Black Belt Photo Shoot

Over the weekend, my good friend Albert Teow was kind enough to do a photo shoot with me to celebrate getting my black belt in karate a few months ago. The photos, needless to say, came out stunningly, and I am awed at his skill as a photographer (as well as his generosity for giving his talent and time to me so freely).

Here’s a selection of my favourite photos!

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Black belt

Last night, I finally earned that belt which I have dreamed of. When I was a teenager just starting out in Taekwondo, I thought getting to black belt was the end game, the ultimate goal, the proof of mastery of the art (and the accompanying invincibility and inherent awesomeness). And in just over a year I got it, largely due to monthly gradings and a “if you give us money we’ll give you a new belt” attitude. (My club, despite hosting the most state champions in WA, was a bit of a McDojo/black belt factory.)

Things with the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts are a little different. The gradings are irregular, maybe two or three a year. And they say from the start, it’s a long-term journey. In the same way that one doesn’t pick up a guitar and play Hendrix after a week, it takes hours and hours of grooving movement and internalising concepts before a person has the requisite skill and knowledge to transcend it. This means that the students stay on their grade for months, or even years depending on how frequently they train. The resulting difference in skill between belt colours is obvious, with good reason; each and every student trains until they have learned what their grade was designed to teach them. This makes for a robust system of competent martial artists, where everyone’s current skill level is clearly visible by the colour of their belt.

When I was first introduced to the system of Wu-Wei Dao, I was blown away by how much I didn’t know and how skilful the students and teachers were. I didn’t care in the slightest about rankings or belt colours, I just knew that these guys knew their stuff, and I wanted to have more of that in my life. (And it was admittedly refreshing to find a school where I was not one of the top students, which I had grown accustomed to and caused me to become a little arrogant.)

Last night I achieved that dream which I so treasured as a young man. And I must admit, it gives me a thrill of pleasure to see such a symbol around my waist. But it does not change me. Ever since that first lesson of Taekwondo, I have said to myself that I will act like a black belt whether I wear one or not. I have trained hard, I have worked to cultivate a good attitude, and I have helped my fellow students as much as possible. I have strived to be a good martial artist and human being, to be “an officer and a gentleman” as Kancho would say, and to set a good example for the other students. Being yudansha is more about the colour of the cloth around your waist: it’s an attitude. Jesse Enkamp said it well: “If you’re a black belt, you should brush your teeth like a black belt, tie your shoes like a black belt and wipe your a** like a black belt.”

Wearing kuro obi is, as I said, both thrilling and kinda scary. My brother tells me those two emotions produce an identical autonomic response, it’s just the mind that chooses whether to be excited or fearful. My physical condition, while decent, is not extraordinary, and I still have a lot of work to do on my attitude (I’d like to complain less, be kinder, and to be more grateful, for instance). The other yudansha have set high standards for the school, and I will work hard not only to meet them but promote them, because it becomes me. To put it another way, now that I’ve finally managed to do 50 push-ups, I will not allow myself to do any less from now on. It’s all up-hill from here, but you know? I’m enjoying the journey up the mountain, and I don’t particularly mind that it doesn’t have a summit.

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Traditional martial arts techniques in a tournament setting

Over the weekend, my good friend Rob participated in a free style tournament, the same one that I entered in his place earlier this year. He fought commendably, and Leo, his opponent, was a very tough dude. Leo had an unrelenting approach, had a knack for catching legs, and was exceptionally good at preventing Rob from taking him down (which was one of Rob’s main strategies when we were training for it). But Rob handled himself well, using some very impressive flying knees, strong counter punches and a few expertly done throws. Rob’s smile never faltered, even when he was exhausted and in pain, and both of them were gentlemen, repeatedly touching gloves before engaging and giving each other deep bows and big hugs after the match.

While I was helping Rob train for the fight, I lamented that I never used any full blocks during my previous bout. Rob disagreed and said one of the first things I did was a classic gedan uke (low block). We ended up watching the video, and I noticed a few instances where I executed traditional blocks (though they were abbreviated for efficacy). Our teacher, Shihan Dan later went through the video of Rob’s fight and took screengrabs of many of the instances where he applied taiji principles or classic karate techniques. Without wanting to take away anything from his recent victory, I was inspired to go through my own video and do the same.

