I created this course because many people have difficulty approaching the academic side of HEMA; the original sources can seem daunting, and figuring out how to approach them and develop a live training system from their pages is a major challenge for anyone. The course provides the assistance that beginner researchers need to help them get a working syllabus out of a fencing manual.
I have been creating syllabi for a long time; the seed of the current Swordschool syllabus was planted in a seminar I taught in Turku in 2001. I followed my instinct and in the course of the day, came up with five core drills. The only one of them that has survived almost intact is the current “Second Drill”. I won’t embarrass myself by describing the rest. They were state of the art in 2001, but in those days historical swordsmanship was developing faster than computer technology. We have come a long way.
While I have created many syllabi, I have never taught syllabus creation as a specific skill before so this has been mind-meltingly hard to pin down. I cracked it when I realised that I needed to define the end-point first, and then create the structure that would lead students to it. This part of the course is in three sections: Create the Cornerstone, Build the Foundation, and Construct the Syllabus. You begin by reducing the material to one key drill, then expand that to a small set of easily memorised drills, then use them as a framework for building the rest of the system. The three sections of the course should have been written in reverse order. As it happens, I began with the first section “Create the Cornerstone”. It covers how drills should be designed, what they are for, and how to figure out which elements of your system should be included in the most foundational drill in your system. But the next stage “Build the Foundation” had me stumped for a long time. I know how to do it, I’ve done it many times. But I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Then it came to me: start with the end. So I wrote up how to create an entire syllabus (in “Construct your Syllabus”), and then worked back from there to explain how to create the foundation of that syllabus.
The course also covers choosing a source to work from, analysing its context, analysing the source, developing a basic interpretation, fencing theory, and a ton of other material.
I know some novelists who always start with the last scene of the novel, so they know where the book is going. Others who start from the first scene, and have no idea where they’re going, and yet others who plan the whole book out scene by scene and don’t write a line until they have the whole structure. I think that the students on this course will probably have the same mix of personalities as my writer friends— it strikes me as a universal human phenomenon. Clearly, when it comes to creating this course, I’m a start at the beginning, switch to the end, and then fill in the middle sort of person! I also used a completely new (to me) technique: I shot a first draft of the video, sent it off for transcription, then edited the transcription into a script for the video that ended up being published. It seems to work by engaging parts of my mind I'd had trouble bringing to bear on the problem.
You can see the course curriculum here (scroll down); a lot of it is free to access, so take a look!
From Neil's tumblr blog http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com
Every now and then I come across something that expresses an idea I sort of know and believe, and snaps it into sharp focus. Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech did this for me.* You’ve probably seen it already, but I thought I’d break it down into parts, explain why it’s such outstandingly good advice, and use some examples from my own life to show how it has worked in practice.
“When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing”. And this is a good thing. Neil explains that by not knowing what’s possible and impossible, you can break the artificial rules that those that know what they are doing have created, and so you can end up doing incredible, impossible, things that no sensible, knowledgeable person would ever attempt. In my case, move to Helsinki and open a school of swordsmanship. No business plan, no experience running a professional school, not much skill or knowledge of the Art itself; but I had no idea how far beyond my reach it really was, and somehow managed to stretch myself to attain it.
“If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that”. Most people have no idea what they should do, could do, were born to do. But if you do, then pursue it. Neil describes it as a mountain he was aiming for, and so long as he kept moving in the direction of the mountain, he would be alright. This is very like the question I posed in my previous post about How to Plan Your Life. Saying yes to whatever takes you in the right direction, and no to anything that does not, no matter what other benefits it might offer. This takes discipline (some would say pig-headed stubbornness). He also notes that something that you should say yes to in the beginning, because it leads you towards your goal, you might say no to later, because you’ve moved past the point where it is between you and your goal. If you’re in London and want to get to Edinburgh, a ride to York is helpful. If you’re in Newcastle, a ride to York is in the opposite direction. Sure enough, I’ve found over and over that opportunities I would have jumped at 10 years ago, I say no to now because they’d be a step backwards.
Dealing with failure. Neil has failed many times, sometimes through no fault of his own. His solution is simple: only do work that’s inherently worthwhile. That way, if it fails commercially, or in any other way, it was at least worth doing for its own sake. This is an incredibly useful idea, and one I’ve lived by for a long time. My best failures are things I'm still proud of, even though they failed. My worst failures have done more than anything else to spur my development.
Dealing with success. Neil has had more opportunities than most to get to grips with the problems of success. First up is the problem of Imposter Syndrome, which he acknowledges, but has no solution for. It’s just a thing, and to know that Neil effing Gaiman has felt like a fraud for writing stories kind of puts your own imposter syndrome into perspective. I made some critical mistakes in the first few years of my school thanks to the same thing, but that’s another story.
Another problem of success is you have to stop saying yes to everything, because suddenly everyone wants you to do things for them. It’s a hard switch to make, and is related to the email revelation: by answering fewer emails he got more writing done. Think about that for a minute. In essence, he had to figure out what he was uniquely good at, and focus on that at the expense of other things. Productivity is not so much getting stuff done, as allowing inessential things to slide so you can get the important stuff done. (Deep Work, by Cal Newport, is excellent on this.)
“Make mistakes, because it means you are out there doing something.” Less than half the things I try, projects I start, ideas I have, work. But I do a lot of things, and some of them work, and lo and behold, I have a body of good work to look back on. Sometimes the mistakes are really bad, such as when I managed to kill an ailing branch of the school with a single bad email. Sometimes they are merely embarrassing. But you have to make peace with the idea that, as my grandfather used to say, “if you never make mistakes you never make anything”. Surgeons and pilots are excused from this, of course. But by and large, if nobody will die for it, get out and make as many survivable mistakes as you can.
