I’ve long known I’m no good at paying attention to more than one thing at a time. Because of that, I try pretty hard to avoid even trying to multitask. Still, even having accepted that I’m crappy at this sort of thing, I’m a little frustrated at how it’s showing up in my longsword practice.

Generally I think I’m okay if I try to just do one thing. For example, I’d assume I could execute a single cut or a single parry. But, no. In fact, I can only do a piece of a cut or parry—because one of the things Meyer says is “Every cut gets its step.” So I’m not doing it right unless I do the sword action and the stepping action.

It’s not actually quite as bad as I’m making it sound. I can move into any of the guards. I can swing my sword in any of the principle cuts. I can step with proper form. I can even swing my sword and step forward. But as soon as I try to, let’s say, step to the side and swing my sword, my form tends to break down.

Longsword is called “longsword,” not because the sword is long, but rather because nearly all the cuts and parries are executed with the arms extended. (And this is actually crucial to being successful. If you have your arms extended and your body in the right position, you can parry any cut. Try that with your elbows bent, and you’re very likely to get hit with a sword.)

I can hold the sword in good structure, with my arms straight. I can execute a cut with it, with my arms straight. I can even execute a cut and step forward, with my arms straight. But when I try to do any specific cut with any specific footwork, my form starts to break down: I tend to pull my arms in. And if I focus on keeping my arms extended, I forget to take the step.

It’s very frustrating.

Fortunately, having learned taiji, I know the solution to this: Practice.

That is, proper “deliberate practice” à la K. Anders Ericsson, where you: perform an action, monitor your performance, evaluate your success, try to figure out how to do it better, and then repeat.

If I can only pay attention to one thing at a time, I need to break these sword moves down further. I need to practice keeping my arms straight during a cut, and then repeat that move (paying attention) over and over again, until I can do it without paying attention. Then I can add in the stepping, and practice cutting with a step over and over again until I can do both of those things without paying attention. Then I can start working on a longer phrase: cut while stepping, next cut while stepping. And so on.

I haven’t started practicing outside of class much yet. There are only certain things that can be done without a partner, but those things—stance, guards, footwork—are exactly what I need to practice.

And we will still be meeting over the summer, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice the other things as well.

It’s time to make a plan.

Katy asked me to say a few words about my father at his funeral. I wrote the following and read it at the service.

My father was a scientist—an ornithologist and an ecologist.

He was many other things too, of course. Father. Teacher. Student. Writer. Conservationist. Artist. But even those things he often did in ways that drew on the fact that he was a scientist.

He told me a story once of when he was an undergraduate student.

He had taken a course in optics, and the optics textbook that the teacher had chosen was unusual, in that it did not solve some classic—very difficult—problem in optics that was worked as an example in every other optics textbook. Instead, it offered that as a problem for the students to solve, and his professor had assigned it as homework.

Finding the problem difficult to solve, my father went to the library and looked at another optics textbook which worked through the solution as part of the text. Grasping the essence of the solution, my father solved the homework problem.

The next day the professor asked if anyone had managed to solve the problem, and the only student to raise his hand was my father. The professor asked how he had solved it, and my father said, “It seemed obvious to me.”

As, of course, it was, after working through the solution in the textbook from the library.

I tell this story for several reasons. First of all, it was very much how my father was. Asked to solve a difficult problem of course he would use the resources available at the library. And, although he wasn’t quite so much this way after becoming a father, I gather he was something of a smart ass as a college student.

I think he always hoped that his students would approach the problems he provided in this manner, and was always a little disappointed how few did so.

My father had a pretty good sense of humor about most things. But he also had his quirks.

One time he mentioned aloud that he needed his license plate number for some form, and my brother immediately replied, “It’s 332 QRQ.”

“How is it that you can remember my license plate number?” my father asked.

“It’s easy,” my brother replied. “You have three hundred thirty-two quirks.”

My father didn’t think that was especially funny, which of course made it all the funnier to the rest of us.

Along with being a writer, my father was also an editor. He edited the Jack Pine Warbler for many years. When I was first writing science fiction stories he would read them. He didn’t offer much in the way of a critique, just unqualified support. And a careful line edit, which was very useful.

We spoke many times about our philosophies of writing. One time in particular I remember him saying that his goal in writing was, “To say exactly what I mean in limpid prose.”

