EBooks & How JA Konrath Makes Me Green With His Green

So, I’m selling ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle. I’m hardly the only author doing this right now – whether it’s traditionally published or “indie” – but I am experiencing far fewer sales than a lot of other folks, and frankly, I have no idea why. The short of it is my stuff simply isn’t selling as well as other authors and I’d like to figure out why. This isn’t a plea for a sympathetic sale (although if you want to grab any of them, that’s cool, too!) but more an open workshop to help me diagnose the problems I’m having moving ebooks. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it out on my own and with a few close friends giving input as well, but nothing seems to move the books.

Over on author JA Konrath’s Blog he writes frequently about his success selling ebooks on Amazon. The guy’s on-track to make $100,000 this year from ebooks sales ALONE! Now, I don’t know about you, but I could certainly find some uses for that extra hundred grand, hence my sincere desire to see my ebooks sell into those levels that Joe does. I mean, a hundred grand from ebooks alone? Color me green with freakin’ ENVY! That’s amazing, inspiring and depressing all at the same time.

So, I’m opening the floor up here: tell me what I’m doing wrong. Tell me what you think the problem is and maybe we can workshop some stuff to see if things pick up. I’m utterly fascinated by this problem, so any and all advice/input is sincerely appreciated.

Here’s a list of links of what I’ve got for sale right now on Amazon. Please use the comments section to chime in and tell me where I’m screwing this stuff up. Honesty is very much appreciated!

NOVELS – $1.99

Shadow Chaser


This Time of Night

NOVELLAS – $1.99

Fool for Green


Prisoner 392
The Brank of Khosadam
Down the Street Dead
A Different Kind of Cupid
I, The Courier
Night of Reckoning
Hancock’s Tunnel
The Trunk of Aristhius


Social Media for Authors: Facebook Fan Pages

All right, there it is. Fire away and tell me what I’m doing wrong. Is it my breath? Do my feet stink? What?

Thanks in advance everyone!

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Chapter Fourteen

“You may call me Esmeralda. I am the shaman of the tribe and have been so for more years than I care to remember.”

We sat under a towering baobab tree, atop two small stools carved from tree trunks. In front of us, a small table made of dark wood polished to a high sheen held two cups filled with juice. I don’t usually like drinking blood unless it’s been chilled first, but I wasn’t complaining now. I downed it quickly, feeling the life force energy hit me a few moments later.

Esmeralda watched me closely through hooded eyes bordered by crow’s feet and wrinkles that looked more like deep valleys on her pockmarked face. “You haven’t fed in a while.”

She wasn’t asking a question, so I merely shrugged. “Work gets in the way of things sometimes.”

“You should take care not to let that happen too often. You need your sustenance, after all. A failure to give yourself energy might come back and be the death of you some day.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

She hummed to herself and then drank from her cup. “You are young. Almost as rash as Ibano. But I see great things ahead for you. Provided you get over your naïveté.”


She smiled and I saw the aged teeth in her mouth; I restrained myself from wincing at the sight of them. “I’m perhaps too honest for you, Lawson?”

“I appreciate honesty,” I said. “But I don’t happen to think I’m naive.”

“Most never do.” She put the cup back down and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “But we have other things to discuss.”



“You can help him?”

Esmeralda sighed. “I am not sure I can. The magic holding sway over him is far more potent than any I have encountered yet in my life.”

Judging from how old she looked, that wasn’t good news.

© 2010 by Jon F. Merz All rights re­served

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Review of a Bad Book on Women’s Self Defense…

Ricky Sides claims to want to help women in his book “The Ultimate Guide to Women’s Self Defense.” If that’s actually true, then the single best way he could help them would be to pull this travesty of supposed self-defense off the web and delete the entire file. Not only is this book rife with some of the worst advice I’ve ever seen on the subject of personal protection, it’s also filled with what could best be described as “untruths” if not outright lies.

Since I first started my assessment of Sides and his supposed background as a “Chinese Ninja” over on the Kindle Board forum, he has challenged anyone to read his book and then make an assessment of it. And while I was able to discern immediately upon reading the sample he posted on the forum that he had little to no background instructing anyone on practical self defense, I decided to take him up on his challenge, if for no other reason than to hopefully dissuade people from wasting their time and one hundred pennies on this terribly misguided and irresponsible volume.

