Monthly Archives: July 2012

In the Middle…

A brief Biography of My Life as a Martial Artist, part II;

In regards to my later days at Academie Duello,  there is one more pivotal moment in my life that should be mentioned; the Duel.

Randy and I decided to stage a mock-duel at the first annual sword camp that Duello was hosting. (This has since come to be called Cascadia North, and has changed venues.) It was to be a fight to first blood with sharpened sabres – a demonstration of the ritual of the tradition and, in the case of ourselves, the psychological experience of agreeing to such a fight.

Gut-wrenching would be my choice of phrase.

A full account of the demonstration was included in one of my earliest blog posts, and can be found here; https://scienceofdefence.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/duel/

However, back in day to day life, there were a few conflicts arising in the latter days at Duello. Partially it was my own attitude, especially during the Palestra classes. I began to question some of Randy’s ideas, and as such I frustrated him as much as myself by my stubbornness. Some mild ugliness ensued.

Also, put simply, Randy was becoming increasingly interested in expanding both what he was teaching, and how he was teaching it. There were many experiments in conditioning and instructing that he was not able to do within the parameters of the regular classes at the school, and it became apparent that he would have to strike out on his own if he was going to really develop them.

Naturally I felt that I should leave with him, since I was his friend as much as I was his assistant instructor and staying behind seemed like it would be rather awkward in regards to my position at Duello. Not only that, but at the time I was receiving no real pay for my time coaching the newer students. Though I did make some money from teaching a childrens’ summer program, as well as a workshop that I ran on my own, it was not nearly enough to keep me from being very poor. Following Randy to a new project meant that, if the concept was successful, I could actually be a partner in the profits and business planning.

I believe it was late in the year 2007 that we agreed that we were both going to resign from Duello and try and start a smaller club on our own.

We were to be dubbed Nova Spada, and the locations we eventually settled on were Sapperton Pensioners’ Hall in New Westminster, and the Cloverdale rodeo Grounds in, obviously, Cloverdale.

Our focus changed drastically from what we were teaching at AD. We all but abandoned Rapier for the time being and went back to square one on trying to figure out what the best way to teach might be. Rather than focusing exclusively on swords, Randy began drafting drills for footwork, basic posture and body mechanics. In terms of swordplay, we began by working through the tenants of the i.33 manual – which is one of the first martial arts documents known to the western world. We also dabbled in Marozzo, as well as beginning to develop the style of unarmed combat that would eventually mature into a whole new style of fighting.

It was at the Cloverdale fairgrounds, in a large concrete arena, that the 5×5 system was born. Originally it was just a thought about knife fighting. “Hey, there are really only so many angles a knife attack can take, and really only so many responses a person can make in time – so why don’t we boil those down and make a free-style drill out of it?”

I think we knew right away that we had hit upon something valuable. The 5×5 knife drill became our favourite thing to work on, and it wasn’t long before we realized it wasn’t that hard to adapt it to all self-defence scenarios. Thus began what I still feel was one of our best inventions. The idea that all aggressive attacks and all ‘flinch’ responses to them can be boiled down to a simple set of principals.

I won’t go in to the exact details of how the drills work, since they are only partially mine to give out. I believe Randy is still working them at his introductory classes at http://boxwrestlefence.com/classes/ for those who are interested.

Now, I wont lie, getting out to the Cloverdale location sucked. I had to bus to the skytrain, ride the train to Surrey Central, walk up a hill to where Randy lived at the time, then the pair of us would drive out to the fairgrounds. The whole trek could take up to two and a half hours. Once there we would run classes for another couple of hours, and then I repeated the whole process to get home.

At this point I was also working forty hours and five days a week at my regular job, and spending both my days off at Nova Spada. Eventually my value and enthusiasm as both a student and an instructor began to fade. I knew nothing of nutrition in those days, and I was essentially working non-stop for seven days a week. I was exhausted. I would sometimes make the journey all the way out there only to feel strung out and half-asleep most of the time I was there. It was not good.

However, as it turned out we didn’t keep the Cloverdale practice running all that long. The expense of the two locations was not practicable considering the amount of money we were taking in, and some of the financial help we were hoping for didn’t come to be. Thus perished the Cloverdale Practice. There were a few classes we ran outside in parks and the like, but it wasn’t long before we were only running sessions at Sapperton, and only on one day a week.

The Nova Spada group in Cloverdale

The Sapperton practice, which would endure for another three years after we abandoned Cloverdale, went through many a metamorphosis. At first we were running classes much the same; alternating sword work with knife and unarmed work. The 5×5’s finally came in to their own as a system of training. However, after a while we were at a loss to know where we should go from there.

