My stories as I remember them during my journey in the Martial Arts

Saturday, January 30, 2010

In Memory of Jeff Iannuzzo

There is an old saying that says, “no one lives forever. “ However, many touch the lives and hearts of others and in that influence they live forever. Amongst us there sometimes walk immortals. These are our true heroes. They create in us a desire to become more, to become extra ordinary. They might be teachers, parents, coaches, co-workers, bosses, anyone even Karate instructors.

One of the most influential people I knew was a Karate instructor. He was one of my instructors, in fact one of the first. He was a performer and loved performing, earning him the nick name “hot dog”, sometimes we called him “dogger” or “dog” long before it was a colloquial expression. I was amazed the first time I saw him perform a Kata. It was 1984 and he was practicing a musical Kata to the Hawaii Five-O theme. Jeff Iannuzzo could throw a perfect round house kick or side kick vertically, looking like a perfect split position only he was standing. His Kata’s where similar to what we see performed at the top level tournaments and exhibitions of today. Mr. Iannuzzo’s Katas where perfect exhibitions of Karate and Martial arts. Each move was always precise, crisp and just perfect. From the moment I watched that 16 year old young man perform that Kata I wanted to be able to perform a Kata like that with kicks like that, even if I lacked the talent, I wanted to at least come as close as possible to that kind of performance. Twenty-six years later I am still working on that.

I was watching Mr. Iannuzzo be coached by Mr. Steve Lavallee who is now known as Kyoshi Steve Lavallee. I believe I was an orange belt at the time and still working on throwing a side kick above belt level. I was amazed that it was possible to move and put movements together like this young man was doing it. Today we see great performances on the tournament circuit, but to this day I have never witnessed the kind of energy and perfection in Martial Arts Jeff Iannuzzo had in his performance. There were more than difficult kicks and aerial demonstrations; there were precise correct Martial Arts movements, with the energy of a combat for survival. Watching “dogger” perform a Kata enabled a person to really see the raw essence of Martial Arts. I am privileged to have been influenced by these performances.

I also considered Jeff my friend, and now I am sad I will never have a chance to speak with him again. I am happy though to have his memory with me. Outside the Martial Arts he was far from perfect as are we all. However, he was a great person when he walked out of the Dojo too. Jeff’s energy filled a room like a moving wave of water. I know his art had this in it and that is why his performances were so inspiring. Mr. Iannuzzo was hot headed, he had a short fuse, he was impulsive, and sometimes he acted before he thought. However he was loyal, kind, inspiring, dedicated to his students, his art, and tied his whole personality together with his never ending humor.

Mr. I was a tough instructor, he demanded you give your best. I believe he demanded that from himself and that is why he demanded it from his students. His talent was magnified by his dedication. Rick Iannuzzo, Jeff’s brother, told me once that his brother would practice one kick, one movement, or one section of Kata for hours on end. I am convinced this is why his Katas were always outstanding. He did not sit back and depend solely on his talent he worked hard to make his performance perfect. I lack the talent that Mr. I had but I try giving this same dedication to my performance. It is also something to strive for in other life skills. Those who add to their talent with never ending enthusiasm will always be in the lead.

Jeff was also one of the fairest and giving Martial Artist I had the privilege of training with. There are stories enough to fill a novel about the “Adventures of Dogger”. There is one story that lights the way to how Mr. I really was as a person. I hope to tell it here in way that conveys just how great a man he was. It was at one of the many tournaments the Lavallee’s team attended. There was always a great buzz at these local tournaments, that in those days most students and the school as a team always attended. Competitors milled about getting ready for their events warming up, watching others. The Black Belt Kata competition was usually first. Many were standing along the sides of the gym watching the Black Belts perform. Mr. I was doing a spear Kata when the sharp tip of the weapon came loose flying off striking a young boy student from a competing school in the ankle. The child had to be taken to the hospital for stitches. I am not sure how or why, but the child was brought back to the tournament to watch. He never had his chance to compete that day. I know Jeff must have been crushed by the accident. He knew that the child would not be able to perform his Kata or get in the ring for a chance to win a trophy. Jeff went on to win Kata Grand Champion. He gave that trophy to the boy.

There are far more stories to tell about this Karate instructor. He was an adventurous individual. He always pushed the limits in everything. All of my friends, fellow students, and instructors that knew him have stories to tell. He always made us laugh, all the while pushing us to be great. Many of his students became great competitors too. Jenny Hughes was a great talent he coached to perfection, along with John Swistak and too many more to list.

