Introspective Indulgence: Cullen and Diamondback, Three Years In

The weather today is depressing. Not frightful; this year Michigan’s winter just couldn’t hack it and actually ended on time in February. We got a desultory burst of snow one day in April, but by and large the weather’s actually been temperate this year. Today, appropriate to mid-spring, it’s raining. I’m not particularly fond of rain and Diamondback handles it very poorly, so we’re staying inside to catch up on some personal projects. Since I’ve been struggling to think of a topic for today, I decided I’d just go ahead and explain how a neurologically lopsided white nerd wound up with a four-foot O-tachi. Just in case everyone forgot what this “we” looks like, that’d be this odd couple:

Picture 91
Bonus points if you can guess what my favorite color is.

Some background. Each new obsession of mine (and I use “obsession” here in its full autistic sense) tends to spring forth from the previous ones, like branches on a tree. Perhaps “heads on a hydra” would be a more accurate depiction, but that’s just too dire. As I said, the weather’s already depressing enough. I became fascinated with gaming based on the most basic human instinct: the desire to be close to my mother. Mom was the one who introduced me to gaming. I mainly remember her playing Myst, but the ones I got into were early RTSes like Myth and Sudden Strike.

Eventually I discovered RPGs, and it was in playing games like Neverwinter Nights that I started to imagine the events of the story in greater depth. In this regard writing basically snuck up on me. My only previous plans for the future were “firefighter” or stereotypical kid career dreams. Neverwinter Nights 2 also introduced me to something else: the katana.

There was no good reason for me to have a katana. I’ve had no formal training, I’m not Japanese, swords are no longer used as weapons, and I could’ve stood to save the money for other purposes. But from around the time I hit 16, I became determine to have one. I want to clarify that I didn’t get access to the Internet until 2008, and this was predicated by the need to have an online connection to play Empire: Total War through Steam. My fascination with the Japanese sword came entirely from its aesthetics: the even diamonds of the silk grip, the white of the rayskin, the cap and spacers flush with the hilt, the richly etched guards, the sweep of the blade’s ridgeline and cutting edge into its point, the white of the hamon against the near-black of the ji. Bullshit stories about katana cleaving machine gun barrels and high-carbon plate armor were never a factor. It was all in the look.

Which, to be honest, is why Diamondback looks as she does. And yes, I’m one of those asshole guys who refers to his favorite inanimate object as female. That may be pitiable for other reasons, but I promise you it’s in no way an insult to women. That explanation has to wait for me to explain the other bit, though. When I was doing research prior to commissioning a sword of my own, I came across someone’s example of an O-tachi with a cutting edge of three feet, a curvature of three centimeters, and a grip of one foot. I took one look at it and decided that I had to have one to the exact same proportions. I was only 19 at this point (soon to be 20) and I didn’t have 1/100th of the knowledge that I do now. If I did there are a lot of things I would’ve specified differently, but in the end I’ve no regrets.

Naturally I paid the price for thinking only of aesthetics and not functionality. What I wound up with was a sword that weighs three and a half pounds sans scabbard and handles like she weighs ten. The reason for this is a point of balance 10 inches forward of the guard. It’s taken three years of constant training to make that weight manageable. I still wouldn’t say I’m competent with Diamondback. My left horizontal cuts out of hasso (high guard) tend to come with a moderate edge misalignment when I’m tired. After a hundred or so cuts, my right arm doesn’t want to extend as fully as it’s supposed to and I have to make a conscious effort to get it to.

Diamondback also arrived unsharpened as a concession to my parents’ concerns for my safety. After three whole months of obedience I snatched the olive branch back and set it on fire by ordering a pair of diamond sharpeners and grinding the edge myself. I was bad at sharpening and put a number of scratches in the blade which still haven’t entirely disappeared after three years of intermittent polishing. That was one of a number of lessons in humility I received. I did a minimum of practice with Diamondback in Summer 2013 because I just didn’t have the strength, and that humiliated me more than anything I’ve ever experienced. As it turned out, my frivolous custom sword-order was one of the biggest turning points in my life.

For 20 years, I’d paid no serious attention to my physical fitness. I was perfectly content to spend the entire day at my computer if given the chance, burning out my eyes and building up calories without a care in the world. Well, burning out my right eye; I had strabismus up until the end of 2013 and my left cheerfully stared at something 30 degrees to the side at all times. So what changed? I believe it’s that on some level I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the sword and the swordsman. It’s been with me since earliest childhood.

Well, in 2013 I was a swordsman unworthy of his own sword. That had to change. In October, three months of waffling suddenly turned into semi-consistent exercise. At least 4 days a week, I was in my room either using pull-weights or doing calisthenics and practicing my strokes with either of a pair of polypropylene bokken, one weighing a pound and the other 2. Underlying all this was the conviction that the following summer I would learn to wield Diamondback properly.

