by wjw on March 8, 2008

I spent Friday at the karate school, doing stuff. Doing lots of stuff. It was the quarterly organizational meeting, so the school was full of school owners and managers from New Mexico, Arizona, and elsewhere.

So we started out with all the self-defense techniques, of which I have heard there are 749 (I haven’t counted, myself), and then all the forms. Then a break for lunch, then a written test, then a bunch of other stuff.

At some point I realized that I was re-qualifying for my fourth degree black belt. Re-qualifying? Since when do we have to re-qualify?

Since now, apparently. Shut up and work on that horse stance.

I sort of sucked. For a whole host of reasons— overwork, health issues, lack of time, surgery, the death of my teacher— I haven’t been concentrating on Kenpo as much as I have been in the past. And so I forgot some of the material, including losing a couple of the katas halfway through, and not being able at all to remember what was supposed to happen next. (That was after the dehydration really got to me— I really needed to have slammed down a half-gallon of Gatorade after the first forty-five minutes, and maybe I would have been able to keep the brain working.)

I am now really, really sore. But I got through it, which was part of the point.

So let’s flash back to my online diary from June 1999, and the overjubilant message I wrote at the time. This is when I was ready for the damn test, and was nine years younger and still had all my body parts.

If the format is strange, it’s not my fault.

I am back. I am in remarkably intact physical shape, all things considered.
And I am now a Ssu Tuan, or Fourth Dan as the more Japanese styles would have

Because the fourth degree test is different from the others, mine took place
ahead of the rest, and started on Thursday night. There were four other folks
testing with me– a large number, though hardly a safe one– it was nice not
to be the sole center of attention for the entire senior staff. The number of
candidates was sort of surprising, considering there are only maybe a dozen
fourth degree or higher black belts in the whole system.

I had seen a couple of fourth degree tests before– I don’t know why they
allowed me to view them, but they did. The one I saw last year lasted about
ninety minutes of 110% furious crank, plus various oral and written
assignments. Ninety minutes seemed pretty endless, but I tried to prepare
physically for it, and for the various attempts to screw with my head that I
knew would prevail.

By fourth degree, they figure you know the material, so they’re not interested
in having you perform it as such. They’re interested in seeing how you
perform the material while under extraordinary stress, and so what they want
you to do is not just do a kata, but do the kata while standing on your head
and singing Pagliacci. They want to strip you of everything but your absolute
essence and find out what you’re made of– and what you’re made of better be

Thursday dinnertime we assembled at the school and the group mindfvck began
when we were asked to solve, or more properly create, a koan having to do with
our assignment. (Which was to create 45 individual self-defense techniques
for use with various situations.) We discussed this over dinner– I had half
a salad and saved the rest for later– then brought our conclusions, such as
they were, back to the school.

I knew the test was split into two sections, so I figured that the first
night’s would be the orals, the written test, and probably a demo of my 45
techniques. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of physical exertion. I was

We did warmups and a lot of basic kicking and punching. Then I did my 45
techniques, after which the judging board told me I had not done them with
sufficient intensity, so could I please do them again. This also was not
intense enough, so I did them a third time. By this point I was foaming at
the mouth and shrieking. I was then told to do the techniques for =another=
judging board, and then a third.

I was beginning to think longingly of the five quarts of Gatorade I had in the
cooler in the back of my car. If I’d known I was going to have to exert
myself to this extent, I would have brought some into the school and got a
swallow now and again.

Then we did forms. But not just forms– the judges did things like number the
five longest kata in our system, then call off the numbers more or less
randomly, forcing us to switch from one kata to the next in the middle of the
performance, or pick up another where we’d left off. I believe that large
chunks of kata began to slip off my plate during this part. Then we did all
five weapons forms while carrying all the weapons at once, shifting from one
to the other as necessary and sticking the unused weapons in our belts– which
is difficult when one of them is a six-foot hardwood staff.

I was pretty much finished by the end of this. One of the things that kept me
going was listening to the gasps and wheezes of the other candidates. I
figured that however much I was suffering, I wasn’t suffering as badly as they
seemed to be, and if they could keep going, so could I.

After which we were asked to perform one of the advanced katas in the system,
and to comment on it orally. “Discover what the crisis point in this kata is,
and perform it.” As it happens, I had the answer to this one, but answering
it only got me into further trouble, as I was then asked to perform the entire
kata, and lecture on it at the same time, with comments from the other
candidates and questions from the judging board. This led to much discussion
of the Void and the Chuckle of the Monkey and Throwing Down the Altar and
Killing the Buddha and other philosophical, mystical, and symbolical points of
view, as explicated through body movement. I had a feeling I was doing this
pretty well. I’m not a mystic, but I can talk like one if I have to, and at
inordinate length.

Mostly, though, I was thinking of the Gatorade.

Then we discussed our koan. Turns out we had pretty much nailed it.

Once we got through the physical part, the atmosphere lightened considerably.
We made jokes, the judges laughed, and vice versa. (When the Grand Master
makes a joke, you’d better laugh.)

I left the school with a soaked gi and a buzzing brain. The first part of the
test had lasted just short of three hours. I’d got jolted with too much
adrenaline, and I didn’t sleep well at all.

