Monday, November 30, 2009


This post from Jesse Crouch, the Martial Explorer, reminded me of Sifu Mad Doug, with whom I studied kung-fu for perhaps a year when I was about fifteen years old. The story of Sifu Mad Doug is wonderful and someone should tell it, but unfortunately my brother has already cornered the market. He began writing a novel loosely based on the story of Sifu Mad Doug because clearly that novel was begging to be written, and the first chapters were wonderful. I was dying to read more, but Mischa lost interest, having acquired instead a serious interest in zombies and having sired my nephew Leo, who is not yet a year old and therefore not yet on Wikipedia, but whose care is apparently quite time-consuming.

Sifu Mad Doug eschewed all rank and insignia. He did not believe in belts. “Either you win your fight or you lose it,” he said. "A belt isn't going to help you with that, unless you strangle someone with it."

I always thought that sounded pretty reasonable, but it was about the only reasonable thing he said.

Sifu Mad Doug provided me with my first introduction to the insanity of martial arts politics. Apart from that, I don't remember much about learning to fight with him, but I do remember that time with great nostalgia -- summer, coming-of-age, memories bathed in a roseate light. (Erroneously, I'm sure, because we lived in Seattle, where the sun never shines.)

Anyway, I hope Mischa won't mind if I reproduce a few of his memories of Sifu Mad Doug.

Once, Mike took me out for a drive with another Kung Fu student named Big Rob. It was a rainy Saturday in October, and the plan had been to run errands, then head up to Arnold’s on the Ave to play video games. I had a pocket full of quarters. But the errands had taken longer than expected, and we ended up sitting in Big Rob’s U-district apartment.

Now that I reconstruct events, I think that Big Rob was at the U; he couldn’t have been older than Mike. I can’t remember precisely what he looked like, except that even Mike thought he was big and that he had a lot of pimples and this weirdly long neck, like a goose.

Later, when I was a student at the Temple also, I learned that Big Rob’s chief role in the Temple was to be used by Sifu for all manner of demonstration that skill, not size, was the chief quality of a Shaolin warrior. These demonstrations usually ended up with Big Rob on the floor looking slightly dazed. He’d always stand up slow and say, “Outtasight, man.”Mike and Big Rob were drinking beer—Mike had offered me one, knowing that I liked the gesture and would refuse.

“You know he was in ‘Nam, don’t you?” Big Rob said.

“I did not know that,” Mike said.

Big Rob nodded. “What I heard was he was Special Forces. His job was to sneak into Viet Cong villages. He’d sneak through the village at night, so quiet even the dogs wouldn’t bark—”

“They’d smell you, wouldn’t they?” Mike said.


“It’s important. If you’re quiet, dogs will still smell you.”

“He had some shit to deal with that too, ok?” Big Rob sounded a little defensive. “Maybe they Army has some special deodorant. I don’t know. I’m just telling you what I heard.”

Big Rob looked a little put out but he went on. “In any case, he’d climb into some hut, everyone would be sleeping, and he’d slit the throat of some Viet Cong. Just one.” Here Big Rob made a gesture that I’d long remember, his thumb stretching out across his pimply throat, and a sound, thwwaaaaaaaaaak, like construction paper tearing. Big Rob’s throat was as long as my forearm.

“Why would he do that?” Mike asked.

“It’s just what they said he did. It was supposed to demoralize the enemy.”

“Who told you that?”

“That’s what they said down in San Francisco, when I went to see Si-Gong.”

“I don’t believe it,” Mike said.

“Why not?”

“The stuff about the dogs.”

“He’s got those eyes,” Big Rob said. “Like he could do that.”

“Some guys they never come back,” Mike said.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I met Rachel, a US Army field artillery officer, at the Cağaloğlu hamam today. She told me that the army has shortened its field artillery course from six months to four. Still not short enough: We're all on Twitter now. Fortunately, she understood my new space constraints. "In the line, it's fine," she said, summing it up. Firing outside the line, however, buys you a one-way ticket to Leavenworth.

