Thursday, March 5, 2015

The perfect blade

Some of you might recall from my essay "My unlikely relationship with the jian" the story of how my father bought me a hunting knife when I was 7 years old - and how I lost it.  In fact, it wasn't "lost" so much as stolen.  Now, after almost exactly 41 years, I have it back.  Almost.  Anyway, here's the story:

You might remember that my father and I entered a rather smoky little specialist blade shop somewhere in downtown Belgrade in December 1972 where he bought me a lovely bone-handled hunting knife.  It seemed like a large Bowie in my child-sized hands.  And it was love at first sight.

I took that knife home with me to Papua New Guinea.  Back then we were living in the tiny hamlet of Kavieng on the northern and western tip of New Ireland, just 100 km south of the equator.  It was a hot, sticky, remote and totally undeveloped corner of the world where remnants of World War II were still "fresh" - at least in a decomposing, oxidising yet jagged, sharp and nasty equatorial jungle sort of way.

It was precisely this environment that my precious new possession - probably the only personal material gift my father would ever give me - went.  And it seemed perfectly suited to its new home.  Looped into the belt of my khaki shorts, the leather sheath kept the trusty stainless steel blade safe and always ready to be used - to cut that vine, whittle that stick or prod that war munition (I know - it was a crazy time).  For a while, the Bowie and I were inseparable: young boy and hunting knife joined at the hip.

Then the unthinkable happened.

I was playing in our front garden.  I remember it so well.  There was a huge pile of leaves and flowers at the base of a giant jacaranda tree which leaned over from the neighbouring property, and I had been playing in them, piling them up high to make a kind of "cave" supported by a flimsy framework of sticks.  I was lying on my side in the "cave" and the hilt of the knife was digging into my hip, so I took my belt off, pulled the sheathed knife out and put it down next to me.  I remember looking up into the sky and seeing a neighbouring New Guinean boy of roughly my age high up in the branches.  He was spying my knife.  I knew he wanted it - but he wasn't going to get it.  So I thought.

Later that afternoon the sun sank low, well beyond the breaking surf on the reef, the street lights abruptly flickered on and I was called inside to dinner.  I realised almost as soon as the screen door slammed that my beloved knife wasn't on my hip as it habitually was.  I knew exactly where I could find it.  So, despite my parents protestations and threats of punishment, I ran outside to the leaves.  High up in the jacaranda tree I could see my neighbour clambering back over to his side of the fence.  And I knew exactly what had happened, even as I frantically combed through the now dismantled pile of leaves and sticks in the half-light.

The knife was gone.

How I've beaten myself up over that knife.  It's loss has haunted me for decades.  My failure to keep something so precious, so valuable in the most sentimental of ways, was sometimes more than I could bear, particularly after my father passed away prematurely.  Particularly because it came to symbolise one of my few "connections" with the old man.

He was a brooding figure, prone to sitting quietly, lost in his own thoughts: a sombre, meditative person with a tendency towards melancholia offset by sudden bright joviality.  His fractious personality meant that I never knew what to expect and regarded him with a kind of wary reverence.

He would come home from work and sit in the kitchen of our old weatherboard house, dressed only in his underpants and a singlet, using the big breadknife to smear slabs of unsalted butter on thick hunks of bread.

I would sit nervously next to him while he buttered the end crust for me.

He was also the menacing figure who, belt in hand, towered over my crayons and me, glaring at my artwork scribbled on the wall or in his precious encyclopedia.

He was the guy who let me tag along with him into town on Saturday mornings, saying almost nothing.

He was my old man.

When he passed away I had little to show for our patchy, "afterthought" relationship.  That knife was pretty much all I would have had.  My father and that Bowie seemed to be irrevocably tied together.  I'd lost the latter.  The absence of the former somehow seemed to be attributable to my neglect as well.  Whichever way it went, they were both gone.  And I was at least partially responsible.

