Sunday, August 16, 2015

Travelin' Jack's Magic Show

Yesterday, I showed some of my students a little card magic I learned in the waybackwhen, the summer I worked in a carnival. I’ll tell you that story sometime.
One reason I did this is simple: magic is exactly like combat.
Allow me to elucidate.

Magic relies on capturing your audience’s mind. You lead it where you want it to go, by using a   combination of suggestion, distraction, diversion, subterfuge, subtle deception, and outrageous lies. You baffle and bewilder them by making them think that they “see” things that they are not really seeing. And because they “see with their own eyes,” you make them believe – even if just for a moment -- things that are not true, cannot be true, things they know are impossible

Combat relies on capturing your opponent’s mind, too. You trap your opponent’s mind using a combination of suggestion, distraction, diversion, subterfuge, subtle deception, and outrageous lies. You baffle and bewilder them by making them think that they “see” things that they are not really seeing. And because they “see with their own eyes,” you make them believe – even if just for a moment -- things that are not true.
And a moment is all you need.
A lot can happen in a moment.

Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Another reason that the study of magic is valuable to the student of the sword is that it stimulates your critical thinking juices.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes once said, “Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The importance of this principle cannot possibly be over-stated.
We know that playing cards do not change, do not move around on their own. It’s IMPOSSIBLE. Therefore, you can trace the illusion back, step by step. When did it APPEAR that the cards changed? When and where did you last actually see the card? What happened after that?  Clearly, what you thought you saw was really something else. Step by step. Question each one. Verify what you think you know and HOW you know it. Verify what you think you saw – did you actually SEE  “X”, or did you conclude that you saw “X” because of some assumption, or suggestion?

In both magic and combat, you use your opponent’s assumptions, beliefs, habits, and responses against him. Because you know that your mark responds to “A” with “B,” you can anticipate “B” and be ready to do “C.”  See?
This brings me to the second master principle I want to mention, one that you should probably get tattooed on your forehead: “If you don’t have a Plan B, then you don’t have a plan at all
Let’s put it in fencing terms.

Let’s say “A” is the attack, the initial offensive action.  If you understand the nature of your opponent’s attack, you can counter-attack, make an offensive action DURING the attack. An opponent who is committed to an attack is in a very poor position to defend and so a properly chosen and executed counter-attack has a very high probability of success. Counter-attacks are good. I love them.
It’s foolish to put all your eggs in the attack basket. It’s a habit of beginners and very poor “fencers.”  They try to attack harder, faster, and deeper so that their opponent doesn’t have a chance to do the counterattack, or that the counter-attack will miss, or be a hair too late, and in the artificial context of a fencing contest, the “rules” will save the attacker’s life. But there are no such rules in a fight. The attacker must save himself.
People are good at what they like and like what they’re good at, and tend to do it whenever they can.  If I can determine that my opponent is so inclined to counter-attack, I won’t try to keep him from doing it. I’ll let him do what he wants to do. Hell, I’ll ENCOURAGE him to do what he wants to do. I’ll create the appearance of an opportunity to do it that he can’t resist, because he thinks I’m making a mistake. And then I’ll use it against him.
For example, I “attack” with my swordarm bent and my high outside line slightly open. This invites my opponent to counterattack with opposition to that line. I telegraph my intention, and contrive the speed of my attack to enable him to “pick me off” with a fast thrust. As he makes that thrust, I parry, and then continue my forward movement with a riposte with opposition to guard against a remise of his counterattack (getting inside his point if I can).
We use the term contre-temps or “counter-time” is used to describe every action made by the attacker against the defender’s counterattack.
If my opponent is skillful, he will not walk into the same ambush again. If he is skillful, he will understand the nature of my contre-temps and will either deceive my parry, or parry my riposte and make a counter-riposte.
We use the term fenta di tempo, or feint in time, to describe every action made by the defender against the attacker’s contre-temp.
Let me break it down for you another way.

Suppose we’re having a fencing contest.
My plan A is to hit you with my attack
If you try to parry my attack, one of two things will happen: either you will find my blade, or you will not find my blade. If you do not find my blade, it’s because I have deceived your parry.  Deceiving your parry is my Plan B.
But suppose I try to deceive your parry, and I fail. You find my blade. One of two things will happen: either you will make a riposte, or you will not make a riposte. If you do not make a riposte, I will make a remise and hit you. That remise is my Plan C.
If you DO make a riposte, I will parry and counter-riposte.  One of two things will happen: either I find you blade with my parry, or I don’t. If I find the blade, I will execute my counter-riposte. That simple parry and counter-riposte is my Plan D.
If I do NOT find your blade with my parry, it’s because you have deceived my parry. If I do not find your blade with my parry, I will give a little ground (if necessary) and execute a second parry and find your blade with that one, and counter-riposte.  That compound parry and counter-riposte is my Plan E.
Are you beginning to see a pattern?
Anytime you make a plan, you have to ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” at each step of the plan, and have a back-up plan for each eventuality.
I don’t even put my pants on without a Plan B.


