Review of "Be Water" -- the Bruce Lee Documentary on ESPN

Bruce Lee Be WaterThe Bruce Lee documentary that aired this week on ESPN, titled "Be Water," is a must-see for any Bruce Lee fan. The film aired on June 7 but is being repeated on ESPN and you can stream it on the ESPN Plus app.

It contains photos and old film footage that I have never seen before, and I have collected and devoured Bruce Lee material since 1973.

"Be Water" is a very timely film, especially in light of the George Floyd murder and the protests against racism during the past three weeks.

Bruce Lee was the victim of racism, and he fought hard to overcome the prejudice that white Americans -- and Hollywood -- had against Asians. He refused to play a stereotype, especially the old-style "chop chop" pig-tailed Oriental image that was the butt of humor in American culture.

It is an eye-opening film. I grew up in the racist South in the Fifties and Sixties, but when I was 13 I watched "The Green Hornet" every week, and I thought nothing of the fact that Bruce Lee, as Kato, was Chinese. In fact, it was mysterious and cool to see his kung-fu in the TV show.

It would still be six or seven years before a buddy and I sneaked into a drive-in theater to see "The Chinese Connection" in the summer of 1973. A couple of weeks later, I saw a very short article in the newspaper that reported Bruce Lee had died.

I was surprised by the news. That strong young guy in "Chinese Connection" was dead. My buddy and I thought the movie was horrible, but I kept saying, "That Bruce Lee guy is really good."

A month later, I went to see "Enter the Dragon" and everything changed. I enrolled that September in my first martial arts class, and it has been part of my life ever since.

There are photos and film footage of Bruce in "Be Water" that show him throughout his life, and I particularly enjoyed the film of him dancing as a young man.

The documentary traces his life and his sudden death. There are no talking heads, but Bruce's family and friends speak over the photos and videos.

The title, "Be Water," came from part of Bruce Lee's Taoist philosophy. He is shown in the now-famous interview that he did in Hong Kong in 1971, when he says, "Water is shapeless, formless. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put water into a kettle, it becomes the kettle. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

And this is my complaint about the movie. This is where it falls short.

Bruce Lee's fighting philosophy was to adapt to, and flow around obstacles thrown at you by an opponent.

I practice this in my Tai Chi push hands and in self-defense. When an opponent touches me, when he gets close and grabs me, I have practiced to the point where I relax, like water, and I don't let him get a firm grasp.

It is like grabbing a handful of water, as Bruce Lee describes it in the film. But what we are working on is to relax, while maintaining internal strength and correct body mechanics, and we don't let our opponent find our center.

We find our opponent's center, however. We flow around his strength like water and we find his weakness. Like water, we find a way to go where we want to go.

If a stream of water encounters a rock, it flows around the rock. If an opponent punches at me or grabs me, I neutralize his force, go with it, and flow around it until I hit him or take him to the ground. At least, that is my goal.

That is the self-defense philosophy of "Be Water."

That same self-defense philosophy can be applied to your life. 

It is illustrated by Bruce Lee's reaction to the racism he faced in Hollywood. He wanted to be the star of the "Kung-Fu" TV show, but studio executives did not think Americans would accept an Asian star. They also thought Bruce's personality was more geared to fighting, not to the peaceful nature of Kwai Chang Caine. So, in a racist move, Warner Brothers hired David Carradine, and they made him half American and half Chinese.

It was the ultimate obstacle in Bruce's life, and what did he do?

He flowed around it, like water. He went to Hong Kong and he made the movies he wanted to make, culminating in "The Way of the Dragon." By this time, Hollywood paid attention, and cast him in "Enter the Dragon."

By adapting and going with the flow, Bruce became the biggest action star in the world. Unfortunately, he was dead before he was able to realize his full success.

Bruce Lee a Life"Be Water" should have hammered home the lesson that the "Be Water" philosophy promotes -- not only for self-defense but also for life.

What obstacles are you running into in your life? How can you flow around them, adapt and change, to achieve your goals and dreams?

I have used this philosophy in my personal life many times, not only in self-defense, but in adapting to and flowing around the loss of jobs, the loss of a daughter, the loss of marriages, the loss of a lung, a heart problem, and now a pacemaker. I will keep flowing, and changing, and growing, and I will continue to improve and understand more deeply because it is part of who I am.

Bruce Lee would understand this very well. THAT is the lesson of his fighting art and philosophy. It is a philosophy that you can use every day.

"Find what is worthwhile about yourself and express it," his wife Linda says in the movie, as if that is the message to be taken from his life.

Yes, that is one lesson, but it is not the lesson implied by the title.

"Be Water" is an excellent documentary about Bruce Lee -- a must-see for fans. But it should have been much more inspirational. It should have done a better job of teaching viewers this key lesson; to be water and to adapt and flow around obstacles that impede your progress. Do not let anything stop you, my friend.

My daughter Belinda made a great observation about this film. She said it was as if the producers "concentrated on the finger, and missed all that heavenly glory." 

By all means, see this film. But for a much better experience in learning about Bruce Lee, I recommend Matthew Polly's amazing book, "Bruce Lee: A Life."

