I was not particularly sporty as a child. My dad played catch with me an ordinary amount of time for a father who had no particular aspirations that his son would be a sports star. I played whiffle ball with the neighborhood boy across the street, and threw that ball a good bit. I took tennis lessons, and played quite a bit of tennis, and eventually got sorta okay at tennis, and there’s a certain amount of throwing in tennis, to get the ball to the person whose serve it is. (Plus, a serve and a forehand are both throwing-pattern type movements.)
My point is simply that although I did throw balls around some as a boy, it was never important, and I pretty much quit as soon as I was out of high school.
(And even in high school phys ed there was way less ball-throwing than there probably should have been—the fake, altered versions of sports that they made us play in class provided neither training nor practice for the kids who were not “good at sports.” We were sent out to stand in the field and do nothing except be available to be blamed once every 10 or 15 hours when a ball unexpectedly came our way.)
This was brought home to me a couple of times in the past decade or so. Once, perhaps 10 years ago, while out walking near some ball fields in our old neighborhood, I had a softball roll up at my feet. A player across the street asked me to throw it to him. I attempted to do so, and ended up throwing it perhaps halfway to him.
That was embarrassing.
When I thought about why I did so poorly, my analysis was that there were several issues. One was perhaps just a lack of strength. Just as much was simply having forgotten how hard to throw a ball to get it to go a particular distance—an important skill in many sports, and one that requires quite a bit of training. Mainly, though, I think the issue had to do with having lost the fine motor-control patterning. Throwing a ball involves a bunch of muscles that all have to fire in sequence, each one at just the right moment.
I was reminded of this more recently, because Ashley likes to chance a ball, so I’ve been throwing one for her from time to time.
When I started doing this, around the end of November last year, once I had Ashley signed up for the dog park, I was crap at throwing a ball.
I’m still crap at throwing a ball by any objective standard, but maybe 1000 throws, spread out over the course of six or seven months, have gotten me up to being able to throw the ball perhaps three times as far as I could in November, and with quite a bit more accuracy.
I suspect that the main thing is simply the muscle pattern stuff: my nervous system has relearned which muscles to fire at which moment in order to execute a competent throw. Secondarily, I think my heavy club swinging has helped some. Inside Circles are essentially a throwing pattern, and using a 15 lb club lets me build considerable strength in those muscles.
It’s not the exact same motion as throwing any particular ball, so I still need to practice whatever throw I want to be good at, but the muscles are being strengthened in the right patterns, which I’m sure has already helped.
In my workout yesterday, in the “lower body” slot where I’d usually do either some type of squat or some type of lunge, I decided to practice stepping for longsword fencing. As soon as I started, I realized there was all sorts of nuance to how to do it, with a lot of details I wasn’t sure of.
I posted a question to the group discord, asking when to pivot the foot. (That is, the front foot is pointed straight ahead and the back foot is turned out 45 to 90 degrees. After you step forward with your back foot it’s easy enough to just put it down pointed straight ahead. But your new back foot needs to turn out at some point.) I also wanted to know whether people did a toe-pivot or a heel-pivot.
A couple of people responded to say that they did toe-pivots, and that they did them at the end, after establishing the new front foot. Good to know.
When I got to today’s class, Christopher Lee French (one of the intermediate HEMA students, but also an instructor in sport fencing at The Point Fencing Club & School of Champaign) gave me a whole master-class in stepping. He made a series of excellent points.
(Let me pause just for a moment here to make it clear that all the following is my understanding informed by what he was telling me. It’s certainly not his fault if I’ve gotten some things wrong here.)
Here’s a short list:
While you’re stepping, the foot you’re not stepping with has to support all your weight for the whole time your stepping foot is off the ground. (This is true with ordinary walking as well, but in ordinary walking gate you typically straighten and then momentarily lock the knee of your standing leg. Judging from the woodcuts that illustrate Meyer’s treatise, you stand with your front knee bent at nearly 90 degrees, making it a real strength challenge to hold yourself up.)
You don’t want to push off with your back foot (because that would tend to make you bob up and down). Rather, you want to traction yourself forward with the planted foot.
Your stepping foot needs to move twice as fast as your body. That is, your body is moving forward one step. But your foot has to go a lot farther in the same amount of time, because it’s also going from being the back foot to the front foot.
As you step forward, you don’t want to swing your stepping foot out and around. Rather, you want to keep it straight in line with the spot where it’s going to end up. This is it better for a lot of reasons, but one is that it means you’re not telegraphing whether it’s a passing step or a gathering step.
