Sunday, March 15, 2015

On Locking

While it is plain to see that anyone who has studied Kali Majapahit will have similar basics (including some of the KM "signature" moves), beyond a certain point all of us will express our flow in a slightly different way based on our unique backgrounds and personal preferences.

Some of us who come from boxing/kickboxing lineages will express KM principles with brutal and effective Panantukan/Sikaran styled Filipino "dirty boxing", while others with a JKD background may prefer a KM flavored "straight blast" or Hakka-inspired trapping.

My pre-KM lineage is mostly Japanese traditional martial arts including sword styles (Iaiajutsu/Kenjutsu), percussive styles (ninjutsu) and Japanese locking systems (Aiki).  That means that locks and locking show up pretty frequently in what I do and what I teach.  Lately some of my beginner students have been asking me about locking, so I'd like to explain why I think these systems are so important to learn, and a few pointers to improve your skills in this area of fighting.

During the recent Peaceful Warrior Camp, Swedish expert instructor Stefan Linarsson (6th Dan) gave a Locking class and the question was raised "Why bother locking?"  I think locking is essential for several reasons:

Locking involves being in close contact with your opponent.  In order to lock successfully, we must be near enough to take firm control of whatever limb or joint we are planning to secure, and keeping contact allows us to "feel" their intention and quickly/smoothly react to any changes. Staying close also puts us inside their punching and kicking range, and this makes it a great toolkit for use when the opponent is larger and has longer reach.  This also makes locks an excellent response when opponents enter CQB distance with us first.

By locking well, we are able to precisely control the amount of pressure we exert in order to gain the compliance we need.  In some situations, unfortunately, it is necessary to injure someone in order to stop their aggressive intent, but unlike striking systems, locking allows us the ethical chance to submit without injury.  This can be useful for dealing with people who are drunk or who otherwise do not warrant an aggressive and overly violent response.  Done well, locks offer a great option as part of an integrated weapons defense/disarming, since one principle for neutralizing a knife is to immobilize the knife arm to prevent the knife from making contact and moving to cut.  Lastly, many locks and holds can be properly applied while still standing, and this allows us to put multiple attackers in each others' way when needed.

Locking into a submission gives us the option of pain compliance to stop an attacker, versus striking arts where compliance comes as a result of the knockout - which can have more dire consequence of injury.  Law enforcement professionals often use locks as part of R & R (restraint and removal) as a step in applying handcuffs or plastic restraints to suspects.

Furthermore, since we will only ever fight when provoked or in defense of someone else, this suggests the other party has broken the law by committing assault.  Locking is an effective way of executing a citizen's arrest and immobilizing the suspect while law enforcement arrive on the scene.  While laws of countries and jurisdictions may vary, in general the reasonable use of force is allowed for citizen's arrest.  This may not include repeated kicks and punches to the head or use of weapons, but often will include locking.

Chokes and Strangles
Along with breaks, chokes and strangles are the most serious of the locking arsenal.  Locking the head/neck is always potentially dangerous, and can easily result in permanent injury or death.  As such these holds should be practiced with care and only used in very serious situations.  That being said, locking the head/neck is one of the fastest and best ways to get an attacker to stop. The sudden "black tunnel" of a strangle or the pounding of the temples and the shock of struggling for breath that a choke causes get just about anyone to submit.  Done properly, these techniques apply and finish so quickly that the opponent often has little chance to resist.

For clarity, chokes are head/neck locks that seek to block the opponent from breathing, while strangles target the arteries to stop blood flow.  The results can look the same (opponent passes out and goes limp), but the means are completely different.

So what are some keys to locking??

Isolate the target joints
Locking is usually done against (at least one) specific joint(s).  For each lock, take care to understand the specific area being targeted and learn how to isolate it.  This means that we immobilize the joint in order to limit its range of motion.  To effect the lock, we then apply pressure to the joint, usually against the typical range of motion.  This can result in pain compliance as the joint hyper-extends, or ultimately into a break.  All joints are not created equal, and some joints are simple hinges (elbow/knee), ball and sockets (shoulder/hip) or radials (wrist/ankle/neck).  As the above clearly illustrates, most locking principles work equally well on both high and low-line variants (elbow/knee, wrist/ankle, fingers/toes).