Next morning we shifted to Apple Valley Ranch in the Manzano Mountains, which
we’d rented for the weekend. It’s owned by Fred Abscher, a bearlike man who
created Kojosho karate, a modern syncretic style which is sufficiently
successful that it is now being taught in Asia. He’s a friend and former
rival of Da Boss, and they sit on one another’s governing boards.

Here at 7500 feet, early in the morning, we started all over again. The
judging board wanted to see us perform the entire kenpo system– all 749 self-
defense techniques and 27 kata. [Note: there are more kata now.] We sang, we juggled, we did kata standing on our head and singing Pagliacci. We did forms with our arms alone, or with our
feet alone. We did a lot of the forms more than once. We did the sword form
five times, twice with extra-heavy swords. We rolled in the dust, we breathed
dust, we spat dust. We did forms while standing on fence posts. I stepped in
a hole while doing a spin kick and blew out my right knee, but I kept on

Once again, the labored wheezing of my comrades helped me through it. There
were a few points where I began feeling faint, but I managed to fight through
them. This time there were frequent Gatorade breaks. The strong wind
evaporated our sweat and kept us cool, though it filled our clothes with a
fine grit.

At length we staggered back to our tents. Our test was over. The two parts
together had taken about six hours, somewhat more than the ninety minutes I’d
trained for.

For the rest of the weekend, we were expected to help the candidates for first
through third with their tests (which were much more programmed and
predictable than ours, though we managed to slip in a few sadistic exercises
we’d derived from our own experience).

The senior staff kept telling me I’d had a great test, and they were very
impressed. They really liked my orals, and they thought my stances were very
good in the performances. (They were? All I remember is staggering around on
uneven terrain.)

Saturday night all 86 candidates plus their support staff trooped into
Albuquerque for a public show at Carlisle Gym on the UNM campus. The show was
an abbreviated version of the test, and featured a great many impressive
displays of martial prowess by the various candidates– the katas were
particularly awesome, I thought. Mixed with this were some inaudible
inspiration readings by people utterly lacking in performance skills, and a
lot of shouting a la Parris Island. My own contribution was one short cane
kata, which was disappointing to me. I was prepared to do a lot of grand stuff
and kick some audience butt, but by the time the show got around to the fourth
degree candidates it had run an hour late, so I did my cane form and let my
juniors have the glory. At the end of the show, we were all publicly awarded
our new belts in a lengthy but impressive ceremony.

Next morning was the physical test, in which as an old guy with no knees left
I was perfectly prepared to let everyone else have the glory. There were a
lot of horrible running, jumping, and duck-walking exercises, for which I
awarded myself a doctor’s excuse. I just sort of paced up and down alongside
the runners– did a lot more laps, and probably burned about the same amount
of calories. Then came three minutes of pushups, with only the third minute
counting, and since pushups do not require knees, I managed 87 of them in 60
seconds. (Hey, believe it, I have my support team as witness, and they did
the counting.) I did 47 situps under the same circumstances. I found painful
substitutes for the other exercises, monkey squats and squat jumps, and then
went through the obstacle course and onto the 2.5-mile Victory Run– or, in my
case, the Victory Trudge. The fourth degree candidates were supposed to hang
around at the end of the pack and pick up anyone who had fallen down.

Accompanying me on the tail end was a mid-teenish girl named Catherine, who
had suffered a severe knee injury the day before, but wanted to do the run
anyway. Her support team guy carried her on his back the whole way. I
offered to spell him– I can carry weight so long as I’m not doing anything
high impact– but in true heroic fashion he kept on going, even up the steep
hills at the end of the course.

I did in fact run the last half-mile or so, after the course got onto grass
and my knees could stand the impact.

The end of the test wasn’t very romantic, as the senior staff decided that the
last part of the fourth degree test would consist of policing the camp site
after everyone left. After fifteen years of study, and reaching the rank
where I am entitled to be called “master,” hauling leaky garbage bags
certainly served as an exercise in renewed humility.

On the other hand, the camp site manager was very happy. “I hope we have
karate people every week! None of the business picnics ever helped me pick up
the garbage!”

When I got home I was definitely in weird shape mentally. That amount of
effort bends the psyche in strange ways. It took a night’s sleep before I was
able to function with any degree of normality. (If you call this normal, that

Today I exercised my mastery on the lawn tractor, and in losing my temper with
my mortgage holder, who wants to keep all the money from my insurance

I really miss karate kamp. Real life sucks.

dubjay March 9, 2008 at 12:18 am

My friend Bob Norton, who attended the public part of my belt test, came up
with the following haiku:

Man in pajamas
Does not hit himself with stick
Dreams of Gatorade

I think it’s spot on, myself.

birdhousefrog March 9, 2008 at 1:36 am

How bizarre to have coveted Gatorade both times. Fun post to read. NOT something I’d care to attempt myself, at any level.


mindseas March 9, 2008 at 1:57 am

Congrats on making it through both times!


halojones-fan March 9, 2008 at 4:03 am

you have found wisdom!
when stressed, your only thought is
“I want Gatorade.”

(PS how many times have you heard people quote that line about “from this position, there are seven working defenses…”? I have a feeling that it’s the karate-school equivalent of “Stairway To Heaven”.)

Thai McGreivy March 9, 2008 at 4:59 pm


Ty March 14, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Wonderful description of the testing process you went through. Your school does NOT sound like a black belt mill like so many are these days.

Also, from now on you are Master Walter to me.

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