The sad calling hours at his passing was a tribute to how he touched people. I arrived as they began. As I drove down the road past the funeral home I could already see a line of literally thousands of people with sad and blank faces. Most faces I recognized even if I did not remember all the names. Many I did remember as we all trained together for many years. I felt very sad that for many of us it had been years since we had been together. Now we had come together to morn the passing of our friend and Instructor. The thousands of friends, students, and family stood in line on a hot summer day to say goodbye, too soon, to the Last Dragon. A seemingly indestructible person was gone.

Inside the funeral home the line wove in and out of different rooms. As the line snaked around the rooms again I was able to see so many people Jeff had somehow touched. Students and Instructors from other schools we all competed with in the past were there. Black Belts that had not actively trained in years stood in line and talked about coming back. We shook hands and talked about the “old days” as the “new days” would now go on without our friend. I came to the end of that day’s long journey three hours, maybe, standing in line to say goodbye and to try to give some comfort to the family. I hugged Rick, and his mother and his father, and Jeff’s very good friend Scott Ogata and fellow Black Belt. I left with sadness, but also with determination that I would never again walk away from the Martial Arts. Thank you My Friend, my Instructor; you will always be an inspiration. You are truly “The Last Dragon”. You will also live forever, you are still in the hearts of all who were and are inspired by your life.

This post is dedicated to Mr. Jeff Iannuzzo January 25, 1968 – June 29, 2007.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

It is Your Attitude that Determines your Altitude.

I mostly blog about my experience in the Martial Arts but this post will be just a little different. In the Martial Arts we often talk about attitude. There is an old saying: your attitude will determine your altitude. In my life I have a person that is the perfect example of this. My most lovely wife, Donna, is one of the bravest and strongest people I know. Her story is a shinning example of how going forward and never giving up in the face of adversity is how to succeed.

My wife’s success in life was raising her son and simply surviving. She had obstacles that would have crushed the average person. Even her start in life was a challenge. She was raised by alcoholic parents who divorced. Her father left the seven children and her mother with nothing. They ended up living in places where they only had chairs and couches to sleep on. They often times had nothing or very little to eat. When her mother would leave for days on end Donna would stay home from school and take care of the younger children. This eventually led to her expulsion from school at the age of 16. Donna never gave up and eventually went back to start to earn her GED. She was never able to complete that goal and this tragedy is where her real life struggle began.

In 1971 Donna married her first husband. By 1973 she was pregnant with her first and what would be her only child. She had been working at Hoffman’s (making hot dogs, sausages etc.) She knew that she needed to improve her income to help support the child she was carrying. She applied for and was hired by a local insurance agency as a secretary by scoring higher than all other applicants on an employment test. They decided to pay for her GED schooling since this bright young woman showed exceptional promise. This is when tragedy struck.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving of 1973 when Donna was about 5 months pregnant she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage caused by an aneurysm. She had some signs something was going on but the symptoms were dismissed as part of the pregnancy and/or “morning sickness”. It was luck that her ex-husband decided this was not the case when she could no longer speak or walk. He took her to the hospital and by that time the only thing she could say was “baby”.

By a miracle, especially by 1970’s medical standards, Donna survived. Her case is even listed in medical books. Her survival was only the beginning of the miracle that became my wife’s life. The stroke’s damage was severe. Donna would never again be able to work. She could not finish her GED. She did try only to be frustrated by the reality she could no longer read or comprehend written words. She was also left with expressive aphasia and a seizure disorder. Her husband who had never paid the bills or balanced the check book failed to now pay the bills or take care of other household finances. He also started an affair. By 1976 they divorced. So here was a young woman left alone with a two year old baby, unable to work, unable to read, or effectively express herself struggling to get by. When most people complain about day to day challenges, this young lady forged ahead with her disability in tow, alone.

Donna also endured fights to keep her son with her. There were some people who decided she was not capable of bringing up her son. She fought these efforts and won. She had good family that helped her along the way too. She had friends that helped her relearn how to keep a check book and would help her when she needed it. Donna brought up her son kept a household on meager SSI means and did so very well. Donna’s disability also prevents her from holding a driver's license. Still, she managed to go get groceries, take her son and herself to the doctor when necessary. She took help from others when needed but for the most part her day to day needs were met by one person, herself.

The most amazing part of my wife’s story is her never ending laughter and smile and positive outlook. She always kept a positive communication open with her ex-husband for her son’s sake. She remained friends with her mother in-law, for her son’s sake. She enjoys life and brings smiles and brings a positive atmosphere to everyone she meets. With everything against her she moved forward never pausing to wallow in self pity and negative attitudes. With 15% of her brain missing she gives 200%. She sews and does cross stitch keeping in mind she cannot read.

