Sunday, December 30, 2012

To Live By the Sword

The Keenest Blade is Forged in the Hottest Fire.

Courage is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, injury or intimidation. There are different kinds of courage. There is physical courage, the ability to persevere in the face of physical pain, effort, hardship, injury or death, or threat of death.  And there is moral courage,  the ability to act rightly in the face of social pain, hardship, injury or death -- popular opposition, embarrassment, shame, scandal, discouragement, ridicule, or retaliation.  Moral courage is perhaps the rarest and most challenging kind of courage there is.
Just as you can get stronger by progressively lifting heavier and heavier weights, you can cultivate courage by progressively facing greater and greater fear, pain, or intimidation.
You cannot become stronger by lifting weights that are easily within your current capacity, nor can you become more courageous by remaining in your current “comfort zone.”
You must continually challenge your body in order to grow stronger. And you must continually defy fear and pain and ridicule in order to become more courageous.
Courage is not the absence of fear.
It is the conquest of it.


Friday, December 28, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

To Live by the Sword

And each man stands with his face in the light. 
Of his own drawn sword, ready to do what a hero can.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Monday, December 10, 2012

Unlocking the Hero in Your Heart

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back.
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Begin it now.

-- Goethe

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Un-ringing the Bell

Once you know something, there’s no way to un-know it. 
Slightly or greatly, it changes you, your view of the world, your place in it, forever. You can’t go back to being the person you were before you knew it. You can’t un-ring the bell.
It’s said that every man’s labor leaves its mark on his body. (No doubt, also true for women.) The shoulders of a boxer, the glutes of a sprinter, the feet of a ballerina, the fingertips of a guitarist – are signatures of their profession.
I would say that your labor also shapes your mind and spirit.
For better or for worse.

If you want to be a musician, but the only time you play your instrument, or even think about it, is during your half-hour weekly lesson, you’ll never become a musician.   You have to think about it all the time. 
Eat it, breathe it, dream it. 
You practice constantly, even when you have no instrument with you. You listen. You become aware of music on many levels. You hear music all around you in the nickering of horses, in the roaring traffic swoon, in the silence of your lonely room, you think about it night and day. You become aware of rhythm. The rhythm of the seasons, sunrise and sunset, the wind in the trees playing weird melodies, the rhapsody in the rain.  The rhythm of your heartbeat, fast or slow. The heartbeat of a lover. The oceans. The heartbeat of the earth.   
“Musician” isn’t a job or a hobby. It isn’t something you do part-time, neatly compartmentalized away from the rest of your life. It is your life. A way of being in the world. And once you know it, experience it, feel it, thereafter, wherever you go, whatever you do, you do it differently, as a musician, than a non-musician would. And you can never go back to being the person you were before.
If you want to be a swordsman, a fighter, but the only time you take up your sword, or even think about it, is in the salle d’armes, you’ll never become a swordsman, never become a fighter.   You have to think about it all the time. 
Eat it, breathe it, dream it. 
You practice constantly, even when you have no weapon with you. You observe. You become aware of combat – struggle and conflict -- on many levels. You see the same dynamics of combat, the same laws, manifested it all around you. In the struggle between predator and prey, the oppressor and the oppressed, between criminal and intended victim, in sport, in love, in business, in politics, in war. Combat is the eternal dynamic of yin and yang, light and dark, good and evil, ever changing, ever transforming, shifting the balance first one way, then the other, in strict accordance with very clear and constant principles.  
"Swordsman" isn’t a job or a hobby. It isn’t something you do part-time, neatly compartmentalized away from the rest of your life. It is your life. A way of being in the world. And once you know it, experience it, feel it, thereafter wherever you go, whatever you do, you do it differently, as a fighter, than a non-fighter would. And you can never go back to being the person you were before.
That’s the gift.
That’s the curse.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Of Air Guitars and Ice Cream

