Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Legos (and Alchemy)

     Lego may very well be one of the greatest toy lines ever created.  Actually, Xevoz, which was the perfect synergy of construction toys and action figures, was, in may ways, much cooler.  However, since that line was short-lived, mishandled, and prematurely canceled (Curse you, Hasbro!), most of you have never heard of it.  So, we'll stick with Lego, because if you don't know what Legos are, I'm really not sure I want to know you, and you very possibly couldn't relate to me anyway,
     When I was a kid, I very much remember a time in which I started to become disenfranchised by toy lines like the Transformers (which were releasing things like Pretenders and Action Masters) and instead became obsessed with obtaining as many Lego sets as humanly possible.  My family was very giving, and over the course of my birthday, Christmas, and many other holidays, I recall that during one particular year I had acquired quite a few Legoland Space Sets. Of the sets I owned, my absolute favorites had to be the FX Star Patroller and the Cosmic Fleet Voyager:

     What young sci-fi loving geek wouldn't want these sets?  Both were very cool spaceships, and both had some very cool hidden features that can't be seen in the pictures above, including moving hatches and modular construction.  They were, to put it simply, awesome.  
     As soon as I could, I broke into those sets, and I went about following the instructions within, to the best of my ability, in order to construct the wondrous vessels depicted on the front of each box. To the uninitiated, Lego instructions look something like this:

While they are theoretically easy to follow from step to step, one would often find that if careful attention was not given to exactly which pieces were required and to the exact location in which piece was to be placed, it often became necessary to tear everything apart from several steps in order to find a simple mistake and rebuild the set correctly.  If nothing else, this process at least imbued within me the skills I would need later in life to build IKEA furniture. 
     The sets did get built, with time and perseverance, and the resulting ships really were awesome. They stayed built as designed for quite awhile to come, too.  Eventually, though... these ships would have to see battle... and battle between Lego spaceships can only lead to one thing:

Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad, but I did have my own imaginary Lego explosions, quickly followed by Lego crashes.  I quite fondly remember the various multicolored bricks flying to and fro, and the rather convincing Lego wreckage left behind.  Lego spaceships were toys you could break without actually breaking them.  What could be better? 
     Interestingly enough, that actually was the next question my young mind sought to answer.  What could be better?  I went back to the boxes, and noticed that the back of each depicted a number of different ships and vehicles... none of which were included in the instruction booklet, but all of which could be constructed from the pieces contained within that set:

While I did spend some time trying to replicate the vehicles contained in these images, an even better thought occurred to me.  If I had two Lego sets that resulted in one awesome ship each, what might I build if I combined ALL of the pieces from both sets?  It would no doubt be glorious.  Believe me, it was, at least to me.  I proceeded to rip into my ships, pulling them apart into their smallest component pieces.

I began anew, creating new and incredible things. Radar dishes and antennae became lasers and weapon emplacements.  Pieces intended to be cylindrical lights or loudspeakers instead became the heads for new alien species, as Lego did not make alien minifigures at the time.  Ships became giant robots.  I was soon building everything from hovercars to Escape Pods to entire cities.  Indeed, it was glorious.
     So.. this is a martial arts blog, right?  Yes, stay with me, I'm getting there.  Actually, I believe that many of you will have already seen at least some part of the implied simile.  Working trough the color belt system on the way to black belt is very much like receiving that first Lego set, the picture on the box showing a completed black belt.

