Unless there’s a damn good reason not to (like our 30th Anniversary Tournament last year), American Taido hosts a yearly practice excursion sometime during the summer. We load up the cars, stock up on beer, and drive the entire school to the beach for three days of practicing and partying together. Year after year, summer camp is one of the most exciting and fun events for American Taido teachers and students. I love summer camp.
My family skipped camp for our first few years in Taido, but I have great memories of each camp I attended. At my first summer camp in 1988, Bryan and I fed potato chips to alligators from the back porch. Later that evening, Mitsuaki and I had a joint birthday party.
My black belt test date was announced at summer camp in 1992. In 1994, I remember being nervous heading to Shukumine Sensei’s room at five in the morning to deliver his gi and breakfast. In 1998, Bryan and I took the first group of our own students from Georgia Tech. Bryan made his surprise return after three years in Colorado at summer camp in 2003, and about a week before I moved to Japan, I demonstrated for my 4dan promotion at summer camp 2003. I could probably write a few pages about every summer camp I’ve attended, but I don’t want to bore you.
Why I Flew to America for the Weekend
I wasn’t able to make it to camp in 2004. I had a good excuse – living in another country does make it difficult, but I really wanted to be there. Besides the usual good times, Bryan tested for 3dan that year, and I felt terrible that I couldn’t be there to support him. I had planned on missing this year’s camp too, but as it turned out, I couldn’t not be there.
As most readers of this site are aware, three of my students from Georgia Tech have been working their way through the process of testing for shodan. That process concluded at summer camp this year, and our club has now graduated our first three black belts. I’m more than a little proud of them, so I couldn’t justify missing summer camp and not being there to watch their tests. So I took a few days off work, bought a plane ticket, packed my bags, and went.
Since i’m moving back to America within a couple of months, one of the things I have to think about is how to get three years’ worth of accumulated possessions out of my current home and across the ocean to my next home. One side benefit of this trip to Atlanta for summer camp is that I was able to pack up a lot of books and videos and carry them home for storage now rather than paying to ship them next month. I thought this was a great idea and gave myself a mental high five for thinking of it. That is, until was lugging two (exactly) 23 kilo suitcases and one 14 kilo “carryon” from train to bus to train to check-in. My combined baggage actually weighed very nearly as much as I do. With every step of effort, I told myself that at least I wouldn’t have to carry all that stuff in a few weeks.
Luckily for me, I was able to convince Bryan to pick me up at the airport and help me lug everything to the house. I was actually a little disappointed that I wasn’t stopped at customs, because I wanted to joke about having a bag full of chinese babies for sale, but perhaps it’s better that I didn’t (though I have found that customs agents on the whole have much better senses of humor than do immigrations officers). After (almost exactly) 24 hours of transit, I was quite happy to sit back in Bryan’s Jetta and allow someone else to be in control of my plans.
Bryan is probably the reason I went to Atlanta. I wanted to, but Bryan convinced me that I needed to. I told him that, should I be able to make it, I was going to leave everything up to him as far as planning and logistics. And I must say that Bryan knows me well – the first plan on the docket was a trip to the Royal Oak Pub (at which I practically lived for quite a while before moving to Japan) for some food and drink. However, since we were working on short time, we decided to stop by Tech to check out the last practice session before camp, which was scheduled to be an informal, free review session.
Of course, I had been practically immobilized for most of my trip, so I couldn’t resist moving around a bit and playing a little Taido. I got to meet a few new students and also got to see all of our black belt candidates. I don’t remember why it came up, but Chad and I got on the subject of hokei, so I decided to make a new version of sentai no hokei. I doubt he’ll remember it, but I do. I think that, with a few adjustments, it may be worth teaching as a continuation of the original version. The idea of having several difficulty levels of each hokei is something that I’ve been playing with lately, so this may make it into the curriculum at some point.
Anyway, we didn’t stay long at tech. There was a pint of Bass waiting for me at the pub, so we headed along. All of the the Tech group coming to summer camp joined us, and I ate the biggest, greasiest burger I had had in over a year. We talked about Taido and not-Taido, the past and the future, and how cool it was to be hanging out together after such a long time. And there was some giving of gifts.
