Woodworkers, depicted at the tomb of Rekhmire, from http://www.osirisnet.net/tombes/nobles/rekhmire100/e_rekhmire100_06.htm
I like reading about lifestyles I have no intention of emulating, but might learn something from. Such as the “travel the world for ten years with only one pair of underwear” minimalist types. It's all very “I've got an ultralight laptop and that's all I need”. Which is fine if you're only a writer or programmer or something like that. But as a writer who is also a swordsman and even a woodworker, it's not really a practical lifestyle choice. To do the things I want to do, I need swords, and tools. But one of the many things I've learned from people like Tynan, Tim Ferriss, and other techno-nomads is the joy of travelling handluggage only. On my last two long trips (Italy-USA-Canada-Italy; Finland-New Zealand-Australia-Finland) I travelled with only hand luggage. No sword bag (bliss! there are swords everywhere I go these days, so bringing my own makes no sense), no suitcase, just what I could fit into a 10kg carry-on bag. It's amazing how much crap I used to lug about, and now don't need to bother with, and do not miss.
So of course, in the run-up to moving to the UK in a few months, I'm shedding stuff like crazy. I just bought a decent document scanner (NeatDesk, second hand from a friend), so I can bin almost all of my papers. I'll be clearing out some of my books (I got rid of 18 boxes-full in the last year alone: which made no visible difference at all. I am, after all, a reader first and writer second). But at the end of the day, some stuff matters.
My glue pot. It will outlive us all!
Take this glue pot for instance. It's made of cast iron, in a form that goes back to the middle ages at least, though this pot is only about 100 years old. I bought it from Fred Murray himself, proprietor of Murray's Tools, an amazing tool shop in Edinburgh, just after I completed my first month of professional experience in William Trist's antique restoration workshop, where I first encountered this utterly brilliant glue. Hot glue, scotch glue, hot animal glue, hide glue; it has many names. And an indefinite shelf life if kept dry, and is still holding furniture together that was made by the ancient Egyptians. Show me any other glue which has been product-tested for, oh, two and a half millenia or so?
Ancient Egyptian glue pot
I love this pot. It represents proper, old-school, traditional craftsmanship. It's been with me for twenty years. I bought it from a man I liked, who sold it to me at a lower price than he could have got for it because he knew I'd be using it for its proper purpose.
I'm not selling it, giving it away, or leaving it behind. It came over in my hand luggage about a decade ago, and it's coming back with me, probably the same way. From a practical perspective, I can do without it; I fixed a friend's sideboard with hot animal glue a couple of years ago, melting the stuff in a bain-marie improvised out of a plastic cup and a saucepan. I could buy a modern pot, with electronic heat control so the glue never gets too hot. But life should never be simply a matter of practicality, and sentimental value is vastly more important than financial value, I would say.
The things you own, own you, if you can't walk away from them. I could walk away from most of the objects in my life. Almost all my swords, for instance. I really do view most of them as expendable resources, things that wear out eventually, and are easily replaced. But the ones made for me by a friend, those are not really replaceable. Even if they are no longer useful. But the list of things I just don't want to do without is surprisingly short.
I am not a doctor. And even if I was, I’m not your doctor. If you have any kind of medical issue, don’t get your info from the internet, still less from swordsmanship instructors. Do some research, then go talk to your doctor. Clear?
I dropped 10kg from round my waist, almost by accident. Here’s what happened. I’ll go back to the very beginning, so you can see the process.
In the beginning:
In the late nineties, the metabolism I inherited from my father started to kick in, and without my really noticing it, I had to let my belt out, notch by notch. I got this belt from my sister when I was 21, so I’ve had it round my waist for about half my life. It tells a sorry tale…
Back when I was 21, I wore this belt on its fourth or fifth notch from the end. By the middle of 2000, it was on the third. Then, after coming down from the mountain and deciding to open my school, I started training at dawn every day, on the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (I do love my traditional martial arts training tropes). In about three weeks, I lost 7kg (15 lb), from round my waist. 3 weeks later, the weight was back, but round my shoulders. I had to get a new jacket because my old one was suddenly too tight. I was 26, with all the metabolic advantages that gives.
When I got to Finland in 2001, what with the stress of starting the school, and lots and lots of training, I ate what I wanted and stayed skinny. On a normal day, I was training for two or three hours and teaching for two or three. I had to eat every three hours or so, or Hungry Guy would appear and make everyone’s life miserable. The closest I have come to murder was probably when I hadn’t eaten for four hours, went to a Thai restaurant for an emergency feed, and the waiter seemed to dilly dally about getting the food on the table.
I (mis)diagnosed the problem as too-low body weight. I was about 73kg at that point. I ate like crazy to try to put the weight on, but was too stressed and training too much to gain an ounce. Then I met Michaela in 2005, and chilled the fuck out. One of the ways I knew she was the One was that within a few months of meeting her, I’d put on the 4kg (9lb) I was looking for. That did help with Hungry Guy, but only up to a point. I still needed to eat every four hours or so. At this point, my weight was up to 77kg, so I instituted a rule: if my weight got up to 80kg, I’d cut out sugar and alcohol until it was back below 78. Then I could eat what I want. This very often (maybe 5 times a week) included an entire 200g bar of chocolate after dinner, ‘shared’ with Michaela (she’d get maybe one row, so, an eighth of it).
What with one thing and another, by April 2014 I was seriously considering adjusting the rule to anything below 80kg is fine, over 82 cut out sugar and alcohol. (Self-indulgent bullshit is a specialty of mine.) I was at 83kg, and my belt was on the penultimate notch. As you can see, it still has the deepest groove; it had been there for a long time. I had already read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, so I should have known better. But sugar, oh, sugar; sweet heaven.
The Slow Carb diet
Then, on a flight to Melbourne, I read Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Body. It was the final straw. There was just no way I could justify the level of sugar I was eating, especially given my family history of high blood pressure, my father’s serious weight problem, and everything I had ever read on the topic of metabolism, nutrition (not counting the junk science rubbish that occasionally made it onto my reading list; I highly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre to help you distinguish the good from the bad), health and longevity.
When I got to Australia, I decided to try the Slow Carb diet. Let me summarise it for you.
1) No fast carbs; no sugar, no starch. No potatoes, no rice, no bread, no biscuits, no pasta, no white food except cauliflower, in other words.
2) Eat the same few meals; perhaps half a dozen different dishes.
3) Don’t drink calories. Avoid alcohol, sweet drinks (especially sodas, obviously, but less obviously also fruit juice).
4) Cheat one day a week. On that day, eat and drink whatever you like, as much as you like. But just one day a week.
You can see the blog post that started it all here.
If you think about it, rule 3 is really just the same as rule 1, and rule 2 is a bit boring, and rule 4 should be optional. What I ended up doing is basically just rule 1, and I was reasonably strict about it.
On the day I arrived in Australia, jetlagged to hell, and about to teach a 4 day intensive seminar, my metabolism was still demanding to eat every 3-4 hours. So obviously, I never went anywhere without back-up chocolate. I arrived on Friday morning and started Slow-carb right away, and taught Saturday-Tuesday, five or six hours a day. Up until this point there was no way I could get through a 6 hour seminar without a sugar hit in the afternoon. I’d crash about 3pm, sugar-up to get me through to the end, then need dinner, large and fast.
On the Monday, after teaching for three days straight, I was digging through my bag for something, and found my chocolate stash. In three days of teaching, in the most energy-demanding situation (jet-lag, long days), I had forgotten to eat in the afternoons. I was astonished.