Make good art.“Husband runs of with a politician? Make good art.” This is the core of the speech, and oh my god it is 100% right at every level down to the very bedrock. When shit happens, as shit inevitably does, it really really helps to have a plan. You can’t predict all the shit that will happen, so you can’t plan for all eventualities. But you can determine your core response, and Make Good Art is the best response to have.** It encompasses everything. When life throws you lemons, make (artistic) lemonade. When everything is hunky-dory, make the best art you can. And it doesn’t matter if you’re ‘not an artist’, because, as Neil says: Make your art. Looking after babies is an art. Cleaning streets is an art. Writing really clear contracts, maintaining public order, designing buildings, running an office, creating spreadsheets, whatever it is you do, make it your art. And no matter what happens, respond by making more of it, and better.
One way to know that your art is good, is to do the things that scare you. The things that leave you vulnerable, the things that might fail. And if they fail? Make (more) good art.
I use this all the time, no matter what has gone right or wrong. Especially when some gimp on the internet disparages my work, I just up and make more of it.
This even works when an orange megalomaniac becomes president-elect of the USA. Make. Good. Art.
Secret Freelancer knowledge: “Be good, be reliable, be nice. Two out of three is enough.” This is useful, but it’s one area where I have to respectfully disagree with the master. As one who hires freelancers, you’d better be good, or I won’t hire you, reliable, or I won’t hire you again, and nice, or I will tell all my friends not to hire you. My freelancers are excellent, dependable, and lovely.
And the kicker: the best advice Neil ever got was from Stephen King, when Sandman was doing really well. “This is really great. You should enjoy it.” And that’s really important. To be really good at something you have to be able to see all the flaws, so it’s hard to take real pride in your work. My solution is to put progress over attainment, process over outcome. But also, when the students clap at the end of a seminar, or when somebody brings a book for me to sign, or when somebody says something nice about my work somewhere public, or when I get a particularly good month of book sales, I try to take a moment to acknowledge the moment. To let go and enjoy the ride, as Neil so wisely put it.
There are many other snippets of usefulness in this amazing speech, but my purpose here is not to rewrite Neil’s work and present it as my own; it’s to exhort you to read it, listen to it, absorb it however you may, then put it to work. As Neil put it: “Make interesting mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”
I can’t put it better than that.
*His commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, 17 May 2012. You can and should buy it in print in his recent collection of non-fiction The View from the Cheap Seats. And watch it here:
**It’s one way of breaking the OODA loop. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. If you know bad things can happen, you’re less likely to get stuck on “orient” (I know people who have lived in denial for years!). If you have a default response, you can cut “decide” altogether. So you end up with “Observe-Act”, which is the goal of operant conditioning training. Who knew Neil was a martial artist?
Tomorrow, I’ll pull the trigger on my latest venture: an online course. It is called “Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources” and by the time it is done, it will be a clear and systematic way for people to learn how to do the academic side of historical swordsmanship. You know, the bit that makes it actually historical. The course is by no means finished: my plan is to have enough material up to keep people busy, and to use the feedback from the students to guide my creation of the rest of the course. I cannot reasonably predict exactly what every student will find difficult, or need extra help with, so I will create the necessary modules as the need arises. I have a fair bit of content up already, including all the homework assignments (which will tell you what the goal of each section is; if you can do the homework, you have acquired the intended skills and knowledge). I have a stable map of what the course will cover, and how it’s broken down. But the specifics of “a pdf with examples of translation problems” or “explain how to set up a more advanced drill”, or “we need more explanation here”; that will be finalised, expanded on, and polished with the first batch of students telling me what they need.
Which is exactly how I run my seminars; start with a theme, ask the students what they need, and give them that.
When I launch it tomorrow, I’ll send a note out to my mailing list, with some 50% off discount vouchers. These are limited to a total of 45 students, because I want to keep enrolments small to start with, while I work on the course content. These vouchers are intended for people who really want to be beta-testers and co-creators. There is nothing stopping people signing up at the full price, but I hope it’s clear that the course isn’t finished yet.
Because the format is so different to what I am used to, this is a really hard process for me; writing books is, if not exactly easy, at least totally straightforward and familiar. But creating an online course is very different. Once this one is properly up and running, I’ll get started on others, such as turning the content of my Medieval Dagger book into a course, and indeed, eventually, the entire School syllabus. Ambitious, much?
I’m writing this in the Atrium Studios space in Suffolk University; they run a “Jelly” networking meetup on the last Thursday of every month, so I came along and met a load of interesting folk. Explaining what I do for a living is a great ice-breaker.
I am also doing a daily vlog thing, partly because my daughters are totally into vloggers right now, and partly to help with goal-setting for creating this course. I’m in a totally new environment (Ipswich), and finding my feet here creatively. It’s hard to get into the proper zone, outside the really specific environment I had created for myself in Helsinki. Perhaps the vlogging will help. I’ve got 5 short clips up so far; you can find them on my personal youtube account (with almost 0 views, because it’s not my main swordschool account). But there may be stuff there you’ll find interesting. I’ve embedded day 1 here, though it’s way out of date! Nearly a week old already!
So, that’s what I’m up to in the land of Sword. How about you?
Last week I ran a survey to find out what I should be working on next. This generated a very clear ‘get on with the “systems from sources” online course' response. I am following orders, and hope to have the first couple of modules up for beta-testers next week. I will set it up so that a small number of people can sign up at a big discount, on the understanding that they will let me know what needs to be improved before I roll it out to the public. I'll send an email to my mailing list when it's ready for preview.
