Friday, February 20, 2009

Getting medieval on a Sunday

Note: This is a version of a story I wrote that appeared in the Westword online. The editor thought this version was too much like a newspaper article, but I liked it so here it is! I think I am OK in posting it here since the quotes are different and the story is different, it is just about the same event.

Suburban swashbucklers

I spent Sunday learning the ancient art of the “spada a dui mani,” or two-handed Italian longsword, at a place called the Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild in Wheat Ridge. A bastion of medieval fighting tactics in the heart of the Front Range, the RMSG offers a great full-body workout, a history lesson and a chance to wield some serious heavy metal.

Not your daddy’s D&D

Before you start thinking “frustrated Dungeon Masters screwing around,” let me introduce you to one Maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco. Dei Liberi was an Italian swordmaster who wrote a comprehensive combat manual in 1409 titled “Il Fior di Battaglio,” or “The Flower of Battle.”

Dei Liberi’s manuscript (of which only three copies are known to exist) forms the basis of the core classes at RMSG. In addition to longsword, the book lays out a complete fighting system including grappling, and fighting with daggers, lances and poleaxes. Lead instructor and school founder Roger Siggs has worked on translating the “Flower” as well as other medieval fighting treatises. These works make up the main teaching materials of what is known as historical European martial arts (HEMA), or Western martial arts (WMA).

Siggs, who has a Master’s degree in medieval history from University of California - San Diego (with a concentration in Byzantine military history), started RMSG in 2006 when he moved to Colorado. He became interested in HEMA while he was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), but after 13 years he parted ways with the SCA in favor of a more structured and historical approach to getting medieval.

“Eventually I felt that the SCA didn’t fit my needs (it’s a club where fighting is an ancillary aspect of the organization) so I began working towards the development of WMA/HEMA as a distinct martial style, rather than relegating it to renaissance faires and that sort of thing,” Siggs said.

‘Ready … FIGHT!’

The daylong workshop started with a rousing game of Hooverball. This game – invented by President Herbert Hoover’s personal physician to get the portly commander-in-chief in fighting shape – involves two teams hurling a medicine ball over a net, volleyball-style. Players try to catch the ball and throw it back over the net (in this case a rope) so it lands without being caught. The act of chucking the 10-pound ball over the rope is a great warmup and activates the muscles that are needed to swing swords around (that is, pretty much all of them).

Then we grabbed the blades. Ssssshing! “Die, fiend!” Ahem, I get ahead of myself. Dei Liberi’s work outlines “dances,” or forms, with the longsword. These dances show the students how to transition between the various positions and guards. Then the class broke into pairs and began practicing “plays,” or brief snippets of combat, where one person attacks and the other performs a counterattack.

The students, all of who had varying degrees of experience in HEMA or other martial arts, did not fit into any particular mold, but all shared a love for things medieval.

“I’ve always pursued somewhat anachronistic hobbies,” said Douglas Wagner, 38, of Denver (shown fighting me in red pants at right). Wagner, a curatorial assistant in the Denver Art Museum’s Asian Art Department, also studies jousting and participates in jousting tournaments. In HEMA he found a way to express an old dream in new ways.

“With martial arts you find there is no such thing as an ultimate goal. The goal is to always improve,” he said. “I get to become that vision of myself as a Renaissance or medieval character that I’ve imagined myself to be since I was a kid.”

Actor and stage combat director Benaiah Anderson, 32, said he studies at RMSG to improve his martial arts skill and get ideas for his work. However, he doesn’t use the material directly, even in his current role in “Richard III” at the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

“The audience wants an exciting visual story, not the most direct way to kill your opponent,” Anderson said.

Siggs, a black belt in aikido, judo and kyokushinkai karate, gleefully directed the controlled melees.

“I’m gonna smack him down, then I’m gonna hit him, then I’m gonna hit him again,” said Siggs, demonstrating a parry and two swift sword strokes.

Looking on, class participant and acupuncturist R. Scott Malone said the action reminded him of something.

“It’s like a steel bitch slap,” Malone said.

An important question

After minutes of contemplation, I finally thought of the most profound and deep question I could ask Siggs about his art: Who would win a fight, Fiore dei Liberi or Bruce Lee?
“Personally, I’d have to say Fiore,” Siggs said. “We know that he fought five duels at the sword with only regular clothing and no armor.”

However, Siggs does cede the Little Dragon one point:

“Bruce Lee is famed not just for movies, but also for his development of Jeet Kun Do – his method of martial arts – which posits the idea that all fighting is systemic and by following a series of core principles, you can gain ability and skill in any situation,” Siggs said. “Amazingly enough, this is the same mindset Maestro Fiore details for us, but 600 years earlier.”

