Cedar Fire – San Diego County, 2003

In the quiet hours before dawn 13 years ago I got a call from my friend Sandra. She lives in the community just up the hill from us. She could see flames to the north. The weather was hot and dry – common here in the fall, and perfect for wildfires. As horse people living at the edges of open space we were especially wary. My equestrian friends know to keep our eyes open, fuel tanks full, trailer hooked up, and rig parked facing the way out. In a fire there might not even be time to turn around.

The fire came right to the edge of our neighborhood, and we had to evacuate. Twice. The first time it was with embers raining down on us. Emergency services were overwhelmed. There was no warning, no orders to evacuate. We figured it out when we saw the fire top the hill behind us. We never even heard sirens. There was no help on the way. I think this is one of the things that was so unsettling for everyone who went through that experience. We like to think we have systems in place that will keep us safe. Nope. Not in conditions like this. We are on our own, and we have to look out for each other.

This was back before smart phones with cameras. Nobody was posting “I’m safe” updates on Facebook. There was no live online map. We had TV (utterly useless because of stupid reporting – which is still the case today), AM news radio (the only really helpful thing) with their news ‘copter and listeners calling in updates, phones (sometimes), and each other.

Ultimately the Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres, destroyed over 2,500 homes and other buildings, and killed 14 people. [CDF Cedar Fire summary.] AND there were two other major fires in the county at the same time. If you want to learn more about the fires, see maps, etc. check out this CDF report:  The 2003 San Diego County Fire Siege – Fire Safety Review. According to that report, “… the Cedar fire was estimated to have consumed 5,000 acres per hour within a 40-hour period.”

During the rest of fall and winter that year every time it rained the air smelled like water thrown on a campfire. When the weather was dry and the wind blew there would be a gray haze of stale ash in the air. People and horses suffered respiratory issues. Flooding from water running off the bare soil was a problem.

It was scary and exhausting. We didn’t lose anything, but still … When the light is right this time of year, or the wind blows a certain way, I still get jumpy. Mention the fire to anyone who went through it and you’ll get stories. And they’ll get a knot in their gut. The memories are fresh and raw.

One fall evening the following year I was out in the horse pen with Eeyore, our little donkey. He was a sensitive soul described by his vet as “highly emotional.” He was trotting back and forth, glancing anxiously up the hill into our neighbor’s yard. I looked, expecting to spot a dog or coyote, but couldn’t see anything. Everything about Eeyore was saying “Look! Danger! We need to get out of here!” I finally understood what he was trying to get me to notice. Smoke! The neighbors were having a fire in their fireplace, and the smoke was hugging the ground and wafting between their trees. Poor Eeyore was sure it was happening all over again. I assured him things were OK, and that he was safe, but I knew where he was coming from.

A couple of weeks after the fire, when things calmed down and the flames were mostly out, I wrote about our experience. That was back before I had a blog. I posted it on my website, which I’ve since redone, removing the article. Here it is again, with a few [bits of new information] added:


The Cedar Fire, October 2003

Michael & Linda Eskin

(Written in early November, 2003.)

Now that things have calmed down a bit I can finally write up a summary of our fire adventure. I hope I got most of the facts right – between the chaos and the lack of sleep some parts are kinda fuzzy. Please forgive typos, etc. Things are still a mess here, so this was done in a hurry.

A photo of the El Cajon valley and surrounding mountains on Sunday evening – we did not take this photo, and do not know the source. If you have any information about it, please contact me, so that I can post proper attribution (or remove it, as the photographer sees fit):

El Cajon Valley, Crest on the Right - Cedar Fire 2003
El Cajon Valley, Sunday, October 26th, 2003
[We live near the right-hand edge of the photo, at the base of that burning hill. Just above us is the community of Crest, where my friend Sandra lives. It’s that bright spot that’s on fire. Her house was saved.]

Our Story

Sandra, a friend from Crest, woke us up with news of the fire on Sunday at 4:30 a.m. – she could see flames from her back window. We checked the news, and found it was quite a ways off. She got down here with her animal carrier and bolt cutters, while I fed, topped off water, and made sure our halters and lead ropes were on the gate. She and I took off in my truck and trailer to see what we could do.

Our Equids - Clementine, Sabrina, and Eeyore - Cedar Fire 2003
Wells Park in El Cajon, Monday Morning
[This was the morning after our first evacuation. These three were ours: Clementine, Sabrina, and Eeyore.]

We offered help to a few folks in Lakeside, but they were riding out ’cause their horses wouldn’t load. We saw them later – they got out OK. We also had to pass up a donkey in a field, whose owner had told the others there that it was mostly wild – they couldn’t even catch him. I heard later about a singed donkey, and I sure wish I’d at least given it a try – I’m pretty good with donkeys who “won’t load”. I don’t know if he’s the one who was injured, or not.

We heard Blossom Valley was on fire, and ended up taking two colts from there, as flames came down the hill across the road. Whoever handed them to us didn’t know them, just said they went together. They loaded pretty well, considering – the baby walked in, and the yearling took a little shoving and placing of feet, but it only took about 5 minutes. Since the Lakeside Rodeo Grounds were full (and very chaotic), we took them to my place, where we thought they’d be safe.

Brown's Castle (house) Before and After - Cedar Fire 2003

“Browns Castle,” [a locally-famous mansion] before and after the fire.

The smaller one unloaded in a huge leap, and landed right on Sandra, who now has a small, but very colorful hoofprint on her leg. Michael got it on video, of course. LOL I think it was the first time the colts had seen donkeys, ’cause they looked at ’em kinda funny, but didn’t get upset. In fact, the only thing that upset these guys, with all they’d been through, was after we finally got home, and I tried to fly-spray them. We were very lucky to have gotten colts (ungelded) who’d been worked with so well, and were so good-tempered. (The folks in the trailer ahead of us had gotten a very cantankerous pinto stud, with just a neck rope!)

An aside about what was happening County-wide … We’ve had no rain for 175+ days, on the heels of a long-term drought. We were in the midst of a Santa Ana, where dry (3-4% humidity) winds blow in from the desert. Prime fire weather. The general sense of the news reports was that there was no stopping this fire, and no help on the way, so you’re on your own. Don’t wait for announcements – no one is coming for you – just get out if you think you might be in danger. Entire neighborhoods were going up, with no fire equipment to be seen, and nothing ever mentioned in a news report. People were banding together to cut brush, put out spot fires, and save homes. When we got the colts home, and I called a few places to see where animals were being evacuated to, I was told they were so busy with the other areas that nothing was arranged in our area. Everything was stretched so thin there was just no way to deal with the magnitude of the situation.

We went up to Crest to check on Sandra’s horses, but things looked better up there than they did here, so we left them for the time being. At least she has a big pipe corral – ours is plastic fencing. Shortly after I got back down the hill, she called saying her area was being evacuated. I tried to get back up there, but just as the sheriffs were moving the barricades aside they got word it was coming up from Harbison Canyon, and made me turn back.

Two Colts from Blossom Valley - Cedar Fire 2003

Two Colts from Blossom Valley

On the way down the hill I picked up a horse, and the guy who’d been leading him. His friends were all riding down the side of La Cresta Road (long, steep road with no shoulders, and the only way out, at that point.) I kept his horse here until his friends arrived, just as it was getting dark. They rode / walked down to the high school, and warned us to get out, ’cause the fire was headed our way.

Meanwhile, Michael packed up his car with all of his instruments, and he got all the important paperwork together. We rounded up the cats, including a neighbor’s cat, and locked them in the house, just in case.

We fiddled for a while, discussing decision points and contingency plans, but when the fire crested the hill behind us we figured we’d better bail right now. I switched my computer off, grabbed the external drive where I back up my data. We shoved the four cats into two carriers – they don’t get along, but they’d have to figure it out. Michael loaded his car with instruments, paperwork, and, the cats. Flashlights, check… Cell phone… Horse feed and meds, cat food… We each threw a few days of clothes in our vehicles. We grabbed whatever food was handy. Water was already in my truck.

Michael with Eeyore & Clementine at the Boys' & Girls' Club - Cedar Fire 2003

Michael, After a Harrowing 36 Hours.
[This was in the fenced playground of the Boys’ & Girls’ Club in El Cajon]

Sabrina and Clementine went in the first trailer load – Eeyore declined our invitation to get in the trailer, so we left him for the second load. We headed to Wells Park, in the middle of urban El Cajon, because the smoke was so thick. Plus, it was getting dark, and we couldn’t figure out how to get into Granite Hills High School’s fields. Just as well, since it was packed with motor homes and horse trailers, and it looked like they might have to be evacuated next.

Michael called my parents, who live in Pacific Beach, and they came right out to help. So did our friend Mark. My mom and Michael watched Sabrina and Clementine (who were tied to trees, pawing and gnawing on bark), while my dad and I went back to get Eeyore and the colts.