I met her in 1990 and in 1991 I married her. She is still the most positive and driven person I know. Her strength shows like a bright light in the darkness. Here is a person that could have easily given up and used her life’s adversity as a justification for doing so. Instead she used fortitude and indomitable spirit to relearn life survival skills. When doctors suspected she would never walk again, she did walk. When they said she might never talk again, she spoke. When people declared she was not capable of raising her son she did raise him to be a fine young man and a wonderful father to his own children now.

Donna still shows her strength today. She is now also a breast cancer survivor. She faced that disease with the same positive attitude she applies to everything. When first diagnosed her biggest concern was who was going to babysit the grandchildren while she went through cancer treatments. She held my Mother’s hand when she faced breast cancer following the year after her own recovery. She now gives comfort to my Father as he faces terminal bladder cancer. My wife’s energy, smiles, and laughter is never ending. When I think of heroes in the world she ranks amongst the highest. More than a sports hero, or movie hero she is a real life hero.

A positive attitude is one of life’s most important tools. My spouse’s story is proof that with the proper attitude you can survive and thrive through what ever life throws into your path. You choose your attitude. Anyone can choose to “cave in” to challenges or stand up and face them. You can choose to climb over obstacles or give up and never recover from adversity. It is your attitude that determines your altitude.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Quest for Excellence

In the quest of excellence where do we begin? How do we define excellence? Excellence is sometimes measured by other people’s standards. However, the best place to find excellence is in our own self evaluation. The definition of excellence is how what you have achieved has improved you as a person. That improvement can only be determined by your own measurement. As Martial Artists we all strive for excellence. We each have traveled different life paths and many of us have traveled a different Martial Arts path. Our instructors, teachers, and fellow students will all have their own standard and in any reputable Martial Arts organization this standard is really just a personal starting point. Giving your own personal best is really at the heart of excellence and only you can know what that is. While achieving and working towards something only the person working towards that goal knows inside if they are pushing themselves to that level of self excellence. In any endeavor if we only do the minimum to reach a certain level we have not achieved anything if that level did not push us past our present capacity. Pushing yourself beyond the point you thought possible is the only way to grow. In setting our goals we need to determine if reaching that point will stretch us beyond where we are in that area of fitness, art, works, or life skill. Without growth there is no reason to pursue any goal. The purpose of setting goals and/or having dreams is to grow as a person in some area of life. Stretching and growing as a person, student, husband, wife, son, daughter and, so on is what makes life worthwhile. If we are not growing we are not living we are only existing.

Excellence and growth then are one in the same. To excel we must grow, to grow we must excel. That is why Martial Artists have an advantage. We strive to learn and grow in our art. It is a never ending road but it is not an aimless wandering road. Martial Arts give us a way to map our growth. We set our Martial Arts goals and this learning will almost automatically cross over into the other areas of life. There is an endless amount of learning that can be followed in the Martial Arts just like life. While moving forward in the Arts we also move forward in life. We see new opportunities in the Arts, which will lead us to also realize we can open new doors in our lives. The story of my own personal experience is a perfect example. The day before my 1st Degree Black Belt test, over twenty-one years ago, I lost my job. I was a young man who had never before faced the dilemma of losing a position. The confidence I gained on the road to Black Belt not only gave me courage to face my upcoming test regardless of my personal challenge, the training and knowledge gathered on that road gave me the tools needed to charge ahead and find new employment. In two weeks I found a new job and worked with that company for eleven years.

Our perspective of the Arts is different while we are white belts just as our perspective in life is different from when we were children. Our perspective of the Arts is also different as a newly christened Black Belt from that of a seasoned Black Belt. New Black Belts are energized and ready for the next step. When we begin in the Martial Arts we start with a “clean slate”. Our minds are open to the new adventure we have decided to undertake. This is similar to the open minds of children, who are ready and willing to learn. To stay energized and motivated in the Martial Arts we must keep the open mind of a white belt and the energy of someone who has just crossed that threshold to Black Belt. That willingness to start on a new journey and the willingness to stretch beyond our current success will keep you fresh. The crossover to life skills in keeping an open mind can only lead to life success. Keep your mind fresh like a child’s mind. Be willing to accept new ideas and explore new ways of approaching challenge. Regardless if that challenge is in your career, family or spiritual points on your wheel of life, keeping an open mind and keeping energized is the key to being successful and climbing the walls life will always place before you.

An open mind then, is essential for excellence. If we are not open to new ideas and ways of doing things we begin to stand still and fail to move forward. To grow we must continue to press on and move forward. Without forward momentum life’s challenges will ultimately start pushing us backwards. Since excellence and growth go hand in hand so is open mindedness an essential component in excellence. Also to move forward we need to stay energized since the forward momentum needed for excellence takes motivation and motivation takes energy.