-- by Ken Gullette


Flowing Around Another Kung-Fu Obstacle -- a Pacemaker

The image in this post (below) might be disturbing and is a bit personal. -- FYI.

Two weeks ago, a cardiologist put a pacemaker the size of a matchbox into my chest and ran wires down into my heart.

You have to go with the flow, right? 

Be water, my friend, right? Flow around obstacles and find your way.

I try to remain centered and be water, but this took me by surprise. My cardiologist and I had been talking about it for years, but the decision to do it was not made until about five days before we put the pacemaker in.

I still suffer from atrial fibrillation, also known as a-fib, and that causes my heart to beat erratically. Just sitting at my desk, or on the couch, my heart will suddenly jump from 60 beats per minute to 155 bpm, as if I am running the 100-yard dash. Then, after a few seconds it will drop to 70 beats per minute, and a couple of seconds later it will jump to 140 bpm. 

This can go on for hours. It makes me tired, and if I bend over, it makes me have to breathe heavy.

A-fib has been the number one obstacle in my life. When doctors tried to fix it three times in 2008, it cost me the use of my left lung.

But my heart has been beating in crazy, dangerous ways for the past two or three months, so the time came.

A pacemaker does not fix the erratic heartbeats, but it allows me to take medication to slow my heart rate and try to cut down on the rapid beating.

The pacemaker is there in case my heart beats too slowly as a result of the medication. If it beats too slowly, the pacemaker kicks in and provides a burst of electrical current to make the heart beat at the right pace.

In my hospital room before the surgery, I asked, "When can I practice Tai Chi again?"

"Today," he said. "We want you to move your left arm so you don't get a frozen shoulder."

I had no fear of getting a frozen shoulder. Then the rep from the pacemaker company came in to see me. Yes, the pacemaker company sends a rep in to talk with patients before the procedure. That must add to the cost of the machine!!

"When they put it under the muscle, the recovery is more painful," she said. "We want you to move your arm, but you will be surprised by how little you will want to move it."

She was right. 

They wheeled me into the operating room and kept me awake during the procedure, but they put a hood over my face and pumped me with enough goofy juice so that I could hear everything, and feel some things through the numbness, but I didn't care. I was in la-la-land, and that was just fine with me. 

A lot of pacemakers are placed under the skin. My doctor cut the muscle and placed it under the muscle. I could feel him poking and pushing and prodding it, pushing it down closer to my heart. I did not feel him running the wires, called "leads," down into the heart chambers.

The surgery lasted about an hour, then I was wheeled back to my room to shake off the grogginess.

Because of the coronavirus, Nancy was not allowed in the hospital with me, but she picked me up at the door.

It is surprising just how much your upper chest muscles work when you move your arms. After the procedure, they sent me home within a couple of hours. Moving my left arm caused the upper chest muscles to fire, and it was very painful for days.

So I took it easy and decided to let it heal as quickly as possible and not stress it. 

Nancy helped me tremendously, as she always does.

Ken Pacemaker Bruises 2020The bruising was surprising. It looked like someone had drawn a tattoo in a half-circle on my left pec, looking like someone had poured blood inside and filled it half to the top.

You can see the slice near the shoulder. That's where they put the pacemaker under the muscle. Below that, you see the red smudge closer to the heart. That's where they pushed the device. The bruising on the arm is just part of what happens when they cut into the muscle in the chest.

I now have a hump on that part of the chest. When I do heavy push hands and grappling-type throws with partners, I'll have to wear chest protection and make sure I don't take any hard hits or kicks to the pacemaker. Just one more adjustment to make as I get older. 

I taught my first class six days later, a live Zoom Xingyi class with members of my website from Texas to Sweden and Germany. 

I have taught my regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday Zoom classes since. 

After a little more than two weeks, I can now move my arm normally with no pain, and I'll do my live Bagua class at Noon today. 

I went in the week after it was installed. A technician with an iPad said, "Okay, I'm going to test your leads. You may feel your heart race when I hit this button."

She touched the screen of her iPad and I felt my heart race for a few seconds. It made me take an extra breath or two.

Damn! 

Then she hit another button and the heart raced again for a couple of seconds.

So they can control my heart with an iPad??

I hope Nancy doesn't get that app on her tablet. She might get a lot more out of me around the house.

In the end, this pacemaker may be a good thing and hopefully, I'll be able to practice more and teach even more. One of the reasons I haven't done more workshops in the past few years is the unpredictable nature of my health. Hopefully, this will help smooth things out a bit.

So we flow around the obstacles and find our way, like water.

At 67 years old, now with a pacemaker to catch my heart if it falls too low, it is time to keep pushing forward in these amazing arts. I don't think I'll be able to quit practicing until the heart completely stops. Hopefully, that is a few years away. 

--by Ken Gullette


Coronavirus Dangers Are All Around Us but It Is the Best Moment of Our Lives

Ken-Nancy-9-17-2017Nancy and I were sitting out on our screened-in porch a week ago, after watching more bad news about rising death tolls, infections and the economic toll of Covid-19. 

Nancy had been in tears several times over the past week or two, worried that she was going to bring the virus home from work and kill me. I am in a high-risk category -- 67 years old, one lung, a heart issue (a-fib) and asthma that has developed since I lost the lung. If I caught the Coronavirus, I would probably be toast within a few days. 

