Tag Archives: WMA

Rust and Introspection

armour

Well, this blog had gathered some dust, hasn’t it?

There are several reasons for that, chief among them my growing lack of motivation to do, well, anything. I haven’t exactly been lazy – I still spend at least four hours a week in the boxing gym and I’m still being as careful as I can afford to be about what I eat – yet my heart is not really in it any more.

Also, I have mostly been spending my time boxing and, while it is one of the most challenging combat sports out there, there really isn’t much to say about the training. I work out really hard, my hooks and upper cuts still need work and I often screw up the timing when I’m trying to slip straight shots. Apart from that, I basically do the same fashion of drills I used to do when I was fencing, except I’m learning how to use my fists. It’s fairly routine – just a constant ironing out of my techniques and a slow climb towards better form.

As for writing; I haven’t penned more than a handful of pages in four months. I simply haven’t had any ideas for any kind of story since the end of the summer. This week marks the first time I actually had an idea pop into my head that made me immediately start scribbling notes.

However, let’s deal with the martial arts side of things for now.

I used to love martial arts for its own sake. I loved training and I loved sparring and I loved learning new things just because I thought it was the coolest cat in the pet shop. I don’t seem to have much of  that enthusiasm left these days. Basically, I can’t really answer to myself WHY I’ve been doing it all these years, and why I’m still spending all my free time sweating.

The problem, I’ve decided, is that I have no real goal to strive towards. When I was younger, simply getting better was a good enough reason to keep me coming back. Yet as it is, I am getting dangerously close to thirty years of age and I want some actual final product to be working towards. The training I have been doing for the last six years has not included any kind of rank examinations, so I don’t have any kind of physical tests to prepare for. In, say, karate, I could always be working towards that next belt or what have you, but were no belts in Scatha and there are no real rankings in western boxing.

The only current challenge I have at the moment is to get good enough at boxing to feel confident enough to actually enter the ring for some amateur fights, but I know that it is still months away from happening and is a rather vague notion in and of itself. Not to mention I don’t intent to make a career out of boxing, since A) I like my face in one piece and B) I’m a bit old to start now.

I’m tempted to try and find some way to go back to Duello and train for the next rank there. Somebody must have surpassed the rank of red cord since my day, mustn’t they? I can’t remember that the next level was after red – when I was training there, nobody except the head instructors were rated any higher. I wonder who’s at the top of the pile now… Anyway, I don’t think I have the time or the money to pursue that right now.

This also brings me to the next hiccup – I often feel a sense of weariness when I think of western martial arts. Basically, I’m tired of talking about it and hearing people talk about it. I simply can’t muster the energy to be enthusiastic about this-and-that-fencing-hullabaloo any more. I’ve been thinking, writing and trying out new training techniques for the better part of eight years, and I’ve been talking about WMA for nearly ten – and I feel totally exhausted by the whole thing at the moment.

All I want to do is keep my head down, work hard and get the job done. I’ve lost the eccentric desire to create something new in favour of simply trying to concentrate on bettering my own skills and fitness in whichever ways seem the most appropriate at the time.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I no longer have any desire to take a leadership role in martial arts. If, for whatever bizarre reason, someone asked me to teach rapier or sabre I might consider it. But in regards to my skills as a whole, I have come to accept that I simply don’t have the experience to be an instructor, neither in my over-all martial ability nor in my social practices. My nature, at this moment, is to be a good soldier, not a charismatic leader. That may change some day, or maybe it won’t. Maybe I will always be best suited to be a tool rather than a craftsman.

That is a depressing notion, really…

Anyhow, I am constantly nagged by the question of ‘WHY?’ This had been compounded by the fact that I have essentially scrapped all my dreams and ambitions of the last few years out of a sense of pragmatism. I’m not young any more, and I have never earned a decent wage in my life. I’m still trapped by a job I’m bored to death of because I can’t afford to start over at another job that offers less money and I don’t have the skills to apply for a job that makes noticeably more.

I used to hold myself together with fantasies of being a writer who ran a martial arts school. I’d eventually retire to a country house and bash out novels. I’d sit there contently smoking my pipe and feeling like I created something worthwhile. I was riding the crest of what I thought was a decent sized wave of progress.