Instead of addressing everything that’s wrong with this book (because from start to finish, it’s terrible) I’ll highlight key points from each chapter of the book. Lest Sides take what I say here and then attempt to use my criticisms as a foundation for writing another tome on this topic, I’ll stick with key points and let the intelligent reader extrapolate from there.

Sides opens his book recalling his tutelage under supposed masters and secret lineages. This is always a massive red flag for anyone reading about martial arts. This is the 21st century. And while many schools and lineages might once have been secret years ago, in the age of the Internet, Youtube, and the like, the idea of some supposed secret Chinese Ninja lineage is simply absurd. The legend of Chinese Ninja has been refuted so many times, the only people still clamoring that they existed are the frauds who look to make a buck off of the continuation of such lies. But we’ll get back to that in a few paragraphs. Let’s delve into the actual bad techniques.

The first thing Sides advises is that by reading and practicing what he outlines in this book, “fear will no longer be a factor.” Here’s another red flag. Fear is *always* an issue, whether you’re a complete newbie to martial arts or a seasoned combat veteran with multiple combat tours under your belt. If someone tells you that fear isn’t an issue or that you shouldn’t fear a hostile situation, then run away FAST. Not only are they delusional, they are also lying. Everyone gets scared, terrified, nervous – it’s what you do with that fear that sets you apart from someone who balls up in the corner and waits to die.

Sides then goes on to ask you to complete a written test, telling us that he devised this test in 1984 – a mere THREE years after he himself started studying martial arts. 3 years is not nearly enough time to become an instructor in martial arts or rape prevention and anyone stating that after such a short period of time they are some sort of master should be avoided at all costs.

Chapter 2 begins by looking at pressure points. Why pressure points? Because according to Sides, “a woman can beat the stronger and tougher male opponent if she utilizes the pressure points on a man’s body.” This is complete bull. Pressure points are no guarantee of victory in a combat situation. But Sides opens with this because the lure of pressure points is an old one in martial arts. So-called masters have long used the allure of touching a key spot on the body and producing unconsciousness as a hallmark of their supposed ability. But Sides himself has obviously never attempted to use pressure points in combat or else he’d realize a few things: a) a hyped-up attacker isn’t all that susceptible to vital point attack b) attempting to target vital points in the chaos of combat is a recipe for disaster.

Sides then unloads a laundry list of stereotypical statements about women, including “it’s a biological fact that men are stronger than women.” Really? Seen any women who do Crossfit lately? Any Olympian bobsledders? “It is also a biological fact that men are more aggressive and women are more nurturing, thus reluctant to inflict bodily hard on their male assailant.” Laughable. I’d advise Sides hang out with some of the Israeli Defense Force Krav Maga women I’ve met and tell me if he still thinks that’s true.

Throughout this book, Sides sets up self-defense situations such as this one: “If a man grabs you from behind, his shins are very vulnerable because he is standing directly behind you.” Herein lies one of the biggest indicators that Sides has little to no experience teaching real world self-defense. No attacker grabs you from behind and simply stands there waiting for you to do some amazing neat-o Chinese Ninja pressure point attack on him. Indeed, throughout this book, all of Sides’ scenarios suffer from this syndrome. He paints a picture whereby the attacker makes a move and then that’s it – nothing else. If you get grabbed from behind in the real world, your attacker is going to jerk you off of your feet, throw you to the ground, drag you into a car or do anything *except* stand still. He’s not simply going to stand there and wait for you to attack his shins (as Sides advises in this particular scenario). This utter failure to grasp even rudimentary realities of self-protection is another hallmark of fraudulent instruction.

Sides next deviates from self-defense and opts instead to focus on hand and leg conditioning. It’s almost as if he knows that his techniques are so bad, that it became necessary to prop the book up with details of hitting homemade targets. My favorite portion of this section on kicking is as follows: “I have found over the years that the best thing to do when an opponent grabs one of my feet is to launch a flurry of punches at the man’s face. This usually causes the man to let go of your leg. It’s impossible for your opponent to block a flurry of your punches with one or both of his hands occupied with holding your foot. However, if he is holding your foot and your leg is fully extended, then you’ll need to close the gap a bit to attack with your fists. To close the gap, just give a little hop with the foot that is on the ground. At the same time, use your leg muscles to jerk back on the leg that the man is holding. This will close the gap sufficiently for you to strike with your fists.” If someone has grabbed your leg after you attempted to kick them, they will most likely topple you over on to the ground, affect a knee lock, or an ankle lock. You hopping toward them will only aid them in unbalancing you even more than you already are. But again, the realities of such aspects of fighting seem utterly lost on Sides.