I rarely express a personal opinion (speculation, supposition or conjecture) without identifying it as such. I suppose that’s because I hate to be wrong  --- an aversion I developed from having been embarrassingly wrong on so many occasions before I learned how to think!    If I weigh in on any subject of consequence, I do so only when I have already critically evaluated the facts -- while always remaining open to new evidence, of course.
There are some people who say they “like” Romney or Obama, Republican or Democrat, the same way they “like” vanilla or chocolate, or prefer basketball over football. It’s a mindless idiosyncratic preference based on nothing but emotion and habit. One cannot factually prove that chocolate tastes better than vanilla, or that basketball is better than football. There’s no real right or wrong here. It’s strictly a matter of personal taste.
Many people – TOO many people – don’t know the difference between a personal opinion based on subjective, idiosyncratic preferences, and an “educated,” or “expert” opinion, which is a well-reasoned conclusion based on a critical evaluation of the available evidence. 
Indeed, they don’t know there is a difference.  That’s why, when you contradict their irrational personal opinions with a conclusion based on facts, they simply respond, “Well that’s your opinion.”  That pronouncement implies the equal validity of all opinions, and is a shot at either raising themselves to your level, or lowering you to theirs.
It’s all relative, they say, and they have a right to their opinion.
While they, indeed, have a right to their opinion, that doesn’t make their opinion right, nor does it require the rest of us to respect that opinion, as if all opinions were created equal. 
They simply aren’t.
If someone you love needed brain surgery, whose opinion would you seek out: that of a surgeon who had done the operation successfully many times? Or someone whose medical acumen derived exclusively from a basic first aid course  taken many years ago? 
Obviously, all opinions are not created equal.
An opinion based on subjective, personal bias or prejudice and/or false premises is unworthy of respect and should be shown none.
At one time it was the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States that a black man had “no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). At one time, it was the opinion of many Germans that Hitler was the best thing since sliced strudel. At one time it was the opinion of many people ( men and women, by the way)that women were too feeble-minded to be independent and make their own choices about their own lives. (Indeed, some people are still of this opinion.)  I consider these opinions to be unworthy of respect because they are patently false, unsupported by any facts
That’s not my opinion. That’s my conclusion.
The second error the “right to my opinion” crowd makes is to embrace the notion that “everything is relative.” Relativists claim that there is no such thing as objective truth, no such thing as a concrete fact. What’s real or true for you, is different than what real or true for me, and no matter what the empirical, factual basis – or lack of it – for our beliefs, they are all equally valid, the relativist would say. There is nothing right or wrong, they would say, unintentionally paraphrasing the Bard, but thinking makes it so.  They would say that there are no “natural” inherent, universal parameters of right and wrong.  And they cling to this belief – until they believe themselves to have been wronged.
I propose that what’s True is always True and what’s Real is always Real, regardless of one’s individual ability to see what’s real or true. 

What does this have to do with fencing, you might ask?
I had a feeling that you would.

Some folks would say that whether you prefer to engage in what we, much too charitably, refer to as “Olympic fencing”  (“sport fencing”); or prefer to throw on your favorite fantasy drag and cavort around as a knight, a musketeer, or a Jedi; or prefer to practice what has become known as “classical fencing,” is strictly a matter of personal taste. That is, they are all, some would say, equally valid examples of sword use, just different “styles.” Vanilla or chocolate, you see?
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The very best “air guitar” performer in the world, does not, from that practice, learn anything about playing an actual guitar -- not melody, not harmony, not chord structure, not rhythm – and therefore neither does the air guitarist learn anything he/she can then extrapolate to other instruments, or various kinds of music. That’s because the air guitarist isn’t actually playing a guitar. He’s pretending to play a guitar by mimicking, in caricature, certain persons he’s seen who, to some extent, actually play the guitar.
The actor, “Olympic” fencer, the fantasy-role player isn’t actually sword-fighting. He’s pretending to sword-fight by mimicking, in caricature, certain persons he’s seen do what he thinks is sword-fighting. Unfortunately, in the case of the sword, what the “air fencer” has seen is NOT the actual use of the sword, but just another “air fencer,” who was, himself, imitating another “air fencer” who was mimicking another “air fencer,” who was imitating another ---- well, you get the idea.
The main difference between the actor on the one hand, and the Olympian or fantasy role-player on the other, is that the actor is honest about what he’s doing. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that he learned his moves by rote, in order to do the play or the movie. He and his “opponent(s)” worked out the moves carefully and practiced diligently so that everyone would remember the dance and no one would get hurt.  The actor won’t generally take on airs and wish to be considered a real fighter, any more than after doing Hamlet, he would demand to be addressed as “your highness,” ever after.  The actor knows he’s pretending to be something he’s not.  Fantasy role-players seem to often to have blurred the distinction, and Olympic fencers have lost it completely.
The sine qua non of fencing is the ability to use a sword to defend yourself in a fight. That is the foundational objective of fencing. There are several theories about how best to accomplish this objective. The validity of any technique, tactic or strategy is contingent upon the extent to which it furthers the objective and does not run contrary to it.  That is, ALL “styles” of swordsmanship have, as their raison d’etre, the goal of “winning” the fight, and this generally translates as “hit without being hit.”
As a side benefit, verisimilitude in the practice of fencing may also teach you about fighting, in general, or even conflict, in general.  But you won’t be able to apply much of your lessons to other domains, if those lessons were false to begin with.
You can choose to BE what you desire to be.
Or you can choose to PRETEND to be what you desire to be.
Life is short.
That’s my opinion.