Angles matter
Precision is key when locking.  Especially when locking the elbow and knee joints (which is fairly common).  For example, finding the elbow lever position is easily done by aligning with the little finger on the hand, since the little finger always identifies the direction of the elbow hinge, even when the wrist/hand is rotated.

NO Slack
In order to quickly and effectively execute a lock, it is important that we remove any slack from the target joint.  This means that if the opponent's arm/leg/head can still move around, the lock will be loose and take more time to work, or may not even work at all.  Good locks do not offer any escape for the joint, and the opponent is not able to move the target in any direction except against the usual range of motion.  The most common reasons for slack are that we are too far away or are too shallow in isolating the joint.

Use Leverage and Torque
Once a joint is properly immobilized, we can begin applying pressure to it.  Most beginners try to do this using their arm/shoulder muscles.  This can work against a weak joint (elbow/knee) when the opponent is weaker or already compliant but can be challenging otherwise.  The best locks allow us to use our large muscle groups to apply leverage.  This means we should seek to use the muscles of the back, hips and legs primarily, or to deliver the full body weight in order to make the lock more effective.

Thus, when learning locks you should consider how the lock can be applied using the largest muscles available and how your body weight can aid delivering the lock.  Often, this means arching the back to extend the pelvis and deliver the back and legs into the lock.  In other cases, the lock takes advantage of the large chest muscles and back muscles in combination (especially pulling as you would in a "seated row" movement).

Lastly, relaxation is important to allow larger muscle groups to deliver the lock.  Tension in the arms/shoulders will prevent us from using the back/hips/legs and weaken our locks and make them hard to maintain.  To borrow an example from rock climbing, the arms/hands are used to set position and take balance, but the back/hips/legs are used to drive and deliver power.  This is exactly the same in locking.

There are many locks which apply torque or rotation to the joint.  Wrist locks almost always involve rotation/torque.  When this is part of a lock, it doesn't work well without it, so it is important to apply the torque fully when a lock includes it.  many students will focus on another part of the lock and miss the rotation of the wrist.  This makes the lock incrementally more difficult (or impossible) to execute.  Torque is a key to taking away balance and structure, and can be an essential part of the locking series.  If it is in the movement, don't forget it!

Speed and Simplicity
While there are some very involved and complex locks, I am more a fan of locks which can be executed very quickly and involve only one or two movements.  In the chaos of a fight filled with high adrenalin and stress, I find that slower, more complex movements fail, or are contingent upon injuring the opponent before application, neither of which are a preferred result for me.

It is highly likely that an initial hit will be required to disrupt the balance and concentrated before a lock is applied (called "atemi" in Japanese), this can usually be done with a good slap rather than a punch or elbow, and can be more about pain/distraction than injury.

A good lock should be on before the other person is aware of it and over before the other person can react to it.

Once these principles are well understood, smaller people have little trouble locking bigger people.

I hope the above will spark your curiosity in exploring the wide world of locking and in finding new effectiveness in your locking training.  These techniques should have a valuable place in your fighting arsenal.

See you on the mats!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Going Camping

Well, that's that.  The Bali Camp 2015 is over and life slowly starts to return to normal.
I am already thinking about the 2016 Camp --- every year it gets better and better...

If you were not there this time (first of all, shame on you!) then you have no idea what you missed.  It was CRAZY GOOD.  If you were there (Hurray!) then you know just what I am talking about.

We spent a week doing a variety of classes taught by some of the world's very best instructors, pushing ourselves and each other to the limit.  At the end, there was an emotional and joyous graduation for those who tested, and a warm feeling of camaraderie among all of us who had this wonderful experience together.  There really is nothing else like it.