Eeyore hadn’t wanted to go the first time, but now, with fire roaring down the hills behind us, a hot wind, and embers in the air, he rethought the situation. He’s usually hard to catch, and hates trailers, but this time he was waiting at the gate, and stuck his nose right in the halter. He and I ran to the trailer, and he got right in. His first time loading into the front stall (without Sabrina already in the trailer). He didn’t even flinch when I slammed the divider, and he waited quietly while we got the babies on-board. He was all but hollering “Drive, already!” Smart donkey. Difficult, but smart.

The bigger colt didn’t want to load. Can’t blame him … But it was getting downright scary, and my dad was starting to wonder if maybe we should just put him back in the pen and hope for the best. As a last resort, I got behind the colt (who was still calm, just not loading), and blasted him in the butt with water from the hose. (It was hot out, so it wasn’t like he was going to get chilled.) After about 20 seconds of indignation and dancing around, he jumped in the trailer, and we shut the doors.

Evacuated - At the Boys' & Girls' Club - Cedar Fire 2003

Safe Harbor at the Boys & Girls Club

At the park, after trying a few things, we ended up with everyone tied to they trailer (‘cept Clem – she got a lamppost), and waited it out. Considering that we had an impatient mare, two donkeys, and two ungelded colts we didn’t know, we had a pretty easy time of it. They did not paw or fuss (much). Sabrina thought the colts were the handsomest studs she’d ever laid eyes on [notice her gaze in the photo above], and spent the night flirting from her side of the trailer.

Mark helped with the critters at the park, and did a shopping run for water dishes for the cats, corn oil for Sabrina (especially important when she is stressed), and some food and water.

All 5 Equids in Boys' & Girls' Club Playground - Cedar Fire 2003

All five critters in the playground.

A neighbor of the park, Lorenzo, I think, a Nez Pierce Indian, with a soft spot for horses, came by to see if he could help, and ended up bringing us a big water jug so we could transport water (we only had about 20 gallons with us). People saw us camped out in the parking lot and brought us coffee, or offered to bring food (we’d packed enough apples and almonds for several days). An El Cajon police officer circled by to check on us a few times. A carful of teenagers who’d been evacuated from Alpine stopped by to be sure we were OK. Even the homeless people who live in the park were friendly and offered to help.

Once we got settled in, we let my mom and dad, and Mark, go home (around 1 a.m.). We slept (sorta…) in shifts, me, on the tailgate of my truck, and Michael in his car, making sure the critters didn’t get loose, or tangled in their lead ropes, passing out handfuls of hay, bringing buckets around… We each probably got an hour or two of rest.

In the morning our neighborhood looked safe. All the hills above us had burned already. So, thinking the animals would be safer at home than standing on pavement in a parking lot, we went back, making two trips. As we were leaving the park, two guys in rec center t-shirts came over and offered to let us use the fenced play area behind the Boys & Girls Club. Turns out we were going to need it.

Just after we returned home, and were hosing down the yard in case any embers remained, CDF (California Department of Forestry) came by and evacuated the neighborhood again. This time it was “if the wind shifts” that we’d be in trouble, so it wasn’t quite the same urgency as the first time. Nobody wanted to go, least of all Eeyore (who doesn’t care for adventures), and Michael, who by this time was feeling pretty awful with the flu. We were all exhausted. Nevertheless … Off we went again.

Shadow Mountain after the Cedar Fire in 2003

Shadow Mountain, and Crestridge Reserve
[As seen from our backyard.]

This time we left the cats in the house, thinking their chances were pretty good, and knowing how miserable they would be, two to a carrier, back at the park. Again I left with Clementine and Sabrina, with Michael following in his car. This time we headed straight for the Boys & Girls Club. One of the guys there understood horses, and put us up in their fenced playground, which had about 1′ of wood chips for footing. After the parking lot, this felt like a resort. My parents came back out to help with the animals, so we could take a nap!

On the second trip, this time Eeyore figured he’d be better off staying in his pen. He heard some strange voices out front (neighbors filling water buckets for us), and decided he’d rather brave the fire. We could *not* get him near the trailer, never mind going in. My dad and I came back for him, and after a few rope burns, and getting dumped on the ground once, we gave up for the time being, and resolved to come back later for him.

The older colt (18 months) in the playground.When Eeyore is left alone, he doesn’t hang out quietly. Instead, he runs the fenceline frantically, hee-hawing mournfully, in a panic. He probably would’ve been OK staying there, if he were a calmer sort, but I was afraid he’d colic from being upset (he certainly won’t drink when he’s like that). Besides, that kind of exertion in thick smoke is really bad for the lungs.

Eeyore Back Home, Charred Hills in the Background - Cedar Fire 2003

Eeyore in His Pen, with Charred Hillside
[The white spots are piles of ash where trees or larger shrubs used to be.]

We gave him a few hours to calm down, took a nap, and came back again. This time I asked my dad to wait out front, and be very quiet – just be there for safety’s sake. I took some carrots to Eeyore, caught him, and convinced him we were just going for a nice friendly little walk. One… step… at… a… time… 200′ through the backyard. We got just through the front gate, where the trailer was, and Eeyore saw through the plot. Just as he was turning to head back to his pen I took a wrap with his lead rope around a fence post by the front gate. Ha! Then I closed and locked the gate. What they say is true about closing the barn in the fire, after you’ve gotten the horses out, so they can’t run back in.

Once Eeyore was stuck in the front yard all it took were a couple of apples, some long ropes, and patience, and he was finally in the trailer. We got him back to the playground with his buddies, and could finally relax a little. Our friends Eric and Sarah came to help out (and brought food!).

Since the fire wasn’t an imminent threat, Michael was able to stop by the house to check on things, and take a shower. Some neighbors of the Boys & Girls club came by to see if we needed help. They offered to let us use their phones, bathrooms, water, power… We were pretty self-sufficient for camping out, but I did take up an offer of a shower in a nearby vacant apartment – the managers, a very nice young couple, left it open all night in case we needed to use it.

Although the playground was fenced and relatively horse-safe, we kept the critters each tied to their own fence post. One flirtatious mare, two donkeys, and two colts could’ve have way too much fun in there running loose. As it was, they were digging to China in the deep wood chips. I left their ropes longer, and tied lower, than I knew was safe, but I knew they would all want to lie down – they’d all been on their feet for 36 hours. One of the colts did get tangled, and fell, but I got him loose within minutes (he just laid there and waited for help).

Older of Two Colts - Cedar Fire 2003

The Older of the Two Colts

Aside from a few more minor interruptions, we slept, on the picnic tables, on saddle pads from about 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Many thanks to Mom, who brought sleeping bags and pillows!

I’m sure the folks in the neighboring apartment buildings must’ve thought dinosaurs had moved in, when the donks started hollering for breakfast at oh-dark-hundred. It really echoed between the buildings, too! We got everybody fed (soaked pellets – we’d run out of hay the afternoon before), packed our things, and cleaned the place up as best we could. Michael went out and brought back some sort of fast food breakfast, including fried french toast sticks, which we wouldn’t have touched on a normal day, but gosh, was it good that morning. We were just leaving with the second load when the Club folks showed up for work. I want to send them a “Thank you for saving our asses” note, with a photo of Clem and Eeyore in their playyard, but probably ought to think of something more appropriate for the kids.

Michael has all his instruments back in order. I’ve got the truck and trailer washed, and the cat carriers brought in. We eventually got together with the owner of the colts – they’d been evacuated from Eucalyptus Hills once already before we took them out of Blossom Valley. At least they load good now! We took a heaping pickup-full of towels, blankets, pillows, tools, buckets, chairs, etc. to Crest, for the hundreds of burned-out folks there.

Tomorrow I’m hauling some friends’ horses to their temporary home – theirs was one that burned. So far we know of one friend who was lost – Ashleigh Roach, an Irish dancer. Michael played at her wake. Many friends lost their homes – at least 4 in Crest, 3 in Harbison Canyon, 1 on Mussey Grade Road, the Roaches, in Valley Center, one friend lost her ranch in Lakeside, and her ankle was broken when one of her draft horses stepped on her. I’m sure we’ll hear about more – many areas don’t have power or phone service yet. Many others lost outbuildings, fences, vehicles… Most of our State Park facilities are gone, including the Los Caballos and Los Vaqueros horse camps. [The impact of this fire on the equestrian community was huge. People were still recovering physically, financially, and emotionally for years. Some moved away. Many of us tried for over a decade to get access and trails and facilities restored for public use, with limited success.]

If you weren’t here, or don’t know the area, it’s hard to imagine the scale of this disaster. Everywhere you go, all the hills are burned – not just patches where there was “a fire”. Out back, the hills near us are black, and the hills in the distance, and the mountains beyond them. It was (is, actually, it’s still burning) the biggest fire in California history, and it moved unbelievably fast through nearly every community in East County.

A lost hunter started the Cedar Fire by lighting three signal fires in dry brush during a Santa Anna. He was rescued by helicopter, and was issued a citation.