The survey also generated some interesting questions and comments, which I have answered below.
1. Your Syballus for level 4 is a bit confusing when you name the drills but give no clue on how they are done.
My response: Yes. The level 4 drills are all on video, which shows you what they are, but they are not instructional videos. This is deliberate: my syllabus wiki is free, and intended as a reference resource for everyone who is following my syllabus. It is not designed as an online course.
2. I live in a small province on the east coast of Canada and have just started taking longsword instruction at the new and only school in the province. The instructors are basing their instruction on Liechtenauer's work. I know you have an add-on for Audatia based on Liechtenauer, but does any of your work focus on comparing his approaches to the ones you use?
My response: Not really. I actually think that the Liechtenauer material is not a complete system; it is part of a system (as Fiore's Longsword material is too). It seems to me that it assumes a lot of basic training on the part of the user; basics that we find in all other sword styles are simply missing from Liechtenauer. I think that the basic material is shown with the messer, with Liechtenauer's merkeverse being, if you like, the advanced course. I don't find it terribly useful to compare and contrast except with students that have an in-depth knowledge of both.
3. I think a book about building participation on a local level including marketing, weapon and and armour procurement and financing, finding a location and course structure and design would be just jolly. Most new students have a difficult time building momentum, and finding practices. This book should be a ground up treatise on how it was done historically, and how to do it today. Just saying…. I have been at it a few years now and have faced several challenges including being ‘Dear John” ed and the ebb and flow of new faces. Might even want to throw in some info about building a facebook group and how social websites can help(I assume that a social website historically was a pub) TY
The online training course sounds intriguing also…
My response: A book on how to start and run a study group or school… hmm, interesting. I might, but there are already some good books on the subject out there, such as Starting and Running your own Martial Arts School by Karen Levitz Vactor and Susan Lynn Peterson. I don't know anything about how schools were started and run in the past (I have an idea, and there are stories and legends, but hard data not so much). Leaving history aside for a moment, a booklet on how to start and run your own HEMA group might make a good instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide. Let me know if you agree!
Too many damn choices: 1. Breathing is my top pick because no one has really spoken on it. 2. The community needs a review of how to create training systems when pulling from historical treasties. 3. Really, your next book should be something fun, why I chose other: contact Mark Ferrari who did the art for Monkey Island, add in what you know of historical come backs, and then make a book! Just a thought…
My response: I think I'd better get the course up and running and Breathing published, and Sent, before I think about a comedy project… but I'll take that under advisement!
Hi! I love you books and videos! Great work! I am an AEMMA (Canada) club member (Fiore Scholar) working towards my Free Scholar challenge in a few years, so gathering my armour and learning to move, train and fight in armour. Any future material (books, blog entries, videos, seminars) on all things Fiore would be very helpful for me and our club's students – but especially any insights to help with armoured plays/ drilling and sparring would be excellent. Thank you very much, Aaron Beatty (Scholler, instructor AEMMA Guelph, Ontario, Canada).
My response: Thank you Aaron, glad you like my work. Armoured plays and such are a tricky problem for me, now that I'm in Ipswich and not surrounded by armour-wearing thugs. I think this is one area where the guys who run the IAS might be able to help: Sean Hayes, Greg Mele, Jason Smith, Christian Cameron etc all have a lot more time in harness than I do.
I really need the training systems one as it is basically the only thing preventing me from teaching a class.
My response: OK, so the course would be useful for you; but in the meantime have you read this?
Hello, My name is Wiktor Grzelecki, and I'm a long-time reader of your blog. I also bought some of your books and Audatia game. While I disagree with some of your opinions, I greatly value your materials and input. I like the project about online course, but I would also like to ask you about something different. You are a father, I will be a father in a couple of months. I would like to ask you, how do you keep children safe, how do you keep sharp weapons knowing that your children are near them? Would it be enough to just keep them high enough, that they can't reach them? Or would it be better to have a key-closed chest or closet? Similar to those required for firearms? Or simply to show them wooden weapons, and metal ones with you so they lose the “forbidden fruit” taste for children (What I mean is, could kids be less interested in touching weapons if they got used to them? Something like teaching kids to use bb gun so they don't see actual firearm as appealing.). I understand that this is a complex matter, that would also require lots of time to spend with a child to explain what weapons are and how to use them, but I would like to know what do you think?
My response: Congratulations on your impending fatherhood! Kids and weapons.. This is a tricky matter, as it makes people very nervous. I'll explain how I've dealt with it with my kids in my home, but this is “reportage” not “advice”.
Guns: My guns (two revolvers and a semi-automatic) were always in the safe. The kids could ask to see them any time, though they very rarely did, and I would get them out (hiding the 10 digit combination from them), check they were safe, treat them as if they were loaded, and closely supervise how they were handled. They could play all they liked with rubber band guns and cap guns, but the real thing was (obviously) very strictly controlled. Now we live in the UK my guns are at a gunsmith's in Finland, so the issue is moot. If they had wanted to, I would have allowed them to shoot at the range, under very close supervision, starting with a .22 or something similar, when they were strong enough to handle the weapon.