During that time classes became very informal. There was a period where we were more of a drop in facility with no structured classes. Randy and I more or less stepped back as instructors, working on bettering ourselves while occasionally giving advice to those who asked for it. The one advantage of this un-ambitious period was that we were actually able to pocket a small percentage of our earnings as opposed to putting all the money into new equipment.

Nevertheless, neither of us were really happy with the way things were.

I was constantly trying to think of a way to get things rolling again, as I felt that we were coming up with some really great material that was begging to be taught. Eventually I hit upon the idea of taking a page from history and trying to re-vision ourselves as a guild – kind of a less biased version of the London Masters of Defence from Elizabethan England.

When I first proposed this idea to Randy I didn’t think he was that taken with it. I thought that he felt it was too big a leap from what we were doing. I was a little disappointed, but I shrugged it off and filed the concept away for future use.

However, the idea was not as rebuffed as I had initially thought. A few weeks later we began discussing it again in more detail. By this point my girlfriend, Holly Maclaren, had become a regular part of our endeavours, and we all began planning how we would re-brand the school. The four of us, Randy, Courtney, Holly and myself began meeting at least once a week to brainstorm, plan, plot and scheme. It was a fairly lengthy and often frustrating process, but in there end we disseminated what we had done with Nova Spada and created Scatha Combat guild.

The early days of SCG were spent offering a series of workshops designed to bring in some new students and spark some more interest in what we were doing. Randy and I both ran long, two hour sessions that covered our own particular skills. Randy did two part introductions to the fencing master Marozzo, as well as German longsword and other favourites of his, I did the same on the basics of Bartitsu. and Angelo’s Highland Broadswoard (or Backsword) military style. We also ran classes devoted entirely to fitness for the first time.

To a certain extent, the plan worked. We did get more interest online and a few more people started to check us out in person. After a few months of this, we were ready to start buckling down to regular classes again.

Eventually the standard night ran along these lines: work out, 2×2 drill (a simple practice of all the basics strikes against a target), the 5×5’s then some in depth work on a particular field, followed finally by free sparring.

The biggest shift over time was the work out portion.

When we first began running classes we still kept the model we had used from Palestra; run around, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, a little plyometrics. However, over time our conditioning portion of the night became a melting pot of new and old ideas. Randy was always trying to find the best ways to train people to move more naturally and more gracefully, so we we always experimenting with something new. We researched everything from Parkour to La Canne looking for new ways to condition our students for athletic movement.

What we ended up with became a mix of basic gymnastics, the essentials of Capoeira, and a smidgen of on-the-floor break dancing. It was a fascinating blend.

I was not a fan of the gymnastics at first. I liked the idea of making all our students capable of handstands and planches, but I wasn’t sure we were going about it the right way. The issue I had was that a lot of the basic exercises are a both very difficult, and not particularly rewarding for the first few months. For one, it was frustrating to feel like there was a whole aspect of strength that I completely lacked (and I did). Also, I sometimes felt that we were throwing ourselves into the more difficult positions when we hadn’t really taken the time to build up the co-ordination of the basic postures.

Eventually I came to accept that the attempts at seemingly impossible feats of gymnastics were in fact building a much better sense of movement in our students, and a balance that they had never possessed before. It took time, but the day finally came where I could hold a free-standing hand stand and I realized the progress I was making. However, I still wished we had taken a little more time to work through and coach the basics before pushing forward into the more intermediate stuff.

Meanwhile the four of us were still planning to expand our business. Our hope was to make a business plan, attain some money, and set up a small, permanent location somewhere in Vancouver. Once there we could advertise the hell out of ourselves and perhaps get on our way to actually running a successful establishment.

I still get starry eyes over the idea of having a modest club somewhere, and being able to show the world some of this amazing stuff that surfaced over the last half-decade.

Yet that was a dream that ended up staying in the realm of fantasy…

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In the Beginning…

In the beginning, I was a mediocre academic student who’s only real success was a few short stories. About the same time I began studying at Langagra I also started learning Dragon-Style Kung-Fu at the Kerrisdale community centre. I suppose I must have been about twenty years old at the time. It was a class that only ran once a week, and was about ninety minutes in length. My decision was probably as influenced by the popularity of the Matrix films and my love of Bruce Lee as much as anything else.

I did well in my creative writing and literature classes and average-to-poor in just about every other course I took at college. My first year at post-secondary school was fairly enthusiastic. I liked the freedom and the anonymity, I liked meeting (very few) new people, I liked being able to choose the subjects I was interested in. However, by the second year I had exhausted all the courses I actually enjoyed and reached the point where I had to choose things that fit into a program.