Monday, November 5, 2012

A Good Sword

Once upon a time, it came to pass that I ran across an old sabre.
It clearly had seen some use, the edge having been re-sharpened. A knowledgeable colleague dated its manufacture to the late 19th century. Rumor had it that the weapon had seen service in World War Two, and I confess that, on kissing the blade, I imagined I caught a whiff of nazi blood still clinging to that cold, hard steel.
 A notion I found quite pleasant.
Not many people know it, but units of Polish cavalry served with distinction during that war, fighting successfully in more than a dozen engagements. The Nazi propaganda machine was so effective at serving up a mirror-image of the truth, that you can find some of their lies perpetuated in history books even today. 
In one encounter, for example, The Poles executed a wild surprise charge against a “superior” German force and more or less routed them. The Nazis claimed that the foolish Poles had committed suicide by throwing their antiquated horse cavalry against the invincible tanks of the invincible Reich.   
Hitler wasn’t big on admitting mistakes.

In any case, the sabre in question bore an inscription on the blade. Unfortunately, it was in Polish and I don’t speak it, so I had to find someone who could translate.  A young woman of my acquaintance was up to that task (and any other task as well, but that’s another story).
The inscription said:
                                      “God, give me a good sword and no use for it.”

I find that equally poignant and profound.
Therein lies a valuable lesson for today.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Of Doing and Being


There are two ways to exist.

One way is to be uncentered, awash in an emotional maelstrom, adrift at the mercy of unpredictable currents of fate, lost in memories of the past or anticipation of the future, removed from the present.  In this mode you see all things only superficially. You see the tip of the iceberg, but never understand what lies beneath. 
You generalize, categorize, simplify until other beings are only things, unconnected to you or each other, things which you use for your own purposes, things without intelligence and curiosity, things without empathy or morality, things with no hopes, needs, cares, fears or dreams that you are aware of, or that would matter to you if you were. As a result, in this mode, you, yourself, become a thing, a caricature, merely a collection of the things that you use to do things that you do.  I call this “doing.”

The Other Way is to be centered, in the moment, awake and aware. This way you see all things the way they are and know their true nature as well as their inextricable connection to you and to everyone and everything else. In this mode, you see other beings as alive and vibrant as you are, yourself, with intelligence and curiousity, with empathy and morality, with hopes, needs, cares, and fears and dream as real, possible and important to you as your own. I call this “being.”

When you are doing, a horse is a thing that you sit on and move around, a sword is a thing in your hand that you wave at your opponent. The things are separate from you. You’re  a rider, a fencer. You use a thing to do a thing.

When you are being, a horse is a being of magnificent beauty and power, of strength and wisdom and spirit, and you let that being fill you up until you lose any sense of separateness from it. You lose all consciousness of yourself, and exist only as the horse. The horse becomes you, until you become the horse.
You’re not a “rider,” i.e., someone who merely sits on a horse and moves it around. You’re a “horseman,” “horse” and “man” combining synergistically to become one thing that is neither, yet both, all at once.
The horse’s legs are your legs, the horse’s eyes are your eyes, the horse’s heart is your heart.
You feel what the horse feels, you know what the horse knows.

When you are being, a sword is a living being of beauty and power, of strength and wisdom and spirit, and you let that being fill you up until you lose any sense of separateness from it. You lose all consciousness of yourself, and exist only as the sword. The sword becomes you, until you become the sword.
You’re not a “fencer,” i.e., someone who merely holds a sword and moves it around. You’re a “swordsman,” “sword” and “man” combining synergistically to becme one thing that is neither, yet both, all at once.
The steel is your flesh.
You feel what the sword feels, you know what the sword knows.


“To be is to do”
“To do is to be”
     “Do Be Do Be Do”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Old Forgotten Roads

Old Forgotten Roads
Once there was a moron who spent the days in only his underwear – and a top hat.             
Another moron asked,  “How come you're in your underwear?”                                                        
“Nobody ever comes to visit me,” the first moron replied.                                                                     
“Oh. Why do you wear the top hat?” was the next question.                                                                
“Well,” he answered, “somebody might.”

This is the day of white-hot, nuclear rat race, the age of polluted water, polluted air, of GMO food than cannot be eaten.   It’s the age of pre-emptive over-kill warfare and torture. It’s the era of the narcissistic psychopath, lacking all empathy, and therefore all guilt or shame – or hesitation. It’s the new Dark Age in which has been undone every hard-won advance of individual freedom and justice all the way back to and including the Magna Carta.  The Liar is King with teeming masses of sycophants yearning to kiss their overlord’s ass in a frenzy of go along to get along.

It might seem a bit nonsynchronous for one to contemplate such matters as integrity, honor, truth – and the art and science of living by the sword. The Fencing Master, as novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte wrote, “Stands guard on old forgotten roads that no one travels anymore.”
The fencing master – by which I mean the consummate professional teacher of the sword and not the typical self-styled dabbling hobbyist– is not only as rare as hens’ teeth, but lonelier than the Maytag repairman’s unicorn.