I have been watching a lot of network news and reading the Washington Post and New York Times because, as a former news guy, I want to keep up with it all.

So it was a mild spring evening and we were sitting on our porch with a glass of wine.

I turned to Nancy, looked her in the eyes and said, "This is the best moment of my life."

And I felt it.

You see, the question we should ask ourselves is not "What is the meaning of life?"

The question should be, "How can I make each moment of my life meaningful?"

My personal philosophy, based on philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism, is that in every moment, no matter how horrible, there is always something to be treasured, to be enjoyed, and to give us pleasure if we will only find it and be open to it.

During the past 11 years, since my strong, muscular body decided that a lifetime of clean living wasn't enough to stop it from self-destructing, helped along the way by medical malpractice, pursuing my passion has been a challenge.

I have continued to improve in the internal arts. My movement is better and I understand more deeply than I did in 2009.

Physically, I have to stop and gasp for air quite often when I do athletic forms or movement or strenuous push hands or sparring for a couple of minutes.

But there are nights when I get ready for bed, look in the mirror and laugh. No, not for the reason you're thinking.

I laugh because despite the challenges, I'm still pushing forward.

Some days, my heart will go from 60 beats per minute to 155 beats per minute within a couple of seconds. A few seconds later, it will drop from 155 to 70 BPM, then back up to 140, then down to 65, then up to 150 -- and this will go on sometimes for hours.

But I love my life. I absolutely love it. I wouldn't trade it with anyone.

And so, even though my life is in serious danger with this invisible enemy floating around infecting us, I have felt very little stress. I try to live my philosophy every day.

It is not a philosophy that depends on another being or person to save me or to bring me happiness. I guess you could say it's a philosophy of personal responsibility. The farther you get outside of yourself, the farther you are from the answer you seek.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not ready to go. I am sheltering in place and I am washing my hands and avoiding touching my face. I'm centered, not stupid. 

Remaining centered is not just something I talk about when I discuss philosophy.

It is a crucial part of my mindset and my outlook on life. I have been through some serious stuff in my life. 

I give fear and stress no place to enter.

What is your personal philosophy? Can it help you ride through this storm without leaving you capsized in the waves?

Do you know how to live?

I love this part of the Tao Te Ching:

He who knows how to live can walk abroad
Without fear of rhinoceros or tiger.
He will not be wounded in battle.
For in him rhinoceroses can find no place to thrust their horn,
Tigers can find no place to use their claws,
And weapons no place to pierce.
Why is this so? Because he has no place for death to enter.

This is not just philosophy. It is not just something to read in a book. It is a tutorial on how to truly live, even when danger, physically and economically, is all around you.

Don't you love this life?

-- by Ken Gullette


The Duality of Winning and Losing is a Mental Trap if You Love Martial Arts

Ken Gullette doing the high jump at Lafayette High School in1970
Ken Gullette doing the high jump at Lafayette High School in 1970.

When I was in high school, Paul Carter's dad used to come to our track meets. I was on the team and did the high jump. Paul's dad would always say hello and talk with me a little bit. It was Lexington, Kentucky, but he grew up in the rural part of the state. He was the type of friendly Southern guy you would expect to see in Mayberry, talking with Andy Griffith. 

One day Paul told me that his father enjoyed watching me high jump because, "He says whether you win or lose, you smile."

I enjoyed hearing that when I was 17. When I competed, I always wanted to do as well as I could, but I loved doing the high jump. I wasn't going to get a college track scholarship or anything. I wasn't a talented, gifted athlete, I just loved it.

A few years earlier in middle school, Coach Pieratt set out the high jump one day in gym class. None of us had ever seen it. He wanted each boy to try jumping 4 feet 10 inches. He explained to us how to jump doing the old Western Roll. The Fosbury Flop was so new, he didn't consider teaching it. He set the bar at four-ten and, one by one, each guy ran up and jumped, and knocked the bar off. 

My turn came. Let's see, you run up, jump off the left leg, throw your right leg over and then, when you are above the bar, kick your left leg to help propel your body over.

It seemed difficult. No other boys could actually clear the bar.

I ran to the bar, jumped, and landed on the foam rubber on the other side.

There was a gasp in the gym. I had cleared the bar by a mile.

"Well," Coach Pieratt said, "we finally found something Gullette can do."

Instantly, the Coach put me on the team. I did the high jump for the middle school track team and then for my high school, Lafayette.

Sometimes I won first place and sometimes I didn't. In the four years that I did the high jump, I never remember leaving a meet disappointed. I loved doing it, but I didn't think of winning or losing. I knew I was just an average high-jumper, and if a "natural" showed up, I wouldn't win.

When we compete in anything, we are trained to look at it in dualistic terms. If you don't win, you lose. But I never looked at it that way. I had fun. And whether I won or not, I smiled.

It's a shame we have to ruin activities we love by getting upset over winning and losing.

In 1974, I competed in my first martial arts tournament. At first, I let the macho "kick ass" attitude take over. Winning was everything. It wasn't much fun, because I didn't win first place until 1983. In 1988, at a tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska, I was very upset when the judges ignored some very good points that I scored, and they gave the trophy to my opponent. It was not much fun.

