Monday, November 16, 2015

Holding On and Letting Go

"Nu gar cuyi ner burc'ya.
Ni kar'tayli gar gai sa ner aru'e.
Enteyo kyr'amur gar.
Ni cuyi kyr'am."

You are not my friend.  I know your name as my enemy.  I must kill you.  I am become death.  After a morning of judging the open longsword competition at the Southeast Renaissance Fencing Open, the time has finally come for me to enter the ring and fight.  I'm looking at my friend the Spider Monkey, murmuring this mantra under my breath.

I'm in the invitational longsword tournament rather than the open, as I had expected to be in.  It's a compliment to be in the invitational; it means the organizer trusts not only my skill in general but also trusts me to put on a display of technical, artful fencing whether I win or lose.  And isn't that the point?  A few days before the event I confide to Kebbura that I don't really feel worthy of the invitation, and she makes this very point to me.  Maybe I can't win.  But I'm not in it to win, right?  I'm in it to fence well.  Tournament success is not the pinnacle of good swordsmanship.

And yet ... I do want to win.  That's why I'm going, after all.  Yes, I want to win with technical, artful fencing.  A win without that wouldn't mean very much to me, because technical and artful are part of the fencer I want to be.  But they're only part.  I also want to be implacable and merciless.  If I ever come at you with a sword, I want you to know right from the start that death is coming for you, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.  I want to see Ailouros' predatory smile - the one she discovered at Longpoint - the next time we meet, lock eyes with her, and say, "Bring it, bitch."

I'm not there yet.  The art is coalescing in my head and my limbs and my hands; I can feel it.  I'm stronger and faster, less easily winded.  I can see better than I used to be able to, not only what happened and why but what is going to happen.  But it isn't all synthesized yet, not the way I want it to be.  I need to know that when it all comes down to this moment, I can bring all these pieces together and fuse them into a single whole.  So yeah, I want to win.

Most of this is mental.  Part of it is aggression, something I've always had trouble with in fencing when it comes down to it.  Most of it is singing, dancing.  When I sing a patter song I'm not thinking about the lyrics; if I try, I'll trip myself up.  When I dance, part of me is thinking ahead, but most of me is just in the moment, feeling what is and being immersed in it.  I remember the Dance Master talking about this, the joy of letting go while still being hyper-attuned to the instant moment.  Letting everything go, while holding on to my focus.  I can do it when I dance.  I can do it when I sing.  I need to be able to do it when I fence.

It's not a light switch yet.  I have to sink into this mental state slowly and deliberately.  Hence the mantra.  Nu gar cuyi ner burc'ya.  Ni kar'tayli gar gai sa ner aru'e.  Enteyo kyr'amur gar.  Ni cuyi kyr'am.  You are not my friend.  I know your name as my enemy.  I must kill you now.  I am become death.  I repeat it to myself under my breath.  Louder, once my helmet goes on.  The bucket muffles sound going in and out, and I let myself sink further into my own world.  My lips still, and my perceptions begin to change, like a filter lowering into place.  My opponent's joints, limbs, and sword are no longer a threat.  They tell me how I can take him apart.  This is how I want to fence, how my art tells me to fence.  I gaze levelly at my opponent, feel my body arranged beneath me, the fit of Ijaat's handle in my grip.  You can't beat me.

He can, and he does.  Spider Monkey is still better than me in the ring.  But I do much better than the judges' calls indicate, as even some of the spectators tell me afterwards and which my opponent himself is happy to acknowledge.

The next two fights I win.  They aren't shut-outs, but I never feel the fight slipping away from me, either.  I don't know either of my opponents.  It doesn't matter.  I see them, and I hit the cracks that I see until they've been taken apart.  We dance, and I lead.

I make it out of the pool into the final sixteen, along with Spider Monkey.  This is a huge accomplishment by itself.  The only other time this has happened to me in a longsword event was at Iron Gate Exhibition 2014, which was due not so much to my fencing ability as to my superior game theory analysis of the rules.  This advancement is mine.  This one, I am proud of.

I don't make it out of the final sixteen.  My opponent is cagey, harder to trick into making mistakes.  We end the match in a tie, and he beats me in sudden death when I get impatient.  But it isn't the impatience that was the problem.  I can see it now, what I should have done - how I could have pushed him harder, or in a different way, to take him apart.  And I see what I was doing, treating him like my last two opponents.  I was fighting the last war.  Dancing without sensing my partner.  I stopped seeing my opponent.

That's okay.  I will do better next time.  I've proven to myself that I can do it.  I am content.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Longpoint 2015

When I met Zod for the first time, it was to teach a sparring workshop for the first time any of us had sparred with swords (at least in a HEMA fashion).  One of the things he told us was that it was the responsibility of those of us who had a killer instinct already to help the others cultivate it.  "You have it," he said, pointing to one of us.  "You do, and so do you," he said, pointing to two others.  And then he looked at me.  He hesitated for a moment.  "You sort of have it," he said.

At the time, I was pretty okay with that.  Half a killer instinct?  Not bad for someone just starting out.  But in the months since, others found theirs while I did not.