This was because I was not spiking my blood sugar at any point, and so was not crashing. Cutting out starch and sugar proved to be a complete game-changer, because it evened out my energy demands. Please note though that I was not cutting out carbs, only fast carbs. I was still eating about eight tons of vegetables every day, and a lot of meat (the food in Australia is superb!).
Slow Carb, Low Carb, and Ketogenic:
Let's take a moment to define a few things:
1) Slow Carb v. Low Carb. They are very different. A classic low-carb diet gives you most of your calories from fat and protein. A slow carb diet gives you a lot of carbohydrates, but all with a low glycaeimic index, so you avoid the blood-sugar spike. I think any diet that tells you to steer clear of vegetables is fundamentally dangerous.
2) Ketogenic versus Low Carb. A ketogenic diet, as the name suggests, is a diet that keeps your body running on fat. It is very high fat, and obviously restricts carbs, but it also restricts protein. This is because protein is easily broken down into glucose, and so your body will switch back to a glucose based energy delivery system, rather than stay in a fat based energy delivery system (a state called ketosis). Ketogenic diets are mostly used medicinally to treat children that have drug-resistant seizures. I personally would not recommend long-term ketosis, because it is very hard to do in the modern world, and there is no evidence that any human population has ever subsisted long-term on a ketogenic diet (the Inuit may be an exception, but probably not). Ketogenic diets should be further subdivided into calorie-restricted (less than 1000 per day) and unrestricted. The best-known proponents of the unrestricted ketosis diet are Dom D’Agostino and Peter Attia (both medical doctors). Their podcasts and websites are well worth a listen/look.
Bye-bye Hungry Guy
What I was doing in Australia was a not-terribly-strict Slow Carb diet; after class, at dinner, I quite often wolfed down a bunch of fast carbs in the form of beer, and chips with my steak, that sort of thing. But breakfast and lunch were fast-carb-free. The difference in my energy levels was enough to sell me on the idea. But when I got home less than three weeks later and trod on the scales, I got a shock. I was down from 83 to 74kg, and had not once, even once, gone hungry. I ate like a pig, just not starch or sugar. I was so pleased with the results I decided to keep it up. I now hover around the 72-73kg mark.
Most incredibly, Hungry Guy has disappeared. To test this, in September 2014 I decided to see what would happen if I missed a meal or two. I had lunch on Monday at about 1pm, taught class on Monday night, ate nothing when I got home, had one cup of coffee instead of breakfast on Tuesday, missed lunch, and ate dinner with the kids at 6pm. So, about 29 hours of not eating anything. And I was completely fine. Not even that hungry. Certainly no dizziness, or feeling of weakness. Nothing associated with low blood sugar problems. It's also why I wrote “avoid sugar” as one of my top 3 stay-sane-and-healthy tips for modern living.
This has lead me to do some further research on fasting; it comes in all shapes and sizes. The simplest is just don’t eat for a while. I would not try that without preparation, if I were you. The health benefits of at least occasional ketosis are well-documented; I think of it as a metabolic spring-clean. But you can fast for a couple of days and not get into ketosis because your body breaks down your muscles to produce glucose. So if you don’t want to a) feel too hungry and b) lose muscle mass, it’s a very good idea to get into ketosis before you fast. Here’s how.
1) Be very strict about fast carbs for a week or two. This gets you off any sugar-high rollercoaster. When you fast your blood sugar will probably fall a bit, so make sure that it’s not a dramatic drop.
2) Follow a ketogenic diet for a couple of days. Use pee-sticks to make sure it’s working. Not everyone can handle a ketogenic diet, so if it makes you feel ill, stop. Try step 3 instead.
3) You can dose yourself with exogenous ketones to speed up the process of switching over. Exogenous ketones or ketogenic foods that I have used successfully (as measured by pee-sticks) include medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and raspberry ketones. When your pee-sticks tell you you are in a moderate state of ketosis, such as about 2-3 mmol/L, then stop eating. See how 24 hours feels. If you get really hungry, or dizzy, or your blood pressure drops, or anything like that, then BREAK YOUR FAST. With breakfast, obviously. But unless there are some odd medical issues, 24 hours should be no big deal. Just remember to drink plenty of water. Tea and coffee are also ok.
Just to test this, last Thursday I skipped breakfast, and ate lunch at about 2pm. At 11am I had a ketone level at or close to 0. Lunch was a small salad, with a tin of smoked mackerel in oil, and two teaspoons of MCT oil, and a splash of olive oil. I also took 2 125mg capsules of rasperry ketones (Hi-tech Pharmaceuticals brand) and a 6.33g dose of BCAA's (USPlabs “ModernBCAA+” brand). At 4pm my peesticks told me that I was in ketosis at a level of 4mmol/L. Easy enough!
I am currently about 73kg, stronger than I was in April 2014, and my belt is wearing a new groove at notch 5. If I fasten it at the deeply-worn second notch, there is enough room under my belt now for two bottles of wine.
Further thoughts on fasting:
1) I got all of my weight-loss done without fasting. It’s not necessary for that purpose, but there is a ton of evidence to suggest that it is good for you to fast occasionally. Here are a couple of articles on it: one very pro: Mercola and one from the UK National Health Service, specifically about 5:2 intermittent fasting, which I don't do, which is more measured: NHS.)Whether the benefits come from being in ketosis (which can be achieved without fasting), or from the short-term calorie restriction, or some other mechanism, is not clear yet. But it is abundantly clear that throughout human history, we have had to be able to function for short periods without food, and indeed many traditional cultures (including Christianity’s Lent and Islam’s Ramadan) incorporate longer fasts into their yearly calendar.
2) There is nothing inherently virtuous in not eating. It’s just a training tool, like push-ups and meditation. Do it because it generates specific benefits.
3) Don’t overdo it. Fasting gets much easier with practice. These days, I routinely fast for 24 hours with no preparation, about once a week. It does wonders for re-setting my metabolism. After Christmas I was so full I didn’t eat for 48 hours. No biggy. I’m planning a 5 day fast for later in the year; it takes planning because eating meals with the children is a big part of family life. If you don’t have kids, then it’s probably much easier.
5) For me, the point of fasting is to reap the metabolic benefits and to test that my diet allows me to be free of the need to eat for 24 hours or so. I never feel deprived when fasting, so I don’t feel any need to ‘make up for it’ with a stupid blow-out. I do stupid blow-outs every now and then just because I like them, and because my habits seem to be good, I can get away with the occasional splurge.
6) I think that as a martial artist I just jolly well ought to be able to work fine without food for a short time. Not eat for a day or two, and still fight. In feels simply unmartial to me to be slavishly dependent on a totally reliable food source for my effectiveness. An army marches on its stomach, yes. But I don't think there has ever been an army in combat that didn't go hungry at least occasionally.
Some further thoughts:
If you are trying to control your weight, try changing one thing a time. The first big thing I would is add vegetables. A decent serving of green vegetables at every meal will do wonders all by itself to make up for any dietary deficiencies, and fill you up a bit, which will reduce the amount of other stuff you eat. Also, the fibre in the vegetables will slow down sugar absorption, at least up to a point.
Then, the next thing to try is to cut out fast carbs. Cheat once a week if you must, but make sure you are always eating lots and lots of vegetables, and some decent high-quality fat. So fry your vegetables in organic butter 🙂 If this is too hard, then do it for just one meal a day, ideally breakfast.