She was fascinating -- she was a very pretty young woman who was the only woman in her field artillery class, and had the highest kill rate in her combat unit, apparently -- but Claudia reminded me that I was actually there to get a few good quotes about the about renewed Turkish interest in the Ottoman bathhouse tradition, not to learn how to fire field artillery.


You may all now follow me on Twitter. ClaireBerlinski.

I've heard all about how Twitter is destroying the world's attention span and rendering the world illiterate. I gave it some thought, and I decided I was okay with that.

Let's be honest: Most books are way too long.


It's unfortunate timing that I have an assignment, during the long Turkish holiday weekend, to write about the revival of interest in Istanbul's Ottoman bathhouses. Unfortunate, because Istanbul's biggest, toughest martial artists are (like everyone else in Turkey) spending the whole weekend with their big, tough, close, warm, extended and intact Turkish families, where they are slaughtering sheep and squabbling in the insane, non-linear way only big, tough, close, warm, extended and intact Turkish families can -- that is to say, uninterruptedly, constantly, at the tops of their lungs, and over things so idiotic that listening to it makes you want to gnaw your arm off. I know this because I can hear it emanating from every big, tough close, warm extended and intact Turkish family on my street.

The point is, all the martial artists in the city are off bickering with their families, in preparation for giving me a pitying look and intimating that my life must be a vale of alienated Western anomie when next I explain that my entire family lives on another Continent.

I therefore have no chance to overtrain with them and get miserably sore and possibly injured, for which a spell in the hammam would be a nice remedy.

I did, however, while looking for accounts of the hammams in Orientalist travelogues, accidentally come across some wonderful descriptions of Istanbul. Should you be wondering what it's like here, these descriptions really are still absolutely true. If Edward Said thinks the Orientalist perspective on the Orient is somehow lacking, it is only because he thought through this problem while living in Manhattan.

Just imagine a backdrop of non-stop, high-volume bickering in Turkish -- plus the melancholy laughter of a flock of gulls and a lot of car horns -- and voilà, you're in Istanbul.

... The vision of this morning has vanished. The Constantinople of light and beauty has given place to a monstrous city, scattered about over an infinity of hills and valleys; it is a labyrinth of human ant-hills, cemeteries, ruins and solitary places; a confusion of civilisation and barbarity which presents an image of all the cities upon earth, and gathers to itself all the aspects of human life. It is really only the skeleton of a great city –the walls, which form only a small part –while the rest is enormous agglomeration of shacks, an interminable Asiatic encampment swarming with peoples of every race and religion who have never been counted, of people of every race and every religion. It is a great city in the process of transformation, composed of ancient cities that are in decay, new cities which emerged yesterday, and other cities now being born; everything is in confusion; on every side can be seen the vestiges of gigantic works, mountains bored through, hills cut down, entire districts leveled to the ground, great streets laid out; an immense mass of debris and remains of conflagrations upon ground forever tormented by the hand of man. The most incongruous objects are all jumbled together, an endless procession of bizarre and unexpected sights that make your head spin. You walk along a fine residential street to find it end in a gorge; you come out of the theatre and to find yourself surrounded by tombs. ...

... After a few hours spent in this way, should any one suddenly ask what is Constantinople like? You could only strike your hand upon your forehead, and try to still the tempest of thoughts. Constantinople is a Babylon, a world, a chaos. Beautiful? Wonderfully beautiful? Ugly? –It is horrible! –Did you like it? Madly. Would you live in it? How can I tell! – who could say that he would willingly live in another planet? -- Edmondo de Amicis

... I command the whole wide prospect, so pure and peaceful. Beyond the cypresses, I can see the Golden Horn, a gleaming sheet of water, and higher still on the skyline looms the silhouette of an Oriental city, Stamboul itself. The minarets, the lofty cupolas of the mosques, stand out against a star strewn sky, with a slender crescent moon floating in its depths. The horizon is fretted with turrets and minarets, faintly outlined in bluish tints against the wan background of the night. The great shadowy domes, that brood above the mosques, soar one beyond the other as high as the moon itself, and impress the imagination with the sense of gigantic size. -- Pierre Loti

... It was the hour of the evening prayer, when you could no longer distinguish between a black thread and a white one in ordinary light. George pulled the paring knife from his belt and sliced it through the air as he turned. All over Istanbul, muezzins in their minarets threw back their heads and began to chant.