The Fencing Master attempts to teach subtle connections of the sword to other strands in the web of society to people, most of whom could not connect two dots with superglue and half-inch chain.
He attempts to instill chivalrous virtues in people, for most of whom, mentions of excellence, truthfulness, loyalty and benevolence – draw snickers, sneers, vacuous stares or dumbfounded head shaking.  He constantly casts pearls before swine. Tries to teach pigs to sing. Talks but never makes a sound, because there’s no one in the forest to hear.

Why does he do it?

It can’t be fame, and most certainly not fortune.
Is he an idiot?  Or a bodhisattva? Your call.

Perhaps it’s because once in a while, in the poignant purgatory of the incurable romantic, something astounding, magical and impossible happens: somebody “gets”    it.

Most students are transient and dip their toes daintily in just to see what the water is like. I don’t mean that as a disparaging observation. That’s the way most people are with most things. Most guitar students are content to learn a few chords, strum along as they sing a few songs; only a few plunge in deeply and really strive to master the instrument. And that’s all right. Each person is searching for THE THING that will be their thing, the thing that lights their fire, puts wind in their sails while being careful not to mix those particular metaphors.

And I suspect every teacher is searching, too. Searching for that student for whom the teacher’s THING    will be THE THING that the student is looking for. It doesn’t happen often. Just often enough to make you hope it will happen again and, like the moron in our opening story, believe that it might .  Ah, the damnable behavior-shaping power of intermittent rewards.

There’s another metaphysical possibility suggested by a colleague. There’s an old saying that “When the student is ready, the master appears.”  We usually look at this from the student’s point of view, in a “seek and ye shall find” sort of groove.

But what if, as my colleague suggests, that old saying is the statement of a natural, physical, mathematical law, a variation of “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”

Perhaps the master MUST appear when a student is ready. And the master must always remain ready for that ready student to appear. Maybe the master does what he does because, being a master, he no longer has a choice. Maybe for him, teaching, searching for that student among so many students is an irresistible moral imperative, even knowing full well that before you find a handsome prince, you have to kiss a hell of a lot of frogs.

For me, nothing is more delightful than a student who “gets” it. It keeps me going, and spares me from the decadent dangers of appreciable wealth.

I haven’t yet found THE STUDENT to whom I can impart all I’ve learned over the decades, the young and brilliant heir (or heiress) of my dreams. Several times, I thought I may have done, but alas…

Nevertheless, I know I’ve been blessed with more than my fair share of excellent students who “get” it, or at least part of it, even if the sword is not THE THING they’re looking for.

I thought I’d share with you two of my favorite comments from the course evaluation form I give my students.   There are quiet a few other insightful, witty, wonderful comments in those papers, but these two of them stand out. The evaluations are anonymous so I don’t know the identities of these students, but I’d like to give them each a hug.
These comments were in answer to:  What was the best thing about the class? What did you learn?

“I did more critical thinking in this class than in any of my academic classes at Cornell.” (Spring 2012)

“I really enjoyed how the random talks in the beginning of the class turned out to have actual meaning for what we were doing each class period.” (Fall 2011)

While it saddens me that the first student’s academic classes did not sufficiently emphasize critical thinking, a skill that is --well, critical – I’m glad he/she benefitted from that part of our class.

What I love about the second comment is that you can almost see the light go one. Seemingly random, unrelated events suddenly become a pattern with meaning.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

It’s students like these that keep me on the road.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Sweet Science




We recently added a class on “Boxing Basics” to the menu at Salle du Lion.
Pugilism, as you may know, is fencing’s close cousin.
Early bare-knuckles champion and the “father of modern boxing” James Figg was a fencing master by trade.
 All the same familiar foundational elements – balance, line, focus and distance – are there, as are all the same elements of attack, defense, counterattack, tactics and strategy. In addition, there is one aspect of boxing that is normally absent in fencing: pain. 
Now, make no mistake, in this beginner class I don’t throw people in the ring and let them wail away on each other haphazardly – the way so many fencing “teachers” do with their “students.” It will be a long, long time before my students do anything other than drills: shadow boxing patterns; slow, perfect repetitions with each other; taking a turn with me on the mitts. Even in such drills, they will wear proper protective equipment.
While boxing and fencing share so much, there are a couple significant difference between boxers and fencers, today’s fencers, anyway.
One difference is courage.
Every time a boxer steps into the ring, he/she risks injury – serious injury. It is an inherent risk. In fencing, serious injuries occur only “accidentally,” that is, because one or both fencers is poorly trained and/or just plain stupid.
Another difference is respect.
Because pain and injury are a boxer’s constant companions, boxers respect what they do. They are cautious. They try not to get hit. Getting hit hurts.  They respect the opponent, too, understanding what the opponent’s punches are capable of doing. (And knowing, too, that the opponent possesses the same courage as themselves.)
A third and resulting difference is courtesy.
In past times, fencers set the standard for gallantry, for “sportsmanship.” No longer. In the recent Olympics, I was embarrassed by the fencers’ rude, overblown displays of screaming narcissism, that have now become the reigning fashion --- a pity that the fencers had not even sufficient decency to be embarrassed for themselves. (Any student of mine who behaved so discourteously, I would ban from the salle permanently.)
Contrast this with the conduct of the boxers, typically and hug and/or a handshake, and a congratulations from the vanquished to the victor.  I find it interesting that the boxers, whose actual fighting includes a high risk of pain and injury, conduct themselves with dignity and graciousness, while fencers, who engage in “play” fighting completely divorced from any verisimilitude and in which they face little risk of pain or injury, act like complete horse’s asses (with my apologies to horses everywhere).