Today I couldn’t tell you how I ever believed I was capable of that.

When Scatha shut its doors it was the second time I had to start over, only this time I was totally on my own. It took me a long time to accept it, but I simply don’t have it in me to do that again right now. Not for two or three years at any rate. I’ve run out of schemes and ingenious plans and have to face up to the fact that I’m just going to have to work hard with nobody around to see it.

Objectively speaking I am a twenty-eight year old male who’s accomplishments include general good fitness, a certain adeptness at violence, and an ability to describe events with decent prose. My shortcomings are that I have no plans for the future that I can put my finger on, I have no career to speak of and I have a social circle the size of a dime.

It’s not exactly being a superhero, is it?

So all I can do it keep looking for a new job and keep trying to find a new way to motivate myself in my training while I ride out the rest of this rather bleak winter of introspection.

Advertisements

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

Still Here

Yup, still here.

I have been meaning to use this blog again for quite some time. However, I find it really uninteresting to write about the kind of day-to-day things that I can’t imagine anyone being interested in reading. I starting this site to talk about things pertaining to my interests and projects, and I’m still fighting against ever making it too personal or mundane.

I do however have several projects on the go right now, so I shall explain those;

First of all the Steampunk self-defence manual is not dead. As per its final wishes, it was rushed to our privatized cryogenics facility to be put on ice until the time comes for it to be revived and resuscitated by future technology. Well, that time has (almost) arrived.

I was talking to a few of the folks over at Academie Duello and the subject of the steampunk manual came up. I had somewhat forgotten about  the idea, locked away as it was in its icy tomb, but the chats prompted me to think about it again.  Hearing some of the ideas, suggestions and encouragements I received when I showed them some of the work I had already done, I began to rethink the concept a little. I now have what I believe to be an improved plan for the book, and a much more accessible scheme for completing it.

So why, you may ask, have I not started work on the photo shoots needed to publish the book? Laziness! Pure, undiluted laziness. Photo shoots require people-planing and group organizing, and I will opt for solo writing work every time. I am going to begin gathering people for the photo though, just not quite yet. For one, I’m waiting for the weather to level out enough to make the picture taking easier to plan.

The second project I have going is a screenplay. This is more straightforward, as I am just doing the age-old traditional lack of creativity and adapting a samurai movie into a western. I will not say which Japanese film I’m adapting because IT’S MINE, GET YOUR OWN! I will say that writing western dialogue is really, really fun. I think my bad-ass lady gun/knife fighter protagonist is one of the most fun characters I’ve come up with in terms of enjoying writing about them.

There is a second screenplay in the works as well. Many a year ago, Randy Packer and I penned a script for a period drama about old English martial arts. The concept was great, but the story itself never really came out as well as we had hoped. Now, more than half a decade later, we started thinking about it again. We begun the preliminary planning for writing the idea totally from scratch again, though we both seem to have gone off on our individual ideas for the time being. Once I’m finished with my western script, however, I will definitely push to renew our collaboration on the fencing story.

But what about martial arts?

That subject has been causing me much grief lately. I never do manage to be satisfied by working in just one field. If I’m writing a lot, even if I’m working out on my own all the time, I still feel like I’m wasting away as a martial artist.

And that thought does kill me a little.

As far as I know, the whole Scatha Combat Guild plan is still dead. I would like to make the argument that it is also in cryogenic suspension until the world is ready for it, but I’m not sure that would be true. There is no space, and no attempt to run classes or practices. That, as far as martial arts schools go, is pretty succinctly dead.

Not that I wouldn’t love to do that again, I miss it just about every day. However, as I stand right now I have no faith in myself to try and start from nothing for what would essentially be the third time.

I have come to accept the fact that I simply do not inspire people to want to follow me. It’s hard to define, but no matter how hard I try I never achieve the kind of charisma that makes people want to learn what I know. Over the years the only way I seem to be able to earn people’s respect is by being a hard-ass, but then I just end up making students dislike me.