It was a good time to kick a man to death in the street.

The grainy ululations swept in sobbing waves across the Golden Horn, where the Greek oarsmen on the gliding caiques were lighting their lamps. The notes of prayer rolled over the European town at Pera, a few lights wavering against the black ridge of Galata Hill. They skimmed the Bosphorus to Uskudar, a smudge of purple fading back into the blackness of the mountains; and from there, on the Asian side, the mosques on the waterline echoed them back. Yashim shook his head. However long you lived, however well you thought you knew this city, there was always something else to learn. Sometimes he thought that Istanbul was just a mass of codes, as baffling and intricate as its impenetrable alleys: a silent clamor of inherited signs, private languages, veiled gestures. He thought of the soup master and his coriander. So many little rules. So many unknown habits. -- Jason Goodwin

The urge to modernize and rationalize his world was both strong and evident in him, yet that wild, independent and at times irrationally superstitious streak of the insular mountain dweller remained. It was a split that caused some confusion in his life and, at times, some pain too. -- Michael Pearce

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I was looking for something else when I came across this description of Istanbul, by Jason Goodwin.

Slowly the Stamboul shore of the Golden Horn came into view, a procession of domes and minarets which surged forwards, one by one, and then modestly retired. Below the domes, cascading down to the busy waterfront, the roofs of Istanbul were glowing red and orange in the first sunlight. This was the panorama that visitors always admired: Constantinople, Istanbul, city of patriarchs and sultans, the busy kaleidoscope of the gorgeous east, the pride of fifteen centuries.

The disappointment came later.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I posted an obviously nonsensical statistic about guns and self-defense a few days ago.

It wasn't a test. I wasn't paying attention, either.

Sorry about that, especially if you've gone and gotten yourself killed as a result of taking something you've read here too seriously.

But look, folks, let this be a lesson to you. Thinking about statistics is your responsibility, too. You can't always be relying on me to do the heavy lifting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I went a few days ago to a press meeting with a high-ranking Turkish government official who spoke only on background. I found what he had to say truly outrageous. Obviously, since it was on background, I'm not going to say what it was that had me so worked up, but trust me, it was outrageous.

I noted with interest that when it came time to ask questions, I had exactly the same physiological response that I have when training in a particularly aggressive way. It was a fight-or-flight reaction. Emphasis on fight. Increased respiratory rate, blood shunted to the muscles and limbs, dilated pupils, heightened awareness; even the odd (and in this case completely inappropriate) sense of elation afterwards.

I'd guess that a hormone assay would reveal that I have somewhat higher total testosterone and androstenedione levels than most women, at least at moments like that.


Egemen brought me along when he went to train yesterday with a high-ranked martial arts student who, because of the extreme sensitivity of martial arts diplomacy in Turkey, spoke to me only off-the-record and on background.

Egemen and Deep Throat began with a three-minute drill in which Egemen held the focus pads for Deep Throat and without warning told him to change styles while attacking them -- so, e.g., "Wing Tzun!" "Escrima!" "Muay Thai!"

Egemen let me give this a try afterwards. I realized immediately that I've got a very well-known martial-arts problem: focus pad dependency. The slight change in the nature of the drill, and the slight change in the way Egemen held the focus pads -- they weren't exactly in the place I'm used to seeing them -- left me repeatedly with the dread analysis-paralysis. ("Wait: Am I supposed to hit this with a chain punch? Or a jab? How do you kick them if they're there?)