By the time 1999 rolled around, I took a different approach. I started having fun. When someone would score on me, I would nod my head and say something like "Great kick," or "Good shot." If someone landed a good kick, I would look at the judges and say, "Yep, he got me." Or I would wobble back to my spot in a comical way, making the judges and spectators laugh.

I am not a naturally gifted martial artist, but I had fun. I won some, I lost some. But I became known for my skill AND my sportsmanship.

According to Zen philosophy, our intellect sets up duality of thinking -- right and wrong, pretty or ugly, hot and cold, good and evil, winning and losing.

We become trapped in a "this or that" mentality.

But an enlightened person rises above intellect; rises above duality of thinking.

Now, in 2020, the unenlightened person thinks, "You have to be training to kill someone or you're a pussy. If you can't defend against an MMA fighter, your art is useless!"

My advice is to rise above that type of chatter. It comes from people who don't understand that once you develop self-defense skills, there are many other reasons to train.

I'm 67 years old now, and so far, I have not been attacked by an MMA fighter on the street. I doubt it's going to happen. 

My favorite part of the arts is to unlock self-defense applications within the movements and to learn how to flow with a partner in creative, effective ways.

Some of the best things I have learned have happened because I "lost," when a training partner or tournament opponent landed a good shot on me. 

My attitude is, "Thank you for that. I did something wrong there, and now I can learn to do better."

Invest in loss. Even in losing, we can win especially if we learn. There is no losing because if you learn, you win.

And above all, love what you do. Don't let the duality of other peoples' thinking trap your mind. The next time someone asks, "Did you win?" you should reply, "Yes. I learned how to improve." 


The Tao of Mr. Rogers - The Secret of Being Kind and Forgiving

BeautifulWhen people hurt me I get angry. You probably do, too.

There have been times when I have carried grudges. There were three bullies who were "after" me for two or three years back in middle school. Rob Brewster, Dan Cotter and Tom Prentice always seemed to be together and always wanted to pound me into the ground.

They were older than I was by at least a year. 

One night, Rob sucker-punched me through a car window, so I had to have been around 16 and driving, but the bullying began long before that, when I was around 14.

One day when I was 14 or 15, I was fighting another bully after school in a field near the school. We were surrounded by boys as our fists were flying and we were wrestling and finally, exhausted, we called it a draw.

Dan decided at that moment, when I was exhausted from another fight and he was fresh, it was the right time to jump me. Bullies always try to pick a target that is weak or alone.

He hit me a few times but I would not fight. I was so tired, I knew I would lose the fight. I left with two other friends and I was in tears of anger and frustration as I walked home.

One day, I was riding my bicycle away from Turfland Mall and came to the top of a dirt hill at a construction site. Suddenly, the three bullies were right in front of me. I took off riding while they ran like hell to try to catch me. At one point, one of them was just three or four feet behind me as I pedaled like hell. I think it was Dan. Somehow, I managed to get away.

I spent two or three years looking over my shoulder when I was in middle school and the first year of high school. A friend told me that he overheard Rob laughing and bragging about how the guys would sneak up on me at school and hit me or spit on me.

When we were 18, Rob turned up without Dan or Tom to play baseball with a group of my friends. It was the first time I had ever seen him alone.

After the game, I walked up to him and asked, "Hey Robbie, you remember how you and your buddies used to hit me and spit on me?"

He said, "Yeah."

I punched him in the nose. Hard. 

He staggered back, his eyes watering.

"Well, your friends aren't here to protect you," I said.

Pow! Another punch to the face. 

Rob looked panic-stricken. On the ground, someone had put down some baseball bats. Rob bent over and picked one of them up.

"Nope," my buddy Ed McCaw said, and stepped between us. He told Rob, "This is going to be a fair fight."

Rob fled to his car and wouldn't get out. He left before too long. That's what bullies do when their target fights back.

Even after all this time, I am still interested in talking with Dan, Rob's bully-friend who became a doctor and practiced along the East Coast somewhere. He would be about 67 by now. It would be interesting to know if he ever reflected on what a bully he was as a teenager. I wonder if he was a bully to his staff when he grew up? Once a bully, always a bully, I believe.

Their other bully-friend, Tom, was not as much of a ring-leader as they were. He was simply a follower. 

So I guess I don't really like it, but I carry a slight bit of anger with me 50 years later -- damage done by bullies and a desire that still persists to see justice done. And justice could simply be an apology.

At the same time, I have worked for more than four decades to remain centered and follow a more Taoist philosophy about life. Carrying this tiny seed of anger means that I have not truly reached the level that I seek?

Do Good Be Kind Ken NancyDuring the past couple of years. my favorite shirts have been the two baseball jerseys that have the words "Do Good. Be Kind." on the front of the shirts.

I do my best to do good, be kind to everyone I meet, and I do Zhan Zhuang as a way to calm my mind and body and remain centered.

This doesn't mean that you can't get angry. You can, but you shouldn't hold onto it. I do a good job of that most of the time. Not all, but most.