It is very heartening to me to see that, on some level, I have learned appropriate ways of defending myself when attacked in a variety of ways. So here are some screenshots from my fight of when I applied “blocks” successfully.

Chudan uke with gedan uke from Seiunchin kata

Chudan uke with gedan uke from Seiunchin kata

Soto uke

Soto uke

Wave hands like clouds

Wave hands like clouds

Reverse brush knee from Shisochin kata

Reverse brush knee from Shisochin kata

Gedan barai

Gedan barai

Teisho uke and bong sau

Teisho uke and bong sau

Knifehand strike to the body and teisho uke (from wooden dummy drill)

Knifehand strike to the body and teisho uke (from wooden dummy drill)

Parting the wild horse's mane

Parting the wild horse’s mane

Gedan uke (both primary and secondary blocks)

Gedan uke (both primary and secondary blocks)

Converting wing block into punch

Converting wing block into punch

Knee check

Knee check

X-block, from Sanseiryu kata

X-block, from Sanseiryu kata

Thoughts on Sensei Ravey’s “The Elements” seminar

When I arrived at the church hall a few minutes before 10, I was surprised to see so many families preparing for Mass. Ivan found me, and we discovered the venue had been changed without notice. (Kancho had posted it as a comment on the photo of the flyer on facebook. Yes, it’s exactly as obscure as it sounds.) Not disheartened, we arrived at the new venue early and Nemanja and Matt joined us and we walked to a nearby park to warm up. We practiced kata as a group, finishing with Miyagi sanchin, and I felt strong and invigorated in the morning light.

Arriving at the correct venue, I felt a combination of apprehension and excitement as the hall slowly filled with black belts. After a while, I got over my nervousness and approached an older man and inquired about the duct tape on his feet. We joked a while, talking of taisabaki and trivial things, and he had mentioned training with Higaonna in Yoyogi. I wondered, then, if he might be Sensei Ravey, but he hadn’t been training as long as forty-seven years so I thought perhaps he was a close friend. I noted his soft, faded belt and pondered whether he was a sensei before returning to my friends.

I promptly discovered he was indeed Sensei Ravey, though he had given no hint of his skill and knowledge. Even when I had asked which school he was associated with, he had not scorned me for my ignorance but had answered openly and kindly. There was no fanfare when he arrived, no authority about him as he sat on the floor by himself loosening his joints. He struck me as warm, friendly and passionate about karatedo. As the seminar started and progressed, it was clear he was all of these things and more. His Japanese was heavily accented, yet he preserved the spirit of each command. Every phrase he uttered and translated (“Hojo undo, warm up exercises!” or “Moichido, again!”) was said with such spirit that I was compelled to obey him. I was particularly enamoured by his Japanese recitation of the five dojo-kun.

The seminar was based on the four elements: earth (form, technique, strength), water (flow, body movement, blending), air (breath) and fire (spirit, kumite). Any one of these in isolation is easy to obtain, but a balance of them is hard to manage. I personally felt that reducing all of martial arts to just these four specific elements was limiting (I prefer to think of them in terms of body, mind and spirit), but I could see the merit in training under this philosophy. You could say to someone “More fire!” or “Your movements need more water”, or “Time to train earth”. But before all that, we had to warm up.

There was about forty-five minutes of warming up before the actual training began, and we did movements I’d never thought of before. Massaging tendons, rolling toes and hugging knees was just the start of it. Once we had sufficiently warmed up the lower half of the body (from toes to waist), we could safely practice explosive movements. Knees shot out, legs were swung and balance readjusted. With some dismay, I nearly buckled after holding shiko-dachi for just one minute, so I think I have some further conditioning ahead of me.

As we warmed up the upper body, we buddied up for some partner drills. I turned to the man next to me and we gave one another the “How about you? Yeah, you’ll do” look, and bowed. He introduced himself as Terrence, I introduced myself as Xin and we proceeded to do kakie (pushing hands drill). Kancho later asked me if I had been inspired to seek out the biggest, toughest person I could find to train with. Sensei Terry Lyon was the head of his own dojo and, I’m told, had been known to give workshop participants concussions as gifts to take home with them.