This bothers me.  I want to acquire access to that part of myself that Zod termed the "killer instinct."  I want to be able to turn it off and on at will, to find that part of myself and bring it within the ambit of my will.  I want it even more (if only by a little) than acquiring actual skill with a sword.  More than any other factor, this is the reason I started doing HEMA.  When I talk about the connection between force and morality, or force and good character, this is the very essence of what I mean.

Aside from its moral implications, there are obvious competitive advantages to having one's killer instinct firmly in one's tool kit as well.  Most of the best fencers, if not all, can switch from their normal selves to somebody else when they step into the ring, or before the cutting stand.  That somebody else is a significant part of why they win.

It was also a significant part of why I lost this weekend at Longpoint.  I cut significantly worse than I know I can do, because I let myself approach the mat with less than single-minded intensity.  I fought well enough in my longsword pool, but I didn't push, didn't take, as well as I know I can.  Part of that is rust from not having sparring partners who are as good or better than me.  But a significant part of it is also that I went into my pool in the same headspace I would occupy in any friendly (or even coaching) sparring match.

I think I figured it out about halfway through the event, coaching first Ailouros and then Kebbura in the women's longsword pools.  I said something to Kebbura when she was facing Panthera and holding back (as usual) that stuck in my mind.  I pointed across the ring at her and said, "That is not your friend right now.  I want you to get in there and hit her."

I coached Ailouros through her pool in the women's longsword and into the elimination brackets.  I felt like we developed a good rapport, and I enjoyed analyzing the weaknesses of her opponents and helping her to exploit them (and more, perhaps, on the coaching side of things later).  But I also just tried to get her amped up for the fight, because most of the women she faced had significant exploitable weaknesses and I just knew she could take advantage of them - if she went in with the right attitude.

The night that she got into the elimination brackets - the night after she beat the woman who would eventually take fourth place - she posted something to Facebook that really rattled me.  "I found my inner bitch today," she said.  "And not just the one I fight health insurance companies with.  The one I fight with."

Both of these ladies started training a few "generations" of students after I did (which is a matter of months, mind you; we acquired generations pretty quickly in Manhattan).  Because I like teaching and I wanted the school to succeed, I made an effort to mentor them, and I feel a certain amount of investment in their success as their senpai.  I was, of course, very proud of Ailouros' fighting and I could see, even in the pools, when she made the jump from fencer to fighting bitch.  But I was also kind of shaken.

Son of a bitch, I thought.  My kohai has found her killer instinct before me.

This was the moment that I realized I had been fighting without it all this time.  But it was also the moment that I realized I didn't know what it was, and that bothered me a lot more.  What is my inner bitch? I wondered.  What does she look like?

I tried to think back to the times I had felt my killer instinct in a fight, even if briefly and non-deliberately.  The best I could think of was the dagger competition at IGX (my best competitive showing to date, perhaps not coincidentally).  It felt ... almost cold, to be honest.  Certain.  And focused, ever so focused, on the defeat of the person in front of me.

If I ever kill someone, that is how I want it to be.  Cold.  Emotionless.  Certain.  Implacable.  That is how death should be dealt out, so far as I understand the morality of killing.  It's the kind of swordsman I want to be.

Maybe these thoughts are naive.  Almost certainly they are in at least some respect.  But it was something to start from.

So I meditated on that through the night.  I meditated on it all through Ailouros' fights in the brackets. I tried to keep her in that state as well.  I meditated on it in several otherwise friendly sparring matches I had.  And I meditated on it during today's cutting class, during which I hoped to be able to show, before my friend and teacher and a bunch of people who knew that I was the student of one of the best longsword cutters in the world, that I really can cut.  As I did so, I felt that calm, cold, unfeeling certainty return.  I was interrupted by people saying good bye, and I was able to return to that state.  And when it was finally my turn to cut, I stared down the mat and cut the way I should have cut during the qualifiers, and afterwards people who had felt pretty good about their improvement during the class asked me how I made it look so lazy.

Of course, a good headspace for cutting is not necessarily the same as a good headspace for fighting.  But we shall see.  We shall see.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Fencing Retrospective, Two Years

Two years ago today I had my first KdF class.  Two years have passed in my own timeline since I first began to practice in Prospect Park, in the mornings atop the knoll in the ring of trees.

A lot has happened since then.  I've moved to Charlotte.  I have students of my own.  I own a sharp sword - the first weapon I have ever owned - and I own it on my terms.  I've practiced with the langes messer and dagger, two weapons that I would never have thought I would be attracted to, and discovered that I really like one of them (the dagger) and really hate the other (the messer).  I've started learning the use of the sidesword, a weapon I've wanted to learn for as long as I've wanted to learn longsword, which is the first time I've tried to learn a weapon without the benefit of in-person instruction.

I've attended two major tournaments and two minor ones.  At one of the major ones I made it to the finals in the dagger tournament, I actually won a medal in a rapier tournament, and I made it to the eliminations in longsword.

Am I any good?

I don't really feel like it, to be honest.  There are others from AHS who have been practicing for as long as I have, or very shortly longer, who are better than I am - better in technique, better in cutting, better in sparring.  I suppose it is natural to compare myself to those of my peers whom I know to be the best.  As for my students, I am not as far ahead of them as I would like.

