Live from Las Vegas

For more than thirty years, I’ve pondered how to best respond when people ask me what I do. I am an Aikido practitioner. If I say “I teach martial arts,” I am often met with the habitual response “guess we better not mess with you,” or “oh, you’re like that Zena gal.” As a result, I’ve found it most effective to say, “I teach conflict resolution” or “I’m a pro-peace strategist.”\

A Japanese martial art founded in the mid 20th century, Aikido is grounded in the concept of reconciliation and provides a model to bring the world into a harmonious state. Its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, in response to the unspeakable suffering he witnessed during World War II, created an art to reconcile conflict and bring the world into a more balanced state. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Ueshiba (commonly referred to as O’ Sensei) used his martial training to teach compassion. That a martial art could be a way of taking a non-violent stance seems counter intuitive to most Americans.

Two months after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, I traveled to Las Vegas for a weekend of sunshine and art entertainment, I was reminded of how unusual this idea is.

“Where are you from?” the gregarious taxi driver with gritty, long sideburns asked as he opened the door of his cab.

“Seattle,” I responded as I settled into the back seat. A few seconds passed, and I noticed that we weren’t going anywhere fast. Fretting, I wondered how much money I had committed to this journey. I was late for my flight; in this post 9-11 era, I had not allowed enough time to get through the endless security lines.

“Visit here often?”

“Not since I rowed through the Grand Canyon some 20 years ago,” I said. “Quite the city of sin this place is.”

Just looking out the window at the technological dazzle put me on overload. A fifty-foot tall Elvis lit up the side of a building on my left; on my right were larger than life billboards with Siegfried & Roy straddling tigers and Celine Dion hugging Caesar’s Palace. Alternate smells of greasy food, cologne and sewer stench plagued the air.

“Were you here for pleasure?” The cabby was a friendly, upbeat sort who looked as if he had put roots down in Las Vegas years ago.

“Yes,” I said. Closing my eyes, I flashed on the image of the two baby-faced and thong-clad women who had danced in a 10 foot by 10 foot Fishbowl on stage in the opulent Mirage Hotel. “I saw Zumanity last night. What a show!”

I had come to Las Vegas to see the opening night performance of The Cirque de Soliel’s Adult Only production. I like watching bodies twirling in space, and, as an Aikidoist, I feel it’s my job to study the mastery of movement. So when a colleague of mine suggested we get tickets, I was game. The dancers I observed last night had a superior talent for seduction. The performance hall was decked out like a sultry living room. From the moment I walked in the door, I felt that anything could happen. It was as though someone had sprayed an hypnotic tonic through the hall, and the performers confidently and audaciously seemed to walk on that air. They demonstrated not only what they could do with their bodies, but also what they could do ensemble, whether dangling from the ceiling or diving through rings of fire. In one segment, a nearly naked, almond-eyed woman with nonstop legs undulated her body through space, upside down for what seemed an eternity. Her only contact with the ground was a sinewy man with a mane of blond hair and a mien of a youthful Arnold Schwarzenegger who stood underneath her. She balanced above him, using only three fingers on the top of his head—a most provocative display of sensuality. It looked like a mating ritual between a Siamese cat poised above a Great Dane.

“So what do you do?” the cabbie asked.

Returning to the present moment, I paused to consider the best response. Let’s go safe here, I thought.

“I am an educator.” I chose to refrain from describing my varied background as a psychotherapist or a body worker, which often leads to shrink jokes or inquiries about whether I fix cars.

“And how do you educate?”

“I teach Aikido.” I leaned my head against the fake leather seat cover and wondered for a moment why I chose Aikido as a career path, rather than some other available option, like a molecular scientist or dog trainer. Questions like this seem to arise when I visit a place so far away from my everyday reality, causing me to wonder what the hell I am doing with my life. But I rely on the poet Rilke: If upon waking you are compelled, moved, urged to do your practice, then you don’t have to ask why you do it.

“Aikido, that’s a martial art right? Are you a martial artist?” The cabby asked, his tone of voice shifting from bass to tenor.

“Yes,” I answered. Keep it simple, I thought, sensing the dialogue that might ensue.

“Are you a black belt?” he inquired, as he nearly clipped the car in front of us.

I mused about the term “black belt.” It’s a title generally granted to those who study a martial art consistently for a select period of time. If you train long enough in the same school, you get a black belt. In Aikido as practiced in the United States, that period of time might be five or six years. It really means that you know enough to know you don’t know much. Put another way, you are ready to begin a serious study of the martial arts.

“Yes, I am,” I responded.

“No,” he said emphatically as if to say, how could that be? Next came a familiar response. “I took a little of Shin Shan Do and then some Tai Kwan Do in high school.”