The scales are a very blunt instrument. You might drop a bunch of weight, and actually be getting fatter, if you are losing muscle mass instead of the lard. I would take waist measurement over weight as an indicator of progress (see that belt?). I would also take all measurements at the same time of day, on the same day, once a week and not more often. This is much more reliable and less depressing than watching your weight fluctuate from morning to night (as it invariably does).
Systems are better than goals (as Scott Adams says in his interesting How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). If you are trying to get your weight down to a certain point, every day that you are not at your target weight, you are a failure. This is not good. Better to try a different system (such as replacing your starch intake with extra vegetables) and just see what happens. Systems are sustainable. Goals are less so, because when you reach them, then what?
So, that’s how I lost 10kg without really trying. Will it work for you? I’ve no idea. But you can try it without risk, because all it requires you to do is eat lots of vegetables and cut out one type of food that you don’t really need: fast carbs.
And let me reiterate: I'm not your doctor. I believe in trying things out sensibly, and building healthy habits. This worked for me; we have a lot of DNA in common, so it's probably at least worth trying for you. I wouldn't put it more strongly than that.
I have been meditating in one form or another for about 18 years. Of all the things I do to be a better human, and a better martial artist, writer and teacher, I think meditation is perhaps the most important, and the most effective in terms of time spent to results obtained. This is because 95% of training happens in the brain, and you need your brain to do the other 5% too. Meditation can work like defragging your hard drive, installing a better CPU, quadrupling your RAM, and upgrading your operating system. Only better. There are a dozens of studies that suggest that meditation is good for you. And there are a bagillion pages of hippy crap out there too claiming it will make you fly, or infinitely wise, or good in bed, or whatever other nonsense. Here are two articles, both from major government health organisations: the UK National Health Service, and the US NCCIH, which seem to conclude that it's healthy.
Tim Ferriss has an interesting podcast where he interviews overachievers of every kind, and one thing that they all seem to have in common is they meditate. I've written before on how it can help to manage fear, but I thought I'd introduce it in a more practical way to those for whom it's unfamiliar.
There are lots of different ways to meditate, with lots of different effects, and of course every system claims wonders for its own special style. But really, meditation is about two things: focus and awareness. The easiest place to start, I think, is with “mindfulness of breathing”. It goes like this:
Set a timer. I recommend perhaps 3 minutes if this is your first ever go.
Sit comfortably, or lie down. I like sitting cross-legged on a kicking pad, at the salle, or on my pillows in bed if I've just woken up, or on the floor in my study if I don't want to wake my wife.
Close your eyes, and notice your breathing. Don't interfere with it, just pay attention. if that's a bit vague, try noticing the feeling of the breath coming in through your nostrils, and out of your mouth.
Start counting your breaths, one in, out, two in out, three in out, etc.
When (not if) your mind wanders, just notice that it has wandered, and bring it gently back, starting the count at one.
If you get to ten without distraction, go back to one anyway.
Keep doing this until the timer goes off.
Repeat this every day. First thing in the morning is probably best, but any time will do. I do it on waking.
I usually set my timer for about 10 minutes, or 20. No more, because I'm not a Buddhist monk. On a good day, I get up to about six breaths, sometimes even 10 without distraction, but quite often it goes one, one, one, one, one, one, one two Yay I got past one! oops, now I'm distracted again one, one, one. That's ok. The practice is the process of gently returning your attention to the breath. Nobody cares that you did 10 rounds of 10 breaths without your mind wandering even once. Any computer will do that for you, and better. This meditation teaches you a relaxed, gentle focus. If the timer going off feels like a surprise, that's great. Try adding a minute or two to the time on your next session. Or not. If you can't wait for the damn thing to beep already, that's ok too. Be gentle. And set your morning alarm three minutes earlier. You can manage that, right?
The next stage is to apply that focus to something beyond your breath, such as the feelings in your body. I have used this extensively to help me deal with the feelings that have been boiling up during my boarding school recovery. The idea is that by making space for the feelings, and being aware of them, they cease to control you and fade away. When, for instance, a wave of grief would hit, I would just sit with it, and it would pass. It's also generally useful in that it teaches mindfulness as a specific skill unconnected to your daily tasks. I have recently come across Tara Brach's guided meditations, which seem pretty good. I've linked to her page of basic, beginner-friendly guided meditations, but I personally use a couple of the longer ones. I'm also trying out the “Calm” app, which has a free course of seven guided meditations, which is a really good introduction for complete beginners to the practice.
Give it five minutes a day, every day. After 10 days, if it's doing nothing for you, stop. But I'm confident you'll already be giving it 7 minutes. Or 10. Because it's wonderful.
I'm giving a lot of thought these days to the parts of my practice that are not directly sword-related. Over the last 15 years of being a professional swordsman I have spent perhaps 10% of my training time sword-in-hand. This may seem odd, but as I see it, the sword is just the tool; a drill-bit in a drill, the head of the spear, the arrow not the bow. So I have spent most of my time upgrading my hardware (with breathing exercises, strength training, mobility training, joint maintenance, this sort of thing), and my operating system (with meditation, study, research, interacting with other practitioners and so forth). This makes running “Art of Arms 1.0” easy (though creating “Art of Arms 1.0” has been really hard!). Sword practice, such as striking targets, solo forms, pair drills, fencing, and demonstrations in class, combined add up to only a fraction of the total time. My results speak for themselves; you can google my fencing matches on youtube if you want to see how I fence, or just ask my students.
This is why my book The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Artsincludes a lot of practical advice on things like nutrition, sleep, and yes, meditation too. You need your body and mind working properly to practice! The book also covers breathing practices, some of which are also a form of meditation. For an in-depth look at my breathing training, you should have a look at my breathing course. You may also find this article from Groom and Style interesting as it goes into some variations of breathing exercises that I don't cover, and gives some background information with fancy graphics.
I recommend sharing this post with everyone you know who is even a little bit stressed out!
I’m writing this in SeaTac airport, on my way home after teaching classes for my chaps at Lonin. One of the many benefits of my travel schedule is I get to actually spend time with some of my favourite people, even though we live continents apart. Another benefit is that I can see and do things that I can’t get at home. I arrived on Thursday evening, and was picked up and taken home by Eric Artz, who then took me out to dinner at the incredibly good Harvest Vine restaurant, which treated us to a series of wonderful small plates; the Spanish food was as good here as it was in Spain!
I have been working on my jet-lag management, which has reaped dividends in that though I did wake up at stupid-o’clock, I managed to get back to sleep again. Which was as well, because the inestimable Magali Messac, gyrotonics teacher extraordinaire (and wife of martial arts legend Ellis Amdur, which is how we met), had agreed to introduce me to the movement system. It’s a bit like Pilates, in that it uses some very odd equipment with pulleys and weights and such, and Magali gently took me through the basic movements. First on a stool, then on the equipment. It was a really lovely way to get the aeroplane out of my spine. I’ll be incorporating the stuff we did seated into my normal exercise routines, as it requires a full, gentle expression of every range of movement. Magali is passing on her studio to a long-time gyrotonics expert, and student of hers, Vincent, who I also got to meet at the studio.
Friday night saw me in the loft salle at SANCA, where Lonin has their headquarters. It is so nice to be there; in a space dedicated to the arts I practice, plus some interesting additions (which I’ll get to later).
