You probably remember the moment you first held a sword. It’s electric. For some of my students, they hadn’t realised what was missing until they came to their first class. For others, they had dreamed about becoming a swordswoman for years. It’s not reducible to practicalities or psychoanalysis. There is no need to know how to swing a sword. And it doesn’t say anything about your mental health (or lack thereof).
I think we’ve all had the experience of mentioning our passion for the sword and had people ask “why?” And you know in that instant that they will never understand it, because it’s not arrived at rationally, and so cannot be explained in rational terms. You either get it or you don’t.
I know some folk who are simply obsessed with 18th and 19th century ceramics. I might develop an appreciation for the nuances of glaze and form, but I’ll never get why anyone truly cares about pots the way I truly care about swords. That’s fine- we don’t need to all care about the same things, and indeed it’s better if we don’t. We owe a lot of what we know about medieval martial arts to the manuscript collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries, who generally cared not a whit for swords, and certainly never tried to recreate the arts represented in the manuscripts. They cared about manuscripts, not so much about the content of the manuscripts. And thank the goddess they did, or Fiore, Ringeck, and the rest would have been scraped off and recycled for the vellum, or just burned.
About ten years ago, my friend James Prasad was given a flying lesson as a birthday present by his wife. She asked me to go along too, to keep him company, so I did. And oh my goddess. I had no idea. I wasn’t expecting anything- I’ve spent literally thousands of hours stuck in the back of big planes, and don’t particularly enjoy it. But being a commercial airline passenger is to flying a light aircraft as being on a bus is to driving a Lotus. I came down from that flight alight with the joy of flying. I was literally high for days afterwards. But flying is expensive. You think swords cost money? Try aviation. Holy shit, a half-hour lesson is north of $200. Not that the instructor is getting rich, that’s almost all fuel costs, which are almost all tax. And you need at least 45 hours of flying time to get your Private Pilot’s Licence.
I have a rule about this kind of thing. If it means denying my kids a decent holiday, or my wife having to count out pennies at the supermarket, I won’t do it. It’s taken a decade, but I’ve finally saved the money and have begun training towards my PPL. I had the first lesson last week, and the second is coming up soon.
The real reason why I’m doing this is the same as the reason that I practice swordsmanship. Just because. But I have all sorts of rationalisations too, such as:
1. Swordsmanship is dangerous, and we as a community are still learning how to train authentically without serious injuries or deaths. Aviation is also very dangerous, which is why it is set about with all sorts of rules and protocols intended to keep aviators alive. Everything has back-ups, everything is checked (such as, a visual inspection of the level in the fuel tanks, in case the fuel gauge is faulty). I’m sure I’ll learn all sorts of things about how to get safely to a more dangerous edge in swordsmanship.
2. Pilot training has a clear and internationally accepted structure, such that my PPL (assuming I get there) will allow me to fly pretty much anywhere. I could show up at an airfield in Australia or America, and my licence would be enough for them to rent me a plane. I’m already finding the way the material is organised and presented to be instructive; it will certainly inform my next book.
3. A flight instructor has to literally let the student take the controls, in circumstances where the student is probably nervous, and where a serious mistake can be fatal. My instructor last week let me take off and land. I was expecting maneouvers in the air, but actually getting to control the plane from grass to grass was extraordinary. Here’s the thing: the higher you go, the safer you are, because if anything goes wrong you have time to fix it, and plenty of altitude to pick up speed with (it’s airspeed over the wing that keeps you up, and if you start to slow down you can gain speed by diving a bit). But close to the ground, there’s no safety margin at all. Being on the receiving end of this kind of instruction has already highlighted ways I could adjust my own teaching to get the student doing more. I haven’t had time to think this all through yet, but it’s going to be transformative.
4. Aircraft are very well understood from the engineering and physics perspective. There is a complete and coherent body of knowledge that leads to good aircraft being built. There is also a body of knowledge and skills that a pilot needs. But these are not the same. A pilot doesn’t need to know everything that an aircraft designer knows, and being able to design an aerobatic plane doesn’t mean you can do a snap roll. But I’d wager that a good designer knows a lot about flying, and a good pilot knows a lot about aircraft design. Seeing where these domains overlap is a fascinating parallel to swordsmanship practitioners and sword smiths, and indeed to attempts to explain sword striking mechanics in terms of physics, versus just learning to hit stuff.
5. Fear management. As regular readers of this blog and my books will know, I think of acting calmly when frightened to be a trainable skill. I’m scared of heights, so being in a small plane a kilometre above the earth is inherently frightening- but to fly well I have to stay calm and relaxed. And, it turns out, I can. So, flight training is yet another arena in which I can practice fear management.
But, my friends, I’m flying because it’s bliss.