Kung Fu of Riding or Resistance is Futile, Perseverance is Everything

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VP_AlluA

I recently wrote about how while riding I felt the hind legs of the horse move under me as if they were my own. A great experience, like I said but, alas, a fleeting one like these things usually are. I have ridden several times since then but without a similar connection with the horse. The first time on horse back after the glimpse of enlightenment (Sounds like a grand word for it it but it was grand!) was in fact rubbish. I was stiff and my lower legs were all over the place as you can see from the photo. They should be hugging the horse gently, maintaining a constant contact with the horse. But not that time, no sir. That has been my Achilles’ heel (pun intended) for a long time now but that day was particularly difficult. In addition to that, Allu, the horse I’ve been riding recently, had just been shod and that almost always affects the horse and the way it moves. So Allu too was feeling a bit stiff and was even more headstrong than usually. Not that he would be a particularly difficult character to get along with, he just has his moments like every thinking being does. Look at his tail in the photo: he may seem concentrated and all that, but the whipping tail tells that he is not. Instead he is thinking ways of avoiding me (which I’m making easier for him with my loose legs). Ach well, never mind, it was rubbish riding but a great day.

This is how it goes when you are leaning to do stuff that pushes your motor skills to their limits. You have these moments of clarity and insight, glimpses of how things will feel when you finally manage to do them right. You catch that tiny glimpse and then it’s gone again, and for awhile after it feels like you have just taken two steps ahead only to be flung back a dozen. Easily disheartening. Frustrating, heck yeah. But what do you do? You keep at it. Never give up, never surrender, because if you have felt it once, if you have managed to get it right even for that one tiny moment, you can do it again. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, nor this month, but maybe next Christmas or the year after that. It’ll come – if you just keep at it.

Yep, they're still there, I just feel them right now.

Yep, they’re still there, I just can’t feel them right now.

So I now know how it feels to really connect with the horse and to truly ride. I know that it can be done and I even have an idea about how it’s done. Now I just need to let myself do it. Like Yoda said, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ I needed someone to show me how it’s done (Thanks, Sully, I owe you one, really.) but the only one who can implement it is me. Like another great and wise fictional character, Groo the Wanderer, once said: ‘Wisdom cannot be bought, but it can be borrowed until you find your own.’ It’s all there, somewhere, waiting for me to get there too.

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Gestures on Paper

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The Nordic Society of Aesthetics had its annual conference in Oslo (May 30th – June 1st) and the year’s theme was gesture. It’s a fairly complicated philosophical concept in Aesthetics. The subjects of the presentations varied from literature and visual arts to dance and even logic and the prisoners’ dilemma which is a game theory example of cooperation. Bit hard to see that coming at you in an Aesthetics conference but you’d be surprised. I had lot’s of time to draw. In conferences the presentations are grouped in sessions, 3-4 four presentations in each, so there usually is at least one presentation you’re not that interested in in each. And anyway you get tired as the conference lasts. The last day is usually quite hard on your concentration. One professor admitted to this as we waited for the check-in to open at the airport on our way home, but don’t tell anyone one that we thought so, it’s one of those things you’re not supposed to mention in the academic world.

My scanner is still packed away after we moved this summer so I just took photos of the sketch book. This is the first batch. I’ll post the last ones some other time.

VP_Oslo1

First day, 30.5., and I arrived early at the Oslo University campus and was consequently the second person to sign in. I had more than half an hour so I decided to draw the closed cafe in the lobby. Really need to draw more architectural stuff. Really. Rainer Nägele was the first keynote speaker of the day. His the professor of Germanic languages and literature AND Classics and comparative literature at Yale (Kudos!). Surprised myself with the drawing since I have considered myself ropy when it comes to drawing people and especially faces. I think the low lighting helped as it made features stand out.

VP_Oslo2

I took the second morning off and went to see the Historical Museum. I told myself that did so to gather material for my Ph.D. thesis but to be honest, I don’t need any new material since I’m almost done writing it. I just went to see cool stuff and to draw. They have a really great exhibition of the early Norwegian history from the stone age till the vikings, and they have some pretty neat stuff from the Americas and from the Arctic. The claw on the left is one of 10 or so polar bear claws made into a necklace, each being about 15 cm (6 in.) long. The stylised horse is from an Celtic silver tetradrachm, and on the right is a Hopi ritual doll (they had a great collection of native America stuff from both continents which are great to draw.).

VP_Oslo3

Left a bronze animal votive from Norway and around 1100-900 BC. Really cool shape to draw; beautiful and expressive. The bluish motive is a silver brooch of viking origin. Stunning in its design and the craftsmanship is spectacular (not mine, the silversmith’s). I could have stared at it for hours. Have to go back just to see it again!

The second day’s first presentation I saw was by Gottfied Boehm.

VP_Oslo4

Feeling tired of indoors and having no plans for the night I went to the Botanical Gardens all the way across the city. Oslo has a great underground system so it took me maybe 15 min to get there (get the travel card for a week, even if you’re staying only for a weekend, if you have any intention to travel outside the downtown Oslo. It’ll save you money and it’s so much easier just to hop on without punching in or anything. Plus it makes you look like a native!). I love botanical gardens or any gardens for that matter, and this one was no different. The spring bloom was almost over but I managed to see some lovely magnolias (God, they are glorious!) and the local speciality, the row of Davidia involucrata, the Handkerchief trees – the only member of its genus and really a sight to see when in full bloom. It has large flowers, about 20 cm long and they really are like washed handkerchiefs drying in the wind. Their other common name, the ghost tree, kinda makes sense too.