Once a few years ago, Uchida Sensei was really pissed at all the black belts. I don’t remember who had done what, but he was basically livid. He had us all sitting around in a circle, chewing us about something that must have had to do with one of us getting a little bit of a big head. He told us “I don’t care you have pink belt! Nobody special!” Now, I got over losing the feeling of being a “beautiful and unique snowflake,” but I never forgot about that pink belt. As my first two black belts have gradually disintegrated, and I have too much dignity to wear one with stripes on it, I’ve had to search high and low for suitable replacements. Though I won’t be wearing it in classes, I now have a shiny new pink belt, courtesy of Tech Taido.
After all that, my only plan was to get a few hours of sleep in a real bed.
That’s the time that Sensei claims we always leave the dojo for summer camp. Actually, I can’t remember ever leaving at just that time, but we’re usually pretty close. I felt surprisingly chipper considering that Bolot had subverted my plans for sleep with a steady stream of beer and interesting questions. However, the two hours of sleep I did get had to be about the most satisfying rest I’ve had in a very long time.
Summer camp is one of my things. I’m hard core about summer camp. It’s one of the times that I really kick ass in Taido. Every year, parents tell me how much their kids loved practicing with me. Adult students tell me that I’ve opened their eyes to parts of Taido they hadn’t seen before. I run my ass off, working like a migrant farmer, but I have an incredible time. Summer camp is just part of my Taido genetic structure, so when we showed up at the dojo to join the group, it was like reading my favorite book (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in case you were wondering) or running into my best friend from high school (Ed Kennedy, in case you were wondering).
Mitsuaki, Brendan, Dmag (a nickname I had no idea would take off – it just seemed like there were too many Davids that night…), and of course Bryan were all there – the guys with whom I came of age in Taido. I don’t want to get sappy, but I really miss these guys when I don’t see them for a while, and it had been almost a year. There wasn’t much time to chat, but just seeing each other felt good. After a few “nice to see you”s and a quick review of the schedule, we jumped in the cars and pulled out onto Spalding Drive. It was 6:02 AM.
I won’t give you the road-trip travelog, but rest assured, we ate water-proof donuts and drank insanely caffeinated beverages. I ate my yearly McDonald’s sausage biscuit (summer camp is the one time I condescend to eat such filth), and before we knew it, we were in Panama City Beach, Florida, also known as the Redneck Riviera.
To the Beach!
Once at the resort, we checked in, ate lunch, passed out room keys, and introduced everyone. Then, we all went to our rooms and changed for practice on the beach.
We warmed up together briefly and then broke up into groups for technical practice. My group’s ages ranged from about five to nine years old. I really love working with kids that age, and I love teaching beginners, but these kids were not beginners. The roster I was given for planning practices included hentai no hokei and some pretty difficult techniques such as senjogeri and ashigarami, but I told myself that these kids had to be good to make it so far at such young ages. I was certain that we would have no problems.
I was wrong. Practicing on the beach is difficult. There are a lot of distractions, it’s (really, really) hot, the sand gets all over you and makes it difficult to move well, the sun and SPF-laced sweat get in your eyes… My kids were not having it. They forgot everything. They couldn’t remember untai no hokei. They couldn’t concentrate for even a minute on Taido. To make matters worse, they really didn’t understand most of the techniques I had been asked to work on with them.
I love kids, but I have a hard time dealing with people who can’t do the things I think they should be able to do. Luckily for all of us, I was being assisted by Laura from Tech, and she’s much nicer than I am. I overheard one of my students saying later that Laura was a great teacher, but that I was no good at all. I had Laura basically lead the group while I fixed mistakes and tried to decide how we could best spend our time together.
We took them in the water to do some techniques and get cool. We also let them play a bit, hoping that it would give them a little motivation to try a little harder. Alas, the beach was too much for them, and we ended up spending the last twenty minutes or so of practice sitting in the sand, talking and playing.