Resources for Further Study
Just for fun, here are some films I strongly recommend. They’re good films and I think you’ll enjoy them. But they aren’t “just entertainment.”  Each of these films is about illusions, distractions, ambushes, understanding the nature of the opponent’s probable response, plans and back-up plans.
1.     The Sting. Dir. George Roy Hill (1973)
2.     The Spanish Prisoner. Dir. David Mamet (1997)
3.     House of Games. Dir. David Mamet1987
4.     Heist. Dir. David Mamet (2001)
5.     Harry in Your Pocket. Dir. Bruce Geller (1973)
6.     Inside Man.  Dir. Spike Lee (2006)
7.     The Thomas Crown Affair. Dir. Norman Jewison (1968)
8.     The Great Raid. Dir. John Dahl (2005)
9.     Deceptive Practice. Dir. Molly Bernstein (2012)
10. The Illusionist. Dir. Neil Burger (2006)

Sing it, Brother Ray:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Left-Handed Compliments

The sword, used alone, as Capo Ferro said, is the queen of weapons. There’s not much point in trying to use TWO weapons, if you’re not capable of using ONE.
That said, I have two hands. Would I use only ONE of them in a fight?
When it’s a fight, and not an “athletic contest,” there are no rules, and you use whatever you have available. That includes both hands and both feet.  And it doesn’t hurt to use your head a little, either.
Back in the day, most everyone carried a dagger as an all-purpose tool, and of course, some were made en suite with rapiers.  Whether it’s a dagger, a cloak, your scabbard, a wine bottle, or chair leg in your left hand, or just your empty hand,  it pays to think past the solo sword.
As our exemplar of the left hand, let’s use the dagger as our left-hand weapon because so many fancy themselves “rapier and dagger” fighters, and so few are correct.

The dagger has several functions.
1.     Preparations. The dagger can be used to engage, beat, press or trap your opponent’s blade in order to facilitate your attack with the sword.
2.     Parries. The dagger can be used to deflect, divert or obstruct the opponent’s attack
3.     Opposition. The dagger can be used to apply opposition to your opponent’s blade.
4.     Offensive actions. The dagger can be used to cut or to thrust

Opposition may be the most critical of all these uses. Having parried your opponent’s attack, you oppose his weapon with your dagger while you make your riposte. I’m a great believer in controlling the opponent’s weapon at all times, keeping it where I want it, not where my opponent wants it.

Parries are the second best use of the dagger. This allows you to execute your parry and riposte simultaneously rather than consecutively.  Indeed, you could say that you’re now executing a counter-attack with opposition rather than a riposte. Because the counter-attack happens during the opponent’s attack, and because it’s very difficult for your opponent to go forward and backward at the same time, your counter-attack is extremely difficult to defend against – unless, of course the attack itself was a ruse to draw your counter-attack, in the hope of a contre-temps.

While the dagger can be used alone to parry, it can also be combined with the rapier to effect a “double” parry or “crossed” parry. In this use, you surrender the simultaneity of the parry and the riposte, but you gain opposition with the dagger, freeing the rapier to do its work.

Preparations.  Never make a frontal assault against a fortified position unless you have already neutralized your opponent’s offensive capability.  That’s the job of the preparation. The dagger occupies your opponent’s sword so that you may attack. Often, the preparation is combined with opposition.

Offensive actions. While seizing your opponent’s sword with your own sword, you can close the distance and strike with the dagger. Against a same-handed opponent, you close and move to your dagger side, that is, to his (now) unprotected rapier side. This use doesn’t work as well against an opposite-handed fighter.

The dagger is only useful for offense when at close quarters, as we’ve seen so many celluloid villains try to prove. Another good reason to control distance, and keep your opponent on the end of your point.

It’s possible to throw your dagger, but unless you’ve developed that skill in particular, forget about it. It might as well be a crescent wrench.  Even folks who throw a knife pretty well, generally don’t throw it well with their non-dominant hand. Then too, if your opponent didn’t have a dagger of his own, you may just have provided him with one.

You can use your empty left hand in much the same way, even for offensive actions – though personally, I’d use my elbow to strike with and not my hand.  Some people balk at using the naked hand for fear of getting it cut, to which I reply with the very first rule of fighting which states: You’re going to get hurt.  A cut to the hand, or a thrust to your heart?  I leave the choice to you.