The weekend seminar was on a much more lenient schedule than usual; we had just 3 hours in the morning, then lunch together, and that was it. I packed in as much material as I could, and I think my chaps have plenty to work with. It was a particular pleasure to meet and train with Amanda Trail, who came all the way from Spokane for the seminar.
Saturday evening was interesting; instead of the usual going out with the students, Eric took me along to the birthday party of one of his wife’s friends. So what? you might ask? It was held in a curling rink, and we all got to have a go at curling. You know, sliding rocks on ice and sweeping like a maniac. It was a lovely party, with Susan (the birthday girl) welcoming an additional guest like an old friend.
Sunday morning and more swords, of course; as is usual for me these days, I asked the students what exactly they needed from me, then gave them that. That evening I decamped from Eric and Michelle’s, and went to stay with Neal, just back from Wellington. I spent Monday morning mostly just mooching about and catching up on admin, because I was back in the loft teaching Monday evening (not strictly part of the seminar, but while I’m in town it seems mad not to give them all the training they can handle). We covered grounding, and using dagger training to introduce beginners to principles. Lots of fun!
Tuesday was perhaps my favourite day of the trip: trapeze in the morning, blacksmithing in the afternoon, and Victorian calisthenics (Indian clubs and so forth) in the evening. Today I ache just about everywhere! I've written elsewhere about the importance of trying new things; these three were all well outside my normal range of activity.
Coming to teach at the loft is an interesting experience because it looks out onto one of the SANCA training spaces. Circus people seem to like doing things very high off the ground, so we don’t even need to look down. Indeed, sometimes I’d lose my thread when teaching because an acrobat appears in my eyeline doing something impossible, and I just gawp in awe.
Nobody gawped in awe at me on the trapeze though, though they might have had a giggle at it. I have a video uploading slowly to youtube to embed here in due course, but if you can't live a moment longer without seeing the full nail-biting action of circus' newest star, then you can find it on my Facebook page.
My teacher, Milla Marshall, took me through a quick warm-up (lots of odd jumps on the long trampoline track), then we went through getting onto the trapeze, and doing tricks. Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about hanging upside down; one of the reasons I wanted to do this was to practice dealing with that terror. Oddly enough, the one most frightening bit was not upside down at all; it was the lamppost. Standing sideways on the trapeze, and taking one arm off to the side. My whole body screamed not to do it, as I’d inevitably fall and break something. The fact that the trapeze was so low that I could fall from it safely was beside the point; it might as well have been suspended over a pit full of crocodiles for all my subconscious had to say about it. Milla also had me climb a rope, and then have a go on the silks. It was a fantastic experience; especially the upside-down star, demonstrated here.
Upside down star: it was such fun I burst out laughing every time I went into it!
I didn’t do the crucifix; I left that to the professional!
Milla in flight
Back at Neal’s, he had been wanting to try the core blacksmithing technique of “drawing out”. I won’t explain it here, but basically, you heat up the steel, and bash it on the edge of the anvil to make it draw out into a point. This was my first time doing blacksmithing, but I’ve always wanted to try it. And oh my, it was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped. If I quit swords to become a maker of grates and pokers, do not be surprised!
In Neal's basement; my first blacksmithing experience!
Then in the evening it was back to SANCA for Neal’s BWAHAHA class; we started out with a lot of Indian clubs, and then at Neal’s request I took the class through some walking stick self-defence (or murder, depending on your perspective). We had a lot of fun, especially with the joint locks. It was great catching up with Nathan Barnett, and in the pub afterwards, the excellent Tim Ruzicki, who I’ve known since DDS days back in the late nineties.
This morning was spent packing, and I footled into town to pick up some supplies for an experiment I’m planning, on using ketosis. I’ll keep you posted, but in the meantime, if you don’t know what ketosis is or what it’s good for, I recommend this podcast with Dr Dom D’Agostino, interviewed by Tim Ferriss.
It's been a lovely trip; thanks again to Eric, Neal, Haley, Magali, Milla, Michelle, Ellen, and the rest of the Lonin crew!
I travel a lot, and by the end of this year alone I'll have been to Finland, Germany, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia. That's a lot of time zones. Fortunately this is not new for me, and I’ve been working on solutions to jet lag for many years. Here are my top seven tips.
1. Morning routine
The blogosphere abounds with morning routine advice. Really, from Tim Ferriss (it’s a question he asks every guest on his really interesting podcast) to this great article on BrainPickings it would seem that all the major players have a set routine.
The problem has been that my days vary hugely. From the times that my kids have to be off for school (0745 some days, 0840 on others), to the amount of my energy it takes to get the little beasts fed and dressed, every morning is different. I have found that having a set morning routine made me fragile; if anything derailed it, then the whole morning (my most productive writing time) was shot. Instead, I have developed a more flexible approach, and can switch on productivity mode pretty much instantly. However, this autumn, having to operate professionally after a 30 hour trip on a 10 hour time zone shift has made me create one.
The point of a set morning routine is to make my body associate specific stimuli with a certain time of day. My current morning routine looks like this:
Wake up, and immediately go into a new breathing exercise, which I got from Wim Hof (the Iceman). It starts with 15 deep slow breaths, then 30 hyperventilations, then hold empty for as long as possible, then breath in and hold for 15 seconds, then breath out. I usually do 1-3 sets, and some gentle push-ups and stretches, often during the hold-empty phase.
Then I do a few kettlebell overhead presses with either my 16kg or 24kg bell.
This is followed by a nasal rinse and teeth brushing, then a cold shower (yes, really). Either a cold-only shower, or if I'm feeling a bit delicate, a cold-hot-cold shower.
Then breakfast, including coffee. This is the only time of day I drink coffee (it keeps me awake otherwise), so that by itself is a clear indication that it’s morning.
As you can see, that’s a pretty strong set of stimuli, none of which require special equipment except the kettlebells. I am also pretty strict about the rest of the day; Earl Grey at about 4pm, for instance. Lots of little triggers that tell me what time it is, and trick my body into believing it.
The problem with jet lag is fatigue, which is best cured by sleep. It doesn’t matter so much what time of day I’ve slept, so long as I’ve had enough in the past 24 hours. One of the privileges of my job is that I set my own schedule, and I almost never work in the afternoons. They are for playing with my kids, reading, or naps. I usually nap at least twice a week. This means that I can sleep in the afternoon at the destination without it telling my body that it’s night time, so it doesn’t interfere with my time adjustment.
3. Get ahead of the curve
The moment I get on the first flight of the trip, I set my watch and all other clocks to the destination time. Then I am careful to follow the proper routines for the time of day. So dinner on the aeroplane might be called “lunch”, or even “breakfast”. And sleeping on the plane, which I’m not great at, is either done at “night”, or is an “afternoon nap”. This means I’ve been adjusting to the new time zone for at least a full day before arrival.
4. Noise cancelling headphones
Oh my. These make such a difference. I was deeply sceptical until a friend of mine in Singapore (Chris Blakey, top chap), suggested I try them. They massively reduce the background noise on the plane, making sleep much easier, and reducing fatigue (again, the real problem of jet lag). I wore out my first (cheap) pair in about 7 years, and bought myself a pair of the Bose QuietComfort 25s in Sydney. Something about the exchange rates made these half the price there that they are in Europe! And the sound reduction is STELLAR. They also make watching movies on the plane much nicer, as you can really hear every bit of the soundtrack. Quiet and very comfortable!
Sorry! Can't hear you!