Copyright © Linda Eskin, 2003, 2016

Update, 9 Nov. 2003 …

Helped a friend clean up her burned-out horse boarding facility. She has several steep banks, and lost all the iceplant and mulch that was helping to hold them in place. She is also having trouble getting any help. There are a lot of groups collecting money “for fire victims”, but several burned-out people I’ve spoken with are being refused help everywhere they turn. Should be interesting to see how these millions are accounted for when this all calms down.

Update, 12 Nov. 2003 …

This morning we got just over an inch of rain. That’s great for our yard, but a bit much for the fire damaged areas. There was a flash flood watch this morning. I hope people’s straw bales and sandbags are doing the trick. (The local news stations keep calling them “hay bales” <sigh>.)

For more info on the state of things here…

[At the time I posted links where people could find up-to-date information. Lists of links were a thing back then, because Google wasn’t. Most are broken now, so I’ve omitted them here, but kept the heading so you can see how things were then. ]

Channel 10 News – Slideshows with hundreds of photos:
(Anything that mentions El Cajon/Granite Hills was in our area.)

Our local paper:
http://www.signonsandiego.com/ [The old direct link to fire info no longer works]
Photo galleries:
[There were galleries of hundreds of photos from throughout the county.]

Information of some of the people who were killed:
[Broken links.]

About Ashleigh Roach, the Irish dancer who was killed:
[Link no longer works]

Local equestrian sites, reuniting horses and owners:
[Horse clubs did tons of work caring for displaced animals and getting people connected.]
http://www.pvra.com/
http://www.polobarn.com [It was this site that helped us find the owners of the two foals we rescued.]

The local TV stations were virtually useless. They covered the areas in the City of San Diego, rehashed info about what had already happened and showed dramatic footage, while whole communities burned with no mention on the news.

KOGO Radio (600 AM) did a *tremendous* job getting information out about which way the fire was headed, where people could go, etc. They relied on listeners to call in with updates.

The Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs of East County, El Cajon center, took us in on Monday. They provided a safe, fenced area for the animals, and a safe place for us to camp out for the night. Their kindness and hospitality was very much appreciated. If you are looking for a good cause to support, please consider giving to them – it’s clear they do a lot of good work on a shoestring budget: http://bgcec.org/ <<< [This is the current link.]

Pokémon Go? Yes, go out and play!

A new augmented-reality game, Pokémon Go, was released this month (July, 2016). You would think civilization was coming to an end, so pervasive has been negativity in the press and on social media. “Everything is terrible! The sky is falling! We’re all gonna die!” Throw in a heaping helping of “kids nowadays are ruining everything,” along with a good dose of “somebody has to put a stop to this madness,” and you’ve got the theme of most of the articles making the rounds the past few days. There’s tremendous cynicism and hostility toward the game, and toward the people who are playing it.

I’m here to tell you there’s a huge upside to Pokémon Go, and for the most part it’s being ignored. Good news doesn’t sell ad space or commercial time. It doesn’t get shared by indignant people as proof of their moral superiority over “those people” who are playing.

The News and Reality are Very Different

The popular news media exists to scare us, so we’ll buy stuff. Apparently they are doing a good job of it. A friend commenting on Facebook summed up perfectly how the news media’s message of fear and people’s lack of understanding about Pokémon Go is affecting public perception of the game:

“It’s a security issue everywhere…nothing good to come from this…there have been people hit by cars, robbed and graveyards desecrated, not to mention the police that are tied up with all the people in some places…business owners are losing money because of all of it…it needs to stop before it is hacked and people are led God knows where…” And in another comment, “This is going to be a big problem…disturbing businesses…one kid followed it and was lead to a dead body, others have played and were robbed…”

That sounds pretty frightening, right? But it’s not the whole picture. Not even close.

Millions of People are Playing

Yes, there have been reports of people being stupid and getting hurt, or being disrespectful of private property. That’s not good, and it’s not OK. They should be more careful, and more responsible. But they are a tiny fraction of the millions of people who are playing the game. Millions of people!!! According to this AdWeek article, “Pokémon GO Surpasses 7.5 Million Downloads in 5 Days.” That was on July 11th, so it’s easily many millions more by now. More from that article – remember, several days ago – this is truly insane:

“In terms of engagement, SimilarWeb said more than 60 percent of users who have downloaded Pokémon GO in the U.S. are playing the game daily. As of July 8, the game’s average usage time was 43 minutes, 23 seconds per day. According to SimilarWeb, this is higher than WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger.” [Emphasis mine.]

More current data reported on Heavy.com says: “As of Monday, July 11th, the game was seeing about 21 million daily active users, according to Survey Monkey.” [Emphasis mine.] And that number is even a few days old.

Holy crap!

Putting Things In Perspective

As usual, the breathless proclamations of doom in the news are overstated. Remember that the media makes its living by scaring the wits out of us and telling us everything horrible that’s going on in the world. Even better if there are gruesome photos or video, and people are “getting emotional.” They thrive on that stuff.

People have fallen off cliffs taking photos of natural wonders. People have been robbed while using public transportation. People have found dead bodies while jogging for their health. I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet some people have absent-mindedly walked into the street while engrossed in novels or newspaper articles. Do we freak out about photography, taking the subway, exercising outdoors, or reading? No, we do not. And we shouldn’t freak out over people playing Pokémon Go, either.

Over 21 million people are playing a game that requires getting out and moving. Two guys fell off a cliff because they were being careless or stupid, and it made the national news. There’s some perspective for you.

And hey, it’s a good thing that young woman found that drowned man.

“I probably would have never went down there if it weren’t for this game,” Shayla Wiggins admitted. “But in a way, I’m thankful. I feel like I helped find his body. He could have been there for days.”

How that situation could be an argument against playing is beyond me. I hope his family will find closure, knowing what happened to him.

A Closer Looks at Health Benefits

We are an all-too-sedentary society, and it’s costing us dearly in terms of lost lives, diminished potential, and public and private money spent on caring for the chronically sick and disabled. The US National Health Care Expenditure in 2014 was $3.0 trillion dollars. Much of that was to due to lifestyle diseases, described here in a Cleveland Clinic article [emphasis mine]:

“Poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, overuse of alcohol, poor diet, lack of physical activity and inadequate relief of chronic stress are key contributors in the development and progression of preventable chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer. … Despite an understanding of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, many patients lack the behavioral skills they need to apply everyday to sustain these good habits.”

study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015, looking at 334,000 people over 12 years, found that being active was even more important that losing weight in terms of overall health benefits:

“The hazards of all-cause mortality were reduced by 16–30% in moderately inactive individuals compared with those categorized as inactive in different strata of BMI and WC. Avoiding all inactivity would theoretically reduce all-cause mortality by 7.35%,” and “… efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be beneficial to public health.”

A summary of the study on Forbes.com puts it very clearly [again, emphasis mine]:

“It turned out that lack of physical activity was linked to the greatest risk of death – and the greatest reduction in death risk was in the difference between the lowest two activity groups. In other words, just moving from “inactive” to “moderately inactive” showed the largest reduction in death risk, especially for normal weight people, but true for people of all body weights. And, the authors say, just taking a brisk 20-minute walk per day can move you from one category to the other, and reduce the risk of death anywhere from 16% to 30%.”

There are consequences to the habit of sitting on the couch at home. It is not a benign practice. It is not safe. Problems stemming from a lack of exercise include poor physical and mental health, lost productivity, misery, loneliness, and increased lifelong health costs. There’s plenty of information out there, but that’s not what’s getting publicized. According to the American Diabetes Association, “1.4 million Americans [United States] are diagnosed with diabetes every year.” According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.” [Emphasis theirs.]

Imagine changing those numbers, and many others like them, by even one percentage point. That would be 14,000 fewer people who become diabetic each year! 6,100 people who don’t die of heart disease each year! That would be amazing!

Pokémon Go has gotten over 20 million people (conservatively) off their butts. It has sent them walking around their neighborhoods, exploring parks, and discovering landmarks. Players are motivated and moving, and inviting their friends and families to join them in the fun, too!

As a personal trainer, fitness coach, writer, and advocate for people getting outdoors and participating in healthful activity with friends, I would consider myself successful to have positively influenced the exercise habits of a couple hundred people over the course of my career. This game has reached more than 100,000 times that many people in just a couple of weeks!

So the the mercenary news media and ignorant naysayers who are frightening people away from playing Pokémon Go are kind of pissing me off.

If a simple, free, fun game can get tens of millions of people into healthier habits, we should all be embracing it, and encouraging folks to play it! Pokémon Go is new. It’s just getting started. And it’s the first of its kind (or at least the first that’s widely known). Others will follow. There will be improvements in the games, some boundaries will be clarified in the physical world. It’s not perfect, but it is a very good thing. Go play!

See Pokémon Go for Yourself

I sure as heck don’t trust the news media to tell me what to think, and you shouldn’t either. First, they are clueless half the time, and second, their job is to sell commercial airtime by making us afraid, indignant, and enraged, and by letting us feel superior and “in the know.” Their job is not to inform. And just because something is trending on social media doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing to know about a subject.