Blades: Blades are easier, as they are less dangerous (it's harder to kill someone by accident with a knife than a gun), and they are everywhere; scissors, penknives, kitchen knives, eating knives… The kids have been helping to cook since they were so little that that meant sitting on the floor and banging on a saucepan with a wooden spoon. They have been cutting and peeling vegetables since before they can remember. Cutting began with them standing with their left hand round my waist and their right hand holding the knife, with my hand on top. I'd hold the vegetable and do all the actual work. That progressed to their hand under mine on the vegetable, and so on. The only person who could get cut was me (though I never was). Now they can chop stuff without supervision, using my proper kitchen knives (they are 7 and 9).
Until a couple of weeks ago, all my swords were at the salle (I didn't keep any in the house, except for a sabre for champagne). I'd take the kids to the salle quite often, and we would fight with wooden swords, lightsabres, or any other weapon. They could ask to see anything they wanted, even sharp swords, and I would get them off the rack and they could touch them, heft them, that sort of thing, but under careful supervision.
In summary then, nothing is forbidden, but some tools/weapons/things can only be handled under supervision. When my kids were very little, I kept everything dangerous out of reach. Since they have been old enough to understand that some things are dangerous, and also old enough to get a chair to stand on when they want to reach something that is ‘out of reach', we have taught them what needs supervision and what doesn't. Kids are curious, so I've always let mine have a go at anything they want to, while I control the situation to maintain the necessary safety. The idea is to teach them to use things properly, so their skill keeps them safe, not their ignorance. I even let them drive my car. They have never been injured or injured anyone else with any weapon or tool. They will eventually cut themselves with a kitchen knife or chisel, but that's ok; it's part of life.
Boldness is a key virtue in swordsmanship. Perhaps the key virtue. Under the Lion on the famous segno page, Fiore wrote “Piu de mi leone non porta core ardito. Por di bataglia fazo a zaschun invito”. Nobody has a bolder heart than I, the Lion. I call everyone to battle.
It is a key virtue, and one which can be trained for. I cover it in breadth and depth in my book Swordfighting, but didn’t include there the specific exercises we use in class to begin the study of boldness. In the women’s class I lead in Seattle recently, the participants explicitly requested boldness as a topic, so I took them through the following sequence. This was a longsword class in which most of the participants were relatively inexperienced, so these exercises were done relatively slowly.
The first step, always, is decide what you’re working on. In this case, boldness. So the only thing that matters (other than “everyone finishes class healthier than they started it”) is whether you are embodying that virtue in the constraints of the drill. It’s ok for technique and other things to suffer.
The flinch is the enemy. Your body’s instinctive jerking away from threat needs to be brought under control. For many people, simply having their personal space invaded is enough to make them flinch, but to train martial arts effectively, you have to get comfortable with people getting right up in your face. So we began with the standing step drill, in which two players face each other square on in a wide stance, touch wrists, and then try to make the other player take a step. Move a foot, you lose.
This involves pushing and being pushed, some arm locks, and once the first level is comfortable, you can introduce things like gentle face-slaps. Anything that does not threaten your position can be ignored, so it’s remarkable how quickly incidental contact, that would have created a flinch before, becomes something the players can simply choose not react to. It also gets everyone playing together in a useful way. The next level is to allow one step, in either attack or defence; you lose when you make a second foot movement.
This drill is all about standing your ground, grounding, tactics, misdirection, wrestling, locks, throws… it’s a very good way to get beginners into the game. It also caused a lot of hilarity in the class, which in the circumstances was a good thing; it broke the ice, and made being brave easier. I also covered what to do if you are much bigger and stronger, or more experienced: take it to the very edge of your balance, and play from there.
After this, we did some basic sword handling, so I could assess the level of the class as a whole, and then we got started with step one of first drill: defender on guard in tutta porta di ferro, the attacker strikes a mandritto fendente (controlled, of course) to the head. The defender does nothing.
That is hard. Don’t blink. Don’t flinch. Don’t even change your breathing. Stare over the attacker’s shoulder and do absolutely nothing as the blade touches your mask. We also do this exercise with no masks and no contact. It’s harder, for most people. The exercise should be done at the rate that maintains the difficulty for the defender, so long as that doesn’t take the attacker past the point where they can properly control their strike.
Now we have identified the problem, flinching, we have to set up exercises in which it will happen naturally, allowing you to practise preventing it, in circumstances of ever increasing complexity. Remain calm and dispassionate. It’s really better to get hit in training than to practise flinching, because every time you flinch, you are ingraining that response in your nervous system.
Once you can remain impassive against the attack, you can defend against it with much better precision, so from here, move on to the second step of the drill; actually defending yourself. Now it’s the attacker’s turn to be impassive about being struck.
Boldness is also about moving forwards against the threat. In the Lonin loft they have two car tyres hanging from the ceiling, which act as pells and striking targets, so from here we moved on to hitting the tyres: approaching boldly, striking hard and moving away under cover. This was fun, and should be trained regularly, not least to make you aware of just how hard you can hit.
We then went back to the pair drills, and worked on the attacker’s bold entry. During this time, I prepped one of the students, and then gave orders for the class to go as hard and fast as they could, with no masks, to really hit each other. A dangerous, stupid, thing to do with a class at this level. But the teacher was telling them to… and the student I had prepared beforehand said, quietly but firmly, “no”. I said “what the hell do you mean, no?”, and she replied “no, it’s too dangerous.”
It takes boldness to stand up to authority figures when they are not acting in your best interests, and as with all necessary skills, it can and should be trained for. Roleplaying the scenario can really help. So what the class saw was one of their own (boldly) saying no to a dangerous exercise, in defiance of my authority. That was probably much harder, required more boldness, than simply not flinching when a friend gently approached with a sword.
