Lessons from the weekend

I have been working on shifting my balance point from upright and on the heel to more forward and on the ball of the foot. This seems like a small & minor adjustment, but for me any adjustment to footwork or balance, is a major change. Or it used to be.

I started working on the new patterns NY Day. Mentally, I was fighting the process.  Fighting my brain that still believes I am broken.  I was frustrated and grumpy because I felt like a drunk baby giraffe. I had to override the voice that said, “it took 5 years to get to this point, it will take you 5 years to get to the next point.”  I am listening to the voice that says, “you have a good foundation that took 5 years to build, now you just need to adjust it.  This is frustrating now, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s just weird.  So practice it.” I had to give myself permission to be frustrated and keep pushing through.

Yesterday was the first time I voluntarily shifted from Spanish rapier into Italian rapier.  It … it wasn’t pretty. Or elegant.  Or cohesive. I had problems with “picking a sword language.” My mechanics were Spanish/Italian/German at the same time.  All the languages. All at once.  Because I am still trying to do on the spot translations.  Maestro stopped the bouting and was able to re-center my fighting to one language with a simple “what are you trying to do…” Let’s be clear. I still have only a slight clue of what to do with Italian. I don’t have a lot of puzzle pieces to build from yet.  But I was able to separate things a bit better, after being told to “just pick one (sword language).” I died.  A lot. But I also didn’t die as much as I thought I should have.  I tried a lot of new things.  I tried using a low line stance for the first time not in a school setting.  I was amazed at the different angles I saw, the openings created, and the space I could occupy. I am not sure what to do with it all yet, but seeing things from a new perspective was a HUGE, small win.

There was also time to work on German longsword.  It still continues to be my preferred form. A little free play, a little learning, a lot more small adjustments to form.  We are working on changing where I’m putting the sword during a cut and leading with my hands. I am working on becoming a stronger opponent. I asked for the intensity to be turned up and the Maestro obliged. I have to work harder, smarter, and be a lot more uncomfortable. I am making more mistakes.  New mistakes. Things I wouldn’t have done at a slower, more thinking pace.   And this is good.  It is skirting on the edge of “really good learning” and “really frustrated and uncomfortable.” And since it is learning, I could stop an action and request a teaching moment for things that were confusing.

21 days into retraining body mechanics and I can feel the difference in how I am fighting.  I have better control.  I have better stability.  I have better movement.  I’ve started working on leading with the hand and not the shoulder.  It’s not perfect but it feels right. And I am getting it. I am starting to see all the places where weapon cross training has applications across my various discipline.  The things that feel off and wonky? I work on as homework.

21 days into retaining my inner space and I can already feel a difference in how I process fighting and learning.  I gave myself consent to be a student. I gave myself consent to fail.  I gave myself consent to succeed. I have changed the way I speak to myself and the voice my inner space uses.  This one “simple” concept is starting to significantly impact how I learn and how I process the fight.

Body mechanics, inner space, and consent.

It’s not easy. But it’s working and I’ll take that small win.

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Practice notes 1/10 & 1/17

As a way for me to keep track of my practice notes in case I end up losing my notebook.  🙂

1-10-19

  • Hold the sword like a 36″ chef knife.
  • Feet at the 90 angle.
  • Hand held in 3rd.
  • Shift weight back, with a lean forward- shift balance.
  • Small steps.
  • Turn fingernails up (4th) to attack the inside line.

1-17-19

  • Lead with the hand. Not the shoulder.
  • It’s ok to start out of range/measure.
  • Take a passing step to help with closing range.
  • Make sure balance is over the foot.
  • DO NOT START LUNGE WITH LEAD FOOT OFF THE GROUND/MID-AIR
  • Foot on the ground w/good position. DO NOT RUSH.

Lessons learned: sword configuration

When I first started rattan, I wanted to know if stick configuration was like sword configuration in rapier.  We tell new fighters “you will know when the sword is right”.  We liken it to the heavens opening, choir singing, and that all is right in the world.  Having never built a rattan sword, I didn’t know if it was the same way.  “Eh? It’s similar, but not” was the answer.