At these color belt levels we are gradually given all of the pieces required to build ourselves into that black belt, and are given the instruction manual to follow, showing each piece and where it must go. Sometimes we are overly ambitious, though, and may try to build too quickly.  Only later do we discover that a piece is missing or improperly placed, and in order to build our black belt correctly, we must tear ourselves down and begin anew.  Eventually, with perseverance, we are able to finish the set.  We have built our black belt.  What could be better?
     There are some black belts who simply can't see that there is anything better. They will proudly place their "finished" product on the shelf to be displayed and admired, and will never really touch it again.  To this I merely say: "What fun is that?"  Sure, they may have built one awesome thing with the pieces they are given, but this is the exact time to answer the question: "What could be better?" What else can you build with the pieces you were given?  It is time now to look at or techniques, our forms, our self-defense applications, our sparring, and everything else we think we "know",  and it is time to take them apart to begin again.  It's time for a martial arts explosion!  Yes, the explosion is sometimes followed quickly by a martial arts crash, but as long as we are willing to pick up the pieces that are strewn to and fro, we can learn something valuable from our crashes as well.  We may find that as we pick up the pieces and begin to build that the results do not always match what our mind's eye has envisioned, but through dedication and persistence we will one day rebuild the pieces into something new and different, and it can be glorious indeed to make discoveries about something "old" that we thought we "knew."
     It is often said that black belt is only the beginning.  If so, we must of course ask and answer: the beginning of what?  It is truthfully only the beginning of many things, but in this context, I submit that it is the beginning of creation.  As humans and mortals we cannot create something from nothing, and therefore must have obtained something from which to begin.  As black belts, we are not often given new pieces with which to build, but this is because we already have been given the pieces we need. We must simply be willing to take our awesome constructions apart in order to rebuild them into something better.  Eventually, we will see that if we break apart each of our separate "sets": our forms, one-steps, basics, etc., that they do not need to be separate at all, and instead we can begin to combine them.  In doing so we come closer to the realization that we have made our martial arts skills (and hopefully ourselves) better.
     As is the way with many things, my interest in Legos waned somewhat over time.  In fact, over the years, and to my chagrin, many of my Lego sets were lost, sold, or merely misplaced.  The longer I live, though, the more I begin to see how all things relate, and that many of my interests intersect, overlap, and share the same underlying themes.
     One interest I have always had (outside of the martial arts) is watching Anime, or Japanese Animation.  I have enjoyed anime since before I really knew what it was, and can still recall being a very young child in the late 1970s, sitting on our couch and pretending to fire the Wave Motion Gun while belting out "OUR STAR BLAZERS!"  Later years would bring me wonders such as Battle of the Planets, Robotech, and Voltron.  Only much later would I learn of the Japanese source material: Space Battleship Yamato, Gatchaman, Macross, and King of Beasts Golion.
     Um, wait... weren't we just talking about martial arts?  or Lego? Trust me, this really does make sense.
     In the modern age, producers of media have realized that American adults actually appreciate anime as much as children, and we have finally had exposure to the original stories as they were intended to be told.  In some rare occasions, an anime may be completely torn apart and remade in order to tell the story the author always meant to share, and in doing so, it becomes better. Such was the case with the production of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which may well be one of the best anime to reach the mass market.
    Fullmetal Alchemist accepts as its main premise the idea that alchemy is real; alchemy in this case being the conversion of one form of energy or matter to a different form of energy or matter, along with  the ability to control said matter or energy.  This may manifest itself through such things as the creation of a tool or weapon from mere pieces of earth, or may involve the repair of broken iems, or even the healing of injuries.  Despite all this power, alchemists in this world must follow The Law of Equivalent Exchange, which states:

In order to obtain, something of equal value must be lost. 

This law can be circumvented only through the use of The Philosopher's Stone, which can only be obtained through great and terrible sacrifice.  How wonderful it is then, that as martial artists, we need not lose in order to obtain something new. While it is true that we cannot create something from nothing, we need not lose our previous knowledge or techniques in order to create something new from them.  We can, in essence, have our spaceships, hovercars, aliens, robots, lasers, cities, and anything else we can imagine all at once.  We have our Philosopher's Stone, without too much great and terrible sacrifice, and it is glorious.
      Learning to make use of this is a process, as is all of our learning, and is eloquently described in the world of Fullmetal Alchemist through the terms Deconstruction and Reconstruction.  (If you can't see the video below, please clear your browser history/cache, or click here.)  

As black belts and instructors, this then is what we do.  We examine our existing skills and knowledge, we deconstruct them with the intent of reconstructing them into something new, something more useful, and something better, and, hopefully, we begin to see the connections in all we do.  One is all, all is one.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.