He demonstrated many of these, and his example steps also helped me make sense of the (to me) odd use of a toe-pivot described by others in the discord. He tended to finish a quick step with his back foot not yet pointed out. Instead it was pointed forward, with the heel off the ground. When I asked about why he wasn’t turning it out, he said, “Fix that when you have time.” And the way you’d fix it would be to do a toe pivot, and then put your heel down.
None of this really has much to do with Meyer’s text. That is, I’m not trying to figure out how to step. Rather, I’m thinking about what to train to be able to execute what Meyer’s text documents.
Specificity would suggest that the way to train for fast, smooth, even steps would be a lot of stepping. But I know from experience that it’s always worth breaking these things down and checking to see if any of the pieces is posing a limitation.
To pick a not-so-random example, I’m limited by my leg strength for single-leg standing in a very low stance. Things to train for leg strength with bent knees: wall sits, single-leg wall sits, single-leg standing. Those first two I’ve done before, but I can emphasize them a bit for a while. I can add some bent-knee single-leg standing. And, because specificity is still a thing, I’ll also practice executing passing steps and gathering steps as smoothly and rapidly as possible.
This week I attended my first and second HEMA classes, and had great fun. I am even (almost) in good enough shape to work out for two hours, although I’m certainly feeling it this morning.
The first class was half devoted to longsword fencing at a conceptual level, looking at key concepts from Joachim Meyer’s The Art of Combat (which serves as the basic text for the local HEMA group), with the second half devoted to stance and footwork.
The concepts section had to do with the “five words” of Meyer: Vor (= before), Nach (= after), Sterk (= strong), Schwach (= weak), and Indes (= during, or maybe between). Quite a bit of time was spent talking about these concepts, which nevertheless remained subtle and (at least to me) rather unclear.
The stance was kind of interesting, purely because of the modest difference between a longsword stance and santi stance.
In Tai Chi, santi stance is described as a spiral: Your back foot is turned out about 45 degrees, your front foot is turned in (that is, the same direction as your back foot) just slightly. Your hips are turned less, kind of between your feet. Your torso turned less. Your shoulders are turned still less, your head is turned only slightly. Perhaps only your forward eye is pointed directly at your “partner” (i.e opponent).
Meyer’s longsword stance is different: Your back foot is still turned out 45 degrees (or up to 90 degrees). But your front foot is pointed straight forward, as are your hips and shoulders.
Once we’d we practiced the stance (getting our front knee directly over our front ankle, making sure our back knee was modestly bent), we went on to footwork, learning the passing step and the gathering step. Passing step is just stepping forward, except of course, that changes which is the front foot (pointed forward) and which is the back foot (turned out). The gathering step is like an advance in fencing: you back foot steps up to about even with your front foot, and then your front foot moves forward to reestablish a proper stance. And, of course, you don’t need to be committed: You can move your back foot up, and then if circumstances warrant, simply put it back where it had been.
The second class began with a pretty extensive warmup. We did some mobility, and then some stretching, and then some practice stepping, which both got us practice and got our heart rates up a bit. Then—one part I had trouble with—a bunch of lunges: regular lunges, backward lunges, jumping lunges. (Click my “lunge” tag to read a bit more about my difficulties with lunges.) We also sprinted just a little, I assume primarily to get our heart rates up.
Then we learned one new step: Triangle step. In triangle step you bring your back foot behind the front foot, taking you off-line from an attack from the front.
We practiced something they called “dancing,” which is a variation on the introductory practice of push hands: you and a partner touch your hands together (finger tips, or fist) and then one leads, stepping forward or back, while the other attempts to remain stuck, by stepping back or forward, so as to remain at the same distance—while, of course, using proper Meyer longsword footwork.
After that we picked up swords for the first time!
We learned the four principal guards, and then four cuts. They all had names, but unfortunately the acoustics weren’t good enough for me to hear most of them. But there are extensive web resources (including translations of Meyer’s book), so I have the technology to track them down and learn them before Tuesday.
We practiced the guards and cuts quite a bit, which (after all the stepping practice) left me pretty tired, and rather achy this morning. Happily, I’m not suffering from any over-use injuries, just feeling like I got in a good workout. (The one exception is my toes, which were slightly strained from the lunges. Hopefully they’ll be all better very shortly. Henceforth I’ll remember to do some toe stretches before each the HEMA class.)
The steel club swinging I’ve been practicing for months now stood me in good stead: my hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders are strong enough and stable enough, which I don’t think they would have been otherwise.