All of this I did not know as we practiced trapping and striking and he kept hitting me with unerring precision in the solar plexus. When we moved onto ude tanren (literally “tempering steel”, or “forearm beating”), his teisho (palm heels) were like hitting stone, and I bruised my hand quite badly with a misplaced tetsui. I kept waiting for Sensei Ravey to announce the call to change partners, but no such call came. We proceeded to pound arms, which actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be. When we moved on to punching each other in the abdomen, though, I did not weather them as well. I conscientiously placed my moderately-strong blows across his abdomen, but he dug his knuckles into the same spot over and over. After receiving a few of these, I wondered whether to tell him that wasn’t the idea of conditioning. For reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time, I chose to stay silent and carry on. I know now that it wasn’t pride that held my tongue; I wasn’t trying to look tough, but when animosity faced me I wanted to see if there was enough mettle in me to stand up and take it. And so I did.

Shortly after that we began doing taisabaki drills – body movements and evasions. As well as doing some increasingly complex ashi sabaki (stepping and footwork), we went on to what I call the “kick chase drill”. As I stepped back and turned, Terrence would chase me with a front kick. And every single time he overextended to reach me, often digging his toenail into my abdomen. I tried speeding up my retreat and increasing the angle of my evasion but he was determined to kick me. As he landed I started countering faster to show him the danger of overextension, but he still didn’t correct his error so I started pulling my kicks so they kept the speed but hardly any of the force. In hindsight, knowing his experience and reputation, I wish I had kicked him harder so he knew I could “give as well as I got”.

Unfortunately after that my heart condition started to affect me more than it ever has before. The palpitations recurred twice or thrice despite the gradual warm-up, so much so that my chest began to ache. Reluctantly I excused myself (with the permission of both Terrence and Sensei Ravey) and watched as everyone practiced kumite (fighting) drills. It looked like a lot of fun to practice minimising telegraphing, tracking movement and holding ground, but as Kancho is fond of saying, if my heart had exploded it would have ruined my whole day.

I gently eased back into the training with a sanchin kata that seemed neither Miyagi’s nor Higaonna’s, and tensho. We practiced panting to saturate our cells with oxygen (what Kancho would later identify as a yogic breathing practice called bellows-breath, I think), and I found it very hard to sustain for more than a few seconds at a time. It was difficult to maintain a rhythm, and I was very impressed with Sensei Ravey’s excellent diaphragm control. He went on to say that it’s natural for the body to pant after exertion, but it takes discipline to breathe properly. While I can see the merit in replenishing an oxygen debt quickly and with control, I’ve also heard of people fainting after hyperventilation. I wonder where the line is.

Sensei Ravey also revisited the misunderstood and little-practiced art of kiaijutsu. His kiai were so gravelly, so terrifyingly like a growl that it’s a wonder he isn’t known as “The Bear”. Somehow, despite what I thought were very impressive kiai, he managed to inspire us to raise our spirit (and our voices) to even greater heights, and then proceeded to punish us for holding out on him in the first place. This included a bit of “toughening up” by racing up and down the hall on our knuckles while he whipped us with his belt. In my haste, I tore the skin off my unconditioned second knuckles (and I noticed I wasn’t the only one!).

All in all it was a truly marvellous event. Sensei Ravey easily organised the group of 50+ people, and he inspired me with his impressive physical condition, his technical knowledge and application of concepts, and his unrelenting warrior’s attitude. Most of all though it was just really good to train with so many high level karateka, and I hope we all learned from one another. I’m looking forward to next time!

Sensei Ravey

Mini-gashuku at Lake Nenia: Iron Fist Retreat

EDIT: It seems I forgot to post this sooner. Whoops!

In an unprecedented stream of new blog posts, I wanted to write briefly about the recent gashuku I attended. It was my third mini-gashuku, the first of which utterly changed my life (though I did a very poor job of saying so). I’ve been training with the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts for nearly three years now, but it feels like forever. As I’ve recently told several people, I would trade all my years of Shotokan, Shito-Ryu, ITF Taekwondo, WTF Taekwondo, Moy Lin-Shin Tai Chi and maybe even my experience in Iaido for just a few months of Wu-Wei Dao under the tutelage of Shihan Dan and Kancho Nenad.

