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Saturday, February 05, 2005 5:51 PM
The snow is good today. The sky is clear. Birds are at my feeder. I
saw some cow elk on the ridge this morning.
I apologize in advance, this might make you uncomfortable for a
minute, but I'm in training for a fight for my life. I'm about a week
into it, I have nine days left to train, and I have to review my
preparations for losing. Then I'm going to the hospital where they'll
cut out 15-20 inches of my bowel and go hunting for the rest of my new
It's not my nature to talk about the hard stuff, it's my nature that
I'd carry it on my own, solitary, like I learned from my father. The
only way I knew growing up.
The Aikido classes I've been teaching, since I learned why I was so
tired all the time, have all been about facing your problems, not
flinching, letting the daylight in on them so they diminish, reaching
into the heart of it and dealing with it directly and right now, win
or lose. I'm talking to myself when I teach those classes. I'm talking
to myself while I'm writing to you.
A big part of my practice right now is learning how to talk about
this, how to hear more about this, and let daylight in on the
problem. It hates daylight, it thrives in the dark and ignorance. I'm
already figuring out some, down in my alligator mind that I'm not the
first guy to have this problem and my odds are better than a lot of
other things I've done and I'm running into other people who have beat
other similar battles and they are not bigger/stronger/faster/smarter
than I am.
I'm training to be able to remember that every time I have my panic
attacks, so I don't do anything dumb and hopefully I can carry more
strength and less fear onto the table when they put me to sleep, and
afterwards when the second round starts.
I hope it works. It's the only plan I've got.
Sunday, February 06, 2005 10:24 AM
You're not making me uncomfortable. I already suspected you were,
like me, a merely mortal man.
I am not a big fan of mystery or magic. Powers conjured by a spell to
defeat the ordinary -- false hope and misguided fascination. Whether
elf or goblin, benevolent phantom or dark angel, the only offering
they bring is fear.
So I am often left looking for examples of how I might complete this
journey in the least offensive manner possible. For me. And that is
the balance, isn't it? Not being in any great hurry to arrive
wherever I'm headed, trusting that my journey will end before I can do
any great harm, believing it will last long enough to accomplish some
portion of good -- that is faith, isn't it?
You're giving me a gift, letting me inside your head -- one of those
examples I'm always looking for -- shining a little light on a dark
part of life. Like many gifts, you may never know just what it means
to those you bless with it. And I suspect, as you find the capacity
to talk freely and without apology, you may find your gift returning
Thank you, Frank.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005 9:32 AM
If my math is right, you've had your surgery by now. If I knew what
you needed to hear I'd say it, but I don't.
So I'll settle for mentioning that there are people who care about
Best to you and yours...
Monday, March 07, 2005 2:32 PM
I'm about ten days out of the hospital now. I've sat and watched two
aikido classes which reinforce how I must train for the
cancer. Tonight I will teach a class, although I won't be moving
fast. The new students could stand to see me, and I need to practice
on the mat the relationship I'm trying to cultivate with the
cancer. They took a lot of bits and pieces out of me.
Later this week, I go back to the hospital to have a 'port' installed
in my chest to facilitate the large quantities of fluids I'll be
infused with. Next week I'm tentatively scheduled to begin a four
month regimen of chemo and radiation.
95% of the time I'm handling it, when I crack it never lasts more than
2-5 minutes so I try to stay present and just wait till it goes away.
That seems to work, I feel separate from the stress/grief/fear
reaction that my body is having even though it doesn't look that good
from the outside. This is a difficult path, but I know it is very
little compared to what others have to deal with.
Tuesday, March 08, 2005 3:57 PM
> ... I've sat and watched two aikido classes....
Anything noteworthy catch your attention?
> Tonight I will teach a class....
How did it go? What did you see?
> ... when I crack it never lasts more than 2-5 minutes
How do you manage that?
> so I try to stay present and just wait till it goes away.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005 9:15 AM
Sorry to be slow in responding, my situation keeps evolving and I seem
to have fewer good hours in a day. These are good thinking questions
and my thinking is getting a little slower now. I'm going into the
hospital for a few days and I'd like to keep up this correspondence
when I get out and can.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005 10:41 AM
> These are good thinking questions....