Why do I love The Peaceful Warrior Camps so much (and why should you go next time)???

1) Curriculum
The curriculum is fabulous.  We cover everything from Kali to Pencak Silat to Bagua Zhang to Tai Chi, with yoga and meditation as well.  We have a great mix of Parkour-based conditioning as well. Over the course of the week we use single/double sticks, blades (knife/karambit), and spend quality time with our boxing gloves and mitts.  In prior camps we have gone deep into improvised weapons and the sarong for variety.  It's a great mix of styles and systems.  We are busy from 6am to 10pm so the days are pretty long, but the time just flies by.  In an instant, the camp is ending, and you are stronger and better than when you arrived a week ago.  You go home tired but very, very happy.

2) Intensive Study
Camps offer the unique environment for intensive study.  Our instructors often take a single theme and use this idea in the initial classes and then develop it and explore in detail throughout the camp.  This means we are able to experience an ongoing extension of the thought chain and have enough time to dig very deeply into the application.  In the 2015 camp we started with ideas in Kelit, Sinawali, and cross-body (right hand versus right hand).  Over the week we worked Kelit into empty-hand and karambit applications, and our Sinawali went into variations none of us had ever imagined before.  Cross-body empty hand led to cross-body applications of  knife/karambit versus knife, which brought us to some very unique (and effective) responses.  Every subsequent step builds on the one before, like a pyramid.

The instructors know what each other do so well that they are able to help even beginners connect the dots from concept to execution of any technique or style and help illustrate the contrast and comparison of different methods and concepts.

In the camp, we get just over 40 hours of mat time (not counting "secret trainings" and other ad hoc sessions).  For people going 2 hours a week back home, that is the equivalent of A LOT of training time (20 weeks for you math majors).  As well, since it is intensive, you really get a chance to burn in the muscle memory for the movements, and that helps even more.  Kali Majapahit cycles are 12 weeks long, and you could get the equivalent of a full cycle or more of training done IN ONE CAMP.  Yes, it's totally worth it.

3) Compare and Contrast
Unlike other camps, the Peaceful Warrior Camp is multi-style, multi-discipline.  The instructors all come from deep lineages in a wide range of Filipino, Chinese and Japanese systems (as well as diverse styles like Savate and Muay Thai) and even represent several styles of each.  This gives an unparalleled ability to compare and contrast various ways of thinking about distance, range, timing, entering, and moving.  Some strong similarities exist between seemingly different styles (circular movement in Pencak Silat Cimande and circular movement in Bagua Zhang, for example) and I am forever fascinated with the subtle differences and similarities between our Kali Majapahit and Guro Claes' Kali De Mano.

4) Forming New Habits
Camps are a great chance to break old habits and form new ones.  The Peaceful Warrior Camp is almost entirely vegetarian, and it offers a great opportunity to rest your body (and soul) from meat/animal products for a week while training.  It seems hard to do in everyday life with our structured work routines, but at camp you can use this opportunity to check out something new.
Guro Fred's deep background as a nutritionist and Sifu James' expertise in Traditional Chinese healing helps a lot, too.  Not to mention Guro Lila, who is probably the best vegetarian/vegan chef I have ever met (and always willing to share her incredible recipes!).  Going to camp is about "putting on the green glasses" as Guro Claes says and opening yourself to examining your life from a new perspective.  This can be the moment that changes the rest of your life (if you let it).

5) Conferences
Every night we gather for a special conference.  The topics have ranged from talks about nutrition and health to deep discussions of spirituality including Hindu/Tibetan Buddhist traditions, Esoterism and the Journey of the Soul.  Yours truly even ran a session on Financial Freedom and Investing.  There is a lot going on and plenty to think about.  Sifu James is a world-renowned expert on Taoism and just the chance to hear him and ask questions would be worth the trip to Bali.  The topics are presented in a very open and informative manner, and designed to help you develop the curiosity to explore further in conversation with the instructors or on your own after the camp.  These help us make the camp not just about training, but about learning and growing as well.