Suddenly, I needed direction.

I found that direction in the second part of a Medieval History class when I met Roland Cooper. For better or worse, however, it had nothing to do with what I was doing at Langara.

Roland was one of the very first members of Academie Duello, which at the time consisted of two instructors (Devon Boorman and Randy Packer), I believe two students, and a weekly practice in the leaky covered area of Robson square. (This was many years before they renovated the square back into a functional ice rink, at the time it was uneven cement with a ceiling that didn’t keep out the rain very well.)

He told me about Duello, and I eventually decided to check it out. when I was younger I had a TINY bit of experience training in modern sport fencing, and like most people I was surprised at the realities of using a heavy rapier. The second I was handed a sword to practice with I loved it, which was about five minutes after I showed up. If I remember correctly, I was the third registered student at Duello.

The class grew slowly as we shared the space with the break dancers who used to hang out on the opposite corner of the square. Another friend of mine, Simon Ranier, joined at the same time I did. This effectively doubled the number of students. I can’t remember exactly when Jonathan Whiteley and Chris Moone became regular students. I believe one on them was already there before me and one came shortly after. I do remember that they both had some experience fighting in the SCA so they seemed like super-sword-wizard-masters to me at the time.

Fencing and Kung-Fu didn’t conflict with each other, so I continued to do both, even after Duello started running a second night of classes at Capri Hall on Fraser St. In fact, I cannot distinctly recall when I decided to abandon Asian martial arts and focus entirely on Western ones, but it did happen eventually.

The early Academie Duello crowd posing with Mandy Patinkin (aka Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya) at Robson Square

I loved what I was doing. I started putting one foot in the SCA in order to compete in a few open tournaments (which introduced me to a whole bunch of people who fought in a completely different way than I was used to), and it wasn’t long before my fencing friends were pretty much my only friends. Swords became my life, and I thought I was the coolest guy in the world for knowing how to use them.I liked being able to say that I was an aspiring swordsman, even though that usually received the reply ‘so, you mean like a pirate?’ or, ‘but weren’t the samurai the best?’.

It was gradual, but Duello kept growing and kept garnering more media attention. After a few years the school started looking into a plan for a permanent location somewhere in the downtown area. There was a period of hunting and planning, but eventually it happened – we acquired the second floor of a old building on Richards St.

There were a lot of renovations that needed to be done before the space was really presentable, and I am ashamed to say I took part in none of them. Nevertheless, we started holding our practices around the rusty railings and holes in the ground as the location became more and more polished.

That room would become the centrepiece of my life for the next three years.

At this point I had utterly abandoned school in favour of swordplay. I still wonder sometimes how differently my life would have turned out if I hadn’t made that reckless decision. Would I have finished a degree, would I have secured a better job? Probably not, to be honest. Schooling had always been an endless, upward struggle for me.

Most people don’t know that I am a little on the learning disabled side, since I primarily come off as eccentric. Yet it is true, I have a good old dose of the ADD, coupled with an almost crippling inability to do anything directly mathematical. If it wasn’t for the fact that Mother utterly exhausted herself to force her children though school, I probably wouldn’t have even managed to get to college. As such, the first seventeen years of my life were a constantly stressful period where I usually felt as if I was beating my head against a wall. The English Language was the only thing I excelled at and, apparently, martial arts for some reason.

Thus, experiencing the fairly foreign sensation of being potentially really good at something, I latched on to that ego-boost completely. It wasn’t long before I was spending four or five days a week at Duello, often barely working enough in my off time to keep myself alive. I was consistently short on rent and I ate a great deal of Kraft Dinner, but I had a sword in my hand every moment I could.

An attempt to run a morning class two days a week eventually led to the formation of the trinity that would define the coming years. The people who regularly showed up at seven in the morning dwindled down to myself, Courtney Rice, and the co-founding instructor of the school, Randy (David) Packer. There were a few other people, notably Clinton Fernandes, who showed up some of the time, but it was the three of us who were there almost without fail.

I cannot really believe that I loved what I was doing so much that I woke up at 6 AM to go down to the fencing salle. I have never been an early riser, and it is a testament to the times that I got up that early twice a week when I didn’t really have to.

At this point I was a ‘red cord’ at the school. This was the highest rank that any of the students had achieved at the time (and I think still). The camaraderie between Randy and myself had developed into a actual friendship, and I gradually came to be regarded as his assistant instructor. After the morning classes the school ostensibly stayed open until 10 PM, and on Monday’s and Wednesdays we were there pretty much that whole time. Courtney would sometimes have to leave for work, returning in the evenings. Between those times, Randy and I spent an about seven hours in the salle, often remaining for another few hours to take part or instruct the evening classes.