It's fitting that my father and a blade should somehow be bound together so tightly in my memories.  After all, he was in so many ways a fighter.  He opposed corrupt officialdom (in Communist Yugoslavia), resisted blind prejudice and (sometimes hostile) indifference (in our adopted country, Australia), and here (in PNG) he firmly negotiated the clash of stone and space ages - unflinchingly pressed into the sparks where steel meets grinder.

For example, one night in Kavieng our little house was invaded.  It seemed that my family had unwittingly been caught in the middle of a vicious tribal custody dispute concerning a infant native girl our servant Boma had taken in "for a few days".  The girl's father had come to reclaim her.  At about 3:00 in the morning our lounge room was abruptly full of large, sinewy men, the smell of salt and underarm sweat thick in the air, my father jostling, then punching them out into the corridor, one after the other.  It was a scene reminiscent of the movie 300, with my father using the narrow passageway to keep his opponents one-on-one.

And I remember the moment of which I was most proud of him: the night he delivered the cleanest knockout punch I've ever seen:

We were living in Port Morseby, where the evening air always smelled of fish and salt as it wafted in from the harbour.  Another expatriate couple had come over for dinner.  The woman was an Aussie: a quiet, slender blond girl.  The man was a fellow Slav - a dark, sinister sailor who happened to scare the living sh*t out of me but who my father seemed to tolerate in the house for reasons unknown.

We kids were dispatched to our beds but we couldn't sleep, lying in our respective pools of sweat under the humming ceiling fans.  I recall I was at the point of dozing off when all hell broke loose.  It seemed our dour sailor guest had started to verbally abuse his female companion in a slurred, alcohol-fueled way.  My father told him in no uncertain terms that this behaviour was unacceptable in his house.

My brother and I reached the corridor just as the male guest had slapped his partner full in the face.

I remember my father rising abruptly out of his chair.  The sailor was already standing in the middle of the lounge room, hands outstretched defiantly with inebriated swagger.  Then my father punched him - square in the jaw - and knocked him right across the room and into the trembling asbestos wall.  It was one of those John Wayne punches, the kind that seems to wind up forever then explodes with all the force a bear-like man can deliver.

After that my brother (who had loaded both his fists with C batteries just in case) and I saw our dad wordlessly grab the sailor by the scruff of his neck and seat of his pants, and heave his ass out of the front door and down the steps into the front yard.  Fight over.

Years later I remember my father scoffing at my karate, then proceeding to pound a heavy boxing bag with his ungloved fists, bending it double.

When I got word of his passing he was only 48 - the same age I am now.  I was a thousand miles away on a different continent.  It seemed impossible for someone so powerful, so passionate, so full of energy to be gone.  Yet it was true.

In the years since then I've often thought about my "old" man; how much he shaped me and what sort of legacy he'd left.  Was I the sort of son of whom he'd have been proud?  He never lived long enough for me to find out.  I don't suppose he'd ever have understood my passion for the traditional Asian martial arts.  He'd be scoffing in his grave right now, I'm sure.

But just as I find agreement with boxers and MMA fighters on the most crucial issues, I'm sure I had already found agreement with my father on at least one thing:
That knife he'd given me back in '73 was the "perfect blade". 
 Except I'd lost it.

I don't know what possessed me, but just last month, almost exactly 41 years to the day after I'd lost it and just after what would have been my late father's 78th birthday, I decided to look for my knife.  Not the actual knife, mind you (that has almost certainly disintegrated in the equatorial jungle somewhere on New Ireland), but a knife of exactly the same brand and size.  Something told me it was a German make.  But I wasn't even sure about that.  All I knew was that it had a stag horn handle and a Bowie-shaped blade.  I knew I'd know it when I saw it.

So I started searching.  I took to eBay where all my search terms initially came up with nothing.
Then, abruptly, I found it.
I knew instantly that it was the right knife.  There was simply no question.  It was just as I remembered it from all those years ago: a Linder Traveller II - a German knife, as I suspected.