A bottle, preferably broken, or any blunt instrument can be similarly employed.

A cloak, coat, or blanket is good, too. Wrap it around your left hand and forearm to provide some protection.  Some people have said that you should hold it loosely, and flail it around like a matador, but I personally find that more awkward than helpful, though, lord knows, there’s nothing like a good veronica.  

A good veronica.


                                                                                                                    A bad Veronica

Of course it’s possible that you could throw it over your opponent’s head, but unless you’re starring in a Tom & Jerry cartoon, I consider that one of those things to be “imagined, rather than practiced.”

As always, it’s important to know the difference between a “fencing match” (an athletic contest with specific rules) and a fight, and to know which one it is that you’re doing at the moment.

When you’re in a contest with a weapon, you use the weapon.

When you’re in a fight, you ARE the weapon.


Thursday, August 6, 2015


Imagine this.
Imagine if swimming suddenly started to be practiced on dry land.
After all, it’s certainly SAFER than practicing in the water.  You can still do the arm movements, do the head movements, coordinate your breathing.  You can’t really kick very well, but you can walk-in-place to simulate doing something with your legs. It’s particularly good for people who are afraid of the water. You could even have contests and give prizes to the best dry-land “swimmers.” Medals. Trophies. Glitz and glamour. Hell, let’s make it an Olympic sport.
At first, dry-land “swimming” might simulate swimming in water insofar as possible, but with time -- and without water -- some people start  “gaming” the rules. Since they have no commitment to swimming in water --- because they never intend to actually do so – they start looking for short cuts, trimming corners, doing things in such an incorrect manner, that, if done in the water, they would most certainly drown. But on land, with no risk of drowning -- with no real world "feedback" --- people could indulge in all sorts of such suicidal antics and call it "swimming."
Somewhere along the line, some bright mind might point out that the swimming done on dry land seems to have lost a certain je ne sais quoit, but I don’t know what. To rediscover the lost art of true swimming, this innovator pours over the dusty texts of the “great swimming masters” and as a result of this exhaustive research, has his swimmers not only copy as closely as possible the postures depicted in these books, but also has his “swimmers” stand in a shallow trough of water, and, to polish it off, gives them a good hosing. Certain that he has captured the “essence” of swimming, he has no idea that it’s --- shall we say a “watered-down” version – that still bears little resemblance to the swimming done in water.
Of course, there are one or two people who don’t “go along to get along” with the popular trend. They look at dry-land swimming and immediately recognize that the emperor has no speedos. These folks continue to swim in water as they’ve always done --- not just in pools, but also in lakes and rivers and even the ocean!  And these miscreants pass the practice on to others – young people who then waste their time swimming in water when they could be swimming on dry land like everyone else and win fame and fortune, scholarships, “Olympic gold,” and a chance to write a memoir about how dry-land swimming changed their lives, gave them self-esteem, took them out of poverty, introduced them to the Meaning of Life.
When that happens, those who actually swim in water will be ridiculed as "old-fashioned," or "out of touch,"  “dinosaurs” or "poseurs who couldn't make it with the big boys" of the "modern sport" of dry-land "swimming."   They only swim in water, you see, because it’s easier, slower, and less athletic. They didn’t have the "talent” to swim on dry land, weren’t willing to put in the “hard work” required.  The most charitable critics will say, “it’s an old, obsolete style of swimming that once had some practical value, but has now evolved into a modern sport.”
It seems quite unreasonable to the modern-sport dry-land swimmers, that the last practitioners of the old style of swimming in water, refuse to accept dry-land swimming as a “valid” swimming style. After all, both are just variations of the same “art” and with no “objective” way to measure that one is any more “valid” than the other.
Does this little swimming scenario seem absurdly impossible?
Oh, how I wish it were.
Insert a long, weary sigh here.