6) The Fellowship
I miss everyone so much already.
The camp has so many precious moments to connect with each other.  We had people coming from all over the world to be together, many old friends I haven't seen for a while, and many new people who brought their energy into our big family.  Our camp has NO POLITICS, NO DRAMA. Just good people and good times.  We train hard and support each other when the going gets tough (like Guro Lila's conditioning class!).  It makes us all very close.  By the end of the week I felt so connected to everyone, like we had known each other all of our lives.  I know Sifu James would say that's because our souls have met before, and I also believe that.  Still, it's such a great pleasure to see everyone and be together IN THIS LIFE.  We all go home knowing that we are part of something bigger; a collection of outstanding people all across the world who share and grow together - always welcome.  It is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

7)  Testing
Every camp has some people testing.  This time we were lucky to have people going not just for Kasama (assistant instructor) but for Kadua Guro (Black Belt Instructor) as well.  It gives the camp a buzz as we watch these candidates prepare body, mind and spirit and then go ALL IN to show everyone how good they can be.  They shone brightly and everyone was suitably impressed. These are unforgettable moments, key milestones on the path, and we are all proud to be witness to them.

8) The Laughter
There was hard training, yes.  That being said, it would not be the Peaceful Warrior Camp without the annual Belly Splash Competition, which always has some big surprises.  This year was off the charts with an unexpected win from Team Singapore --- Incredible Job!!
Work Hard, Play Hard, right? many great memories...Camp is just the best thing you can do.

SEE YOU IN 2016??

Monday, February 09, 2015

Sacred Geometry

(thanks for the inspiration Jeremy)

GREAT class last night.  Our beginners and intermediates had their own challenges to engage, while the advanced group worked through more free flow in stick, knife and panantukan.

One idea that manifested while watching the advanced group was how to simplify the strategy to a few key points.  Ours is a CQB system largely derived from Inayan Escrima/Barong combat.  Thus, we should generally endeavor to close distance with an opponent, stay standing, and finish quickly and decisively in corto.

Another key understanding is the use of lines and circles in how we flow in response to our opponent.  Generally speaking, when an opponent moves in a linear way we have the option to redirect their line, or to go around/choose a different plane.  In practice, this means that passing their straight line to our outside/inside, responding on a different plane (high/medium/low) or using a circular movement (hook versus jab) can be efficient ways to respond.  For circular attacks (hook/roundhouse) we are often best served by using straight line responses and entering directly along the center line, rather than trying to use a circle of our own.

Of course, in fighting there are rarely any absolutes, but thinking about the lines and circles of techniques can add perspective and is worth consideration.

"Simplicty is the shortest distance between two points" - Bruce Lee

Monday, January 12, 2015

Getting the Point --- Tactical Knife Training

Yesterday, I was honored to receive an invite to a special closed-door training session with Ka Abner Anievas, Hong Kong based founder of KEAT Tactical Ops and frequent CQC instructor to Chinese and Korean elite law enforcement and special forces.  You can read more about him and see videos here:

Despite having a long background in FMA, Ka Abner is now mainly providing tactical training rather than martial arts instruction.  In his words "this offers more freedom to express.  martial arts tradition is good, but I want to emphasize what can actually be used."  Many of his students have served in active combat in places like Afghanistan where his training has made the life-saving difference.

The topic was tactical knife, which included point up and point down grips, single knife versus double knife and empty hand applications of the techniques.  It was an excellent seminar from a clearly high-level, very experienced instructor and I was very glad to be able to attend with a few of my senior students in tow.