I ended up plugging in "fixed blade" and scrolling through 240 pages of other eBay knives to be sure, staying up until the wee hours.  Then I went through every knife on the Linder catalogue.  Nothing came close.  This was the same knife - beyond a doubt.

So I ordered one.  And just yesterday it turned up in a package at my front door.

After all these years I was looking at my long-lost knife once again.  It seemed that a part of my father had come back to me.  I must confess that my eyes welled with tears.  My daughters hugged me.  I'd even chosen the right size: comparing it to my youngest girl's hands, I knew it was exactly what my father had bought for me.  What I'd lost was now regained.  The chapter was finished, the book was finally ready to be closed.

Is there really such a thing as a perfect blade?  Not in any objective sense.  Just as there is no perfect martial art.  But there is a perfect blade and a perfect martial art for you.  It's the one that makes sense: the one that fits the way you think and feel; your psyche.

My father and I might not have agreed on anything martial - and many other things besides.  But here was one thing on which we agreed.  It was where our psyches met; on the thin edge of a knife blade.  It might not be much, but at least I have that back in my hands once again.

And this time, I won't be letting it go.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, March 2, 2015

Promotional video for Essential Jo

I've prepared this short sampler video for promoting my new text "Essential Jo".

Please share.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, February 27, 2015

My first text book "Essential Jo" is published

If you've been wondering where I've been for last month or so, I have been working at a somewhat furious pace in the background on one of my long-sought after goals.  And now I've finally achieved it:
After 6 years of toil and struggle, my first martial textbook, "Essential Jo" has finally been published!

The book is intended as a complete instructional manual on practical, as well as sophisticated and elegant, techniques using the jo.  For those who don't know, the jo is the Japanese 4-foot staff, originally taught with the ken (sword) in the samurai arts.

As far as I can tell, Essential Jo is the most comprehensive text on the subject to date, offering a course of study from white through to black belt in the "Way of the Jo" (jodo).

The book features over 900 professional black and white photographs accompanied by clear, detailed textual explanations.

While it is intended primarily for students with experience in weapons arts, particularly jodo, the book can also be used by beginners for home study.

I think the art of jodo makes an excellent addition to any martial art system.  I believe karateka, internal and external gong fu practitioners, Filipino martial artists and Western sword/stick artists alike will be able to co-opt this self-contained course of study into their curricula - and I have prepared the text accordingly, following the syllabus we use at the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts.

At the core of our jo method are a series of 20 basic techniques called “suburi”. We have retained these from aikijo (the jo method of the art of aikido) as we find them to be a comprehensive catalogue of the different deflections, strikes and sweeps that one can make using the jo.

A detailed performance of the first 5 suburi or basic jo techniques

Added to this are 9 “kumijo” (literally “an encounter with jos”) – 2 person combat drills that apply the suburi in a dynamic, effective environment. These drills are modeled on traditional kumijo from various schools but are, in the end, my own creation. They are the result of almost 30 years of martial training, combining the features of the arts to which I refer above, and many other armed and unarmed disciplines.

Importantly, unlike many other 2 person drills taught in relation to the jo and other weapons, the drills “loop”: that is to say, they can be practised continuously without end. The practical result of this is that in each drill both sides use the same sequence. The sequences are also short (between 6 to 10 movements), making them easy to learn.

The “looping” nature of these drills is not just a means of facilitating inculcation. Nor is it merely matter of learning/teaching convenience. Rather, each move has been carefully thought through so that it provides the most logical and economic answer to the attack you are facing. The drill then provides your partner with the best answer to your counter. And so it goes. Like the game of “rock, paper, scissors”, these drills cycle through the optimum responses to various attacks, “grooving” effective, reflexive responses which utilize “wu-wei” – the Daoist concept of “no unnecessary action” or the “line of least resistance”.