“Unhuh,” I nodded, thinking, how many times I’ve heard this before.

“What Dan are you?”

This is a question I don’t hear so often. It is one that indicates a familiarity of the arts. Dan means degree. Each level of advancement has its requirements. Ideally, the higher the degree from one to ten the more skill present, the greater depth of understanding involved. As far as I know, O’Sensei offered the rank of 10th dan to three people in his lifetime. Currently there are a handful of American men and women who have received 7th dan.

“I’m a sixth degree black belt,” I answered. The traffic by now was slowly crawling by, but the cabby hit the brakes anyway as he turned to face me.

“No way,” he yelped. “No way. You don’t look like a 66h degree black belt.”

I paused for a moment.

“And what is that supposed to look like?” I waited, wondering what he would say.

“You just don’t look like it, that’s all. You’re pretty and…” his voice trailed off.

“Did you ever see Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon?” I asked. “She was a pretty nifty martial artist, don’t you think?”

“Yes, but that’s Hollywood. ”

No, actually that’s China, I thought, but I held my tongue. “What’s black belt supposed to look like?

” I asked again. He didn’t answer, so I added, “I’m not sure that it’s such a great idea to look like someone who breaks bricks for breakfast and takes out bad asses with a flick of the wrist. If you walked around thinking you could beat the shit out of people, and looking the same way, you would be spending a lot of time doing just that. You could get tired.” And, I was getting tired, but continued. “Might be better ways to spend your time. Aikido is a martial art, but it is also a spiritual practice. The idea is to melt the conflict…just not be there.”

“I don’t get it,” the cabby said with surprising candor. “Sounds like running away to me.”

“What if the attacker is quite insane, and we can easily understand that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Perhaps, we don’t feel fearful because we see how to protect, and we don’t feel anger or rage because we can see he is out of control. We might even feel inspired to help him if we could.”

“Hey, do you know Steven Seagal?”

I wondered if the cab driver had heard a word I had just said.

“I don’t know him, but I‘ve seen a few of his movies.”

“He’s a bad ass, but I think he’s not such a class act any more. He’s bad though.”

“There are lots of ways to practice Aikido,” I said. “The founder mastered over thirty martial arts in his lifetime. The older he got, the more he devoted himself to fostering peace on earth.” I knew that was a mouthful, but since the cabby did not respond, I went on a bit more. “Those who studied with O’Sensei tell of sitting for hours on their knees while he talked about our natural state of grace and the value of experiencing oneself as the center of the universe. Then, with no warning, he would command with a glance for one or ten students to attack him with swords simultaneously, and he would quell them all in a sweet moment. It’s the level of mastery that students dream of achieving.”

“A bad guy, eh?”

What could I say? That Ueshiba was one of the greatest warriors in the history of modern Japan. That he participated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904) and acted as a primary military trainer for Japan’s elite forces. That, devastated by the machine-like preparation and subsequent carnage of World War II, he became a fierce advocate of a nonviolent approach to conflict. That throughout his adult life, he urged his students to stop seeing killing as the solution to conflict.

“Have you ever had to use Aikido?” The cabbie continued.

“I’m using Aikido right now,” I answered. While our conversation had thus far been pleasurable, I flashed on numerous times I have felt inadequate when trying to define ‘Aikido’. In this Las Vegas environment our conversation felt particularly surreal.

“What do you mean?” He said defensively.

“I use it all the time.”

“What?”

“Aikido is all about creating good communication. I’m sure that someone like you, who deals with the public all the time, meets an occasional troubling character. You must have techniques that make the tough moments work out. When I engage with people I feel are unreasonable or difficult, I try to keep my cool and resolve the problems before they get out of control. The degree to which I am successful is about being a sixth degree black belt. And when I can communicate this message to my students, that is my black belt also.”

“But you know what I mean. Have you ever had to really use it?”

“I once fell off the back seat of a motorcycle going 40 mph. I tucked my head, like we do in an Aikido roll, and saved my ass.”

“But I mean like getting attacked or something.”

“When I have encountered serious trouble in my life, my practice has made the difference between my living and dying,” I said.

I remembered trying to flag down a ride in Seattle some years earlier. It was late afternoon, and my car wouldn’t start. I was due at the dojo to teach in an hour. After waving my arms in the air for several minutes, a man in a ’78 Chevy pulled over and offered me a ride.

“I’m looking to get to the Chevron down the road on the left,” I said as I jumped in the front seat.

“Okay,” he muttered.

I looked at him, staring at his feet on the pedals. I noticed his round balding head, slumped shoulders and big belly. Had I been more awake, I might have noticed something was awry. He was more than downtrodden. A short distance out, the car in front of us began to slow down and wander. From out of nowhere he started to rant.