This is a well-known danger of training with focus pads. Even if you tell yourself over and over, That's not a focus pad, that's a face, or a rib, or a kneecap, you're not really fooling yourself. You are, in fact, training yourself to kick a focus pad, not a face, a rib, or a kneecap. And you are also very deliberately (and for excellent reasons) teaching yourself not to really harm someone, to carefully avoid actually smashing your fist into your training partner's face.

I could see very clearly that if I ever really had to use this, my first instincts would be off. I would not have "hit his face" as my automatic reflex; I'd have "hit a focus pad about six inches away from his face" as my first reflex. I worry that the extra second of processing time it would take to correct for this would be a big problem.

I asked them both about this and they agreed: It's a real training hazard. Egemen said that this is why it's especially important to really mix things up in focus pad drills, for the teacher to keep doing things that students don't expect to see. He also stressed the importance of visualizing the real target while you train, imagining it as clearly as you can while thinking, "That's a nose, and this isn't a game; it's life-or-death."

I thought it might be worthwhile to go a step further and train with focus pads that had realistic-looking targets printed on them: faces, ribs, etc. Anything to get the reptilian part of the brain used to thinking of the face, not a square blue leather pad, as the place to aim. Egemen said that there are such things, and apparently they are another blessing for which we may thank the porn industry, because they're made of the same material as those lifelike sex dolls so popular with Cabinet ministers in the British government, who are forever being found strung by a pair of ladies' pantyhose from the ceilings of the antechambers of the House of Commons with an orange stuffed in their mouths and a cyberskin sex doll lying violated and reproachful by their feet.

I've sent away for a pair of trainer focus boxing gloves by mail order, but I just don't know if I have it in me to order the special porno focus mitts, too. I don't think I want to explain that purchase at the customs depot.

The customs depot is on the other side of Istanbul, and to pick up a package you must take the tram for an hour, walk half a mile through one of Istanbul's less picturesque neighborhoods, and wait in line at nine separate windows (I do not exaggerate). You must negotiate with fifty-odd chain-smoking, lugubrious, indolent customs officials, all of whom are determined to send you back to the window whence you came, or send you across the street to the official photocopy machine, which inevitably is broken. The trip takes about five hours in total, usually.

My mother sent me some yoga DVDs for my birthday a while ago and by the time I reached window six, I seriously considered just leaving them there. Almost nothing, save, perhaps, a life-saving kidney, is worth a trip to the customs depot. Even then, it would be a toss-up. I definitely don't want to go there for a pair of cyberskin silicone porno focus pads, no matter how realistic, natural and lifelike their orifices may be.

Besides, they'd probably get stolen before I even collected them.

I was, however, immensely gratified that Deep Throat* thought my reflexes seemed faster than they were the last time we'd trained together. I don't know if that's true -- I may have just been having an off-night the last time -- but it was nice to hear.

*Just in case Deep Throat is reading this, I should probably explain: Deep Throat is not a porno allusion. For once.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I love the outfits.


If you've taken my advice and carefully studied the comments to these posts, you might note that Bill Walsh knows a lot about guns. In fact, I'd like to appoint him the official "Learning to Fight" firearms authority. Bill, would you accept?

I would hate for anyone to conclude that Bill is merely some kind of creepy gun obsessive, however. He is in fact an expert on everything. I explained this in the acknowledgments to one of my novels.

Moving right along, there’s my email friend Bill Walsh. I have never met him! But I do believe he’s the smartest man alive. Bill read the manuscript and kindly pointed out the spelling errors not only in my Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Russian, German, Hungarian, Spanish and my French, but in my English (that’s right, my own native language), my Chinese and – I kid you not! – my Kyrgyz. No lie.

Mischa says: He speaks Chinese and Kyrgyz too?

Claire says: Wild, huh?

Mischa says: That’s insane! Could he just be making it all up?

Claire says: No. Every time I check the Internet, I see he’s right. Every time. Not just most of the time, not just “you could argue it both ways,” but every time.

Mischa says: That’s super amazing. Where did he learn so much?

Claire says: Don’t know. He’s also an expert on lots of other things.

Mischa says: Like what?

