Monthly Archives: March 2011

Instructional Redemption

The discombobulation I experienced while trying to instruct last week’s class has now been banished. A little further research and experimentation led to the discovery of my previous inability to explain the technique I had in mind, and the positional error was quickly corrected. This success was also helped by a modification to our regular boxing warm-up drills that occurred to me just prior to class. I invented a new practice drill to get the students thinking about more fluid ways of slipping punches, and by Jove it actually worked! By the time I went back to running the class through the combo I had planned they were all bobbing and weaving admirably.

And so this Tuesday was a definite success. I was proud to see the progress all of the students were making, and happy to know a good chunk of it had sprung forth from my brain meats. Springing brain meats. I was also very pleased to see that my fencing game seems to still be up, and I still feel more at home with a rapier in my hand than anything else. Well, a sabre works for me too. Thusly, my confidence is restored, and the villagers of my ego rejoice. Horrah! Beer for all. Beer for me anyway, tasty beer.

Now I shall supplement this victory by losing a few more pounds of body fat and co-helming SCG into the annals of history!

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Why We Fight

People become interested in martial arts for many reasons. Some are more dedicated than others, some are more aggressive. Some are more spiritual, some are fueled by ego. Some have watched every UFC match, and some just really liked The Matrix. There are so many people from so many backgrounds who all end up making martial arts training part of their lives, even if only a small part. The arts themselves are as fractured as the people who practice them, and each art reflects a philosophy in one way or another.

I think a lot of folks who first show up for a class in fighting arts are motivated by false assumptions. I’m sure we all were in the beginning, I know I was. We only know what we see, and if an opinion is only based on television, movies and comic books, that opinion is bound to be a little distorted. When I first began training it was just before the MMA craze. I was still going on the opinions I formed from fictions such as Bruce Lee films, and all the convoluted mythology that sprouted up around them. It’s strange to think back to a time when I thought classic wrestling wasn’t impressive, or that knowing kung-fu meant you could fight ten opponents twice your size.

A little stark truth on that subject; The little guy CAN beat the big guy, but the little guy has to have three times as much training and be twice as smart.

MMA is an interesting beast. First of all it must be understood that it is still a sport. A very combative sport, yes, but nevertheless it has rules and systems that govern it. MMA, like sport fencing, is for people who are interested in winning. You will learn techniques, and you will master them ad nauseum. However, victory often depends more on conditioning and training. These fighters operate at maximum intensity within the parameters of a highly competitive world, and one must pretty much commit one’s whole life to becoming a perfect machine of success in this field. How you win may earn you favor, but it is the victory itself that matters more in this philosophy.

Other people operate on the polar opposite of the martial arts world. Some join as part of a journey of self-discovery. they want to understand themselves and their bodies a little better. They seek to discover a mental and spiritual balance within themselves. These people are drawn to arts such as tai chi, which are more about posture, balance and health rather than athletic competition. This breed of practitioner feels no desire to have their face beat out of shape just to prove something to themselves or others.

Both aspects are correct in their views, and neither is incorrect. Both sides of the scale are doing exactly what they want to do, so both sides are successful.

I am a little of both. I am probably in one of the rarest of groups; I like to win, and I love to fight – but winning isn’t the point. If I win in a unremarkable way I am still unsatisfied. I don’t want to win just by being fitter or stronger, I like to win by being smarter and more technically perfect. To me, a fight is always an equal division; The mind has to be able to find the most direct path and the body has to be able to do what the mind wants it to. I would rather lose occasionally while trying something creative and unexpected than win all the time doing something that was dull. Obviously if I was simply defending myself in a street fight my priorities would differ, but in practice and competition my goal is essentially to come up with something that is really impressive because of its creative and scientific understanding of antagonistics. To me, martial arts is an intellectual pursuit as much as it is a physical one.

For those who are simply interested in self-defense, that is a whole different matter. In terms of survive, hurt the other guy, and get away – you can learn how to protect yourself from 90% of dangerous confrontations in a few days. If you regularly practiced what you learn in those few days you could walk around knowing that you were capable of enough direct viciousness to navigate past any assailant who isn’t a professional fighter.

Then there are some people who just like to get into shape, and martial arts seems like the most fun way to do that. (I must also add that they are right, martial arts is the most fun form of exercise, so there.) All opinions are valid. A person has to choose what’s best for them and follow through on it. There is no point in arguing while style is the ‘best’ – every style offers what the people who practice it are looking for, so every style has merits.