> I'd like to keep up this correspondence....
You just did.
A hospital stay... is not for the weak-minded...
Sunday, March 20, 2005 9:01 PM
I just finished my first week of chemo. I get a week to recover, then
we do it again. My program will be one week on chemo daily, one week
off, repeat for sixteen weeks and stir to see how I'm doing and how
the cancer is doing. The plan is that my training partner will wear
down from this faster than I will.
> > ... I've sat and watched two aikido classes....
Accepting, turning, diffusing, not going head-on, maintaining one's
center as much as possible while
confusing/redirecting/dissipating/taking uke to ground. That looks
very much like the way I'm being counseled by the cancer nurses, who
actually mediate between patients (me) and doctors ('godlike in the
hierarchy' cerebral characters with no communication skills who look
at me and only see an interesting problem). The nurses interpret the
obscure pronouncements of doctors, explain language, look things up,
couch information in human terms, warn me about side-effects and how
to deal with them. They talk about not fighting the cancer, just
focusing on taking the best possible care of myself in the face of the
trials ahead, like a long-distance runner in an obstacle course ( my
> Anything noteworthy catch your attention?
> > Tonight I will teach a class....
Well, I was too weak to teach, but getting on the mat felt very
important to me for my own needs. I had a senior student teach and I
moved around the mat and paired silently with students for slow
practice. I would sit when I needed to. I felt grieving and I would
sit. When it went away I would move. This was not where I wanted to
cry, so my strategy of letting grief blow through me wasn't working
very well. Most of the students are not aware of my condition...
> How did it go? What did you see?
I was proud of my senior students for the way they cared for the
> > ... when I crack it never lasts more than 2-5 minutes
I don't know. I have no idea what I'm doing.
> > so I try to stay present and just wait till it goes away.
> How do you manage that?
Monday, March 21, 2005 4:32 PM
> The plan is that my training partner will
Doesn't sound like much of a plan. You okay with it?
> wear down from this faster than I will.
> ... getting on the mat felt very important....
What is it about aikido practice that makes this kind of thing
> I moved around the mat and paired silently with
> students.... I felt grieving and I would sit.
> ... my strategy of letting grief blow through me
> wasn't working very well.
I came to the dojo hoping to acquire life tools, but I now wonder if
the dojo is more a lab for examining tools forged elsewhere. A safe
place for discovering what is already there. Or what is not there.
Why was being on the mat so important to you?
> I have no idea what I'm doing.
Why should you be different?
Thursday, March 31, 2005 9:06 AM
I'm going to have an unexpected recovery week which I'm going to
enjoy. I was to start my second chemo round yesterday but they always
run blood tests right before starting the treatment and found my white
blood cell count too low, so I get a week off to rest. My experience
with the treatment so far is that after I get an 'infusion', I go home
straight to bed and wake up with the experience of a bad flu bug, with
a little nausea and diarrhea thrown in.
> > The plan is that my training partner will
It's the best plan I've got. Fighting isn't really a good analogy for
this process. It's a little more like maybe, cleaning an infestation
of rats out of a warehouse. You open all the doors up and cut out,
kill, drive out, all of them that you can, remove the food sources as
much as possible, and put out baits for the remainder that are in
> > wear down from this faster than I will.
> Doesn't sound like much of a plan.
> You okay with it?
The drugs are designed to target cancer cells but the cancer cells
look so much like me that distinguishing characteristics are hard to
isolate. They key on variables like growth speed for example, but
then that hits me in my hair, mucus membranes, stomach lining, etc.
> > ... getting on the mat felt very important....
I don't know, but this is what has kept me in the art in spite of the
troubles I've had with it.
> > I moved around the mat and paired silently with
> > students.... I felt grieving and I would sit.
> > ... my strategy of letting grief blow through me
> > wasn't working very well.
> What is it about aikido practice that makes
> this kind of thing possible?
> Why was being on the mat so important to you?
