Friday, 12 February 2016

Facing fears...

Like most people, I hate visiting the dentist. And when I say hate, I mean HATE! If I am honest though, I am actually afraid of going despite multiple visits following blowing out my front teeth while ice-skating in the nineties. Idiot that I was, I figured  could skate with my hands in my pockets with the oh-so-predictable result that I fell on my face and literally bit the ice. Ouch! When I am on the Chair I sweat buckets and am rigid with tension and fear, with my hands clenched into knots. I am just waiting for the pain to come. Yet after the visit, which usually turns out to be not so bad, I am exhausted and only want to sleep. Post traumatic stress disorder, indeed!

Mostly, I can conquer this fear as I can rationalise that the visit is in my own best interests and that time and money spent in the chair are well invested in my future health and well-being. I am still always ready to run though if my appointment is late and I try to convince myself that the toothache is "not THAT bad". Luckily, I have had a very good dentist over the years who makes small-talk (a rarity in Finns) while working. The last work was to replace separate crowns in my upper front teeth, which were no longer straight, with both crowns in a single block. That was over two years ago. Since then, I have made excuse after excuse for not returning; too busy at work, my teeth feel fine etc. and suddenly so much time has elapsed. I could keep on making excuses until I do have bad toothache and I really need to go. So today, it was high time to make that appointment and tomorrow is the day. I am terrified!

We experience fear (in all its myriad forms) almost every day but some of us are better at dealing with it than others. I wrote in a previous post about being afraid to compete in the Helsinki Open Longsword 2016 tournament; afraid of losing matches, of looking foolish and feeling ashamed that I would not do better. This fear troubled me enough at times that I began to think of withdrawing from the competition altogether. However, I decided to hang tough and took part and had an extraordinarily positive experience. It was totally worth feeling the fear and going forward anyway. My dental appointment has made me think about how many things scare me on a daily basis and I began to wonder why I am like this.

I remember being in fear of the nuns in primary school. Afraid I would do something wrong, terrified that some one would tell the teacher on me. One nun in particular liked to pinch, her favourite spot was the inside of your upper arm. Another method was to put her silver ring (as a Bride of Christ, hah!) on her knuckle and rap you on the skull. Infractions like misbehaving and making too much noise got you pinched or rapped, as did not joining up your letters properly. Corporal punishment continued through school but as I got bigger and my sense of boyhood bravado grew, being lifted by the ear or sidelocks, whacks across the palms of the hands with a bamboo cane, often called 'Charlie' (with a capital C) in 'six of the best' hurt but the sense of fear was gone. You took the punishment, forced a smile to hide the pain, then wrapped your hands around the cold metal legs of your desk to cool the sting. Weirdly enough, the physical aspect I do not really remember as being so bad. I mean, I got slapped occasionally but we didn't have the living shit kicked out of us. The absolute worst was the humiliation tactic, a tried and tested technique by some teachers of the 'Old Guard' of school-teaching and designed to break people. I only had limited direct experience of this but others had it far worse, especially the softer kids, sometimes feeling so bad they pissed themselves in front of the class, further compounding their shame. And we others watched and perhaps felt sympathy but were probably thankful it was not us, this time. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a sob story and I actually liked school a lot.

Inexplicable fears have stayed with me to this day. I often have that fear that I will get that sudden heavy hand on the shoulder and hear "Oi, what the hell are you doing? You are not supposed to be here!" like the centurion played by John Cleese in 'Life of Brian'. Living in a foreign country with a foreign language has not helped to soften the fear either. The thing is though, it's just in my head. How many times in life have I been afraid of new situations, job interviews, starting beginners' course in various martial arts, new jobs, giving public presentations (in Finnish!) etc. yet somehow once I get through these situations, I realise they weren't so bad. Invariably, they never are. I do try to prepare as much as possible beforehand so I can feel in control of the situation  and maybe have a backup plan. It would be great if I could follow the Buddhist tenet, "Relax, nothing is under control" but that's not very realistic for me, even though it has a ring of truth.

Three things about fear: 1. My fears are not yours. 2. We deal with our fears differently. 3. The scale of fear is relative. When I think of what Syrian refugee families have had to go through both in their home country, as well as the harrowing journey to get away to safety, my fears seem very petty. Compared to them, there is literally nothing holding me back. My fears are not mortal. Like my childhood fears in school and those of the refugees, I had no power to change the situation, my power was taken away from me. By comparison, now I have power over my adult fears. I can feel them but go through with things anyway. I can choose to face things or not. We develop our 'comfort zone' outside which we do not often choose to go.

