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.