I fully understand what it was like for these kids to wake up after a long car ride, rush to the beach, meat two teachers they don’t know, and be asked to perform under such difficult conditions. I’ve been there, so it doesn’t upset me. I’m pretty good at surfing children’s attention levels in teaching situations. The thing that bugged me is that these kids were wearing pretty high belts but couldn’t do white-belt techniques and routines.
I asked them what techniques they were best at and what they liked. I heard answers like nengi (ashigarami) and suiehigeri. I decided to test them at their best and favorite movements. None of them could maintain any balance during suiheigeri. That wouldn’t have been so bad (considering the surface) except that none of them could kick straight either. When I checked their nengi, only one (out of nine) of them understood the mechanics of the movement well enough to perform a weak, slow-motion scissor on my leg. The majority of them performed the technique by sitting down and rolling over sideways – usually in the wrong direction.
Finally, we dismissed, and I headed back to the room a little disheartened. I really wanted them to do well, and I wanted us to have fun together, but I knew that it was going take a lot of work to get them to perform at a level at which I could be happy about allowing them to pass their tests.
The Black Belt Dinner
This is something that started just a couple of years ago, and I think it’s a really nice part of summer camp. Uchida Sensei has a dinner for all the black belts to show his appreciation for all the work they put in for making camp happen. We all have some food and drink and talk in a relaxed atmosphere.
This was the largest group of black belts we’ve ever had at summer camp, and possibly the youngest group as well. Eventually, Sensei asked if anyone had anything to say, and a few people spoke up. There was some good natured (if drunken and un-composed) talk about our Taido “family,” and Michael Goodroe brought a few of us near crying with his earnest and totally non-cynical synopsis of what Taido has meant for his own family. Mitsuaki also had a few things to say, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t sound suspiciously like a grown-up. I learned my lesson back in 1994 and now make sure that I speak either before Mitsuaki or not at all.
After that, my folks, the Popes, and I headed back to the room and had a couple of margaritas before calling it a night.
“I love the smell of Tiger Balm in the morning.”
Saturday morning, everybody loves to act as if it’s some giant big deal to get up and be at the beach by 6am to workout. Somehow, I usually manage to be one of the first people on the sand, probably since I don’t sleep much. I think it was a little before 5 when I began my warmup of all the -mei and -sei hokei, plus taii-. I played tag with the surf for a while and did some tai-chi, and then a few other folks wearing white pajamas started to appear near the dunes.
The saturday morning practice was traditionally the killer workout session on the beach. We used to do things like run for five miles and then return by oizuki and maegeri ido. The year before my black belt test, I swear that John Okochi, Jerry Johnson, and John Roberts we seriously conspiring to kill me. However, American Taido now has more of a family focus, and very few students even remember that kind of torture. This year, we did something that was unheard of ten years ago – we practiced techniques.
Then the children arrived, and I went back to teaching my group of blue belts how to mimic the gross movements of the routine known as hentai no hokei. I have to give them credit that they did much better than they had the previous afternoon. However, they were still making consistent mistakes on untai and sentai hokei. Call me a fascist, but I really think that anyone about to test for green belt had better not screw up white belt techniques.
Does that make me old-school? Or hardcore? I can never keep straight which version of the word “dinosaur” people are labeling me with, but let’s just get one thing straight: doing things right is not the road to extinction. Maybe some US Taido instructors’ mantra is “quality can wait,” but I can’t call myself a teacher if I’m working under such assumptions. I believe it’s negligent.
Uchida Sensei is always working to motivate the kids by telling them “Great job! Number one! OK!” So it shocked a few of them (and their parents) when I looked at their nengi and said “That was terrible!” The thing is, that was just the kind of challenge a few of them needed to really try to improve (and Sensei has always encouraged us to be tough when he’s being sweet). When teachers do naught but praise, students have little incentive to work. Praising effort is the key to eliciting improved performance it’s called positive reinforcement, but it only works when used with some discrimination. It works wonders when one instructor criticizes until the other praises.
Anyway, we made it through, and by the end of practice, I was satisfied that all of my kids were ready to test for purple belt. Then, it was time for one of the things I really wanted to see.
