Thursday, December 28, 2017


     In art, I use words as I please, to mean whatever I like, and I’ll invent a word if I feel it necessary. But in science I prefer to be precise, clear and consistent. I strive never to use one word to describe two different things, or two different words to describe the same thing. When using a common word in a specific way as a “term of art,” it never hurts to define your terms. So I shall.
     The use of the word “man,” as in swordsman and horseman, is currently unfashionable.  In the interest of inclusiveness and equality in diversity, various alternatives have been proposed. I thought I should explain why I would employ such a “politically incorrect” term as “swordsman,” so as not to give offense when I do.
     The word “man” has it’s origin in the root of the Sanskrit  “manas,” the Indian word for “mind” or the “eternal thinker. “Man” is not synonymous  with “male,” but rather with “human being.” When writers mention “man’s inhumanity to man” they don’t mean “Males’ inhumanity to males,” implying that the females of the species are neither guilty of inhumanity nor targets of it, , but rather  “human beings’ inhumanity toward human beings.” If a plague wipes out all “mankind,” both males and females of the species will vanish.   When the Oracle at Delphi admonished, “Man, know thyself” the admonition was not only to those human beings who happened to have a penis. Really, it seems to me either quite “dumbed down” or smarmily disingenuous to equate “man” with “male.”  I think it’s much more about grinding a political axe than it is about semantic clarity, but then, I’m suspicious by nature.  
     Let me be clear on this point: I am aware of the ill effects of patriarchy on both men and woman, and I abhor them. I have always believed in the complete social, economic and political equality of the sexes. I taught sabre to women long before the Powers That Shouldn't Be finally "allowed" women to fence with the sabre.
     I use “sword” + “manas”/man, meaning “mind,” to say that the swordsman is a human being whose consciousness is integrated with the use of the sword and is thereby altered.  Horse + “manas”/man, or “horseman,” denotes a human being whose consciousness is integrated with that of the horse and is thereby altered. You could say that the “horseman” is one who is so intimately connected to the horse, that they are now part horse and part human. Likewise, the swordsman may never again be “whole” without the sword.
     Some people have suggested using “person” instead of “man,” as in chairperson, or waitperson. “Person” comes from the Latin word “persona,” which was the mask an actor wore.  So the “chairperson” is someone who puts on the  “chair” mask to run a meeting; a waitperson is someone who puts on the mask of waiting, usually between auditions. “Person” seems to me superficial and, temporary, and not at all the sense I want to give you in describing the martial artist having a peak experience via the practice of the sword.
     Instead of bowman we could say “archer,” instead of swordsman we could say “fencer,” instead of horseman we could say “rider,” but these things all merely describe what someone does, not what someone is. That is, they describe physical activities, not altered states of consciousness. Fencing is external to the individual; swordsmanship is internal. Riding is external; horsemanship is internal.
     Maybe we need a new word. 
     If someone invents a better one, one that makes sense, one that has the right denotation and connotation, and rolls trippingly off the tongue, I’ll happily adopt it.  Meanwhile, I will use “man” as term of art with the specific denotation and connotation herein described.
     No offense intended.



Saturday, November 18, 2017

What a Drag


     I play guitar a little bit.
     There’s a piece by Bach I’m working on. I play some blues. I love flamenco. I play most every day, practicing one thing or another. Depending on my mood, it may be classical stuff, or jazz or a bunch of different things.
     When I work on that Bach piece, I don’t wear a white-powdered wig and a long frock coat. 
     When I play the blues, I don’t break out my black-face make-up, shades and stingy-brim fedora. 
     When I play flamenco, I don’t change into a flat-brimmed sombrero, and high-heeled botas.
     You know why not?
     Because playing music is about playing music and playing it well. 
     I’m not practicing the guitar as an exercise in fantasy role-playing, wearing just the right cliché costume for the part. That’s what “air guitar” is about. I don’t want to pretend to play the guitar, I want to actually play the guitar.
     When I play JSB's Chaconne in d minor, I’m not trying to “re-enact” history. I’m playing a piece of music that is just as beautiful and poignant today as when it was written back around 1720. I’m not expressing Bach’s feelings. I can’t. I’m not Bach. I’m expressing my own feelings through Bach’s music.
     If I were to don a white powdered wig to play my Bach piece, would that make my performance any better? Would it render my interpretation any more accurate or “authentic?” Would the piece be any more poignant?
     I think not.
     When I play Born Under a Bad Sign, or T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, should I dress up like Dan Akroyd’s stunt double in a Blues Brothers re-make? Should I put on some Al Jolson black-face make-up? Will that give me a better, more “authentic” sound?  
     I think not.
     I’m not Black. But I’ve sure enough had the blues. 
     Unless I’m getting paid to be an actor, I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not.

     "Okay," you might inquire, "where are you going with all this?"
     Funny you should ask.
     Why is it that just about everyone who claims to be a “serious” student of the sword, finds it impossible to resist playing dress-up? I’m not talking about fantasy role-playing outfits like the SCA. I’m talking about people who claim to be serious students of the sword. They get into their pseudo-medieval attire for long sword, break out the facsimile doublet and trunk hose for rapier, and don their stiffest 1890’s drag to do “classical” fencing.