Shakespeare wrote: “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother...”
Boxers still seem to believe it true.


While one fencer makes a childish show of disappointment, begrudging his opponent's victory, the other engages in an equally infantile celebration, rubbing is adversary’s nose in the defeat. Absent are empathy, respect, dignity, grace and composure.

No, the lady on the right isn’t going into labor. She’s just displaying her belief that she’s the center of the universe. Note well that, not only is she rude enough to engage in this kind of trashy conduct, she’s also stupid enough to do it with her mask off, still in distance of her opponent’s weapon, inviting an “accident.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


In the waybackwhen, when I was a music student, all of us were require to  take a class in “functional piano.” Singers, trumpet players, drummers, all of us. Except pianists, of  course.  The purpose of “functional piano” wasn’t to enable you to play the piano. It was to help you understand the structure of Western music, four-part harmony, voice-leading and so on. That’s the kind of stuff that will help you, no matter what your instrument is, no matter what kind of music you play.
In a similar way, the sword – in particular the late, post-1666 rapier – serves a similar purpose.  It helps you understand the structure of combat: balance, line, focus and distance; the phrase d’armes; tactics and strategy. It also teaches you how to learn, that is, the vital importance of mindful repetition. That’s the kind of stuff that will help you no matter what your “martial art” may be.
I typically – but not always – start a student out with smallsword (or “foil” if you please) for this reason, and for the additional reason that it requires little in the way of physical strength. Psycho-motor learning depends on repetition. Repetition is limited by physical strength-endurance, that is, how many times you can do X with how much of a load.  You need thousands and thousands of repetitions. If you can barely hold your sword up for a few seconds, those repetitions are going to take a long, long time.
In teaching “renaissance fencing,” I was a great advocate of using weapons that approximate as closely as possible the length, weight and balance of a real rapier of the period, and I was correct, to a point. The heavier weapon certainly gave the lie to all the swashbuckling movies that had the hero brandish this weapon with the speed and agility of a squirrel on cocaine, and that epiphany opened the door to some serious reflection on the matter of what you think you know, and why you think you know it.
But as far as mastering the weapon itself, I was wrong. I don’t think I ever had a class of 10 who could all hold their weapons up correctly enough to make it through half an hour of serious drills. I wound up substituting lighter weapons and other tools – even simple wooden batons – for the rapiers. 
In short, I had to re-learn the importance of “progression,” even in swordsmanship.  And once it hit me squarely in the face, it seemed obvious. If you want to become strong enough to lift 500 lbs, you don’t go out and try to lift 500 lbs every day until, one day, you can magically do it. You start with 1lb and add another 1 lb every day, getting stronger gradually, over time.  Well, duh!
In my defense I offer that I was very young and very stupid.
I am now somewhat less so.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The World Becomes What You Teach

This inspiration talk is one of the best things I've put in my grimoire since I read TEACHING AS A SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITY, back in the early '70's.


Friday, July 13, 2012

My Favorite Swashbuckler

If you haven't seen this one, do yourself a favor and give it a viewing. It's a delightful homage to the likes of Errol Flynn et al. It's funny. It's stirring. It's poignant. It's Peter O'Toole at his best.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ironclad Contract

One of my current favorite films is the oddly titled (in my opinion) IRONCLAD, directed by Jonathan English.
There are a couple of things about this film.
First, I absolutely LOVE Paul Giamatti as King John. I haven't seen him in a role like this before, and I think he's brilliant. At least, I, myself, find him completely believable.

But even more, I find the theme of the film extremely timely. The Barons, weary of an overly arrogant king (can you say "taxes, torture and indefinite detention," boys and girls?), force John to sign the Magna Carta. (If you don't know the significance of that document, do please look it up. I'll give you a hint: due process.) Afterward, John recants and goes after the rebels with a vengeance.

Oh, yes, there's a lot of swordplay of the dark and brutal type. It's not the prettified  combat of Michael Curtiz's ROBIN HOOD (1938) starring the definitive swashbuckling rogue/hero Errol Flynn.

I also particularly like the relationship between the Templar and his horse. And his horse steals every scene he's in.

Just like mine does.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Go Back, It's a Trap!