Tech Creative Hokei Presentation
Sensei didn’t want to make it seem like anyone testing for black belt was doing any more or less than anyone else, so we decided to have our three students present their routines privately to a small group. Bolot, Laura, and Shelley each did their routines on the beach, and then we had a little chat.
As I told them then, the point of the assignment wasn’t about me giving them any evaluation – it was simply an exercise for them to attempt. However, Corey did have a few remarks about what hokei is really about and what they needed to do to make their routines hokei. In other words, they had created strings of techniques, but clever as they may have been, there was something missing. There wasn’t a lot of time to spend, so we talked a bit about what makes a hokei “real” and what makes a hokei performance “good” and dismissed. There wasn’t much time until the tests, so we figured we should leave it at that.
“Remember what we did an hour ago?”
That’s what I was asking my students (the children I had taught on the beach) as I prepared to give them their test. I believe the curriculum for children should focus less on memorization of movements they don’t understand and more on building physical agility and spatial awareness. In a well designed curriculum, every student can meet the requirements. However, children are not mini-adults, so it’s unreasonable to expect them to perform adult movements.
That said, I only had to remind a few of them how to do basic movements, and they all tried hard. In American education, trying hard is the only thing you’re allowed to test for children. As long as they try, the teacher’s job is to progressively lower standards until everyone “passes.” In any case, all nine of my students passed their tests. Keep in mind, I never asked them to speak to me in Japanese, to perform any athletic feats, or to do anything that I wasn’t doing by the time I was a yellow belt (which, for those unfamiliar with the children’s rankings in American Taido, is the belt below blue – these kids were all blue belts). They each performed three hokei and one technique of their own choosing. Then, we were out of time, and the test ended.
That’s a Lot of Black Belts
Then it was time for the black belt test hokei demonstration. The eighteen candidates had already completed a comprehensive technical review and some sparring (three hours worth) a couple of weeks prior, so all that remained was their hokei performances. As we were setting up, all the existing black belts headed to the front of the room, and I counted about 25 of them. There were a couple of guys there who had been present at my own shodan exam and a few people whom I can’t really claim I know all that well. It kind of made me feel like middle management.
We watched all of the candidates perform their routines, and I was pleased to note that, despite a few minor mistakes, the three students from Tech looked pretty good. In fact, it seemed as if they had actually been listening earlier in the day when Corey and I had been talking about how to do a good hokei.
Uchida Sensei decided to make something of a competition out of the deal, and each of the black belts was supposed to vote for which candidate performed the “best” hokei. I abstained since I thought it was silly, but Brenda Morales won over Shelley by just one vote – pretty close. All through the demonstrations, Dmag and I were joking about what the prize could be for the winner, and I had guessed that the winner would get to have dinner with Sensei. In fact, Brenda and Shelley won lunch with Sensei. I hope he takes them someplace nice.
Finally, Some Free Time
After the tests, I needed a beer and a nap. I may not have expressed the severe time constraints that most black belts have to work under at summer camp, but we stay incredibly busy. In addition to my usual running-around-like-a-crazy-person, this year had me trying to make contact and have conversations with a lot of people about various projects and ideas I am preparing for my return to Atlanta. And besides that, a lot of friendly catching up. While it was nice, it was also exhausting, and I was still on Japan time.
Luckily, Sensei anticipates this (he’s learned from over twenty past summer camps) and gives us a break in the middle of Saturday afternoon. Some people go to the pool, some go out to eat, some sleep. I did a little of all three. The break was nice, but Bryan decided to cut it short by having a group of folks meet a half hour early on the beach for the used-to-be-traditional 1000 punches.
Last Beach Workout
Now of course, 1000 punches really isn’t as big a deal as it sounds. Bryan and I used to pop off a thousand punches while we were waiting our students to arrive at class. It only takes a few minutes, and the most difficult part of the exercise is keeping an accurate count. We were joined midway through by a few extra folks, so we ended up with about ten or twelve people in our little circle punching. It was fun – I think it’s been a few years since I did that – and just to make sure I continued to earn my “hardcore” label, I did 1000 good punches, instead of the I’m-pacing-myself punches most people were doing.