VP_Oslo5

Last day’s keynote was John Paul Ricco from University of Toronto. He talked about the process art of Felix Gonzales-Torres. On the right is a participant sitting in front of me during the first session. He had a really nice back and neckline and he remained absolutely still for a long while except for the head which he steadily tilted from side to side every now and again. That’s the why of the picture: I drew both stances into one. Like how it turned out.

VP_Oslo6

The last session was in a small classroom with long tables. A really tall young man sat in front of me with an empty row between us. The empty table hid his thighs producing this disturbing illusion of legless man and manless legs. The right one I drew the Sunday morning just as I was about to leave. One building close the hotel has these really interesting balconies with window boxes large enough for small trees and bushes. Didn’t finish it though. Probably just too tired of watching at that point. Maybe I will finish it one day but, hey, that’s just how it sometimes goes.

Kung Fu of Riding or Watching ‘Strike Back’ for Educational Purposes

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VP_Kaapo&Kaisa

You know how they say that when the student is ready, a teacher will appear? Well, I haven’t found my grand master yet, but every now and again a teacher does appear to show me how some little thing is done. But the thing is, you can never know in advance when that teacher appears (it’s not necessarily when you acutely need one) less alone what form or shape that teacher takes. In my experience you often don’t even realise that a teacher has appeared until after learning. Which maybe years after the lesson.

What I learned the other week was to ‘see’ in my minds eye the hocks of the horse I was riding and how I could effect the quality of the horse’s gait just by visualising their movement. Sounds a bit (more than a bit, I guess) esoteric and weird, I know, but riding horses if anything is something that is, after a certain level of skill, done more intuitively than by force or logic. Anyhow, I was riding, doing the exercises and thinking that ‘Wait, this feels somehow different than yesterday. What’s going on here?’ I’ve been riding for almost 30 years so I have a pretty clear picture where I am skill-wise, but that Sunday everything was, well, different. Then I saw it, the hocks moving under me. I felt them as if they were part of me directly and not of the horse. Wow, I thought, so this is how it’s done!

The thing is, I have been practicing tai ji (or tai chi) for 13 some years now. In it, and in any East Asian martial art I know about, the goal is to feel the movement and the energy of the opponent (and the universe). Feel where s/he is about to go, feel the change in the opponents posture before it takes place. Now tai ji isn’t exactly a contact sport but the principle is still the same, and there are pair exercises too just for learning the skill of reading the opponent. I have the 5th duan in tai ji (there are 9 altogether), I’m pretty good with the sword, but I’m not yet that good in reading the opponent. I have had glimpses but nothing like this with the hocks. In a word, it felt like a small spark of enlightenment.

The researcher in me naturally started to look for a reason for this experience. Where did it come from? The exercise was pretty basic (though not particularly easy) and a familiar one. What ever was different must have been something in me. Something must have allowed me to change the way I was. I felt different. I carried myself differently. My neck and shoulders were still so darn stiff and sore that I couldn’t turn my head easily but yet I felt relaxed and at ease.

Boy, was I happy: my mystery-loving head had found a conundrum!

Few days later I found out who the teacher had been. Me and my man had been watching the British military action series Strike Back on HBO’s netservice. Love it. Excellent entertainment if you’re into that kind of thing and for some god forsaken reason I am. The plots are good but even more importantly, the action acting is even more so, and that’s elemental for an action flick. That’s why we kungfu nerds watch those Hong Kong -films: it’s the martial arts skill of the kungfu actors and actresses, not the plots, which are rather often close to non-existent. So for a week I had been watching Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester move like they meant it. And that had somehow rubbed off on me. Go figure, but riding that horse I was carrying myself in a manner similar to the way Stapleton walks (I don’t know why it’s him. We’re both dark haired? Haven’t figured that one out – yet.)

I realised this when we were watching the series’ first season with Richard Armitage playing the lead. Yep, we watched that last since it’s not on HBO and we had to dig for it. Looking it I realised how much more pro the following seasons looked like, and that it was all down to the way the actors moved – and some other little things, but mainly just that. In martial arts terms, Stapleton and Winchester are rooted (or at least they are doing a good job acting as if they are). They own the earth they move on. Being rooted is an interesting concept and a difficult one to explain in words alone but a simple explanation would be that a rooted person has a low centre of balance and is therefore difficult to dislodge among other things. Seeing the first season made me realise it; they don’t move that well in the first season. Not their fault, they just didn’t have that much time to learn it, but the contrasts made me realise what I had learned from watching the series.

Riding horses is not knife fighting or raiding buildings but, like they say in kendo, everything you do can become practicing kendo. When doing tai ji, I practice riding. Riding, I practice tai ji. And apparently watching action flicks can become a practice too. So thanks, lads, it’s joy to watch you two play (and you do seem to have fun!), and thanks for the lessons on carrying oneself, Sully! Pass my thanks to the pros who have shown you two how to do it all. They really must be something else altogether! Thanks to you my gongfu of riding has improved.

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