Those were long days.

We ran small afternoon classes, reviewed curriculum for things Randy wanted to teach, brainstormed new drills, experimented with techniques, or just fought amongst ourselves.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my personal life was a wreck at this time. I was broke, hungry and even more socially unsure of myself than I am now. Yet despite all that, there were these little pockets of time on those long, quiet days that were perfect.

Fighting in the morning and then sharing a sip of good rum and smoking a pipe of smooth tobacco on a warm, summer afternoon… Tiny little minutes where things just seemed so good. (“All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.” Sorry, I love that scene in Blade Runner.)

I think one of the most valuable things to come out of this period was the Palestra classes. (Palestra was the name of the gymnasium for martial artists and athletes in ancient Greece. Randy has since coined the phrase Palestrics to mean any athletic or martial activity done with a partner.)

These were hour-long conditioning classes that occurred just before the regular evening classes on Monday and Wednesday. The idea behind them was to create a long, intense workout that would help to condition students for any kind of martial art they might wish to train in. While we had limited equipment to work with, Randy never failed to come up with something exhausting and challenging for the few of us who submitted to this hour.

Though my approach to training has changed quite a bit over the years, I still thank those early days on Palestra for my general work ethic. It taught me that ‘pain don’t hurt’, to quote Roadhouse. It was probably the first time in my life that I really started to work out as well as practising martial arts techniques, and it set the bar for the rest of my career in that area.

Now, a slight aside; Despite this generally bad-ass work ethic, I have never once in my life enjoyed working out. I LOVE fighting, sparring, slow work, combat drills, even hitting the punching bag – but I very much do not, and have not ever, liked working out. I sometimes like the social atmosphere that comes from exercising with friends, but I was the kid who only attended enough gym classes to pass and then skipped the rest to go read somewhere. While it’s true I love the sense of satisfaction that comes at the end of the routine, working out is all about the destination and not the journey for me. I push myself to do the best I can because I want the benefits that come from it.

There are some I dislike less than others, but even the gymnastic, cartwheel, acrobatic stuff is not really all that fun for me. Like anything else in life you love doing, working out is the side of martial arts that I do because I must, not because I want to.

Enough digression, back to the reminiscing;

There we were, the Kings and Queens of cool. We had an intense conditioning workout, long days in the salle, and as much swordplay as anyone could ever want. Things were good. I felt that we all had a a plan and life was looking up.

That plan didn’t work out quite the way we had thought…

TO BE CONTINUED

Boxing: Day Three

It’s getting there.

I already feel like I’ve ironed away several of my little bad habits in regards to body mechanics. My jab, which was giving me grief at the beginning of the week, is feeling much faster and my body feels more balanced while I’m throwing it. The funny thing is that the whole improvement boiled down to one tiny little piece of advice the instructor gave me, after which I realized everything I was doing wrong and began to work on fixing it.

It often seems to happen that way; that one little correction that rectifies a mistake you didn’t realize you were making and sets everything in motion again.

On the other hand, I am still the weakest link in terms of endurance. Considering all the other exercises I do, you wouldn’t think circling my arms to work my shoulders for three minutes would be that hard – yet I feel like a scrawny kid in gym class when I try to do it. I can barely go past a minute without making pain face and stopping for a second. I also, as always, suck at push-ups. But there is nothing new about that.

In regards to hitting the punching bag again, the standard good workout seems to be ten rounds (30 minutes with 30 seconds of rest after each 3 minute round). I can do five before I start hitting like a ninety-year-old pacifist.

HOWEVER: As far as yesterday went, I did seem to pick up the actual techniques faster than some of the other people in the room. So I feel good about that. At least I can trust my ability to adapt and learn new styles to a certain degree.

I’ve noticed an amusing habit I have developed though, and that is that I am a hipster for martial arts. When someone asks me in the middle of class if I’ve had any other training I essentially start to say “I have, but you wouldn’t have heard of it”. To a certain degree I have been modest to the point of lying when people talk to my at this new school. When I first signed up I talked to one of the instructors (the same one I worked with briefly yesterday) about what I did at Scatha and Duello, but since then I have basically said “I’ve done some other martial arts, but I haven’t trained seriously for about a year” and then I let them draw their own conclusions. After all, I am there to add boxing training to my repertoire, not to fish for interest in my other endeavors. (What’s interesting, though not unexpected, is that nobody I have talked to at Sugarray’s has even heard of Academie Duello, despite the fact that the two schools are in walking distance of each other.)

