Thursday, September 15, 2016


by Phillip Starr

     I'll bet I studied something in elementary school that the rest of you didn't (except for some of the oldsters out there).  And what might that be?


     Really.  We actually had inkwells built into our desks and used pens with removable heads which you dipped into the ink!  After class, we had to wash off the inkpen heads and remove them from the stem (of the pen).  It was just about one klik up from using the old featherpens of the 19th century.

     As lousy as my memory tends to be, I clearly remember those boring classes.  We had lined paper which featured a thick, solid line and then a dotted line...then a solid line, then a dotted line...all the way down.  Upper-case (capital) letters had to touch the top and bottom of the solid lines while the lower case letters touched only the top of the dotted line.

     We'd practice just making loops and circles and wavy lines...I thought I had it down pat, but the teacher was always at my side telling me that it was terribly sloppy and to start again.  I remember getting really frustrated.  Then she demonstrated what she meant and her circle and whirls were flawless.  Really smooth and beautiful.  So I did my best to imitate that.  We practiced how to hold the pen correctly between the thumb and forefinger with the shaft resting on the side of the middle finger.  It had to rest at a specific angle.  They were very persnickety about all of this business.  And when you finished a few loops, you had to learn how to soak up the excess ink with a "blotter."

    Eventually, we got around to writing individual letters.  They had to be just so.  The loops, dots, and crosses had to be just right and pleasant to look at.  We practiced every day.  For two years.  Later, if you wrote something and the teacher didn't like the handwriting, he'd give it back to you and tell you to do it over!  It didn't matter if the material was correct or not, if it looked even mildly sloppy, you'd get to do it again. 

     Recently, I watched as a local police officer (a good friend of mine) wrote out an incident report.  I could barely make out his writing.  It was tiny and the letters weren't clearly formed.  I suppose you notice junk like this as you get older.  I never used to pay much attention to it... So I teased him about it and he made reference to my personal hygiene and ancestry.

     Later, I wrote a check at one of the registers in a department store.  The young lady looked at the writing and remarked, "What pretty handwriting!  I've never seen a man write like that."  Actually, I thought it was kind of sloppy, but compared to my police officer friend, it was a work of art. 

     I have my paternal grandmother's high school autograph book.  Seriously.  Some of the poems and autographs in it are dated back as far as 1867.  What is most incredible is the magnificently beautiful handwriting in it.  Even the boys had beautiful writing and many must have used broad-tipped pens.   

     You don't see writing like that anymore.  It was just too much extra work, I suppose and nobody saw a need for anyone to have to learn it.  And that's my point. 

     The martial arts is exactly the same thing.  We used to do our best to imitate our teacher's flawless movements.  A lot of martial arts don't do that anymore; they have a kind of 1970's "do your own thing" sort of approach...which doesn't work.  Your "own thing" will likely be wrong.  Stick to the things that have been proven to work over time.  It may be boring, tedious work, but it's worth it.

     I have to admire the systems that adhered so closely to their teacher's movements that they even imitated little quirks.  The founder of Isshin-ryu, Tatsuo Shimabuku, had a crippled leg due to his getting rickets when he was very young.  He could never execute a proper kick with it (I think it was his right leg).  He made a kind of little short, jerking kick with it because that was the best he could do.  His American students (who didn't speak much Japanese or Okinawan dialect) imitated it perfectly.  To this day, their kick(s) in certain kata are done just as he did them...but the kicks made with the other leg are different because his left leg hadn't been so severely crippled.

    Another Okinawan karate master (Asano, I think), had had beriberi when he was a youth.  He couldn't completely straighten his fingers.  When he formed a shuto (knife-hand), his little and ring fingers bent inwards considerably.  Consequently, his students imitated that form and it has been carried through to this day.  The karate styles which descended from his teachings all use the same form of shuto.

     Many years ago, one of my own students noticed that the forefinger of my right hand did not flex fully when I made a fist.  It remained nearly straight at the first knuckle.  Knowing that some Okinawan karate styles use a similar form of fist, he figured that that was what I was doing...and he formed his fists in the same manner.  I didn't notice it for years and then when I saw it, I asked WTH he was doing making a geeky-looking fist like that.  He told me that he was making his fist in the same manner as I formed mine.  I had to laugh and I told him that when I was young, the flexor tendon of my right forefinger (first knuckle) had been severed and I couldn't bend it!  That was why I formed a fist the way I do.  But I have to give him credit; he was watching very closely for the little things that might make a difference.  Like how to make a smooth and beautiful loop with an old inkpen. 

     The old and beautiful form of handwriting that existed only four or five decades ago is now gone.  Think about that.  People didn't see the need for it and stopped practicing and teaching it.  Now it's gone.

     Let's not let that happen to the real martial arts.  It doesn't take long for things in this world to disappear forever.  Keep practicing those loops and learning how to correctly dot your i's and cross your t's.