Training for boldness only works if the situation is one in which it is hard to be bold, but you can just manage it. It is especially important to emphasise that success is defined only by whether you manage to act in a way that demonstrates the virtue of boldness according to the scenario of the drill. No other factors are important. This is the key to successful training. In weightlifting, you either lift the weight the prescribed distance, or you don’t. Success is easy to define. When training for virtues, success is more difficult to pin down, which is why I like controlling the flinch as the starting point; it’s the easiest way to check on physical courage. We can take this out into the wider world too; let’s say you have difficulty talking to strangers, so you set yourself a task of asking one stranger for directions every day on your way to work. It doesn’t matter if you stammer, or if you forget what they tell you, or if they are rude, or any other thing; you did it if you went up to someone you don’t know and asked. Success is making the attempt.
Creating a card game to teach the basic theory and terminology of a medieval combat system was really hard. Audatia is done though: four glorious character decks and two expansion packs; piled up on my desk they really look like we created something.
When people hear about it, the most common reaction is “wow, that’s cool!” or words to that effect. The next most common reaction is some variation on “but I had that idea!” Sometimes that comes with the feeling “I’m so glad somebody is doing it”, but sometimes I get the impression that the person felt that by having the idea they had somehow staked out that creative territory and were annoyed that I was encroaching on it. An idea that they had done absolutely nothing to bring into being.
The same is true with writing. I hear a lot of “I wish I was a writer”, or, “I want to write books too”. I don’t really get it, to be honest. If you want to do something, do it. 99% of the obstacles preventing you are between your ears. If The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could be written by Jean Dominic Bauby just being able to blink one eye, letter by letter, or my wife’s friend Roopa Farooki can manage two jobs, four children and a commute and still be a successful novelist, really what’s your excuse? Everybody can find half an hour a day to blast out text if they really want to. If they really, really want to. Because it is hard.
And I think that’s the crux of it. Having the idea is easy, costs nothing, and feels good. Executing the idea is often brutally hard, a marathon of sprints, exhausting, frustrating, painful and at the end of it all it might still fail or flop.
I often get what I think are brilliant ideas that I know for a sure and certain fact I’m never going to execute. Here are three.
The Writer’s Briefcase
I had this idea while watching my kids in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Michaela and I were tag-teaming; she had gone off for a wander leaving me supervising the little artists.
And I thought how handy it would be to have a consistent work set-up, that folded away into a briefcase. I was inspired by the idea behind the Roost laptop stand. The key points are:
Easy access: you can pull the laptop out, plonk it on your lap and work, or open the case on a table and have at least your laptop, mouse and notepad to hand. Or you can spend a couple of minutes doing the full set-up with the Roost and all.
Modular design: if you need to take research books, an ipad, or whatever else with you, you can attach additional modules, like MilTec only in nicer colours. Oh, alright. We'll do one in black if we must.
This could be produced quite easily: find a bag designer, raise funds on kickstarter, have cool names for different models (by writing space “the garrett”, “the studio”, “the atelier”; by author “the Dickens”, “the Austen”, “the Shakespeare”), have young chaps with beards and tight jeans rave about it, and you’re over 100k in minutes. Really, luggage is so in right now.
The Tripod standing desk
Continuing the theme of writing set-ups (as my regular readers know, I’m something of an ergonomics afficionado): one reason I don’t like working in cafes and other public places is the utter lack of standing desks with keyboard shelf at exactly the right height, monitor at exactly the right height, and so on. The problem of a stable, strong, and portable vertical support has been solved for decades: the photographer’s tripod.
So how about a light, collapsible two-level desk (keyboard and laptop) that fits on a standard tripod mount? You could even have a tripod pouch on the “atelier” above. The base level would be adjusted through the tripod itself; the monitor/laptop level would be adjustable through how it fits to the keyboard shelf.
A standing desk you can take anywhere? Huzzah!
This is one project that I took all the way from basic idea through first production run, but then it stalled. In short, it’s an Indian club with edge alignment and sword-handling capabilities. They are actually really good; I use mine all the time. I was really careful to get the mass and point of balance just right so they stress the hand like a longsword. You can do all your grip changes, blows, and everything except actual strikes and pair drills with them, as well as everything you would do with a standard Indian club. I even shot some video of how to use them:
I made a couple of prototypes, and got the excellent chaps at Purpleheart Armory to make a batch of 12 pairs, which were sold at WMAW in (I think) 2011. They all sold, but somehow Purpleheart and I never quite got round to marketing them properly so they never took off.
Rather than keep these to myself, I would rather that somebody takes them and runs with them. Go ahead, make millions, and give me a lift in your Ferrari one day. I recently let the url “bladebell.com” lapse; if you want it, it’s yours.
Give away your best ideas.
Seriously. Give away all your best ideas. It’s quite safe. The chances of somebody else having the grit to execute your vision is vanishingly small. And if they do, all it means is that your own execution was inadequate. In these cases, I’ve no interest in becoming a bag designer, writing ergonomics company director, sports equipment manufacturer, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with being any of these things, they’re just not me.
And I think that’s where the idea versus execution problem really lies. It’s in our nature to have ideas. It’s also in our nature to flit from one to the other until something grips and won’t let go. All of the skills around execution can be learned or hired. The one thing that can't be learned or hired is the sheer stubbornness to see it through until your idea is made flesh. You just have to want it and give up whatever needs to be given up to make it happen.
So, if any of these bite you in the arse and won't let go, take them with my blessing and execute the sh*t out of them.
The Prudentia virtue, from the Audatia Duel Deck Nikodemus Kariensis.