Just as we finished up, the beach was beginning to fill up with students, and it was time to start practice. The last practice of summer camp is always a lot of fun. We play games like tug-of-war and everyone is relaxed and happy. Then, we all line up in the surf and do punches and kicks in the water – of course, we do plenty of ebigeri.
Finally, we finish up and Sensei dismisses camp. That’s when the real fun begins, and the traditional dunkings get underway. I don’t remember how is started, but at one point it became a tradition for all the black belts to grab Sensei after camp, carry him into the ocean, and toss him in the water. Over the years, it has evolved. First, we also started trying to do the same to the likes of John Okochi and Negishi, and later when students began to dunk whoever had taught them at camp. Now, grabbing someone and tossing them in that water after summer camp is a sign of appreciation for working together – it’s like a bonding ritual.
I, of course, am way too mature and cool to participate in such things. Yeah, right. I learned the Okochi technique a few years ago, and pretend to resist just enough to make it look like I don’t really want to get wet, but they know I love it. Actually, the dunkings can go on for a long time, because there are just so many people that you want to say “hello” to after camp. My students, three of them wearing shiny new black belts, grabbed me and threw me under first. Then John Hinckley grabbed be from behind and did the same thing. When I came up for air, somebody said “Andy, where are your glasses?”
“Shit!” We were all feeling around with our feet. I thought I had them for a moment, but then the undertow sucked them back away from me. I figured they were lost. There I was thinking about how a blind man was going to make it from Atlanta to Myogi when Russell pops up and says “Got it.” He had somehow managed to find my glasses in the surf – amazing. I was so stoked, I kissed him, which was probably the most action Russell had seen in a while.
By that time, I had totally forgotten what was going on. I was standing around watching everyone play and have fun, when I saw Gabriel looking in my direction with a face that said “uh-oh.” Then I hear some splashing sounds coming up from behind, and suddenly, everything was upside down. I held on to my glasses and held my breath. I opened my eyes a few moments later, spat out a quart of saltwater, and found that I was sitting on Dmag, who had a giant smile on his face. We laughed for bit and decided the that was a good note on which to head back for a shower and a beer.
Each year, we have an awards banquet after the final practice which marks the finale of the event. Sensei loves to make “big excitement,” but frankly, I tend to be bored by them. Yeah, it’s great that everyone takes tests and gets promoted. Congrats. But you know, an automatic promotion for showing up isn’t such a big accomplishment. So I tend to eat my food, drink my drink, and tell dirty jokes during this portion of summer camp.
After the official party, there is always the official “unofficial” party in Sensei’s room and its official alternative unofficial party in Mitsuaki’s room. We were all a little tired, so a bunch of us went to Bryan’s room for a little warmup. We talked and drank and ate (and I really needed something edible after the stuff they served at the conference center). It was nice taking a break from everyone and just being together as a group for a while before heading off to join in the reindeer games.
But then we did. I’ll spare you the details (rather, i’ll spare certain individuals accountability for the details), but let it be known that American Taidoka know how to party. This was not an especially wild event by our standards (not even approaching the infamous 25th anniversary after-after party), but we all had a nice time. I strolled back to my room at about five in the morning feeling pretty damn happy, but really tired.
At about 8:30, I was up, packing up my clothes preparing to head home.
The Ride Home
This year, the Tech group managed to fit in two cars, and we all made the drive back to Atlanta together. Like all rides home, it was longer and slower than the ride down to Florida and lacked the excitement we felt on our way to camp. We drove and talked and ate some really greasy chicken at someplace that didn’t look anything like a restaurant, and then we were in Atlanta, saying our see-you-laters.
Bryan dropped me off at my parents’ house, where I ate, packed, and slept. At five the next morning, my mother and I were on the train to the airport.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I got back to good ol’ Gunma-ken, but I’m still riding a sort of wave of excitement from attending summer camp. It really is one of my favorite parts of American Taido, and it gave me a bit of a warmup for returning stateside next month. I’m really looking forward to getting to spend more than a weekend playing and practicing with all my friends in Atlanta on a much more regular basis. Though Japan has been good to me, and I’ve really enjoyed these three years, it’s always great to be home.