Then Sides advocates that if you are interested in self-defense that you should learn how to take hits, so he advises having a training partner strap on some gloves and start hitting you. After several months, he advocates that your training partner basically beat on you while you try to fight through it. (Having taught actual real world self-defense before myself, I can just imagine how well this would go over with the vast majority of people.) Sides further states that this training should begin as early as possible – at “entry level.” Another laughable idea. Most people interested in self-defense have little to ZERO experience hitting or being hit and here goes Sides suggesting that you haul off and practice beating on them. Sides explains his own opinion on this training as, “I really don’t like this form of training. As I said, it leads to restraining the reflex to block. On the other hand, it does teach the recipient to really want to block. It’s a phase of training we all go through. That’s why our Grandmaster sped us through that process as fast as we could manage, and then got us into sparring with each other.”

One of my favorite chapters, is, of course, when Sides introduces the reader to household items that could function as weapons. “Up until this point, everything that I have taught you has been straight from the Wing Chun Kung Fu system. The lessons you are about to learn come straight from the Chinese Ninja system.” Oh, goodie. More about Chinese Ninja. Throughout this chapter, Sides stresses how utterly deadly Chinese female ninja are. “You can even use a lighter to ignite some hairsprays, thus making a primitive blowtorch. I warn you though, if you burn your assailant, you’d better follow up and either knock him out, or escape, because he will be furious and will react accordingly.” Gee, what if we don’t happen to smoke? What if a lighter is, in reality, probably the LAST thing I’d expect to find sitting near the can of aerosol hair spray? Of course, there’s nothing easier than trying to flick a lighter and then spraying flame all over the close confined space of a bathroom (y’know, with its shower curtains, towels, and other flammable items so close by) while an attacker is trying to rape or kill you. Why not just advocate setting the whole house on fire while you’re at it? Sides closes things out here by stating (again), “What is the most dangerous human in the world? A properly trained female Ninja, when cornered.”

Good grief.

Sides peppers his chapters with a lot of supposed stories from students. These are, of course, cute ways to bolster the author’s image that he’s truly an expert in fighting, but since they’re neither factual nor confirmable, intelligent readers who might already recognize the laundry list of bad advice that has (at this point) only brought us up to page 30 will find them equally suspect.

Sides’ section on dealing with armed attackers is amusing as well. Short on actual techniques (which at this point would only further underscore how ill-suited Sides is to teaching practical self-defense) he instead tells the reader to find items to use as protection. “Even something as innocuous as a shoe can save you in a crisis. Put your hand inside the shoe, and use it to block your opponent’s weapon.” Of course! You just have to first tell the attacker trying to kill or rape you that you need a moment to slide your shoe off and put it on your hand. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to wait. Ugh.

Deviating again from actual techniques, Sides next ventures into blocking drills and stretching before then tackling the concept of grappling. Apparently, “men are prone to grabbing women by the arms.” Really? In what fantasy world does this take place? Oh, yes, the one that would bolster the rest of the ridiculous content found in this book. Throughout this chapter, Sides paints the silliest scenarios possible, including one where the attacker steps up behind the student and “grabs the throat with both hands.” Really? A rear choke executed in that fashion is not going to harm anyone, nor is it going to be much of a choke at all. Very little actual grappling is detailed until toward the end of the chapter when Sides gets to paint some “interesting” scenarios.

Sides details how these scenarios all take place when a woman is flat on her back with her arms pinned. The first scenario is when the attacker “bends down and forces a kiss on you.” The defense technique here is to bite the lip or, if he attempts to French kiss, bite the tongue. Really. Because this is, of course, the most natural thing any of us would be inclined to do while someone’s trying to rape us. Once you’ve apparently been successful with that technique, Sides next advocates the following: “If you bite your attacker and get blood in your mouth, try to spit it in his face. Try to blind him with his own blood if you can.”

Now once your attacker lies down on top of you (wait, I thought he was already there? You know, doing the kissing thing?) Sides tells you to bring him closer and try to bite into his throat. “Bite as hard as you can.” Awesome. Sides should rename this book “Vampire Tactics” or something. It might make it sound vaguely plausible.