I digress. The gashuku (or more correctly, the intensive training camp) was an excellent experience. I’m at the high end of the junior grades now and I’m not too far away from black belt, so just like in previous years I felt like I was already very familiar with the majority of the syllabus. And just like in previous years, I learned so many new things it amazes me. I refined much of my technique, smoothed out partner drills and learned a new weapon sequence. There was a grading on Sunday afternoon, and to be perfectly honest I’m a little disappointed with how I performed. I’d spent a long time (maybe forty minutes) coming up with really clever and technical applications from my kata, but I’d only practiced them once with a partner and dedicated the rest of my time to learning other drills. The result was that when I tried to perform them on the gravel, I slipped frequently, my partner reacted unpredictably and I had to change many of my beautifully planned takedowns to more generic leg sweeps. I still passed (achieving 1st kyu), which delights me, but I wish I’d practiced just a little more rather than trying to surprise everybody with my skill. Ah well, lesson learned.

I’m a little surprised to say that fear is something I experienced quite a lot of on the weekend. Fear of pain, fear of exhaustion, fear of running until I was empty and then running even more, fear of cold, fear of wet and so forth. Yes, looking back, there were many things to fear. The gashuku involved some discomfort and required me to push myself beyond what I wanted to do. But regretfully, I lost much of the magic of the present moment because I spent so much energy worrying about an uncertain future (which you might have guessed wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared it would be).

At the end of the day, I look back on the weekend and smile with fond memories of plenty of people sitting around the fireplace while they yell advice at the one guy trying to get the fire going. Of the dancing shadows cast by the trees. Of the glistening water and of the serene birdcalls. Of cat skulls and fox skins and swimming turtles and not-ducks. Of kyudo in the shade and of laughter at the table. Gashuku really is a special place where people come together, to live and train and share. It makes better people of us all, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested.

Til next time.


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My First Tournament Victory

Last weekend I went to support my friend who was competing in a martial arts tournament. It was a Free Form Fighting tournament, open to all styles and all levels of skill and experience. To make it safer for the competitors, attacking the head, neck, groin or joints was strictly prohibited (which excluded grappling techniques as well). Throws were permitted so long as the person being thrown wasn’t at risk of landing head-first. I’d spectated at one about half a year ago where my friends competed but I’ve never really had an interest in signing up myself. I’m still not entirely sure of my reasons, but the conclusion that I’ve come to is that I’m not interested in winning or losing a match fight. I don’t find there to be much practical gain from a fighting style where head strikes are not allowed – it takes out more than half of the attacks that I would normally use during training. I also don’t particularly relish the thought of risking injury, coming away with bruises and limps and mangled teeth. Yet when I went to cheer for my friend on Saturday, there was a mix-up with the number of fighters participating from my school. They had scheduled in someone who wasn’t able to be there, and so when Kancho asked me if I wanted to sub in for him, I thought “The hell with it. Why not?” and signed up.

It was a really long and stressful hour as I rushed home to grab my fighting gear and back to the venue. I found it exceedingly difficult to calm down, and by the time I was called to get ready for the fight my heart had started palpitating. But when I stepped onto the mat, something inside me seemed to shut down. I almost felt too tired to be stressed any more. From the moment the fight started everything seemed to move lazily. Every movement I made seemed purposeful and well-placed. It’s curious that on the brink of battle I was filled with peace.

Based on the advice my friend gave me, I avoided the temptation to go 100% and try my hardest – instead I relaxed as much as possible and waited to see what happened. Throughout the three two-minute rounds I kept my composure, and by the end of it I was barely out of breath. I was declared the winner, but I honestly didn’t care. In hindsight, I realised that I hadn’t gone in trying to win or lose. I was just trying to do my best, to be proud of the way I acted and to reflect well on my teachers and my school. And I think because of that I avoided the pitfalls of trying to beat my opponent that would have lead to unnecessary risks and possible injury and failure.

It was a truly wonderful experience for me because it shows me how much I’ve changed since I’ve joined The Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts. My last karate tournaments were in 2009, and in both of my bouts I failed to score even a single point let alone win a match. But I didn’t buy into any of that sports-style fighting this time. I fought my own way, and for the most part I had reasonable control of myself, the environment and my opponent.