Sadly, over the last 25 years or so, fencing has devolved into something that is quite the opposite of what it once was. It is no longer based on the intelligent use of the sword in a real “encounter,” indeed has lost all verisimilitude to sword fighting. The rules, once based on the realities of combat, have been “interpreted” until they mean precisely the opposite of what they once meant, in quite Orwellian fashion. “Fencing” is now nothing more than a contrived game, like baseball, with rules that are arbitrary and capricious. There is no longer any sense, any logic, or truth to it.  Even worse, while fencers were once famous for their refined, composed and courteous conduct, they now make a grand show of pique, displaying narcissistic fits of temper, screaming, crying, celebration and so on. Had they any character at all, they’d be embarrassed by these infantile outbursts. Apparently, they do not.
The very term “fencing” like the activity itself, has been misused, debased and degraded until it retains none of its former connotations.
In around 1980, when the “sport” called “fencing” began to divert radically from what fencing had hitherto been, and veered off on to an antithetical path, I began using the  term “classical fencing” to distinguish between the traditional, real-world use of the sword, the essential purpose of which was to survive a fight, and what I dubbed “Olympic fencing,” the only purpose of which was to win a medal in the Olympics.”    
 I sincerely regret having coined these terms for two reasons.
First, I regret it because subsequently the term “classical fencing” was gradually adopted by a lot of folks who had no idea what I meant by the term, and didn’t much care.  Some defined it as simply fencing without the electrical scoring apparatus.  (In truth it’s perfectly possible to fence classically WITH the electrical scoring apparatus.  I, and many, many others, did it for decades.) Others made it a form of “historical re-enactment” by claiming it was a “style” of fencing popular in the 19th century, rendering it, thereby, nothing more than a snapshot of arbitrary and frivolous fashion. These folks even copied the attire of that past time, thinking that made them more “classical,” in the same way that playing 3-chord rock and roll might become “classical” music if only you wore a white powdered wig while playing it.
"Classical fencing" became a term that meant whatever the user wanted it to mean. 
Like "love."  
And "terrorist."
In truth, I took the term “classical” from music. The Harvard Music Dictionary gives this description: (classical music) strives toward a particular ideal of "poise, balance, proportion, simplicity, formal discipline, craftsmanship, and universal and objective (rather than idiosyncratic and subjective) expression," affording us a "standard or model of excellence that has enduring value."

It seemed like a good idea at the time.
-Steve McQueen as "Vin" in "The Magnificent Seven"

The other reason I regret using “Olympic” and “classical” fencing, is that these terms suggest that  “classical fencing” and “Olympic fencing” simply distinguish two variations on a theme, two equally legitimate “styles” of fencing, like two different flavors of ice cream.
They are not.
The distinction is, rather, between ice cream and manure.
At the time, most good fencers simply referred to that which would become acceptable as “Olympic fencing,” as  “poor” or “incorrect” fencing, as “blade bashing,” and “poke and hope.”  I should have stuck with that, and I wish I had.  But, at the time, I had many acquaintances, some of whom I rather liked, personally, who were involved in the increasingly flawed fashion taking over the sport. These were folks who wanted to make a living “coaching” fencing at the high school or college level, and who were in no position to buck the system. They weren’t the ones who changed the rules; most of them didn’t even like the rule changes. But it was “out of their hands.” They had to “go along to get along,” to get and keep a coaching job with employers who knew and cared about nothing but the won/lost tally at the end of the season. Because of my emotional connection to some of these people, I made a very bad mistake: I decided to sugarcoat the truth, to avoid hurting their feelings and to avoid estranging myself from them.  It was a very poor choice on my part. It was a very cowardly choice.  But I was young, and if nothing else, it taught me a very valuable, if very painful, lesson:  a bitter truth is better than a sweet lie.  As a result, I resolved never to make that kind of error again.
To be fair, at the time, I did not foresee how far from the Truth of the sword the sport of fencing would veer. I did not understand how ridiculously contradictory to reality and combat logic “Olympic” fencing would become. I did not anticipate such a complete abandonment and then reversal of every principle that had ever been a part of the sword, either as practical self-defense, or as healthy exercise for the bodies, minds and character of ladies and gentlemen.

"…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”   
- U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1775

We have therefore decided to discontinue using the term “fencing” as much as possible.  Even “classical fencing” is inappropriate and inadequate because of those numerous self-styled “classical” fencers who have misappropriated and co-opted the term for their own misuses. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late to trademark “classical fencing” and redeem it.  We may yet try.
However, in the general, we will preferentially use the following terms.
Behavioral Hoplology is the study of human behavior in combat.  This broad term encompasses all manner of fighting, real and ritual, serious and symbolic.
Swordfighting. That’s what “fencing” is and it’s about as simple and clear a term as I can imagine for fighting using a sword.
Swordmastery. Refers to the discipline of the sword, the martial art of swordfighting and all that it entails and requires of body, mind and spirit.
Swordman./Swordmanship This is a word that indicates the indivisible unity of the sword and the human being. In this usage it is gender neutral.  It means “one whose consciousness is manifested with, in and through the sword.  While a fencer is one who merely uses a sword to “do fencing,” the swordman IS the sword. I consider this similar to the difference between “riding” and “horsemanship.” Riding only requires that you stay in the saddle. Horsemanship requires an intimate knowledge of, relationship with, and respect for the horse – and has practically NOTHING to do with riding, per se.

I suppose we’d better hurry and trademark these new terms before some idiot steals them, too, and claims that they refer to something involving aged cheese, fishnet stockings, and some kind of ball.