There are few things that all martial artists agree on, but I think this may be one of them: “it’s easier to fight someone if you know exactly what they are going to do”. To predict their actions. To see the future. This skill is one of the aspects that marks an experienced fighter in any discipline. They can read their opponent and see what they are about to do; but also they can create the situation so that the opponent is lead into a trap. Fiore de’ Liberi knew about this perfectly well back in the 14th century: it’s one of the four virtues he says a swordsman should possess. Avvisamento (foresight) in the Getty ms, Prudentia (prudence) in the Pisani-Dossi and the Paris mss. For what is prudence if not the ability to foresee danger and avoid it?
Meglio de mi lovo cervero non vede creatura
Eaquello mette sempre a sesto e a misura.
No creature sees better than I, the lynx
And this virtue puts everything in its right place and its measure. (Tr. Tom Leoni)
Foresight is a virtue and a skill, and it can and should be trained. As you probably guessed, I have a well-developed system for doing exactly that. It relies as always on starting very simple, and gradually increasing complexity, while always focussing precisely on the one thing you’re working on. Because the virtue is first discussed in fencing literature in Il Fior di Battaglia, it makes sense to use longsword for my example, but you should be able to apply this to any martial art. This is the bare bones of the three-step process.
Step one: establish the base
1) Set up a basic drill. We’ll use first drill as an example:
2) Set up a simple variation, ideally with the defender responding differently: such as a counterattack, rather than a parry. (Such as in the Stretto form of first drill).
3) The attacker’s job is to counter the defence; either parry the counterattack, or strike on the other side of the parry (as here in our set drills).
At this stage the attacker is just watching the defender, and the defender is just feeding the attacker one defence then the other. No variations. Ok, we have established our base.
Step two: create controlled complexity.
1) The defender now varies their defence, so that the attacker doesn’t know which one he will pick.
2) The attacker’s job is to predict the defence. If she counters it, then great, that’s a bonus. But we’re working on the skill of foresight, not the application of that skill. The attacker makes five attacks, and counts how many times she accurately predicted which of the two things the defender would do.
3) Change roles, 5 attacks, 5 defences. Try to be as random as possible.
4) Use the rule of c’s* to adjust the level of the drill so that the attacker has difficulty predicting the defence.
In a perfect world, you can always predict exactly what your opponent will do, and set things up so that if he does anything else, it will fail naturally, and if he does what you expect, he falls onto your prepared counter.
Step three: reduce their options
1) The attacker adjusts her attack so that the counterattack will naturally fail. In this example, that means aiming the mandritto fendente slightly further over to the left, and stepping slightly across the strada to the attacker’s left. There is no hole to counterattack into. So the defender either parries, or their action will fail.
2) The attacker adjusts her attack to invite the counterattack, by swinging the mandritto fendente round, offline a bit to the right. If the invitation is accepted, the attacker parries the counterattack; if it is declined, and the defender parries, their parry will be wider than usual, making the attacker’s counter much easier.
3) To start with, exaggerate these adjustments to the attack, and co-operate in the responses. Once the idea is clear in both player’s minds, they should ramp it up a bit.
4) Once this is going well, the attacker’s job becomes simply to predict the defender’s actions, and the defender’s job is to respond naturally to the attack with one of the two options. As before, use the rule of c’s to adjust the level of difficulty until the attacker is getting it right about four times out of five.
And finally: add complexity
So far so good. We have a drill in which there is only one degree of freedom; the defender’s action. Everything else is set; the roles of attacker and defender, the attack, the two defences, everything. So now apply the variation engines: “who moves first”, “add a step”, and “degrees of freedom” that you know from Preparing for Freeplay or The Medieval Longsword, to add complexity to the point where the attacker can only get it right three or four times out of five. This might be as simple as step three above, or as complex as full-on freeplay.
Be very clear about what you are training: if you are working on foresight, success = “I predicted exactly what they would do”. It doesn’t matter if you got hit or not. Of course, as your foresight improves, not getting hit should be a lot easier than before.
One more thing:
As you probably know, Audatia is based on Fiore's art. And it totally killed me that we couldn't have Prudentia being used to make the opponent show their hand. The closest we come to that is in this brilliant card, Eye of the Lynx, in the Boucicault deck:
*The rule of c’s is in The Medieval Longsword, and Preparing for Freeplay, and written out in this blog post here.
I have always made sure that there are at least some women in the photos in all of my training manuals. This photo from The Swordsman's Companion is one of my favourite pictures ever:
Last weekend, teaching at Lonin in Seattle, one of the women students told me that the only reason she had started training was because she had seen the women in my books, and therefore felt it might be ok. She got her biggest, toughest-looking male friend to come with her, just in case, but she came. She’s now on the governing board of her club. I nearly cried when she told me this. Martial arts training should be for everyone who is interested, be they clumsy or deft, weak or strong, timid or bold, tall or short, without regard to their starting point. Everyone can get better with practice.
Later that day, I taught my first ever all-women class. It was a fascinating experience for me as a teacher, and also as the head of a large and very diverse school. In essence, I know nothing at all about the particular requirements women may have in training, so I asked them what they wanted, they told me, and I did my best to oblige. I am, after all, a consulting swordsman. I think the class went well, everyone seemed happy with it, and I’ve only had positive feedback about it so far. And it has got me thinking (again) about the whole issue of gender in martial arts. When I was a kid, one of my role models was Cynthia Rothrock. You can see her famous scorpion kick in this excellent Ameridote video:
At my school karate club we were taught by Mr and Mrs Williams. Either one of them could have kicked my head off. My first fencing coach was a woman, Gail Rudge. She was assisted by the captain of the fencing team, also a woman. Neither of them had any difficulty stabbing young Guy when needed. Which was rather a lot. This all means that I have never been infected with the foolish idea that women can’t do martial arts or swordsmanship to the very highest level.