The rather splendid Irish ring hilt sword logo of HEMA Ireland

In an attempt to get out of my comfort zone, I decided to take part in a fencing tournament last month. It was scary but worth it. Now I am planning to visit several different historical fencing clubs around Ireland to train with and lead some Fiore classes. There is a burgeoning HEMA scene in Ireland, which did not exist when I left in 2000. Also, meeting an Irish fencer who travelled all the way from Ireland to take part in the Helsinki Longsword 2016 tournament was inspiring and a great indication of a thriving community. This is a great opportunity for me to put myself out there, meet new people and hit them with swords! What could be better? I sent an open email to the HEMA Ireland facebook page and to several clubs. So far, I have been in contact with at least six different groups from the four corners of the island! Yaay! 
Shit! What have I let myself in for?.....

Dentist update: I will need at least two small fillings and a visit to the oral hygienist to have the plaque scraped off. Actually not that bad! The plaque removal is almost worse than the fillings. Oh well, at least I can limit the procedures to one per week until it's done. Fear in small doses is much easier to deal with. Baby steps.....

Friday, 29 January 2016

Pacing oneself....

Last weekend at the Helsinki Longsword Open 2016 was pretty intense. It almost feels like I haven't slowed down since. I talked with loads of people about a range of topics, not all sword-related. We were up at 6:30 on Saturday morning and had the whole day experience of the competition, followed by dinner and the pub, culminating in a two-hour drive back home. I finally got home around 5:30 in the morning and due to copious quantities of cola consumed in the pub I was still hyper at home and finally fell asleep around 7:00 am. That's a pretty full 24 hours!

It has left it's mark in both good ways and bad. Mostly good. I am now friends on Facebook with two new and very interesting people. I got to see photos of myself in action, some actually quite flattering and looking almost like I knew what I was doing! Some well, are a bit closer to the truth.... I guess the video material will not be so much fun to look at, or to put a more positive spin on it, they will be instructional. The bad side is that following the tournament, I realised that I have a lot of holes in my repertoire. These need to be fixed but I want to fix them ALL, NOW! I know the desire to improve is a good thing but I need to be more realistic in how quickly or slowly this will happen. I have probably mentioned in a previous post that I can get fixated on things, be it work, quadcopters or fencing. I will keep pegging away at it, all night if necessary to get to a point where I am satisfied. This rarely happens though because I am so tired and consumed, I cannot see any good in the thing anymore. Since my burnout, I really have to watch it that I realise when this manic behaviour starts and step away. Being unemployed right now has been a bit of a curse in this respect. With time on my hands, there is the tendency to check Facebook every five minutes or answer every text or message immediately. The good feeling and enthusiasm generated by the tournament experience has meant a lot of mails and thread perusal in the last few days, more than is probably good for me. All I can say is that I will have Facebook-free days and thank God I am not on either Twitter or Instagram!

Away from the interweb, I managed to drag myself to training twice this week and for the most part, enjoyed it. Last night we practiced slipping the leg in both Fiore longsword as well as in the Bolognese sidesword class, which followed regular training. I was a bit frustrated by the exercises we had to do, to be honest. Here, folks pair off and one either attacks with a blow to the head or feints high before cutting to the leg. The defender was supposed to react accordingly by either staying put, parrying and riposting for the first attack type OR slipping the leg for the second. Seems simple right? Not so, for me. I often either get it completely wrong or fluff it in such a way as to make a mad flail and a leg slip and can just about tag the attacker. To my pedantic mind, it must look awful, no response is clear, looking like a total fail (I get hit) or a weird hybrid spasm (a slip and a half-assed blow). Aargh! This apparent inability of mine to see and react to what is really happening is a real gear grinder for me and I suspect most people. It just seems to me that other folks seem to deal with it better than I do. Why do I just react and respond to what I seem to think is happening rather than what is ACTUALLY happening? 

We also did new footwork exercises this week. No, NOT the above. Holy Jesus, it looks like some sort of manic Shaolin track event combined with fencing lunges! Knee injury anyone? Our lesson involved doing a deepish squat until the thighs were horizontal, then powering up from there to jump as high off the floor as possible, the idea being to develop 'explosive' power. Useful for making aggressive lunging attacks, which we don't do in our regular training. They were not satisfying to do as I seemed to have very little power and not much height in my jumps. Normally, we do not do a particularly heavy workout apart from a light warm-up in class and this has led to folks being a bit shocked by having to do some hard work. The complaint is often "I'm here to swing a sword, not do aerobics!". Fair enough, but a few minutes spent on more dynamic exercise on a regular basis can only benefit a fencer. We should see the long-term goal and as our American cousins would exhort, "Suck it up!". Change, if we want it, will come slowly or quickly depending on how we apply ourselves. Actually I preferred this video, which took a lot more relaxed pace and frankly, exercise that are more likely for me to perform than the Italian Cossack dancers above! For some reason, I really like the ice-skaters jump (3:20) which I could see being used in longsword.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Helsinki Longsword Open 2016 Review

Wow! What an event! I am still recovering from the sensory overload of it all, not to mention sore muscles and a big bruise or two. The overall experience was wildly positive and I am already looking forward to having another go at some stage in the future.