Maybe in another ten years I’ll figure it out, but for now I just have to come to terms with the fact that I’m not head-instructor material.

Another little insecurity I have as to my qualifications is the fact that I never really trained in a art with a recognized ranking system. Now, personally I don’t think the standard ‘belt’ system of most arts is actually a good way to rank students. Nonetheless, whenever I mention that I used to teach martial arts one of the first questions I get is something along the lines of “Do you have a black belt”. This of course, gets the rather awkward answer of trying to explain how a progressive style works and how I have no real title to explain my experience level.

That can be a little annoying.

In the meantime I will probably look into getting back into boxing training or some such in order to make sure I stay in practice. I was sparring at Duello on the odd Friday (though I took a month off from that), but I do often miss the visceral satisfaction of just punching things.

Speaking of fencing though, there is another tournament at Duello coming up that I think I can register to fight in. The question is; do I want to? I competed in a small one at the end of April, and I found it rather anti-climactic how little time I actually spent fighting. Even when I won, I felt it happened so quickly that I didn’t really enjoy it. I like to feel like I’ve really worked for my victories, which is why I usually chose to fight at least ten passes with someone if I can. However, my first fight probably totaled about fifteen seconds worth of actual engagement and my second fight wasn’t all that much longer.

Rapier tournaments were never really something I liked. I love fighting for the love of fighting, and I love fighting to win against another opponent – but I like it to be more of a true test of skill and training, and a few seconds at a time doesn’t seem to qualify for that.  I think bear-pit style tournaments were the only ones I really enjoyed.

So, in conclusion;

I’m getting back into writing, I’m staying in very good shape and I really would like to be able to teach the 5×5 system again because I thought it was absolute genius on our part and I loved watching students learn that way.

End transmission.

Picture Perfect

In working with Western Martial arts there is no denying that half of the interpretations of the old manuals come from studying the plates and illustrations. (The other half being deciphering the arcane grammar…) I feel that there is something that many people overlook in regards to the pictures and their co-relation to the attached description – they are hand drawn. That means that the artist had to sketch the subject while the fencer did his best to hold still. This is why it is important to ‘filter’, as it were, the images through the descriptions in the text. The person drawing the plate is, unless I am mistaken, rarely a fencing master himself. So while the image may be a static and technically correct demonstration of a technique, it is most probably not how the manoeuvre would look when executed during combat. One has to imagine the moment AFTER the plate. The fencer would not pause as he finished his attack, he would recover immediately to guard without any pause.


Take modern boxing as an example. If I were to take still photos of a champion boxer demonstrating a perfect jab and cross then I would indeed have an illustration of a perfectly sound technique.  However, the dynamic and athletic way in which the fighter transitions between those positions cannot be captured in posed illustrations. The pictures of the techniques would come nowhere near doing justice to the graceful way the person actually moved when fighting freely.

Therefore it seems like folly to try and PERFECTLY replicate the plates in renaissance fencing manuals, since they are intended as a scientific demonstration of artful techniques as opposed to a captured moment of elegant combat. You have to take into account that the illustration displays someone who is doing their best to hold still, as opposed to someone who is actually moving quickly and lightly on their feet. For instance, I have sometimes seen interpretations of such masters as Marozzo (depicted above) that seem to step statically from one guard to the other, rather that throwing cuts that facilitate a smooth transition between guards. It is quite possible to throw two dynamic cuts that pass perfectly through four guards without pausing in between each motion. When I look at the illustrations of Marozzo I notice his wide stance, and that his body weight is held over the lead leg. To me, that bespeaks of someone who is moving quickly and prepared to angle and sidestep without having to pause and shift his balance. Fencing is like all martial arts; when it is done at full speed it should be dynamic, fast and efficient. It should be a constant flow as opposed to the steps of a clockwork soldier.

So by all means, study the academic side of these historic fighting styles. However, do remember in your studies that they ARE fighting styles. Like any skill; the academic side isn’t everything, you need experience making it actually work in your own way.