5. Melatonin supplements
I tried these for the first time on a trip to New Zealand in 2015, and they were great for getting me to fall asleep at the necessary time. One of the curses of jet lag is waking up too early, after not enough sleep. These seemed to put me right back out again, in about 10 minutes, without any of the side-effects or other problems of sleeping pills (which I never take). At 13 euros for 30 pills they are not cheap, but they paid for themselves in sleep on the first day.
6. Eat early
I got this idea from Dr. Rhonda Patrick on Tim Ferriss's podcast. Basically, your muscles have a metabolic clock in them, which is strongly affected by the timing of your meals. Eating early, and leaving a solid 14 hours between last bite at night and first bite in the morning, co-ordinates the metabolic clock with your circadian rhythm. You know the feeling of being awake, but your body seems to be still asleep? This knocks that right on the head. I was astonished at the difference it made the first time I tried it.
This is so obvious I left it out of the first version of this post, but I shouldn't have. Get sunlight in your face in the morning of your target timezone, and avoid it in the afternoon and evening. It makes a huge difference; the slowest t jet-lag recovery I ever had was after a return from Seattle to two weeks in the UK where I didn't see the sun once, it was cloudy the whole time. It was awful.
I hope you find this useful, wherever and whenever you travel!
So you want to stand on one of these? Why? image from: http://www.postgraduatesearch.com/postgraduate-jargon-explained/ap-55456/
All world-class tournament competitors in low-contact combat sports use this method to succeed in tournaments. Whether you want to treat your tournament career like this is a whole other question, but, at the top level, everybody is doing this because it’s the only method that works.
1. Analyse the Rules
Analyse the rule-sets, equipment, and every other aspect of the tournament environment. Your job is to score more points than your opponent in that environment and that’s it. You are not there to look good, be popular, or gain respect. You are there to win, and win only, according to the rules that are set.
Here’s an example of this in action: in 1999 Tim Ferriss, with a couple of months of preparation, won the Chinese kickboxing US national championship. He did this only because he found a loophole in the rules that allowed him to win by dehydrating himself before weigh-in down to 165lb, rehydrate back up to over 180 between weigh-in and the tournament, and, avoiding kicking and punching altogether, pick up his much lighter opponents and throw them out of the ring. Did he beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. (In the article I link to, he writes about “how to win at kickboxing the wrong way”!) Did he win? Yes.
Here’s another example: Johan Harmenberg, who pretty much single-handedly destroyed sport fencing (in my eyes at least), by ignoring conventions and analysing the rules to figure out a new and more effective way to score and not get scored on with the electronic scoring apparatus. He got from nowhere to World champion and Olympic champion in a few years. I highly recommend his book Epee 2.0 which recounts the details of how he did it. Did he beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. Did he win? Yes.
2. Create an Area of Excellence.
Pick one, or maximum two actions that lead to you striking, and train the hell out of them. Start with the action itself, and then work back to create the situation in which you can pull it off. Harmenberg’s action was the parry sixte-riposte. Ferriss’ was throwing people out of the wring (he has a background in judo and college wrestling). In every match, your only job is to lead your opponent into your area of excellence, where you can beat them. You need one world-class action in your repertoire. But only one, and it should suit your physical and mental strengths. Don’t waste time getting good at things you are not going to get world-class at. Will you beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. Will you win? Maybe.
3. Analyse your likely opponents
Who are the few individuals you are most likely to be beaten by? Go over every second of their tournament footage and analyse exactly what they are doing to win. What is their area of excellence? Your job now is to train ways to keep them out of their area of excellence, and lead them into yours. Your coach’s job is to model their behaviour to give you the opportunity to train against their specific game. For lower ranked opponents, you have to rely on your general skill at leading people into your area of excellence; you can't train specifically against more than a few opponents, there just isn't enough time.
Will you beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. Will you win? Probably.
The problem of course is that all world-class competitors are doing the same thing, analysing you (once you become successful enough to become a threat and so warrant attention). This is why every now and then a complete outsider comes out of nowhere and wins: he or she has prepared to fight the best; but the best have never seen his one area of excellence before.
The best books on this subject that I’m aware of are Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, which details how he went from chess champion to world champion in push-hands (the moment when he realised that the one opponent he had trained to beat was now in a different weight class was priceless. As was the moment when they realised that the ring was now a tad smaller), and the aforementioned Johan Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0.
This process is simple. But it is not easy. And, personally, I am much more interested in the spirit of the Art. Which is why I don’t normally train students for tournaments, but will if I’m asked to. I have the necessary skill-set, but it’s not a terribly interesting field for me.
I would also note here that I do not think that everyone should train like this for tournaments; there are plenty of ways to have fun and learn useful things from tournaments without going all-out to win them. But the topic of this post is not how to use tournaments, nor how to enjoy them. It’s how to win them. And this is the only way to train for that in any truly competitive field.
I am sometimes asked to cover a specific topic on this blog. In this case, Lisa Jenkins, from the Minnesota Sword Club sent me this question:
I was wondering if you would share a blog post on practical things like sports nutrition for hema, and ways to keep cool and hydrated while exercising underneath a lot of protective gear (our club has no air conditioning.) I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about these aspects of training. I read in your Swordsman’s Companion book that you run a school that treats students holistically—I’d be very interested in getting an idea of what you include in your system.
Nutrition is a huge and knotty subject, so let’s deal with hydration and keeping cool first.
If you are training in hot conditions, drink plenty of water; my key indicator for this is bathroom breaks. There’s a saying I learned living in the tropics; if you don’t need to pee, you’re dehydrated. If drinking water doesn’t help, and especially if you are feeling dizzy but have been keeping your fluids up, then check your salt intake. I do this by mixing a teaspoon of table salt with just enough water to dissolve most of it, and taste it. If it tastes horrible, you shouldn’t drink it; if it tastes wonderful, you’re probably salt depleted and should drink it down, followed by a glass of water.
Given that it is only hot in Finland for about ten minutes per year (well, this summer about two months), we could schedule most full-kit training to more temperate times of year. (We don't.) But in case that’s not an option, then overheating in kit, like anything else, can be trained for. Gradually and systematically build up your tolerance for overheating, the way you would gradually and systematically build up your push-ups.
Above all, know when to stop. A few years ago I held the field at WMAW, against all comers with any weapon, in a swelteringly hot gym. It was great fun, but after an hour or so, while I was hot and getting tired, I shivered. A full-body shudder, like I was soaking wet on a freezing Scottish hillside in winter. So I had just one more bout, and stopped. (As a responsible instructor, I should have stopped immediately. But there was a queue of people waiting to fight me, and I couldn’t bear to let them all down.)
Now for nutrition. Here are some key ideas.
Food is personal
Food is one of those topics that entire lifestyles can revolve around. It is a critical part of every culture; there are no culturally-neutral cuisines. Foods also tend to have deeply personal associations. My grandma’s cherry pie is, I’m sorry to have to break this to you, way better than yours. Roast turkey with all the trimmings, but at Easter not Christmas? That would be weird, right? My brother-in-law is Jewish, and my sister-in-law is Muslim, so neither are likely to be found scoffing bacon, and so on.
Just because a food is culturally mandated, or culturally taboo, does not necessarily make kit healthy or unhealthy. But it does make it very hard to objectively assess whether a specific food belongs in your diet or not. Keep this in mind; your belief in the health-giving properties of apple pie may be unfounded in medical fact.