Claire says: Military small arms. He was one of the many people who wrote to me about the recoil on an M16, or lack thereof, after Loose Lips came out.

Mischa says: Wow.

Claire says: So, if this were a novel, all the clues would be pointing in one and only one direction: Dude’s a spy. But as I say in the novel, no one really thinks that way.

Mischa says: You think he’s trying to recruit you?

Claire says: Why would he bother? I’m a novelist.

Mischa says: Yes, but he thinks your a spy! Claire! What a great idea for a novel!

Claire says: Who would believe something as idiotic as that?

Mischa says: I guess you’re right. It’s totally improbable

Claire says: Totally dumb.

Oh, Bill also caught innumerable embarrassing mistakes in my Ottoman history. And my Persian history. And my European history. If Bill’s not a spy, he should be. Ladies and Gentlemen: Write to your congressmen today and tell them the CIA needs to draft this man. He’s our only hope.


If you were in a hurry, you may have missed Jesse Crouch's response to my last post. That would have been a shame; it was interesting. I find what Jesse has to say quite valuable. As anyone who has spent any time in the martial arts universe knows, it attracts both the world's finest purveyors of Pure Spewed Horseshit (hereinafter PSH) and an exceptional number of people who inexplicably leave their powers of intellectual discernment at the dojo coat-check and forget to keep the ticket. The latter may easily be recognized. They remain earnestly persuaded that a marauding crack-addict bent on home invasion may be repelled by Chi Power.

Self-defense is not, in fact, entirely a black art. We do have some idea, based on real data, about what works and what doesn't; it is available for consultation by anyone who wishes to know.

Jesse, for example, has of late sent me references to a number of interesting studies, as has my reader Zosia Gorbaty.

Most people are unaware of these studies. Kyoshi Teddy Wilson and I were last night chatting with a woman who told us that she had heard it was best, if you were attacked, "never to resist." I know this idea is all too common. It is PSH of the most dangerous kind.

In fact, exactly the opposite is true.

A non-aggressive response to attempted sexual assault results, more than 90 percent of the time, in a completed sexual assault. (Zoucha-Jensen and Coyne, 1993). When women respond with "violent physical force," however, the numbers drop down to at least 45 percent, and as low as 14 percent. (Kleck and Sayles, 1990; Siegel et al., 1989; Ullman and Knight, 1992; Zoucha-Jensen and Coyne, 1993).

NB: "Striking was more successful than pushing or wrestling (Quinsey and Upfold, 1985)."

These findings, too, are extremely significant:

Research shows that physical resistance does not cause further injury to the resister. While there is a correlation between resistance and a somewhat higher rate of physical injury (at most 3%) (Kleck and Sayles, 1990; Marchbanks et al., 1990; Siegel et al.,1989), researchers who examined the sequence of events found that injury usually occurred before resistance. In other words, resisters were not injured because they had resisted: rather, being injured motivated them to fight back (Quinsey and Upfold, 1985). After the initial injury, forceful resistance did not increase the resister's risk of further damage.

Second, this argument overlooks the fact that a woman who does not resist is virtually guaranteed to suffer the emotional and physical injury of the rape itself. Even when resisters are injured, the injury is typically much less severe than a completed rape would have been (Kleck and Sayles, 1990; Marchbanks et al., 1990; Siegel et al., 1989; Ullman and Knight, 1991). Of those 40% of resisters who suffered physical damage, only 7% suffered injury as severe as a dislodged tooth. A woman who fights back incurs no demonstrable chance of additional injury, but she gains a 55-86% chance of avoiding rape altogether (Kleck and Sayles, 1990).

Here, as far as I'm concerned, is the most significant finding of all:

Women who used knives or guns in self-defense were raped less than 1% of the time. Defensive use of edged or projectile weapons reduced the rate of injury to statistical insignificance (Kleck and Sayles, 1990).

In other words, resist, with everything you've got.