Things and stuff

The other day I went out to sort through all the sewing supplies that had belonged to my grandmother, looking for anything that could be useful for my own projects. I returned with quite a few little devices that I never knew existed; many buttons, some patters, and apparently I will never need lining or muslin again in my life. Most impressively of all, I actually managed to fit all of these things on one shelf in my hall cupboard.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I really have time to start doing anything with any of it. I still have so much other work to complete first, not to mention no money for fabric. Sewing is one of those things you really need to have the time for; One of the few things that requires the right mood, because if your mind isn’t really in the right place you only end up making a mistake that forces you to redo half your day’s work. I suppose if you were a professional tailor you wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting until you felt like it. I guess that’s why sewing is still more of a hobby for me.

One of these days I will get around to making a new waistcoat, that frock coat, and maybe attempt to make myself a modern suit if I start feeling ambitious.

Presently my first goal is to really get into the habit of eating as healthy as possible. This is a little difficult as I have absolutely no imagination when it comes to meal preparation. I’m still trying to figure out how much of the recent snugness of my clothes is the added muscle of the new training program, and how much is from me working in front of the computer too much eating whatever is convenient…

Sigh.

Apparently back when Alexandre Dumas first penned The Three Musketeers he

The good version

was not trying to make a satirical comment of the political situation in seventeenth century France, but was in fact creating a story that featured ninjas, explosions and throwing star guns. Thank god modern film-makers finally realised the true vision of this literary classic and adapted it into the movie it was was always meant to be – a 3D fantasy extravaganza with lots of slow motion shots of people jumping around while endless swishy sound effects fill the air.

Never mind the nearly flawless production that Richard Lester directed back in 1973, this is clearly the definitive vision. Oh yes, this it the one.

Sorry, has the sarcasm come through here? I wouldn’t want to be obscure.

Why entitle your movie The Three Musketeers when you are clearly not taking anything at all from the source material? You’re not fooling anyone you know. Only the musketeers can stop the apocalypse? That chapter must have been missing in my copy of the book.

Duel

Once upon a time, also known as three years ago, I did an interesting cultural experiment with my fellow instructor, Randy Packer. We were both at Academie Duello at the time; He was one of the founding instructors and I was his assistant teacher. Although I had been working with other weapons for some time, it was at this period that I started to get very interested in late-period sabre fencing. Randy and I often spent the slow hours of the afternoon in the empty hall at Duello playing with a pair of nineteenth century duelling sabres.

I love rapier combat for its deceptive grace and tactical thinking, but I love sabres for their amazing speed and tempo.

That summer brought the approach of AD’s first ‘Sword Camp’ at Garibaldi Peak, and the two of us thought it would be a good demonstration of our commitment to fencing if we fought a demonstration match under the rules of a formal duel. This was not a mere presentation, we intended to resign ourself to the full preparation and fear  that a real duel would have brought. We sharpened the blades of the sabres we had been practising with as best we could, confirming that a hard cut would be capable of splitting skin. We also agreed that we would fight without masks and wearing no body protection apart from a thin, sleeveless shirt.

We also worked hard to learn as much as we could about this style of fencing before the date arrived, and an interesting thing happened while we were doing so; I started to feel very, very anxious. At first, I had felt so cool and bad-ass for agreeing to go through with the fight, but as the day grew closer I started to toy with the idea of backing out. I hinted as much to Randy and, as it turned out, he had been feeling the same thing. However, both of us decided that it was our duty to follow through with our convictions.

I then did my best to put the event out of my mind until the day it arrived. All of us who were attending the weekend getaway for historical fencing enthusiasts were gathered for the workshops that were being held that day. It was shortly after breakfast, and Randy and I were taking lessons from sword master F. Braun McAsh on the techniques of German sabre duelling. As we concluded the short workshop, the knot started to form in my stomach. It grew worse and Randy and I agreed it was time for us to prepare for the ‘duel.’

Do you know that feeling you get when you are a young child and the roller coaster starts climbing that first big hill before the huge drop? That was how I felt as I went and fetched the sharpened blade I was to be using to defend myself. I fitted the live blade into my guard and tightened it into place. Meanwhile, all the other attendees had gathered to watch, though I’m not sure how many of them realized just how dangerous the situation could become for the two of us. A ring was erected with flags, though I cannot recall who set it up. In fact, I was aware of next to nothing from the moment I held the sharp weapon in my hand.