Food is a drug
The human body is a fantastically complicated machine, and the precise effect of any given thing on it is hard to predict. I think we can all agree that decapitation is unhealthy, and breathing air is healthy, but between those two extremes, there is a massive amount of variation. For example, I once ate a lovely healthy salad with chicken at a hotel in Edinburgh, while sat across from someone who would have been dead in 24 hours had she eaten the same. She was in the last stages of kidney failure, and the protein would have been utterly toxic to her. She died a couple of months later, having extended her life by several years by severely restricting her protein intake. So while it is important to have a good idea of what any given food tends to do to most human bodies, it is vital to know precisely what it does to your specific body. And just like with other drugs, a large part of food’s effect is placebo or nocebo. Honestly believing that cyanide is good for you does not make it so; but in the normal range of foods, how you feel about what you eat has an effect on what it will do to you.
Alcohol is a good example of this; there are measurable, non-imaginary chemical effects of alcohol ingestion; but the behavioral changes brought on by intoxication are entirely cultural. It makes you gregarious, or badly behaved, or whatever else it does, because you are conditioned to think it will by the culture you live in. Read Kate Fox on the subject here.
[Disclaimer; I am trying out Amazon affiliate links. So every one of these links below is one. I give you my word that I will only ever link to a book that 1) I own 2) I am glad I own 3) I think is truly relevant to the topic at hand. If I need to refer to a book that does not meet those criteria, I will note the title and author, but not link to it.]
The problem with doctors
Doctors, like soldiers, tend to be very conservative. If something appears to work, don’t change it. Don’t experiment. Because when the consequences of a failed experiment is people die, conservatism and caution are not just advisable, they are a moral imperative. Non nocere (do no harm) is the essence of the Hippocratic Oath. But this conservatism can also work in reverse; it took Dr Alice Stewart decades to convince the medical establishment that it is dangerous to x-ray pregnant women; thousands of children were killed by cancers caused by in-utero irradiation after she had proved that it was happening. (See Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, pp 60-67). So, just because a doctor says it’s so, does not necessarily mean it is. Doctors are highly trained experts, with a professional aversion to change, and they are all, every last one of them, human. It is foolish to think that doctors are infallible health gods.
So, the problem with doctors is often the patient. Doctors are not responsible for your health; you are. Doctors are professionals you hire to fix problems that are outside your competence. The person who services your car probably does not fill it up with fuel every time it runs low; you do. You don’t call a plumber to flush the toilet (I hope). The point at which your competence ends and you need to call in an expert varies hugely from person to person, and domain to domain. I don’t need a mechanic to check my oil level, but I never touch my car with a tool. I can change a washer in a tap, but I would not install a boiler. I don’t need a doctor to diagnose a cold, or to mop my fevered brow (that’s my wife’s job, poor woman), but if I can’t figure out what’s wrong, I call in a professional.
So a doctor’s advice on what you should eat will tend to stick with what usually works ok for most people, and be extremely moderate. It is very unlikely to hurt you, but it may not boost your performance at all.
Be a soldier or an athlete
World-class athletes tend to have their diet planned down to the last grain of rice (if their diet allows rice), and scheduled extremely precisely to ensure maximum performance at a single thing (running 100m OR a marathon; boxing OR wrestling) on a specific, known, future date. When the difference between Olympic gold and obscurity are measured in fractions of a percent in difference in performance, this only makes sense.
Soldiers on the other hand cannot tell in advance when they will be under fire, when they will be humping 25kg packs over desert hills or sprinting for cover through jungle, when they may be resupplied or when they will be living off the rations in their belt pouches for a week or even longer. So while general good nutrition is essential, and while a good quartermaster will win more battles than a good general, soldiers tend to eat what they can get, when they can get it. The key skill there is tolerance for variation.
In my view, martial artists (as opposed to combat sportsmen) should follow a healthy diet, yes, but never get precious about what and when they eat. “I didn’t get my organic bacon for breakfast”, or “I timed my protein intake wrong” are not valid excuses for losing a fight.
A good story is not always true.
“Fat makes you fat.” Makes sense, but there is bugger-all evidence for it. Plenty of people on a high fat diet are skinny- if they also avoid sugar. Likewise “Energy in, energy out.” Yes, the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. But the variables of what your body does with the energy that comes in as food are huge. A friend of mine worked in a lab where they put mice on a low-calorie diet, but also injected the hormone leptin into their brains. The results, in my friend’s immortal phrase: furry tennis balls. Food is a drug; some foods trigger fat deposition, other foods can trigger fat burning; the body is complex. See Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.
“We evolved in an environment in which certain foods were available; reproducing that (eg the Paleo diet) must be healthier, because it’s the diet we evolved to survive on”. Well, yes and no. I tend to agree that eating like a cave-man is probably closest to the diet we evolved to survive on, but: 1) we don’t know exactly what cave-men ate, nor how often. 2) Cave-men did not all eat the same things. Compare for example the known diets of pre-agricultural Native American tribes. Pre-industrial societies invariably eat what they can get. 3) We cannot reproduce all aspects of the cave-man diet, not least because the ranges of produce are huge, and locally specific. 4) We cannot know what else they did that may have improved their lifespan. For instance, for sure they didn’t sit on chairs, nor sleep in beds. But they also had a horrifically high rate of infant mortality, death by violence (pre-industrial tribes that survived into the modern era had rates of death by violence of about 25% of males. Today, on the mean streets of New York, it’s about 1 in 100,000, or 0.001%: see Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature). 5) Paleolithic life expectancy is generally thought to be pretty damn low. Was all of that environmental, or may some of it have come from their diet? We don’t know. 6) We do know that early agricultural societies appear to have much higher rates of disease and lower life expectancies than comparable pre-agricultural societies. Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and many cancers do appear to be diseases of modernity. But how much of that is down to diet as opposed to (for example) exercise? Nobody knows for sure. 7) Many modern inventions (like antibiotics and surgery) save lives. It is also possible that modern foodstuffs could, in theory, do the same (yes, I doubt it too. But you never know).
So, don’t be taken in by a story. Test any dietary changes systematically, give each change time to take effect (at least a couple of weeks, I would think) and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Take nothing on faith (especially not a random blog post by some sword-swinging lunatic).
The 80-20 principle
In all things where you don’t want to invest major effort in becoming a world expert, the 80-20 principle (also known as the Pareto principle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle) applies. It states that 80 percent of outcomes come from 20 percent of causes, and so long as you don’t take the numbers too literally, it is largely true. I do not agree with any diet that requires really specific foods at really specific intervals, unless you are seriously ill and under doctor’s orders, or an Olympic hopeful. If you’d like to see self-experimentation taken into 99.999-0.001 extremes (with a lot of good material on a range of health and training subjects), see Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body. The man even had himself fitted with a real-time blood-sugar monitor to test the effect of various foods. Fascinating stuff.
So here are some general guidelines, which if you follow them, will probably lead you to a healthy diet (and thus make you healthier, and therefore able to train more, and therefore a better swordsman).
1) Change one thing at a time. The first step, I would suggest, is avoid refined sugar. Nobody has ever demonstrated that it is at all good for you, so save it for treats. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself, and pay attention to what effect each change has on you.
2) Eat lots of vegetables. If it is not obviously part of a plant, it doesn’t count (unless you process it yourself). Major starch sources don't count either (potatoes, corn, grains etc.) Fresh and in season is best, frozen or canned are ok too. Michael Pollan is good on this: Omnivore's Dilemma, and others.
