Monday, September 26, 2011

Of Cabbages and Kings...

Just started up a new semester at Cornell University and we’re off to a great start. I’ve got about 50 new students, mostly freshmen.
Good kids.

At the first class meeting, I try to “set the stage” for them so that they’ll be able to get the most out of the class. What are we going to do, how are we going to do it, and why are we going to do it that way. A little about history, a LOT about safety.

We also chat about why apparently normally, intelligent human beings would be interested in studying something so archaic and impractical as swordsmanship. Mostly, I get answers like “it’s different,” “looks like fun” and “it’s really cool.”

Hey, what do you want? They’re just kids.

Part of my task is to disabuse them of their false assumptions. I inform them that practically everything they’ve ever seen or heard about sword-fighting – in movies, TV or in the Olympics – is wrong.

They don’t really believe me.

So I ask them to recall their favorite swashbuckling film wherein a couple of guys with rapiers (or even longswords!) go tic-tic-tic-ing at each other at warp speed.
Then I let them heft a rapier.
“Go ahead,” I say. “Tic-tic-tic, if you can.”
Of course, they can’t.
And they learn that I’m not going to lie to them.

They also learn – I hope – something else. Perhaps they will ask, “If everything THEY ever told me about sword-fighting was wrong, is it possible that some of the other things THEY told me were also wrong?”
Confucius said that learning begins when you acknowledge that you don’t know shit.
I’m paraphrasing.

Somebody once said that fencing is a “thinking man’s” game.
I’d like to meet the person who said that so I could give him a good smack.
Fighting is not a prissy, distant, intellectual pursuit.
It is ugly, intimate and visceral.
There’s no thinking in fencing – or any other kind of fighting.
There’s no time to think.
You scarcely have time to breathe.
Think before? Certainly.
Think after? Sure.
But during?
No way. While you’re fighting, you’re busy fighting.
The only “thinking” going on is in your nerves and muscles. That ego-aware, self-conscious, analytical, reflective part of your brain is on coffee break.

In my presentation, I always mention something about why, in the age of nuclear over-kill, anyone should study the sword. Typically, I include the notion that fencing beautifully illustrates the principles of combat, and that one may apply these principles to many conflict situations outside the salle d’armes.
But this year, it dawned on me what it really is that I find so compelling about fencing, what I find unique, challenging, satisfying and profound.

Here’s roughly what I told my new students:

You’ve all made it to Cornell – and a couple of you have made it through or almost through Cornell. I would therefore conclude that somewhere along the way, you’ve learned how to bullshit.**
Maybe you convinced a teacher that the dog really did eat your homework.
Maybe you professed a hardship to get an extension on a deadline.
Maybe you convinced a teacher that he/she was your best teacher EVER, or that his/her subject was the most interesting.
Maybe you’ve passed exams without studying by playing the elimination game with multiple choice questions.
Maybe you filled papers with weasel words or just wrote what you knew your teacher wanted to hear, rather than what you actually thought. You dropped a few names, hit all the required buzzwords, threw in some choice quotes, whether you understood them or not. You included in the bibliography books you’d never actually read.
Maybe you faked whole classes by just skimming the textbook or reading someone else’s notes.
Maybe you learned how to kick that extra point by being “liked.”
Maybe you cut class to spend time with a lover and conned your teacher into believing you had to take care of a sick granny.
If you yourself didn’t do any of these things, you most certainly saw someone who did.
What you learned by it is that rules aren’t really rules, they're just "guidelines" or suggestions. They're only rules for SOME people. Not for the cute or the clever.
You learned that most rules you can bend way out of shape with little in the way of repercussions, and some you can break and get away with it. Some of that is because the rules are stupid and ought to be broken.
But some of it is because nobody says what they mean, means what they say or does what they say they’re going to do.
In short, you’ve learned that a substantial amount of the world is bullshit and if you excel at bullshit management yourself, you’ll do just fine.

But not here.
Not in the salle d’armes.
Not when you cross blades.
Maybe you can play that scene from “The Princess Bride,” to a T, reciting a litany of The Great Masters by heart: Marrozo, Viggiani, Agrippa, Capo Ferro and so on from Day One to Just Now. Maybe you can quote all their theories and ideas. Maybe you’ve even learned the appropriate Italian (or French) term for This ‘n’ That, assuming an accent reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau.
But when you take sword in hand, none of that academic puffery matters.
Not one bit.
You won’t be chatting.
Your opponent won’t be giving you a multiple-choice quiz.
But can you stand on guard, maintain your balance, line focus and distance?
Can you extend your sword arm swiftly, accurately and at the right moment?
Can you lunge – and can you recover in good order after you do?
And, above all, can you parry, small, tight and at the last possible instant?

When you cross blades with someone it will be obvious who you are, what you’re made of, and how well and how hard you’ve trained.
And you If you can do the thing, that will be clear, if you can’t do the thing, that will be clear, too and all the Kings horses and all the kings lawyers with all their impressive bullshit won’t be able to save you.

The real beauty of the fencing is that there’s just absolutely no room for bullshit.
It’s honest.
One of the most honest things you can do.
For many people, the most honest thing they will ever do.

And, of course, there’s no crying, either.

1. Foolish, deceitful, or boastful language.
2. Something worthless, deceptive, or insincere.
3. Insolent talk or behavior.
v. bull·shit also bull·shat (-sht) or bull·shit·ted (-shtd), bull·shit·ting, bull·shits
1. To speak foolishly or insolently.
2. To engage in idle conversation.
To attempt to mislead or deceive by talking nonsense.