 

Things I did well:

  • I maintained good form and good technique for most of the fight.
  • When knocked down I recovered quickly.
  • I was courteous at all times, even in the face of adversity.
  • I maintained good control of the range. His attempts to rush/overwhelm me were mostly warded off.
  • At one stage I backed Jarod into a corner and then paused my assault so that the referee could pull us away from the crowd. Jarod got two hits in before I pushed him back and towards the audience. I’m proud of myself for not endangering the audience unnecessarily, even if it cost me points.
  • When Jarod got me in a one-legged take-down I was perfectly set up to elbow him in the back (just off the spine), dropping the full weight of my body into the blow. As I brought my elbow down I pulled it at the last second because I was reluctant to inflict so grievous an injury on him. I let myself be thrown instead.

 

Things I did not do well:

  • I dropped my guard to lure him into attacking me. While I was confident he was tired and slow enough for me to intercept his attacks, it was unnecessarily risky and he didn’t buy into it anyway.
  • I moved straight back more often than I would have liked. I wish that I had moved sideways or diagonally more, but I got tired and lazy as the fight wore on.
  • Many times Jarod threw attacks and left himself open to counters which I did not capitalise on.
  • When I did choose to attack him, I did not always press for multiple attacks, even though the opportunity was there. At times I was a little too conservative.
  • A few too many spinning recoveries.
  • As I rushed him in the third round he raised he knee perfectly into my solar plexus. I’m not sure if it was accidental or deliberate, but it winded me and forced me to desist my assault for a few moments as I recovered.
  • A few of my retreating kicks were thrown when I was back-weighted. Even if they had hit, it would likely have knocked me over.
  • Several times I raised onto one leg as a guard posture. It was neither stable, nor agile.
  • At one stage I telegraphed my intention to attack by leaning forwards and bending my knees like a tiger waiting to pounce.

 

Things Jarod did well:

  • He caught me beautifully with a front-push kick that I was too slow to avoid.
  • He showed good sportsmanship during and after the match.

 

Things Jarod did not do well:

  • He punched me in the face and moved one of my teeth out of line, despite his gloves and my mouthguard. He also punched me twice in the throat. If it was deliberate, it was unkind. If it was accidental, it was sloppy.
  • He was very tense throughout most of the fight, and it tired him quickly. He started moving slower very early, creating openings that might not have been there otherwise.
  • After the first round he started to abandon his stance, his guard and much of his technique. From tiredness or the sports style environment, he started engaging in a bit of a slugfest.
  • He made a few half-hearted attempts at grabbing my hands and wrists which I shrugged off easily. If I had been more aggressive I might have used his attempts for purchase to bring him into consequent attacks.
  • He allowed me, and the judges, to see how tired he was feeling.

 

I also want to mention some of the kind things people said to me after the fight. Sifu Vincent told me that I was the only fighter who looked like they had technique. Kancho agreed that I was one of the handful of people who looked like a trained martial artist rather than a brawler. I was complimented on my breathing, and on my groundedness. I got a special mention during the award ceremony for stepping up at the last minute, to which I was surprised and touched. Both Kancho and Shihan expressed pride in me, and I was glad that my best had gone well for me. And perhaps best of all, the next day I had hardly any bruises. It was an excellent experience, but I don’t think I’ll repeat it in the future.

EDIT: For a more detailed breakdown of when I used traditional martial arts techniques, I wrote this follow-up blog some time later.


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General life update

So it’s been a little while since my last blog post! Of late it seems many of my posts have been written in times of distress, anxiety or vulnerability. And that’s great! Those posts are really important to share. But equally important are the ones where I’m not at such a despairing point in my life. So here’s one about the sort of stuff I’ve been up to lately!

Training stopped about two weeks ago and doesn’t commence for another couple of days. I’ve been restless, but also relieved as it’s given my body a chance to heal the odd injury (strained wrist, blistered toes etc.). This, I believe, to be very important because I’ve chosen to take up a new gong (challenge). One of the Academy’s old associates, the Traditional Okinawan Gojuryu Karate Association, recently had an open day where they were giving us a chance to use their new training equipment and check out their dojo. I noticed they placed great emphasis on sliding the foot across the floor rather than stepping. I used to predominantly slide, but after training on rubber and wooden floors, and even soft training mats, I noticed I would get blisters and rip skin off my feet every couple of weeks. I asked Shihan (our chief instructor) about it one night and he said the trick is to glide just above the floor. When I spoke to Kancho (the head of our school) about the discrepancy, he said that we too slide across the floor rather than stepping. This perplexed me greatly, and when I emailed Shihan about it he told me simply that “sliding is relative. Do fukyugata 300 times in a row and you’ll understand.”

