"12 Basics..." Guro Tom Cohen

sonder
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
— Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Who are you? How do you define yourself? What's your story?

I always have the urge to answer this question in the 3rd person, like Steve Martin in “The Jerk”: “Who is Nathan Johnson? Nathan Johnson is a complex individual . . .” I was an English major at UGA, planning to go on the Doctoral track until my family talked me out of it (2 of my relatives were teachers). I’ve been writing since I was 9. My wife, Christina, and I live in Charlotte with our 4 dogs. In my twenties, I ended up doing Human services work over a ten-year span, serving adults with developmental disabilities and autism. I worked, concurrently, for 7 of those years serving the homeless population in Charlotte. I always loved the quote “Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy.” So, I try to keep up on my rent.

Guro Tom Cohen and his wife, Christina

Guro Tom Cohen and his wife, Christina

Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy.

How were you exposed to Balintawak?

My mom passed in 2013. Unfortunately, I was the one that found her. It was a pretty tough time, early in my marriage to Christina, and there was a lot of stress. We put my mom’s house on the market, and I switched gears in the middle of the process. I just had the strongest feeling that I needed to keep the house. This surprised me, since the mental picture I had wasn’t the happiest at the time. But I knew that I had to.

Fast forward to about a year or so later. I was walking my dogs in the neighborhood and ran into the father of a sometime student of mine. I re-introduced myself to the student’s dad and, on a whim, asked “Is your son still training with Bobby?” The dad responded, “You mean across the street?” I said “THAT’S BOBBY?”

So, I went home, and googled Bobby. First video I saw was called “Bobby Taboada’s heroic comeback.” Same strong feeling. I called the student and asked him to introduce me. I went to GM’s house with the student, and Grandmaster asked for my name, former training and occupation. He wrote this down in a little notebook. Then he asked “How old are you?” I responded. He said “It’s not too late.” So, I joined up and haven’t stopped since.

How long have you studied? Who was your primary instructor?

I’ve only been training for about 4 and a half years now. My primary instructor has been Grandmaster Bobby Taboada. I think if I had a background in escrima, or had been athletically talented I’d be pretty awesome right now. But I’m happy with my progress. I’m in it for the long-haul. But I owe a debt of gratitude to every one else that I’ve worked with (including, but not limited to): Guro Brian Corey, Guro Sharon Infante-Loparo, Guro Alex Ormaza, Guro Randy Cornell, and nearly every Balintawak practitioner. I really make an effort to be a good student, whether I’m feeding or being fed, teaching or training.

I really make an effort to be a good student, whether I’m feeding or being fed, teaching or training.

What was the hardest part of learning Balintawak?

I’d have to say mental and physical tension. I have no basis in striking arts or weapons forms. So, when someone says “hit with power” I often create enough tension to make me jumpy, to make me slow, or as GM Bobby likes to say (repeatedly) to make me look “awkward.”

Favorite part of Balintawak?

I love the complexity of it. I heard Garth Dicker once say “Basics ain’t basic.” There’s not a training session with GM, another F.Q.I., with my group or another practitioner that doesn’t present some new way or learning, teaching, training or applying. It’s a very deep art. I watch GM’s footwork or his hands as much as his power or explosiveness. 

Basics ain’t basic.
— Guro Garth Dicker

Have you/do you study other arts? How have they influenced each other?

I trained Tomiki-ryu (noncompetitive) for about 7&1/2 years, Daitoryu Aikijujutsu for the last 14 years under the late Seigo Okamoto, and Systema for about 3 years under Mark Jakabcsin. I had a lot of fun with the challenge of coming up with my 24 techniques. I felt like I had to make things bigger and more overt to make them easy to see and safe for my training partner during demonstration. Aikijujutsu is small and subtle, similar in some ways to the small circle jujitsu that Professor Wally Jay taught. The stuff I did in my 24 techniques didn’t have much that was small or subtle. I really look forward to exploring ways that I can employ more Aiki and less jujutsu in counter to counter. I would also like to add some of the heavy strikes I used to practice in Systema. In Systema, we used to say “Suffer well.” The idea was very similar to “Accept the pain.” I lost my dad in 2016 to the same brain cancer that took John McCain. While visiting him in the hospital, I was in a car wreck that left my hands numb off and on for about a year. All this happened while GM was on his trip to New Zealand, Australia and the Philipines. When he came back, training really helped get me out of my head. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when somebody really dangerous wants to hit you with a stick.

Tom being mean to people with Systema

Tom being mean to people with Systema

What's your day job? Have there been any concepts from that profession that have informed your Balintawak or vice versa? 