I remembered all this as my wife Nancy and I watched the film, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" yesterday. It is the story of a journalist for Esquire, a cynical guy who was assigned to do a profile of Mr. Rogers.

The film shows how Mr. Rogers' kindness had an impact on the journalist's life.

The best quote in the film, in my opinion, was when the journalist met Mr. Rogers' wife, and they discussed what it was like to live "with a saint" who was so kind to everyone he meets.

"Oh, he's not a perfect man," Mrs. Rogers said. "He has to work hard at it. It's a practice."

The line hit me like a sidekick.

Rogers1Fred Rogers seemed like to kindest man that ever lived.

But he practiced it. He worked hard at it.

There have been many people in my life who have hurt me, both in my personal life and my professional life.

I have tried to walk on, shed these poisonous people from my life and not allow them to control my mind by making me remain angry.

I can decide what I do with the anger they stirred up. I can decide not to be angry -- to let it go and live a happy life.

For the most part, I do that very well, but it is sometimes hard work -- a work in progress, you might say. Some people think that if you are into Taoist philosophy, or Zen Buddhism, that means you should never get angry. But there is a reason monks meditate for years or decades. It is hard, hard work.

It is nice to know that even Mr. Rogers had to work at it.

And so we practice Zhan Zhuang, qigong, and work to calm the mind and body, then bring that sense of calm to conflicts that arise in our lives, from the angry spouse to the micromanaging boss and even to the person who cuts you off on the highway.

Don't beat yourself up for getting angry. The point of following most philosophies is not to be perfect. That is unattainable.

The point is to reach the point when you don't let the anger linger, you recognize it and deal with it, then walk on. You control the anger, it does not control you.

Sometimes, you simply have to confront people who have hurt you and let them know how you feel. I have found that it usually starts a very satisfying discussion, even if I don't punctuate the discussion with two punches to the face. Sorry, Robbie. 

This is a lesson we all need to be reminded of from time to time.

It is the Tao of Mr. Rogers.

I will remember that if I ever run into Dan Cotter again.

Remain centered, my friends. Mr. Rogers would want it that way. So let's get to work.

-- by Ken Gullette 


The Death of a Child and the Death of a Spouse Offer Tests of Internal Strength and Character

Shara-at-33
Ken Gullette with Shara in Oct. 1980.

A few days ago, my daughter Shara would have celebrated her 39th birthday. She was born on September 12, 1980.

Six weeks later, on a chilly October morning, the morning after she broke into a big, toothless grin for the first time, causing me, her 3-year old sister Harmony and her mom to burst out laughing, we found her dead in her bed from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. 

Crib death came in the night and took our little red-haired baby girl.

We were devastated, shrouded for a couple of years in grief that felt like a weight vest. Over the years, the grief diminished to a manageable state; life went on, and after being knocked into an emotional hole in the ground, I managed to lift myself up and re-balance.

The philosophical Taoism and Zen thinking that I tried to adopt in the years before Shara's death had put down roots.

This philosophy is not about not feeling. It is not about being passive. It is about feeling fully, but not letting destructive emotions take control.

It is about letting them wash through you and continue moving, opening yourself to other emotions that will come if you persist through the pain.

On Shara's birthday last week, I took my 98-year old neighbor Earl to lunch.

Earl is a World War II vet who fought in the Philippines, carrying a mortar and fighting many battles. He saw friends die, but he came through with only one scratch from a piece of rock shrapnel that a bullet from a Japanese gun kicked up next to him.

Earl returned home after his fighting was done suffering from PTSD. He received help and he recovered, living a good life with his wife, Mary, and raising three sons who all have done well in life. Earl retired many years ago from John Deere & Company.

Nancy and I bought the house across the street from Earl five years ago, about one year after Earl's wife died. 

Earl and I developed a friendship that has become one of the most important things in my life. 

Sitting in the booth at the family restaurant, I showed him Shara's picture and told him she would have been 39 years old that day. 

We talked about Shara, and the horror of burying a child, and then we talked about the last time he saw Mary.

Earl and Mary 2
Earl and Mary Hansen of Moline, IL.

She was sitting up in her bed at the nursing home. Earl had been there all day, and it was time for him to go home and get some rest.

"I love you," he told Mary. 

The next morning, he got a call and he went to the nursing home. She was still sitting up in bed, but she was gone.

As Earl told me this story, his chin was quivering and tears came to his eyes.

"A true test of character is the way we deal with loss as we get older," I said. "Losses start piling up. How do we balance ourselves and not let the ups and downs of life capsize us?"

It is a real test, Earl agreed. 

I described to Earl how, when my daughter's body was in the casket at the funeral home, I took her out and held her in my arms, sitting near the casket, mourning as visitors came in. It must have been quite shocking to see. I was so grief-stricken that I could not bear the thought of her lying alone in the coffin. Wasn't I supposed to protect her? Isn't that what a father is supposed to do? It felt as if I had failed in the one job that I had.

"She is in a better place," some well-intentioned people would tell me.

"No," I would gently correct them. "The best place for her is with her daddy."

I know they meant well, but that was a stupid thing to say. All they needed to say was, "I'm sorry." Remember that the next time someone you know suffers a loss. Don't tell them its "meant to be," or "they're in a better place." Just say you are sorry and you are here if they need anything. 