I’ve been fighting steel for almost 10 years. I have very definite opinions of what feels good. I’ve been fighting rattan for about 5 weeks.  I’m still learning what feels good, but I have found I have definite opinions. 🙂

Crafting a rattan sword is part engineering, part wizardry, and what feels good.  There’s a lot more to it than just putting tape and a guard on a piece of rattan.  I’m learning about handle shapes, pommels, butt spikes, thrusting tips, rattan length, guards, and taping techniques. EVERYTHING changes the balance of the blade. And then you throw on gloves or gauntlets, and the balance changes again.

Much like steel, I like a sword that has a little more hand weight, less tip weight, and is a little on the shorter side. My single sword is about 32″, my great sword is about 4’3″, and my glaive is 6’2″.

I don’t like fighting with a basket, it’s too large, unless I’m wearing gauntlets.  Then it’s the right size. Right now I’m fighting the basket. This could be 100% due to poor technique. It could be the wrong guard for me. Could be a whole lot of things that will take playing with things to figure it out. But even with the guard issues, I’m getting nice edge marks.  So… I still know where my “quillons” are, even with the basket.

I like hockey/athletic tape over duct tape.  The duct tape is very sticky when it’s sword to sword contact.  I like the way the hockey tape has a little more slide (more being relative). I have switched out the butt spike for a pommel.  I really missed having the counter weight.

So I guess the answer is yes. There are opinions on what makes a good sword configuration. And you’ll know it when you feel it.

Finding balance: the inner game

I decided to take a chance on a new sword direction for 2019.  I’ve been missing the learning/skills environment I had at MKdF and the local 1:1 instructional time I had when I lived back east.

I finally tried out the other WMA/HEMA school here in SoCal that I was originally ‘meh’ about. After 8-9 months of “you should come to Tattershall…” I decided to check them out. It was an informal night were I got to play with new weapons, meet people and generally just get a feel for the club.  It was good. I think it will help fill the gap of technique and scholastic study that I have been missing.

I finally accepted that I needed more 1:1 instruction from someone who would guide me further down the path of historic sword play across various disciplines. I eventually found the Vineyard of Swords led by Maestro Lot Ramirez. He gave me a few homework assignments to see if the he and Vineyard would be a good fit for me.

The original entry level reading assignment is to choose between “The Prince” by Nicolo Machiavelli and “Book of the 5 Rings” by Miyamoto and Musashi and Shiro Tsujimura and write a report on the material. A third option of “The Book of the Courtier” by Baldesar Castiglione (Author), Leonard E. Opdycke (Translator), was available and presented as a more challenging option. With permission, I selected the The Courtier, as it was new material for me both culturally and philosophically.

I struggled with the assignment, because there was a lot to unpack with the text. So many themes and underlying currents.  On the surface, this text offers a detailed glance of life in 16th century Italy. Told in the context of a very long conversation over several exchanges/books, it expands upon the virtues of the non-existent perfect Courtier (and subsequent perfect Lady). The text itself is straight forward, if at times rambling and long winded. It could be used as a “training manual” for people wanting to better emulate those mannerisms of being of noble birth.

But I digress… this is a post about finding balance and the inner game.

I have been trying to find balance in my fighting.  It has become important for me to find the right combination of fighter, teacher, and peer. And I have been struggling with it. I’ve been frustrated and angry with how inconsistently I perform. I let voices that should not be in my head continue to have real estate.  The Courtier gave me the opportunity to examine who I was as a fighter by exposing my mental blocks and flaws. I started looking at the virtues of the Courtier vs the virtues of the Knight.  Similar, yet different, it offered a concrete set of values by which I could start the hard work of thinking about things.  I stared with Temperance.

Temperance is defined as moderation of voluntary self-restraint. It is control and moderation of emotion to allow judgement to be rooted in reason. It is often following a path unencumbered by bias or personal interests, and that judgement and actions should be tempered by humanity and mercy.

The emotional control and moderation that slides a person towards neutrality has become important for me as a fighter. As a practitioner of the art of defense in pursuit of the virtue of prowess, the method by which one is measured is the win/loss ratio. The more W, the better/stronger fighter you are perceived to be. It does not take into account all of the skills a fighter may possess. It is only a slight slice of time.  To train people to fight better for the win, we try to get the fighter to a place of unthinking, unfeeling, uncaring of their opponent. To become blank. We pride ourselves on being able to attain this state and perform on command. While on the surface this seems to follow the criteria of emotional control and moderation.