I think I only understand parts of that. I've frequently described the
mat as a laboratory where we perform experiments not on other people,
but on ourselves. We can set up questions or statements physically on
the mat and repeat them over and over, tweaking variables and studying
At least one of the things I was doing was figuring out how to be
around people when I was feeling sick, weak, and afraid. My impulse
was to go to ground and hole up, but I thought that was a bad strategy
for this problem.
> > I have no idea what I'm doing.
I still don't know what I'm doing.
> Why should you be different?
Monday, April 04, 2005 10:03 AM
> Its a little more like maybe, cleaning
Sounds like a dirty business.
> an infestation of rats out of a warehouse.
I hate rats.
Has does one prepare for the hosting of vermin? For the extermination
How is the line clearly drawn between what is inside and the nature of
> We can set up questions or statements physically
Are those you're practicing with adjusting to accommodate you? If so,
in what ways are they adjusting; in what ways are their adjustments
helpful, or not?
> on the mat and repeat them over and over....
> [I] was figuring out how to be around people
How is this different from your past practice?
> when I was feeling sick, weak, and afraid.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005 5:11 PM
The north corner of my house, which catches only the late sun, still
has a pile of snow there that slid off my roof and collected over the
winter. Everywhere else is in full-bore spring. The birds are back,
the trees are leafing out. My daffodils and bulbs are just reaching
up, not flowering yet. Glenwood Springs, down in the valley, is about
3 weeks ahead of me and in full flower.
I got my Boulder Summer Camp acceptance last week. In May, Sugano
Sensei is teaching a weekend seminar in Aspen. So I have two seminars
I know I can get to in the next few months. My medical schedule now
requires a daily appearance at the hospital so I won't be getting far
away from Glenwood for the next 3-5 months.
> Are those you're practicing with adjusting to
All the Aikido folks locally continue to be gracious about
accommodating me and my limited practice. I move at 60-80% of normal
training speed and I can take ukemi to the balance break, but I can't
fall or roll yet. One adaptive thing that I'm doing is asking my
partners to match my speed, energy level, and don't 'tank' for me but
take the same ukemi that I'm giving them. This is helpful for me and,
I'd like to think, a useful way for other students to vary their
training too. And I get off the mat immediately when I start wearing
> accommodate you? In what ways are they adjusting;
> in what ways are their adjustments helpful, or not?
Tanking doesn't help my practice or theirs. Randomly varying speed of
attack is not good for me. I can even work with very new students if
we understand the need for reproducible waza for kihon. The only time
I've been hurt since I started my limited practice was when a
beginner's medium-slow punch to the stomach randomly veered up and
struck the device I have implanted above my left pectoral muscle.
> > [I] was figuring out how to be around people
The last few years, I've generally tried to be uke first and figure
out what my partner wanted/needed first. Then I'd ramp up or down or
get more circular or direct or whatever my partner was doing. And/or,
whatever the Sensei is teaching. If my teacher was doing something
different from my partner, that's always interesting. If I'm capable,
I'd like to meet my training partner wherever they are (if I can) and
move in the direction the teacher is going (if I can).
> > when I was feeling sick, weak, and afraid.
> How is this different from your past practice?
Now, I'm always the physically weaker student, regardless of ability.
Yes, Aikido doesn't require great physical strength, and I know many
students, and teachers, have worse problems than I do. But part of
our practice is accommodating what's real. I was at a seminar a few
weeks ago before my current chemo schedule and a very nice student
there, who trains in a harder, more direct style of Aikido than my
normal practice, he came to me when I was resting and insisted that I
throw him in breakfalls a few times. Even though he was basically
guiding me through the movement as uke and then throwing himself over
my arm, his ukemi required some small weight bearing on my part while
he was rotating in the air and I could barely do it. When he was done,
I thanked him and scooted off the mat as soon as his back was
turned. I was honored, and I also couldn't train the rest of that day.
Paul, how do you practice? How about on good days when you're pumped
up? How about bad days? Are you different in different training
environments? With different people?
What could I learn from your teacher's practice and how he deals with
his health issues and aikido practice, if I could be there. I think
about him sometimes and how much more he has to deal with than I
do. One of these days I'd love to come to your school for a visit.
