Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It Depends...

Part of the beauty of the Sword is that it teaches you that there is no "right" answer.
There are many right answers.
It all depends on the tactical circumstances: the nature of the fighter, the nature of the opponent, and the nature of the environment. It encourages creative solutions, i.e., actions that your opponent does not expect and cannot predict.


Friday, September 20, 2013

This Old Salle

My salle d’armes is a modest and rustic place. 
It started out life as a garage. It was owner-built, with help that was paid liberally in beer. Thus, nothing in the structure is quite square, flush or plumb. A singer’s dream; a carpenter’s fevered nightmare.
It was reincarnated as a salle d’armes thirty years later, under the supervision of a handyman-of-all-trades, with even less skilled folks like me supplying the grunt labor.
The 20x30-ish size is good for my practice, because I like working with small groups of 6-8 people at a time. That’s a perfect number to allow for safety, a good group dynamic, and some personal attention, too. Not a real money-maker, though.
Inside, we have one wall with mirrors floor to ceiling. Weapon racks. Some inspirational artwork.  A small stereo. Rubber gym mats provide a comfortable working floor. One large blank wall is perfect for showing swashbuckling movies, like swashbucklers themselves, bigger than life-size.
But the building needs a lot of work.
A lot.
The “insulation” (notice I put that in quotation marks) keeps out the cold about as well as a damp Kleenex would stop a .45 slug.  In summer, bread would rise at warp speed.  However, a wide variety of insects and small rodents find it irresistibly comfy.  The floor has become uneven in spots (much like my temper), likely because the garage was built in a slab and not on a real foundation. The ventilation is poor, the roof is sagging like an out-classed fighter staggering into the championship rounds. The siding has long since begun to rot, and one or two chipmunk entrances have appeared in the fascia boards, one of them with a traffic light. Entropy, in short, is hammering away with hooks and uppercuts and overhand rights as we rock against the ropes, try to cover up, and answer with a punch or two of our own, now and then, when opportunity presents.  But we’re way behind on points and our scoring a knockout, or our opponent suddenly suffering a massive heart attack, seem paths to victory that are equally remote.

It struck me, in a moment of tequilafied clarity, how this old salle is a perfect metaphor for chivalry.
Inside, we fight to preserve something good and clean and noble, while all around us the world crumbles into corruption, decadence and despair. It’s a full-time chore to keep that decomposition from finding its way inside us, taking root in out hearts,  rotting our spirit, rendering us caricatures of ourselves, the way Elvis, himself, became the world’s most mediocre Elvis-impersonator.
Stone walls do not a prison make, they say, nor iron bars a cage. But it doesn’t hurt.
Nevertheless, a salle d’armes, too, is not made of wood, and stone and steel.
It’s made of spirit.
If we can keep our spirit strong we will prevail, good over evil, justice over corruption, and bleach over mildew.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Conversation in Steal

 I’m from Chicago.
It’s a city that is not without the influence of organized crime. Maybe you’ve heard.
When a legitimate business gets profitable, the mafia gets interested. They move in on that business, squeeze it for “protection” money or even take it over completely.  The mafia isn't keen on doing any real, honest work, themselves, but they won’t hesitate to steal from those who do some.