Here's an excerpt from an interesting article. Kendo is the Japanese counterpart to classical fencing. Unfortunately, we have had no counterpart to the Japanese iaido. 
But I'm working on that. 
Thanks to Maitre Ric Alvarez for sending this along.


For many sports, the ultimate goal would be to go one step further and make it onto the Olympic schedule. But not in the case of kendo. Many in the sport’s global community are set against that, saying it would spell the end of kendo as they know it.

Kendo, which means “way of the sword,” is a Japanese martial art that uses a bamboo sword and involves rigorous training geared toward developing both combat technique and character by instilling virtues like courage, honor and etiquette.

If kendo were a straightforward contest like table tennis or archery, making it conform to International Olympic Committee standards would not be difficult. The sport, however, has a highly subjective scoring system that values form and execution as much as the result.

Unlike Olympic fencing, which keeps score with electronic sensors that light up when the target is hit, a game-winning perfect strike in kendo, known as ippon, cannot be measured electronically; instead, it is a judgment call made by at least two out of the three referees.

The ingredients of that perfection are so nebulous that referees are notorious for bad calls. Nevertheless, for many kendoka, a referee’s call is preferable to the flash of a light; for them, the technology would degrade the beauty of victory.

A judo victory also used to be determined solely by ippon, a “perfect throw.” But now, following I.O.C. intervention, judo competitors can score points in a variety of ways that along with the introduction of weight classes and other changes, compromise its essence, some purists say.

“For kendo to become an Olympic sport, it would have to be simplified considerably,” said Alexander Bennett, editor in chief of the Kendo World Journal and an associate professor of Japanese studies at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. “The really important part of scoring is the process of initiating the attack, identifying a target, striking that target with correct posture and full spirit and then showing continued physical and mental alertness.”

If the scoring were simplified, Bennett said, kendo would lose “its aesthetic value, and as a result, its value as a means for personal cultivation, replaced by a winning-at-all-costs mentality, which is pretty much what is considered to have happened to Olympic judo.”


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Grok THIS...

One of my favorite books is Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.

One of the reasons I like this book so much is Heinlein’s introduction of the “Fair Witness.” A Fair Witness is a professional who is specially trained to observe events and to report back those observations. The Fair Witness only reports exactly what he or she sees and hears. They make no assumptions, extrapolations, or inferences. No emotions, biases or prejudices. Nor do they draw any conclusions from what they observe. (As Joe Friday would say, “The facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.”)

In one scene, a Fair Witness is asked the color of a house. The witness responds, “It’s white on this side,” referring to the side that she can see. The Fair Witness makes no assumptions about the color of the house on the sides she cannot see. Further, after observing a different side of the house, the Fair Witness does not assume that the previously viewed side was still the same color it was when previously viewed – even if that previous viewing was mere moments ago.
Unfortunately, this profession is still a fictional one.

However, you may note that the role of the “judge” in a fencing match is EXACTLY the same as the role of the Fair Witness. Judging requires that you report only what you see. Not what you think happened, not what “must” have happened.
Only what you see and nothing else.
This is one reason why I don’t use the electrical scoring apparatus. It deprives students of the opportunity to develop their ability to observe objectively. The ability to observe objectively is an essential component of critical thinking.  You must first become aware of your biases -- personal and cultural – and then practice eliminating them.

The practice part is important.
You get physically stronger by consciously, regularly and progressively challenging your body to do more than it has done before. Run faster. Jump higher. Lift more weight.
You get mentally stronger, and morally stronger in the same way: by consciously, regularly and progressively engaging in observation and analysis at a more demanding level than you have previously done.

To learn, to grow, to achieve excellence, kiss your “comfort zone” good-bye.


Monday, May 14, 2012

On the Reinvention of the Wheel

There’s a persistent myth in history about the “Lost Colony” of Roanoake that disappeared, the story goes, without a trace -- and a shiver goes up the spine...
The thing is, there’s no mystery at all.
The colonists didn’t “disappear.” They simply went back to Croatoan and, indeed, left a message that that’s where they had gone. The “mystery” was contrived a couple hundred years later, for reasons of the contrivers’ own.  The “lost” colony was never really lost at all. (Don’t take my word for it; look it up.)

One of the most persistent myths about swordplay is that there has been no “line of succession” from the fencing masters of the 16th and 17th Centuries to the fencing masters of the 20th and 21st Centuries.  That is, some would have you believe that the knowledge of how to handle a rapier effectively had been “lost,” and had to be “rediscovered” by modern researchers who then had to reconstitute the meaning of it all by poring over ancient texts with a sword in one hand and a dictionary in the other, by the light of the midnight oil.

That’s incredibly silly and more than a little dishonest.

