Get into a conversation with Tim Fogden and you should expect it to range far beyond its original premise. Far beyond.
I engaged Fogden in conversation recently, with the initial purpose of interviewing him about how the martial arts keep him fit.
However, it was quickly apparent that we weren't going to travel a straight road to that end. Before long, Fogden was expounding upon the samurai, the history of Japan, the five elements, the viscosity of the air. We talked not much about the physicality of the martial arts, but more about their spirit, symbolism, soul, intention ... and much more.
I did manage to reel in Fogden for a moment to find out he grew up in rural New Hampshire in a harsh, hardscrabble area that was all about survival. He talked of hunting deer in the White Mountains and passing four ski areas on his way to high school — "How was I supposed to get to school?"
"I learned to handle a lot more because of the environment where I grew up," Fogden said. "At an early age, I learned how easy it was to hurt someone and knew I had to control that God-given wrath that all men have."
As a youngster, Fogden was small and full of energy. He loved Godzilla and Kung Fu Theater on TV. He idolized Bruce Lee. So, somewhere between 6 and 8 years old, he took up tai chi — and he was hooked on the martial arts.
"Right away, I learned that martial arts can be internal or external," he said, "like in tai chi where, when you are struck, you respond be attacking the spirit. In karate, when you are attacked, you break bones. Sometimes, it's hard to determine if one is internal or external."
He first visited Taos to see his aunt, who lived at New Buffalo commune in Arroyo Hondo. By 1990, he was here permanently … or, as he says, "at my base camp for my next adventure."
Like many émigrés to Northern New Mexico, Fogden did whatever to get by: construction, landscaping, gardening, ski instruction. His practice of martial arts has wandered a non-linear path. He wakes up in the morning and what he does depends upon timing, mood and obligations. If there's any constant, it's that he wakes up with a "strong need to do something."
"All my training is irregular: chaos in a field of melee, like a battlefield," he said. "If I found someone with the same desire I have, I'd train all day. But you have to earn money to live."
Fogden has a fascination with the samurai and, often, our conversation reverted back to that warrior class of traditional Japan. They didn't worry about dying in battle, he said, because they "considered themselves already dead."
"The martial arts come out of the field of battle, a field full of people with sharp and blunt objects," he said. "You've got to move, you've got to avoid the carnage."
He sees how after thousands of years defending the emperor in warfare, modern times found little use for the samurai. Here, he said, is where the martial arts moved from a predominately external art to an internal art.
"As the Japanese economy opened up, the samurai came face to face with gunpowder," Fogden said. "But they didn't want to lose themselves as individual people. Their forms evolved so as to keep the sword in the culture. The external went internal, and underground."
To Fogden, life is a metaphor of the samurai's battle: "Someone is always swinging at you. You have to avoid anger. Smile, exhale, relax, avoid tunnel vision. Use martial arts in your daily life."
At some point, our conversation diverged into a loosely linked lecture on all things martial arts. In a way, Fogden confirmed that this discipline does not march to the logical, linear beat of the Western drum.
By taking our conversation off the beaten track, my conversation with Fogden showed me how rigid Western thinking can be … and how relaxing it is to let talk go wherever it wants to.
Here are some highlights:
"Everyone is curious about the invisible and the unknown. For me, the martial arts are magic, and I am curious and enticed by that."
"In Taos, most of the martial arts are internal, like Qigong and Tai Chi. You see people practicing in the parks. These are ancient forms that develop spirit and power."
"For me, the martial arts are more of a hobby than an ego thing. You learn from others, you listen to the masters. I'm a student. You know, they say it takes three lifetimes to master martial arts — and that's when people had all day to practice."
"The martial arts are about being vigilant, assured, conscious. They always ask, 'What are you paying attention to?' It's about training your mind, knowing how to breathe."
"I grew up with talk of giant beavers. People saw them, they believed in the magic. Our perceptions are our reality. If you believe in it, it's true. In America, we are brainwashed to be ignorant. There's space between atoms, right? Why can't we walk through a wall, then."
"Number-one rule of war: Know your enemy. Number-one rule of Christianity: Love thy enemy. They are the same thing."