“33 Years in the Art — a Current View,” by Charles A. McCarty

“While I held him pinned into a corner with one hand and searched his pockets with the other, he cried out; “Where is that old man? I’m going to kick his ass!'”

In 1980, as a callow youth (as it were) I was presumptuous enough to tackle an impossible task: To explain the unexplainable, to talk about the unknowable and to present it all in written form as a knowledgeable discourse about an art in which I was still a beginner, at least in the estimation of my instructors and superiors in the art.

This has never stopped me before, or since for that matter. Further, I need to let you know that it works. As I often counsel my students when they are struggling with a technique in class; just fake it. Pretend like you know what you are doing (talking about) and very often you will convince everyone around you, as long as you act (speak) with authority and conviction.

In 1981 I graduated (with honors) from John F. Kennedy University of Orinda, California in the Master of Arts; Comparative Mysticism (Religion and Consciousness) program. Yes, you heard that right. That same Spring I was tested for first degree black belt (shodan) in Aikido at San Jose, California. It was a near-run thing (no honors this time), but I made it, and put on the black belt that my instructor took off his own waist and presented to me, along with the hakama, or ceremonial pants-skirt traditionally worn by samurai and Aikido black belts that I had secretly purchased two months after I began to train in Aikido. I still wear that same belt today, though it has gradually turned back (appropriately enough) into a nearly white belt, as the belt has worn into near tatters. Many hakamas, however, have been worn through and discarded.

My shaky introduction to the world of Aikido at the level of black belt (still regarded as a beginner, but a serious one) allowed me to go into partnership with my first instructor to found a new dojo in Walnut Creek. There is nothing like teaching to force the learning of the details and innermost working of an art, despite what the unlearned say about teachers (those who can’t, etc.). I continued to train with my primary instructor in Berkeley and all over the Bay Area, and had the opportunity to be the uke for a number of others taking their black belt tests, which is a high honor; even being allowed to be the attacking partner for a second degree (nidan) test for one of our partners in the new dojo, which is very unusual.

A move to the great Northwest followed, with the opportunity to build a new dojo quite literally from the ground up. Timber harvested from our property on Lopez Island was used to erect the framework of a beautiful building in the woods, which became the scene of regular Aikido classes and many other community events and functions.

Currently I teach classes three times a week in a dojo space subleased from a Taekwondo instructor who also is a co-worker at the Sheriff’s Office, where I work as a dispatcher, evidence technician and photographer; as well as serving as a reserve deputy. We have a small but faithful and dedicated group of students who join me three times a week to delve into the ongoing mysteries of the art, which continues to fascinate and puzzle me.

Three years ago I began to journey to California each Memorial Day weekend for an intensive workshop which reunites me with many of the same students and instructors with whom I studied when I first began the art in 1974 and through the mid 80’s, until my move to relative isolation in the San Juan Islands of Washington state. This has given a new creative burst to my development in Aikido, though it comes at a time when my body is feeling the effects of both age and decades of sometimes hard physical activity, on and off the mat.

I was honored in the Fall of 2006 by the head instructors of the Takemusu Aikido Association, with which I became affiliated after my first trip to California several years ago with the award of Nidan, or second degree black belt. This was an honor both unearned and long overdue in equal measure. The Memorial Day Gasshuku has become part of an annual pilgrimage to renew and improve my understanding of the art of Aikido.

In undertaking to revisit and present my thesis, words long sitting abandoned on a shelf, I was reminded of the comment made by one of my instructors when I submitted one of my papers for a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Development at Cal State Hayward. He scrawled in red at the top of the paper: “C+ Curb your propensity to verbosity.” I never did learn that lesson, certainly not when I wrote my thesis a few years later. I re-edited it largely to try to reduce some of that verbosity, as well as to simplify awkward word structure and a tendency to overuse commas.

I have not indicated changes in punctuation, but wherever words have been changed or added the modifications are enclosed in brackets. I have attempted to change no meaning during the editing process. In revisiting these words, I find that I still agree with them in all respects, though I might find less ornate ways of expressing them. Many of the concepts presented in the thesis are a part of my curriculum in my classes, though in a much less verbal way, for I have found means to communicate much non-verbally, through the interplay of motion and action.

