Rob's Blog Archive

June 21, 2015

Physics, Writing, and Taekwon-Do










As a young teen, I had two dreams:  Becoming a nuclear physicist and playing in the NBA.  The World Book Encyclopedia’s description of atomic bombs inspired my ambition to become a nuclear physicist.  Jerry West’s play inspired the basketball dream.   

Even young, I knew I had an easier time with math and science than most kids.  As I grew up, these skills grew as well.  I was born with the math gene.  I’m proud of the fact that I ran with it and did the work to become a good physicist, but that was much easier than it would have been for most people. 

Playing in the NBA was another story.  Part of West’s legend was the time he spent practicing freethrows.   Even young, I could do repetitions for anything physical like freethrows.  I’d shoot sets of ten and keep track of how many I made.  I shot a lot of sets.  I made ten out of ten exactly once and I never exceeded about 40% as an average.  With my height peaking short of 5’7”, the even high school basketball wasn’t going to happen.

The sport I excelled in was wrestling.  I had the persistence to be a good fighter regardless of the style.  My reactions are also fast, though not exceptional.  Working through sequences until they became instinctive also came easily to me.  Finally, I didn’t have to know where my body was relative to itself, proprioception, I just had to know where it was relative to my opponent’s.   

I could do this by both sight and feel.  While I never went beyond being a good small college wrestler, I didn’t start wrestling until I was in college.  Had I wrestled in high school, I’m sure I would have been a champion college wrestler. 

Even before our senior year, the other co-captain of the wrestling team had had knee surgery on both of his knees, and I wanted to keep mine intact.  I’ve wrestled a little since college, but never seriously.  I still liked fighting, so I tried several martial arts including Tai Chi and Judo.  I started studying Taekwon-Do in 1979. 

The good news was that fighting, with all of its variations, allows for all kinds of body types.  It also favors people who are willing to work out hard.  The bad news was that I had a 28” inseam, at its zenith, and Taekwon-Do emphasizes kicks.  I was also going to have more difficulty with any striking that required precision and needed both coordination and proprioception, like  throwing up freethrows.  The final bit of news was good.  I have and will always enjoy doing repetitions.  I like movement.  With this, one of my favorite workouts is to do the 23 Taekwon-Do patterns I know.  I enjoy patterns workouts more than kicking workouts, but I enjoy these too, just like I did putting up all those freethrows.  Many people have points during their Taekwon-Do careers when they think about quitting.  I never did. 

Roughly two years ago, my Taekwon-Do instructor took me aside. He started the conversation by pointing out that I am psychologically quite functional.  He then went on to suggest that I might have Asperger’s Syndrome.  He had based his conclusion on my behaviors.  Prior to that, I had suspected that I had some incomplete, high-functioning, form of autism.  Still, before he posed this to me, I never followed up on Asperger’s or any related issues.  With his assessment, I did.

Current models don’t talk about Asperger’s Syndrome so much as they talk about autism spectrum disorder, ASD.  Essentially, this is when somebody has some but not all of the symptoms of autism.  My best guess is that I was born with no innate ability to read body language and that I’ve compensated by learning this consciously.  I’ve run this by my mother and she doesn’t take issue with it at all, saying that she could easily believe that I started life with zero ability to read body language.  My sister, the shrink, actually said that I should thank my instructor for her because she had never considered that I, along with several close relatives, probably have ASD. 

The rejoinder is that these are often associated with physical awkwardness.  For me, the awkwardness seems to be the result of poor proprioseption.  About a decade ago, while I was under a lot of stress from work and adapting from living in Silicon Valley to living in Montana, there were several times that I was holding something, got distracted, and my grip released.  Usually, it was just a piece of paper, though I think one glass bit the dust as a result of this.  I was approaching fifty and many of the nasty neurological diseases start then, so I was quick to ask my doctor about this.  He had no clue what might be causing it.  During the intervening decade, I learned to focus a little more on my hands, perhaps for the second time, and with this I’m not dropping anything.  However, the fact that my hands follow inconsistent trajectories means that my drinking glasses don’t survive for more than a year or two.  That’s certainly something my father was notorious for as well.   It also explains why my freethrows were never going to get better than 40%---too much of the ability was knowing precisely where my hands and arms were while they were out of sight. 

Physics came naturally to me.   Taekwon-Do did not.  Neither did writing.  Though I always enjoyed writing---I still have logs from trips I took more than forty years ago---it started out quite poor.  Writing proposals and reports makes up more than half of the work a scientist does, so I worked hard to improve that skill.  Eventually, my writing started regularly garnering complements. 

Since 2009, I’ve focused on becoming a professional non-fiction adventure writer.  Storytelling and expository writing, particularly scientific expository writing where first person is verboten, are quite different.  Aspects of storytelling I was good at were I had a good imagination and I wrote clearly.  I’m still the same person who, in response to my nephew’s enthusiasm for the Seven Dwarfs, renamed them the Seven Greater Dwarfs and told him about the Five Lesser Dwarfs: Lazy, Crazy, Humpy, Dumpy, and Sneaky.  Regarding clarity, I hate having to re-read anything, and it’s a death knell for a proposal---you never want to make a reviewer work harder than he has to.  With this, I learned to write clearly.  The other key aspects of storytelling, however, were foreign to me. 

The consensus is that to learn to write, a person should write as much as he can and read as much as he can.  I’m on my keyboard as many hours of the day as I can tolerate and I’m still ticking through National Geographic’s and Outside Magazine’s lists of greatest adventure books.  In addition, I have sought out advice and mentoring wherever and whenever I could find it.  Professional writers now consistently tell me I am writing at a professional level.  I have yet to learn if I will be able to support a lifestyle as an adventurer, but at least my writing meets the standards for this.

With my learning how to do Physics, Writing, and Taekwon-Do at a professional level, I now have the experience of learning a skill that I had a lot of talent for, a skill I had very little talent for but also had no limitations, and a skill that I had very little talent for and had real limitations.  With this experience, I understand better students who have innate ability at something, don’t have any particular innate ability but don’t have any disability either, and even have a glimpse of what it’s like for somebody who wants to learn something and has a disability with it.  My experiences with Physics, Writing, and Taekwon-do have made me a better teacher.

Early in my Taekwon-Do career, one of my instructors gave me a secret of Taekwon-Do:  If you work, you’ll get better.  What he knew was that it doesn’t matter how smart or athletic somebody is, that truth holds for everybody. I still love doing reps.  I still love learning. I’m still getting better.

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