Saturday, August 11, 2007

Judo, Death and Love

I attended John Ogden's funeral yesterday. John had a judo club in Los Angeles since 1953, years before I was born. When I first met John, in 1982, he was in good health, had a great sense of humor and was a leading figure in judo in southern California. The last few years, he was a frail man in his eighties. We were playing around at a tournament, pretending to fight one another, like judo people always do, and I accidentally scratched his hand. It took weeks and weeks to heal.

So, I began to think about all sorts of things. Why do we do judo? In the final analysis, what are the things that are left when life is over?

Hayward Nishioka's remarks at the funeral gave one clue. He talked about the first time a throw really works, when your opponent's toes are peeled from the mat, he flies through the air and is slammed to the earth, all in a second, but the memory lasts a lifetime. This is what psychologists call "flow", those moments in life and sport where time and effort flows effortlessly are a thing of beauty. As Hayward said, it only takes a second, but the memories last a lifetime.

I saw a young man today at the Nikkei Games, just barely 18. He had a new tattoo and I teased him a bit about what it might say. He pulled his shirt down and I read it,

"Steve Bell. Forever my coach."

What makes judo so different from other sports and activities? Why do people fly from Arizona to their sensei's funeral, or have his name tattooed in memory? Why do people name their children after their favorite coach, student or teammate?

More than anything else I know in modern society, success in judo requires a sustained effort from an individual to give a student a sound basis. Someone needs to correct when your foot is too far forward, is turned in the wrong direction, when your balance is back on your heels instead of distributed on the balls of your feet. Someone needs to look at you as an individual and identify the best techniques for you to learn, the weaknesses in your current repertoire and the strengths on which you can build. That person needs to continue doing that for a year or two to allow you, with hard work, to develop into a decent judo player. To become a great judo player takes many, many years and many people who care enough about that person as an individual to be helping, guiding toward continuous improvement.

From A Wrinkle in Time, to Harry Potter, plenty of books have that sappy ending where the secret weapon the hero has is "love" or "hope" or something like that.

Today, Jenn, my second daughter, was recounting to me all the hardships she had endured in her life, and pointed out that, despite her father's death when she was young, despite having a mother who worked three jobs and was often out of state or even the country, she had grown up to be pretty functional and only a little jaded.

I argued that she had, in fact, had a big advantage in that her entire life she had never had reason to doubt, even once, that her mother and father loved her.

That is one thing that makes judo different. Those of us who are lucky enough to be proficient are the literal embodiment that someone cared about us and believed we were worth their efforts.

John - we will miss you.

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