It was also reassuring to see that while some details and subtleties always exist between styles, a lot of what he teaches looked familiar to us as students of Kali Majapahit.  In accordance with the wishes of our founder, Punong Guro Fred Evrard, we rarely focus on lethal applications of knife versus knife combat (usually drilling knife defense instead of knife versus knife), the body positions and controls are similar to those we would use and designed to give us distance and safety from an opponent's weapon, while at the same time swiftly and decisively ending the encounter - usually through control of the head/neck.
Some takeaways:

"C Cutting"
While it is instinctive in FMA to cut in sweeping motions using length and reach of the wepon combined with compactness of the body, Ka Abner explains that he prefers the "c cut", where we seek to insert the point of the knife for the stab, and then rotate the wrist and cut in a letter c movement.  This gives maximum blade contact and is the cleanest way to ensure maximum effectiveness of the stab and cut combination.

Using the Whole Body
Very much akin to Tai Chi, good FMA skills require us to use the force of the entire body.
This means making best use of the principles of extension and rotation, starting with keeping the spine straight and using it to drive momentum through the hip and shoulder axes.  Of course it is important to keep balance by stepping to the balls of the feet rather than the heel and to adjust the body's position in relation to the opponent in order to take away their angles of attack and present our own.

Receiving with the Knife versus the empty hand
Many, many FMA drills involve blocking or parrying the incoming weapon hand with the empty hand.  These are fine for developing reactions, and of course when we are unarmed.  However, common sense requires that when we are armed we use the weapon first.  Our weapon should remain between the opponent and ourselves as much as possible, and the most practical combat drills involve receiving the incoming weapon arm by contacting (striking/cutting/stabbing) it with our weapon arm.  The FMA principles involved are "defanging the snake" and "attacking the attack".

Keeping It Short and Simple
We have all seen complex training patterns or "templates" as part of the FMA curriculum, especially when knives are involved.  This usually means a series of progressing stabs/cuts at a variety of targets.  Students end up memorizing sequences which sometimes have ten or more attacks, and often drill to execute these sequences in order as fast as possible.  However, in practicality, professional operators have no time or energy for such memorization.  Using the C cutting principle above, nearly any line can be lethal.  Thus, Ka Abner divides broadly into high line (usually throat or brachial arterial line) and low line (including liver/spleen and femoral line).
Either target will immediately render the victim combat ineffective and there is no need to draw complicated diagrams or remember anything except the entries.

EDC Kits
Ka Abner recommends training with a variety of sims of the everyday carry (EDC) weapon.  This should include rubber, unsharpened plastic/carbon/nylon and unsharpened steel.  These allow a variety of drills, and embed the muscle memory with the length and weight of our actual carry kit.
He trains with three deployment locations - front belt (in front of the hip) right and left sides, and small of the back.  Front belt sheaths are hidden by suit jackets and make the weapon available to standard or cross-draws in point up or reverse grips.  Small of the back offers optimal concealment but fast access and leverages the muscle memory for the belt holstered pistol draw from the rear hip position.

Efficient Drilling
Many drills involve feeder/receiver with both partners taking turns to practice.  Rather, Ka Abner's drills involve attack and defense for both partners, which lets training time for each be increased.  Furthermore, he encourages training with good body mechanic for both partners so that useful muscle memory can be achieved in every drill.

In Summary
This was an excellent seminar with a lot of useful and practical information for those interested in the type of training elite law enforcement and special forces troops receive in CQC.

Ka Abner's seminars are usually taught in a series of 6-hour sessions including knife (two sessions), karambit, impact weapons, tomahawk and machete.  He also teaches combat pistol and shotgun.  I recommend attending his seminars whenever you have the chance.  You will not be disappointed.


Thursday, January 01, 2015

Starting 2015

Well, here we are --- 1 Jan 2015.  The start of a brand new year.  What will you make of it??

This holiday season I had time to reflect on many things, and try to set my plans and priorities for 2015.  One thing is for sure: success never comes easily.

2014 was a very difficult year, and I was glad to see it go.  Many challenges happened (both personally and professionally) and it just felt really hard to make progress.  Some successes were achieved, but in other areas I am sure I went backward.  It was a real grind - every moment of every day.  Was it like that for you, too?