Starting in 1980, when I received my Fencing Master Diploma from Maitre Jean-Jacques Gillet’s American Fencing Academy, and certification from the now-defunct US Academy of Arms,  and continuing for all the years I was a member of the NFCAA – now the USFCA – I lobbied for them to recognize, preserve and promote classical fencing (which was then known simply as correct fencing!) as well as other weapons such as the rapier, the smallsword and the longsword.
For several decades the USFCA (and it’s Tweedle-dum twin the USFA) derided, denigrated, dismissed, disparaged, trivialized  and insulted classical fencing,  and sneered at the very notion that fencing as a martial art could even exist. In their “coaches college” only the three “modern” weapons used in competition were considered, solely and exclusively, with Olympic gold medals the be-all and end-all of their efforts. The USFCA is aptly named: The United States Fencing COACHES’ Association. They are coaches training people to win at a competitive sport.  They are not fencing masters, at least not by the definition I was taught:  one who had the skill, knowledge and spirit to teach any person the correct use of any sword for any purpose. A  fencing master may sometimes function in the role of coach. But being a coach does not make you a fencing master.
Over that same period of time, the “sport” of fencing devolved into a meaningless and graceless game of electronic tag, bearing utterly no resemblance to a “frank and courteous encounter” (a duel, that is), and played by rude, screaming narcissists, for whom real fencers have long since grown weary of apologizing. Thankfully, the numbers involved in this game are starting to dwindle. With luck, it will cease to exist at all.
Meanwhile, Classical Fencing and “Historical European Martial Arts,” (HEMA) have found something of a niche, and that niche is growing.  Clearly these people are looking for something that the “Olympic fencing” game of poke-and-hope does not provide --- and they are willing to invest a fair amount of money in this pursuit. They are willing to pay for equipment, and they are willing to pay for instruction.
Naturally, overnight “masters” spring up like mushrooms --- or actually, more like “10th Degree Supreme Ultimate Grand Masters,” first in karate, then kung fu, then ninjitsu, then hapkido, then aikido, in accordance with what was featured in the latest, most popular action movie. (All the same guys, mind you. Only the sign in the dojo window changed.)
And, naturally, now that there’s money to be had, the USFCA is suddenly interested.
Now, out of the blue,  with no history of any prior involvement in, or support of classical fencing or HEMA, the USFCA, like the mafia (only without the accents and the snappy clothes), wants to take them over and siphon off whatever profits there are to be had from the people who have rightfully earned them, to distribute amongst their own pompous, plagiaristic and self-aggrandizing chosen few.  They thus anoint themselves as the arbiter of who is or isn’t “certified” to teach, form a committee for that purpose and bestow lofty titles on themselves – all with no demonstration of any expertise in the subject whatsoever.  Make no mistake, their next step is obvious: they will deride, denigrate, dismiss, disparage, trivialize  and insult all those who do not possess USFCA certification, and they will try to convince the public (that is, the market) that those not blessed with the USFCA nod are incompetent charlatans who will put little Tom and Suzie in peril of life and limb.
But it isn’t just about money.
It’s also about ego, power and, above all, CONTROL. The USFCA, like an abusive spouse, craves control over every thought, word and deed.  Without that control, they might be seen for what they are, as would the once beautiful and noble “sport” of fencing which they enthusiastically helped to ruin.
Classical Fencing and Olympic fencing, you see, are not two variations on the same theme, like two different flavors of ice cream. They are not different “styles” of fencing.  (The former is fencing, the latter is not. What it is, I’ll leave it to you to figure out).
Classical Fencing and the “sport” called fencing are, in fact, diametrically opposed and mutually contradictory both technically and philosophically.
How could the organization that has led the charge against Classical Fencing for so long, now represent classical fencing?  It’s preposterous. Far be it from me to suggest that the USFCA would know ethical conduct if they stepped in it, but is there not just a teensie-weensie bit of conflict of interest here?  Is the fox really qualified to certify the security guards for the henhouse?
Those of us who are professional fencing masters, who make our living teaching the true art, science and spirit of the sword, would be well advised to wear wreaths of garlic around our necks to keep the USFCA at bay until we can find out where they sleep during the day and stake them firmly down in the coffin of absolute irrelevance they so deserve.
We need USFCA "certification" like a swimmer needs an anvil. What we could use is a loose association of independent professional fencing masters who can agree on what a fencing master is and what you have to do, know and be, to be recognized as one by the rest of us.  That’s assuming that there actually are enough professional fencing masters out there to fill one of the larger booths at Denny’s.  Personally, I can count the ones I know of on one hand, and still have enough fingers left to deal off the bottom of the deck. But you have to start someplace.
It would certainly be better than allowing the mafia to muscle in and take over.