Sides then delves into advocating what to do when the man is actually inserting himself into the woman – and frankly, since his earlier defense techniques have about zero chance of working – this is very likely to occur. Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much in the way of a technique here, either.

He does state that if the assailant tries to force oral sex, that the defender should bite the the penis off “behind the head” and the defender should “Grind your front teeth into it and savagely shake your head back and forth vigorously. He will hit you hard, so be ready for the blows.” Sides goes on to state that, “If your attacker has tied your hands behind your back and is assaulting you, then try to rip out his throat with your teeth, or one of his ears if his throat is not exposed.” And then a little bit further on, “It would also help if you can learn to untie yourself. It’s merely a matter of manipulating the knot with your fingers until you can loosen the rope enough to slip free.” Well, sure because that’s easy to do when your hands are tied behind your back and your pulse is hammering and someone’s trying to rape or kill you and they’re lying on top of you crushing your wrists underneath you.

Where are we? Ah, page 52. Halfway through this junk.

Sides takes three more chapters to revisit kicking, hitting and finger strikes, which fortunately means there’s precious little in the way of actual bad techniques to rip apart. His passages are again laden with ridiculous assertions about how the CHinese Ninja have used this technique for “untold numbers of generations,” and all that assorted silliness.

Sides then paints a “Profile of a Victim” and uses more stories that sound remarkably concocted to bolster his various “principles” outlined throughout his book. It gets tedious and rather than offering actual sound advice, Sides simply tells more stories.

Chapter 13 offers what he calls “self-defense combat tactics” whereby supposed Chinese female ninja would pretend to be aroused during the course of a rape just so they could counter-attack. Are you kidding me? Sides advocates that women pretend to be turned on during the rape. This is so insane that it would be hardly conceivable except for the fact that it’s written in the pages of this ridiculous book. It’s so utterly unsound and irresponsible. Here’s a far better suggestion, Sides. Teach techniques that actually WORK and the situation won’t ever get to the point whereby a woman needs pretend she’s enjoying the criminal act. But then that would mean that you’d actually need to study something practical rather than relying on outright lies and bad advice.

The more I read this book, the more Sides appears to be advocating that women learn how to take the abuse and punishment of rape and accept it. He teaches horrible techniques that won’t work; he tells women to learn how to take beatings from their training partners, and culminates by telling them that high-level Chinese female ninja would pretend to actually be aroused by rape. Sides is doing anything but empowering women with this book; frankly, he’s attempting to glorify the physical, mental, and spiritual anguish of rape – which is truly a horrible thing.

Sides (mercifully) closes this book out by quoting from the supposed masters he studied with. The first “master” is Sifu Edwin SKinner who offers up this priceless pearl of advice: “How long does the instructor of the style tell you it will take to become proficient enough to protect yourself? “Why is this important?” you might ask. Think for a minute. If it takes three to ten years to be able to protect yourself, then that will be three to ten years in which you will have to run the risk of becoming a victim. This is what you are hoping to avoid, so the shorter the time between beginner to Practitioner the better.” SKinner is telling you here that it shouldn’t take long to get proficient at protecting yourself. That you should rush as fast as possible through whatever course you’re taking. I imagine this is exactly why Sides himself attained the ridiculous level of 5th degree after a mere four-seven years of practice (I say 4-7 because Sides’ various biographies across the Internet differ on how long it took him to reach this point…and this is, of course, prior to his becoming a master Chinese Ninja, lol) Dale McLemore offers up more chauvinistic views of women including that they “can, and sometimes will, end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Last I checked women didn’t have a monopoly on bad judgment. McLemore then states that since “the grocery store is a place women spend a lot of time,” they should use stuff on the shelves to protect themselves with. I think I saw this scene in Zombieland…

Grandmaster Tony Ragasa Fong chimes in at long last with what the reader would expect to be his advice on self-defense. But no, this uh…,”Tenth Level Master’s Rank in Chinese Ninja” offers up his advice on using Dit Da Jow, a linement that traditional Chinese martial artists have used for many years to relieve the injuries associated with conditioning exercises. He closes with, “The Wing Chun style is right for women. In the style, you will learn to use every ounce of your strength to good advantage in a fight. This is what a woman must do when she is fighting a male attacker.”