I’m a full-time Acupuncturist in the Lake Norman area of North Carolina. I think that martial arts and healing arts are two sides of the same coin. Understanding the common Balintawak injuries (uh, right shoulder pain, anyone?) helps me understand healthy versus dangerous body mechanics.

While Guro Tom doesn’t do a lot of acupressure massage, occasionally GM will accept the pain from him. No needles though!

While Guro Tom doesn’t do a lot of acupressure massage, occasionally GM will accept the pain from him. No needles though!

What is the main lesson you want your students to take from your instruction in Balintawak?

The same things we say every time we bow in. “From my heart” – Be honest and true to yourself, but check your ego at the door, “You are Welcome”- welcome everyone. You can’t do more than solo practice without your partners. Even a teacher isn’t a teacher until a student shows up. “With respect”- Respect the Art, your grandmaster, and each other. Be respectful. Be loyal. Everything else we get is a bonus!

What do you emphasizes with beginners and what do you emphasize with your more advanced students?

I try to emphasize good form, placing everything precisely during feeding, understanding how to teach basics. In short, I want my students to learn from my mistakes; both beginners as well as more advanced students. I’ll never stop making mistakes, and Grandmaster Bobby will never stop correcting me. So, we’ll all keep learning.

I want my students to learn from my mistakes... I’ll never stop making mistakes, and Grandmaster Bobby will never stop correcting me. So, we’ll all keep learning.

Grandmaster Bobby is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met. My Master, Seigo Okamoto, as well as my current Daitoryu teachers, Sensei Popkin and Sensei Brogna all have a similar uncanny set of teaching abilities. I try to emulate and pass on those things.

When I train, I’m not concerned with being the best practitioner. But I pay close attention to what, how, and why GM teaches something in a certain way.

What does a typical class look like when you teach?

We run through the curriculum, and all try to play with different levels and as many hands as show up that night. We usually work some drills for skill acquisition. A lot of times we explore variations of feeding or flow strikes so that we can start exploring our own strengths and weaknesses.

What kind of things were you thinking about when you were developing your 24 techniques?

Guro Brian Corey gave me some great advice on that. I was so stressed being GM’s student and not having someone to show or demonstrate my ideas on while I was developing them. So, Guro Brian suggested I develop them with my student. I was looking for things that led to a susceptible position for my opponent, or for a distraction to cause my opponent to react so I could attack some postural weakness. Then I had to adapt the techniques for safety, based on what my student could or couldn’t do.

Why did you want to become a Fully Qualified Instructor?

From the moment I met and trained with GM Bobby, I knew that I’d found something rare. My master in Daitoryu was also an amazing teacher. But I spoke very little Japanese and he spoke very little English. So, when I hosted him we mainly trained, smoke and drank; sometimes all at the same time. Finding Grandmaster Bobby was like discovering that Mozart lived in my neighborhood. Even though I hadn’t played piano, I’d have been an idiot not to start. Becoming an F.Q.I. is the real beginning of my training. There are so many great escrimadors in our organization. I want to be the best student and teacher I can be, to honor the art, Grandmaster Bobby, and all the amazing F.Q.I’s and other people training. I’ve had the honor of meeting, training with, and even seeing the development of other F.Q.I.’s. They all have different hands, skills, and unique approaches. They have all gone past the “Semi-advanced” techniques to grow and develop Taboada Balintawak. I wanted to be a part of that! So, I trained my butt off, fought several months of self-doubt, focused on my student to make him the best he could be, and pushed myself to be the best that I could be. During my test, I was having constant back spasms. So, I wasn’t thrilled with my performance, but I made it through. If I had been tackled by Guro Winn or Guro Mitchell I might have cried like a baby and tapped immediately. Glad that didn’t happen.

Finding Grandmaster Bobby was like discovering that Mozart lived in my neighborhood. Even though I hadn’t played piano, I’d have been an idiot not to start.
Grandmaster Bobby Taboada with Guro Tom Cohen at the 2018 World Camp

Grandmaster Bobby Taboada with Guro Tom Cohen at the 2018 World Camp

1 Extra. What are you known for in the Balintawak community?

I’m not young or athletic. I’m not flashy. But I practice hard, have a good attitude and character, and work my ass off. I’m the rhythm section. When I had long hair and played in bands, I was a bass player. I didn’t have the charisma or attitude to be the lead singer or the rock star. I was just happy to be in the band and to love playing the music.

Tom when he had… a bass guitar.

Tom when he had… a bass guitar.