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.
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.
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.
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.
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.