To give you some perspective, 80 renditions of fukyugata in an hour is quite an achievement. This is sort of a four hour kata marathon without breaks. My friends and gave it a quick run through a dozen times and I already noticed moments where I dragged my foot, moments where I lost balance, moments where I didn’t fully commit to a technique before moving onto the next one. I think fukyugata is rich in the foundations of good gong fu and I have much to learn from it. Now it’s only a question of when I’ll take up this challenge! Ideally a time where I can rest for the remainder of the day, and allow a few days recovery between my next training session – I anticipate my feet will be rubbed raw.

 

In the gaming world, I recently passed Mass Effect 3. As a completionist, I absolutely nailed Mass Effect 1 and 2, and it just so happened that the choices I’d made along the progression of the game allowed me to do some remarkable things. Foremost, due to my high charisma and reputation built through dozens of hours of heroic kindness as the kickass Commander Shepard, I forged peace between the Quarians and the Geth, saved all my teammates from suicidal missions, instated a powerful leader of the Krogan who rallied to help me and otherwise made Commander Shepard, the Normandy and his team totally overpowered. It was a fantastic game, and I absolutely loved the ending (though I read about the new ending they released, and I must admit it does seem a little better).

I’ve been working my way through The Last of Us. If you’ve got a PS3, I urge you to borrow it from a friend and play it yourself. To my amazement, I cried readily during the prologue, which was done with such maturity and transparency it still moves me now. The game starts off pretty hard with only one firearm and a handful of bullets, but as you progress you get a reasonably supply of ammunition and crafting material. Plus, as you upgrade your weapons you get better at killing people. I was getting pretty cocky at how good I was at winning open conflicts, and then I was abruptly stripped of all my powered-up weapons and was forced to rely on stealth and inferior firearms once more. It sent me straight back to the start of the game where I felt scared of every enemy, overwhelmed and totally vulnerable to a brutal death if I made a single mistake. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but I think I’m pretty close so I’m looking forward to a quiet patch of uninterrupted time to enjoy it’s conclusion.

 

My mental health has been much better lately. I recently came to the resolution that in spite of how I felt at the end of my placement after my supervisors gave me some pretty critical feedback, I’m actually a pretty awesome person with a lot to offer people, and I’ll make an excellent social worker in some form or another. Finding my place in the world is very groovy – there are lots of positions that I think I would really enjoy, and that would really enjoy having me, but I’m not going to invest too much in applying for jobs just yet. With Japan about a month away, I’m going to just focus on my few shifts at Petbarn and unwinding a little. But I am genuinely excited at the thought of my future career in social work.
I recently came across this website/app called Super Better. If you have twenty minutes, this is an amazing video which will add seven minutes to your life within the next hour, or three hours within the next day, or ten years by the end of your life. I think. The math escapes me, but it’s amazing.

I’ve only spent a few days with SuperBetter but it’s so much fun. It’s a real life video game and it comes with all the thrills of mastering skills with cool names, fighting bad guys, earning experience, leveling up etcetera. I really do urge you to give it a try for a just a single day and see if you like it! And if you sign up, perhaps we can be allies and fight our badguys together!

 

Just quickly now, in terms of Japlanning, Beth, Craig and I are having another session today! I spent most of last night seriously sitting down and looking at the plans for accommodation, travel insurance and places to go/things to see. It’s fine when it’s an abstract concept far off in the distance – “Oh, Japan is way over there, it would be nice to do this and see that”. But when I actually really thought about doing this and seeing that I got supremely excited. I’m getting more organised and I’ve started learning Japanese from Pimsleur’s audiobooks – a great way to do it, high recommendations from me. I can’t even follow let alone have a basic conversation yet, but I am learning handfuls of useful phrases more-or-less every day, so I’m hoping by the time February 5th rocks around I’ll be competent at basic conversation.

 

Anyway, I’m running a tad late now. Going to go buy my friend a 21st present, and then head to Beth’s for sweet brunchin’ times. Ja, mata!