I know when I see successful people that one major contributor to their ultimate success is their perseverance, a dogged and relentless ability to keep moving forward - even through difficulty and uncertainty.  This ability to not just endure - but to inch forward in the face of overwhelming odds sometimes - and the defining the willpower it takes to make it in a world as tough as ours is.

I want 2015 to be a selfish year - for all of us.
I want to make it a year where we take care of ourselves first:

  • pay ourselves first
  • reward ourselves first
  • love ourselves first
  • make ourselves happy first
  • get ourselves healthy first

Rather than trying to be in the convenient business of advising others, which gives me the luxury of not having to improve myself, I want this year to be a year of sorting myself out first - leading by example and pushing toward my goals, then encouraging others to do the same.  We can all get where we want to go without having to take from each other, but we can't get there without putting ourselves first.

I have paid forward enough failure to last my lifetime and beyond.
This year it's time to get some well-deserved success.

I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

What strikes me about this quote is not just that MJ was not afraid to fail, and ultimately overcame his failures to be the greatest player in the history of the game.  What strikes me is the numbers - how much effort it takes every day to be the best.  His stats don't include all the training and practice it takes to maintain himself at such a high competitive level.  It also doesn't include his determination to win first, to be the best he can be - first, which in turn helped his team be the best it could be.  To succeed you must invest in yourself FIRST.  If you are not happy, you cannot contribute to the happiness of others.  If you do not love yourself, you cannot accept the love of others.  If you have nothing, you can give back nothing.  If you give everything away, there is nothing left for you.  Martyrdom helps no one, especially not you.  Instead, be determined to move forward even  single inch every day, and let the numbers add up for you.  That's how I plan to do --- dig in and push forward, slowly if I have to, but FORWARD, inch by inch, every single day.

How about you?  What will you do for yourself this year?  What are your goals and dreams?  Are they big enough?  Can they be even BIGGER??

I look forward to celebrating my success (and yours) same time next year.
As always, thank you for believing in me and for your constant support.

See you on the mats very soon.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Four Dozen

Wow.  Here I am.  48 years old today.

It's hard to believe that so much has happened since last year's birthday post...

This morning I woke up in our new place (surrounded by cardboard moving boxes and without TV or Internet), I walked a new route to the train station to go to my new job at work.  This year, for the first time (not the last) I became father to a teenager son.  This week I taught the first Kali Majapahit Japan class on a TUESDAY and our group continues to grow.  This year I also started social dance and am now on my way to being able to waltz (still badly).

In retrospect, this has been a year filled with new things - some good, some bad.  In many ways it feels like I am starting over again.  It feels exciting.

I try to be grateful for every day I am alive, and especially for all the people around me that make my life so rich and filled with energy.  This morning I had an inbox filled with birthday greetings from friends (new and old) all over the world.  Thank you all for taking a moment to think of me. I take a moment as I read each greeting, thinking about how and where we met, and how you all have inspired and influenced me. I hope I have been able to return the favor, and more importantly, to pay it forward to the other people I meet.  I have tried to imagine myself like a particle in motion, bouncing off others nearby and hopefully giving them a positive charge. Sometimes, it just feels like I am bouncing off the walls. :-)

Kids like me never had much of a chance.  I was a prematurely-born, hyperactive, runny-nosed little kid coming from a broken home and processed through the State of Illinois foster care program (Illinois Children's Home and Aid on Dearborn Street, Chicago). I was placed in long-term foster care in Villa Park and have been a thousand times luckier than most foster kids.  I had the same foster family for nearly 20 years and was not shuffled from house to house like so many others kids are.  I was not physically or emotionally abused as many foster kids are.  My foster parents suffered all my antics and loved me as completely as any parents ever could, even when I broke their hearts - again and again.
They never gave up on me, and maybe that's why I didn't give up on myself.

