Kizu – flaws – a flashback post from September 2018

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My Judo sensei was relentless, he’d walk around us casually, then without warning sweep or throw us to the ground. With a smile, he’d then point out the weakness or flaw in our stance that allowed him to throw us.
Flaws are like that. We aren’t aware of them until it may be too late to fix things.
The maple bowl pictured here has some kizu ( Japanese for flaws) that were not apparent while carving but became a nuisance while sanding. They are a result of insect activity in the maple before it was cut down, and were not obvious on the bowl blank.
While I could try to deepen the bowl beyond the kizu I might just wind up revealing more of them. The carver here has three courses of action: toss the bowl into the reject pile; finish the bowl with the imperfections hoping that the beauty of the bowl exceeds the flaws, or practice a bit of kintsugiKintsugi is the Japanese art of perfecting through imperfections. You’ll see many artfully repaired objects in Japan that we would simply throw away.
One place you’ll see kintsugi in this country is in turned burl bowls where imperfections are filled with silver or composite turquoise. I am thinking of doing something like that here.

The old carver that mentored me always pointed out that good carvings rose above flaws, and large reject piles were a sign of a poor carver.

Show Boat

As a kid, I wish I could say that I was self-assured, well-muscled, and, if not feared, respected around the neighborhood. Not at all. I was skinny, frightened of my shadow, and picked on. A primary goal of my life was getting the idiots who were picking on me to layoff.

Judo turned out to be the art that turned things around. My senseis were young Japanese Judoka, some of whom had been all-star representatives of their art. Over my first six months at the dojo, my teachers came to realize that the bruises on my arms were not from our open sparring sessions. Eventually, one of my teachers sat me down for a talk. In a friendly but firm way, he extracted from me how Roddy and Julio were intimidating me. After carefully listening, he pointed out that I was acceding to their bullying by neither fighting nor walking away. I chose to do nothing because I was afraid, and fear was my actual problem. Then he sent me back to practice and to think about what he said.

It took a while for me to absorb things, but the next time I was cornered by the duo of Roddy and Julio, a part of me watched from the side as the episode unwound. First, there was the verbal intimidation, then there was the cornering so I couldn’t escape, and finally, Julio was pounding one fist into the palm of the other. Gradually he made a production of raising his fist to his cheek and rearing far back. Then there was a wind up to punch me. In the words of my teachers, this was a sort of Jo-Ha-Kyu ( slow, faster, fastest). It was showboating to get the maximum fear out of me in this case. But, for once, I acted rather than thought. As Julio completed his wind-up, I stepped into him and pushed him off balance. Then, turning, I grabbed the laughing Roddy with two fingers on the tip of the nose. Squeezing painfully, I found that as my sensei had told me, where the nose goes, the rest of the body must follow. In Roddy’s case, it was onto his knees. Then I walked calmly away.
Of course, I wasn’t calm. I was scared, almost witless. But it wasn’t till I got around the corner that I started panting and shaking.
After a bit, I realized that while Roddy and Julio weren’t precisely just rascals, they weren’t hardened gang types either. My counter intimidation worked fine because they were simple bullies. I didn’t let it go to my head.
Next week, I was back at the dojo working harder; I might not be so lucky next time.

Enzan no metsuke – a secret of the masters

Enzan no metsuke is roughly translated as “gazing at the mountains”. In the martial art I practice ( Iaido), it refers to a technique of gazing at a wide field of vision rather than focusing upon a single point or opponent. For ancient Samurai, it was a valuable survival tool. Staring too intently at the enemy you expect leaves you vulnerable to the enemy you don’t detect due to your extreme focus.

Enzan no metsuke is an essential tool for the artist, as well. Who has not become so focused on the specific that a defect in the work at hand remains undetected until correcting it becomes a substantial or even impossible job? Here are four easy, cheap ways of upping your game in the shop using a variation on Enzan no metsuke; without the zen.

  1.  Get an inexpensive hand mirror for the shop and use it to look at the piece you are working on. Adjust the mirror so the angle of view changes. I learned this from my friend ( and fantastic painter) Kim Mellema. I assure you that it works as well in woodcarving as it does in painting. 
  2.  Turn your work upside down. If there is an alignment issue, this will expose it. We become habituated to looking at a piece from a single angle. Turning it upside down forces our eyes to reevaluate things.
  3.  Take it outside. If you work in a shop with artificial light, it’s always a struggle to light adequately and with the correct shadows. My friend Bill Bromell suggested taking it outside and looking at the work in natural daylight.
  4. ) The best method is the last. Just take a break. Go away, have some coffee or tea, have lunch. Break your focus on the project, and come back in an hour to two. It’s amazing what time away will do for your perception of the project.