I had trained quite hard in the run right up to Christmas and even when I went home to Ireland, I went jogging and did cutting and thrusting practice with my brother's longsword. After Christmas though I got lazy and even when I got back to Finland I wasted almost 2 weeks sitting on my ass playing Skyrim on the PS3. Dumb! After this I got my motivation back and dragged myself back to training. It was worth it, training was fun and my group also started a basic course in Bolognese sidesword as an additional bonus! Result!

So, what were my expectations?

1. To see if my repertoire was any good under pressure against non-cooperative opponents. Could I attack, counterattack, defend all lines, thrust, feint?
2. To find holes in my training. What am I missing?
3. To get some points from each match.
4. Not to take it too seriously and to try to enjoy myself.

To be honest, my five matches went by in a blur. I know that I lost all of them but that I gained more points as each match went on. I have yet to see the footage and I am pretty sure it will be cringeworthy. I think I managed a disarm at some stage and I tried doing take-downs in two separate matches and failed both. I got warned for hitting the tip of the sword on the floor and for turning my back on my opponent (fair enough, although it was after halt had been called). I got hit on the head a LOT, as well as getting tagged on the hands and parrying too wide to a feint only to get hit on the arm on the other side. I managed a one-handed thrust to the body. I was in good form for the first three matches but was obviously winded and blowing hard for the last two. I got hit HARD, in fact harder than I have ever been hit before in more than ten years of fencing. The experience was shocking and I saw stars momentarily. In one exchange, my opponents struck me on the head, possibly my sword was also in the way and the pommel broke on his sword. Prior to the event, I had bought a gel insert skull cap (SkullTec) to be worn under the mask to mitigate against hard head strikes. I'm glad I invested that money!

About the hard hitting: I am not complaining about it, rather it was the shock of it that I found most surprising. I have never experienced anything like it so was not prepared for it. Now I have, I understand better why it happens. It may be due to several things such as a combination of good form/structure with power generation and acceleration causing a hard strike, to intimidate an opponent and to make a sword strike on the mask so that it makes a very audible sound for judges to call. The pommel breaking I didn't really take seriously. The sword had already been used that day in several pools spanning multiple matches, resulting in breaking a weakened (and probably defective) tang. Whether one actually needs to strike hard is another matter and a personal choice. I don't think I need to do it but am glad I got this experience. It was a bit of an aha! moment for me as it does really give good motivation for parrying properly and although not terribly pleasant, it wasn't so bad.

Once my matches were over, I could sit back, relax and enjoy watching the other matches including the ladies' pools, the eliminations, the tatami-cutting competition, and then the quarter-, semis and finals. Holy moly, these were intensive with some lightning fast parry-riposte actions, disarms and incredible athleticism. The cutting competition was fun with some folks making very difficult cuts (false edge fendenti) look easy, slicing the mats and leaving clean, straight cuts. It was a pleasure to watch. More please!

Once the awards ceremony was over, folks started to leave and while some headed home, others continued on to a restaurant and later the pub. For me, this social side capped the day off perfectly. It is always great to come to a meet like this because the HEMA community is just that, a community. We share a passion, making it easy to walk up to strangers and just start chatting, about swords, fencing, manuals and BEER! For example, while not fighting in the pools, I chatted about pedagogic techniques and kettlebell training with Norwegian fencer, Petter Brodin, as well as having the craic with compatriot Christine Maunsell, who had come all the way from Ireland to compete in the Ladies' competition. She is the first Irish HEMA practitioner I have ever met and it was great to get the low-down on the Irish scene. As the Health and Safety Officer of the newly-fledged HEMA Ireland organisation, Christine was also on a fact finding mission to glean best practices for holding similar competitions at home.

This camaraderie continued all evening and we left the pub around 2 am before driving home to Turku. Since then, my mind is still whirling with possibilities of how to improve on my fencing in general, what holes I need to fill and where my mindset needs to be at. My thanks to my club mates Markus, Tuomas and Niko for sharing the experience. Finally, a big thank you and appreciation for the hard work of the Espoo Association for Historical Fencing (, as well as the other volunteers, for organising and efficiently running an international-level fencing competition and event. You made it look easy!