Siggs said that people who are interested in the material would do well in the class. But, if your only goal is to be a “bad ass,” then the class is not for you, since there is a lot of hard work involved.

“Personal development, alongside of butt-kicking, is really the primary focus of our work,” he said.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chinese grafitti

For some reason, a couple of Chinese poems remain clear in my mind even now, 10 years since I have been in China.

Two of the poems I remember are dueling poems. The first one was composed by one of the top Zen Buddhist monks of the 7th century. The other was written by a lowly cleaning dude at the temple, who turned out to be the monk's rival for the much vaunted position of Sixth Patriarch.

The tale of Hui Neng (慧能 Hui4 Neng2) begins with a young lad (Hui Neng, A.D. 632-713) who grows up very poor and sells firewood to support himself and his single mom. His name was Lu (庐 lu4) at the time (Hui Neng, meaning "intelligent ability," became his monastic name later). One day on a firewood delivery run Lu (I'll just call him Hui Neng now) ran into a dude reading outside of a small inn. He asked the guy what he was reading and where he was from. Turns out he was reading the Diamond Sutra (金剛經 jin1 gang1 jing1), a Buddhist scripture that teaches awareness of the mind and its various ways of tricking you.

So Hui Neng (now 24) learns that his guy was studying at the Huang Mei Temple in Hubei Province, and he decides to go there to study. Long story short, Hui Neng meets the head of the temple, the 5th Patriarch (meaning the 5th Zen Buddhist master since the religion arrived in China), whose name was Hong Ren (弘忍 Hong2 Ren4).

Hong Ren says "what do you want, kid?" and Hui Neng is like "I am from Ling Nan, I want to study Buddhism." So Hong Ren tests him and says "What makes you think a peasant from Ling Nan can learn Buddhism?" Hui Neng says "Men are from the north or the south, but the true nature of Buddha knows no north or south." Hong Ren is like "whaaaaat?" and is super impressed, but in order to keep the 700 unruly monks from getting angry about a young punk coming from the countryside and gaining monk status just-like-that, he makes Hui Neng a laborer, cleaning up after the other monks and threshing rice.

Eight months later, Hui Neng is still happily cleaning up after the other monks. One day Hong Ren announces that he wants everyone to write a verse displaying their understanding of Buddhism. That night, the senior monk Shen Xiu (神秀 Shen2 Xiu4) (who realizes the poem thing is a test to see who is worthy to become Hong Ren's successor) puts a lot of thought into it (big mistake in Zen Buddhism). He sneaks down in the middle of the night and writes - on the wall of the temple - this verse:

(shen1 shi4 pu2 ti2 shu4, xin1 ru2 ming2 jing4 tai2
shi2 shi2 qin2 fu2 shi4, mo4 shi3 you3 chen2 ai1)

which means:

"The body is the Tree of Enlightenment, the mind is like a bright mirror stand.
Always be diligent in cleaning it, and allow no dust to land."

All the monks see it in the morning and are all like "whoa, that's deep." Except for Hong Ren, who just sort of looks at it and says nothing. Then, Hui Neng hears about the ruckus in the hall and heads over for a look. Upon seeing the verse, he asks Hong Ren if he too can have a crack at a Buddhist verse. He gets permission and ad libs the following ...

(pu2 ti2 ben3 wu2 shu4, ming2 jing4 yi4 fei1 tai2
ben3 lai2 wu2 yi1 wu4, he2 chu4 re3 chen2 ai1)

which means:

"Enlightenment has no tree, the bright mirror has no stand.
Originally there was nothing, so where can the dust even land?

... showing his really deep and innate understanding of Zen, and he gets the patriarch's robe, thus becoming the Sixth Patriarch! Whereupon he is immediately sent into hiding for 15 years with Cantonese pig farmers so he won't get attacked by a mob of furious monks.

The End

Note: I really like the phrase 本来无一物, (ben3 lai2 wu2 yi1 wu4). Literally it means, "In the beginning, there was not one thing." It sums up the universe nicely in like 5 characters. 物 (wu4) is a nice word, too, because it can mean any "thing." Chinese philosophy somtimes refers to the 万物 (wan4 wu4) or "myriad creatures," but you can also take it to mean "matter" in general so he is kind of hinting at the pre-Big Bang void. Maybe. Anyway I like it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What's the 419?

This is the world premiere of a video I made to go along with my rap song about getting spam e-mail. I wrote this rap during a Williston (Vt.) Selectboard meeting that I was reporting on a couple years ago. (It was a slow meeting). It was fun making the vid! The title is "What's the 419?" as in the 419 Internet scams. You know, where the Nigerian banker says if you give him your contact info they will send you like 50 million bucks? 419 is the section of the Nigerian penal code dealing with money scams apparently.

I am now bracing myself to become in Internet superstar. Here goes...