Every instinct in my body told me to run away, to hide in the forest that surrounded the isolated camp, and wait for everyone to forget about me. I’m not sure I have ever been more afraid during my adult life as I was at that moment. A final nod from Randy confirmed that we were about to start, and there was no way to back out. Both of us tried to remain jovial and light-hearted, even though I’m sure neither of us felt anything of the sort.

Randy explained again exactly what we were doing – We were fighting to first blood with sharp sabres. The weapons were not razor sharp and the tips had been rounded slightly, but they were still capable of doing quite a bit of damage. First blood in this case meant that the blood was either flowing freely or dripping to the ground; scratched didn’t count. The only protection we had were the ordinary sunglasses I was wearing and Randy’s own spectacles.

And so, nervous as hell, we saluted each other.

The first few exchanges were tentative and cautious, and my form was certainly far from its best. We attacked and defended quickly, but all the while being cautious not to leave any openings. Fear makes for interesting instincts in such a situation, very different from matches in the school. We both caught some touches; him on his wrist and I on my arm. They were only grazes, however, and we did not pause. Then, after thirty seconds, Randy cut the glasses right off of my face without touching my skin.

We paused, grateful for the distraction, while I retrieved my glasses and replaced them on my face. Then we began again. Randy’s blade came close, but ended up only striking the cuff of my glove. Then a few incidental, but very painful, slaps and cuts were bestowed upon me. Finally, as a counter attack, I struck his upper arm hard enough to make him wince.  We re-engaged, growing more aggressive. I countered another cut and returned a blow to Randy’s shoulder. Sadly, neither his would nor mine were deep enough to warrant an end to the fight. We realized that the sabres should actually have been sharper, and the only way to end it was to hit each other twice as hard.

Another bout terminated with a long cut across Randy’s belly of which I do feel fairly proud. I had been hoping for a dramatic shirt-cutting moment, but it was not to be. Instead, the two of us resumed our fighting, both feeling the accumulation of our multiple lacerations. After a few more clashes of steel we simultaneously cut each other’s arms and backed off, cringing. At this point the cut on my elbow was beginning to bleed, and we both grew hopeful that it would be enough to allow us to make an honourable exit from the arena.

It was decided that neither of our welts or scrapes qualified as a fight-ending injury, so on we went. The fear was gone, replaced by pain and adrenaline. It is an interesting experience to fight a friend of yours in such a way. Despite your affinity for each other, you unconsciously accept that the only way to protect yourself is to hurt them first, so that’s what you do. It’s nothing personal, just necessity.

I landed another blow to Randy’s lower shoulder, one which made a satisfying swick of impact. Yet his toughed skin refused to split, and no blood came of it. Clack, clack, SWUMP! His sabre fell from his grip as I struck his wrist. It seemed I was paying him back for all the damage he had done to me in the earlier minutes of the fight. Randy hissed from the sudden impact, but flexed his fingers and picked up his weapon without hesitation.

We then decided that neither the sabres nor ourselves could withstand much more abuse, and that that at the next contact we would yield. After a few seconds of desperate fighting I managed to scrape his arm one final time, and we came together to shake hands, relieved the bout was finally over. Afterward, we both slunk off the field, more than aware of all the cuts, welts, bruises and lacerations that adorned out arms and body.

Randy's arm with a few tiny pieces missing.,,

We made our way up the hill to tend to the sting of our wounds. While it turned out that the sabres were not quite sharp enough to cut through skin, we had not become aware of that fact until about halfway through our match. As far as we knew, there was a palpable danger of arterial cuts. Even as it was, we were at risk of damaging our eyes. There have been a few people who made light of the event, saying we weren’t in that much danger. All I have to say to that is; Just try it. Then tell me how you feel.

And my word it was a beautiful day!

Everything around me seemed twice as shining and bright after going through the fight. I didn’t back down, I didn’t let my fear get the better of me, I stuck to my convictions… It felt amazing. I was grinning like an idiot for the rest of the day, and after that morning I felt like something had changed inside my head. Since that moment no human being has ever frightened me. I felt completely aware of my own mortality, and totally comfortable with it. I tested myself, and I proved that I could stand and fight if I needed to.

In the past three years the followed this experience I have never found anything that compares to those seven minutes I had to protect myself with a sword.

A Mostly Lovely Day

Assuming you ignore the mundane waking up, eating and checking of one’s messages, today began with some rapier in the park. Holly, my girlfriend, and I crossed swords adjacent to Vancouver’s mighty wall against the sea. Actually I have my doubts about that wall, I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to be keeping out. I’m sure Dagon and his sqwibbly  hordes could clamber up those steps in no time.