It struck me as exactly the right goal for a writer. I have stuck with it, even though it is clear that having a more distinctive voice might make my stories my salable, because it suits me so well.

My father taught me to think like a scientist.

Several times when I was in high school I remember sitting with him in his study, trying to come up with a testable hypothesis for this or that phenomenon. I remember two in particular. Once we generated a few hypotheses for why we see reverse dimorphism in many raptors, but rarely in other birds. Another time we generated some hypotheses for why we sleep.

We never conducted any experiments to falsify any of these hypotheses, but the experience of generating falsifiable hypotheses—of thinking about things in terms of falsifiable hypotheses—was invaluable to me for the rest of my life.

Even our family vacations were expressions of his scientific understanding and interest. More than one vacation took place at a biological research station. One in particular was memorable for its black flies.

My father was many things but, above all, he was a scientist. This influenced and governed his thinking about everything. His work. His writing. His art. His land conservation. It was what he devoted his life to, and what he would want to be remembered for.

My father passed away a few weeks ago. His funeral was Saturday.

Richard Brewer and Philip Brewer in the Kalamazoo train station

My dad and me in 2018

Jackie and I found a place to board the dog, and then made a lightning-fast trip to Kalamazoo, driving up on Friday, hanging out with Katy that evening and the next morning, attending the funeral, and then heading right back home.

Steven Brewer and Richard Brewer standing next to the

My brother and my dad in 2015

All of Katy’s kids came, along with their spouses. It was good to be able to visit with them as well.

The funeral was at People’s Church, the Unitarian church that my family attended from some time when I was in late elementary school. It was a great church, offering a spiritual community that avoided being laden down with a bunch of “god” stuff. I had not previously met Rachel, the current minister, but she did a great job, talking about the value of mourning, the value of sharing stories.

Along with Katy and her kids and their spouses, Jackie and I stood outside the sanctuary and shared a few words with each of the more than 100 people who came to celebrate my father’s life. There were many neighbors who had met them just in the few years that they’d lived at Friendship Village, neighbors from their old neighborhood on 5th street, many of my father’s former students, and more of my father’s old colleagues than I had expected, given that he had outlived so many of them.

After the funeral Jackie and I hit the road straight from the church, and headed on home, getting in just about dusk.

I’m glad to have gone.

I wrote a few words about my dad to read at the funeral. I’ll post the text in a bit.

Richard Brewer standing next to the Victor E. Shelford Vivarium sign
Richard Brewer June 17, 1933 to March 25, 2023

In class a couple of nights ago the lesson was for us to take our first stab at understanding a piece of the text from Joachim Meyer’s The Art of Combat.

I’ve ordered a copy of the book. It hasn’t arrived yet (being shipped from England), but here’s a different translation of the same text from the Wiktenauer site:


Is a fundamental element of proper handwork, when you rush from your opponent with quick and agile blows, you can block and impede him better with no other move than with the slice, which you, though you will treasure it in all instances as special as here, will hold in reserve. You must however complete the slices thus: after you entangle your opponent’s sword with the bind, you shall strive thereon, feel if he would withdraw or flow off from the bind, as soon as he flows off, drive against him with the long edge on his arm, thrust the strong or quillons from you in the effort, let fly, and as he himself seeks to retrieve, strike then to the next opening.

https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Joachim_Meyer, “Of Displacing,” Slicing

The text we used translated what is here as “flow off” as “strike around,” which is actually a specific move (striking first to one side and then to the other). The translation included the word “pursue,” I think where this one says “drive against.”

I generally think of myself as being pretty good at working with text, but I found this remarkably difficult.

The correct move, the instructor indicated, was that you should not wait for the “flow around” or “strike around” to proceed, but rather “as soon as” he begins the move, “drive against” or “pursue” by thrusting your sword forward so that the guard of your sword is pressed up against his.

Since you caught him early in striking around, this leaves him in a very awkward position, giving you many options for striking him effectively.

This all makes sense, but I did not get it from my first ten readings of the text. Clearly I’m going to have to spend a lot of time and effort making sense of it, if I’m going to get good at this.

In our practice session, we did not have the picture:


I think I see this move in the middle bit, where the guards of the swords are pressed together.