innocent.  That was Master Yuen’s message to us back then.

In the meantime, by all means “gung hay” to one and all.  Blessings and wishes for “fat choy” as well.  While we’re at it, in remembrance of our good family physician Dr. Victor Hertzman:  Mazel Tov!







Kung Fu of Carrie Fisher


Christmas 2016 – 27 Dec

There used to be a joke going around in my Lab when the senior students (mostly women) would ask the question:  “What were you doing in the year…?”  It was their way of finding out about each and also their feeble attempt to use The Force to find out something about me.

Their answers would be on the order of:  “That was the year of my first serious boyfriend.”  Or:  “That was the year I learned to drive.”  Or:  “That was the year I discovered that Santa Claus was really my dad dressed up in a red suit.”  There were other revelations of a more personal nature but they need not concern us here.

After they had finished interrogating each other, I could sense them colluding to get me to reveal something about myself.  But they would inevitably fail. “What were you doing five years ago?”  “I was in university…teaching.  Just like now.”

“What were you doing in 2000?”  Teaching.  Just like now.

“What about 1995?”  Teaching.  Just like now.

“1990?”  Teaching.  Just like now.

“What about…1980?”  Teaching just like now.

Me, countering:  “What were you guys doing?”  They would respond with something like:  “We don’t know.  We were still in diapers.”  It dawned on them that it was not that enjoyable a game because, apparently, I had always been a professor, teaching and doing research.  ALWAYS is not a concept bright, young people – especially high achieving women – are all that comfortable with.  Their minds are more attracted to NEVER (as in THIS has never been studied before) or NEW (as in THIS is novel stuff we are researching).  Established things – whether it be ideas, customs, boyfriends or girlfriends – were not that appealing.

Such is the nature of having shining, young minds.  The universe was not something to be appreciated passively; it was something to explore, to make better.

As the years went by, as the generations of shining minds succeeded one another, the Game became even more challenging to them but less challenging to me.  Their span of experience was inversely proportional to my own as the generations of students came and went.  I stopped being a source of mystery or teasing and became a fount of knowledge of a time they would never know.  I was… reference material, possessed of information that not even some of their grandparents had.

In one of the last times the then-current squad tried to wheedle something private out of me they asked me what 1977 was like.  That particular squad of interrogators either had not been born or were just born then, so it was part nosiness and part genuine curiousity about what actually went on that year.

I talked about a few subjects.  Who the pope was (Paul VI if memory serves).  Who the presidents were (Gerald Ford for a bit then Jimmy Carter).  Pop musicians (Electric Light Orchestra, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller, Bob Seger, et. al.).  So on and so forth.

And, of course,… “I was teaching at university and doing research.”   Then I added:  “I also saw STAR WARS 17 times.”

They asked me why I did that.  “Because there wasn’t really much that was really memorable out in the world that was all that hopeful.  STAR WARS was full of energy, of action, of hope.  Of good guys versus bad guys as opposed to most films of that time full of anti-heroes and supposed gritty truth.  It was…entertaining…and yet it struck a resonant chord in all of us.  It was mythology, showbiz, and prognostication all in one.  ”

They looked at me blankly.  “You have to remember it was brand new.  Nothing like that had been seen or heard before: big screen, big music, big sound.  It was fantastic.  When that hardy little Rebellion ship tried to escape that huge Imperial cruiser in the opening sequence, we were hooked.”

“Did you have a crush on Princess Leia?” they asked.  The snoop factor was acting up again.

“No, actually I didn’t.  By then, I was dealing with the world of real girls.”

“Oh, right,” they said, rolling their eyes.  “Teaching and doing research, too.”

“Right.  But she was certainly a feisty cookie as we used to say.  She held her own with Luke and Solo.  I suspected even Chewbacca was a little timid around her.”

“But she wasn’t the first tough cookie I’d seen.  There had been Honey West on tv.  Sue Storm, Saturn Girl, Lois Lane, Marvel Girl in the comics.  And, of course, Pussy Galore in the Bond movies.”

More knowing looks and eye rolling.

“Princess Leia was a continuation of that line.  But, because the movie was such a phenomenon, so was she.  I imagine she was empowering and more than bit of a role model to a certain generation of young women, young people.”

This distracted the questioners a bit.  They talked about how the iconic Princess may or may not have influenced popular culture; how she might have subconsciously influenced them.  They agreed the character did have a positive effect somehow during development.

I interjected by saying:  “Frankly, even more interesting than the Princess is Carrie Fisher herself.  She had, as the Bard says, taken up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing…ended them.  You guys should read some of her writing or see some of the movies she has helped write.  She is a very shining literary mind.  She has taken more than her share of hits yet her wit is perceptive, sharp, clever, inventive.  Her humour and honesty come from, I think, a strong core.  And I don’t mean the exercise kind.  The kind that comes about from taking hits, learning from them, picking herself up and moving on.”

“If anything, Carrie Fisher is the true heroine.  For one thing, she faced real odds and had real trials.  And she wasn’t armed with a light sabre or any of that futuristic jazz.  She had real gung fu, as the old masters say.”

I’m sure that conversation made an impression on the questioners that day.  I can remember how thoughtful they were after I said my words.  They eventually went on to become healers, teachers, builders, leaders.  And, being mothers and all now, they having and leading a generation of heroines and heroes.

I’m not saying that one little talk was the tipping point.  Or that Carrie Fisher was the sole light they steered by.  But I am saying that conversation about the talented and brave Ms. Fisher did go somewhere and it did resonate with them.  We are the sum of what we take in – and more.  If we take in enough good, we are often better than what we might have been alone.

It’s closing in on 40 years since Ms. Fisher played the archetypal Princess Leia.  Who knows how many people that character inspired?  But the royal spirit was Carrie Fisher herself.  Her and the women in the generations since then who had galaxies of their own to explore and, if need be, to create.

So, thank you, Ms. Fisher, on this day.  You helped light the way for many – in that princess you played, in your writings, in the life you lived.

I saw her not so long ago on some late night show (I think it was Colbert).  She was witty and lively.  She had a companion dog with her.  She looked like she was in a good place.  Who knew what would happen before year’s end?

No one knows such things.  Not space princesses.  Not their doughty little droids. Not tv personalities.  Certainly not real people like Carrie Fisher.  I doubt if she would have done things much differently had she known.  Why?  Because her gung fu was strong.  Good night and Godspeed, Ms. Fisher.  Thank you.