Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Remember how I said that that falling apart sensation felt like energy leaking out of my tailbone, shoulders and larynx? I think I've located the cause: these are the bits that tense up when anything is wrong either physically or mentally. The lower back curves backwards when the long muscles along the spine tighten; the shoulders lift; and the larynx is in the throat, where the muscles tense when I tighten my jaw by nervous habit. (When I got my first ADHD meds, the neurologist was puzzled by my reporting pain in the neck muscles and my back teeth - I'd been clenching my jaw for so long that having them relax was painful!)

Consciously relaxing those muscles really helps, but I need to have a massage soon.

Daily dose of swordy things

When I started training again, I vowed to do something sword-related every single day. Thus far I've only just managed it, even though some days I've had to scrape those swordy minutes together by reading Sword Forum or, during the past few days, arguing with Ilkka in the previous post's comments. But today I'm proud of myself:
  • Form and cutting practice outside on the lawn while the kids did their own stuff
  • 2-minute workout
  • Arguing with Ilkka and re-reading Fiore's prologues (and the first sentence after...)
  • Leg and back exercises while putting the kids to bed
All this took me a total of, let's see, half an hour of focused time and another half an hour of "family time".

Monday, May 26, 2008

I disagree with Ilkka

Specifically, I question this post in Ilkka's blog: Pedagogy of the treatises. I don't think that Fiore's work is meant to be pedagogical at all and has no underlying pedagogical system.

The golden age of the treatise was, and sorry but I'm too tired to look this up, sometime from the middle ages until the end of the 19th century. Treatises were written on a huge variety of topics by a huge variety of authors; to be anyone in your field meant that you had to have written a treatise on your subject. Modern scholars are slightly puzzled as to the intended audience of these treatises; who, for instance, were French treatises on the art of social behaviour and conversation intended for, when the authors invariably state that the art cannot be learned from books but must be taught? (See Benedetta Craveri: The Age of Conversation.) I think that they weren't meant to be teaching tools or even manuals at all; I think at least a great many of them were meant to be descriptive.

In modern technical writing (again, need proper citation for this, sorry), the stuff that the tech writer produces are divided by purpose to descriptive and instructional. Descriptive text attempts to draw a portrait, if you will, of the object at hand, to describe that which is, the structure and component parts of it. Overview texts, which provide a frame of reference for the more detailed material that will follow, are descriptive. So are "reference" texts (such as lists and tables of variables and parameters in computer manuals). Instructional text is for providing information on what actions to take in specific circumstances. Troubleshooting, which is plainly a problem-solving aide, is instructional; so is pedagogical text, material for the student to learn from and based on an underlying pedagogical framework. The most omnipresent example of instructional text today, though, can be found by pressing F1 on your keyboard to open the Online Help for the software you currently use :)

One main difference between instructional and descriptive text is the emphasis placed on intended audience. When writing instructional text, it is absolutely crucial to be aware of the intended audience, their assumed skill level, their expectations and especially the tasks they will need to perform, if the text is to be successful in fufilling its purpose. Descriptive text, however, is much easier to write for a wider audience (sure, some advanced terminology might be included for specialists and more explanations for laypeople, but these can readily be accommodated in a single text and doing more is just fine-tuning your message) because its structure and content is mainly determined by the subject matter, rather than the audience. Most scientific text, unsurprisingly, falls into the descriptive category (or even the smug, self-referential, exclusive, elitist sub-category called academic writing).

In his prologues, Fiore says nothing about learning the art or teaching it; instead, he talks about setting down a description of the art as he sees it, or rather, of its "most refined and useful aspects". Also, the treatise does not differentiate between easy and difficult techniques or even frequently used and seldom seen techniques; instead, it is organised by weapon and by type of action, rather like a reference text would be. Moreover, the physical use of the work would limit its usefulness as a training tool but as a reference work it would be more valuable; we know how hard it is to learn a technique with a sword in one hand and a book in the other, but how illuminating it is to see techniques already more or less familiar set down in a context that makes them a part of a larger whole.

Thus I very much doubt that the structure of the Flower of Battle follows any sort of pedagogical or even instructional framework or that it was intended as a learning tool as such. (The other examples that Ilkka mentions probably were.) Instead, I believe that the structure of the book is primarily governed by Fiore's conception of the art itself, not the needs of the audience; and that its existence is due to Fiore's desire to create a lasting record of the art that he practised and taught and to gain prestige by its publication, rather than a desire to teach said art to as many people as possible or even to certain people he had in mind. Like the odd Frech "manuals" of manners, Fiore's work is intended to advertise the author's skill and knowledge in his discipline of choice.

Do the hip thing

When you hit people in class, firstly, don't hit with your knuckles because you'll take the skin off them against the rough surface of your partner's mask. And secondly, if you intend to power the strike, don't lean so your hips are left behind, and don't twist them; instead, keep your back straight (i.e., your tower upright) and turn your hips (the iron door, if you will :) towards the object of attack.