I don’t like being ignorant of major social phenomena. Sure, I ignore most movies, don’t have any idea what’s on TV, and am clueless about this year’s hot bands. But Pokémon Go is a much bigger deal. This is a whole new thing. So I downloaded the app and tried it for myself. I encourage you to do the same.

Pokemon Go - Caution . . Pokemon Go - Clefairy

Try the game and find out. It’s really not the problem the media is making it out to be. I have never seen such a stark contrast between reality and what is being reported. And I have seen a lot of such a contrasts in my life.

Given the huge potential benefits of this game (and other augmented reality games that will certainly follow it), I think what the news media is doing is unconscionable. I’m really kind of furious about it.

Some Basics You Should Know

Here are some things you should know, that I’ve learned from playing it over the past two days.

  • It’s free. If you have an iOS or Android device just download it and check it out.
  • It’s easy. Ask a friend to show you the ropes, or Google how to play.
  • No one is led around blindly. The game will not lead you into traffic, off a cliff, or make you trespass, break laws, or desecrate graves. You do not chase or follow anything. You wander around and find the characters and objects. If there’s something you want in a place you can’t get to, let it go. You’ll have another chance later.
  • It’s fun. It really is a delightfully compelling experience, but not all-consuming. Nothing changes when you’re not playing – unlike those virtual pets that would die if you didn’t keep up with feeding them. You don’t have to keep checking it. Play when you’re playing, don’t play when you’re doing other things.
  • It’s collaborative more than it’s competitive. If there’s something to be found and collected, everyone can get it! It’s not a win/lose proposition. You play with your friends, not against them. (Hey! That’s a lot like Aikido!)

We Went, We Saw, We Were Amazed

Last night Michael and I went out to Balboa Park. It’s a huge urban park in San Diego, California. “The nation’s largest urban cultural park,” according to its website. You know, with museums, theaters, cafes, the San Diego Zoo, a botanical garden, street performers, artists, etc.

We arrived after 9pm. On a Wednesday. Got that? We were out late on Wednesday night. Prime sitting-in-front-of-the-TV-or-computer time for many people. Not such a busy time at the park, usually.

Pokemon Go - Balboa Park . . Pokemon Go - Balboa Park

It was a beautiful, clear, warm summer evening. Even from a distance I could see in the game that there was a lot going on throughout the whole area. (Michael was driving.) The first parking lot we tried was full. We got lucky and found a spot on the street. There were people everywhere.

Thousands of happy people were out having a great time together. Small groups of good-natured people, mostly younger, were laughing, talking, and helping each other out. Couples were playing together. People were walking their dogs. Parents pushed babies in strollers, or played together with their little kids.

I didn’t hear a raised voice or unkind word the whole time we were there. Instead we heard quiet conversations: “Over here!” “I got a Zubat!” “Ooh, look – a Ponyta!”

We walked up and down the Prado, and stopped to have a drink at the cafe near the art museum. That was new to us – we didn’t know the cafe was open in the evenings. We also saw that there is a Wednesday night jazz jam session there! We’ll have to come back again! We sat on a bench in the sculpture garden and watched people hunt for creatures and items in the game, and wondered how many others were experiencing the garden and cafe for the first time, too. One of the aims of the game (or so I’ve heard) is to introduce people to landmarks, points of interest, public art, parks, and other interesting features of their communities. I’d have to say it’s doing a good job of that.

IMG_5649

The streets have probably never been so safe. The buildings were lit blue, in honor of the murdered police officers. There was no security issue or problem last night that we saw. We saw no police – there was no need for crowd control. We saw one security guard in a pickup driving slowly down the main walkway (the Prado). Nobody was bothering anyone or anything. Nobody was being unruly, loud, disrespectful, or destructive.

IMG_5673

Neither of us have never seen anything like this in our lifetimes. (We are in our mid-50s.) It was just incredible. Michael kept saying it was surreal. He called his parents to tell them what was going on. We stayed, playing and people-watching, until after 11pm. The place was still buzzing, and more people were arriving. It was really amazing to see. I wonder what the weekend will be like?

After so many tragedies around the world, so much bitterness, so many contrary, oppositional people spouting nastiness daily, it was a relief and a joy to see all these good people getting out together and just playing. It was like coming up for air after being held underwater. It’s not that tragedies don’t matter, or that political debate isn’t important, but that’s not all there is. There’s also living our lives. Pursuing happiness. That’s a thing, too.

Go download the game, figure out the basics, grab a friend or two, and find a place to play – shopping area, nightlife zone, university, or park. I think you’ll have a great time!


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, NASM Certified Personal Trainer, and ACE Group Fitness Instructor serving clients in San Diego County, California. As a fitness professional her goal is to support her clients in achieving the levels of health and fitness that enable them to go out and do whatever they love to do – martial arts, dance, hiking, surfing, golf, … Maybe even playing Pokémon Go.

Linda is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Administrivia: Shutting Down Comments

I enabled comments as an experiment during the April A-Z Challenge. Bleh! Sifting through the spam has gotten totally out of hand. So no more comments.

Someday I may have the time and inclination to deal with the plug-ins and settings to manage comments, but not right now. This morning there were 98,127 comments “held for moderation” here. I’m sure at least 98,125 of them were outright spam. The ongoing challenge of sorting through them is impossible. There are ways to allow comments and set it up so that doesn’t happen, but it’s not going to happen today. If you were one of the rare souls who posted a legit comment, I apologize – they are all gone now, even the ones I’d approved in the past.

There are other ways to interact. Share my posts with your friends, tag me if you like, ping me on social media… You can find me on Facebook (Linda Eskin), and sometimes I drop in on Twitter (@LindaEskin). I invite you to also follow my Facebook pages: Linda Eskin, Author, and Fit Coach Linda. And of course there is email (which I check less frequently): linda (at) lindaeskin (dot) com.

Liebster Award – Nomination and Interview!

Grab My Wrist -- Liebster Award Nominee, 2016!

I’m delighted to share that Grab My Wrist was nominated for a Liebster Award by Laura Roberts of Buttontapper Press. Laura is a prolific author, editor, and a leader in the community of San Diego writers. This month (May, 2016) she is writing a story a day. Go check it out. Thank you for your nomination, Laura. I’m honored. I accept!

As part of the Liebster Award tradition, Laura posed some questions for me. After the Q&A, here, I will nominate others, and ask them a few questions of my own.

Virtual Interview – Laura’s Questions, Linda’s Answers

Q: What most inspires you to write?

A: Connecting with individual readers. When I write I think in terms of speaking directly to the person holding the book. There are a few writers who, through their writing, have profoundly influenced the course of my life. I may not have many thousands of readers, but when I hear directly from a reader saying that something I shared made a difference with them, that’s better than any analytics data telling me whether a post, article, or book is popular.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?

A: The admonition you always hear to write first and edit later has never worked for me. The two are like breathing in and out – you can’t just breathe in today, and then worry about breathing out later. I do both at once. I *also* go back to rewrite and edit, but I can’t “just write” without editing as I go.

As for what does work – what good advice I’ve received? Not one piece of advice, exactly, but I’d say it was everything I learned in my career as a technical writer and user experience analyst. My priority is always to communicate clearly, in a meaningful, evocative way that gets people into action. I don’t want people to read my work and think “Gosh, what a beautifully-written piece about Aikido,” and put the book down, waiting for my next release. I mean, that’s nice too, but I’d rather they come away thinking “Hey, I think I could do that! I’m going to check it out!”

Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?

A: I am so rooted to where I am it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. I guess it’s a good thing to have a life that doesn’t leave you longing for vacations! I’ve seen some spectacular photos of friends’ trips abroad, and some tempting stories of week-long meditation retreats. Travel is fun, but also uncomfortable and a lot of hassle. Tent camping in the local mountains sounds much more pleasant than traveling the world in style.

Michael and I do have a lot of fun together on long road trips. He plays traditional Irish music in sessions with friends. Someday I’d like to do a big trip with dojo- and session-hopping along the way. And there’s a dojo I’d like to visit, to train with that teacher for more than just a weekend seminar here and there, I just have to work out how to make that happen.

Q: What’s your favorite book, and why?

A: Oh… That’s a tough one. I’m going to call it a three-way tie.

First, Wishcraft, by Barbara Sher. (You can download the whole thing in PDF format from her website now!) It was recommended to me in about 1990, and was the first book I’d read that was actively helpful. It was an excellent tool for helping discover what was important to me and what I wanted. I’ve recommended it to dozens of people since then. Don’t just read it – do the exercises. For anyone at a turning point, this is the book you should have.

Second, Horsemanship Through Life, by Mark Rashid. Mark, directly and through and his book, introduced me to Aikido. You can read more about Mark’s book (one of many excellent books he’s written) in other posts here – just search for his last name.

