Just a Little Softer with Age

August 3rd, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Two older men, each a master of his particular craft, have faded a bit, but only a bit. In their 60s and 70s, they are active and skilled, while slowing and showing.

Reggae epitome Jimmy Cliff and t’ai chi master William C.C. Chen apparently intend to go until they drop. Good on them. Yet recent glances at them were mildly stunning.

Master Chen re-entered my life, unbeknownst to him, when I decided to return to soft-form martial arts practice. I could loosen up my own stiff bones and muscles that I tighten through cycling and lifting.

Photo notes: Master Chen’s is from his site and has no copyright claim. Cliff’s is creative commons.

Crotch Gouges

Pre-kids, I studied with him when we lived in Manhattan. Subsequently, I tried a different t’ai chi style under another well regarded master in Jamaica Plain, Jwing-Ming Yang. Despite Dr. Yang’s fame and personal skills, muddling forms was counterproductive and I didn’t maintain my practice. I prefer Master Chen’s and return to the art of my youth.MasterChen

He was an elegant teacher, not in the feel-good New Age model, and one of the world’s great fighters. Unlike the hippie t’ai chi instructors, he fixed the proper positions and movements in his form with martial analogies.

For example, an elaborate four-part set of movements has you waving your hands in front of your forehead and chest. This fairy weaving at shuttle or simply four corners seems awkward without explanation. Master Chen’s application note clarified why and how.

This set was to defend from an attach above, like a horseback warrior with a weapon bearing down on you. The aim is to deflect the blow and perhaps pull the rider to the ground. With that information and his modeling the posture, where to put your hands and arms and how to move made perfect sense and stuck in mind.

Likewise, get needle at sea bottom is a graceful swoop. You bend from the waist point a hand to touch the ground, before arising with a cupped palm pointing upward. He fixed that in our memory too. You were stooping quickly to avoid an upper body strike and preparing a counter move. You shifted your hands and arms to come up in to a crotch gouge of the then vulnerable opponent.

Even if you only used t’ai chi for exercise and meditation, knowing the martial applications can turn you from a pigeon learning a rote task to a hawk.

Thus, I want to re-learn his form. Clicking around, sure enough, I found what I needed on DVD. His Tai Chi for Beginners released last year has his entire short form. There’s the movements performed triple like a language lesson, as well as continuous loop for fine-tuning when I have the 60 movements re-set in mind. Honestly, I have no stake in the video, but for $20 it’s excellent, or just shy of that because he doesn’t give his application tips.

Moreover, the triple form includes a mirrored image of each movement, using his daughter, Tiffany, and letting you view your execution either way. (By the bye, she and her brother Max are both martial artists. She’s particularly hot stuff in her father’s mold.)

Pale Imitation?

Taking the X-Acto® knife to the DVD package, I was surprised at how old and chunky Master Chen appeared on the box. Could the 75-year-old have become fat and feeble?

In the late ’70s, he was lithe and jaguar-like. While slight and short, he showed amazing skills in using his body…as well as that of students. Among our classmates were some New York Jets linemen. Apparently they had choice of t’ai chi or ballet to balance their abruptness and violent strength with finesse. Master Chen could toss them about and against walls, almost without touching them. That was no trick; he simply applied the vectors in their attacks on him, directing that energy elsewhere, along with their massive bodies, with his guiding hands.

All is well though. In the DVD, yes, he is now built more like a pepper shaker, but he retains his fluid, powerful movements. He is master still.

Surprising Softness

Likewise, Jimmy Cliff did a couple of songs on the Colbert Report last night. The link goes to The Harder They Come.

CliffWhile he is a decade younger than Master Chen, Cliff suffers a prima facie downgrade as well. In his case, his throaty voice now has a wispy quality that lacks his previous power.

I’ve never met him, but I could climb in the WABAC machine to hear and see him as well. I’ve been a reggae fan for many decades, have been to his shows, and saw the movie with his tune’s name many, many times at St. Mark’s cinema on the Lower East Side for the midnight shows.

In the movie, he sings several, including the title number. The tenor of his tenor was more fluid and aggressive. Now he seems a bit frailer and wispier.

Two on the Spectrum

Also in retrospect, I think occasionally of an ad salesman at a construction magazine. He was invariably cheerful to the point of shock. Typical of his effusiveness was his stentorian response to the rhetorical, “How are you?” He’d fairly shout, “Any day I’m not pushing up daisies is a good day!”

That’s a simple-minded and theatrical way to suggest wellness of mind and body. Yet, it’s catchy and I certainly haven’t forgotten it.

He came to mind again looking at and listening to Master Chen and Jimmy Cliff. Neither of them has such a binary attitude of being alive is eough. Each in his own art practices and pleases and perseveres.

To their credit from someone who admires the skills, they seem to continue to enjoy what they do…beyond the traditional retirement age. That’s all the better for us.

There’s an elegant symmetry in particular to returning to Master Chen’s instruction three decades hence. I have all the Jimmy Cliff albums I’m likely to though and I confess that I prefer his earlier and more powerful voice.

Perhaps each in his own way could serve as an inspiration. I rather doubt though that either thinks of himself that way. He’s just busy with his ongoing life.

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