The one downside to picking all the manly challenges myself is that there’s no way to surprise myself with a new challenge. There’s no blog producer or ultimate MANtor handing me a secret envelope, asking me to complete a manly mission without prior knowledge or fair warning. I know what challenge I’m tackling weeks before I actually do it. But if there’s any bit of uncertainty in these proceedings, it occurs in the realm of Groupons. Without the deals site, I never would have discovered stunt jumping or survival racing. And it doesn’t hurt that it probably has saved me hundreds of dollars so far. I won’t get into the nitty gritty, but let’s just say it ain’t cheap becoming a man. Sometimes I think it would have been more frugal to have opted for the hormone therapy.
I’ve even personalized my Groupon site to show me more deals suited to “adrenaline junkies” and “perfect gentlemen,” clearly the two most apt descriptors for moi, as any loyal reader would know. Anyway, when a deal on samurai sword classes at Sword Class NYC popped up on my Groupon home page, I entered in my credit card info without any hesitation.
I certainly like the idea of wielding a sword, even if it never was an unfulfilled dream of mine. I enjoy samurai movies, but not to the extent that I was making swords with paper towel rolls in my youth. I instead chose to take that paper towel roll, tape a golf ball to the top, and lip sync along to Temptations songs. Have I mentioned that no one in my family was surprised that I embarked on this year-long project?
I think the dearth of sword play in my youth was just a result of being inundated with more Western than Eastern culture growing up. Since I’ve already tackled the samurai sword’s Western counterpart, it’s only fair to give it a shot, or slice, as it were.
The sword class takes place in a mirrored dance studio, which lends me some comfort in its familiarity. I’ve auditioned for theatre productions in rooms similar to this one, and I know that no matter what Sword Class NYC throws at me today, it can’t be any worse than having to warble an off-key rendition of “Ten Minutes Ago” from Cinderella to unenthused directors and producers. I see that the sword class has attracted a different group of people than the Krav Maga class. They all seem to share my level of physical prowess, in that all of us were probably at one point in our life referred to as an “indoor kid.”
Our sensei enters the room, dressed in a solid black robe with an honest-to-goodness samurai sword at his waist. He directs us to pick up a sword from the bucket by the door. Each of the swords is wooden, which relieves me to know there’s no chance of slicing my fingers off. When each student has a sword, the sensei greets us and leads us through picking the sword up and placing it back down repeatedly, bowing to it all the while – a routine I liken to the Marines’ “This Is My Rifle” speech. It feels odd to do before we’ve had any practice with the sword, somewhat like saying Grace at another family’s dinner table.
We start with correct handling of the sword. The proper grip is not unlike the ideal grip for a golf club or baseball bat, so I understand the mechanics of it instantly. Next, the sensei demonstrates the general ready position: shoulders back, feet shoulder width apart, with the left foot slightly behind the right. The hilt of the sword is held right below the belly button while the tip is pointed directly at the opponent’s throat, making for a, well, enormously phallic image. Not surprisingly, it makes me feel extremely manly without even a single swing of the sword.
Afterwards, the sensei shows us how to move back and forth while still maintaining the ready position, which involves stepping with the right foot and sliding the left foot forward immediately after, like a rubber band snapping. We practice moving forward and back in rapid succession as the sensei calls out commands like a Samurai Simon Says game. In the last fifteen minutes of class, we pair off and practice moving back and forth with an actual opponent. It’s not unlike the mirror exercises we used to do in acting class, so again I understand the mechanics if not the actual doing.
It’s at this point that the location of the class starts to clash with my overall enjoyment. The fact that we are inside a mirrored dance studio makes the experience feel more like playacting and less like learning how to use a deadly weapon. When we wrap up the class with a minute of meditation, all I can think about is how uncomfortable it is to sit on my heels. I leave the class unsure of what I’ll get out of going a second time.
But I do go to the second introductory class, partly because I want to get my money’s worth and partly because I’m hoping I’ll feel something I didn’t the first time. The second class starts off the same way: bowing to our swords, practicing grip and stance. We practice overhead cuts at slow speeds to fine tune posture and form, and I’m struck by how heavy the swords are. After about ten minutes of overhead cuts, I’m already fatigued.
In addition to our swords, this class we’re also given a belt and curved sheath, since the last half of the class will be devoted to drawing techniques. I find that the real challenge is just keeping the sheath secure in my belt. It’s not until midway through the class that I realize everyone else tied their cloth belts properly, in true martial arts fashion, whereas I chose to tie my belt in a pretty bow, as if I were a Christmas present. The rest of the class is spent trying to readjust my belt with one hand while holding the sword in the other, and being unsuccessful at it.
The final technique of the session is a doozy. While holding your body perpendicular to your imaginary opponent, you take a leap to the side in the direction of the opponent while simultaneously drawing your sword and snapping it at the aggressor’s throat. It was like the samurai equivalent of a baseball double play. Leading up to the moment of trying this technique, I had been overly serious – thinking the more solemn and respectful I was, the more proficient I would become at sword play. But when I catch a glimpse of myself attempting this technique, it looks more like I’m trying to do the Electric Slide after five gin and tonics. I lose all somberness and start giggling.
This got me thinking. Are real men allowed to be silly? I’m not thinking in terms of preventing emotion, but rather in terms of archetypes. Are the John Waynes and Ron Swansons of the world, the ones who have a near-constant grimace on their face and appear to be made of stone, somehow more manly than the actor who plays Ron Swanson, who shares many of the same qualities of his character but has been known to giggle on occasion?
However flimsy my hypothesis, I’ve always thought that the more respect I show something, the better I’ll be at it. But I think the problem is that this unwavering respect has a tendency to morph into solemnity, which prevents me from enjoying the essence of learning something new. In my attempt to emulate the gravely serious samurai I’ve seen in movies, I missed out on the sheer glee of swinging around a sword, fighting off imaginary opponents.
When I started to realize that I didn’t have to be perfect or super-serious, I starting having a blast, vocalizing “YAH!”s in conjunction with my attacks. It’s a shame I was just starting to get the hang of it at the end of the class, but in the final meditation session, I found myself more at peace, no longer worrying about the aches in my ankles.
As I do these challenges, it’s often hard to conform the fun-loving boy-man Peter, who still giggles at farts and licks cake batter off spoons, to the sophisticated adult Peter I’m trying to be. Hopefully being a man doesn’t mean swearing off silliness because I don’t think I would stand a chance otherwise. But I really can’t imagine that’s the case. Even samurais must get the giggles sometimes.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
Two classes weren’t enough to grasp proper samurai sword technique, but it was nice to find out that playacting doesn’t have to be associated with immaturity. A good time can be just that, and solemnity doesn’t necessarily equal expertise. Even if I’ll never be a true samurai, I don’t think my imaginary opponents will give me any more trouble. No sirree. 2.39.
NEXT WEEK: Heavy metal, sans guitars.