Most of us foster kids eventually give up.  We give up on trusting other people because our parents betrayed our trust. We give up on ourselves because we feel unloved and unwanted - unable to have a "normal life" like other kids around us have (or as we imagine they have).  We give up because we don't feel we deserve the same opportunities as other kids - believing that we are unworthy because we were cast aside. Sometimes we give up just because we become too tired to fight.  Most of us develop various emotional problems as a result of our experiences, and I am no exception.  I can be an extraordinarily difficult person to be around, with wild mood swings, a wicked temper, and a seemingly subconscious urge to self-destruct.
I can never ask forgiveness enough times from all the people I have hurt along the way, and instead can only keep trying to re-balance the scales every chance I get and pay it forward.  Thank you to everyone who manages to care about me when I sometimes hardly seem to care about myself.

In the end, what has mattered most is my own family - MY TRIBE.
Thanks to my loving and patient wife, Sanae, I have what I always wanted - a loving and supportive family of my own.  She has made all my dreams come true and brought me more happiness than I probably deserve. She is my hero and still the coolest chick I know.

Even before my first son was born, I promised I would never subject my children to what I went through - wondering why they had been born and why their parents didn't love them enough to keep them.  Although I can say I have made every conceivable mistake as a parent, my two fantastic boys never fail to amaze me with their happiness, energy, and confidence.  They are well-grounded and sensible (most of the time anyway).  This is credit to Sanae far more than me.  I wish I could be more like her.

I have fallen.  I fall all the time.  But I will keep getting up.
I will not give up.
I will keep going forward and making progress, sometimes only an inch at a time, but continuously and relentlessly.

Thank you all for believing in me.  It means more to me than you can imagine.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On Slavery

Just finished reading this book, "12 Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup, an autobiography written in 1853.  I got this book after having seen the riveting movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I figured the book must contain much more detail than the movie, and I was not disappointed.

Slavery is a difficult subject, especially for Americans.  We want to believe that we have "risen above" such things, often citing that we fought a long and bloody war specifically for that purpose. None of this is entirely true, since even George Washington owned slaves, and emancipation was a convenient afterthought for President Lincoln, whose main objective was to keep the country united.  Slavery, however, became a lightning rod issue for the North, and galvanized our resolve to change the Southern way of life from plantation agriculture to our new industrialism.  Even today, some 150 years after the Civil War, vestiges of slavery remain across America, both explicit and implicit.  We have made a small start, but we still have so far to go.

In many other countries, slavery has a long history and in some of them, it still continues.
Slavery can take many forms, including what we typically think of as indentured servitude (conflict goods, forced conscription) but what must also include sexual slavery, child labor and even religious slavery.  At the far end of the spectrum, many Americans suffer debt slavery, unable to break free from their consumption-fueled lifestyles.  Slavery can be defined as a hopeless repetition of labor without chance of escape, and this is the 9-5 (maybe now more like 9-9) that many Americans must endure without hope of financial freedom or eventual retirement. Post the financial crisis, many Americans are doomed to work until they die or are replaced.

Here are some other takeaways of mine from the book:

Freedom has no Guarantees
Solomon Northup was born a free man in upstate New York, near Syracuse.  However, this did not prevent him from being kidnapped and sold into slavery into the Louisiana bayou for 12 long, hard years.  Kidnapping and human trafficking exist even today in many parts of the world.  The freedom we take for granted can be taken away by any number of means at any time.  We think of this as largely a problem in the underdeveloped corners of the World, but actions of our own government are no different, slowly eating away at our freedom until we become slaves of the State - in mind if not in body.  Freedom is preserved through vigilance, and lost through apathy.

We have it SO GOOD
Our modern abundance is truly mind-boggling.  Compared to life 100 years ago, the incredible amount of goods and services available to us is almost beyond comprehension.  For many of us, the biggest challenge of the day is simply deciding which size Starbucks we want (Grande or Vente).  We have products from all over the world available to us at our fingertips, and our ease of access to information on any topic, in any detail, is truly an incredible human achievement.