Friday, May 06, 2005 9:30 AM
It rained here most of the day. A slow soaking affair, lacking wind
and lightning. Just a steady rain from an overcast sky. Evening
brought an end to it, and as the sun set there was a little space
between the dark clouds. And a thin band of white light on the edges
as the day faded.
> ... how do you practice?
By the seat of my pants.
I have more reasons than you would care to hear for how I decide what
I do on the mat. And off, for that matter. But what is going on, at
the time, is just me doing what seems the best thing then and there.
And that is determined in an instant by my gut. Granted, a lot of the
thinking I do after the fact and in general, composing this email for
example, I see as gut molding. Training my unconscious self, as it
were. But what is probably closer to reality is I am trying to
understand my submerged self, and how it responds in certain
situations, and how I might act appropriately and independent of its
response -- I am trying, still, to accept that there is a part of me
that just is what it is, and I best come to grips with it and allow
for it best I can, cause it ain't changing this side of heaven.
> How about on good days when you're pumped up?
Insert standard disclaimer here -- what follows is what I try to do.
What I actually get done is, of course, often undermined by my usual
shortcomings: childishness, short-sightedness, arrogance, presumption,
feet of clay, etc.
> How about bad days? Are you different in different
> training environments? With different people?
What I am trying to do, on good days and bad, is take ukemi. That is
my current focus. I understand ukemi to be the sincere and continuous
effort to erode, within and appropriate to the context, my partner's
capacity to influence. My attempt to pursue this focus must be
balanced against my obligation to understand and execute what is being
taught. And on those occasions when I am fortunate enough to assist
my teacher, I am also obligated to understand and provide whatever I
can to assist his training, his teaching and his exploration. That is
what I am trying to do. On good days and bad. In every environment.
> What could I learn from your teachers' practice
His current focus, as I understand it, is that uke provides both the
problem and the resolution. He is trying to work out what that
means. On good days and bad. In every environment. With everybody.
> and how he deals with his health issues and
> aikido practice...?
He is trying to work that out with or without me. Sometimes in spite
of me. Often in spite of his body's betrayals. He decides, not his
body. Nor anybody else.
> I think about him sometimes and how much more
I think about him, too. I don't think I have much of a handle on what
he has to deal with, but I don't expect to. He seems to be, like you,
just doing what he can.
> he has to deal with than I do. One of these days
> I'd love to come to your school for a visit.
I hope I'm still around when, someday, you visit.
Friday, May 27, 2005 8:37 AM
I've had a few difficult weeks, but I'm now on a drug regimen that
seems to manage the side effects of my real drug regimen better. I'm
even taking a hypertensive drug to manage the side-effects of a drug
managing more central side-effects.
I'm actually getting used to the regimen and accepting the loss of
control over my time, energy and life, better. And this week, I got
good news. I am now halfway through my chemo regimen and they are not
currently looking at extending it past the end of July. They took a
cat scan a few days ago and it came back normal, meaning that the
radiologist could not resolve any remaining tumor in my abdomen. This
is good news. The cancer isn't gone, but the chemo is working!
I'm able to be back at my desk and work 2-3 hours a day and that does
my heart good too. I'm not strong enough to teach Aikido yet, and of
course, with a port in my chest it could be problematic, but I am on
the side of the mat regularly now and I am doing slow, measured
practice with my students that I can depend on to match my slow pace.
So this is a good report from my end!
I am very sorry to hear about Kevin Sparkman. His situation is much
more serious than mine. I wish there was something I could do to
help. But oh, I'm seeing some daylight and it sounds like he is
looking into the darkness. I feel bad for him and his family.
Thursday, June 09, 2005 8:15 AM
I'm in the office early. Nice when it's just me. Quiet for a while,
then listening as people arrive and get settled in, starting their
> I'm actually getting used to the regimen and
Is this something you explore in your practice? I've come to
understand it is something worth working on. It seems like the kind
of thing that should be in my practice -- it is in my life, I know,
but I'm pretty good at pretending I'm in charge -- seems like the more
I look for this in my practice, the better my practice gets. Or
maybe, the better I get at accepting that I suck.