Falling apart

I got the strangest feeling in training again today: I was falling apart. No, not literally - my knee is just fine, thanks - but sort of as if the thing, the me-ness, that was just there a moment ago was slipping away, breaking apart and making me see the situation as a disjointed mess instead of a logical, purposeful whole. (*) And that, boys and girls, was exactly how I felt for six months before my sabbatical. All the time, morning to night, but mostly during and after training.

I wish I knew what causes it to happen; it may be fatigue, low blood sugar, low neurotransmitter levels, dehydration, poor nutritional status, fear of failure, fear of not measuring up to expectations, hidden anger... Today it happened when I was trying and failing to perform a technique correctly and then trying and failing to understand Guy's explanation and corrections, but I don't know if that failure was due to the falling apart having begun or if the falling apart was triggered by the failure.

I know exactly what ended it, though: Guy's magic words. "Trust me," he said. "Just do it like I tell you and you'll see." That trust me got through to me, reminding me that that was why I study at our school: because ultimately I trust Guy like I trust no other teacher in the world and because he knows things I want to learn. And suddenly I had focus again. I did it his way (documented in the next entry), it worked, and I had pulled myself back together.

Now I feel kind of hung over from the experience, because trust me, it was a scary feeling, no less so for being intimately familiar from my recent past. I have to go get some sleep, now that I've eaten a semi-healthy meal.

(*) In energetic terms, this falling apart feels like my energy and focus leaking out of my tailbone, shoulders and larynx, which makes no sense at all but there you have it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Loaded lady and hippy balance

During solo training on Friday, Guy fixed my posta di donna again. It helps the hands to land in the correct position if you think of it as loading a spring rather than just placing the blade on your shoulder.

In other news, Guy showed me an exercise for finding the correct position of the hips: stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and in a relaxed manner offer your hands for your parther to push. The partner pushes gently until your balance breaks. The point of the exercise is to discover how your balance is drastically improved if you tilt your pelvis upwards (using the stomach muscles). I couldn't remember seeing this before, although Guy said I had; I woke up last night at 4:30 to the realisation that indeed I had seen it before and done it often, way back when in the early '00s.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Structural integrity

The word "structure" has cropped up in Guy's instruction a lot recently, so I wanted to set down some musings I've had on the topic based on Guy's teaching and Fiore.

Fiore's visualisation of stability is an elephant with a castle on its back. This is kind of an obvious parallel to a man mounted on a horse, making use of and extending a metaphor that every single one of his contemporaries would find instantly and intimately familiar. So the structure metaphor is there, too: the man is a castle or tower (complete with windows and iron doors, too), but a mobile one. And because the tower's foundations move, the tower has to stay upright in order not to topple. Hence leaning in any direction is a bad idea (after all, the Tower of Pisa isn't famous for being extra stable and everlasting) and a wide base is best (pyramids are pretty stable).

Now how to avoid leaning? The same way that you get up off the floor! The key is to keep your head on top of your spine and your spine on top of your hips and your hips on top of the balance point between your legs. This way the weight of the head and body is going straight downwards. You can achieve this by standing up very straight and stacking your upper body on top of your feet, but this affects mobility and in any case isn't very stable because your base is narrow. Another way to build your tower is to move the middle bits. Bend the legs and squat slightly into a guard-position-like thingy; then bring the hips forward until they are directly underneath the weight of your head - they should also now be at the midpoint on the line between your head and your feet, because as the hips come forward, the head moves back (or you fall over). Magically the feeling of weight on your shoulders and thighs eases up. This is exactly like the efficient way to get up from the floor by getting your arse (=weight) over your ankles.

Lady Chicken

My chronic posta di donna problem, of which way up to hold the sword on the shoulder, got solved today. I had wondered about the exact position of the blade and hands and solved the dilemma by deciding to keep my wrists straight. All well and good, except that flapping my elbows out and about like a chicken meant that when my wrists were straight, the flat of the blade was resting on my shoulder. So: in posta di donna, keep the elbows down (it ain't baseball), the wrists straight and the true edge pointing upwards.

In other news, training today was not nearly as sweaty as yesterday and noticeably slower; perhaps this means I'm getting up to speed? I really appreciated my knee injury, however, as it kept me from doing my usual headless-chicken impersonation in class and rushing into every exercise like the coolest, funnest, greatest thing ever and then injuring myself. It also tells me when I'm doing something wrong in the foot department, and forces me to stop to address the problem.

One world, one drill

Did you know that longsword drills 1 and 3 are really the same drill? And 2 and 4 as well? And that actually all five drills are just one drill? That's what Guy told us.

If you're a beginner, I recommend not using the philosophical comment above as a training tool! It's only meant as food for thought.