Classes take place in the Stock Pavilion, an old University of Illinois building (constructed over 100 years ago) originally built to support the Ag school’s mission as a place for students to learn about things like cattle judging. It’s a large space with a dirt (wood chip) floor and concrete bleachers, which suits pretty well for sword-fighting practice.
Next thing to do: buy protective gear (mask and gloves). I’ll also want to get a copy of The Art of Combat, which I understand has a new translation coming out next month, so maybe I’ll wait for that.
I have been surprised (and a little amused) by how difficult the first exercise in the Born to Run training guide is. It’s really just a combination of two exercises that I do all the time already, so I figured it would be pretty easy. But no.
Basically, it’s just single-leg standing with the heel raised. There are three versions with minor differences in what you do with the non-standing leg, to challenge your standing leg in different ways.
I have done single-leg standing for years as part of my tai chi practice. I also do calf-raises nearly every day, including some single-leg calf-raises. And yet. Put them together and things get dramatically harder.
With the single-leg standing exercises I do as part of my tai chi practice, I have my heel down—which makes standing on that foot much, much easier.
With the single-leg calf-raises, I’m only balancing on the standing leg for a few seconds, which turns out to also make a difference.
Standing on one foot with the heel off the ground, and then staying that way for tens of seconds, turns out to be much harder than I’d expected. But it’s harder in ways that I can already tell will mean practicing those exercises will quickly produce improvement not just in those exercises, but also in my running, and in my general foot strength and foot health.
In particular, I keep trying to jab the tip of my left index toe into the ground, when I should be using the pad of the toe. (Probably a left-over from decades of sometimes wearing too-small shoes. My index toes are longer than my big toes, which is not something that shoe salesmen in the 1960s thought about. Also my left foot seems to be a fraction of an inch longer than my right foot, so shoes that fit my right foot perfectly slightly constrained my left index toe.)
When I attended Clarion in 2001, Steven Barnes was my week-one instructor. Of course the class was about writing, but Steve talked quite a bit about martial arts in general and Tai Chi in particular—things that were important in his own life and in his own writing.
Although I had been interested in Tai Chi even before that, I didn’t get it together to find a class until 2009. But I managed to find a great class; one that made room for my idiosyncratic movement issues. It quickly became a daily practice that continues to this day. For several years I taught Tai Chi. I’ve retired from teaching it, but I still attend a group practice session in a nearby park several times a week in nice weather. (It’s free. Anyone is welcome. Send me email if you’re local or visiting and are interested in attending.)
All of which is to say that I was very pleased to find that Steven Barnes was teaching three Tai Chi classes at this year’s WorldCon.
Teaching individual Tai Chi classes is a fundamentally peculiar thing. I mean, if you’re trying to learn a Tai Chi form, you can expect to spend a year at it, if you take two or three classes a week. In that context, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with a single class, and the issue actually gets even more fraught if you’re teaching three classes, rather than just one.
Steve threaded the needle by focusing a large part of each class on talking about living well.
I started this post wanting to talk about all the great stuff that Steve covered—about movement and about life. But I hadn’t taken notes, and became somewhat daunted knowing that I’d skip all sorts of important bits. But, given the choice between documenting a few of the bits that stuck with me and documenting nothing, I’ve decided to go with the former.
I would like to emphasize that all these things are colored by my own thinking, so it is virtually certain that Steven Barnes would look at several of these things and go, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I said!” Don’t blame Steve for anything I get wrong. But this is how I remember it:
Purpose of life
On the first day, Steve mentioned that the Dali Lama said the purpose of life was to seek joy and to be of service. Steve used that statement to go on a short rant about being of service—how it’s the real motivation that gets most people out of bed in the morning. “Even if it’s just to feed the cat.” But on the third day he told a story that added some context.
Originally, he said, the Dali Lama said that the purpose of life was to seek joy. But people criticized him, saying that it sounded selfish to say that was the purpose of life. And the Dali Lama pushed back saying, “But as soon as you find joy, you’ll want to share it, and immediately find yourself drawn to be of service.” But people continued to complain, and eventually the Dali Lama conceded to the complaints and added the “and be of service” part.
And I think it’s good to tell the story this way, so that you get the context that “being of service” is an automatic urge, as soon as you find joy. It has certainly been my own experience.
People almost always reach a point while learning something, where they perceive themselves as no longer getting better at that thing, even as they continue to train. Different people will keep training for different amounts of time before giving up, but most people eventually give up, before becoming an expert.
That has certainly been my own experience. There must be a hundred things—playing chess, identifying birds, gardening, StarCraft—where I did it enough to get pretty good at it, then found that getting significantly better would be hard work, and didn’t make the effort.