     Does it make their fencing any better, more accurate, more authentic?
     You know what we wear in my salle when we practice long sword?
     Baggy grey sweats.
     Guess what the uniform is for rapier and dagger?
     Baggy grey sweats.
     Classical fencing?
     Baggy grey sweats.
     We wear what’s comfortable and functional, and yes, we wear what’s protective, too -- a mask and padded jacket. But we don’t do the costume party thing. We don't play dress-up. Period.
     You know why not?
     Because practicing the sword is about practicing the sword and doing it well.
     We’re not learning how to pretend to fight using the sword, we are learning how to actually fight using the sword.
     The sword is every bit as demanding and deadly today as it was in 1660, and the principles of technique, tactics and strategy that the sword can teach are just as vital and relevant today as they ever were.
     We practice the sword to make ourselves better human beings, to change the way we live in the world, and thereby to change the world.
     We’re not “re-enacting” history. We’re making it.
     The sword isn’t about the past.
     It’s about the future.
In Ferro Veritas.
-- aac

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Guitar Contest

            The guitar is a very popular instrument, lots of people play it and it’s been a valuable part of our life and culture for a long time. Guitar-playing skill is something we’ve come to value, because we appreciate the talent and effort it takes to be excellent at it, and also for the richness the music adds to our lives. We love the quality of a memorable melody, the subtle shades of emotion created by astute and articulate harmonies, the primal, enchanting use of rhythm.
     So to recognize excellence in guitar-playing, and to encourage its continuation, we decide to have a guitar-playing contest.

     Someone suggests that we should just let the audience vote. But that would only determine which music is the most popular, not necessarily the best musically. So we decide that the best judges would be the contestants themselves.
     They listen to each others’ playing, evaluate it, discuss it together and arrive a general consensus on who the best player -- or at least, the best player of the moment -- is. While they are candid about the flaws in a contestant’s playing, they are also effusive with praise for others’ talents and modest about their own. The friendly, collegial nature of the contests becomes legendary.
     Guitar fans of all stripes flock to the contests. Even those who don’t personally know any of the contestants. One thing they can be sure of: no matter who eventually wins, they will hear some wonderful guitar music during the course of event.

     Then to make it less of a “burden” on the contestants, and also to add to the stature of the event, we decide to have non-contestants judge the event. We recruit as judges renown guitar teachers,  famous composers of guitar music, and perhaps even some past winners of the contest. Each of them has a slightly different preference: one is a classical guitarist, one is a jazz guitarist, one plays flamenco. But they all still agree on foundational elements like melodic quality, harmonic quality, and rhythmic quality.

     Despite the subjectivity of the process and the lack of absolute and universal agreement, the whole contest thing works out pretty well overall. Excellent guitarists get a little bit of fame and fortune, and fledgling guitarists have a little added incentive to practice --- hoping to playing well enough to enter the contest one day.

     The system certainly isn’t perfect. There aren’t always enough good judges available, it’s hard to get them all together in one place at one time, and it’s pricey to cover their expenses for the job. And there’s that subjective factor that leaves fans of certain players or certain regions or certain styles of music disgruntled when their favorite fails to win the first place prize.  Mind you, a lot of these fans aren’t really fans of the guitar, or guitarists, or even music, but they are most definitely fans of winning; they derive vicarious egotistical satisfaction from having “their” guitarist or “their” town or “their” musical style win the prize.

     Someone -gets the bright idea to eliminate the “subjectivity” from the judging by inventing a machine to take over the job.
     The machine they create does not have the capacity to evaluate melodic quality, or harmonic quality or rhythmic quality. The machine can only measure decibels and count the number of notes played per measure.
     So that becomes the criteria for winning the contest.
     Not melody.
     Not harmony.
     Not rhythm.
     Just how loud you can play and how fast you can play.
     The loudest, fastest guitarist wins the prize.

     Young, up-and-coming guitarists begin to abandon melody, harmony and rhythm because these elements are no longer relevant to winning the contest -- and the fame and fortune that comes with it. They focus on what’s important: play loud and play fast.
     Guitarists who retain an attachment to melody, harmony and rhythm lose interest in the contest now, not just because they can’t play loud enough and fast enough to win it (which is what the louder-faster players claim) but because it simply isn’t pleasant to either play or to listen to. Indeed, they don’t consider it music at all, but noise.
          Playing with articulate melody, adroit harmony, and captivating rhythm requires a much longer time, and particular precision of effort.  Only a relative few can dedicate themselves to it.   But the ability to play loud and fast can be accomplished in very short period of time and almost anyone can learn to do it. So it becomes very popular and guitar playing gets “democratized.”  The louder-faster group points this out as a great progress. “More people are playing the guitar today than ever before,” they cheer.
     Because the loud-fast guitarists don’t have to invest that same time and effort as the “traditional” guitarists, they have no idea what that process entails. They therefore tend to grossly under-estimate what’s involved and grossly under-value it. The result is that the loud-fast guitarist has no particular admiration, regard or respect for traditional guitar players -- or for their own ilk, either for that matter. Their behavior toward each other deteriorates to an infantile level of brooding tantrum when they lose, and displays of narcissistic self-adulation when they win.
     Audiences begin to stay away in droves. A few spectators still attend to “support” a friend (or their guitarist from their town…) but no one comes to listen to the music anymore.  There isn’t any.
     Eventually, all the “traditional” guitarists either retire, or die off. A whole new generation of loud-fast guitarists is born who have never heard any other kind of guitar-playing, can’t even imagine that another kind of guitar-playing  could ever have existed.
     Every once in a while, someone may refer to the “old-fashioned” way of guitar-playing,  a quaint and silly practice based on some odd notions of obsolete things called melody, harmony and rhythm, beyond which we have now thankfully evolved. And all the “modern” guitarists can do is shake their heads in wonder that their foolish forbears could have been so caught up in irrelevancies.