However, fighting completely without emotion, is an extreme. It is not neutral. I have fought from this place. It is cold, calculating, cruel, and without thought or care.  It is a place of hatred. I walk off the list angry at myself, my opponent, the system, and pretty much everything.  It takes me a long time to become a rational being tempered by humanity and mercy and back to a comfortable neutral state. I have found that it makes me fight from a place of fear and pride.  My pride at my opponent’s fear of facing me.  They deserve my best, and they do not get it.    My skill as a fighter is perceived to go up, but I hate everything about it.

If I am not fighting from a place of hatred, I am fighting from a place of fear. I have long let the voices that tell me I’m dangerous, unsafe, will hurt them have real estate in my head. I have practiced and cultivated precise, perfect calibration, and still I fear that I will scare them. They do not face me at my best, because I do not let myself fight from that space. I dial my skill set to “instructor mode”, and the match becomes practice.  And I hate who I am in this brain space.

If I am fighting from a place of extreme joy, then I am not fighting to win.  I am fighting to enjoy the conversation with my opponent. While this is always a worthwhile endeavor, it does not always satisfy the social contract of the bout.  I hate how I feel about not living up to performance expectations.

The tl:DR version? I hated who I was becoming as a fighter.

I had stagnated in my growth as a fighter.  I was not respecting my opponents equally.  I fought in emotional extremes. No balance. No neutrality. No temperance. As a fighter, I cannot grow my prowess until I work on addressing this brainspace.  As a peer, I cannot grow the next generation of fighter, if I do not have prowess.  And I cannot enable change, if I cannot grow our community.

I want to fight from a place of consent and love. I want to uphold my end of the social contract of the bout. The process of growth complicated. It exposes vulnerability. Change requires risk and emotional investment. It means I will need to deal with the voices that occupy space in my brain. It means working on all the things that effect the fight, that have nothing to do with technique and skill. It means learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to find Balance.

This is the hard part.

 

 

New Adventures

This blog was originally started as a way to track my progress in rapier/C&T. It has become my storage for things like drills, techniques, lessons learned, and motivation.  It helps me puzzle out things with my brain space when I fight.

But as I start to take up new sword disciplines, this will evolve to include those adventures as well. I’ve started SCA rattan combat as a way to cross train C&T. The pool of fighters is still small enough, that I am fighting the same circle of people.  Not a bad thing, but learning to push technique in a small pool, has it’s own challenges. I’ve started with great sword as it is most similar to what fight in C&T.

So far the greatest challenge has been vocabulary.  Swords are swords, they only move so many ways.  But the vocabulary for sword languages is radically different across disciplines.  Even in historic sword play, the vocabulary is different for similar techniques depending on which master is being studied.  And the greatest reward has been seeing how I am approaching learning and the value add to the mental space of sword fighting.

New disciplines, new adventures, and a renewed passion for learning how to sword better.

So why MurderPanda?

I’d love to say there was a cute story behind it. But there isn’t. Not really anyway. It’s been a long, winding journey that is at times very rewarding and others not so much. Some might say, it’s like cutting a path with a butter knife. You “can” do it, it’s just not pretty, or elegant, or using the right tool for the job.

I have a disease called Charcot Marie Tooth, CMT for short. It is the most common of the rare neuromuscular diseases. I’ve had it all my life, and inherited it from my mother. She had it far worse than I do. It’s a slowly progressive disease that demyelinates the nerves. It makes the brain send the wrong signals to the muscles that control things like walking and typing. There is no cure, only physical/occupational therapies and stabilization procedures. There are drugs that help calm the nerves, but for the most part, you learn to live with pain and muscle weakness. I was an infant when they diagnosed me with CMT. They knew what they were looking for, because of my mom. So I have been fortunate to be put into therapy for large muscle groups and how to fall correctly, right away. Unlike a lot of people that get diagnosed as adults, I’ve had 40+ years to get used to it all. Rolling my ankle was a weekly occurrence.

I took up sword play as a way to play physical chess. It was fully supported by my doctors. Large muscle coordination, fine muscle control, balance and foot work, yes please go ahead and do all of that as much as you want.