Steve suggested that 100 hours of study or training will give you a passing familiarity with some topic or activity, and 1000 hours gets you good enough to participate in a conversation about some topic with an expert. He also made a passing reference to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that it takes to develop actual expertise in something, but mentioned in an almost off-hand way the same issues with that idea that I talk about in my post on practice.
Three areas of life
One thing that I remember Steve talking about at Clarion was that he evaluated people as possible models for himself based on whether or not they were succeeding in each of three specific areas:
Financial success: Does the person have some sort of career or business that supports them and could support a family at whatever standard of living that person aspires to?
Family success: Has the person put together and maintained the sort of family they desire?
Physical success: Is the person fit enough and skilled enough to be able to do the things they want to do?
Steve specifically evaluates people on these standards when they offer unsolicited advice. If the person trying to tell him what or how to do or be has all three of these areas under control, then maybe their advice is worth listening to. Otherwise, probably not. (I gather he has a different standard for when he’s the one seeking advice or a service. He probably wouldn’t refuse dental care from a twice-divorced dentist or to fly on a plane just because the pilot was out of shape.)
When I taught Tai Chi I would begin the first class of each session by telling students that nothing we did in class should hurt. If anything hurt, they should make the move smaller, do a different move, and just wait until we went on to the next move.
Steve had a different perspective. He told students that any pain they felt while training should never go above a level of 3 (on a scale to 10).
I pondered that quite a bit since then, and I think Steve’s perspective makes sense in a way, especially for students who have chronic pain. I never meant to tell my students that they couldn’t take my class if they had pain; just that they shouldn’t do any move that made their pain worse. Another population for whom Steve’s standard probably makes sense is serious athletes or serious martial artists.
We probably spent half of each class moving, starting with a very nice mobility warm-up. It’s rather a lot like what I’ve taken to calling my morning exercises, but focused on working all your joints through their full range of motion, leaving out the muscle-activation stuff that I’ve added for my own purposes.
Steven taught us the first three moves of his Tai Chi form. The first move was roughly the same as the move called Preparation in the form I do, but Steve emphasized the breathing as the entry point into the move: You inhale, and the movement raises your arms (leading from the tops of the wrists), and then you exhale and your arms fall (leading from the bottoms of the wrists). The second move involved stepping forward, turning your foot, and then pressing forward with your hands facing one another (a move we call “ji” in our style). I’ve already forgotten the third move.
Martial art versus martial science
Steve made a distinction between martial art and martial science. Martial science is figuring out the best way to win a fight or battle. Martial art, like any art, is about expressing yourself, in this case through fighting or battle.
This is something I’ve just come to understand very recently—that the “best” or “most effective” martial art is very context dependent. If you’re going to be fighting a duel—hand-to-hand, with swords, with pistols, whatever—that’s very different from battlefield fighting, where you would find yourself with potentially any number of opponents, along with some number of compatriots.
As an aside, my own observation: Krav maga is an excellent choice of martial art, especially if you have a handful of opponents. It has downsides, especially if you have “opponents” who are not enemies. If your opponents are people that you wouldn’t be comfortable maiming or killing, Brazilian jiu jitsu would be a better choice, but perhaps not if you find yourself surrounded by four or five gang members on the street after dark.
The point Steve was making is that martial arts are only appropriate in the appropriate context. There are many circumstances where “fighting,” and “winning a fight” yields significant benefits, but they’re context dependent. He mentioned an important teacher he had who, upon being asked for instruction regarding the best move for some circumstance, said “You’re a primate. Use a tool.”
Being willing to die
Steve told a story about being bullied in school, about how when he was bullied to the point where he couldn’t take it any more, he crossed to the middle of the nearby busy street. Standing on the yellow line, with traffic zipping past in both directions, he dared the bully to come out there and fight him.
The bully realized that he’d made a mistake.
The line, as I recall it was, “You have to be ready to die, and ready to take him with you.” I think a whole lot of martial culture involves people who have reached that point.
Fighting to stay alive
One thing that got some pushback from one member of the class was the idea that anybody would fight to live: Even someone so depressed as to be suicidal, if you put their head in a bucket of water, would fight to survive. One member of the audience suggested that clinical depression was a matter of brain chemistry, which Steve did not dispute. But the student talking about it said that, when she was at her lowest, if you’d killed her she’d have thought you were doing her a favor. Steve suggested that, even if you’d think that way in the abstract, if you find your head thrust into a bucket of water, you’d do everything you could to to breath.