But I digress…

Celebrating one of the first truly nice days of the year is always done best with swordplay. It is true however that the enthusiastic inquiries of children is always a bit of a distraction. Still, one must encourage them and answer their queries in order to ensure that future generations still think swords are cool. Imagine the horror of a world where the young don’t find the sporting applications of violence inspirational. It would be like some dystopian science fiction where everything was so peaceful that nobody could have any creative thought. That’s right, I’m saying that fencing is necessary for prevent humans from becoming automatons. That’s my argument and I’m sticking to it.

When you think about it, though, what would literature be without physical conflict? Imagine classics like Peter Pan or Treasure Island without fencing scenes in them. Like it or not, heroes and villains trying to kill each other is part of culture all over the planet. This is why, hundreds of years after respectable people stopped carrying swords in the streets, there are still large groups of people devoted to fencing, boxing, wrestling, MMA and football. Even in peaceful times we have to make controlled expressions of our need for conflict. Provided a person is conscious of what they are doing, I don’t think this is a bad thing at all – It’s part of what makes us human.

Back to the present;

When I tried to change over to boxing there were a few hitches. We couldn’t manage to keep the pace up to the level I wanted, which was not helped by the group of people watching and talking about us. So we nipped back home to drop off the weapons, after which I talked Holly into joining me in a quick set of jogging and sprinting.

I was determined to get a decent amount of sweating in today, and I have resolved to cure my recent malaise with copious amounts exercise and writing. I’m finding that balance rather difficult actually, juggling the sedentary act of sitting at a computer or typewriter with getting up and pushing myself through quick and challenging workouts. My desire to write has peaked again, but at the same time I feel lethargic and fat if I spend too much time sitting still and typing. The trick, I think, is to create intense, short bursts of exercise that I can do before and after a few hours of stationary work. Routines that are vicious enough to work all my muscles and burn a good chunk of calories while not taking up my whole day.

Another little snag I’ve run into is the fact that my current fitness regimes are building a lot of muscle very quickly. In practice this is a good thing, except that I’m not burning off quite as much fat as I’d like just from fighting and sparring for two hours a week. This has resulted in the muscles growing under my extra inch of body and fat and making me look a little…rounder. Therefore I have added more pure calorie burning elements to my scheme. I think I am going to try swimming tomorrow; that’s supposed to be a good way of working your whole body at once.

I often find that the more physical energy I expend, the more emotional energy I gain. Well, provided I don’t push too far and damage myself of course. And on that note, it was a pretty successful and scenic afternoon.

One of Those Days

Tonight was one of those horrible off days. Proof one’s mind can completely fail at getting in the right place you need it to be. I planned out two boxing drills I wanted to use tonight, as well as two longsword drills. My brain, however, insisted on remaining unfocused and things did not run according to my scheme. First of all it seemed that I wrote something down incorrectly when I was compiling my notes on our curriculum, either that or I second guessed myself and should have just stuck to what I had written. So the first of the drills got somewhat banjaxed and had to be abandoned.

The second drill didn’t go so terribly, but the embarrassment of getting confused while trying to teach only furthered my annoying feeling of detachment. Thusly I ended up handing control of the class back over to the head instructor and sulking off with the impression that I was a buffoon. Following this blow to my ego, I could still not calibrate my brain to the task at hand, and often found myself having moments of clumsiness and confusion that would not otherwise have been present.

So in summary, the second hour of the evening was something of a disappointment. My teaching ‘mojo’, if you will, was rather out of synch.

However, I did manage to redeem myself at the end of the night. Sparring with rapier reminded me that, even if some of our boxing curriculum is still not internalised in my mind, I’m still skilled with the sword. Admittedly, when I started using my dagger against everyone else who was only armed with a single sword that was giving myself something of an advantage, but nonetheless my confidence returned to me after a long consecutive winning streak when I was gracefully victorious in each bout. If I may say so myself, it is reassuring to know that I am still a wizard with a rapier and dagger once I get into it.

My conclusion seems to be that there is a trade off in my head; On nights where I am totally comfortable, confident and successful at boxing I conversely seem to fumble a bit with fencing. Whereas on nights like tonight where my head wasn’t in the right place for pugilism at all I am still very adept at the comfortable blanket that is sword work. I guess it’s fair to only be able to excel at one of these sets of skill during a three hour period. I also realised, or rather remembered, that as much as all martial arts bring me pleasure and satisfaction it is being untouchable with a sword that is the most joyous for me.