Every previous attempt at fitness on my part had petered out within a couple of weeks. This time, it stuck. After three years I work out either five or six days a week (courtesy of the weather today, this week will be five.) I practice 210 strokes on the four days a week dedicated mainly to weightlifting. Sword practice days I’ve split between flow drills (chaining cuts, thrusts and blocks together in various orders and changing tactics rapidly to simulate sparring or a live battle) and “regimented practice,” which currently consists of 21 sets of 40 cuts apiece, then 50 each of thrusts from four positions and 150 blocks at various heights. No matter what type of workout it is, it runs me about 90 minutes and I’m physically and mentally drained by the end.

As far as sword practice, Diamondback is and has been my weapon of choice for two years now. The cotton grip which arrived bright blue is stained a uniform navy by three years of exercises. I can’t remember what it felt like for it to be loose; sweat from practice has made each tie almost as unyielding as steel itself. I’ve practiced each movement so many times that if I’m just on the verge of falling asleep and think about the move, I’ll perform it involuntarily. I’ve startled myself alert by uppercutting my bedsheets on at least a dozen occasions. I’ve gone from 250 pounds to 225, and that’s after gaining a lot of muscle. Moreover, all this practice has forced me to change my personality.

I’m a diligent amateur. I don’t pretend that I always or even mostly know what I’m doing. I do hope all the effort I’ve put in hasn’t gone completely to waste, though. And when I screw up in practice, there’s no one else to blame it on. I don’t have a teacher, and I can’t pretend that he’s somehow misdirected me or let me down. Diamondback can’t move under her own power, and I don’t expect she’d be keen on throwing herself against gravel if she could. This happened precisely once, and I was furious with myself. On that occasion, as on all the others, the lessons learned in practice helped me to push forward with it again.

Anger can be useful for energy, but if it’s nothing but a distraction it needs to be set aside. It becomes just another source of excuses for poor performance. Perhaps because I’m an amateur in a very old, very formalized field of study (namely, swordfighting), I hold myself to a higher standard in it than anything else. Even in writing I don’t pay quite as much attention to my form and choices. What I naturally came to understand early on was that I had to get over myself in order to truly improve. I needed to put emphasis on skill itself, not convincing myself that I had skill.

I’m not finished fighting that battle, and I doubt I ever will be. I can still be astoundingly arrogant at times, especially if I let my temper run away from me. I’m still prone to getting mad at others for my poor decisions, and I still feel the temptation to show off for people during practice. This last is much weaker since an incident a year and a half ago in which I made an ass of myself in front of forty people by a show of exhibitionist swordplay. After slicing a milk jug full of water for the amusement of the masses (no great feat), I tried to sheathe Diamondback too energetically and just about severed my left thumb when I lost my grip on the scabbard. I deserve the stitches I got for that, and I’ve never done anything remotely as stupid. I may have demonstrated some cuts for a few neighborhood kids a month or so ago, but my form was proper that time and come one, it was literally for the children!

Regardless, I’m by far a less arrogant man than I was three years ago. I’m more patient with others and harder on myself, but not to the point where I can’t meet my own demands. I don’t always meet my own standards but I rarely fall short and I recover quickly when I do. I’m more disciplined in general than I’ve ever been, and physically I’m in better shape than I’d believed possible just a few years back. And absolutely all of this stems from the seemingly extravagant purchase of an O-tachi from a forge in China.

What, you didn’t seriously think a college student could afford shin nihonto, did you? Those things are $2,000 as a starting point! Even so, I’ll hold my $500 one up against any showpiece in the world. Diamondback’s lines are not perfect, her polish is wildly inconsistent (mostly because I haven’t taken the time to finish redoing it, one of those personal projects I mentioned) and her scabbard is dented in ten places, but she’s survived impacts with walls, corners, desk chairs, and dozens of botched cuts with barely a scratch and no bends to speak of. From what I’ve read, $10,000 would hardly have bought me a sturdier sword, even if it would have bought a prettier one.

One day, if I can get the money together, I’d like to have Diamondback reforged. As much of the original material as possible, because if there’s any power in sentiment then this blade must be surging with it. If not, then it still feels right. Yet if that never happens, I’ll be no less happy to wield my sword as she presently is. Diamondback is not a perfect sword (if such a thing even exists), but she’s the perfect one for me. At this point I feel confident in saying that much.

No off-kilter ending this time, I’m going to be serious for once. I hope you’ve found all this enlightening, and perhaps come to an understanding as to why I’m always bringing up swords and swordfighting. After all, a sword literally changed my life, and it’s still a better story than anything I’ve written to date.

2 thoughts on “Introspective Indulgence: Cullen and Diamondback, Three Years In

  1. As I recall, Diamondback also left a few marks on the lampshade, fan blades, sheets and mattress in your room. She is or was apparently a rather hungry blade. You have her well under control now, though.

    1. Well, mostly controlled. She did prick the top of my index finger this morning, which I took as a sign I should end practice while I was ahead. Or had a head, as the case may be.

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