A Call to Arms

One of the largest obstacles in the way of developing martial arts communities (Especially Western Martial Arts Communities) are the egos of those involved. As far as I can tell, this has often been the case with combat arts all over the world. The ‘My Kung-Fu is better than yours!/Ha, you’re style is nothing but kid’s stuff!” mentality. Many people who run schools or research into particular disciplines start to be more concerned with their own cult status that with actual personal growth. Pointless arguments over which school is the BEST arise, and that does absolutely nothing for the progress of the community.

I’ll continue to use WMA as a example, because it is still in it’s adolescence, but this argument can be applied to all of the fighting arts.

It often seems to me that some of these new breeds of WMA schools are often more concerned with competing with the other clubs in their area than with actually running classes. If WMA was a combat sport, that is to say if there were recognized competitions for students to engage in, then the rivalry would be directed into that arena. However, it is not. There are small tournaments and exhibitions between different school or within the SCA, but no unified format for competitions exists.

And it can’t exist, at least not yet.

Currently there is no common ground as far as equipment and regulations. The rules on what weapons to use, how much armor is needed, what techniques are banned, how fights are to be judged – each school has their own variation that differs from their peers’. Thusly, nobody can agree enough to actually set a standard that could be used to develop large-scale tournaments. You can’t compete over something until you agree what you’re competing for and how you’re competing for it.

Running a martial arts school is a business, and a very difficult one. An instructor has to attract students, keep them satisfied in class, help them to feel good about their progress, advertise his club, have total confidence in his curriculum and – if competitions exist – make sure his students are holding their own in tournaments. However, if part of a school’s business approach is undercutting the perceived competition, it may succeed in making a little more money, but it would be hurting the community as a whole.

So play nice, children, play nice.

The Trouble with WMA

Oh Western Martial Arts…

It has been mentioned elsewhere that us guys at Scatha Combat Guild have distanced ourself from the distinction as a Western Martial Arts school. That is because we are, first and foremost, a plain old fashioned Martial Arts school. It is true that our curriculum includes techniques and theories that were originally derived from the study of aged manuals, but following in the footsteps of the ancient masters isn’t our intent. The WMA label no longer suits what we are. We no longer teach Marozzo, or Capo Ferro, or Fiorre. Everyone is different, and no one style derived any one master will work for every student we have. Martial arts is about adaptability, finding what works best for each of us. The dogmatic recreation of specific individuals simply doesn’t allow for that.

And, frankly, I could do without ever having another debate about the interpretations of oft-cryptic texts. Fencing manual arguments, and the ego that goes with them, just bore the hell out of me these days. So, that is that. No historical labels for us, we focus on the training not the research. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in WMA’s philosophy.

That said, our derivative sword work is second to none, but our approach of contemporary. Historical weapons and techniques tempered with modern, in-depth physical training. Has anything ever resembled being a superhero more than this? I like to think not.

Swords!

The problem with teaching swordplay as a martial art is that people come into class with their preconceived notions about what using a sword is like. Movies, television, books, childhood fantasies; everyone grew up with some notion in their head what being the hero with a sword is like. Whether it be Aragorn or a Jedi, people have an image in their head before they ever pick up a sword.

When I was teaching at Academie Duello we would have that problem all the time. One guy who came to class, the usual tall, buff type, insisted on flexing and posing every time he moved. Apparently he was of the Conan school of thought that using a two-handed sword was all about being stronger and hitting really hard. No matter what I said he refused to relax, and tried to strong arm his way through all the techniques we were teaching that night. As a point of interest, by the way, it takes more muscular strength to use a rapier or military sabre than it does for a long sword – at least in my experience.

There was even more problems on the other side of the scale. Many of the people who are attracted to the idea of swordplay have built their beliefs on video games and anime, and quickly lose interest as soon as they realise exercise is actually involved. Many a would-be student arrived thinking it was going to be all about swinging the sword around in flashy ways, and were very disappointed at the reality of having to practise simple attacks with a three pound piece of steel in their hand. Most of them went back to their WOW after one class.

Thus is the curse of trying to run a school which focuses primarily on some form of fencing. A sword is a diverse cultural symbol, and people usually walk around thinking they already know what it is. This is one of the dragging factors in all Western Martial Arts (WMA).