As I held my daughter's body in my arms, my little Zen voice in the back of my mind was saying, "You might appear as if you have lost your mind, but you haven't. Death is part of life. If you accept the joys and happiness of life, you must accept this, regardless of how unfair it is."

Earl and I talked about this at lunch, and about Mary, and losing a spouse after more than 60 years of marriage.

Is it easier to be the spouse who dies first? Earl thinks that is the easiest route. It is difficult, he said, to live without her.

We agreed that the loss of a spouse is the loss of the past. The loss of a child robs you of the future.

And so, in both cases, and in many other instances of loss in your life -- the loss of a job, the loss of a marriage, the loss of money and status -- how do you find your balance again after being knocked down?

The answer for me is to enjoy the good parts of life and to put my head down and persist through the bad parts.

The yin and the yang are ever swirling and mixing and separating. In the best of times, you can enjoy the happiness life brings, but deep inside you know that something negative will happen at some point. It is the nature of things.

When something negative or tragic happens, if you try to accept it as part of life, put your head down and try your best to get through it, the wheel will turn and good things will happen again.

Some losses change you forever. The pain of losing my daughter will never be erased. Earl will feel the pain of losing Mary for the rest of his life. 

But I also remember how we laughed at Shara's grin the night before she died. I remember changing her diaper, her eyes staring into mine, trying to understand this new world, and I could see intelligence in her eyes. 

Earl laughs about the trips he and Mary took, and how much they loved dancing and hanging out with other couples. 

A year after Shara died, Belinda was born, a very funny little girl. She turns 38 this month, and works as a public defender in Cincinnati advocating for abused and neglected children. I can't imagine life without her.

The wheel turned. I kept my head down and walked on.

These deep losses have changed us, but in this universe, change is the only thing you can depend on. Everything changes. Why should Earl or I be any different?

The art of self-defense takes many forms. Sometimes, an attack may come from a person with misguided intentions. An attack can be physical and it can be verbal or emotional. 

Sometimes, self-defense requires something other than martial skill or people skills. It requires the internal, psychological strength to handle what can seem to be an attack by nature itself, even though it is not an attack; it is simply life happening, throwing us off-balance and taking us to the ground.

Earl and I have almost 165 years between us. Persistence and determination, we agreed, were keys to re-balancing. In my view, the centering skills that I have taken from my philosophy have given me the ability to realize that nothing life throws at me is personal. None of us gets out of this alive.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Because good and bad happens to all people. How you deal with it is what counts.

One of the reasons my friendship with Earl is so precious is that he and I both realize it is not going to last very long. With some of my health issues I could go first, but in all likelihood I will be the one left behind to regroup. He knows this too, and he says he is ready to go if the time comes, which he expects will happen before long. We look forward to the time we spend together having lunch, sitting outside in front of his garage, or talking in his living room.

You cannot live in the past, whether your past is happy or tragic. You can work and plan for the future, but you have to understand that nothing is guaranteed.

Earl-Ken-Village-Inn-5-24-2018
Ken and Earl having lunch at Village Inn.

And so we are left with this moment; this point in time. And on this day, at this moment, I was having lunch with my 98-year old buddy, talking about our lives, both good and bad, sharing the occasional off-color joke, and just enjoying each other's company.

Life is good.

After a few minutes talking about Shara and Mary, I said, "Let's talk about something lighter so we won't start crying in our food."

He laughed. "That's a good idea," he said.

So we started talking about the battles he saw in World War II.

How's THAT for lighter conversation? 


Do Good - Be Kind - Four Simple Words that Can Change the World

Do Good Be KindYour philosophy of life does not have to be complicated to be effective. Sometimes, the simplest of messages can have the biggest impact.

Let me explain.

A Facebook friend of mine, Abby Cheesman, posted a link a couple of months ago that struck a chord in my heart.

The post told about a simple campaign that was trying to spread a message with only four words:

Do Good. Be Kind.

When I saw the baseball jersey with these words printed on it, I had to have one.

Abby's mom and dad, Peg and Brad Neilson, who were in my tai chi class this winter, gave me one of the shirts at the end of a series of classes. They also gave Nancy a shirt.

In the couple of months since, these words have haunted me every day, but in a good way. I wake up and think about how I can accomplish this every day.

How can I do good, and how can I offer kindness to others today?

Since the 1970s, I have tried to live according to philosophical Taoism and, to a lesser degree, Zen Buddhism.

Do Good Be Kind Ken NancyThe center of my personal philosophy is to "connect" to all things, and to remain centered at all times.

If you are truly connected to others, to the world around you, doing good for others becomes natural. You treat others as you would treat yourself. You do not do good because you hope to be rewarded with something -- money, eternal life, etc. -- you do good for moral reasons, for goodness' sake.

Likewise, being kind to others is rooted in being connected and centered. You cannot treat another person with cruelty if you have your act together. You only behave in a mean way when you perceive yourself as better, or as special, or perhaps even as worse than they are, and your mean actions are masking a feeling of inferiority.

It is complicated to explain how to connect to all things, and how to remain centered at all times. It also takes a lot of practice.