Saturday, October 14, 2017


     One of our essential training elements is the “bout,” a contest between two fencers, each of whom attempts to touch the opponent without being touched by the opponent. 
     Bouting is “flashy” and exciting and can be a lot of “fun,” too.  It puts your skills and spirit to the test. In some part of us it represents the obligatory show-down between the hero and the villain, the “moment of truth,” the climax of our favorite swashbuckling novels, films and TV shows.
     It is, in this sense, the pinnacle of our practice, like a musician stepping up to play a solo. 
     Here are the things you must do in order to participate in bouting.
1) You must demonstrate that you will be a courteous opponent.  Your conduct must be impeccable at all time, under all circumstances. You must be composed and gallant, allowing no expressions of emotion to sully the bout, whether positive or negative, neither elation or disappointment.

2) You must demonstrate that you will be a safe opponent.  Injuries are not an inherent part of fencing. They are always a result of fencer error. You must be able to avoid such errors. You must control yourself, executing actions in a safe manner, at the correct distance without excessive force.

3) You must demonstrate that you will be a competent opponent. You must have some hope of being able to defend yourself, so that you will be a worthy opponent for your adversary.  You don’t get to play in the band if you don’t know how to play your instrument!  You MUST master these techniques, at an absolute MINIMUM:
1.     Straight attack, disengage attack executed on a perfect lunge
2.     Parries of 6te, 4te, 7me and 8ve
3.     Direct ripostes and disengage ripostes from each of the 4 parries
4.     Parries of 6te and 4te in the lunge
5.     Direct counter-ripostes and indirect counter-ripostes from 6te and 4te, while in the lunge.

     There’s more, of course.
     MUCH more: compound attacks, counter-attacks, contre-temps, parry combinations, preparations of the attack, prises du fer, yielding parries, the remise, reprise, redoublement…
     But these 5 kinds of actions are enough to enable you to BEGIN bouting. You won’t be terribly interesting. You won’t be dashing or brilliant. But at least you won’t be completely lost, standing there with that deer-in-the-headlights look, hopelessly unable to get out of your own way.

     We typically don’t keep score in bouting, because it inhibits the student. But periodically we do hold a “recital” in which, for more advanced students, we do keep score, and we present awards for the best performance.

     There are significant irreconcilable difference between classical fencing and the sport called “fencing,” of which technique is only the least important.
     The sport is simply about winning a contest. And apparently, it doesn’t matter how you win. You can fence poorly, you can behave obnoxiously. You can score by accident or you can score by cheating. They don’t care. It’s only the final tally that matters. We disdain this approach because we believe that it rewards the worst in people: mediocrity dishonesty, and narcissism. In the sport venue, it doesn’t matter at all what kind of person you are, only whether you “win.” Winning is the “be all” and “end all” of what they do.

     Classical fencing is the exact opposite.
     You must fence properly and you must conduct yourself courteously. If you fail to do either of these things, you will be disqualified.
     You cannot score by accident or by cheating because we enforce the rules strictly, impartially and without exception. But, more than that, the classical fencer has no desire to "win" by fluke or by cheating, would renounce any doubtful touch, refusing any unfair advantage. A victory, to be celebrated, must be unblemished. It's not enough for your performance to be better than you opponent's; it must be the best performance of which you are capable.
     We reward only the best in people: excellence, honesty and gallantry.
     In classical fencing, it doesn’t matter at all whether you win or lose, only what kind of person you are.  In a contest between two people, one of them is going to win and one of them is going to lose, but BOTH of them can display excellence, honesty and gallantry, win OR lose, and we accept nothing less.
     In classical fencing, winning is not the end, itself.
     It’s only the means to an end.
    That end, our goal, is to cultivate in every individual a strong healthy body, an acute and agile mind, a gallant and gracious manner, and a joyful and dauntless spirit.   The classical fencer must be gracious and dignified in defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.
     We hope that by populating our planet with more such individuals, we will create a little bit better world.

- aac


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Fair Trade Policy

Today, so-called “sport fencers” think that these two hits are of equal value. 
They also believe that if  C’s hit to D’s foot arrives a quarter of a second before D’s hit arrives, then D’s hit doesn’t matter.
What do you suppose C would have to say about that?
Oh, right.
He's dead.