9 years ago at a routine apt, I became not so routine. See, when I was a teenager, they wanted to fully fuse both feet and ankles to prevent falls as I got older. I was a vain teenager and didn’t want the stupidly large scars that this would create on my feet and legs. So I waited. I put off surgery for as long as I could. I put it off so long, that the bones in my feet elongated to the point where they said, your tendons are so tight, that walking down the street is going to cause fracturing, you need to fix it.

We scheduled the first of what would be 5 surgeries to stabilized my feet in 2010. We started with the left foot. We didn’t know what they were going to end up doing until they started surgery. It could be “minor” where they would just rebuild the fore foot. Or it could be a complete fusion. We netted out somewhere in the middle. They broke 14 bones, released 6 tendons, removed part of the metatarsal and screwed it back together. All in all I had 5 pins and 2 screws put in. I was stitched and glued back together. Non weight bearing for 8-12 weeks. Surgery #2 happened shortly after that because things didn’t fuse. Non weight bearing another 8 weeks. Full recovery was 8 months.
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I had start rapier from ground 0 for the second time. Fast forward… 2011. What was done to one, must be done to the other. This time we knew what we were in for. Surgery #3 did the same things done to the right foot as they did to the left. This time 7 pins and 2 tendon anchors. Non weight bearing 12 weeks, full recovery time, 7 months.
foot1

Started rapier from ground 0 for a 3rd time. Fast forward 2012. Only I could end up with a second rare disease of the nerves in my feet. This time Ledderhosen Disease, or non-cancerous fibroids that grow in, on, through tendons. I had a golf ball sized bump in my right foot, a 1/2 a golf ball in the left, and one of the screws in the left foot was evicting it’s self from my body. Surgeries 4 + 5 removed the whole planar facia out of my right foot and removed the screw from my left. Non weight bearing for 5 weeks. Full recovery time 7 months.
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Started rapier from ground 0 for a 4th time. Every surgery means the balance points change. When the balance changes, the footwork has to change. Footwork changes, blade work changes. Blade work changes, body mechanics change. Everything changed. 4 times.

3 years ago, one of my tendons was thinking it was time to be done with being where it was. It was so loose, that it was causing my entire ankle to pull out of alignment. Which was effecting balance (see where this is going). My doctor said the surgery to fix this is very invasive, and will cause you to loose about 12 months of fighting. He suggest a different approach. He booted me for a year. I could take it off to fight. I had to put it back on for everything else.

One foot is flatter than the other. None of my toes bend. It has taken almost 8 years to learn how to kneel and get off the ground again without pain. We keep a watch on the tendon in my left foot to make sure it behaves. I only fall about 1-2 times a year because of forgetting how to walk. It’s super rare now. I keep a cane in my car for times I need it. I have blue parking, because air is a trip hazard. Some days, I do really really well. Somedays, less so. Lots of folks who see me fight and move, don’t understand just how much effort it takes to fight on grass.
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Now I know you’re thinking “WTH Panda, how do these things actually correlate?” Stay with me here…

Every time I had to start over, I had to start with footwork. Literally, learn how to put one foot in front of the other. How to move, where my feet went, what caused pain, what worked. All of it. And then I got to do it again with a sword in my hand. Even now if I have to figure out how to do a thing (new move, new technique, whatever), I start with footwork. If that doesn’t make sense, bladework means nothing. I cannot go the other way around. I have to be balanced first. This can make pell work stupidly frustrating. In starting with footwork, I toddled… like a panda. They are not known for their grace. When I got footwork and looked like someone that might have a clue, and I put a blade in my hand, I toddled…. Like a panda. And when I would frustrated, I was told to “put the sad panda away, and keep practicing.” And that is how Panda came to be.

I toddled. Like a panda. For a good 3 years. Everything came with new challenges. I tried every form, every historic master, every culture, until we found the ones that worked. I learned so many different sword techniques to find the ones that would work, that I now know what to pair with a student, based upon how they move. Lunges? Nope. Spanish fighting uses angles. Not a lunge in site. I can close the same distance your lunge does with offline footwork and changing the angle of my blade. Same result less work.