And your weapon of choice is not Chi power, but a Glock automatic.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


My fellow Americans:

(And you are my fellow Americans, according to my strangely fascinating stat counter. Hello as well to my Australian reader, and a big hi to the Saudi Arabians looking for Penthouse. You didn't stay long. I hope I didn't say something to offend you?)

Our long national nightmare is over. I have recovered from my cold (no, Mom, it was not the Swine Flu), and Suleyman the Upchucker has recovered from his inexplicable affliction with the Projectile Vomit Pox. The cat vomit has been cleaned from my sheets, carpets, walls and shower. In further good news, I've discovered my reflexes aren't quite as bad as I feared: The speed of my reaction to anything like a cat making a whoop-a-whoop-a-whoop noise has actually been quite impressive.

My cat-vomit-stimulus-reaction speed might be seen as confirmation of Hick's experiments with choice reaction time. These experiments are often held to have interesting implications for martial artists.

The British psychologist William Hick demonstrated that given n equally probable choices, the average reaction time T required to choose among them would be roughly

T = blog2(n + 1)

The key point is Hick's prediction that the time it takes for people to make a decision increases logarithmically, not linearly, in proportion to the number and complexity of the choices with which they're confronted. In other words, it is vastly easier to react quickly if you have only one choice, i.e., two options.

Is it vomiting?
Yes, No.
If yes, get it off the bed.
If no, go back to sleep.

I can make that kind of decision very quickly -- in about a nanosecond -- just as Hick observed. If we add more choices, however, I get much slower:

Is it vomiting?
Yes, No.
If yes, either look up symptoms on Google or assess for signs of poisoning or consider the possibility of gastritis or examine color and quality of vomitis or examine vomiting cat for signs of dehydration or call the vet in the middle of the night or wait for a more civilized hour ...

Choosing among these five options, however, does not take me a mere five nanoseconds -- it takes me all week. (How much longer it takes is empirically determined, that's the "b," which is a constant.)

Now, why is this relevant to the martial arts? That's where reader Jesse Crouch, the Martial Explorer, comes in. It was Jesse who brought Hick's Law to my attention, for which I thank him.

Hick's Law offers support for something Egemen has said to me over and over: In an emergency, it is better to have a few very effective self-defense reflexes, deeply internalized, than a superficial acquaintance with a wide number of possible reactions. This is Egemen's objection to systems such as Krav Maga, which he terms "eclectic." As Egemen says:
An eclectic system tends to be less effective in a real situation because again, in the chaos and confusion of a real fight, you do not want to be standing there, scratching your head, trying to remember which technique you’re supposed to be applying (“Do I grapple? Punch? Block? Parry? Duck? Weave? Growl like a tiger?). You want to have a single set of reflexes.
Given that reaction time is profoundly important in a fight, Hick's Law would suggest that Egemen is absolutely right.

I was pretty happy with this explanation, until I studied the question a bit more closely and discovered that in fact recent research into Hick's Law -- and particularly into that constant, b -- is conflicting, and the implications considerably more ambiguous for martial artists:

Larish and Stelmach in 1982 established that one could select from 20 complex options in 340 milliseconds, providing the complex choices have been previously trained. One other study even had a reaction time of .03 milliseconds between two trained choices! .03! Merkel's Law, for example, says that trouble begins when a person has to select between 8 choices, but can still select a choice from the eight well under 500 milliseconds. Brace yourself! Mowbray and Rhoades Law of 1959, or the Welford Law of 1986, found no difference in reaction time at all, when selecting from numerous, well-trained choices.

I'm not really sure what to conclude from this. I do know that when it comes to getting a vomiting cat off the bed, I am very fast. Faster than Egemen, in fact.

But sadly, as Egemen reminds me, it is not enough just to be fast: You must also be accurate. Missing the target, even once, can leave you with a major problem on your hands.

In this case, it is the kind of problem no amount of air freshener will ever make right.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


My martial arts career is still on hiatus, although I did finally get the chance to watch the Haye-Valuev match in full from my sickbed. With no martial arts gossip to report, I am forced to revert to publishing gossip.