But the real question, the one I know you have in the back of your mind, is “did he become a master?”. After all, that was the whole idea anyway, right? Well, I can tell you that I got my Master’s degree, but I’ve never been able to convince myself that it makes me a master, as such. I’ve had an interesting life, but nothing about it feels particularly “masterful”, if you get my meaning. I have a good wife, and a good life, but there are a couple of other women out there from previous marriages who would snicker if it were suggested that I was a master. My students seem to respect me, but I certainly haven’t gotten the sense that any regard me as a master. My employer seems to appreciate me, particularly when I succeed in controlling a combative prisoner without any injury resulting, but they haven’t given me a bonus for being a master, though that may begin this year with a new contract proviso providing a yearly bonus for higher education-hey, that Master’s degree will finally pay off!

All I can say is, if I’m a master, then I’d be the last to know. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work. As a testimonial, I can only offer the words of a man whom I’d just restrained and disarmed after he attempted to attack me at work with a folding saw. While I held him pinned into a corner with one hand and searched his pockets with the other, he cried out; “Where is that old man? I’m going to kick his ass!”. Now, there is a cry from the heart. But does it make me a master? I don’t think so.

I’m still working at it, though. Seeing some of the students that I helped to instruct at our dojo in California in the 1980’s appear at last year’s 25th anniversary wearing their own black belts (and in most cases now outranking me) convinced me that I had done some good over they years. Once an art such as Aikido is committed to, the best way to repay the debt established toward all the teachers who have guided you is to become a teacher yourself, and to ensure that others benefit as you have benefited.

There have been many disappointments and a lot of pain in 33 years of training, and enough joy and sufficient reward that I look forward to another 33 years of study. I trust a few or many more years will bring me at least that much closer to this elusive state that I wrote so many words about and have spent so many hard and sweaty hours seeking after. I’ll see you on the mat—the mat of the world at large.


  1. Samuel Coe says:

    I think there is a difference between coaching/instruction and teaching. Coaching/instruction often requires much experience and expertise to pass on how to do something physically whereas a teacher can “get by” by having a basic knowledge if like you say “(speak) with authority and conviction”

    I really liked your article, you sure sound like a master to me!

  2. …mastery is another person’s impression of what they see. the perception of mastery by the individual is at best an illusion, at worst self-deception, and at any time an obstacle to learning.

    at any given time and place all you can do is your best. if you mix in your completely justified self-doubt or personal “style” it won’t be your best. “faking it” implies doing something in such a way that it is a vision of the best you know. in a certain sense it bypasses the self that way, also, therefore, the self-doubt or “style”. arguably, the mindspace of faking it is more viable than the mindspace of defending yourself.

    in all events. let’s keep training.

    (going through his pockets? cool! how much did you get? 😉 )

  3. Fr Douglas Skoyles SSC says:

    In a couple of months I will be marking 44 years practicing Aikido.
    I still consider myself very fortunate to be Aikideshi, an honorable title.
    A “Master” is often the 18 year old 15th dan Bloody Dragon Free-Style Gung-Fu Kempo Karate Wu-Shu Jujutsu Taekwon Aikido Shihan-Sifu Soke.

  4. Great writing, Chuck! Arigato.

  5. Instructors teach techniques in exchange for some kind of compensation (pleasure, recognition, money, etc.) Their lifestyle has little or nothing to do with what they teach. Many of us get stuck here!

    Teachers teach as a means of continuing their study. It’s a chosen path.

    Masters are recognized as such only after their death.

    There is a difference between stars whose motivation is self-interest –and leave nothing after them, and teachers who prepare their students to go beyond them.

    Patrick Augé

  6. Having attained a “Master’s degree” I think one way to look at this concept is one who can do and teach, which you have obviously done. Another aspect is that those with a professional degree in their field also prove that they not only can, but will continue to thoughtfully pursue further knowledge in said field, both through practice and research.

    You sound like a thoughtful person who is deeply dedicated to this art we all love and I wish you godspeed and happy training.

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