I was the slowest rapier fighter in the East. I was never going to win a fight with speed. I needed to win with technique. So I drilled. Everyday. Hand parries, foot work, blade work, more parries. My only way to win was through bladework, hand speed and defense. That meant drilling technique until I no long needed to think about how to move my body. I had accepted I was never going to be fast. I still saw myself through the lens of toddling. Then someone posted video.

I cried. Somewhere along the way, I had stopped toddling, and started moving. I stopped fumbling, and started parrying. The person on the video moved with grace, and speed, and confidence. And it weren’t my armor, I would never believed that it was me. And that was the transition point from Panda to MurderPanda.

Duke Brennan’s squires and students have Murder somewhere in their names. I was just starting to work with him as a rapier coach (yes, knights can teach rapier, swords are swords). I was learning about murder songs and learning to find mine and listen to her. I forwarded him the video. He watched it and said something along the lines of you are finally seeing what we all have been seeing for a while and go make more murder, Panda. It just kinda stuck. When I was playing with folks at MKdF, I asked them what my club name should be. Sarge says you already had one, Murder Panda.

So that is the story of how I became MurderPanda. I did say it was not an easy story. That a lot of people don’t know how hard of a road it has been, means all the training I do is paying off. That you cannot see the demons I fight to be on the list, means the work is paying off. I know that I am back at toddling panda stage in rattan. I’ll get there. It’s just going to take time and a lot of work. I’ve got the time and I’ve always had the drive and determination to do the work. 

 There’s a lot of people that have seen all the things my feet have gone through, and they are my biggest cheerleaders. I sword fight because it’s who I am. I sword fight because right now it is the thing that is keeping my muscles from deteriorating into nothing. It is therapy, it is life. And sword fighting and crappy feet are the reason I was first called Panda. And is now why I am called MurderPanda.

Brennan reminds me that pandas are bears, I am not food, and to go be the thing that eats food. Still working on that part.

#myCMT

Outdoor fighting

I have a serious problem fighting on grass, rocks, dirt and other non flat, outdoor surfaces. 2 reconstructed feet with fused toes, makes fighting outside one of the most difficult things I force my body to do.  I have a lot of people that give me helpful advice when it comes to training on outdoor surfaces. I frequently hear “You’ll get used to it. It just takes practice. It gets easier. You will get comfortable with it. It will stop hurting eventually.”

So let’s do a mental exercise.
Imagine a carpet full of Lego.
Next, imagine there are dips and divots in the carpet
Next, imagine being barefooted standing on this carpet.
Next, imagine you have an opponent across from you.
Now fight.

This is my environment, every time I take to an outdoor surface. Like I’m fighting with a million little Lego under my feet. I’m constantly making micro adjustments with my feet and ankles to account for the lack of toes being able to grip the ground. I am in a constant state of being off balance and self correcting. It’s been a long process to get to a point where I feel mentally balanced and still able to move. I am pushing past my pain thresh hold, mentally and physically.  It’s not the sharp pain of injury. It is the ever constant pain of a chronic disease. And most of the time, I make it work.

Why do I do it, if I know it’s going to hurt the entire time?  Because therapy isn’t suppose to feel good. Rapier keeps my muscles working and keeps me upright. All of those micro-adjustments train the ankle not to roll out from under me.  The uneven ground is strength training to prevent stress fractures. It is therapy I enjoy doing. And if I do the therapy, then I hold off the disease longer, the progression slows down, and the need for another surgery lessens. It is 100% fully supported by my surgeon.

Training on uneven outdoor surfaces has become part of my daily drills. Go for a walk at lunch, and walk on the grass and gravel for 30 minutes. Warm up at practice on the gravel in the parking lot. I train it as hard as I do parries, ripostes and footwork.

Best thing I can hear when I fight outside? “Wow you’re moving so well. Like really, really well.” It means, therapy is working. And if you cannot see the pain, then I am far enough into the dance, that I am ignoring it. Eventually it will catch up to me. But that is coming at greater time intervals. Right now I am up to being able to fight for about 6-7 hours on uneven ground before I hit done.

Yes, I have gotten used to it. It has taken a lot of practice. I am not ever comfortable with it. It always hurts. And it is never easy.

But I’m doing it anyway.