Here then are keys to excellence: open mindedness, motivation, energy. The measurement of excellence is the improvement to your own level of success. An example of this can be seen in competitive running. If at 50 years old I would not expect my run times to be the same as when I was eighteen it is not realistic. However if I measure my progress against how well I do in my age class during a race then that is where I can see my progress. If I were to finish in the top 10% in one race and then improve to the top 5% then I have made progress and can say I have achieved excellence. In Martial Arts I can approach progress in a similar way. At 50 years old I can’t expect to achieve the same height in my flying side kick that I did when I tested for my Black Belt when I was 28 years old. I can expect to continue to improve my form and to keep fit enough to still be able to do a flying side kick. That then becomes my measurement for excellence and success.

Keeping on a journey of excellence will never be easy. It takes work. It takes an open mind, it takes energy and motivation. To maintain an open mind, energy and motivation it is essential to know how to measure excellence in ourselves. The only one who can measure excellence in yourself is you. Take a look at your strengths and improve on them. Take a look at your weakness and work to lessen their effect on your performance. Measure progress against what is realistic for you. If we keep these things in mind it will help a person succeed and achieve excellence that is necessary for a meaningful and fulfilling life. The Martial Arts gives people the tools to achieve excellence. It is often times referred to as Black Belt excellence. If you are not involved in the Martial Arts, consider it. If you have been in the Martial arts but wandered away come back. Excellence is waiting for you.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Year New Goals... Lets write them down and get to it!

A new year is here and it is a time for reflection. Many people choose this time to set new goals. Some will stick to their goals others will fall by the wayside. I have never really been one to set New Years resolutions but this year I decided to take this time to renew some goals I have set on the “back burner” for a while. One of them was this blog. I will make a commitment to set something down here once a week, at the very least.

Goals are something we all need not only in our Martial Arts training but in our daily lives. Life is often times difficult to navigate and to get through good times and bad we need to be the “driver” behind the wheel of our own life. Actively choose not to be the passenger that is just along for the ride, get behind the wheel and direct your life and keep it on the road of your choosing. Keep your internal talk positive, and when things seem to be against you, remember nothing worth achieving is going to be easy. There will always be days that you may not perform your best, or keep on track. We all have times when we can get out of focus. They key to overcoming the “dips” and “valleys” that are a natural part of the journey of life and the Martial Arts, is to just pick up where you left off. Do not dwell on a failure as negative or of lack of motivation on one day as failure. View failure as a learning experience and incorporate that into life and training. One day off is just that one day. Success or failure is not treading on the action you take on one day but on the action you take over time. The most successful people have often times failed to succeed a number of times. The reason they eventually made their goals happen is: they never gave up. They took what they had learned from their experience and moved forward from that moment, that place and that time. Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Company, failed many times on his way to success and his quote “Success is 99% failure” points to the direction of real success. Be prepared to fail in order to succeed. Do not fear failure, embrace it. Failure will give you strength as long as it is embraced and dissected into a self teaching experience. Don’t ask “Why did this happen to me”. Ask, “What choice will put me back on track now”. When you miss one day of training, one run, one work out, just come back to it the next day. Do not let one day’s lack of motivation derail your goal. Write down your short term goals and when that day comes, and it will, that you lack motivation go over what you have written down, reenergize yourself with the excitement you had at the moment you wrote down those goals and the feelings you had when you originally went through that process.

We all want to reach our goals, but wanting it and making it happen sometimes get separated. The way to keep the want and the reality together is to break the large goal into a series of small goals and set tangible time frames for those small goals. Each small goal is a step on the stairway leading to our final long term goal. As each small goal is achieved celebrate and reward your achievement and then get to work on that next small goal. Make the goals specific too. A goal that is not well defined becomes unwieldy and easy to abandon. Make sure these goals are realistic too. A goal to loose 30 pounds in one week is good example of an unrealistic goal. It is not only unhealthy but is not practical either. That is why self analysis of your goals is very important. Review your goal well and determine the reasons achieving that goal will be of benefit to you.

Many of us know how important goals are and if you have been in the Martial Arts you are well aware of goals and how to reach them since you walked that path from belt to belt. Even if you have been in a program that did not emphasize goal setting you obviously set them even if it was not a conscious effort. It is always effective to remind ourselves of how important goal setting is. That is part of the reason I put this all down was to remind myself of this. Keep on your journey move forward and never give up. Write down your goals. Review what you have written and keep setting new goals. I will see you all in 2010 and I hope we all achieve the goals many of us are setting right now. My quest this year will be the achievement of my Third Degree Black Belt. My plan is to reach this by the third quarter of 2010. (The Final date is to be determined by my Sensei, Instructor and friend Rick Iannuzzo.) I will document much of my journey here. I will see you on the path and on the Journey in the Martial arts.