> accepting the loss of control over my time,
> energy and life, better.
> I am now halfway through my chemo regimen and
That sounds like a little hope for a good end to all this. In just a
few more weeks. A nice sound.
> they are not currently looking at extending
> it past the end of July.
> I'm not strong enough to teach
The most effective, most lasting, most memorable teaching I experience
is simply someone's willingness to show themselves.
> Aikido yet... I am doing slow,
> measured practice with my students
> that I can depend on....
Sounds like you're teaching, want to or not.
> So this is a good report from my end!
Very good hearing it.
What common elements do you see in the way you practice now and the
way you recall practicing? What has changed? What is missing? What
would you rather see less of?
Tuesday, July 05, 2005 6:35 PM
The last two rounds of chemo hit me harder than I expected, I've had
to spend more time in bed and I've been sleeping a lot more.
But tomorrow, I start my last round of chemo. I'll get unplugged on
Friday and this is my last scheduled round of treatment. The nurses
were right, it does get harder as you go along. They'll let me rest
for a few days and then I'll probably be scheduled for another CAT
scan, colonoscopy, blood work and who knows what else. Then I'll be
turned loose, subject to re-testing over the next 6-12 months.
It'll then take about two months for the chemo to wash out of my
body... I don't know if they'll take the port out of my chest by
then... None of that is as important to me as the fact that my
numbers are turning up good in the tests and they no longer resolve
any tumors in my scans. I've lost all of my fat and a lot of muscle
mass. But I'm going to come out on the right side of it. So this is
all good news.
> Is this something you explore in your practice?
Well, I definitely have to accept that my Aikido sucks and then
practice anyway. My reaction time is slower and my eye-hand
co-ordination is not what it was, so I have to start from where I am.
The Aikido I see in my mind, I just can't do. So when I start training
again, I'll just have to start from where I am.
> .. seems like the more I look for this in my
> practice, the better my practice gets. Or maybe,
> the better I get at accepting that I suck.
> Sounds like you're teaching, want to or not.
I don't know, maybe so. They get to see how I cope, and sometimes, not
cope. There's something to be learned from that, but it certainly
isn't brilliant technique.
> What common elements do you see in the
Now these are large questions. I'll have to think about it some more.
But if I don't send this off now, it might be another two weeks before
I get back to it.
> way you practice now and the way you recall
> practicing? What has changed? What is
> missing? What would you rather see less of?
Wednesday, July 13, 2005 5:04 PM
It is late afternoon and raining hard. Lightning, crackling thunder
and rain in sheets of heavy drops, waterfall miniatures pouring from
downspouts. A storm of sorts, but normal for a summer afternoon. It
will disappear quick as it came, the day sunny as before it rained.
But a bit cooler.
I'm traveling through an odd time in my aikido practice -- a
particular stretch of road that reappears from time to time. Which no
doubt means my path up the mountain isn't up at all, but rather a
dead-end circle running round the base -- wondering why I keep at it,
and just where exactly I fit in.
And it makes me feel a bit silly to struggle with such a petty
question, knowing I ain't got any real problems. Knowing I should be
thankful instead of frustrated, welcome instead of lonely. But silly
or not, it's what I got. So it goes.
It is good to imagine you're walking out the other side, leaving this
Wednesday, July 20, 2005 2:19 PM
Sorry I'm slow getting back to you. I've been taken off the chemo, and
the first thing that happened was that I got sicker for a few
days. That's apparently a common reaction. But as of today, I'm
actually starting to feel better. I walked for forty minutes
yesterday, almost a mile. Best I've done in five months.
> ... rain, in sheets of heavy drops, waterfall
This sounds like a bad day, or week, or month. A plateau? Threshold?
Climbers, have to set anchors at intervals to protect themselves and
their gains. You? I do. My right arm comes from a failure to secure
myself on a climb. Now I always check and test, like a solo sailor.
> miniatures pouring from downspouts.
> A storm of sorts...
> What next?
I don't know, I have a few problems to deal with over the next months,
outside of my recovery. I may mull on that question through the
fall. I'm not the same man I was, but I don't know yet what's
different. The doctors tell me six months to a year to get my strength
back. We'll see, but I'm only now able to see myself out there. Last
month I couldn't.