It reminds me very much of impudent adolescents who think they’ve “discovered” sex, and attempt to keep it all secret because their parents would never understand.  It never dawns on these upstarts that their parent too have had sex – or these kiddies wouldn’t be here to “discover” it in the first place. These are children who deny their forebears’ sexuality in order to keep it for themselves, who would be “traumatized” at accidentally witnessing their parents having sex, and no doubt completely astounded by the width, depth and breadth of their parents’ sexual knowledge and experience.
Because they cannot comprehend their parents’ sexuality, instead of simply asking their parents about sexual things, they become researchers who pore over ancient texts do “rediscover”  “lost” knowledge of fellatio, frottage and other earthy delights. I can see them now, book in one hand ---- no, belay that.

Recently, I re-read Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s  “Gran Simulacro….”  as translated by
Mr. Tom Leoni. Now, I don’t have any quibble with Mr. Leoni    I don’t know the gentleman, and I’m not suggesting that he is one of those misguided persons who believes the “lost fencing colony” myth. I think his translation is as good as any, (indeed, I just ordered a copy of his translation of Giganti) and I think he had some worthwhile ideas on structuring the text, adding notes, etc. I’d say he did a nice job, overall – at least it all makes perfect fencing sense.

How do I know it all makes perfect fencing sense?
Because I’ve been teaching the very same things for several decades.

You see, I had the privilege and pleasure of learning my craft from Maitre Jean-Jacques Gillet, back when fencing still resembled swordplay, back before the “sport” of fencing departed so completely from the combat logic and verisimilitude on which fencing practice was once based.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with my very esteemed colleague, the late Dr. William Gaugler, and compare notes with his Italian method.
There’s utterly nothing in Capo Ferro that Maitre Gillet didn’t teach routinely, nor is there anything that Maestro Gaugler didn’t also incorporate into his teaching.
This should come as no surprise – but I know, to some, it does.

A sword is a sword is a sword.
That tool hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries, because the job it was created to do remains the same.
It’s all still there.
A bit more refined. A little tweak here and a little tweak there.
But, fundamentally, it’s the same old same old.

So why do some people think fencing had to be “rediscovered?”

When you listen to Bach, or Brubeck, what do you hear?
Me, I hear scales. Patterns. Infinitely varied, but very recognizable, scales and patterns.
I didn’t always hear them. I had to become a better educated musician before I could hear those connections, appreciate the similarities.

Likewise, you have to be a relatively educated swordsman before you can appreciate that you are doing in 2012, fundamentally the same actions they were doing in 1612.
The same scales and patterns.
Maybe in a different key.

If you want to be a doctor, you don’t pore over ancient texts to rediscover “lost” knowledge of medicine.
You go to medical school where they can teach you.

If you want to learn to wield a sword effectively, you don’t pore over ancient texts to rediscover “lost” knowledge of fencing.
You go to a fencing master who can teach you.

But you’d better hurry. It’s a dying breed.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

What is Good Teaching?

This is an excerpt from the article "What is Good Teaching?  A Reflection" by Robert Freeman.
Just too good not to share.


As a public school teacher, I've come to believe that good teaching comes down to six essential practices. I call them Inducement, Conveyance, Meta-Learning, Empowerment, Modeling, and Application. Just as when all eight amino acids must be present for a protein to form, all six of these activities must be present for Good Teaching (and Good Learning) to occur.

Let's look at what each of these tasks entails and how they add up to Good Teaching.

The Inducement is the teacher's solicitation to the student, the seduction to come and learn.  It can take a thousand forms, from asking the student what she's interested in to showing her what you're interested in. The first art of good teaching lies in knowing the student well enough to know which form of Inducement will entice her to want to learn. For, until this occurs, there is simply talking and resistance.

And Inducement doesn't end once the student shows interest and begins to learn. Far from it.  Inducement is needed for even the highest performing students — to push them to still greater heights, to stretch themselves to do things they had never believed they might be able to do. And it is needed for every new lesson and for every new assignment until the student becomes self-starting.

After Inducement comes Conveyance. An impoverished version of Conveyance is what
passes for most teaching today.  Seven times five equals thirty-five. Sentences must begin
with a capital letter. In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Artful Conveyance is, in fact, much more challenging than this admitted caricature might suggest. Few people learn by simply listening or reading and reciting.

Good Conveyance means devising a hundred different ways for the students to engage the material. They need multi-sensory stimuli — pictures, songs, poems, riddles, models, posters, dances, skits, debates, lectures, and more.  They need emotional connections with the materials, connections to past learnings, associations with other knowledge they're developing. And they need all of this for all of their subjects!

By engaging the whole student, good Conveyance not only develops solid understanding of individual subjects, it brings out the deep connections between subjects. How proportion in math is related to harmony in music. How science, by reducing dependence on authority, gave rise to individualism. How cadence and rhyme and symbols serve not only poetry but demagoguery. Good conveyance makes learning come alive by helping the student make new connections — find relevance — as he encounters his learning.