Sides, as if to answer the volume of critics who will undoubtedly question his claim to being a Chinese Ninja (like yours truly) then offers up this paragraph.

“Good books on the two styles are rare in the United States, because of the comparative youth of the Wing Chun style when compared to other styles, and because of the veil of secrecy surrounding Chinese Ninja. To this day, some martial artists deny that Chinese Ninja ever existed in the past.”

Because they didn’t. Ninjutsu is a Japanese martial art system with roots spreading back to the Himalayas. But its systemization occurred wholly within Japan. Anyone who says they’re a Chinese Ninja is a liar, pure and simple. Sides, claiming to be one, is a vain attempt to bolster his own credibility – especially in the face of such horrible advice.

“I know that a veil of secrecy obscures the truth regarding the Ninja of both nations.”

Once upon a time, ninja lineages in Japan were veiled in secrecy. Once. Not anymore. To insist in this day and age that there are secret lineages is ludicrous. But again, the air of secrecy lends a certain degree of mystique to Sides’ manuscript, which is exactly what he wants.

“The other book that you will probably want to read is titled Skills of the Vagabonds, also written by Leung Ting and is controversial because the Chinese Ninja are portrayed as Vagabonds and outlaws, hence not very nice people. However, you can learn from the book. Both of these books are not cheap and are available at Amazon.com. You can find them on the Leung Ting author page at Amazon. There are also several books on that web page that I have studied in the past. They are the very ones my Grandmaster had in his personal martial arts library.”

Here at last we have the “source” of Sides’ ninja training with none other than Leung Ting. He’s another fool like Ashida Kim, who paints bizarre stories of supposed ninja training and lessons in order to bilk stupid people out of their money. Google “Leung Ting” and you’ll find a whole host of assorted tidbits, including a November 2009 arrest for assault on his girlfriend (he was later cleared) and the fact that while he claims to have studied with the great Yip Man, Man’s students claim that he never did. A lot of suspicious material and people across the Internet have found great amusement dissecting Ting’s various ninjutsu claims.

In Chapter 17, Sides posits, “Should I seek More Training?” and offers this as his answer: “My answer to you would be different. By studying the techniques in this book, and developing skill in all of them, you will have greatly increased your survival probabilities in a street situation. No home study course will ever replace the competent Instructor. It doesn’t matter how good the home study course is, and although I think this book contains the best one on the market today, your techniques would be better if you had a qualified Instructor with you to correct your mistakes.” First, it’s extremely doubtful that anyone trying the techniques Sides advises would improve their chances. I’d wager the exact opposite, in fact. This is why I’m so adamant that this is probably one of the single worst books I’ve had the misfortune of reading on this topic. Sides is both reckless and irresponsible so many times over, it’s not even vaguely comical by the time you reach the end of the book. I would agree, however, that anyone reading this garbage get more training – you’ll need training just to UNlearn everything that Sides has advised doing.

Sides then states, “If you follow all of the recommended training in this book, then you will never be helpless should you encounter a violent assailant.” My advice: don’t follow it at all. I have much more faith in women than Sides or any of his so-called masters do apparently, and tend to think that most of them would have a better grounding without this book than with it.

Sides ends the book (no, this time it’s actually ending…) with a bunch of pictures showing some of these hare-brained techniques. None of this stuff would work in actual combat, but the pictures help sell the idea that they would.

Sides has recently taken to whining that he “just wants to help women.” I find this laughable. Not only are his techniques (and calling them that is really not even appropriate) reckless and irresponsible, his attitude toward women throughout the book is both stereotypical and misogynistic, as are the attitudes of the so-called masters he supposedly “studied” with.

The single best thing Sides could do to help women would be to take this ridiculous book off the market and burn every file he has pertaining to it. It’s bad advice, bad training, and just so far from reality that it will only put more women into harm’s way than not. Add to that his ridiculous claims of being a Chinese Ninja and a Wing Chun master and this book is a waste of time, money, and common sense. Stay far away from this trash.

My Black Belt Test

Today is “Sign Up For Martial Arts Day” at the Boston Martial Arts Center, the dojo I’ve studied at under Mark Davis for the last twenty years. If you’ve checked out the rest of my site here, you’ve read the story of my first night of training with Mark and how intimidating it was to suddenly step into the world of what I like to call “the world’s most misunderstood martial art.” At that time, I still suffered from the misinformation that was rampant regarding Ninjutsu. I had a lot of preconceptions about what I might be getting involved with. As it turned out, the reality was so much more that the illusions that others had spread.