That is why "Do Good. Be Kind." hit me like a two-by-four. In its simplicity lies perfection. This is really all you need. 

If you seek to do good in each action you take, and if you seek to be kind to every person you encounter each day, you will connect and you will be centered.

In the real world, however, we do fall short. There are times when anger is appropriate. I study and teach self-defense because, even if our goal in practicing kung-fu is to master ourselves, we understand that there may be times when we must defend against those who are not kind, are not good, and are not centered.

But most of the time, the choice is ours. How do we behave each day? We can decide for ourselves.

So each day now, I ponder these four words. As I go through today, I will look for every opportunity to Do Good. Be Kind.

I hope you will, too. Think of the ripple effect we can have in the lives of others, the Butterfly Effect that an act of kindness could have.

It's worth a try, isn't it?

A philosophy is useless if it is not put into action. So let's live our philosophy today. Do Good. Be Kind.

Visit the website -- www.dogoodbekind.life -- and check out their mission and their apparel. It was started by Christopher Kurtz of Peer Thru. He and his wife Brittany run the nonprofit for Do Good. Be Kind. Please help spread this wonderful message.


A Peaceful Approach to Self-Defense -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Paul Linden

Paul Linden 1
Paul Linden

Is it possible to love your attacker? Can you find the fun within misery?

Paul Linden has a unique perspective on self-defense. He is the chief instructor at Aikido of Columbus (Ohio), and the Columbus Center for Movement Studies. He holds a sixth degree black belt in Aikido and a black belt in Karate. He earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in physical education. He is an instructor in the Feldenkrais Method of body awareness, and he developed the "Being in Movement" mindbody training.

Since his late fifties, Paul has also been faced with a challenge that has required the practical application of both philosophy and his knowledge of body awareness. Fourteen years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

Paul Linden is my guest on the 34th edition of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast. 

Listen to the program online or download it through this link to Audello.

It is also available on Stitcher and iTunes. 

Dr. Linden will hold a 6-day workshop called "Embodying Power and Love: A Workshop on Body Awareness & Self-Regulation" in Columbus, Ohio on April 16-21, 2018. See his website for details by following this link.


Martin Luther King Jr Was a Real Kung-Fu Hero

American ShaolinIn the book, "American Shaolin," author Matthew Polly described his adventures as he moved to China to live with Shaolin monks for two years.

He trained with them, ate with them, and became their friend.

Often, he would watch kung-fu movies with the monks.

In their culture, the hero of the movie was usually the man who would continue fighting even when hope was lost. 

You are fighting for a good cause, but you know you are doomed to defeat. You fight anyway.

I was 15 years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Growing up in the racist South, I reflected my white culture and I thought he was a troublemaker. I'm sure I dropped the "N" word many times if his name came up.

MLK was not a troublemaker. He was a hero in the truest sense of the word.

By 1968, he had been beaten, arrested, jailed, and threatened with his life because he had the audacity to protest when black men and women were turned away by restaurants, stores, the voting booth, and generally treated as animals.

When I was a child, black people did not come to "our" public swimming pools. I never saw blacks in "our" restaurants. And they sat in the balcony at the movie theater, not on the main floor with "us."

I remember seeing "Colored Only" water fountains in Georgia.

We treated black Americans as inferior. 

MLKAnd then, through nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King and his brave friends such as now-Congressman John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy and others, used kung-fu on the white culture.

They allowed the hateful energy of the whites to be seen in all its ugliness. Instead of fighting it, King and other black protesters did not contend. They absorbed the hateful energy by taking the punches, the kicks, the firebombs, the attack dogs, the hoses, the insults and the injuries -- and they showed white America what was lurking inside its heart.

They turned that hateful energy against their racist attackers.

Hearts and minds began to change across the country. 

On the night before he was murdered, Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience that he had been to the mountaintop and saw the other side. "I might not make it there with you," he warned.

He knew what might be coming. And he fought anyway.

The following day, when he walked out of his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, the shot rang out and he was dead.

It took a few more years and some college experience before my heart began to change, but it did. I began to realize that a LOT of what we are told as children is simply not true, but we are not old enough to reason, so we model the behavior of our parents, grandparents and friends.

MLK 1Two years ago, Nancy and I visited the Lorraine Hotel. It is part of the National Civil Rights Museum now. 

As I stood near the spot where he was gunned down, and stared through the glass at his room, which has been maintained exactly as it was the moment he was killed, I was struck by the heroism of the man.

We can practice martial arts all of our lives; we can compete in full-contact matches and we can consider ourselves pretty heroic.

Very few of us will even come close to the level of heroism displayed by Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who did not practice martial arts.

I occasionally see social media comments by martial artists, including some teachers, that are racist, or xenophobic, or intolerant in a variety of ways with a variety of targets, and I realize that an important part of the arts has escaped them; the connection with others, the philosophical thread that binds us to our fellow human beings.

One instructor I met preached Taoist philosophy and being connected to others, then he would fire up a cigarette and use the term "chinks" instead of "Chinese" when he talked about Chinese people. I still occasionally see intolerant social media messages that he posts, and I realize that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think, you can't make him connect with others, and you certainly can't make him a hero.