The 9 kumijo provide what I feel are a comprehensive set of jo skills. It is my experience that when you’ve well and truly inculcated these drills into your reflexive response, you will have an answer to virtually every type and angle of attack.

A sample of the 9 kumijo of the muidokan system

I first started writing the text in 2009 and Lucia Ondrusova took about 2/3 of the pictures in that year.  Lucia also took the cover photo on location at a monastery I was training at in Taiwan in 2011.  My brother took the remaining paired photographs with Lucia offering advice via Skype in that same year.

Then followed the arduous process of liaising with publishers.  I had two very positive initial reactions from big publishing houses and both got me to go through to the very final stages, only to tell me at the 11th hour that they had reconsidered.  It would have been nice if they hadn't strung me along for two years apiece!  (I had been asked by both publishing houses to do reviews of their publications and I would have thought that the courtesy of promptness on their part was the least I could expect, but it seems not!)

Whichever way it goes, the book is finally published and available for purchase - through my publishing house Pikkeljig Press and via Amazon shortly.  It will be available in Barnes and Nobel, Book Depository and other major bookstores starting in 6-8 weeks time, although from experience with my fiction book "The Mirror Image of Sound" (which actually features some martial arts too - or at least some fighting anyway!) the cost through other outlets is greater.

I'd like to thank my student, training partner and life-long friend Jeff Cosgrove.  He has all my respect and more as both a martial artist and wonderful human being.

I'd like to thank Lucia and my brother Nenad for all their wonderful work in taking the photographs for the book.

I also want to especially thank Nenad and his wife Tania for the use of their marvelous centre and, more than anything, for their unflagging support, encouragement and belief over the years.

I want to thank my cousin Branko for posing with me in some of the pictures, Jeff Mann for proof-reading and my mentor, teacher, friend and adopted "kume" James Sumarac for his teaching, guidance, energy and positivism.

Last, but not least, I must (as always) thank my wonderful wife Maureen who has never stopped believing in me and my projects.

I hope you enjoy the book!

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Classic uraken knockout in MMA!

Some of you will recall my article back in 2010: "Uraken: karate's greatest folly?" in which I discussed the relative usefulness of the uraken - the backfist of karate.

Over the years I'd heard many opinions on the worth of this technique - mostly disparaging ones.

I'm heartened to see that my opinion of the uraken wasn't misplaced.  Paul Felder's knockout of Danny Castillo use of this very technique at UFC 182 on January 3 was, as it turns out, a classic execution - albeit in the context of a spin.  It even used a snap-back at the elbow (rather than a swinging follow-through)!

And it had a devastating effect.

At first it was suggested by many that the technique was a hammer fist.  Or was intended as a hammer fist.  But, thanks to the work of my friend Noah Legel, the gif below demonstrates that it was indeed a pretty standard uraken as taught in karate - right down to the wrist extension at the end (see the picture above and my uraken example below) which presents the knuckles as a striking surface, rather than the back of the hand (as I discuss in my previous article).

Note the way Castillo is knocked out by a "shock" that doesn't move him much  - rather than a pushing force (ie. a technique that looks relatively "weak" was used, yet produced a determinative result).

And I like the way he pulls back his other hand to his hip at the moment of the strike.  But no one chambers at the hip, do they...?

Lastly, I love the way Paul Felder used a classic ashibo kake uke to deflect the roundhouse kick.  So many great examples of traditional karate in one short clip.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

One million pageviews!

I am happy to announce that as of yesterday, this blog had officially passed the 1 million pageviews mark!

My sincere thanks to all my readers for helping me achieve this milestone.  When I first started blogging I never dreamt that I would garner more than the occasional read of my lengthy, technical and detailed essays - especially on an internet where soundbites rule.  I've always worked on the basis that I would write what I wanted to write.  I'm heartened to find that being true to oneself doesn't always mean being not having your voice heard.

So here's to the next million - and happy new year!

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic