Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Category: Reflections

A very inexperienced Guy teaching class in 2001

21 years ago today I taught my first class as a professional instructor. It was in a small room in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. I expected about six people to show up, but we had over 70, from as far afield as Turku and Tampere. My class plan went out of the window because there was no space for that many folk to take part, so I talked for a bit, and then got everyone doing some really basic mechanics. Many of the people who showed up that day kept showing up for years afterwards, and it's thanks to them that we have a school.

The rest is literally history!

While thinking about the best way to celebrate the School’s survival over the last 21 years, it struck me that I really like teaching classes and hanging out with my students, so I’ve decided to run a couple of seminars, which are free or you can pay something if you want to. Given the constraints of teaching over zoom, these classes will be on solo training- a warm-up, some footwork and mechanics, and some blade handling, followed by time for questions and answers. To accommodate the fact that most of my students are in the USA and so miss all the morning sessions, these will be at 7pm UK time on Sunday 20th and 27th March. There are more details etc. on the booking pages:

Longsword Seminar: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool/e/ev-s82s-20220320190000

Rapier Seminar: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool/e/ev-si53-20220327190000

I hope to see you there!

I have also set up a discount code: SWORDSCHOOL21BDAY for 50% off all my books on Gumroad and courses on Teachable. Except the free ones, they’re still $0.
Regarding my Gumroad shop, I’ve removed most of the free treatise photos etc. from the webshop because the file sizes exceed Gumroad’s terms and conditions for free products. I am looking around for better ways to host and share these resources- if you’ve got any suggestions, let me know!
The discount code expires on March 31st.

Thanks for being part of it!

One of the things I’m enjoying most about learning to fly is being an absolute beginner, and making beginners’ mistakes. Such as:

  • Getting my radio check and airfield information call in to the office (we don’t have a tower at this airfield), and wondering why I couldn’t get a reply even though the radio seemed to be working just fine. Turns out I had the volume turned down too low.
  • Having successfully landed the plane (yay! That’s the critical bit), when taxiing back towards the place where the planes are parked, my tail got caught in a bit of cross-wind, and I ended up getting the plane stuck in the rough grass between taxi-way and runway. That meant getting out and pushing while the instructor (Clive) drove us out. Clive has been (gently) mocking my “gardening skills” ever since. He also spent the rest of the taxi-way ride rolling a cigarette, manifesting complete confidence in my ability to go not gardening again. Planes on the ground are steered entirely with the feet, so he could actually have steered us out of trouble if necessary, but it’s fascinating to see how something I do all the time in class to essentially trick my students into relaxing, is being done to me, and I can see it and understand it, and it still works. I don't roll cigarettes, but I try to exude a sense of absolute confidence in my students.
  • Forgetting to check under my wing before turning in that direction. Instructor says ‘make a right turn’, and I just start doing it, instead of following correct procedure and actually checking for myself that it’s safe to do so and we’re not about to bump into something. Not that there’s much likelihood of that, where we are, but it’s essential to check, just like checking your mirrors before making a turn in a car. Incidentally, I had no problem with that in the previous lesson (on turns), but this lesson was on the stall,* and so the turns weren’t the focus. I was thinking about the stall, not the turn, and so forgot something essential that I had been fine with previously.

And, most interestingly for me, for the first five lessons I had practically no questions. I didn’t know enough to know what to ask. That phase seems to have passed and I am now pestering my instructors with all sorts of questions. It’s also instructive to note that there are many things that have been explained to me such that I understood them just fine, but couldn’t hold on to the idea until I’d seen it again, usually after a practical exercise in the plane that demonstrated the idea in action. Being able to follow the logic of an explanation is not the same thing as remembering, which is also not the same thing as really knowing and understanding.

I cannot overstate how useful this is to me as an instructor. It has been a very long time since I was last a real beginner at something; most of the new things I’ve learned over the last decade or so have been somehow related to things I’m already competent at, which changes things completely.

The instructors at Skyward are all nice; they don’t berate you for mistakes, just encourage you to learn. I think they’ve been a bit surprised by how I’m not at all embarrassed by making a mistake- I know many of my beginners often are embarrassed. Beginners taxi planes into the long grass, forget to check under their wing before a turn, fail to turn the radio volume up, and do all sorts of other silly things. It’s the beginner’s job to pay attention and do their honest best to do follow instructions. That’s it. It’s the instructor’s job to make sure that the beginner’s mistakes are survivable, and this is as true in martial arts as it is in flying.

I hope that all my beginners have felt that they were free to fail because I was there to create a safe space for them to fail in. But it’s been so long since I was last truly in their position that while I could be nice to them, I didn’t really understand their situation any more. In the past I have been a bit baffled by a lack of questions in a beginners’ group, or when this thing they could do just fine last time was now going wrong. I hope I met that with kindness before, but now I can meet it with comprehension too.

 

*A stall in an aircraft is what happens when the angle that the wing is meeting the air (the “angle of attack”) gets too steep, or there is not enough air flow, so the smooth flow of air over the top surface of the wing breaks up into turbulent eddies, and you lose lift. You fix it by putting the stick forward a bit, to lower the angle of attack (and gain some speed). It has nothing to do with the engine conking out- that’s a whole other problem.

For the first time in my life, on Sunday night I actually, deliberately, watched a football game. My kids’ friends were heavily invested in the outcome and so my kids wanted to watch what their friends were watching. Before I go on: to my English friends, I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. E a mi amici italiani: complimenti per la vittoria. 

Normally I would rather sandpaper my eyeballs than watch 22 millionaires chasing after a leather bag, but I was happily surprised by how, when viewed through a fencing mindset, it wasn’t entirely tedious. Yes, I did a crossword in the second half, and spent the extra time fiddling about on my phone, but there were moments of actual interest. I was especially taken at the beginning by all the passing back. Surely, the ball is supposed to go in the other direction? But these are, by definition, the best players in Europe right now, so they know what they’re doing. It eventually dawned on me that while you are in possession of the ball, the other team can’t score. And, you can only score while you are in possession of the ball. So possession of the ball is analogous to controlling both your opponent’s sword, and your own. It’s better to be in control of the ball near your goal than have it in the other team’s possession at the other end of the pitch. Suddenly a lot of baffling behaviour made sense. And it became clear that the players were trying to set up specific patterns, and were pulling back and re-thinking if that pattern was interrupted or choked off by the other team. Compared to fencing, most of football is very slow, so it’s quite easy to see the patterns if you look for them.

There were also some moments of stunning physical prowess. Both goals, for example, but also many saves by both goalkeepers. They were by far the most impressive players on the field, to my eyes- because most of the time they could only react, and it is much harder to succeed when you’re on the defensive, reactive, can’t do anything until my opponent does something, side of the engagement. 

I had a couple of thoughts on how the game might be improved though. For instance, in the case of a draw, the side with the most red and/or yellow cards should lose. That might incentivise cleaner play- or it might, if you’re desperate, incite massive fouling to get ahead. It would be interesting to see that experiment (but I don’t think FIFA read this blog).

I was annoyed by the half-hour extension- wouldn’t it be more fun if they just played until the next goal? Or just had a draw and shared the trophy?

I also thought that the game would be more interesting if every player had a taser… but only one taser per team was charged, and with only one shot. So you’d never know until it fired who was dangerous to get close to, and it would be a massive waste to tase the wrong player. There would certainly be assassination tactics to get rid of the best striker (or the goalie) on the other team. That is not by any means a practical suggestion, but it would be a bit like fencing longsword with both fencers having a dagger on their belt. It would change things in an interesting way.

My feelings toward football are coloured by the behaviour of the crowds. While I was growing up, football hooliganism was a huge problem, especially among England supporters, so I associate the game with the kind of thuggery, racism, and bullying that I also associate with the Brexit campaign. The flag-waving morons that voted Brexit (which was entirely driven by English voters) look a lot like the flag-waving England team supporters. I’m not saying they are the same- I know many football fans who are perfectly lovely. But I am deeply, deeply suspicious of anything that looks like nationalism, which all international sporting events do. And when those extraordinary young men, under the fiercest pressure, failed to get a ball past Sr. Donnarumma in the penalty shoot out, sure enough a bunch of racist pricks in the crowd yelled predictably racist abuse at them. 

My feelings are also coloured by the experience of being stuck in boarding school surrounded by sports-mad kids, who looked without favour on kids who didn’t share their religion. My personal experience of large groups supporting a sports team is that they are dangerous. That’s not fair to the majority of fans, but explains some of my bias and my instinctive aversion to the group mentality that takes over fans in a stadium.

I’m also struck by a fact that I knew already, but hadn’t given much thought to. The NHS posted a message featuring women during the game: “if England get beaten, so will we”. The incidence of domestic violence in Britain go up by 50% every time there is a major sporting defeat. I shudder to think of the horrors inflicted late last night, that would not have happened if England had won (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the same phenomenon occurs in Italy, so it really wouldn’t make any difference who wins). I’m not suggesting that banning football would solve the problem, or even help it at all. But I would be a lot more impressed by the footballing community if they deliberately worked to diminish this awful side-effect of their sport, and there yet again is a reason for my instinctive dislike of organised sports.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention three England players: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. They missed their penalty shots. Boo hoo. But they also donated their entire tournament fees to the NHS to help with the Covid crisis. These are kids: aged 23, 21, and 19, and behaving with more grace and maturity than most people twice their age. Rashford particularly, as he also forced the current UK government of heartless corrupt venal and despicable arseholes to reverse themselves twice, most famously forcing them to feed poor children with free school meals, as if such a thing should ever be necessary. 

Here’s the thing. Was it a good game? I don’t know. It seemed like there was a lot of high-level sportsing going on, between two very evenly matched teams. I’ve lost some of the best, most enjoyable, most instructive fencing matches I’ve ever been a part of, and some I couldn’t tell you who won because we weren’t counting. Wouldn’t it be good if the thing that mattered wasn’t the outcome, but the quality of play? If England fans today were thrilled and honoured that their team got to play at that level more than they were disappointed by not scoring the most points?

Speaking of level, probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen done on a pitch was this catch by Indian cricketer Harleen Deol. No, I don’t watch cricket either (I just can’t get excited about the positions of round objects relative to white lines and/or sticks), a friend sent it to me. This is truly stunning. She catches the ball, realises she’s going to stumble over the boundary, throws the ball up, stumbles, turns, and dives to catch it. In an international match against England (and no, I don’t know or care who won: as far as I’m concerned, she did).

Don’t worry, this is not becoming a sports blog. We’ll be back to talking about swords more directly soon!

Back before the internet, back before Wiktenauer, in the days when historical fencing treatises were photocopied and distributed by hand, one man did something extraordinary, which we benefit from to this day. Dr. Patri Pugliese was finding, reproducing, photocopying and distributing fencing treatises back in the bad old days, before many of our community's leading lights were even born, let alone had begun fencing. I did all my early work on Capoferro, Viggiani, Angelo, Silver, DiGrassi, I.33 and other systems from Patri's photocopies. I never met him, but I owe him an enormous debt.

The torch Patri lit and carried has been taken up by Michael Chidester, architect of the Wiktenauer, so it's appropriate that I reproduce his tribute here (with his permission, of course).

11th May 2021 would mark the 71st birthday of Dr. Patri Pugliese, the most important person in the history of modern HEMA that you've never heard of. I will go so far as to say that there is no one in this world who contributed more to the spread and development of the HEMA movement, and especially of HEMA in America, than did Patri.

For himself, he was a passionate student of both historical combat (not just fencing, but also drill with pike and musket) and historical dance, and founded or participated in groups dedicated to those activities around New England. Most recognizably to readers today, he co-founded the Higgins Armory Sword Guild, which not only provided online resources and public classes and demonstrations for over a decade, but also supported his friend and fellow instructor Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng in his translation and interpretation efforts (leading to his publication of I.33, Meyer, and others).

But Patri's more profound legacy is fencing manuals. Throughout the '90s and continuing until his death, he distributed a staggering catalog of fencing treatises. This was before (and while) the consumer computing revolution changed everything—he was physically mailing sheaves of paper, loose or stapled together. Some were fencing manuals that he photocopied at local research libraries, others were printed from microfilm ordered from museums. He was the first person in the community to do this, and he charged only the cost of printing and postage, or in some cases a slight premium to recoup the initial purchase.

Of this, he simply wrote “I regard myself as a student of the sword rather than a publisher, and am making these manuals available to support research in this area. It would, of course, be selfish and inconsistent with the honorable traditions associated with fencing to do otherwise.”

I will include a partial list of Patri's catalog below. As the internet became more established, most of these were scanned and placed online (with his blessing—he was happy to increase their accessibility). If you ever accessed black and white scans of any of these texts from sites like Bill Wilson's homepage, the ARMA site, the Raymond J. Lord Collection, or the Higgins Sword Guild, then you have likely benefited from Patri's work. Wiktenauer itself could not have grown so quickly or easily without these scans, some of which we still use.

I often joke that our patron saint is Paulus Hector Mair, the shady 16th century Augsburg patrician who embezzled public funds to cover the cost of collecting fencing manuals and throwing lavish parties.

It was Patri, however, who embodied our highest aspirations of disseminating knowledge and resources as widely and freely as possible, and thereby pushing the bounds of our understanding of historical fencing traditions.

Patri Pugliese died after a struggle with illness in 2007, fourteen years ago. One of my greatest HEMA regrets is that even though I spent considerable time in Massachusetts during the years between 2001, when I started, and his death, I never crossed paths with him.

Fourteen years is an eternity in the world of HEMA. It is enough time that his name is no longer familiar to most teachers and students of historical fencing, but if any one of us deserves to be remembered, he does.

So raise a glass to Patri, my friends. He was a pioneer, not just of the study of fencing, but of the sharing of it. The edifice of knowledge that we have constructed in HEMA today was built on the materials he offered us, freely.

And then tell your students about this man to whom we all owe a great debt.

No, this post isn't a few days late. I posted this last week for my Patrons on Patreon: rewarding their commitment with early access to the things I produce seems fair to me. Want to join them? There's a link in the sidebar.

Now, on with the post.

Challenge: February 2021

Well, that didn’t go quite as planned.
It turns out that quitting the booze in January 2021 is way harder than it might have been in, say, May 2019. Michaela and I got to January 20th, then cracked a bottle of bubbly to celebrate Trumperdink’s ignominious expulsion, and especially to celebrate the United States finally electing a woman to the Vice Presidency- and a not-white woman at that. If anything deserves bubbly, it’s seeing women and people of colour advanced to high office.


But that kind of cracked the seal, and while there have been a couple of dry days since, we’re pretty much back to drinking as normal (I'm writing on January 28th).
I’m not sorry though. Here’s why:
If not drinking is good for you, then 20 days of not drinking is a lot better than none.
The benefits I was hoping for from dropping the booze didn’t materialise. I didn’t sleep any better, have not been more energetic, and in general have not been feeling better. It may be that 20 days isn’t enough, but in my experience I would expect improvements within a day or two. Waking up feeling hungover because you got plastered last night is one thing. Waking up feeling hungover when you haven’t touched a drop for ages is quite another. It did reduce my reflux, but it seems that the wine is less an issue than onions and other foods.
Most interestingly, it turns out that literally none of my self-esteem is tied up with meeting arbitrary goals such as this one. I don’t feel the slightest bit like I “failed”. Which is not what I would have expected.
Here’s a question for you: having dropped one bad habit this month, has it helped you any? Do you feel better for it?

So what’s the challenge this month?

Having worked on dropping a bad habit, we’ll now work on creating a good one. Think of one thing you might benefit from, and see if you can create that habit.

  • Getting up a bit earlier to exercise, meditate, or write?
  • Eating more vegetables?
  • Taking up knitting?
  • Flossing? (Your teeth, not the Fortnite dance. C’mon people.)

Try it for a month, and see what happens.
Here’s how to do it.

  1. start slow. If you want to create a meditation habit, start with five minutes. Not an hour. Eating something green at every meal? That could be just a slice of cucumber, to start with. No need to parboil then chargrill a head of broccoli, served with a freshly-made aioli. At least not at the beginning.
  2. attach it to an existing routine. I get the itch to stretch when watching TV in the evening, because I’ve created that habit. It feels kind of weird to watch TV without getting down on the floor and going through my stretches.
  3. this should be a positive thing. It’s hard to get up early for something miserable, but to practice your hobby? To read a novel? To luxuriate in a meditation? To play with swords? Looking forward to the activity makes it easier to schedule and easier to actually do it.
  4. exploit constraints. I floss regularly, because I eat foods like oranges and chorizo (no, not together, you animal) which get stuck in my teeth. I have to floss to get rid of the annoyingly stuck bits. While I’m there, I might as well do my whole mouth. Make the thing you want to do that bit easier to start (leave your knitting lying around, so you can pick it up any time), or put it in the way of things that you want to avoid. Do you have to move your meditation cushion to get to the TV remote?

One word of warning: if your new habit requires getting up earlier to put first things first, as I would highly recommend, then it must be accompanied by going to bed that much earlier.

HEAR ME, PEOPLE: do not sacrifice your sleep for anything.

(OK, babies get a pass. If your child needs you, wake up for her. Everyone else, including you and your late-night gaming habit? No.) Sorry to get all shouty at you, but this is really important.

Me, I'm going for a fairly ambitious goal: meditation and progress on one creative project before checking any kind of social media, messages, emails, anything. Five days a week. So, I will get up, do whatever limbering I need to do to be able to sit or lie comfortably, meditate for at least 20 minutes, then get started on (probably) writing the book I'm currently working on. Let's see how this goes… I'll report back in a month, and issue the challenge for March. (There's a giant clue regarding March's challenge in this post.)

So, what new habit will you create this month?

Happy New Year!

Though really, this is just an arbitrary calendar change. Years, solstices and equinoxes are real, observable, astronomical events. But this dating system is entirely human and arbitrary. And wouldn’t it make much more sense to date the New Year from the Spring Equinox? But I digress…

I don’t do resolutions. They don’t usually work, and this is entirely the wrong time of year to be making serious changes, especially if you live in the Northern hemisphere. Back when I was a member of a gym, I just did not go for the first couple of weeks in January, because it would be chockablock with enthusiastic unfit people, almost all of whom would quit within the week. Which is a shame, really, but it’s an inevitable outcome of the resolutions model.

So what does work?

Good habits and good people.

A rising tide lifts all boats (though may sink the boatless), and I am blessed by the enthusiastic and engaged students I interact with. If there is one key element to my success as an instructor, it has to be the calibre of the students I get to work with. Most of the time I spend interacting with students these days is through my zoom classes, through my mailing list (there’s a link to join below this post, if you’re not already on there), and most recently through a Discord server that I set up for the students at SwordSchoolOnline.Com (If you’d like to join us, and you’ve enrolled in any of the paid online courses, please drop me an email and I’ll send you the link.)

One of the students on the Discord server suggested we do a monthly “challenge”, where I set a challenge for students to have a go at. Of course I have to lead by example, right?

We started this in November, and my first challenge was to post a video or photo of yourself working outside your comfort zone. I had just started playing with GMB Fitness online courses, and so posted this:

December’s challenge was to add at least one rep to your maximum in any exercise: I did push-ups, and went from a rather pathetic start to a much more satisfactory maximum set. I won’t share the numbers here, because they are not relevant. Depending on your own experience of push-ups you’d be either intimidated or decidedly unimpressed (probably the latter!).

The challenge this month, for the start of 2021, is different.

We all have habits that do not serve our long term goals. They vary hugely from person to person, and can range from negative self-talk to smoking cigarettes, with almost infinite variety in between.

So here’s the challenge. This month, drop one of those habits. Just for the month. You can take it up again later if you want to.

The habit I’m dropping for the month is drinking alcohol. I love drinking. Especially wine. But I tend to drink more than I should, and more often. It’s bad for my reflux, and bad for my sleep. Cutting down would make sense, but it’s really hard to quantify and stay on top of. So for the whole month of January, I won’t touch a drop.

That should help my sleep, at least. And my finances. And my reflux. I’ve been meaning to take a month off the sauce for ages, but haven’t done so for at least two years! So it’s about time.

Drinking alcohol is a simple, clear, easy-to-keep-track-of habit to break. There is no fudging it- I either consume an alcoholic beverage, or I do not. But others are much more elusive, such as negative self-talk. And the essence of a habit is you can unconsciously start doing the thing- it’s become an unconscious response. The loop goes like this: stimulus-habitual response-reward. The habit can be broken at any of those three points, and it’s worth taking some time to be very clear about what those three points are for the habit in question.

  • You can avoid the stimulus.
  • You can change the response to the stimulus.
  • You can change the reward.

Changing the stimulus usually requires changing your environment. The old adage for alcoholics is “if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery”. So, if you normally drink in bars, don’t go to bars. Meet your friends somewhere else instead! Or if you usually smoke when you have a coffee, switch to tea. (Unless of course coffee is an addiction, which you might need to break before you quit smoking).

Changing the response is basically learning a new habit that gets you the same dopamine hit. The stimulus for me to have a drink is usually making dinner. Changing that would be very hard, somebody has to feed the kids! So I’ll need to do something else instead, to get the ‘reward’ which is actually the feeling of “I’m done for the day”. Having a drink is for me a signal that it’s ok to switch off. So I need to find something else.

Negative self talk is much harder to break at the point of stimulus, and at the point of response. But it’s possible to change the reward to something negative. One trick that works for some people is having a rubber band around your wrist, and when you catch yourself in negative self-talk, snap the band, which stings. If done consistently over time, this can lead your brain away from the behaviour that causes the sting (brains are weird- you’d think you’d just stop snapping the band, but it’s much easier to control that active choice than it is to control an unconscious response).

It is much easier to change a habit if you have social support for the change (good people, remember?). I’ve let my wife and kids know I’m off the juice for January, so they will expect me not to drink. Do what you can to recruit some social support. This can be positive, such as joining a group that’s centreed around quitting that habit, or negative, where you set up some consequences for failure. One classic is to write a cheque for a painful amount of money, to an organisation you despise. Then give the cheque to a friend who will send it to that organisation if you fall off the wagon. Personally I don’t like this approach, seeing failure as a one-time lapse and you’re done. I prefer to think of failure as a normal part of the process. If you could quit completely cold turkey with no lapses, you’re either extraordinarily motivated, or the habit wasn’t that strong.

Expect that it may occur (snap that band if you have to), and get right back on the wagon again. No negativity, no judgement. It’s like when meditating, and you’re supposed to be focussed on your breath. When your mind wanders notice that it has done so, and bring it gently back. The practice is not focussing on your breath. The practice is returning your attention after it has wandered. Same with this challenge.

I'll post this challenge in the Discord, and will be happy to discuss it there. Especially for habit-changing, getting the support of a community is incredibly helpful. See you there!

What a year. It’s been great for some people, disastrous for others, and overall I’ve been very lucky. So what went well, and what went badly? I’ve had a look at the most important decisions I’ve made that have affected how I’ve managed to stay afloat, and they boil down to getting rid of debt, starting the podcast, starting teaching online, and looking after my health. Let's start with the money.

Money

About seven years ago, when I turned 40, I realised in my bones that I wouldn’t be able to make a living teaching in person forever. Sooner or later my body would fail, and my income was entirely dependent on my showing up and teaching classes, so poor health would be accompanied by destitution. Not a good combo. My approach to the problem was quite simple:

1. Create scalable assets. In other words, things that I could make once, and sell many times, such as books, and eventually online courses (the first of which went live in July 2016). This ensures that I have some passive income.

2. Reduce debt as far as possible. At the time I had mortgages out on both my apartment and my salle. I have always paid them off a bit faster than the bank required, and I took every opportunity to reduce the load. For example, consolidating several smaller mortgages into one with a lower interest rate. And stopping repayments on the ones with the lowest rates, putting all the repayment money into the one with the highest interest rate, so paying that off faster. The bank employee was startled by my proposal, as she’d never seen it before, but she couldn’t argue with the maths!

3. Find ways to live a full life on a low income. That’s actually not hard. Most of the things many people seem to think are essential expenses simply are not.

By 2016 there was enough money coming in from my books and from renting the salle to the Helsinki branch of my school that I was no longer dependent on teaching in person to make ends meet. It took about five years to get there. And by 2019, I had sold the apartment in Helsinki, paid off all the mortgages, and we were debt-free. Hallelujah. I cannot overstate what a relief it is to not owe money to anyone. I’d had mortgages of one sort or another for twenty years by the time the last was paid off.

So my main sources of income going in to 2020 were:

1) Online course sales

2) Book sales

3) Rent on the Salle

4) Teaching in person

The coronavirus killed #4: I haven’t done an in-person seminar since 2019. But, I have managed to create a trickle of income from teaching online classes, such as the Meditation Course in June, my morning Trainalongs, and some short seminars at the weekends. So far it’s brought in about a third of what I’d normally make from my travels.

Rent on the Salle: no classes= no income for the Association that rents it, so I dropped the rent in April down to just covering the service charges on the building. Thank the goddess I paid off the mortgage last year. So far I’m down about €13,000 in lost income. That’s very much not a trivial sum, but we can get by like this for as long as necessary. I will not let the virus kill my Salle.

Book sales have been ok; I’ve had to spend more money than I’d like on advertising, but overall it’s about the same as 2019.

Online course sales have saved us. By serendipity alone, I happened to create an online course on Solo Training last year, which happened to be exactly what a lot of sword people needed this year. A strong candidate for my best idea all 2020 was to drop the price by 96% to $20. I did not expect hundreds of people to take me up on the offer, but they did, which meant that I didn’t have any immediate money worries. The relaunch with extra content in September also went pretty well. About 5% of the new students on the course took me up on the offer to get in for free. This cost me nothing: they weren’t going to buy it at any price, because they had no spare money. But this way they get to train, and that will help keep them mentally and physically healthy, which improves their chances to get back on their financial feet, at which point they might buy something.

The net effect is that financially we are about even. Down a bit, perhaps, but with no debts to service that’s liveable. Making the decision to prepare for being unable to teach due to ill health fortuitously also worked when I was unable to teach because of other people’s ill health. Financial security is a massively reassuring. I’d be remiss not to mention Joanna Penn here, because I’ve learned a lot from her about how to create and sell scalable assets. Here’s a blog post I wrote about it, years ago: Things I’ve achieved thanks to Joanna Penn.

I’ve also found the Mr Money Mustache blog helpful. I don’t go to those extremes, but his core idea of creating passive income that covers your living costs, and working both ends of that equation (increasing passive income and reducing living costs) has been really useful.

The Sword Guy podcast

Another strong candidate for best idea of 2020 has been starting my podcast. I’m not exactly sure how that came about, but one day I found myself having signed up to the necessary services (I’m using podbean.com for hosting, and doing most of my recordings over zencastr.com), and getting it done. I decided not to launch until I had six episodes in the bag. We’re now at episode 25, so nearly 6 months of weekly shows, and I’ve got the next 13 recorded already.

By November I was getting thoroughly overwhelmed by the relentlessness of a weekly schedule (I totally understand why many shows stop after a few erratic months!), so I hired an assistant to take up the administrative slack. Katie has been a godsend, creating the transcriptions, uploading everything, writing the shownotes, and generally making sure that the ball doesn’t get dropped. It’s thanks to the online course sales that I can actually afford to pay her.

I think I’m getting better at the interviewing side of things, but the technical issues around sound recording have been problematic. The quality of the sound is not up to the standard of the shows I usually listen to, which is an interesting evidence for growth: six months ago I couldn’t tell the difference. But the really great thing about the show for me personally has been the cast-iron excuse to get in touch with some old friends, and to reach out to people I have never met, and end up making new friends. It’s been a wonderful experience all round. It also tipped the scales in favour of starting a Patreon account, to help cover the costs of producing the show (which is still actually a net financial negative, but money very well spent given the benefits).

Speaking of friends, I really miss them. I hadn’t fully realised how much of my social life actually happens when I travel. I’m a hugger, and not getting to physically touch the people I care about has been really hard. It doesn’t help that most of my close friends live in other countries. I’d see them when I travelled to teach. But over the course of this year I’ve actually spent more time with a few of my friends than in any previous year. Fortunately I much prefer one-on-one conversations: I don’t need the buzz of a group to feel connected (I’m fundamentally more of an introvert, yet another thing to be grateful for this year). I’ve been getting together regularly for social catch-ups and chats, sometimes playing board games over the web, with several of my friends, and even doing crosswords with my Mum online. In many ways, I’ve been more connected with some of my friends than ever before. This zoom thing is no substitute for in-person meeting, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. Two of my friends have gone through the kind of crises where I’d probably get on a plane to go look after them in normal circumstances, but being available to them through the net has been a lifesaver (for me at least).

Creating a discord server (which is like a social media group, but way better) has also been awesome- having my students interacting with each other, though they may be continents apart, is wonderful to watch and take part in. If you've bought any of my online courses, you're eligible to join and should already have had an invitation by email. If that didn't happen, just drop me a line and I'll sort it out for you.

Health, physical and mental.

My third candidate for best idea for 2020 would be my morning Trainalong sessions. I have normally done some training first thing in the mornings, right after getting up. Breathing, calisthenics, stretching, that kind of thing. As lockdown ground on, I was getting slacker and slacker about it. One morning I did a couple of squats and a push-up, and called that done. I realised that this was not likely to lead me to my desired long-term outcomes, and wondered what the hell I could do to fix it. What began as a “get Guy out of bed in the morning” has become one of my favourite parts of the week. Monday Wednesday and Friday mornings from 8.30-9.30am UK time, I lead a conditioning session that’s fun and effective. The half-dozen or so regulars have coalesced into a group that even get together at other times to train when I’m not there! Having students show up makes it super-easy for me to be awake, engaged, and actually train. New members are always welcome, if you’d like to join us. The exercise is great for my physical health- I’m way fitter now than I was in June. But actually the short chats we have at the end of the session are really good for my general mental well-being too.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my shed this year. Easily enough to have written another book- but I haven’t had the spoons for it. While my 2020 has been way easier than many people’s, it has nonetheless been pretty rough in the mental health department, and spending time woodworking in my shed is both de-stressing, and occasionally produces something pretty. I did get one book out this year:

From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice was ready to go to press by February, so I just had to jump through the last few hoops to get it out. And just in time for the end of the year, the audiobook version of The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts has been recorded and uploaded to Findaway- it will percolate through to the various audiobook retailers over the next couple of weeks, and of course I’ll let everyone know as soon as its available.

The biggest mental problem caused by the plague is a sense of helplessness, which leads to all sorts of negative outcomes. The single most effective way to avoid helplessness is helpfulness. So I’ve spent as much time and energy as I have available in trying to help my people. Making training available free (literally every class and online course I’ve produced this year has been free to anyone that asks for it). Thinking up blog posts that might make sword people stuck at home unable to train feel a bit more empowered, a bit more sword-y. Making time for my friends who are in difficulties (which is lots of them). I’ve also given more to charity this year than usual. I’m using LendWithCare.com to make small loans (and I mean tiny- usually between £20 and £50) to small businesses in places like Peru and Bangladesh, which seems to have a bigger impact than simply giving the money away. Most of the money comes back eventually, to be immediately turned round and lent out to someone else. It’s really satisfying.

A great deal of the successes of this year are down to luck. We happened to be able to pay off the mortgages last year. I happened to have just the right online course already up and running when lockdown hit. Nobody in my immediate family has been killed by the virus. But some of it is down to processes and decisions: I did decide to become independent of my in-person teaching. I did decide to start the podcast, start the trainalongs, and to make my Solo course as accessible as possible. I guess it’s like everything: luck matters a lot, but luck favours the prepared and the disciplined. In lieu of internal self-discipline, I have the external constraints of my students and my mission. You can’t do anything about your luck, but there is much that remains within your control.

Viruses can’t tell time, and are unaware that an arbitrary human count has clicked over one more notch. So there is no immediate likelihood of everything suddenly magically getting back to normal just because it’s 2021. But I am hugely optimistic. There are vaccines coming online. Plagues have always passed before- even those that are much more fatal than  the ‘rona. We are the most resilient, adaptable, and resourceful species this planet has ever seen: it may take some time, but we’ve got this.

I’ve written several posts on lockdown survival, which are here.

You have one job. Some thoughts on how to do it.

Thoughts on “you lack discipline”

Bored? Make Jam.

Information Hygiene

Lockdown progress report

And I’ll be posting twice on January 1st: the next episode of The Sword Guy, and the beginning of a series of monthly challenges for 2021… See you there!

I have been teaching a lot over Zoom since the Coronavirus epidemic screwed my usual teaching schedule. The primary benefit is that people and groups who couldn’t afford to fly me out to teach them can zoom me in instead. But it comes at a cost: it is astonishingly tiring to teach through a screen. I’ve been thinking about why that would be, and have come up with the following thoughts:

1. There is much less personal interaction. The sound quality and lag times mean that you can’t talk naturally with the group. Everyone takes a turn to speak, and it is really hard to generate useful discussion. My classes are usually very interactive, but teaching online is much more like giving a presentation. It’s all on me, all the time.

2. It is very hard to read the students. So much of my job is feeling the room, adjusting what I’m teaching on the fly to take the students’ affect into account. If they are flagging a bit, I’ll ginger them up or slow things down; if they are over-challenged, I’ll ease off; if they are under-challenged I’ll up the complexity. 90% of the information I get from a class isn’t verbal. It’s the sound of their feet, or their blades, or their breathing. The pattern of movement across a group. Very very often, they say they want one thing, their bodies say something else, and the body is always right. But not online- most of that information is just not available so I’m left with the unreliable verbal communications only, and what I can see on the screen, usually a partial image on a dodgy webcam.

3. 90% of swordsmanship is learned from the person you’re crossing blades with. That can’t be done over the internet, so we’re left with the 10% of material that can be taught online. This is less true when the students have a training partner in the room with them; I can usually tell the partner what to do to create the environment the student I’m working with needs. But it’s very clunky compared to being there.

4. The computer itself is built as a distraction engine. I’m conditioned to use it to check email, check social media, play videos. It takes a small but consistent mental effort to not do that. This is a form of ego-depletion, a drip drip drain of executive function, making the whole process more tiring. My students deserve and get my undivided attention, but giving them that on a computer is much harder than in real life. To get real work done I usually turn everything internet-related off. But unplugging the internet would naturally bugger the zoom call. I’m thinking of having my zoom account on a separate profile on the computer, one with nothing else in it.

But, and it’s a huge but, it is getting easier, and I am getting better at it. At the end of every zoom class I teach, I ask for feedback on what could be done better. The students are having to think harder for longer to find things to critique, which is excellent. I’ve run the last two seminars at 7pm on Sunday evenings for me, and that is an awful time for my bio-rhythms. So I’m going to experiment with timing a bit, and try 3pm instead. Definitely better for me, and as I’ve not been getting many students from the West coast of the Americas, hopefully most of the American regulars will still be able to make it.

You can find the current class schedule here: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool

If you have a topic you’d like me to cover, and/or a specific time you’d like me to do it at, feel free to ask!

There’s a sword meme going round the internet which features some self-important prick that can’t hold a sword properly and has the posture most commonly associated with a lifetime spent hunched over a porn site, and words along the lines of the following:

While you were out partying, I studied the blade.

While you were having pre-marital sex, I studied the blade.

While you were taking drugs, I studied the blade.

Now the enemy is at the gates, and you have the audacity to beg me for help?

This sort of fuckwittery boils my blood. It was clearly written by a fantasist who has zero knowledge of what actual swordspeople are actually like, and it is egregiously annoying because it calls my profession into disrepute. Especially the last line. What, exactly, does the original writer think a swordsman can do against threats in this modern age? And since when does mastering a particular skill entitle you to sneeringly withhold it from those who did other things? My doctor has never, not once ever, said to me “I spent years in medical school learning to heal the sick while you were fooling about with obsolete weaponry. Now you’re sick, and you have the audacity to come to me?”

And what’s with the horrible notion that training with blades requires some kind of hermity asceticism? It's unhistorical, unrealistic, and while a degree of temperance is required to train to a high level, there are entire branches of martial arts that include mind-altering practices of one form or another. And I'd bet money on the notion that a lot of people have trained to become proficient with the sword precisely to get laid.

So I’ve fixed it:

While you were out partying, I was too, because social interaction is very important. I also studied the blade.

While you were having pre-marital sex, I was too. Probably not with the incel that wrote the original version of this meme, but a good sex-life is very important for mental and physical health, and I’ve always been lucky in my choice of partners. Plus I also studied the blade.

While you were taking drugs, I was probably drinking. I also studied the blade, and sword practice is a great way to get over a hangover.

Now the enemy is at the gates, but unfortunately swordsmanship isn’t terribly useful these days. I have many friends though, so I can certainly call on soldiers, pilots, doctors, nurses, lorry drivers, plumbers, gardeners, farmers, writers, singers … please state the nature of your emergency so I can help you better? Because you’re a human being and thus entitled to whatever assistance I can reasonably offer you.

Less catchy, perhaps, but way better.

A long time ago in a country quite far away.

I have finally managed to articulate my health goals precisely. It’s just this: I want to play tick-tock-tick-tock-bong! with my grandchildren.

In case you don’t know the game, it’s simple: you hold the (enthusiastically willing, squealing with glee) child upside down by their ankles. Swing them a few times side to side like a pendulum, yelling ‘tick’ one way and ‘tock’ the other. Repeat a few times, then lift them straight up in the air as high as you can, and drop them straight down so their head is maybe six inches off the ground, BONG! Lift and drop BONG! Lift and drop BONG! Lower them gently to the ground, and repeat according to demand.

This requires the following things:

1) being fit enough to do it safely (for both of us): it’s a bit like a two-handed overhead press, with a kid weighing up to maybe 25kg.

2) having the sort of relationship with my kids and grand-kids, that this is natural.

I’m 46, my youngest child is 11. She might have her last child at age 40, and kids tend to get too big around age 8,  that puts the window at being able to do this at 37 years from now, when I’ll be 83.

So the question to ask of any activity or intervention is this: will this make it more or less likely that I’ll be able to play tick-tock-bong at age 83? My fitness routines, diet choices, and interactions with my kids are all covered by this goal.

Let’s take diet first:

I’m running blood sugar tests; I’ve written up something about them starting with The Myth of the One True Diet. Read that if you don't know what I'm going on about.

A diabetic friend gave me a spare continuous blood glucose monitor, the Libre Freestyle, which lasted for 14 days. After my initial horror at seeing the size of the needle I was about to stick into myself (by normal standards it's tiny. By mine, it's like a 6″ nail), I found the monitor a huge improvement over the finger-prick method; not least, it automatically took readings all night, and it never forgot to run the experiment (though the 8 hour memory was not ideal; I had to remember to take a manual reading (tapping my phone to the sensor) right before sleep, and right after waking, or I’d get a gap in the data. It starts deleting the older records when the memory fills up. The sensor is small, easily installed, and I could do all my usual activities with it in place, and once I got over the needle shock, it was extremely unobtrusive. I think it ached a bit once because I’d slept with my weight on it, but that’s it. And the data is awesome. It takes a reading every 15 minutes, plus whenever you manually check.

My goals after running this experiment is to avoid unconscious blood sugar spikes, and to reduce my fasting blood sugar level a tad below the middle of the normal range. I absolutely do not intend to avoid all sugar forevermore- life is for living, and my Dad’s home-made marmalade is awesome. But being able to completely avoid sugar spikes without significant effort is very useful, and because I know what spikes it, I can avoid or embrace at will.

It’s important to establish a baseline, so I am going with fasting blood sugar at 12 hours exactly from the last calorie consumed. Simply avoiding the spikes has brought my average morning reading down from about 5.6 mmol/L to about 5.0 (which is the middle of the normal range). One reliable effect has been that exercise quickly raises my blood sugar a little (presumably as my muscles split glycogen into glucose), and no amount of exercise that I’m actually willing to do pushes my blood glucose down. This is a different body response to many people.

Another side-effect is my trousers are looser in the waist than they were. That’s no bad thing- lockdown encouraged some unhelpful habits.

I’ve also found that my previous time restricted eating protocol wasn’t doing me much good. I was doing 14:10 (last calorie in about 7pm, breakfast at about 9am). So I changed it.

At the moment, this is the protocol I’m following:

Monday to Friday: 18:6 time restricted eating (TRE). So, last calorie in about 7pm, first calorie in the next day at about 1pm. I find this works well for me; I don’t need to eat in the mornings, so skipping breakfast is no hardship. And it dropped my morning blood sugar level very quickly. I’m not terribly strict about it though: if I’m going out to do something at 12, and don’t want to be hungry for it, I’ll eat before I go (which is still a 16 hour fasting window).

At the weekends, I eat breakfast if I want to. Last Saturday I wasn’t hungry before taking my daughter to her riding lesson, so I ate when I got home at 11.30 (a bit over 16 hours since last calorie in). Sunday though, I felt like breakfast, and yes it did include marmalade on toast. And the angels sang.

I should also mention that I’ve had problems with acid reflux for the last couple of years (badly enough that the doctors shoved a camera up my nose to inspect my oesophagus). It’s been resistant to the usual interventions such as omeprazole, and over-the-counter treatments like gaviscon. One thing that I really, really, have to avoid is eating a big meal within three hours of going to bed. The consequences are truly disgusting. This puts a cap on my last-calorie-in time at 8pm at the absolute latest, 7pm better, which means when I wake up I've usually been 12 hours or more without food already. I’ve also found that this 18:10 pattern may be helping with the reflux (though I’ve no idea why).

Dinner is the main meal of the day, which we all take together (which is totally in line with the tick-tock-bong goal). We almost always cook proper food from scratch, with a decent amount of vegetables.

Thanks to reading David Sinclair’s Lifespan, I’ve also started supplementing with NMNs, and Longevinex’s resveratrol formula. If you want the details of why, I suggest reading the book. It’s very complicated, and I’m not a biologist. Suffice to say these supplements and the TRE all follow the basic rule of there being an acceptable, measurable, downside that is much lower than the probable upside.

Regarding exercise, the positive constraint of my morning training sessions has been a lifesaver (perhaps literally!). There was a time in May when I got up for my morning training and did three squats and one push-up, and thought ‘fuck it, that’ll do’. Not having seminars to stay fit for made it a serious self-discipline challenge to stay fit. I’m not a fan of using self-discipline when you can create external constraints instead. I’m a teacher first, martial artist second, swordsman third. If I wasn’t teaching swordsmanship, I’d be teaching something else. Students can bring out the best in me. So, I started the morning training sessions (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) knowing that if there was even just one student expecting me to be there to lead a session, I’d be there. It takes no mental effort, it’s a law of nature for me. It’s the same mental posture as “I have no choice”. The sessions have developed into a lovely small group of regulars (and newbies always welcome: you can join us here), such that I actively look forward to our sessions, and I am much more thorough about exercise than I ever would be on my own. We’ve even started working through my hellish ‘health qigong form’. Which means I’m practising every day to get it polished up such that I can teach it properly. Something I've been meaning to do for ages, but suddenly am finding easy. The students need it, ergo I do it. No discipline required.

You can see a sample session here:

None of this guarantees anything of course. My kids might choose not to have children, for instance. Or I could lose both my legs in a freak lightsaber accident. But luck favours the prepared. The probability is that whatever I do I’ll be alive at 83; both my grandfathers were heavy smokers who lived into their 90s. Both my parents are thankfully still alive too. The question is, at their age, will I be alive and well enough to chase toddlers over climbing frames? Fit enough for tick-tock-bong?

Framing the problem in such simple terms makes everything much, much easier. It's specific, and it includes physical strength and fitness, and mental health and connection. So that's my goal. What's yours?

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