Just training

What a wonderful class on Monday. We did drills. And then we did some more drills. And then some more. Lovely. Just to train, to drill, without having to figure out complicated stuff, to get some reps in.

We did the dagger disarm flow drill and all five longsword drills, plus other stuff of course. The knee held up well, because I was being extra careful, didn't take falls and remembered to do my footwork correctly. (I'm seeing an orthodont-... pediatr-... orthopod... foot doctor about it on Wednesday.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Snap, crackle, pop

The knee gave way during warm-up and threw me to the ground. Guy prodded it and yanked at it and agreed that I should see a doctor just to be safe.

I can't describe how angry I was about not being able to train.

But on the bright side, I drew a nice diagram with lots of lines and circles. I'm not ready to share it yet, it's not quite ripe, but it's definitely getting there.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lady Beginner

I'd be perfectly happy as an ordinary beginner, knowing nothing beyond what I'm taught on Tuesdays and a smattering of what I see on other days. Unfortunately it's not being made easy for me, what with being told to practice the Syllabus Form and being told to train with beginners or being demonstrated with... It confuses the heck out of my poor little brain which then insists on giving other people advice that might be outdated or downright silly.

Bows and strings

In reference to this energy flow post, it's not actually so much a string as it is a bow: the body is a bow that you bend when you focus. The ends of the bow are below your feet in the ground and over your head in the air. The bowstring, if you need to imagine one, is attached to your sword hand. Unfortunately such a bow would fire backwards, so the metaphor needs a bit more work there :D

Ya can't beat proper training!

Regular class tonight, serving about ten people with stability and point control exercises with a side dish of confusion for me. Not only that, but I had some form as hors d'oeuvres and a mixed plate of volta stabile, cutting exercises and stretching for dessert. I quit a bit earlier than I would have liked out of a sense of responsibility towards my poor knee which might not be able to pay the bill.

Now I'm semi-beat but happy. I'm not completely, utterly exhausted, but more than likely there'll be peeved signals from the feet and shoulders tomorrow.

Stupidest piece of advice in the world? Not.

When you explain to someone that you can't do an exercise because your knee hurts when you mess it up, you'd think that it wouldn't be helpful to be told: "Well, don't mess it up."

Unless you're as obedient as yours truly, who obviously only needs to be told to stop doing something wrong before getting it right.

Seriously, I'm telling you, after Guy told me to not mess up the footwork, I started doing it right! I mean, it's not as if I'd been deliberately failing to keep my lines straight before that, but apparantly I just obeyed him literally.

Volta Not-That-Stabile

My volta stabile got corrected today. I have a tendency to lean forward and to not lift my front heel. This is very probably caused by physical problems: the leaning forward is actually curling up around my non-existent stomach muscles when I should be tilting the pelvis; and the foot thing is caused by the wear and tear on the joints of my big toes which make pushing with the toes something of an ordeal.

I love it when Guy reads this blog. Today, he was able to explain to me what my heel was doing wrong in half a dozen words: "You're leaking energy through the front heel," he said, or words to that effect, and demonstrated with his own heel. And lo and behold, I understood, and was able to start practising in a purposeful way. Had he gone the way of demonstrating the correct movement of the heel, I might have been able to do it but wouldn't have understood the point of it.

Form and flow

Beginners' class today was fun, apart from the new tutta volta drill which made me dizzy for several reasons.

Before class I learned that we no longer do the fenestra-breve-longa -cutting drill, which is a shame because it's such a classic but also a jolly good thing because it was becoming seriously outdated already a year ago.

After class Guy got me and Johanna to do the Syllabus Form which I've almost completely forgotten but which, to my intense surprise, came back to me even as Joeli demonstrated it.

My knee held up well under pressure, only twinging every now and then to point out where my technique was faulty - as long as I did things right, it stayed quiet. Convenient.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Keep it real, man

(Warning: New Age yadda-yadda about energy flows to follow. Sorry, unbelievers, but this is the way it makes sense to me... and I'm kinda embarrassed about it or otherwise I'd actually study it a bit more.)

No wonder I've felt so disjointed lately: I've forgotten to keep it together and keep it real. In other words, when doing an exercise (of any kind, be it technique or strength or whatever), the body has to kind of feel an invisible string connecting the forehead to the loins (or maybe the top of the head to the toes?), because that's the line that the energy flows through. Moreover, the body has to be kind of wrapped tight around that string for effort to be efficient; if the tie is loose, then intention is too.