Am I better?


I have now executed cuts that I couldn't execute a year ago.  The progress hasn't been entirely forward, but it has been forward in the aggregate.  I understand the art better than I did a year ago.  Whereas a year ago I could more or less explain pretty much all of the hauptstücke, I can now just explain all but a few of them, at least in a much deeper way than I could a year ago.  And I understand the foundational concepts of the art better now too.  I no longer think in terms of tempi, the Italian concept that forms the basis of so much modern fencing theory, and instead think in terms of vor and nach, the Liechtenauerian concept that serves the same purpose.  I can exert pressure ... not well, perhaps, but much better than I could a year ago.  And I can feel pressure better than I could, which is just as important.

The reasons I fence have changed somewhat.  I started fencing as a thing for me - a corner of New York to make my own.  I needed that, to keep me from succumbing to depression.  I needed a tribe, and fencing gave me one.  I needed a reason to exercise, and fencing gave me one.

I still fence for those reasons.  The thing that keeps me eating well (well ... better than I otherwise would) and exercising is the need to do honor to my weapon.  Here in Charlotte most of my tribe are students.  And there are certainly times, even here with Thayet and Meshparjai, when I feel the weight crushing me down like one of Rodin's caryatids and I just need to feel Ruusaan's grip in my hands.

I also fence to teach.  I'm still a lawyer, but I can teach through my fencing.  It isn't really the same teaching peers as I think it would be teaching those younger, but it's still teaching.  It gives me a chance to work on curriculum and lesson design, as well as my presentation skills and pacing.  And this, as much as holding the sword in hand and hammering body and will to the demands of the art, helps to center me.

I am thirty-four now.  The five years will be up when I am thirty-seven - too old, in all likelihood, to ever be a truly top-tier fencer in the competitive world.  But I find that I remain determined to be a swordsman.  It has morphed from an exploration of force into its own thing - I must fence because I must.  I will be a swordsman.  I am a swordsman - I'm just not a good one.

Three years to go.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

An Tion Jate?

"The very formula, 'Naus means ship' is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.” - C.S. Lewis

An tion jate?  This is a question I ask myself a lot lately.  I in Mandalorian because it makes me think about them in a different way than if I ask in English.  I ask it because it means, "Is everything okay?"  And I am not okay.  I am sick.  The anxiety and depression, the "impaired executive function" - it's all back (I'm back on medication, but these things take a month or so to really kick in).  Everything is not okay.

I ask it because, without additional context, it also means, "Was everything okay?"  And I begin to wonder if perhaps it has not been okay for a long, long time.  I am better prepared this time, more aware of when parts of my mind shut down and better able to re-route around the dark sectors or at least tread water until the lights come back on.  One of the things I have learned that helps is to sing - to roar, the kind of singing that feels like a core workout, songs that are choked full of emotion, to thunder into the void.  And I remember ... this is not the first time I have felt that way.  I have always loved to roar (as my sophomore year dormmates can attest), but it has not always been out of desperation.  But it was out of desperation in New York, when I started attending Hillsong NYC because I needed that space to roar in, a cathedral of light and smoke and sound and spirit.  It was out of desperation in the worst times in California, when the smothering blanket of depression was so thick that I couldn't sing, even when I wanted to.  It was out of desperation as far back as law school, when I first created a playlist of Disney songs that I could thunder because it was the only way I could feel something - anything at all.  

And you know what?  It wasn't out of desperation any further back than that, that I can recall.

So I ask it because it also means, "Is everything good?"  And I wonder.  Maybe this profession is not good for me.  Certainly the sector of it in which I have worked almost my entire working life is not.  I need to face up to the fact that I am sick, and this kind of job is not good for someone with my condition.  I am not certainly it is good for anyone, to be honest, but perhaps I am being overly judgmental - or overly naive, which is sometimes just as good.

And I ask because when Meshparjai is sad, truly sad, I cradle her in my arms and stroke her hair and whisper, "An jate."  And asking this question makes me remember that it will be okay.  I think, "How long have I been sick like this?" and, armed with greater experience of my illness, I suspect that the answer is a good deal longer than you thought.  But there was a time when I was not sick, and there have been times when I was at least asymptomatic.  It can be okay again.  I can be okay again.

I ask because as much as the answer is no - nayc, an nu jate - the answer is also a faithful, defiant elek.  Yes.

No, everything is not good.  My sickness is not good.  But God is good, and God is above everything, and it will be okay.

A postscript digression: One of the things I have learned helps me keep it together when the lights go dim is fencing.  This is, of course, why I have bothered to emblazon my gear with the phoenix earth; it's a way of reminding me that this is one of my anchors, not just a hobby.  When I was making my sword pillows, Thayet jokingly reminded me not to forget to include embroidering a cheesy saying on them.  So I did, and it is cheesy, but it's also quite serious.  I embroidered them: Gotal'u an kebise evaar'la, from Revelations 21:5: "I make all things new."  But thanks to Mandalorian conjugation, without specifying the subject, it also means: "He makes all things new."  And he will.