Third, The Way of Aikido, by George Leonard. I regret never having had the chance to meet Leonard Sensei in person, but at least through this and other books he became a powerful role model to me. He started training at the same age I did, in the same lineage, and ran into some of the same difficulties, and went on to be a 5th dan (pretty high black-belt rank) with his own dojo. His writing really helped me through my first few years, when I found it easy to doubt myself.

Q: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you’re not writing?

A: Well, Aikido, of course. Training, helping in the children’s programs, occasionally teaching. Traveling to seminars and retreats and training with friends from all over the world is great fun.

I also love playing with photography, especially at the dojo and out in nature. I love getting candids that really capture people. One of the highest compliments I can get about a photo is when a friend uses it as their profile image. That tells me they think it shows something about who they really are.

Q: If you had to pick one song that best represents your life, what would it be?

A: Finally, an easy question! “Glorious” by Karisha Longaker of MaMuse. It’s a beautiful song expressing gratitude for day-to-day wonders like friends, rain, and baby birds, and about the cycles of life. When I arrived early at the dojo for my sho-dan (black belt) exam I put this song on to get settled and in the right frame of mind. “I’ve got good friends to the left of me and good friends to my right” – perfect for that experience. It had rained that morning, so it was especially appropriate. The lyrics even include visiting raccoons, who are a regular thing at our house. I’ve linked the title to the lyrics, but they don’t do it justice. Go buy it.

Oh what a day! Glorious!
The smell of rain has hitched a ride upon the wind
I’ve got good friends to the left of me and good friends to my right
Got the open sky above me and the earth beneath my feet
Got a feeling in my heart that’s singin’ all in life is sweet
Oh what a day!

Q: Do you have any good luck charms, and if so, what are they?

A: Not that I can think of…

Q: Which fictional character best represents you?

A: I don’t read a lot of fiction, so I don’t know many to choose from. One that really stuck with me since childhood was Karana, the girl from the book Island of the Blue Dolphins. She lived alone for years, stranded on an island off the coast of California, living off the land and sea. No magic or fairies were involved. She relied on her own skills and her ability to observe and work with animals and nature. I didn’t know until a few years ago that it was based on a true story.

Q: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

A: I’ve done some pretty cool things, but I don’t know that I’d call any of them crazy. They were too well thought-out. But here are a few anyway: Completed the est training (twice), and did The Six Day (twice). Did some aerobatic flying. Moved to a semi-rural area and kept horses for many years. Started training in Aikido – a vigorous, physical martial art – at 46. Launched two new careers in my early 50s – writer and Certified Personal Trainer. And most recently wrote about 1,000+ words a day for a month as part of the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in life (so far)?

A: Wow… That’s a big question. I’d have to say reaching the rank of sho-dan (first black-belt rank) in Aikido. Not just passing the exam, or demonstrating a certain level of technical proficiency, but the whole path to get there. Everything from walking in the door of the dojo for the first time, to being part of the community, supporting others and accepting support (that can be a hard one!), training regularly, not letting things stop me… Mostly it’s been a joy and a privilege. I really love all of it, so I can’t say it’s been any kind of sacrifice or hardship. But some parts have been a real test, way out of my comfort zone. I’ve had to grow in a lot of directions. It’s easy to get through school, go to college, progress through a career… Those things are just expected in the ordinary flow of life. Nothing about my experience of Aikido has been ordinary.

Q: And, of course, the all-important question: Pirates or Ninjas?

A: Ninjas, of course. While I was answering this question the ninjas have already bored holes in the hull of the pirate ship and gone home. The pirates haven’t even noticed. Too busy sleeping off last night’s rum.

Thanks, Laura, for the interesting questions! I really had to think about those. That was fun.

My Nominees for the Liebster Award

The Liebster Award (complete info here) is passed from writer to writer, acknowledging and promoting awareness of excellent blogs around the world – especially new or little-known blogs. Each nominee nominates others they think are deserving of recognition and a wider audience.

My nominations are … drum roll please …

Mark De Souza, of Mark’s Meanderings 
Mark has been blogging even longer that I have – going back to at least early 2008 – and has been a friend and inspiration to me from when I first started training. He shares his insights about his journey along the path of Aikido, and about his music and life.

Janelle Shane, of Postcards from the Frontiers of Science
I originally knew Janelle, ahem, Dr. Shane through the Irish music community. Now (alongside the actual important science work she does) she is a brilliant communicator about the wonders of all things scientific, from amazing photography using a scanning electron microscope, to following along as a neural network attempts to create recipes. Like for cooking food. The latter are freakin’ hilarious. You must read them.  Just not anywhere that laughter would be inappropriate. I hope some large, popular media outlet (Pssstt! NPR, are you listening?) discovers her and puts her front and center in sharing the wonders of science with a wider audience.

LaVonne Ellis, of Complete Flake
Join LaVonne, former voice on San Diego news radio, now an author and adventurer, as she travels the world in LaVanne, with her faithful dog, Scout. LaVonne is a unique spirit, who tells her story in sometimes funny, sometimes poignant letters from the road. You might also enjoy her book, A Complete Flake’s Guide to Getting Sh*t Done.

Antonella Nuscis Sensei, of No Kokoro Aiki
This is a very new blog by Antonella Nuscis, who teaches Aikido in Italy. It is (appropriately) in Italian, which I don’t speak, but her writing comes across perfectly well via the translate feature in my browser. In her posts so far she has touched on Evolutionary Aikido, and on her experiences being an uchi-deshi, or live-in student at Miles Kessler Sensei’s Integral Dojo in Tel Aviv, Israel.

I need to think about one other nominee… We’ll go with these four to start.

These are the guidelines to keep the award going if/when you decide to accept it:

  • Display an image of the award and write about your nomination.
  • Thank and link the person who nominated you for this award.
  • Answer the 11 questions prepared for you by the blogger who nominated you. (See below.)
  • Nominate 5-11 awesome bloggers who you think deserve this award, and create 11 questions of your own for your nominees to answer.
  • List these guidelines in your blog post.

My 11 questions for our virtual interview:

  1. What got you started writing?
  2. What keeps you writing?
  3. If you suddenly became independently wealthy comfortable, what would you do with your time?
  4. How many books are on your nightstand, or end table? Tell us about one of them.
  5. Tell me about a compliment, award, or nice feedback you’ve gotten about your writing.
  6. What do you find most challenging about writing?
  7. What topic do you find it hard to write about?
  8. What topic keeps drawing you back to write more?
  9. What’s your favorite poem, or favorite poet?
  10. Are you a dog person, or a cat person?
  11. What’s the weirdest thing you eat with some regularity?

I’m looking forward to reading your answers!

Seven Years On The Mat

I started training on May 5th — Cinco de Mayo — in 2009. Seven years on the mat, as of today.

On one hand, it’s gone by in a flash. I remember like it was last week how nervous I was walking into the dojo for my first class. I can see the space I parked in. I know which shoes I wore. I can still hear the conversations, and can feel what it was like being at the back corner of the mat with another new student when someone took us aside to teach us to roll. It’s like no time has passed.

On the other hand, everything is different now. My outlook on life, my health, my careers, what my days look like. So many vivid memories from classes, tests, and seminars. So many new friends! Thinking of the time before I started training it feels like I’m looking back at someone else’s life. And I still get excited about stepping onto the mat.

Aikido of San Diego - Group Photo - 15 August 2009

The Aikido of San Diego crew, after Johnathon Purcell’s sho-dan exam
At the old Alvarado Canyon Road location, 15 August, 2009.

It’s all still so new! No class is ever just the same old drill. Earlier this week Sensei taught the whole hour on one simple technique (yeah, simple, ha…) that I’ve done hundreds of times. It’s not that I was “doing it wrong” before, but I learned so much in that hour — about the mechanics of the technique, the feel of allowing it to happen in a more relaxed way, and more broadly, about how I’d been approaching things recently. The depth of Aikido is remarkable.

Today Amanda Laurick, an Aikido friend from Seattle, shared this brilliant quote:

“You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
~ Miles Davis

As she pointed out, it’s true of Aikido as well. I feel like I’m just getting started.

PHOTO – Nadeau: Ask Who You Need to Be

Last month I wrote a series of 26 posts, Aikido from A to Z, one for each letter of the alphabet, as part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016.  It was, indeed, a challenge, writing 4-6 hours on most days.

Also during April I participated, for the 4th time, in the annual 3-day “O Sensei Revisited” retreat, lead by Robert Nadeau Shihan. He is my teacher’s teacher – a huge influence on my Aikido and my life, both through my teacher, and directly. Nadeau Shihan uses Aikido to show us how we can arrive at better, bigger, “finer” levels of ourselves, in whatever we are up to, not just on the mat, doing techniques.

One of his teachings that particularly resonates with me is something he said a few years ago, during a seminar at our dojo, and which has hung above my desk ever since:

“Don’t ask how to do this. Ask who you need to be where this is possible.”