3) Eat high-quality meat only. Avoid processed stuff. This is not only a matter of health, but also of morality. What people do to cows to make them fat is way beyond disgusting. Cows should eat grass outside. (Be a vegetarian if you must, but veganism is, for the overwhelming majority of people, a deeply unhealthy long-term life choice.) See The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, for details.
4) Only consume things that have been produced the same way and product tested for a minimum of 500 years. Coffee, beer, tea, wine, meat, vegetables, bread (made properly, none of this absurd 20-minute rising nonsense), all good. Factory-produced stuff? Might be good, might be bad, you have no way to know. So be conservative. Food should come from a garden via a kitchen, not from a factory. See The Omnivore’s Dilemma (again), and Brave Old World by Tom Hodgkinson.
5) Cook. Take an interest in, and control over, what you eat. It doesn’t have to be complicated or take much time, especially if you are preparing food from good quality ingredients. By far the best book for people who might think “I have no idea about cooking, it’s intimidating and difficult” I have ever come across is Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Chef.
6) Give each change time to take effect, before you assess its effectiveness.
Indicators of a good diet
When making changes to your diet, the key indicator is of course how you feel. But it is well worth keeping track of the following, to see what effect each change is having.
Weight. Since dropping most sugar, and a lot of the starch from my diet, I lost 10kg in about 3 weeks). I now weigh 75kg, which is a kilo heavier than when I was super-fit and trying really hard to keep weight on, at age 30. Weigh yourself at the same time of day, and on the same scales, once a week.
Waist size. Weight gain and loss can come from anywhere, and a lot of it may be simply water. As a general guideline, if your waist is smaller than your hips, you’ll fit into your kit better. But I find buying trousers is hell. If they can be pulled up over my thighs, I could fit a couple of hardbacks in the waistband.
Poo consistency: as every parent knows, poo is a great indicator of general health. Parents, especially of babies, can discuss poo at length. Anything that makes pooing harder, or painful, or especially stinky, is probably bad for you. There is no better indication of good diet, really.
Energy levels. These are very subjective, and can be affected by many factors other than diet. But if you find you need to snack to get through the day, you are probably eating sub-optimally. I found cutting sugar evened out my crashes very effectively.
Frequency of minor illnesses: again, this is actually quite hard to track. But if a diet leaves you feeling tired, or it feels like you are more prone to picking up stray bugs, then abandon it. And vice-versa, of course.
In short, when it comes to nutrition, you should to pay attention to your body, read up on some sciencey books so you know what’s going on inside you, and use some good common sense. Fresh vegetables? Good for you. Ice-cream? Not a staple food. A martial artist must take care of their body; just as a soldier takes care of their rifle, or a swordsman takes care of their sword.
One of the great advantages of being a professional swordsman in the 21st century is that nobody can reasonably expect you to be normal. As you might imagine, I engage in all sorts of odd behaviour, in the name of good physical and mental health, above and beyond simply swinging swords around in a historical and martial manner. Of course I do meditation and breathing exercises, nothing unusual there. And all sorts of physical jerks, push-ups and whatnot. That’s not odd, really: million of people do those. But these three habits are the ones that our current culture is most skewed against, and so by that standard count as weird.
My top three bizarro practices, from a 21st century perspective, are:
1) Avoid sugar.
Reading up on the effects of refined sugar has lead me to believe that after smoking, our addiction to the sugar high is probably the worst thing we do to ourselves. Why is it that we can control and tax alcohol and tobacco as legal luxury drugs, and not do the same to sugar?* Since cutting the sugar high out of my daily routine and relegating it to occasional treat status, I have tightened my belt by two notches, and most importantly, have stopped crashing in the afternoons. It used to be such that when teaching all day, I would have to dose up on sugar in mid-afternoon to function. Now that does not happen; nor do I need a sugar fix to teach in the evenings. We just got through the week-long Fiore Extravaganza, the most exhausting seminar of the year, and I went from start to finish without ever getting seriously physically tired. That’s absence of sugar for you. It was my one most serious cause of chronic fatigue. And it’s in everything! Read the labels on your food; maltodextrin is one of the very few chemicals with a higher glycaemic index than glucose; high fructose corn syrup does not belong in the human body at all; sucrose, dextrose anything with -ose on the end, it’s all poisonous shit.
And starch is sugar too, sort of.
About 5 years ago I found out that I am allergic to wheat, which lead me to naturally cut out a lot of starch; (until I found all these excellent wheat free breads, beers, pastas etc.). It is very hard to eliminate wheat from the modern diet; our entire economy has been based on wheat for three thousand years or so (much like the USA’s is based on corn). Simply cutting wheat did wonders for me, if not for the ease with which I can find food I can eat. Cutting out all other starch sources (pasta, rice, potatoes etc.) has also been hugely helpful; I don’t avoid them the way I have to with wheat, I just don’t eat them that often; about once a week or so. Starch breaks down very quickly into glucose, and thus behaves much like ordinary sugar. I eat enormous amounts of proper vegetables instead, usually fried in olive oil and garlic, often with bacon…
Really it’s astonishing when you think about it; about half of all my beginners cannot squat on their haunches. In other words, can’t take a dump properly. For millennia, mankind have crapped in the woods and fields, and squatted down to do it. Now we enthrone ourselves in porcelain splendour, and grunt and strain to do what should be easy.
Squatting should be a natural rest position. The human body is built to stand, lie down, and squat. I often squat down to play with my kids, read a book, wait for a bus, whatever. Any time my legs or back are tired, I squat. People look at me funny. I don’t care. Chairs are a recent, very welcome and excellent in their place, invention; but healthy they ain’t. Inability to squat is a modern phenomenon, with hard-to-measure consequences. But I always find a bin or a block to prop my feet up on when having a crap; it puts my legs in a much more natural position. One of the advantages of having little kids is that there are standing blocks in our bathroom anyway, so the kids can reach the tap; these do double duty as footstools in the bog.
On a related note, I have played around with flat-soled shoes for years; heeled shoes are needed for riding with open stirrups and not otherwise. Though they can be gorgeous, modern heeled shoes are simply bad for most peoples' back, legs and feet. Barefoot is better. And on a recent trip to Verona to see my friends fight in the Tourneo del Cigno Bianco, I tried out my medieval shoes in the medieval town, and found them to be a perfect compromise between the ghastly modern barefoot shoes, and decent leather ones. With thin flexible leather soles, they are now my normal footwear in all non-freezing weather. I have yet to find a good flat-soled winter boot, and this being Finland, WINTER IS COMING. Any advice?
When I was working as a cabinet maker, and more so now as a hobbyist, I use machines to do the grunt work, and hand tools for the interesting and enjoyable stuff. Machines get the job done; tools make the work a pleasure. For some people, using an electric drill is a step too far towards mechanisation (see Tom Fidgen, for example); for others, they love the roar as the planer starts up. I am making the distinction not on the grounds of the machine itself, but on the user’s relationship with it. Machines to save labour, tools to enhance it. Can you imagine a woodworker who allowed remote access to his table saw? To allow his customers, or friends even, to determine when it’s on and when it’s ok to turn it off? No, me neither. So why do we feel that our friends, co-workers, or clients should have any say in when our own personal pocket phones are to be on or off? Or how often we should check our emails? It’s madness! When I feel like my phone is a tool, a pleasure to use and a thing that is making it easier for me to achieve my ends, I have it on. Otherwise, I turn it off. I check my email when I feel like it; every hour or so when I am eagerly awaiting a message from an old friend about something I care about; every day or so just to check in on whatever things other people might want from me. But sometimes not for a few days, or even a week. And you know what? As nobody’s life depends on my work, nobody has yet died for want of an email from me. Your situation may be different, but ask yourself this: what's the worst that could happen?