So, back to Marquez. I was still struggling to take that in when Beth Gramsky walked in. I am changing her name, of course: New York is a town I would like to eat lunch in again.

I was surprised by her youth. My agent had described her as an editorial force majeure, but she didn’t look much older than twenty-five. She was a tall, cheekboney thing with a helmet of blonde highlights, very Viking.

She shook my hand and sat down at the conference table. Bracing herself on a stack of manuscripts, she leaned conspiratorially in my direction. “Great to meet you at last, Claire. I loved your book! I had to tell my assistant not to put any calls through when I was reading it!” She seemed like someone who really enjoyed having an assistant and lots of calls she was too busy to take.

“There’s really only one thing I’d ask you to change if we worked on this book together.”

I tried to look as though I lived for crappy advice. “Tell me,” I said.

“There’s not enough sex. It needs lots more sex. We have to see them doing it.”

“I see.” I imagined my grandmother reading the pornographic passages and shuddered, visibly. I hoped Beth would think I was just aroused. I wondered if they were saying the same thing to Márquez, down the hall. Not since my beloved Floridad Juvenal de la Concepción ran off with a young, proud telegraph operator from Aratacara had my patience been so sorely tried– We chatted a bit more; I told her she’d inspired me more than Tolstoy, shook her hand again, and left.

I called my agent as I walked down Park Avenue. I told her about Beth’s request for more sex.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “She’s been like that ever since she passed on Candace Bushnell.”

Beth Gramsky did not, by the way, buy my book.


My quest to become the least-qualified martial arts expert on the Internet gained traction this week when I came down with a cold and one of my cats, Suleyman the Upchucker, simultaneously came down with the stomach flu. I've done nothing remotely like a martial art since Monday, further increasing the gap between my skills and my willingness to offer an opinion.

Since I myself haven't seen the inside of a gym since Monday, I'm turning today's entry over to my readers. Ben Atlas, who knows something about judo -- is that right, Ben? -- sent me this item about Krav Maga training in London. (Note to Judith, who lives in Israel and asked me about Krav Maga: Yes, it's an Israeli martial art.)

My comments: First, if I were trying to promote a martial art, I might be kind of unhappy if articles about it were running in the "Life & Style: Men" section of the Times. That part of the paper is usually reserved for lists of top-ten spas for back waxing. I suppose all PR is good PR, but ideally, you'd want that piece to run in the "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women" section.

But more interestingly, I see that the Times is once again repeating the Party line about crime in Britain, viz., that there's not that much of it, and that the people who think so are hysterics:

The British Crime Survey, based on interviews with a representative sample of people in England and Wales, suggested the violent crime rate is stable: longer term, the number of violent incidents has fallen by half since 1995. But 75 per cent of people thought that crime was rising and even more people were convinced that serious violent crime was up. Why is this?

“By most objective indications England is one of the safest nations on Earth,” says Lawrence Sherman, a professor of criminology at Cambridge University. To explain what he sees as the yawning gulf between perception and reality, he refers to the theories of the 19th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim. “Whenever the borders of a society become unclear, whenever there is increased uncertainty about what it means to be French, or British, whenever there is increased immigration, people fear crime,” he says.

This is nonsense, and on this subject, I am actually qualified to speak. The students in this class are right to be worried.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I have a cold and don't remotely feel interested in writing about the martial arts today. Too hectic. But stories from the publishing world seems to be a crowd-pleaser here, so let me tell you this funny little memory that just came back to me today. This happened to me when I was making the rounds of publishers in Manhattan, trying to sell Loose Lips.

The revolving front doors of the publisher’s office had jammed in mid-revolution, trapping me and some Hispanic man between the panes. The receptionist wasn’t at her desk.

I looked at the man standing patiently in the wedge behind me. He was Puerto Rican, perhaps; his onyx eyes were capped by massive caterpillar eyebrows. He waggled them at me. “She’ll come back,” I mouthed, pointing at the receptionists’ empty desk. He turned up his palms in a gesture of fatalism.