April’s A-to-Z challenge was an opportunity to put this into action. I put it out there that I was committing to a post a day, and had to be a person who was doing exactly that. I declared myself to be a consistent writer, someone who does quality work and hits deadlines. And then I had to be that. The doing – how to go about it – was secondary to simply being a person who writes solid material every day, on time. I skipped zero days, even the days where I was out of town – I wrote those by doubling up the previous week. There were a lot of very late nights, often writing until 3 or 4 a.m., but I had a post up on my site before going to bed every night, all month.

Nadeau Ask who you need to be

It was a rewarding month. I have some catching up to do in other areas of life, like getting my oil changed, and putting away my laundry, but I’m proud of the work I’ve done.

I’m grateful for the support of so many Aikido friends and others, for their encouragement and kind words, and for sharing this series. I hope these posts ignite some interest and action among readers, and that at least a few folks will find their way to a dojo, or will see some new possibility for themselves.

I learned a lot, both about the subject, Aikido, and about the process of writing. I found great new friends in a group of local writers – Laura, Kristen, and Natalie – as we all participated in the challenge together (at Laura’s invitation, actually). Now we’re going to continue supporting each other with regular meetings and ongoing online discussion.

What’s next…

The next step, which I will be doing during May, is to create and publish a book using this work as a starting point.

And to keep writing.

Zanshin – Ongoing Awareness and Connection

This is the twenty-sixth, and last, in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   


Z is for Zanshin.

Zanshin [ZAHN-sheen] is a state of ongoing attention – complete presence. Fully engaged in the task at hand. Vigilant. Detached. Relaxed. Ready.

Literally, zanshin means remaining mind, or lingering spirit. An awareness that continues even after a thing is done.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Not being tense but ready.
Not thinking but not dreaming.
Not being set but flexible.
Liberation from the uneasy sense of confinement.
It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.”

~ Bruce Lee 
Tao of Jeet Kune Do

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Zanshin encompasses many things, from being aware of our surroundings, to feeling another’s intentions. Zanshin could be knowing who’s nearby as we walk to our car, or maintaining our connection with our partner before, during, between, and after techniques, watching their position, body language, and expression.

It needn’t be martial, either. The term can equally apply to handling items or performing actions with care and respect – receiving a business card with both hands, folding clean towels in a way that they will be ready to hang when needed, or gently returning a fiddle and bow back to their velvety case after playing.

Zanshin is an state of mind that is physically demonstrated in the way we stand and move, in the direction of our gaze, and in how we relate to others. Zanshin is not an idea, it’s an embodied state.

What you might see if you’re watching people at the dojo, for instance, could include someone keeping their attention and alignment on their partner after completing a technique. Internally we are also feeling our own body, and noticing our state of mind. Are we open and calm, settled down into the ground beneath us? Or are our shoulders up around our ears, arms reaching aggressively forward? We try not to turn our backs on our partners, distract ourselves with a piece of loose thread on our uniform, or glance away at the clock. You might also see it in our handling of weapons. We set them down – we never casually drop or throw them. In sword work you can see zanshin in the way the blade is returned to the saya [SIGH-uh], or sheath, with great care. In practice of free technique, we kneel and bow to our partners at the end rather than casually walking away.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“If you are in a state of intense presence you are free of thought, yet highly alert. If your conscious attention sinks below a certain level, thought rushes in, the mental noise returns, stillness is lost, you’re back in time.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One of my favorite expressions of this kind of uninterrupted connection is what you see when watching a good, well-trained working dog. Whether doing an agility course or herding sheep, the dog always has part of their attention on the handler, listening for the next command, watching body language, feeling intent. They are fully engaged in what they are doing, and totally ready to respond.

This focused awareness does not mean our attention is exclusive. We don’t shut out everything else around us, just the opposite. We keep our attention open and receptive, our minds still. While keeping our focus on our partners we also maintain a peripheral awareness of where others are as well, especially our teacher, and on what is happening around us in the dojo.

Being an instructor means zanshin on steroids. While working with one pair you need to also be able to notice the pair at the far end of the mat doing the technique in an unsafe way, and also hear the tiny bell signalling that a visitor has just walked in the front door. A teacher need to sense how the students and adjusting the teaching moment by moment.

If you have ever dealt with several small children at once you have no doubt experienced this. You know where they are at every instant. Why is this one suddenly quiet? What is that one putting in his mouth? Is there broken glass on the ground? And what are the intentions of those people walking toward you from the parking lot? You can be relaxed and having fun with them, but there’s always awareness. When you’re a kid it seems that your mother can tell what you’re going to do before you even think to do it. That kind of awareness.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.”
~ Miyamoto Musashi
A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It can seem paranoid – like being perpetually on alert, never letting our guard down. Our partner is not likely to strike us as we bow after training, and those people in the park are probably just out for a walk. But we keep our senses alive. In the bigger picture zanshin means not taking anything for granted, always being conscious, ready to act if needed.

When an interaction is complete, there is still attention. Connection. When we take a weapon from our partner, we do not casually toss it back to them; we set it down just out of their reach, keeping our gaze on them, and back away. When we finish training with someone we acknowledge, thank them, and bow, completing the interaction. Zanshin means ending things in a full and organized way.

A personal note:

Thank you for coming along on this 26-post adventure with me. It has been great fun writing on these Aikido from A-to-Z topics. It seems appropriate that A – Aikido – Practicing Harmony – A Good Idea for Bad Times would be the first post in the series, and this post, Z – Zanshin – Ongoing Awareness and Connection, would be the last. How nice that the letters in the alphabet were conveniently arranged in my favor! I hope something you’ve read here will linger in your mind, and that you will hold a continuing consciousness of the inclusive, non-oppositional  principles of Aikido.

I hope we can stay connected, too. Maybe we will even meet on the mat someday.

Linda


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Yin-Yang – Inseparable Halves of a Whole

This is the twenty-fifth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   


Y is for Yin-Yang.

You have seen the symbol: two tadpoles, commas, or drops, called tomoe [TOE-moy], spiraling around and flowing into one another, one white (yin), one black (yang). Within each one is a spot of the opposite color. This yin-yang symbol is called a taijitu [tie-GEE-too]. Let’s explore the meaning of it.

Nothing is ever purely yin or entirely yang. The two are always in dynamic relationship. Even when something is mostly one, there is always a component of the other.

  • Yin is feminine, earthly, rain, receptive, soft, free.
  • Yang is masculine, heavenly, sun, assertive, hard, disciplined.

Yes, yes,  I know. Try not to get plugged in about feminine and masculine. It irks me, too. But these qualities are not meant to be personified in women and men. They are cultural archetypes, ways of characterizing energies or concepts, that have been in use for ages. Think of them as convenient cosmological groupings, not as prescriptive rules for human behavior.

Oneness

Some people speak of yin and yang separately, as if they were opposites, but they are complementary parts of a whole. Consider female and male. They are not in opposition. They do not invalidate or cancel each other out. Rather, each only makes sense in relation to the other. They join together to create life.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
~ John Steinbeck
Travels with Charley: In Search of America

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We cannot go through life only breathing in, and never breathing out. Nothing is static. There is always movement, interplay, and balance between qualities.  Daytime requires night, and up needs down. Without one, the other would be meaningless. Joy and sorrow, light and dark, north and south, water and fire, inside and outside.

Yin-yang in Aikido, and in life

In Aikido, whether we are practicing individual techniques, or responding freely to any attack our partner chooses, we will be expressing some quality or energy – a certain feel to our bodies and movements. We might be solidly grounded today, or we might be flowing and light. These energies might come up spontaneously as part of our innate nature, or because of the kind of day we’re having.

We might also elect to play with new energies intentionally, to see what’s available from each one. At one level, we can manifest a single quality, like clarity, grace, or expansiveness, and see how that affects us.

But sometimes Sensei gives us a bigger challenge. He incorporates seemingly opposite energies into his teachings. For instance, we might do techniques for a while embodying discipline (yang). Then we switch to performing our techniques with a sense of freedom (yin). Gradually, we mix these two energies together, and discover that not only can we be both disciplined and free on the mat, but that it improves our Aikido.

This is one of many lessons we can take out of the dojo and into our daily lives. Rather than being resolutely disciplined – serious, stern, and methodical – as a strategy for success in life, or determinedly free – capricious, flighty, and fun – as a way of expressing who we really are, what if we could combine the two? It’s not an either/or choice. We can be both, in a functional way that supports us more effectively than either one alone. Having just experienced that on the mat we are in a better position to bring it into other aspects of our life.

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“Freedom without discipline is foolish, discipline without freedom is insanity.”
~ Ilona Mialik

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Another pairing we have experimented with includes embodying a flowing energy, and also having a solid structure. Sensei uses the analogy of an aquaduct. Without the water in the channel there would just be a long concrete ditch. Without the walls confining the water there would just be a damaging flood. It takes both the flow and the structure – the inseparable yin-yang of the thing – for it to serve the purpose of an aquaduct. In Aikido and in life we can play with mixing flow and structure in a mature, balanced way that offers whole new possibilities.