I have no doubt that Steve was right here. A person suffering from clinical depression might well wonder why they’d fought to hard to survive, but I very much doubt that they’d just breath in water and be glad to pass on, even if they were at the point where they might later that day have chosen to swim into the sea too far to be able to swim back.
Those are the bits I remember from Steve’s three Tai Chi classes. There was a lot more—probably other things that were more important than these.
I find myself a little surprised that the “three areas of life” stuff stuck with me the way they did. At Clarion I was doing pretty well in two of them—I had a career in software engineering that provided for my family, and I was in a successful long-term relationship with my wife. But my physicality wasn’t yet on point: I was somewhat fit; I could walk a long ways, I could even run a couple of miles, but I was overweight and unhappy about it.
I’m surprisingly pleased that I’ve managed to get all three under control. That same career lasted long enough (and I boosted my income enough with writing and teaching Tai Chi), that I’m able to support myself on my pension and my investments. I’m still married to the same woman I was married to when I went to Clarion. And since I was in Clarion I lost around fifty pounds while at the same time developing the ability to move in ways that would have been impossible when I was younger.
My Tai Chi practice was important to all those things. Perhaps it seems even more important than it was, because it was my entryway into moving better. Since stepping through that door I’ve explored a wide range of natural-movement practices. During the pandemic I (to an extent) switched back to an exercise- (versus movement-) based paradigm, but really just because exercise suited the circumstances. As the pandemic winds down, I expect I’ll switch back to movement rather than exercise as the focus of what I do.
Looking for a Steven Barnes link to use here I found this post in which he talks about the very classes I was in:
I was very pleased to be able to take another class—three classes!—from Steven Barnes. I enjoyed them, and I learned a lot.
Someone should make an anime series that’s just training montages. Sword-fighting training. Rock climbing training. Running. Martial arts. Always training for some competition or danger, but the series skips those and just goes on to the next training montage.
It’s a bit harder to put this past year in a tidy descriptive box than it has been the past few years. Probably the simplest description would be: The same, but less so.
Last year I did a great job of leaning into exercise as a way to cope with the pandemic. This year started with me feeling like I could imagine that the pandemic would end, and I was focusing of all the new things I could do, once I could spend time with other people—rock climbing, parkour, fencing, historical European martial arts (i.e. sword fighting), etc.
Except then the pandemic didn’t end, and I was left to carry on as best I could with last year’s exercises. I did okay, but not as well as I had done.
In fact, I’m perfectly pleased with the way I maintained my capabilities. Late last year I checked and documented that I’d pretty much accomplished the baseline goals that I’d set for myself (see Five years of parkour strength training). I just checked again, and I’ve not backslid on those.
Last year I didn’t even think about setting new baseline goals, because my plan had been to move on from these solo training goals to training with other actual people. This year I’ve felt like I needed to at least think about it, but so far I’m not feeling it. I do want to recover the ability to do a few pull ups (again!), but that’s about the only physical benchmark of that sort where I feel like I want or need specific improvement.
It’s not that I’m a perfect physical specimen; it’s just that I don’t have much attachment to being able to squat this much weight or deadlift that much. I want to be strong enough to pick up something heavy and carry it a reasonable distance, but I don’t feel much need to put specific numbers on that weight or that distance.
I wrote a day or two ago about how I gradually shifted to more running and less lifting, which has been great. But in the middle of the year I spent some months doing less of everything—I had a minor medical issue in the spring, then we took a vacation, then I went to visit my dad, then Jackie had her hip replacement (meaning that I had to pretty much take over running the household for a few weeks). I did okay in terms of not backsliding too much, but I didn’t make much forward progress, and it has only been in the last six weeks or so that I’m really getting back to doing what I want to do.
So, where to go from here? I guess I want to:
Continue to emphasize running, moving from two runs a week to three.
Let the lifting sessions settle in at just two a week, but amp up the intensity.
Get back to including a HIIT session every week.
Take Jackie for a walk or hike every single time she wants to go, even if it means delaying or canceling a workout.
I’ll aim to do something just like that in January and February. Along about March or April I will want to do the Superhero workout that I couldn’t do last year—that’ll be a brief interruption in my shift back to more running and less lifting, but just for eight or nine weeks. In mid-summer we have a plan for a hiking vacation in North Carolina, so in May and June we’ll want to gradually boost the amount and speed of our walks, and be sure to include plenty of hikes on trails, and to get in as much elevation change as possible in Central Illinois. I’ve got a couple more trips planned for late summer (assuming the pandemic allows), including attending WorldCon, but it’s only the hiking trip that will have much influence on my movement strategy.