The ability of modern medicine to prolong and improve the quality of our lives is past imagination for people 100 years ago.  We have all but eradicated the major plagues of the past, and I actually believe it could be possible through concerted global effort to end global famine in our time.

I do not begrudge our advancements, and do not think we need to be ashamed of our good fortune.  However, I do believe that this should cause us to have even greater charity, mercy and compassion toward others.  We have far  more than we need - it is time to share.

We have become WEAK and we complain far too much
Transformation of our global society from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age has brought humanity incredible prosperity.  However, the trade offs have come at the cost of our strength, hardiness and resolve.  My children cry when they cannot get Wifi access (actually CRY), and we need to go to the gym to develop the strength that our ancestors had as a by-product of their regular daily lifestyle.  While many undeveloped regions lack basic sanitation, clean water, and enough food, most places in the world have far more than they could possibly need.  We complain at the slightest inconvenience.  I felt ashamed to read of the savage punishments inflicted on Simon Northup and his fellow slaves by their cruel plantation overseers and masters.  Could I have endured them so patiently in order to wait for my chance to escape? Could you?  He slept on a wooden board with a threadbare blanket and not even a cup or a bowl to call his own for 12 YEARS.  Could I do that?  Could you??

The Human Spirit is Truly UNBREAKABLE
I was inspired by this story.  His love for his family, and his ability to endure the seemingly unendurable for so long, just to have a chance to go home.  It would be unbelievable if I did not know the story was true.  All of us will face hardship and challenge, and all of us have the ability to keep our dignity and self-respect.  We can choose to be unbreakable.  Next up in my reading list is the story of Nelson Mandela of South Sfrica, and I expect there will be much in common on this point.

Music Matters
Solomon Northup was a violinist and this skill served him well in captivity, helping ease the suffering not just of himself but of those around him.  Music is a joyful thing, and life without music is a hell of its own.

Human Relationships Matter More
The life of a bayou slave was horrible beyond my imagination. Particularly for those consigned to labor on cotton plantations, who had to rise before dawn and toil until midnight 6 days a week nearly all year round.  In addition to his music, Solomon and the other slaves forged deep human relationships based on compassion and mutual support.  This social fabric helped them weather their trials and endure their hardships.  We all face difficulty, but it is far easier when we face it together.  Be CONNECTED.  Invest in human relationships.

Family is the CORNERSTONE
Even enduring regular torture and brutal treatment in Louisiana, Solomon never gave up hope of seeing his wife and children again.  He kept this fire burning and this must be a central reason why he ultimately regained his freedom.  Family is the most important thing.  Keep it sacred. Protect it above all else.

Justice Is Never Guaranteed
Despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, the fiends who kidnapped Solomon Northup and sold him into slavery were never brought to justice (except maybe in the Afterlife).  Especially as Americans, we believe in the fair and equitable rule of law, however I am not completely certain it exists - at least not equally for all.  Freedom is preserved by vigilance and lost by apathy. Recent events have shown some shocking examples of the cost when we assume the protection of the State or the goodwill of the Republic in our daily lives.  We still have so far to go.  

Poorly Run Companies Look and Feel a Bit Like Plantations
In a poorly run company, management care little for the workers except that they provide economic benefit.  Motivation is achieved through fear and co-workers are pitted against one another in unhealthy competition designed to foster mistrust, lack of cooperation, and general unease.  Solomon relates several different plantations some of which, despite being staffed by slave labor, treated the slaves with respect and kindness.  These plantations produced more output for longer than those that relied on the lash.  Despite reams of research that suggest a humanitarian management approach, most firms still employ a linear strategy of input and output, and fail to motivate and reward employees holistically.  It is worth examining the HR policies of the very best companies to see why employees choose them - money is merely one factor. Treatment of the employee as a trusted individual worthy of respect and investment yields the greatest benefit for both sides and is the cornerstone of loyalty and out performance.

In closing, the quote from this book that I will never forget.

"What difference is there in the color of the soul?"