There are some people for whom I am always on call. My wife, my kids, my siblings and parents, and maybe five or six close friends. They can demand my immediate attention at any hour, though with the exception of my kids they wield this power with commendable restraint. The rest of the world, even those lovely people who buy my books, come to my classes, those on whom my livelihood depends, of which group I assume you, as a reader of my blog, are likely a member? Nope. Sorry. There is nothing truly urgent in the world of swordsmanship. By all means contact me, I'm happy to hear from you. Just don't expect me to reply immediately.
Recommended reading: none. Go outside and play instead. Or pick up a real book.
So, there are my top three. Bear in mind though, that these are habits, not laws. I don't expect hosts at a dinner party to cut sugar for me; I do sometimes wear my utterly fab and lovely heeled shoes; my favourite armchair has an imprint of my arse deeply worn into it. And I have been known to check email when I should not. Part of my approach to life is the idea that habits have deeper consequences than one-off or rare occurrences; in swordsmanship training, in health matters, and in general. One cigarette won't kill you, but smoking probably will. I never follow any training routine religiously. For some people, whatever behavioural changes they try need to be thought of as laws, or they find they slip back into bad habits too easily. Do what works for you, and let healthy habits be their own reward. I don't know who's reading this, but I'm pretty sure you're a decent person who deserves to be healthy.
You can’t make a living by cutting sugar, squatting, and turning off your phone. You can just make your life much, much healthier. Which makes for a better living.
So, what are your top stay-sane-and-healthy tips?
*In Finland, sugar in candies is taxed as a luxury, but not in doughnuts, cookies etc. And taxed at the point of sale, not at the point where the food companies buy it. I'd like to see sugar-containing food of any kind sold separately, and all taxed like single malt or cigars. It would be too damned expensive for food manufacturers to get us hooked with the white stuff. We'd all be healthier for it. And the taxes would pay for the insulin, cardiac resuscitations, cancer wards and other medical expenses that our illnesses from our sugar fixation require. Let sugar be the new nicotine!
Are you thinking about starting a crowdfunding campaign? Then this post is for you.
Crowdfunding is both an extremely useful and effective way to raise funds for a project, and a deadly trap in which your reputation can be permanently destroyed. It is also a rather new development, and therefore many people are trying it for the first time. Which may be why, so far, only 43.5% of Kickstarter projects have succeeded, and, according to this article, less than 10% of Indiegogo campaigns (my platform of choice) make it. I have run four campaigns so far, with gradually increasing success: my first “failed”, raising only 37% of its target; my second raised 102%, my third, 249% and my current one has two weeks left to run and is already at 489%. [Update: it finally raised 13,510€, 676% of its goal, and the book was published in July.] I am planning a series of blog posts about what I have learned along the way. As with any art, there are fundamental principles and specific skills. I will outline the principles here, and cover the skills in later instalments.
There are lots of different platforms (Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Funded By Me (see here for a helpful list)); types of campaign; types of funding; and so on. In this my first post on the subject I thought I'd start with the foundation that is common to all successful crowdfunding campaigns regardless of type or platform. Three basic principles that if you put them first, will dramatically help your campaign succeed, and even if it should it fail, follow these guidelines and the failure will do you no harm. I cannot overstate the importance of this last point: run a campaign badly and any future efforts will also fail. Run it well, and even if it fails, you can pick yourself up and try again with no harm done.
The three principles of successful crowdfunding as I understand it are:
Let's take them one at a time.
This is where it all starts. You must be completely open and honest about what your project is about, who you are, what you are doing, what mistakes you make, everything. Your potential backers will recognise transparency in the way you present the campaign, which will enhance your credibility; they will also reward transparency with trust when you make mistakes, fail to meet obligations, or in any way err. And you will err, often and publicly, if you are a) human and b) doing something new. You can survive almost any mistake, so long as it is a) honest; b) you are transparent about it; c) you apologise; and d) you offer restitution. For a trivial but amusing example: I wasn’t 100% sure we would get the pdf version of my game, Audatia, out on the deadline of 20th March. So I promised 10 push-ups for every day we were late. We were a day late. Here are the push-ups.
Warn your backers immediately of any likely delay or problem; imagine the worst-case scenario; estimate accordingly, and be transparent about your progress. People hate being kept in the dark more than they hate being let down.
You need to establish not only that your project is way cool, but also that you (or your team, ideally) are able to make it happen. So, credibility is about three things:
1) your skillset
2) your ability to raise the funds
3) your ability to execute the plan in the time and with the money specified.
Your skillset must be clearly sufficient for the task in hand. Let’s take this example: the Roost. The video here shows the designer physically making the high-tech laptop stand. No question about his skills. Or here: the choose your own adventure Hamlet. The video makes it 100% clear that this chap can do what he says he will do. For my own projects; nobody would doubt my ability to write a decent book and get it to market, nor teach swordsmanship. But when we were raising funds for Audatia there was no reason to believe I could design a card game, and quite right too. I couldn’t. But we didn’t go live until we had a playable draft of the game; the campaign was not for me to make a card game: it was to pay for the artwork and printing. Just to make sure, we had draft artwork for some cards already. Backers could see what artwork they would be getting. No credibility problem.
People generally won’t back a campaign that they think won’t make its target, so setting a realistic goal works both ways. You must raise enough money to get the job done, or you end up bankrupt, credibility shot to hell. But if your target is too high, people will be reluctant to back it because they don’t want to get on board a disappointing train. We had this problem with Audatia: the goal was 23,000€. That’s a lot of money for a first-time game company. We could see on message boards etc that there were people who wanted the game but thought we’d never hit such a high target, and so didn’t back us until after we crashed through it. I’ll deal with the art of goal-setting in a separate post, but bear in mind here: your goal must be credible on both fronts: enough to get the job done, but not unrealistically (incredibly?) high.
Then you have to lay out for your backers how this money is enough, combined with your skillset, to make good on your promises. Your personal credibility is at stake.
Ultimately, your campaign is selling something. It could be a physical product, a service, or a feeling of creating a better world. Whatever it is, you have to offer value. A reason for people to buy your thing now. A great example of this is giveaways to backers only; sure, you can buy this in the shops in a year’s time, but our backers not only get it first, they also get this other cool stuff. Wait to buy my longsword book, sure, it’ll be on Amazon by July. But buy it now and you also get most of my back catalogue as free ebooks, and a whole new book not yet published. Good value, if you like swordy books. [Update: This is no longer available, of course.]
For most backers, in my experience, the key added value is that they become part of the process. You, the artist, producer or whatever, need them to make it happen. Your magic widget or fabby-do zombie film, cannot happen without them. They get to be Lorenzo dei Medici, you the humble artisan (eg Michaelangelo). Be sure to let them know that you need them. It’s the truth, after all.
At the moment, I am getting on with making good on my campaign promises (we are working on fulfilling one of Audatia’s stretch goals right now, the Lady Deck, and I’m editing Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists), and so am not writing the next Crowdfunding post just yet. While you are waiting for the next instalment, you might find these other resources on the subject useful.
Tim Ferriss: how to raise 100,000 in 10 days… well, maybe! Lots of useful stuff here though.
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Guy Windsor: a website all about the Renaissance Italian martial arts expert who blends historical accuracy with practical training.