In 1996, I was approaching my black belt test after having been a student for roughly 5-6 years. This was about the length of time it took back then to achieve this level – about double the time the vast majority of other martial arts schools take to promote someone to their first degree black belt. I was aware, also, of the fact that getting a black belt from Mark Davis meant that you had endured a lot more and done a lot more than was expected – even elsewhere in the Bujinkan organization I was a part of. This was something of a source of pride for the advanced students at the dojo. “A black belt here,” they said, “is worth so much more than anywhere else.”

And it seemed to be true. I had witnessed the black belt tests of my seniors and they had always culminated with a public demonstration of their skill ONLY after they had gone through a series of what I considered rather hellish ordeals. But each test was also different depending on who was taking it and when. Several folks might have similar test but they would be different from those that others took. It was at once as unpredictable as it was scary. As a student, you had no idea what to expect. And that was the point. We were studying Ninjutsu, after all, an art that mixes the world of intelligence gathering with that of special warfare tactics. Surprise, the unexpected, unpredictability, the unconventional – they were all the hallmarks of our training in every second of every day.

After I took my 1st kyu test – the last test before my black belt exam – I felt a strange sense of foreboding. My time was coming and I had no idea what to expect, as usual. I lacked confidence in my technique, unsure of whether what I had learned is what I would use if the situation called for it. Would I revert to the other arts I trained in? I had no idea.

Around this time, Mark came over to me one night and told me quite bluntly that I was forever dropping my guard when I was moving. My hands would start up where they were supposed to be – protecting my head and my upper torso – but then they would simply drop as I moved. I tried time after time to correct this, but nothing seemed to be working.

So Mark solved it in a fashion that ensured I’d never have that problem again. After class one night, he asked my senior and good friend Paul to stay behind. Mark disappeared for a moment and returned carrying a motorcycle helmet. He handed it to me and said, “Put this on.” I did. The thing weighed a ton and made my head heavy and unwieldy.

Then Mark turned to Paul and said simply, “When he drops his guard, hit him.” Then he walked away.

I should briefly mention that Paul hits like a freight train torqued up on Red Bull and Cocaine. Seriously. The thought of him hitting me if I dropped my guard certainly had a motivating effect on me.

And that’s where it began. For the next eight months, after every class I attended, Paul would chase me around. I wasn’t allowed to counter anything he did; I simply had to keep my hands up, use my kamae (posture) to protect myself as well as I knew how. After anywhere from ten-thirty minutes, Mark would call a halt for that evening. But I knew the next class I was in for, the same thing would happen. And I made sure I attended as many classes as possible. Mark wasn’t being mean; he was helping me reach beyond my comfort zone and actually learn how to protect myself. He was forcing my body to remember how to stay calm under pressure and how to use what he’d shown me to save my life.

It wasn’t easy. I walked out of the dojo for the next eight months bruised and battered. Paul was never easy on me and I would never have asked him to be. I was there to study an art that had been born out of the need for a system of self-protection that worked when the chips were down, when everyone was trying to kill you, when you needed something – anything – that would save your ass. We all used to joke that we were half insane and half masochists. But if you’ve ever been involved in any type of training that pushes you beyond the limits of what you think reality is, then you know what I’m talking about. As much pain and frustration as there might be in the training, you can’t help but love the feeling of being tested time after time after time. The way the sweat cools on your skin after a grueling workout, the way your heart hammers in your chest when you’ve just managed to thwart an attack, the way your breathing comes in gulps as you relish the afterglow of a fight.

Eight months of this. Combined with the usual tough training that we engaged in during those days. And eventually, my guard stayed where it was supposed to stay. And Paul had a more difficult time finding openings in my defense.

As 1996 marched toward 1997, Mark, his senior student Ken Savage (who now runs the Winchendon Martial Arts Center & New England Warrior Camp) and I planned a trip to Japan. It was historical for the dojo as it would mark the first time any of us had gone over to Japan specifically for the purpose of training with Grandmaster Hatsumi. We were excited and buzzed about the upcoming trip. I was still getting my clock cleaned after every class, but I was now at the point where I looked forward to the pressure of testing myself again and again. And I was improving steadily.