These methods work by altering the way we view the work, shifting our viewpoint.


Pride often gets in the way of common sense. I learned this early in New York. One night, a group of us left the dojo to spend an evening at a Japanese restaurant with our Sensei’s (teachers of martial arts). It was a memorable evening because Sensei’s teacher was visiting us from Japan, and we wanted everything perfect.
Finally, after a beautiful evening, our group broke up, and my Sensei’s and I walked towards the subway.
About halfway there, a group of hoods assaulted us. After attempting to defuse the situation, Sensei’s teacher took the assault head-on. Moving gracefully out of the way of one assailant, O sensei ( senior or older Sensei), tripped another and gently grabbed the third by the wrist, and bent him to the ground. The fight was over in seconds.
The idiots got up, backed away, and began screaming at the elderly short gentleman who had gently put them out of action. Then, not thinking that it wasn’t luck that they had been defeated, they moved in for a second try with similar results. Finally, O sensei grabbed and immobilized one of them to show us how the particular wrist lock he was using worked. He then casually tossed the oaf away. They ditched their idiocy and made a run for it.

My Sensei reviewed the street incident in great detail at our next meeting. He pointed out that O sensei had attempted first to avoid fighting and only defended himself when necessary. O Sensei used only as much force as needed to restrain his opponents. His opponents did not see that their tactics had not only failed but were sure to fail again.
His final point was that O sensei was only five feet tall, very slight, and seventy-eight years old. So, naturally, they assumed that such a frail older man would be no match for three burly men.
He concluded that their pride had defeated them by blinding them not once but twice.

We all allow pride to blind us. We spend years at college learning a profession and think our learning makes us infallible. We consider warnings that there might be unknown factors as spurious. Or dismiss as vulgar rants the opinions of those that disagree with us. We insist that we can do it, and don’t carefully evaluate the actual situation

Worse, we repeat our efforts even when they fail multiple times. I’ve become convinced that we do this because of a sense of investment. We spend so much time working on something, learning something, and owning something that abandoning it is almost impossible. So when we get confronted with the little elderly gentleman, we are confident that there is no threat.
We are rugged, confident, and muscular. He is little, old, and weak. The conclusion is we will win.
Not knowing that he is a ninth-degree black belt could be the weak point in our tactics.

If you have an opportunity Google Murphy’s Laws of Combat, there will be a heading in most versions that states that the guys in the simplest uniforms usually win. They have no medals or fancy uniforms and look very unimpressive. I think this particular heading was added after Vietnam, but it points out that what you don’t know can hurt you and, as the old saying says – Pride goes before the fall.

Judo to the Rescue

When I was 15, my father enrolled me in Judo classes at a downtown New York City dojo. The instructors, my senseis, were young Japanese Judoka ( Judo enthusiasts). Their English skills were minimal, and much of the instruction required interpreters and much show and – “do it this way” demonstration.
In today’s terms, I had an attention deficit disorder. Teachers despaired of me. But the dojo seemed a good match for a kid who otherwise appeared to be only interested in his guitar. And to some extent, this is a story about the guitar.
At the dojo, I had two instructors: Sensei Ishido belonged to the school of throwing them around until they get the idea and learn to counter the technique. This method worked best with the former military in the classes; they had a Karate and Jujitsu background and already understood what was going on. Not so much with me, who gang members used to clean up alleyways. A conference among senseis placed me in Sensei Watanabe’s class instead.
Watanabe Sensei did understand that I had a problem at dojo focusing on technique. His method for focusing me on my learning problem was to painstakingly breakdown each throw and have me practice and practice until my muscle memory began to develop. Eventually, I flawlessly executed each technique. Twice a week, week after week, I traveled to the dojo to pound my body against the mat as I got thrown, and in turn, threw my fellow students.
Eventually, I improved and began to move up the ranking system of belts. Sensei decided that I needed a challenge and at randori ( sparring) matched me with a much taller, very advanced student who initially used me to clean the dojo mats. It didn’t help that the senseis found this amusing.
The amusement irked me more than a bit. But in a flash of inspiration, I used a surprise technique I had watched a visiting teacher from Japan use. Moving in as though I was preparing for a hip throw, I instead pulled the gi ( a heavy canvas practice jacket) off my opponent’s shoulder. In the tiny amount of time that this distracted him, I jerked his body off-center, stepped in, and tossed him to the mat with the most straightforward footsweep technique that all students learn in week one. To add insult to injury, he landed badly. I had won the randori, and the senior student went off to practice ukemi ( correct falling technique).
Over time, I found that while Watanabe Sensei’s teaching technique did not solve all of life’s problems, it applied very well to learning guitar and later carving.
We all learn in different ways, but I think the test of an excellent learning technique is how the student adapts it for use in other areas.