The doors were heavy and solid, and they were stuck fast. When the receptionist didn’t return after five minutes, I began to get slightly panicky. First I knocked lightly on the glass, and then I called out. No one came. Eyebrows remained calm, picking lint from the lapels of his sharp white suit, then cleaning his ear with his pinkie. He smoothed his thick silver hair and his squirrel-tail moustache. After five more minutes, I began pounding on the door and hollering. Eyebrows removed a crimson silk handkerchief from his front suit pocket and dabbed at his forehead. He shook it sharply like a matador’s cape, then carefully re-folded it, creasing the edges between his thumb and forefinger. He used it to blot his upper lip.

I kept pounding and shouting. Eyebrows braced his temple against his hand and rolled his eyes heavenwards.

Finally, a receptionist came rushing out and pushed a button by her desk. The doors began revolving again. I stepped out; Eyebrows followed. “Oh my God. I am so sorry,” she said to us. “We’re trying to get that fixed.” Eyebrows squared his shoulders and snorted over his thick moustache, then disappeared wordlessly down the hall.

The receptionist appeared more flustered than I. She reached for the phone and dialed a number. “Susan,” she said, “Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s on his way down.”

Monday, November 16, 2009


A long time ago, I wrote a spy novel. You can still buy it on Amazon, and I encourage you to, because I need the money.

The novel concerned the training of CIA case officers. One scene, in particular, was based on a real conversation I once had with a guy who said he had trained CIA case officers in hand-to-hand combat.

... The instructor was a former inner-city street cop. God forbid, I thought, looking at his brute face, you should ever find yourself on the business end of his nightstick. He called himself the Bulldog, and his eyes lit up demonically every time he described the satisfying sound of a miscreant crumpling in agony to the ground. He told us to line up against the wall. “How many of y’all have studied martial arts?” he asked. “Ju-doo, Ay-kee-doo, that sorta stuff?” About a third of the class raised their hands. “Well, you get into a real fight, that stuff ain’t gonna be no use to you.”

He explained: “Someone’s comin’ at you with a broken-off beer bottle, you better believe me, you’ll forget everything you ever learned about acting like a crouching crane or a hidden lizard.” He raised his arms like wings, wrists limp, in an absurd parody of a crane, and snorted. “Tunnel vision. They call it that for a reason. You see that mother comin’ at you and you’ll lose your fine motor skills and your depth perception. Everything’ll look like a tunnel. And the only thing you’ll see in that tunnel’s a broken-off beer bottle. Biggest damn beer bottle in history. I promise it.”

The reptilian brain takes over and the panic reflex kicks in, he said. People with no experience of violence can no more remember how to administer a roundhouse kick or precision jab than they could invoke Jedi mind control. The advantage will always be to the opponent accustomed to violence. Looking at the Bulldog as he lazily masticated his gum and slapped his fist against his palm, I knew he spoke the truth.

That day we learned one crude tactic and practiced it a thousand times: It was a single blow to the brachial plexus. The advantage to the system was precisely that it was crude; there was nothing to remember by way of proper form or technique, just a good solid club to the complex of nerves at the base of the neck, and if you could remember it, a thumping kick to the nerve bundle between the foot and shins. ...

Now, I hadn't thought much about hand-to-hand combat when I wrote that scene. It sounded good when he said it.

In retrospect, though, I wonder. A club to the brachial plexus? If you're only going to learn one crude technique, I can't see how that would be the best one. It's not really the easiest or most obvious target if you're trying to strike a fatal or an incapacitating blow, is it?

I have since then been kicked in the shins a lot -- really a lot -- but it's never remotely deterred me. Getting punched in the nose, on the other hand, sobers me up pretty fast. I'm not sure there is a particularly sensitive nerve bundle between the foot and shins; and if there is, it's not easy to hit. Someone would have done it to me by now if it were.

I suspect what he said about tunnel vision, the reptilian brain and fine motor coordination was probably right, though.

Anyway, please buy the book. I'd really like it if you did that.