The Sword and the Pseudo-Swordsman- a Hackneyed Introspective

For my last piece of writing today- three in one, it’s a June miracle!-I’m going to do something no writer should ever do. It’s stupid, it’s arrogant, it’s risky and it gives people way too much ammunition. I’m going to write about myself. Of course, we all know that joke is ridiculous, because on some level we only ever write about ourselves- even when we write total fiction rather than direct ‘I was there!’ stories of our past, our interests, our style, those are still integral parts of ourselves. And that brings me to the main body of this thing. But first, an introduction. You know what I look like, presumably. You may have noticed I mention swords a couple of times. Well, guess what, I’m mentioning them again:

Picture 27I may have mentioned before, and I’m sure I’ll note again, that swords are a cheap way of examining a person. I’m bringing this one into things anyway. The aluminum one I used for some pictures here a while back was a cheapo, prefabricated, blunt little thing for $50 on Amazon. It served its purpose well, but it wasn’t mine, really. This sword, however, is mine. A custom made one, Honsanmai lamination for a flexible spine and hard, three foot cutting edge, footlong grip, heavy curvature- blue cotton grip, because black and brown are too dull and I’m not a fan of red;purple and green are just impossible to coordinate, and who the heck wraps their katana with orange ito? The handguard, not pictured, is formed of copper lilies; I’d sent for a dragon-themed one, but small mistakes I can overlook. It’s an eccentric’s weapon, a blade long enough that I have to wear it edge-down and turn my torso to perform Iai with it, and a weapon heavy and forward-balanced enough I didn’t have the arm-strength to swing it one handed until the last couple of weeks, so Iai practice was basically impossible anyway. But if you were to be a disembodied ghost peeking through my room, and felt analytical, you could learn a lot of things about me by looking at it. First off, the grip is discolored in two locations, marking the hold of my right and left hands. In a number of increasingly intense practice sessions- and I mean practice, not sword-ballet- I’ve put enough sweat and, gross as it sounds, dried skin into the grip to make it almost immovable in those places. Despite the obscene amount of kinetic energy it takes to move this thing, the grip doesn’t shift a millimeter. That took some doing.

If you were a particularly entitled ghost used to touching and messing with other people’s prized possessions, you would find, on drawing the sword, that its blade is spotless, except for three sets of small, garish scratches at three points along the edge. Each set marks a point where I slipped while sharpening the sword- it came blunt, as a nod to my mother’s wishes, but I later got pissed off at having a blunt high-grade polished high-carbon O-katana. $531 USD so I can have a really beautiful hammer? How about no? Despite the dire warnings against rookies sharpening their good swords rather than stainless wall hangers, I managed to put a keen edge on it without destroying it; pure luck, really. It sits in its scabbard, which, compared to the iaito, is utterly immaculate, aside from a small dent on the very bottom of it, resting in a position of dubious honor in a stand, itself placed on my dresser. The last bit is non-traditional, but makes more sense if you realize there are five different pets in the house.

The rest of the room is what you’d expect of an avowedly (and I’d say truthfully) nerdy college student on Summer break. Clothes are everywhere, my desktop PC is where you’d expect, under my desk, which of course is littered with… litter, and my bookshelf holds more game cases and random odds and ends than actual books. You can find college books I never returned (relax, I bought ’em, just lost money is all) mixed with martial arts books, space opera and high fantasy works. Everything fits the picture, except for a sword that’s seen a lot of use. It’s left marks on me as well- my hands, scholarly smooth just this  April when I got back, are already covering over in a fine web of calluses- accounting for a trip to Germany, that leaves three weeks of intermittent practice to do all that.

So, those are the appearances. But I said introspective, didn’t I? Well, here it is. The first lesson I learned from the sword was a lesson in humility. Being the young, naive moron that I was a year and two months ago, I put out an order for a sword nine inches longer than the recommended ones for my height. I didn’t see how it could possibly be that much worse than the wooden bokken I had, or  the Iaito. It arrived, and I nearly tore my arms trying to swing it with any sort of speed. It’s only this summer that my fitness efforts have picked up enough to make it a viable weapon. We’re currently 2-zip against the cowardly acolytes of the vaunted 2-Liter Bottle School of… er… getting sliced up. Mom still thinks it odd that I would bifurcate a cola bottle when we could recycle it for a whole two cents. I’d be willing to pay at least a dollar for the satisfaction of ‘killing’ one with a single stroke. Hasn’t gotten old yet.

The second lesson was by far the most important, and that was in determination. It’s not one that sank in immediately, but it did hit me all at once. Getting home this April after some cursory efforts  to get in shape, I saw the sword on the dresser and thought, “I’m going to practice with that until it feels like swinging a feather.” Not in so many words, which is rare for me, but that was about the sentiment. So far the list of things which now feel like feathers includes almost every non-furniture object in the house, our pets, and 15-pound weights (depending). The sword has just entered ‘manageable’ territory, but I’m getting there bit by bit.

The third was useful, and a bit odd, in that it was more of a refresher- to just enjoy simple, peaceful moments, ones where patience is more important than pure effort. Just sitting at my desk, tapping polishing powder onto the blade (which is a thing, and I very much recommend it if you plan on owning anything of the carbon steel persuasion), and scrubbing with a lump of rice paper under my index finger ’til that steel turns to silver.

As to the fourth, it was the opposite- the sheer joy of putting every ounce of your strength into something. The deep whoosh that a grooved sword produces when you swing it with the edge dead-on is one of the most satisfying noises in the world, which of course every movie gets completely wrong. Even a dagger, given a groove, creates a fairly deep, low-pitched sound. The O-katana produces that, and a sort of fwup at the end of a stroke which says ‘sharp’ better than any amount of tinny humming ever could. It’s terrifying and glorious, and in the mornings I live to hear that sound over and over again, no matter how much my arms are wailing that they’re about to fall off.

Just in the last few weeks of getting really serious with this thing, I think I’ve lost more fat than I did in five months of daily cardio and weight-training while at college. Granted a lot of that is down to my metabolism finally syncing up with those early workouts, but it’s been pretty dramatic regardless. Those pounds have been with me for over a decade, since a poorly-researched prescription to manage my Aspergers’ symptoms helped me put on over half of them in a couple of years. What ultimately motivated me to start burning them off had nothing to do with appearances, and everything to do with being able to actually wield this sword I bought. Not because I spent money on it- what a reason to do anything!– but because it’s mine. Simple as that.

Oh, I almost forgot, if any of you are wondering how I got a laminated, clay-hardened katana for $531, when the usual market value for that kind of thing starts at $1000- China. Traditionalists, hold your insults. Anyone else who’s interested, do your research and some of the mail-order forges can give surprisingly good value. Is the sword worth it? Well, I botched a stroke a few days ago and the edge caught (at around a fifty degree angle) on the hard plastic-coated, steel arm of a lawn chair behind me. Don’t ask why I was so close to the lawnchair, because I’d have to admit stupidity, our back yard being huge and all. The sword took NO damage. None. But it did bite an inch into the arm of the chair.

Say something, darn it!

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