These misguided martial artists do not realize that the concept of defending the weak against attackers means a lot more than stopping a husband from beating his wife, or stopping a bully from attacking a weaker kid. 

A martial arts hero defends the unarmed black man who is being shot by a bad cop; the woman who is subject to harassment at work; the gay young man or transgender woman who is taunted and insulted because they are different.

A martial arts hero connects with others, and defends the weak even when hope is gone.

Hardly any of us reach the level of heroism that was displayed by Martin Luther King, Jr. When hope was gone, he fought on. Fifty years later, he is remembered, but his work is not done.

There is a lot of hatred still out there. There are people who could use your help.

Are you really a hero? 


My Favorite Martial Arts Tournament Memory was When I Got My Butt Kicked by an Old Man

Ken Gullette tournament sparring
Ken Gullette in red, sparring and connecting in Keokuk, 2000.

A little old man kicked my butt at a tournament in Keokuk, Iowa in 2000, and it is one of my favorite memories from my years competing in martial arts tournaments.

It was a hot, August day in a gymnasium that was not air-conditioned. I had been out-pointed by a black belt from Georgia in a match for first place, so I was next paired with a nice old guy to fight for the third place trophy.

My opponent was short, feeble, very slow, left himself open, had slow reaction time, and could hardly get a kick above his own waist. He wore hearing aids in both ears.

I had seen him perform at the tournament at least two other times, but he never went home with a trophy. He didn't even come close. It was a fluke that we were put in the ring to fight for some hardware.

The center ref told us to bow to each other, then bow to him. He signaled us to begin.

In that moment, I felt a connection to my aging opponent. In other tournaments, I had encouraged him to stay with it, even though he competed and never won anything. It was great just to see him there, still plugging away despite not having the tools to succeed.

But now, for the first time, I was in a position where I had to dispatch him, and I had a surprising reaction to it. Or, considering my personal philosophy, not so surprising.

What would his children think; how proud would they be if at his age, and with his limitations, he brought home a martial arts trophy for sparring?

And how much would another trophy mean to me if I won under these circumstances? 

We touched gloves and the match began, and I approached him. He threw a kick, then a punch.

I could imagine his children bragging to his grandchildren, showing them the trophy he won late in life.

I didn't want to make it obvious. He needed to do some blocking, so I blocked some of his punches and threw a few that he blocked. Then I left my stomach open just a bit for a kick to land.

Two points.

The match resumed and I threw a kick for him to block. He threw a couple more kicks and one landed.

Two points.

At this point, I knew my students, who were in the stands recording the match, would be wondering what the heck was going on. And on the video, you can hear one of them give an "Awwwww," in frustration as my opponent got his second kick in.

We touch gloves and the match resumed. I needed to act a bit more desperate, so I came in with a little more energy, bouncing, threw a few quick punches that were easily blocked, and I kept my head out front and open. 

He landed a ridgehand for his fifth point.

The judges called it and had us bow to each other. My opponent and I slapped each other on the shoulder.

"Why?" my puzzled student asks on the video.

He found out why a few minutes later when I explained.

As I walked out of the ring, an Asian judge approached with tears in his eyes.

He slapped me on the back and said, "That was one of the most generous things I have ever seen."

I just nodded at him and said, "Thanks."

Later, a couple of other black belts came up and commented on the match, thanking me for displaying such sportsmanship.

But the best thing that happened was one week later, when I went to a large regional tournament in Dubuque, Iowa. One of the more prominent black belts, Ken Dunkle of Dyersville, was standing across the large high school gymnasium when I walked in carrying my gear and my weapons.

I watched as Mr. Dunkle walked across the gym, directly at me, like a man on a mission. When he reached me, he stuck out his hand.

"I heard what you did last week in Keokuk," he said, warmly shaking my hand. "I just want to tell you that I think it was great."

I don't remember exactly how I replied. I was probably surprised and just said thanks, it was nothing, glad to do it.

Attitudes seemed to change towards me at the tournament that day. I could feel a greater sense of respect from my black belt peers.

I always tried to have fun in martial arts tournaments. When my opponent landed a good punch or kick, I congratulated them right there in the ring. I didn't try to brush it off or act as if it didn't happen, as some competitors do to try and fool the judges. And I did not get angry. I never got angry.

No, I felt that if someone scored on me, they were pretty good, and I appreciated their skill.

Sometimes, I would joke in the ring. At least once, a younger, faster opponent would score, and I would take out my mouthpiece and loudly say, "He's young and fast. I HATE that." And the judges would all laugh.

It is a lot more fun for everyone, whether it is at a tournament or in the workplace or at home, to enjoy yourself, help everyone else enjoy themselves, and not take yourself too seriously. Good things happen when you get out of your head and connect with others.

Do you live your philosophy or is it all about you?

I have won a lot of trophies in a lot of tournaments -- in forms, weapons and sparring. But I think my warmest memory comes from the day in August, 2000 when I got my butt kicked by an old man in Keokuk, Iowa. That was the day I saw a judge with tears of gratitude in his eyes, and I saw an old man take home a shiny trophy to show his grandchildren.

I think I won that day, too.

 



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