In a perfect world, no kind of gender discrimination would exist, and so nobody would think to organise a women-only class. But mansplaining is a thing. So is “I couldn’t hit a girl”. So is copping a feel when you’re supposed to be grappling. So I can see that this kind of class could be preferable, at least to some women. I should also point out that Lonin is an extremely inclusive and friendly club, vastly more welcoming to people of all kinds than many others I have seen, so it’s not like they had a special need for this kind of class. But the women training there just decided to organise a semi-regular women’s class, and advertised it to the general public. Over 30 people showed up! Clearly, there was something about a mixed, general, beginners’ class that put these women off, and starting this class just removed that barrier.
A martial artist ought to be able to handle whatever opponents life throws at them. My primary reservation about women-only classes stems from the possibility that women’s training might become ghettoised, and women who train in these classes might never get to train outside them, or might choose not to, and so limit their own development. They should be an option, not a refuge.
But that’s a lot of ‘mights’. What I saw was people happily training, some of whom would not have got started without the psychologically and physically less intimidating option of the women’s class. And it’s probable that some of them will grow in the Art and become role-models for the next generation of swordfighters.
Medieval scribes had crap posture too! Image from: http://www.booktryst.com/2012/03/medieval-scribes-gripe-about-writing.html
One of the challenges of my new lifestyle is that I don’t have class three or four times a week to keep me to a fitness regime. Before I could make the switch in my head from swordsman-writer to writer-swordsman, I had to figure out how I was going to prevent myself from becoming a weak and overweight lush who was always drunk by lunchtime. Because that’s what writers are like, no?
*Guy ducks and runs away from the many, many, uber-fit sword-swinging writers he knows*
Well, maybe not all writers, but I certainly have the capacity for it.
You may have read about my morning routines for beating jet-lag. I have developed and adapted those for preventing a condition that I will christen “writer’s blimp”. The trick, the key insight, is that this is about developing the sort of habits that will lead to my desired result, rather than coming up with a prescriptive regime. This routine has four steps:
When I wake up in the morning, I usually go straight into an awareness-of-breathing or mindfulness meditation (guided or otherwise). This lasts from 5-20 minutes, depending on all sorts of things, not least the time. Ideally, I wake up naturally an hour or so before my kids do, which does actually happen about once a week. But one of the greatest privileges of my self-employed (and parental) status is that I almost never have to set a morning alarm. So I don’t set an alarm to be up in time to meditate before breakfast, because if I don’t have time to do it before the kids go to school, it’s #1 on my todo list after the house has quieted down.
Then I usually do three rounds of Wim Hof breathing; if I’m too late to meditate before the kids come in, then I do this anyway. In the second round, while my lungs are empty, I get up and do some squats and push-ups. Then after breathing in, I do some gentle stretches, push-ups, that sort of thing, guided by how my body feels. Or I might do some of my classic breathing exercises. You know, like the ones in this book.
3. Engage with strength
I usually then do a couple of clean-and-presses on each arm with a 16kg kettlebell, some squats with a 16kg kettlebell cleaned in each hand, followed by a couple of double overhead presses with the 16kg bells, followed by some clean and presses with a 24kg kettlebell. Maybe some Turkish Get-Ups if I’m feeling energetic. This takes about 5 minutes, and engages just about every muscle in the body. If there’s time and I feel like it, I go for longer and do more.
4. Cold Shock
Shower next; for a long time I used to have a hot shower, then finish cold. Then I went to cold-hot-cold, again for several months, maybe a year or more; I didn't really track it. Now I treat hot water as a delicious luxury for when I really feel like it, and so usually shower on full cold only. It is very invigorating.
I put together a video of this routine for you.
5. Paying attention to food
I always sit down for breakfast with the kids, but I don’t usually eat anything. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat some protein and fat (such as half a tin of sardines and a tomato); I try to avoid any starches or fast carbs first thing. (But oh! Peanut butter and banana on toast with brown sugar sprinkled on! Pancakes with bacon and maple syrup! Nutella with anything! I do miss them all, so they are weekend-only fare.) I almost always have a cup of coffee, and sometimes make it “bulletproof”: a chunk of organic butter, a dash of MCT oil, and whizz it with a hand-blender. It doesn’t taste very nice, if I’m honest (if you take milk in your coffee you’d probably like it more), but it does seem to delay the need to eat lunch, and it may help a bit with mental sharpness. I'm considering changing the pattern to eating in the morning, but last-calorie-in by 6pm, to give me the necessary metabolic cleansing time. Dr Rhonda Patrick suggests 14 hours as a useful minimum in this handy podcast. Dig into that if you want the details (and yes, she's a proper scientist). I have noticed that having an earlier eating window makes jet-lag recovery much faster.
When I settle down to work, it often means doing my 20 minutes or so of meditation, and sometimes some exercise (breathing exercises, kettlebells, that sort of thing) first. My feeling is that I need to maintain a solid baseline of fitness, strength, and agility, so that my body doesn’t deteriorate, and I can still do all the things I want to do (like beat the crap out of people with a sword practice swordsmanship to a high level).
Then I start writing. If I’m working on the first draft of a new book (as I am right now), then I hit my word count, and either keep going, or stop and do something else (edit a different book; do some marketing; write a blog post; empty my inbox). I don’t usually even open my inbox before hitting my word count. I also almost always have my phone on silent*, and check it when I’ve done what I need to do. This period of maximum productivity lasts for about one to four hours from about 08.30.