So if you're keeping it together, you're operating that string to make all the bits of your body work together. And keeping it real means holding on to the string tightly and focusing your energy into the exercise.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Knee update

Knee better, even though slightly swollen. So it's either one of the "nothing much" and "three months bedridden" options.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Important note: the leg is not supposed to bend sideways. I discovered this in training today, although granted, I was not voluntarily exploring that avenue of thought. In any case, my knee received pressure at 90 degrees' angle to the usual and indeed recommended direction and protested with a Snap! which made me yell and curl up in panic, certain that I would never walk again. Fortunately the damage doesn't seem to be bad (although one of the recent beginners who turned out to be a sports massage therapist gave me a long, useful lecture on what could in fact be wrong - ranging from "nothing much" to "a thing almost symptomless but requiring surgery with a three-month-long recovery period"). My own guess is that the pain I feel when carelessly turning with a weighted leg is the lateral collateral ligament feeling annoyed at the treatment it received.

Leave it to this Lady to get injured in training. Again. This is the third or fourth time that immediately after (re)starting swordsmanship training I injure myself.

It's just as well that I wouldn't have been able to get to the salle before next Tuesday anyway. But even with the injury I managed some strength exercises and cutting practice today. I really need to build up those muscles!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

To begin is hard

Who would have thought standing on guard could be such damn hard work?!? It's obvious that a major theme of my re-beginner's course will be getting back into shape. The course is very useful in other ways, too, revisiting basic things which are not restated frequently enough in class, grumble grumble (see? It's starting already) and providing information on current practises. For example, I honestly never knew that the only officially correct way to stand in line was to rest your point on the ground, holding the sword the wrong way up. Before, trying to break myself of this horrible habit, I used to hold the weapon the right way up with the point in front or pointing straight up - which is wrong, wrong, wrong at the salle. And another thing; I had forgotten that the salute starts from porta di ferro mezana, not dente zenghiaro.

There is another difficulty in being a beginner: to remember that one is one and not start teaching people things. More than once I caught myself giving advice to fellow students, whan all I should have been doing was concentrate on learning the stuff myself. Bad me.

But to tell you the truth, the current beginner's course will go down in the history of the school as the non-beginners' course: half the people on it are not beginners at all! We're fortunate to have that one half, I tell you, but the rest of us are just like me: people retaking the course because they've been away too long. Most of us know each other already or are connected by ties of acquaintance. The weirdest thing was that just last week, I thought to myself: "Oh, wouldn't it be queer if Janka showed up?" Then I remembered what she said in her blog a few years back about what hobby to take up (again), saying essentially people at the swordschool shouldn't hold their breath, andI laughed at my fancy. Yet who do you suppose showed up? Yup.

My overall feeling is energised and cautiously positive, plus a bit intimidated by the fact that I not only intend to go to class tomorrow but also have 5000 words of mind-numbing text to translate before the end of the week and perhaps six hours of (night)time to do the work in.

Funniest moment in class: when practising the Remedy of the First Master of Dagger with takedown for the first time, I missed Orava's hand and he duly slapped me in the face.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Begin at the beginning

I'm re-entering my gate via the beginners' course starting this Tuesday. Ah, well, halfway through is a good spot to give up... :D

Actually, as the year was only an estimate of the time it would take for class time to be beneficial to family life again, this does not qualify as giving up; more like... yielding. You see, the parenting money runs out at the turn of the year, and surely it makes more sense to do less paying work now, while we still have another source of income, than in 2009.

As soon as I had told Guy I wanted to return and he started telling me how to go about it, I instantly got the feeling that I recognise as being a major immediate reason for my sabbatical: I felt like a little kid. And before you start getting romantic notions - do you remember what being a kid felt like? Ignorant, incompetent and insecure. And let me tell you, feeling like a kid does not sit well with being an almost-40-year-old mother of two. So now I face the challenge of dealing with that feeling if I intend to stick with my swords training. I need to find a way to keep feeling like myself even when I'm in class, getting it wrong and being hit on the head and criticised. But let me quote you a deep and lasting quote by a famous philosopher (the band Kwan :) - there ain't no shortcut to real respect. Meaning that I don't intend to try to hide my ignorance, incompetence and insecurity but suffer them and eventually make them go away.

So my six-month plan is this:
1) Do something sword-related every single day. Three training days (two class days plus one day solo or class training); three conditioning days (exercising, in whatever shape or form); and one research day.
2) Come to class early, train solo or with a partner before class, and stay to train after class. Cram as much training time as possible into each evening at the salle.
3) Cut down the amount of paying work to the absolute minimum, and cut down on other responsibilities. (Anyone here willing to moderate the Adoptio Kiinasta mailing list? Or the Adolaiset list? Does anyone want to adopt two blogs and a website? Or clean our house every week, maybe?) The kids can spend more time with their granny on the principle of making use of all available assets.
4) Realize a long-time family-related dream and reserve a school gym for one evening a week so the kids can run around and exercise and I can train.

After six months, it'll be almost Christmas and our finances will undergo a revolution. The children will have to go into daycare and I'll need to make some money, more money than just to pay for daycare... But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.