After Conveyance comes Meta-Learning. This means teaching the student to be aware of
how he is learning and to develop specific learning strategies for different learning situations.  This sounds abstract but all of us do this as adults, whether we know it or not.
When I encounter a difficult passage in reading I say, "OK, let's take this one step at a time.  What is the subject of this sentence? What is the verb? Ok, now what's the object?" And eventually, I decipher the complex (or more likely, poorly written) passage. This is Meta-Learning:  using explicit strategies to learn how to learn. It is indispensable if life-long learning is to develop.

Teaching Meta-Learning requires not only a deep understanding of the subject itself, but of the learning process as well, and how the student can apply one to master the other. Once started, the meta-enabled student can begin bootstrapping himself to higher and higher levels of knowledge and mastery. The best readers are skilled meta-readers. The best math students are skilled meta-mathematicians. Those students who enjoy learning the most, who stay with it longest, and go with it farthest are good Meta-Learners.

After Meta-Learning comes Empowerment. Empowerment means constructing the
environment where the student can successfully affirm to herself her competence with what she's learned. A first grader might paint recognizable human figures and then clean up the finger paints afterwards. An eighth grader might write a book review analyzing plot, character, and theme while using the proper form of an essay, grammar, and spelling. A twelfth grader might describe the reversal between America's role in its Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War, and then use this understanding to explain our failure in Vietnam and our enduring perplexity and angst about it.

By providing the venue for demonstrating competence, Empowerment allows for the coming of maturity as a learner and, ultimately, as a person. Such maturity flows from “ownership" in the outcome of one's efforts, responsibility for one's fruits. Done well, Empowerment is the midwifeing into autonomy for each stage of accomplishment that the student has mastered.

Next, there is Modeling. Through all of the prior stages, the teacher acts as a model of the desired outcome. She is the incarnation of the curiosity, composure, persistence, intelligence, integrity and patience and all the other deep character virtues which are the true ends — and the true evidence — of a good education.

Of all of the six practices, Modeling is perhaps the most demanding. Every minute, the student senses in the teacher whether she is authentic to her words, whether she walks her talk or whether she is simply mouthing facts and containing the chaos. The students cannot articulate what they are sensing in this process but, as with the Judge and obscenity, they know it when they see it. And when it's there, more than anything else, they want to be like it.

They want to be like it. The attraction to authenticity is inescapable.  Surely, it is one of the most powerful compulsions in all of human development. Authenticity comes when teachers are true to their own natures and embody their own highest standards — both as teachers and as human beings. It comes when we treat with profound respect the uniqueness and the dignity of every student. For surely, each of them are as unique and worthy of respect as we are.

When students see that their teachers are like this, no matter what the grade or subject, they will perform heroically for them (which calls back Inducement). For they want to be
acknowledged, they want to be esteemed by that which they know as true.  It is the first step to becoming true once again themselves.

The final practice in Good Teaching is Application.  Up until now, everything has occurred in the classroom.  But here, students take what they have learned and put it into practice in the real world.  Only there do they learn whether what they’ve done in the classroom has real-world value.  As the old Chinese adage says, “Knowledge that comes from a book stays in the book.”  But if it works, if what the students have learned makes a difference, they become bigger people, right in front of your eyes.

A practical example is illustrative.  Five years ago, my students were studying poverty in the developing world.  They were frustrated at their own impotence to address it.  So we decided to ask every student in our school to give just one dollar so we could build a school in the developing world.  Well, it took more dollars than our school had, but with the help of four other schools we raised $9,000 and built a classroom in a remote Kenyan village.

Since then, with 70 other schools joining us, we’ve built 12 classrooms, in Kenya, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and Nepal.  In the process, the students have learned not only the academics of world poverty, but the character traits of compassion, cooperation, and creativity.  And they feel a competence, an efficacy in the world, unlike anything they will ever learn in the classroom.

The genius of Good Teaching is when all six of these practices — Inducement, Conveyance, Meta-Learning, Empowerment, Modeling, and Application — all occur at precisely the right time, over and over again throughout the lesson, throughout the day, throughout the year, throughout the student's educational career. Every student is addressed with exactly the right touch they need at exactly the right moment in time, and all at the same time!

It is this right-touch, right-timing, inclusion-for-all, and engagement-with-the-world challenge that makes Good Teaching the incomparable art form that it really is. It is what makes Good Teaching so difficult to master but such an ennobling act (for both the student and the teacher) when it actually does occur.  And it doesn’t come from shallow experience, superficial commitment, or a focus on profits.

To be sure, every good teacher will have a different name for these acts. Each will perform them differently, with different emphases at different times. But as with Shakespeare's rose, by any other name they are just as sweet.

It is through such Good Teaching that students develop not just potent academic or vocational competencies but unshakable conviction of their fundamental worthiness for whatever great challenges they ultimately choose to take up in life. That is the true objective, the true proof, and the true reward of Good Teaching.

from What is Good Teaching? A Reflection
by Robert Freeman
Published on Sunday, May 6, 2012 by Common Dreams