But I had a small problem. In the dojo, I wore a brown belt around my waist signifying that I was allowed to train in the advanced class. But in Japan, they don’t wear brown belts. And I was concerned as to what I should do. I asked Mark if it would be better if I wore my old green belt again for the time we were over there. Mark’s enigmatic response was, “Don’t worry about it.”

I did.

In early 1997, we boarded a plane bound for Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. We landed and got ourselves to the house of a friend we were staying with. The next day, we made plans to attend the first class with the Grandmaster at the Ayase Budokan. On the subway ride over to Ayase, I was nervous. This is what I had dreamed of doing for many, many years. We were in the homeland – the place where this art evolved into the incredible system that is is today. A quick glance at Ken and Mark told me they were thinking similar things. We were all subdued as we made our way from the station, down past the McDonald’s, down the street to the glass pyramid structure of the Ayase Budokan. We shed our shoes and put on slippers far too small for most Westerners, made our way to the changing rooms, and I still had no idea what I was going to wrap around my waist.

I heard a little commotion behind me and when I turned, Mark presented me with a brand new black belt. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt weird, though. I looked at Mark. “But when was my test?”

Mark grinned. “You’ve been testing for the last eight months. Congratulations.”

Ken came over and shook my hand and I felt pretty numb. To make things worse, I now had to train in front of the grandmaster. I walked out of the changing room feeling incredibly self-conscious, as if everyone would know I was a newly-minted black belt. Of course, they didn’t.

In swept the Grandmaster, all smiles, and then we got down to training. I felt good about my accomplishment, but as usual, things took a turn for the unexpected pretty fast. I found myself working with a Japanese student, who was forever leaving his groin open to attack. He didn’t much appreciate it when I gently pointed this out, but we kept training. And then the Grandmaster promptly sat down and glanced around. “Demos.”

I gulped, looked at Mark and Ken but they’d had no clue this was going to happen, either. At that point, I was still paired up with the grouchy Japanese student. And then it was our turn to get up and demo in front of the 34th Grandmaster of Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu. I wanted nothing more than to show myself worthy of the black belt Mark had just awarded me. I was nervous when I started the technique, but then my training partner decided he was going to show off and make the gaijin from America look bad in front of the Grandmaster. He reversed the technique, so I reversed it on him and ended up putting him down. That was it; the demo was over and we took our seats while the others demonstrated what they’d learned in the class.

Later that night, as Ken, Mark, and I had some food and a few beers, Mark turned to me and smiled. “You know that guy you were training with tonight was a godan, right?”

I swallowed my beer. My training partner had been a 5th degree black belt and I’d managed to handle him, in front of the Grandmaster no less. I shrugged. There wasn’t much to say at that point, except say thanks to Mark, Ken, Paul, and everyone else at the dojo who’d helped get me ready for my black belt test. By virtue of the exhausting, demanding, painful, and grueling training, I was prepared for a lot.

But I was also quick to remind myself of what Mark and Ken frequently told us at the dojo: that a first degree black belt is just like getting a Learner’s Permit. It enables you to get on the road and finally see the places you’ll eventually visit. But you’ve still got a long way to go before you can drive there.

And even twenty years after I began training, I still have a ton to learn. But the road is still tremendously fun, exciting, and challenging.

Just the way it should be…

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Chapter Thirteen

I felt my stomach go hollow at the thought of the coming mass of swarming and biting ants that would no doubt take great pleasure in eating bits of me. I glanced up at Andrian’s son. “They won’t kill me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

He sniffed. “I know that. But they will torture you until you pray for me to kill you.” He smiled. “Imagine what it will feel like to have them crawling all over you. First they’ll swarm all over your head and then they’ll crawl into your ears, nose and mouth and start chewing on your from the inside. It will drive you insane.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to suffer. I want you to feel the weight of your crimes against my people. I want you to scream in agony and beg for the sweet release of death.”

It was then I wished that the service had given us a poison pill I could chomp down on and commit suicide. Andrian’s son was right: the thought of all those creepy crawlies flooding over me, nibbling away at my skin, being inside my ears and nose and the itching and pinpricks of constant pain made me sweat just thinking about it. I would go crazy trying to free myself just so I could scratch and get them off of me.

“They’re getting closer, Lawson.”

© 2010 by Jon F. Merz All rights re­served

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