Monday, September 19, 2005 11:42 AM
It's now just over two months since I ended chemo, about 6 weeks since
the drug port came out of my chest. 48 hours after it came out, I
hired a personal trainer and started working out at a gym three times
a week. I also started hiking, with stones in my pack and my dog, up
in my favorite mountains above my house, three times a week.
On September 1, I started teaching Aikido again at my school. There
were a lot of tears there that day.
I'm now running my business again, half-time, and I'm able to travel
outside of the valley where I live, for the first time since
January. I've put 15 pounds back on my bones already. Another 20
pounds to go. My body now understands that we're coming out of this
deal of the cards.
I am very grateful. Every day when I get up, I am grateful. When I eat
a good meal, when I get that tired worn-out feeling from the gym, when
it rains on me, when some guy wants to argue with me on the phone
about some business problem, I am grateful. I'm grateful for my wife,
who stayed right at my side and managed for me when my brain wasn't
working right (which was a lot of the time). And I'm grateful for my
friends who helped keep me connected to the world so I could find my
way back. It was not a sure thing.
I'm not quite the same guy I was before. I smell the roses a little
more. I feel a little more compassion/empathy for people. I'm in less
of a hurry. I'm looking around a little more.
If it wasn't for a lot of people around me, talking to me, covering my
work, my classes, bringing food, mowing the yard, sending me prayers
and energy, listening to me, I'm not sure the outcome would have been
as good. I've supported other people in that way, but I never thought
I would ever need it myself.
Monday, April 10, 2006 9:24 AM
I'm still clean, my strength and health are back to 70-80% which is
fantastic. I still chafe at my shortfalls more than I appreciate what
I got. Now I have another chance to learn Aikido, and a couple of
Monday, April 10, 2006 8:45 AM
Nice report. Good to hear you're that far back, that near your old
So... I'm curious. Now that you're pretty much on your feet again,
what changes do you see in your aikido? What differences in your
teaching and/or training?
Tuesday, April 18, 2006 5:24 AM
> So... I'm curious. Now that you're
Hmmm, this is a tough one. A really competent student of Aikido could
probably give you an answer that would be profound and useful.
> pretty much on your feet again,
> what changes do you see in your
> aikido? What differences in your
> teaching and/or training?
I wish that I had great insights. I don't. I am less confident than I
was before. Less confident in my practice, less confident in my
ukemi. Less patient with myself. I notice that right now I'm more
linear than I was before, less tenkan. My students probably don't
notice the difference, its subtle. I suspect the difference is felt,
even if not recognized.
During the year I was basically off the mat, my senior students kept
the school going. I notice a shorter vocabulary of technique than
before. The students are more in their hands and heads and less in
their bodies. They became a little more focused on throwing as a sign
of success and less centered. There are fewer of them now.
I'm focusing my teaching attention on basics, and using the techniques
to get us back to solid balance, core movement, attention, all the
things which the chemo robbed me of, the students lost as well. I feel
bad for the group, we were stronger before, but we all have to start
from where we are. I think my creativity and my humor have suffered,
I'm making a conscious effort to attend to different aspect of
movement and break the students and myself, out of ruts and habits. We
lost a lot of continuing students, I lost a lot of natural movement.
I watch myself and them and look for the stuck places and try to teach
how to get through the stuck places so that I can get past them
I'm trying to teach what I know, not teach what I don't know. What
seems to work best for the group is when I teach towards whatever I'm
trying to get for myself.
I think Aikido should be joyful. So, I want to get more joyfulness in
my life and then I can put it on the mat. That's a bit of a bottleneck
yet. I'm not as good-humored on the mat as I used to be, same as off
the mat. I need and want to get that back.
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Frank Gordon is a long-time student of Aikido and other martial arts.
He teaches Aikido at the school he founded, a small independent dojo
in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Paul Schweer began his aikido practice in 1998. He is a student at Shindai Aikikai in Orlando,
Florida. You can see more of his work at www.seenwaking.com.