“Women drivers can’t hold the road.”

I wanted to ask how we could tell it was a woman, but thought better of it. Traffic brought us to a near stop.

“Fucking women,” he continued, “They just want to mess with you. Nothing is ever right with them. Bitches, all of them.”

I hadn’t counted on participating in this kind of dialogue on such a short trip with no advance notice. I remained silent. He continued his complaint, as though talking to himself, as we neared the gas station.

“My stop is coming up on the left here. You can just pull over and I’ll let myself out.”

“Shut up. I’ll tell you when your stop is coming up.”

A cold shiver ran up my spine. This wasn’t going the way I’d planned it.

“It’s right here on the left,” I announced as resolutely as I could.

“Do you need me to shut you up?”

I was facing a problem here. By now we had passed the gas station and I felt the car accelerate. Study your options, I could hear my Aikido teachers instructing me. I could open the passenger seat and take a roll. I could place the palm of my hand on his neck, jam my thumb into his carotid artery (an irimi nage technique I practice in Aikido daily) and firmly request that he stop the car immediately. Too risky, I decided. Immobilizing the driver in a moving vehicle had its problems. After all, he had the wheel. What if he swerved? Besides, I’d prefer not to inflame his already crazed state. A third alternative—I could attempt to blend with his energy and appeal to his more conscious self. Worth a try.

“You sound quite unhappy,” I started.

That was lame, I chided myself. Can’t you do better than that? I tried to suppress the suddenly arising thoughts of the Green River Killer. Recently, there had been a series of articles in the Seattle Times charting his menacing history and the biographies of his victims. I reminded myself of O’Sensei’s teaching that mental power—an unperturbed mind, not brute strength—is the key to handling jeopardy.

“You bet I’m pissed. My wife split and took my two kids with her. No note, no nothing. Don’t know where she went. What I am supposed to do? Goddamn bitch. Every one of you, all the same.”

How many times in the last twenty years as a therapist had I sat opposite my clients and listened to them spell out how bad it went with this or that lover. For five of those years, I had worked with Family Anger Management, counseling men and women who had committed acts of domestic violence. Doing intakes eight hours a day, four days a week offered me plentiful opportunity to practice keeping my cool as I heard their stories. I had a sharp boss who encouraged me to be both firm and compassionate with these sentient souls. I never thought I’d be this close to the receiving end.

“That’s got to be unbearable. What a rotten deal. I’m sorry that she hurt you.” I could feel the sweat pouring from my armpits and dripping down my rib cage. Keep it together girl, you’re doing great so far, the cheerleader in me coached.

“You’re all the same. Programmed to walk out and leave a mess.”

An unexplainable but palpable shift happened here. Droplets of sweat were pooling above his top lip. I sensed his aggression mounting

. “Maybe I should mess with you.”

Breathe, I whispered to myself.

“I get it that you are mad. But I also know that you know it wasn’t me who did this to you. And I know that it’s not me you want to hurt.”

I concentrated hard now on staying in my body: feet on the floor, tailbone firmly on the seat. Pay attention. It would be easy to float away about now.

“I can’t imagine how sad you must be,” I continued, careful to pronounce every word slowly and clearly. “You’re not interested in hurting me. If you gave it any thought at all—if you really considered what is happening here, you’d want to let me out on the side of the road now. If not for me, then certainly for you.”

Moments passed. It was growing dark. I could see the twinkling lights of the boats gliding across Puget Sound on the right side of me and of the bungalow-style houses on the left. The houses seemed to be within an arms reach and yet… Give it one more shot. I took a deep breath.

“Do the smart thing here.” I said again as gently as possible.

He glanced at me, and something clicked in him. He pressed his low back into the seat and pushed his foot onto the brake, lowering his head onto the steering wheel.

He pulled over and said, “Get out, fucking bitch!”

