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Author Guest Blog: “The Mask”

January 7, 2011

Phillip Starr has authored four books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, including his latest must-have guide, Hidden Hands: Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Martial Arts Forms. Starr shares his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts in a monthly article on our blog, and writes books to help martial artists not only improve their skills on the mat, but strengthen their minds. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, just click on their covers. ________________________________________

“The Mask”

by Phillip Starr

When I began writing my first book, The Making Of A Butterfly, my wife and I were living in the tiny hamlet of Unionville, Iowa. This town of about a hundred people (dogs, cats, and chicken not included) is, as you’ve no doubt guessed, a rural village that is nestled unobtrusively in the rolling hills and dense woodlands of southeast Iowa. It consists of only two streets — Front Street, which sports a small mechanic’s shop and a post office, and Back Street, which, apparently not being zoned for commercial enterprises, is entirely residential. It is a very peaceful, quiet area that is inhabited largely by honest people who try to eke out a living by digging in the earth or working at nearby factories, or both. Or writing books.

I would often sit at my keyboard until the wee hours of the morning, working on my book and trying to decide whether or not I should insert a comma here or a semi-colon there. Believe me, it’s a lot tougher than you might think. Before long, I’d feel as if my brain was beginning to turn into some sort of exotic cheese, so I’d slap together a sandwich, grab a cup of coffee, and relax on the front porch. It was summer and evenings in the country are often cool and always refreshing. The absence of city lights makes the stars seem so much brighter and closer. There are no sirens, no rumbling of traffic, no squealing tires, flashing lights, or neon signs.

Thick woods sprang up no more than fifty yards behind our mobile home and it was not at all unusual to see small herds of deer crossing Front Street, which is where our home was located. Turkeys were a road hazard, and all manner of other woodland creatures frequented our backyard. And so it was that while I was enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich one night, I heard a dull scraping sound off to my left. I didn’t want to frighten the critter, whatever it might be, so I kept relatively still and used my peripheral vision to observe what was happening.

I had set my sandwich down on a paper plate and it had attracted something. Within a few seconds I noticed two sets of small (but very sharp) claws coming up over the edge of the left side of the porch. Then, the top of a small head appeared and two eyes glittered from behind a black mask, fixing themselves on my sandwich. A raccoon!

I moved my hand slowly to the sandwich, noting that the raccoon quickly ducked down and scurried underneath the porch. I tore off a chunk of the sweet, jellied treat and pushed it over to the edge of the porch. Within a few seconds, the two sets of claws reappeared. The masked bandit peeked over the top of the porch, carefully eyed me, and then stretched out a paw and deftly seized the morsel of bread. In an instant he was gone, but within a few seconds he reappeared, looking for more.

“A little greedy, are we?” I said to him. “And gutsy, too. Alright, here’s another chunk.” I tore off more of the sandwich and pushed it over to the edge of the porch. It was gone almost instantly.

The raccoon and I continued our ritual every night for several weeks. Before long, he’d come running up onto the porch when he heard me step outside. He’d sit in my lap and eat out of my hand. He was particularly fond of marshmallows, bananas, and jelly sandwiches. I named him “Kemosabe,” after Tanto’s nickname for the Lone Ranger (if you’re too young to remember this stuff, go look it up; it’s what made America great).

Naturally, my wife was curious about seeing my masked friend, so she waited by the screen door one night as I stepped outside. Sure enough, Kemo came scrambling up the front steps towards me but he noticed that something was different. He stopped and looked at her carefully. Her hand went to her mouth to stifle a shout and Kemo took off like a shot. I asked her what she’d done and she said that she was scared of wild animals and had nearly squealed in fear.

The next night she tried it again, standing behind the safety of the door as she tossed a piece of jelly sandwich out onto the stoop but Kemo was having none of it. He wouldn’t come up onto the porch until she closed the door and the two of us were alone. Over the next few weeks several other people tried to feed my masked friend, but he wouldn’t come near them at all. He’d accept food and affection only from me.

I eventually shortened his name to “Kemo” and we enjoyed many wonderful meals and conversations. As you might imagine, I did most of the talking, but even so, Kemo taught me a great deal about…martial arts!

Yeah, I know…it sounds like maybe this old man has finally stepped over the edge, but listen up. You might learn something and there’ll be a quiz at the end of this essay.

I used to wonder why Kemo would only take food from me; why he’d run away when anyone else offered him food. It occurred to me that Kemo and I had developed a relationship only after I had been VERY patient with him over a period of time. The other folks hadn’t and he wanted no part of their generosity.

I think training is very much like that. How often have I seen students try to “hurry” the learning process and “force” themselves to memorize this or that form, increase power in their punch, and so on!

“I’m going to get this technique even if I have to practice it all night!” Sound familiar? Sure it does.

“I’m going to master this form even if it kills me!” Yeah…you bet.

That kind of determination is nice but it’s misdirected. You cannot force learning. You cannot hurry the development of real skill, just as you can’t rush the process of building a friendship with a raccoon. You have to take it a little at a time and learn to enjoy the journey! Accept the idea that you’ll get there…eventually. Maybe not today, probably not even next week or next month. But that’s okay. Enjoy the journey.

Have a story to share from your martial arts journey? Share it in the comments, and you could win a set of Phillip Starr’s books!

Other must-have martial arts books from Philip Starr:

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