My black belt came from giant, transforming robots.
That was not the only source. The training and
pressure encouragement of my master, and the encouragement of my friends played a role.
The seed was planted when I went to my first seminar. Some time not long before, Master Koivisto informed me I should work on my mudo — my warrior spirit. And indeed, I needed quite a bit of mudo to even show up in front of Master Parnell.
I was tense on the day of my black belt test. I hadn’t trained enough. I hadn’t cared enough. My friends thought I’d do fine. They were mistaken.
I felt extremely relieved when I heard we were doing all the forms in the world before the test. Another man might have said “I don’t want to be tired out.” I said, “Yes! One last minute chance to practice.”
But it seemed like the practice only made things worse. Every form I did, I saw egregious mistake after egregious mistake. Each mistake made me tenser and tenser. Each moment my muscles tightened, my cuts slowed, my starting and ending positions got closer to my body and farther from their rightful homes.
And my mind got more and more cluttered. As I dwelt on the mistakes of one move, I flubbed the next.
Master Bruce offered to help me review after the training and before the test. Master Bruce saw I was tense. Master Bruce finds the martial arts relaxing. I… don’t.
Mudo in those instances was… surrender. It was to show up to an unwinnable fight. It made me understand why melancholy poems and songs are a mark of a warrior culture.
The great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are happy
And all their songs are sad.
— G.K. Chesterton
Failure is the definition of training, for if you no longer fail, you have no need to train. Failure is the definition of testing, for if you no longer fail, a test tells you nothing. And yet, if you are not determined to succeed, if you are not pissed when you fail, your training will not work and your test will be useless.
To succeed at training requires determination and its bedfellow, frustration.
But to train at all, to fight at all, also requires resignation.
Years ago, I was in a tabletop game set in the Robotech universe. It was great.
Robotech is about giant transforming robots and about music. I was familiar with the game system. The Nerd Posse, meeting up for the first time, was not. The Game Master assigned me to play a Zentraedi female elite, a super awesome warrior alien, so that I’d have the extra mechanical skill to keep the new players alive until they learned the game.
One of the nice things about role playing games is you don’t actually have to be awesome to be awesome.
The transforming robots are fairly obvious, but why is music important to the setting?
One of the premises of the show is that the giant monsters who are invading are grown in vats, and don’t have a culture at all. They don’t have romance, don’t have books, don’t have music. So when they come into contact with earth culture, they are at minimum confused, and in some cases, they defect to the other side. Hence my having an alien character.
The game was fun. The characters grew and deepened. Banzai (my character’s call sign was Banzai after she spectacularly failed to do a dive roll from airplane mode into robot mode), became popular among the group, and became a recurring character throughout future games.
I wanted to write stories using Banzai. But I don’t do fanfiction, so I had to devise new worlds and new songs for the characters to sing.
For my first seminar, I was a red/blue belt. I’d heard stories of the last time Master Parnell made a visit. And I knew I would not, could not, measure up to my rank.
But how will I learn if I refuse to fail?
As I prepared for testing for my black belt, years later, I cast around for something to sooth myself. To clear my mind. I tried humming some songs to myself that I used to psych myself up for training before.
Nothing was helping.
Then, a song I had written for my Banzai stories came into my head.
I’m lost and alone
The hammer is falling
I can’t see around it;
But I’ll die well.
Death crawls from beneath me,
Death falls from the sky.
I’ve lived by the sword,
Now the sword bids me die.
But I’ll die well.
I’ve picked out a hill, drawn a line in the sand,
And there will I fall because there will I stand!
So come for my blood all you forces of hell,
And I’ll die well!
I’ll break through my weakness and laugh at my pain.
The strength of my foe shows the worth of my name,
So try to unshackle me from this life’s fetter,
And I’ll die well;
But first you’ll die better.
With each line of the song, tension slipped out of me.
Did I do great on my forms? I don’t think so. I lost my cool a few times, and I hadn’t trained enough to do well in spite of some… interesting floorcraft. On the flip side, I regained my old power, my best martial skill: that of improvising and continuing when everything goes sideways. Something I had lost hold of during my long, dark winter.
But then, when it was time to do the cut, a few notes of my song in the back of my mind, and the tension slipped away. I was relaxed, and my cut was good.
For my test, I was required to write an essay on the question “what is mudo?”
My essay was long and analytical.
My essay was also wrong. Here is the revised edition:
Mudo is the marriage of resignation and determination.
Mudo is the fusion of war and peace.
Mudo is to die well.