I opened the door and stepped out quickly. As the car sped away, perspiration rained down my chest. Tiny hammers pounded nails inside my head. My thoughts streamed: I’m alive! I’m dumped in the middle of nowhere. That was a near total disaster. I have to teach at 6. What a pain in the ass. Oh my God, I’m free. I didn’t get hurt and I didn’t hurt him. It was a long walk to the gas station, and I was a short distance from my body the whole way. By the expression on the attendant’s face, I knew I must have looked like a disheveled Medusa. I did think twice before getting in the attendant’s truck, but his sincere wish to help felt real. He gave me a ride to my car and charged the battery. Once in my car, my body began to shake like a rattle. Tears leaked from my eyes, and another layer of emotion pushed up through my skin. I was both ecstatic to be alive and fuming that I got myself in such a precarious position. You fell asleep and paid a dear price, I scolded myself. I was very late to class that evening… and on fire. I can still remember how altered I felt as I stepped onto the mat. That night no one’s attack could touch me. The moment that uke (the attacker) formed an intent to grab me, I could see the whole interaction, the whole dance, in slow motion. By the time the uke almost reached my body, I’d shifted slightly off to the side. People can’t make sharp right turns at speed; it’s not physically possible. As the uke lunged for me, he found himself careening toward the floor. Simultaneously, I felt the power to embrace direct my partner’s attack and my ability to defeat take him out him if I so chose. We train to be senior in our space from the moment the interaction begins hold enough power so that fighting isn’t the only option when conflict presents itself. Tonight I felt I had so much time to guide my attacker, like the feeling of being in a car accident how everything slows down. Having to deal with the life and death threat hours earlier, gave me access to a sense of empowerment I hadn’t felt before. The ability to protect myself came from assessing my options in a split second and appeal to the human being in him. I am not saying that this approach would work every time, but this time I felt my willingness to be with my vulnerability and save my life using contact and awareness made me feel deeply connected to O Sensei’s teachings. That feeling is what I want more of in my practice. That evening forecasted the teacher I would one day become.

I looked out the window and came to. Oh yeah, this is Las Vegas.

“Almost there,” the cab driver said as the car passed by the mammoth Arabian Towers Hotel and Casino, flamboyant in its tropical greenery of royal palms, orchids and banana trees. It seemed that at any minute, Aladdin might float by on his magic carpet and land next to the giant ebony horses guarding the entrance. Finally, we arrived at the airport and pulled up to the Alaska Airlines curb. I handed the cabby the fare and reached for the door.

“If I had all that training I would want to practice using it. You know what I mean? I still think you should make yourself a little more obvious—all that work for no show. Maybe wear a patch or something.”

I closed my eyes briefly. “You have a point.”

“Have a safe flight.”

“Thanks for the ride.”

As I walked through the terminal, I mused about the driver’s suggestion that I should wear a patch.

At the ticket counter, I discovered that my flight was overbooked and another paying customer already occupied my seat.

“We will try and accommodate you, but we are very overbooked. Would you mind taking a later flight?” the agent asked. Though I made every attempt to contain my indignance, I lost it.

“No, I am not willing to take another flight. Here is the credit card that the ticket was purchased with over four months ago. I understand these are difficult times, but this is unacceptable.”

“Who is ‘Two Cranes’?” the agent asked, eyeing the name on the card.

“That’s my business,” I answered, leaning my elbow on the counter.

“What is it?”

“It’s a martial art school.”

“Are you a martial artist?” he asked intently. “Yes.” Not again, I thought.

“Are you a black belt?”

“Yes.”

“Just a moment please,” he said and disappeared into the gateway, leaving me and countless others standing behind me waiting for some time. I closed my eyes and pictured myself on the plane.

“Here is your ticket, Ms. Richardson.”

I glanced at the receipt and noted the seat number 2A—first class. As my eyes grew wide I heard the gate agent utter under his breath,

“We anticipate that you will be willing to assist in the unlikely possibility of a... Next.”

I ran down the jet way, tossed my bag up in the overhead and searched for a pillow. What an odd turn of events, I thought. If only they knew how much fear I had of flying. Minutes later, the flight attendant announced that they had closed the jet door and intently requested that everyone take a seat. I slipped passed the stately looking gentleman in 2B dressed in an immaculate dark grey suit who could pass for a defensive linebacker for the Jets. Just as I tumbled into my seat, he chose that moment to stand up. Larger than life, he turned to face the passengers, shook his fists above his head and announced,

“Anybody wants to start a problem here, you can talk to me! “

Everyone clapped. I was not the only one who’d been designated as official plane protector. We couldn’t be more different in size and shape, race and sex and yet we were on the same team. In that moment, I flashed on the precarious ride in the beat up Chevy years ago. It occurred to me that perhaps my attacker had seen me clearly as the martial artist I was and that’s why he let me out of the car. The question ‘what is true power’ comes to mind. We have an image of martial artist sporting a bulging bicep and a stern glare. Truth is, the most powerful martial artists I know do not look like they eat nails for breakfast, but rather carry themselves in an easygoing, awake, and relaxed manner. They are capable of responding to and taking control of what arises in the moment, sweet and horrific. What’s more they can find that ability to see the attacker not just as an enemy but a fellow human being who shares the same DNA. Thus they can respond with a compassionate stance. That’s what I searched for on that lonely road in west Seattle.

My seatmate made it clear that he was ready, set and go to defend the aircraft from a terrorist attack. In my own way I too felt that clarity of mind to look an attacker in the face and the willingness to do what was required to quell the conflict. How about creating a patch that get’s that point across. That might be worth wearing.

Kimberly Richardson