The coach who was working yesterday, whose name I don’t recall, seemed to be one of the folks chiefly in charge of the establishment. Actually, considering I just agreed to spend the next year there, I haven’t really researched the person/people who started it or what there background is. I should probably do that. It’s nice to know more about other people than they know about you.

Anyway, said man was a brash, (I believe) Scottish fellow who was more than happy to call you a wanker and smack you with a target pad in order to get you to work out harder during the warm up. I was taken aback for the first few seconds, but I’ve worked with enough people over the years that I stopped taking it personally pretty quickly. I have a feeling I will both hate and be grateful for working with him. Despite his gruffness and accented insults, he was also very good at explaining the technical side of things.

So the grind continues, and thus ends day three.

Boxing: Day One/Two

On Wednesday I signed up for  a year’s membership at Sugarray’s boxing club in downtown Vancouver. The school, run like a good old-fashioned boxing club,  held several attractions for me: First of all, it was a short bike ride away from my apartment. Second of all all, considering most martial arts institutions charge about $100 a month for training, $300 for a year’s worth of unlimited access was a really good deal. Third, I can use the gym portion of the facilities 24/7, and I got a nifty little fob key to let myself in. They also have coaches there from 7AM to 11PM, and there are no classes. I can show up any time I want and pretty much get private lessons, as often as I can manage. And finally; because it’s boxing, and what’s not to love about that?

Friday I finally had the time to go in and work out, and I plan on going at least two more times this week.

This first experience was pretty much what I expected – I sucked.

Fortunately, I have spent enough time trying different martial arts that I knew the first day was pretty much going to amount to me embarrassing myself no matter what I did, so I was ready for that. It’s all part of the game; you do one thing, you get comfortable, you get cocky, you try something else, you realize you don’t know anything. Rinse and repeat.

As far as I’m concerned, that is the hardest part of starting a martial art. Sure there are the hours of sweat and frustration and pain that come after – but that’s nothing compared to walking in that first day and knowing you are going to look like a idiot. (Luckily the club atmosphere meant I had as little an audience as possible.) So, the hard part is over; it’s all a slightly less steep uphill from here.

However, I actually take this as encouragement.

Even in the awkward 90 minutes I was there tonight, I saw myself get a little better. In many ways it reminds me of those early days at Duello, and not just because  of the brick and rafter downtown location. For a while, several years ago, I was training with my swords for nearly five days a week. Even though my personal life was a shambles, those long days when Randy and I worked on different fencing styles for hours on end were probably one of the high points of my existence. It was the only period in my life when I got up early and felt a sense of purpose at what I was planning to do. True, I was was nearly starving (often surviving on multivitamins and single slices of pizza) and rarely paid rent on time, but I thought I had  a plan.

So I will start again at something new. For the first few months I will try to spend all my spare time there, until I feel like I have the basics of modern boxing down. Then I will get better. It will take a while, but my other experiences fighting have at least made me a fairly fast learner so it won’t be TOO long. Eventually it will come naturally. Eventually the staff will only offer small corrections. Eventually I’ll feel like I’m pretty good at it. Until then it will be the same hard work that martial arts has always been, and the same drive to push myself harder.

I also anticipate a lovely side effect of increased confidence, which I could very much use. Many the night has wiled away with me feeling lazy because I’m not doing any serious martial arts training anymore. The training I have done has always been an allegory for the rest of my life. working hard to succeed in something visceral becomes a template for working hard to succeed in other areas of your life.

Oh yeah, and I may actually talk to people and possibly acquire – what are those things called again? Oh right, ‘friends‘. Let’s not set the bar TOO high, though.

So, here we go again…

DAY TWO;

Today I went back in to the gym for my second time. There were a few people training upstairs, and I was feeling a little anti-social, so I decided I would just work out on my own in the basement. I may be flattering myself, but after spending the last two days thinking about the results of my first lesson, I think I have at least wrapped my head around the subtle shift in body mechanics. Though I still have to think about what I am doing, and will for at least a few weeks, I know what I am supposed to be doing at any rate.

I spent four rounds hitting the bag (12 minutes), a little while jabbing the speed bag, and a couple more minutes using the weights. All in all I was only there for about thirty-five minutes, but after a year away from this kind of training, that seemed sufficient for a start.

My conclusion after this half an hour is that my jab sucks. While my right arm is still very speedy from all the fencing and knife fighting, my left lacks the kind of quick snap needed for a modern jab. So there is something to work on first and foremost.

I will be back in the gym tomorrow, and this time I plan to work with an instructor again. I am determined to have all the basics of modern boxing down in the next couple months, and then I can really work on getting better.

Progress is fun.