It may be human nature, or possibly our culture, that causes us to see things as exclusively one way or another. But the concept of yin-yang reminds us that many of these seemingly opposite energies co-exist, and we can access both together, to our benefit. In the dojo we develop the ability to notice this as a possibility, and to gain some ease in working with these qualities. When we are able to apply this in our work, our relationships, and our daily way of being, we become more adaptable, functional, and balanced people.


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

X Chromosomes – Being a Woman in Aikido

This is the twenty-fourth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   


X is for X Chromosomes.

Women are not strangers to the martial arts – not outsiders, nor newcomers. We have been an integral part from the beginning both in battle and defending the home while the men were away. Here are a few examples:

  • There were female samurai. “… even though authentic accounts of fighting women are relatively few when compared to the immense amount of material on male warriors, they exist in sufficient numbers to allow us to regard the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in samurai history. Over a period of eight centuries, female samurai warriors are indeed to be found on battlefields, warships, and the walls of defended castles.” (Quoted from Female Samurai Warriors, at military-history.org.)
  • The art of Wing Chun was (according to their accepted legends) created by a Shaolin Buddhist Nun, Ng Mui, as a form of self defense that didn’t rely on size or strength. The art was named after her first student, Yim Wing Chun.
  • The naginata [nah-gi-NAH-tah], a long staff with a sword at the end of it. According to the United States Naginata Federation, “The practice of Naginata is unique among martial arts in the following way: for the last three centuries the tradition of Naginata has been kept alive primarily by women.”
  • United States history also includes female warriors. In many cases women had to pass as men to be allowed to train and fight for their country. According to this Library of Congress blog post, “… at least 400 women served as soldiers on both sides of the Civil War …” From the same source, “The stories of these women soldiers seemed to be collectively dismissed and disbelieved, pushed to the margins and regulated to footnotes if not forgotten entirely.” I’m sure this is not unique to the civil war period, and helps account for our general ignorance of women’s involvement in martial pursuits.
  • Aikido also has a strong female influence. You may recall that in our earlier discussion of history, we learned that O Sensei, the founder of Aikido, was strongly influenced in his spiritual and philosophical beliefs by the Omoto religion. Omoto-kyo was founded by a woman, Nau Deguchi. Onisaburo Deguchi, O-Sensei’s spiritual teacher, was her son-in-law.

The glass ceiling in martial arts

In martial arts, as in other areas, most of the organizations overseeing administration, including rank promotion, have been managed by men. As in almost every other area of life, women are often seen as being less capable, less committed, and less worthy of recognition – also-rans, playing along for their own amusement, not serious students or practitioners. There are many cases of women not being granted high rank or public recognition alongside their male peers.

Even Fukuda Keiko Shihan, the only woman to ultimately achieve 10th Dan in Judo, faced a long battle against this bias. According to the Keiko Fukuda Judo Foundation, “She gave up mar­riage and left her home­land to ded­i­cate her life to judo, fight­ing gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion that kept her at lower belt lev­els decades longer than men less skilled than she.” Here is an 11-minute excerpt from the documentary about Fukuda Shihan, the highest ranking woman (10th dan) in Judo: “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.” In the film the head of the Judo organization is reported to have said that Fukuda would not be awarded 9th dan (a very high rank) because no other women had been awarded 9th dan – a kind of circular reasoning that would result in no woman ever being granted that rank, regardless of achievement or contribution to the art.

Some women have been discouraged even at the lower levels, or treated as if they and their training really didn’t matter. I encountered this myself, decades ago, as a 3rd grader, in Judo. The boys, many of whom were more experienced students, refused to train with me, my sister, and our friend – and the teacher allowed that. Naturally we learned very little, and didn’t continue after the summer program ended.

I don’t know any woman who takes up training in a martial art in the hopes of learning a special, watered-down version “for girls.” Women want to be challenged, pushed to become their absolute best. If you find you have a teacher who doesn’t consider you to be a student as serious as any man in the dojo, and an honest conversation doesn’t resolve the situation, leave. You cannot be their student if they are not able to be your teacher.

Women in Aikido

In Tuesday’s first class, as sometimes happens, there were more women on the mat than men. In the second class the participants were all male, but the instructor was female – me. During open training session after one recent class I noticed that all seven students on the mat were women, working on upcoming exams. Our dojo is pretty well balanced that way, right up through the ranks. At least 7 of our black belts, or yudansha [you-DAHN-shah], some of whom are also instructors, are women: Megan, Karen, Sharon, Amy, Stephanie, Cathe, and myself.

Locally, in San Diego County, I am aware of at least 5 major Aikido dojo that are lead by women – and this is out of about 8-10, so a very balanced ratio. Many schools throughout California are also lead by women, and a woman, Pat Hendricks Shihan, 7th dan, heads one of the three divisions of the California Aikido Association.

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“It’s not a man’s world as long as I’m in it.”
~ Either Cyndi Lauper or Madonna
In a televised interview I heard years ago, in response to a question about what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world (the music industry).

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Aikido is a popular martial art among women. Many senior teachers are women. Because Aikido relies on subtlety and finesse, not size or brute strength, it is ideal for women, smaller men, and even children. Aikido’s philosophy of dealing with conflict without fighting is appealing, and the culture of Aikido is an inclusive and welcoming one.

As a woman in Aikido I have not experienced any sense of the art being “a men’s club,” nor its equally abhorrent opposite “how nice that women can do Aikido, too,” as if we were encroaching on the domain of men. The only minor thing I’ve noticed is that some men can be shy about executing powerful or close-contact techniques. A few have been cautious, even apologetic, about throwing me. I’m sure there is a deeply-ingrained “we don’t hit girls” ethic at work. It may also be our ages – with some I’m old enough to be their mother. Usually throwing them powerfully a few times (appropriate to their level, of course) is enough to put their minds at ease about that.

On a few occasions I have been the only woman in a class. I usually don’t even notice until I go to change afterward and find that everyone else has gone into the other changing room. That’s a strangely lonely feeling. On the rare occasions when there’s only been one man in class I’ve felt bad for him, while we’re getting changed and talking and laughing together after class, that he’s suddenly aware of being different, and feeling excluded over there across the lobby, alone in his own changing room. Been there. If I ever have the opportunity to design a dojo facility I have an idea in mind – changing rooms with an opaque divider between them, but one that allows for conversation to continue.

Even as balanced as the art can be, we have had women come to our seminars and say, with happy relief, that it’s so nice to have other women to train with – that they are the only one at their dojo. There’s certainly room for improvement. Sometimes the presence of women in a dojo, or our absence, feeds on itself. If a prospective new student comes to observe a class and sees lots of women training, she might feel more comfortable giving Aikido a try. For schools with few (or no) women, if can be challenging to build a more balanced membership. If you are that prospective new student, I urge you to jump in anyway! You could be the role model who encourages the next woman to join.

Women’s classes and women’s seminars

These are an issue in the fitness industry, too. Some people think they are necessary because women don’t get fair treatment in a coed environment. I am of two minds on this issue. First, I dislike the idea of a gender-exclusive class or seminar. I don’t like the justification that “it’s just us gals/guys, so we can relax and feel comfortable with each other.” If Aikido is an inclusive community, then how can we have training that excludes men? On the other hand, some women are uncomfortable about the idea of training with men. Some may have experienced past trauma at the hands of men, and may be truly too afraid to get physical with male fellow students. Does it contribute to the overall good to support these women in training by offering women-only classes? Or is it better to let them stay away until they are ready to train as part of the greater dojo community? Here I can see plausible reason to offer a special class (and maybe one for men, too, as they can have issues as well), but only with the goal of getting the students to the point where they can join the regular classes as quickly as possible. Ultimately, the point is for everyone (gender, race, nationality, etc.), to train together harmoniously.

Opportunities for high-level training

A few years ago a friend passed along an announcement by a respected, high-ranking Aikido sensei who had an opening at his dojo for an uchi-deshi, or live-in student. This is a valuable opportunity to take on an apprentice-like position, practicing the art and learning from a master day in and day out. These openings are rare. The post said that because there was “heavy work” involved around the facility (specifically lifting up to 50 pounds), only men would be considered. My immediate, gut-level reply was a two word phrase that can’t be repeated in this family-friendly series. He presumably has something worth offering to students, but with this limitation on participation, only men will be able to benefit from his teaching.

I went back and deleted my comment out of a probably misguided desire to appear respectful, but I have little respect for that teacher. I learned later that apparently his wife insisted on the males-only rule. Whether because of actual past behavior or just jealousy, I don’t know. It is understandable that it could be awkward having a female student living at a dojo run by a man – or vice versa. But if developing a warrior spirit means bravely facing fear, pain, and even death, then certainly one should have the courage to handle an awkward situation with fairness and integrity.