[Update: losing this study was one of the worst things about leaving Finland; but I'm nicely ensconced in my new office at the Waterfront Studios, at the University of Suffolk. Kelly Starrett has an interesting take on the problems of sitting to much in his book Deskbound]
I’m done working by lunch, which is always very short on fast carbs of any kind, but long on vegetables. The kids get home from school between 12.30 and 2.30, depending on the day, and I try to avoid being buried in my laptop when they’re here. Of course, these days they often don’t want their old man messing up their very important games, so I might do some work or reading in the afternoons, but it’s not guaranteed.
By 6pm, right when I would have normally been starting a class, I’m free! To cook dinner for the kids, for example, have a glass of wine with my wife, for another example. The day usually ends with my wife and I watching something on TV before bed, and it’s usually sufficiently easy watching that I can get of the sofa and do twenty minutes or so of stretching while we watch it. Assuming I’ve been careful with starch and sugar all day, then I’ll usually eat whatever I want in the evening. [I think I need to do a proper blog post on diet and weight control. Hmmm. Ok, done.]
So, in a day when I don’t set aside any real time for training, I’ve meditated, done some breathing exercises, done probably 20-50 push-ups, 10-20 pull-ups (there's a pull-up bar in my office; every time I go get a cup of tea, go to the loo, or am procrastinating, I'll do a couple), 5 minutes of kettlebells, and 20-30 minutes of stretching, and watched what I ate. Any part of this can be expanded without having to create a new habit. In other words, if I feel that my flexibility is suffering, I can extend my evening stretches, and add more range of motion stuff in the morning, without having to suddenly find time to stretch. The time is already assigned. If I think I’m getting weaker, I can add a minute or two to the kettlebell part. For example, I went to the physiotherapist yesterday because my always-dodgy spine started acting up; I've now got some totally specific corrective exercises to do regularly throughout the day… no problem; they are slotted in in place of the pull-ups. If you are interested in the specific exercises I use to keep my arms from going into tendonitis spasm, see my free course on arm maintenance, and my free course on looking after your legs.
I am blessed with a metabolism that puts on weight very easily if I don’t watch what I eat, a spine that produces agonising spasms if I don’t exercise it regularly, and pathetic little wrists that will swell up with tendonitis if I neglect my forearm maintenance for even a few days. This means that I am obliged to keep reasonably fit, or it all goes to hell very fast. It also means that I have had to learn how to do so, or I break. In this case, inherent weakness really has been a virtue.
So, that’s what I’m doing to remain a martial artist while becoming a full-time writer. What do you do?
*Here is a list of the things I might be doing that a phone-call might interrupt. In no particular order: writing something you might want to read one day if I ever get round to finishing it what with all these interruptions; editing video; training; breathing exercises; meditating; eating; playing with my kids; sleeping; bathroom stuff; thinking; writing up my notes; lying on the sofa doing nothing; watching a movie; sharpening a pencil; doing woodwork; cooking; talking to my wife; planning stuff; and that's me just getting started on this list. So, really, why would I want to answer the phone? The chances of it being either really time-critical, or something I really want to hear, are pretty small. Most of my phone calls are scheduled in advance by email, so I know not to be doing something else when the phone rings. Wife, kids, parents, siblings and very close friends get a pass. Everyone else? make an appointment 🙂
I am 42 years old today. As everybody knows, the Meaning of Life is forty two, so a post on the Meaning of Life seems apt.
What then have I learned in 42 solar sojourns? (Other than to insert Monty Python, Douglas Adams and Blackadder references wherever possible?)
Pay close attention, because this is important. If there is ONE BIG THING I have learned, it’s this:
Love is not the main thing. Love is not the best thing. Love is not the most important thing.
Love is the ONLY thing that matters.
Love your spouse, children, family.
Love your friends. They’re the family you choose.
Work for love. Not necessarily do work that you love. That’s great if you can get it. But work for love. Work to get money to feed your kids. Work to get money to feed other people’s kids. Work because the work itself is worthwhile whether you enjoy it or not.
But do it for love.
Love yourself. The best way to do that is to show love to the people you care about. That will feed your soul like nothing else. But also look after your body and your mind. You deserve it.
It's probably better to do the wrong thing, from love, than the right thing from any other motive.
And tell me these pics made by my kids don't make you go ahhhhhh:
I am writing a short book at the moment with the working title “How to Live Long and Prosper”. (Star Trek references are good too.)
It will cover my best advice on how to live. It has five basic practices:
Spend time with people you care about. (Love.)
Do things you find meaningful. (Do them for love.)
Think right. (Love your mind.)
Eat right (love your body, part 1)
Exercise (love your body, part 2)
And then a whole lot of ideas, principles, and practices to make those five easier. My go-to strength training exercises; my favourite meditations; that sort of thing. This will be backed up by the research I’ve done over the last couple of decades, much of it distilled from the works of better scholars than I. Studies of centagenarians, for instance.
I’ll also look at money, how to manage it, and what it is actually for. This has been a critical skill for creating a decent quality of life from a swordsman’s income. Because once you clear away the inessentials (anything that is not about love), then it becomes much easier to make good long-term financial decisions, which will indeed help you to prosper.
I will spend today with my wife and kids, also meditating and exercising, and eating good food, and in the evening I'll go to the salle and teach and advanced class. Following my own advice, in other words. Talk about a happy birthday!
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Guy Windsor: a website all about the Renaissance Italian martial arts expert who blends historical accuracy with practical training.