It’s an unfortunate situation in our culture that we have to be paranoid about appearances. This is true in the fitness world as well. Being careful never to be alone with a student of the opposite gender. We can be jumpy about the potential for false accusations and rumors. What this means in a practical sense is that in some cases men will have opportunities that women will not – or the converse, when the sensei is a women. If the only way you can have such a program is to exclude half of the potential participants for reasons that have nothing to do with their dedication, ability, or potential, then don’t have the program.

This is one glaring example, but there are many smaller ones. I have heard of cases where a group of men, sometimes including the instructor, will head off to the local pub after class without even thinking of including the women they were just training with. A few years ago we had a dojo ladies’ outing. It was a nice event, but I felt bad about leaving the guys behind. Lesson learned. As with executive golf outings and similar informal gatherings, these things are often where the good stories get told, friendships and mentorships develop, insider information is exchanged, and connections are made with people of power and influence. When women (or men) are excluded, either deliberately or though simple “oh, I didn’t think you’d be interested” kind of thoughtlessness, it limits their potential, and diminishes everyone’s sense of community.

Women’s contributions to the their dojo and to the art, like everything else, are seen through lenses tinted by our culture. We are sometimes perceived as being helpful as though it were just part of our nature. Several times people – usually not my own dojo mates – have referred to me as the “dojo mom” when I am well-prepared, and handling things professionally at seminars or retreats. I know they mean it as a complement. But it’s interesting to note that if I were a man no one would ever consider saying such a thing. Instead they would characterize me as a committed, dedicated student, a leader, one who is well-organized and competent. I imagine no one looked at Morihiro Saito Sensei, a long-time student of O Sensei, managing things at the dojo in Iwama, Japan, and thought “Aww. He’s like the dojo dad.”

Men and women are different

George Ledyard Sensei, who has been a strong influence in my training, and good friend, has observed that students of each gender respond differently when we run up against our limits on the mat. Men turn into jerks, getting forceful and mean. Women go into the changing room and cry. I despise the idea of gender stereotypes, but I think this one is true, at least in my own experience.

While it is important that people of any gender are afforded the same opportunities for training, development, and recognition, it’s important to note that there are differences. Whether they are cultural or biological is beyond the scope of this post. The trends and tendencies overlap – some women will be more masculine (I tend toward the tomboy end of the range), and some men more feminine – and there are outliers, of course. But we do have our temperamental and behavioral differences. I see it among adults, and also in the children’s classes, even among the youngest kids.

Someday I plan to write a paper (or short book) discussing some points about supporting women and girls in training in the martial arts, including physical, biological, cultural, and emotional issues. That should be an interesting, and possibly controversial, subject. Some schools (in Aikido and other arts) find it challenging to attract and retain female students, and my goal will be to provide practical pointers they can use to make their schools more appealing and welcoming to women and girls.

Finding our own balance

One of the greatest benefits I see in Aikido training is becoming more functional and comfortable along a broader span of the masculine/feminine continuum. Regardless of biological gender, people with strong masculine energy can develop their softness and receptivity. People with strong feminine energy can develop their power and assertiveness. When we have access to a wider range of responses – not just the limited set we’ve come to favor – we can freely choose the most appropriate one in a given situation.

We will look at this in more depth in the next topic: “Yin and Yang – Receptive and Assertive Qualities.”


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Weapons – Refining Technique, Forging Spirit

This is the twenty-third in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   


W is for Weapons.

At most Aikido schools training with weapons is an integral part of the practice. Much of Aikido comes from working with weapons. We train with weapons to refine our technique, posture, connection, and attention.

In Aikido we use wooden weapons, often referred to simply as “sticks.” Commercially-available ones are usually made of oak or hickory. Some woodworkers offer them in other woods, too. Resilience is important, since we parry and block, making forceful contact with our partners’ sticks. A weapon made of brittle wood or one with flaws in the grain could be very dangerous in practice.

Kinds of weapons:

If you visit many dojo or travel to seminars you will see a lot of types of weapons, including long and short wooden swords, various lengths of staffs, practice knives, and other interesting things. The three most common ones you will see in an Aikido dojo are:

  • The bokken [BOH-ken], which is a striking or bludgeoning instrument, and also used as a stand-in for a sword, so that we may safely practice sword techniques. A bokken is about 40″ long with an oval cross-section, and a slight curve along its length. It has a handle end and a tip end, and also a front and back. In training we treat the front side as if it were a sharp edge of a blade, like a sword. This is so we can practice realistic techniques without getting into sloppy habits like grabbing the blade. That would be a problem with a real sword!
  • The jo [JOE] is a staff – a weapon in its own right – not a wooden version of anything else. It is used primarily for thrusting or striking. A jo is about 50″ long, and is simply a straight, slender, round stick. Basically a very high-quality broom handle.
  • The tanto [TAN-toe] is a wooden practice knife, about 12″ long. Like the bokken, a tanto has a handle end and a blade end, and a front (edge) and back. We also treat it as if it were a sharp, “live” blade.

What we do with weapons.

There are several kinds of practice that feature weapons.

  • Suburi [soo-BURR-ee] are individual techniques, like a single strike or thrust. I think of these as being analogous to words. We practice suburi with the bokken and jo. In the school of weapons we practice at our dojo there are 7 bokken suburi and 20 jo suburi.
  • Kata [KAH-tah] are set sequences of techniques that make up a choreographed solo demonstration. If suburi are like words, then doing a kata would be like reciting a sentence or two.
  • Dori [DOOR-ee] are take-aways. We do these with all three types of weapons. Your partner comes at you with their weapon, and you take it from them, throwing or pinning them in the process. In this context we use a different word for sword, so we say tachi-dori instead of bokken-dori. We also practice jo-dori, and tanto-dori.
  • Nage [NAH-gay] is the same word we saw earlier, under “N.” In this context it means to use your weapon to throw your partner. You have a weapon, your partner tries to take it, but you keep it, and throw them instead. These are called tachi-nage and jo nage.
  • There are also many partner practices where both people have weapons, either the same kind (jo vs. jo) or different (jo vs. bokken).

Training in most Aikido techniques requires a partner. But weapons suburi and kata are excellent for practicing solo, at home or anywhere else you have a safe, large space. This is great if you have a cold or can’t come to the dojo for some reason. At least you can get a little practice in.

Why practice with weapons?

It’s very unlikely the someone would ever attack you with a sword, or a staff. Maybe a knife, but that’s still a long shot. Unless we are just into doing Samurai period historical reenactments, why bother? Good question. Originally I had no interest in messing around with weapons, pretending to be a ninja, swinging fake swords. Blecch. But then a few months into training I got my days mixed up and accidentally found myself in an hour-long weapons class. It wasn’t anything like I’d expected.

Here are a few reasons to include weapons practice in your training:

  • Alignment is critical in all Aikido techniques. Weapons practice helps us work our alignment, both our own body’s posture and positioning, and our orientation relative to our partner.
  • We develop our senses and skills around spacing and timing in all Aikido techniques. For instance, we move in as soon as our partner shows an intention to attack. In weapons partner practices, the correctness of the spacing and timing becomes immediately clear, giving us useful feedback and helping us to continuously improve.
  • Many empty-hand techniques come from weapons techniques. Understanding their derivation can help us practice and refine the empty-hand techniques more effectively.
  • Weapons practice, even more so than regular training, can be a moving meditation. When we are working on our own we can go slowly and deliberately, feeling our way through. We can notice more – how our breath is in sync with the motion, how we settle into a stable stance at the end of a strike, how our energy and intention is forward, directed into our partner’s center, not shrinking back, recoiling. It’s not uncommon to repeat the same suburi (a single, solo technique) over, and over, and over, sometimes hundreds of times, being aware of every detail.
  • Training with weapons can be very challenging, and sometimes scary. Our partner is swinging a heavy stick at our head, and we have to get out of the way! It improves our ability to remain calm and respond appropriately, even when things get difficult.
  • It’s a lot of fun!

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“Iron is full of impurities that weaken it; through the forging fire, it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword. Human beings develop in the same fashion.”
~ Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei
The founder of Aikido

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Shinken

A sword with a live (sharp) blade is called a shinken. When we are handling one of these 3-foot long razor blades – which is essentially what they are – we need to be alert and totally present. This is not the time to be thinking about your presentation at work tomorrow, or glancing over to see who just walked into the dojo. Being distracted, inattentive, or careless could easily cost us a few fingers, or even get someone killed.

There is a special sense to the attitude we have when working with live blades, right down to a specific way of handing a sword to someone. We need to have our attention fully on what we are doing, always being aware of the blade, and also aware of things around us. This intense, serious focus is also called shinken, after the word for sword. This quality of presence is desirable in all our training, and is especially important when working with weapons, even wooden ones.

In Japan, the word shinken is used for the attitude we should have when dealing with any very serious issue, reflecting the life-or-death nature of the matter. Like so many things in Aikido, we can benefit in our daily life from the lessons from training with weapons. If we are able to stay calm and focused on the mat, we can take that skill out into other conflicts or challenges in our lives.


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”