Achilleus

NO FORM : NO FEELING : NO IDEA : NO FORMATION : NO CONSCIOUSNESS

Ronin : Preamble

This entry is to pave the way for forthcoming explanations for why I am now a masterless swordsman. I feel honor-bound to make some kind of explanation public so that the word can be officially “out there”.

As a preamble, let me start by saying that like many in this country, I found my way to fencing by humble means. Specifically, a continuing education class offered by a school district. The class cost about $80 and was approximately 8 weeks long (use of approximations is due to the fact that A, I didn’t pay for the class, and B, was just 13 at the time). The class was taught by the then North County Fencers Club (St. Louis, Missouri) as an exchange for using school space for fencing. I used a similar model years later as an instructor for another fencing group. I later learned that the job of actually teaching these students was not a highly regarding task and usually fell to the person who couldn’t contrive a reasonable excuse not to do it.

learn fencing image

The instruction was basic fencing formed around a then deflated French system of defence. In this small group lesson environment we learned the stance, basic footwork, and basic blade work. Taking into account the time spent talking, getting equipment and waiting for your turn to do something we come up far short of even a projected 8 hour lesson!

Afterwards students were invited to join the club and fence. Period. No further lessons – just out and at’em. Bob was the instructor at this time. Do I consider him my fencing teacher? No. More like a fencing-big-brother who took me outside one day and played around with a new toy. After he went back inside I had to figure out how it really worked.

At that point I was 8 weeks older and fencing men (mostly) and women at least twice my age. It was chaotic and it was fun. I bought my first weapon – an Italian foil from Santelli (mostly Negrini parts). Nobody else in the club had one and few had even seen one in person. By then (mid-eighties) most people had switched to pistol grips and a few were holding on to the French; the standard then, as now, in most starter packages.

I continued fencing there through high school and college until I dropped out for a while. University life was fun for other reasons. But there was a “moment” for which I stopped fencing. In retrospect my brain must have been encouraging my already sensitive and depressed psyche, but I recall a very palpable sense of negativity – so much so that I walked through the door at the front of the gym one night and immediately turned around, walked out and drove away as fast as I could. That period lasted about a year, maybe more. Approximations at this point in the story are due to expected 18 year old in college factors.

NB: by this time I had some fencing assets: speed, ability and passion. My debits were largely: ignorance and lack of training. This is another reason why not calling Bob my first teacher is an act of friendship, or charity. If he had been my first teacher he would have been responsible for the large gap in my fencing knowledge.

Getting back into it happened when the first alternative to the St. Louis Fencers Club (as it later became) arrived on the scene. Bob had been starting up a small group of new students (who he was actually teaching) further out in the county in an apartment complex. As the second senior-most fencer in the group it was a fun and easy atmosphere. I learned more about how I was fencing at that point by working with the neophytes and also learned that fencing doesn’t belong to any person nor to any one group – its portable, you can take it with you!

After another brief hiatus for travel reasons I returned to find Bob teaching his neophytes in a different school but in similar ways as described above. An important caveat here is that Bob had been using equipment loaned to him by STLFC to teach his neophytes. One night we all sat around lamenting that liaison and thought about severing it. Bob mentioned that if he ever started his own club he would name it Baited Blade. It occurred to me that the only thing preventing us from doing that was getting a minor amount of work done. The wheels turned and next week I announced that I was collecting membership dues for the new club and that our first act of autonomy would be raising funds until our own equipment could be bought. Before I knew it I was coordinating dues, purchasing, and classes. Nobody said, “Hey, wait a minute there bud – I wanna do that!”, or, “Dave, what can I help with?”. I learned my next lesson: if you want something done, do it yourself and don’t wait for anybody to volunteer. With raving success behind me (we were able to collect enough dues to buy that equipment and gladly give back the loaner sets to STLFC with the assurance that we would never need them again) we fenced and I set my sights on the next project: a better location for BB (as we called it per Bob’s request).

Baited Blade Moves On

Sorry for the delay. A recent email prompted me to renew this poor attempt at making the personal fencing history of my last ten years worthwhile – or at least up to date. So I press on and maybe come a little closer to some kind of conclusion.

When we last left our story the foetal Baited Blade was poised for great things. Autonomy, funds, personnel, equipment, it was all in place. To say that finding a home was easy would do me a great disservice. This was no easy task. At this time many municipalities were under the stress of litigation for accidental liability for swings in public playgrounds; the idea of strangers wielding swords was met with open contempt, if not ridicule. Weeks were spent writing letters, sending faxes and following up phone calls with phone calls. Finally a positive response and a scheduled meeting – the sweet taste of success was so close.

But first a short caveat: many years earlier in my preteen years my mother, sister and I joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. At the time it was everything that I could have hoped for in a Christian Church: the Anglophile bachelor priest, beautiful pre-war architecture and a fondness for what some American Anglicans call “high church” mass. Unfortunately, the local community was unable to support this anachronism and the Diocese agreed with parish leaders to liquidate the physical assets. The municipal government of Overland bought the property and in a somewhat fitting gesture converted old sacred ground into a resource for the larger community – the Overland Community Center.

It was to the Overland Community Center that I returned to so many years later and not my old St. Paul’s. Walking past the old church bell in the foyer I met with the Director and negotiated a deal that would enable BB members the right to free access in exchange for offering classes through the Center who would benefit solely from the fees collected. An ideal situation which lasted for some time during which membership tripled. New students responded to Center class offers and from the local advertising I had planned. In this atmosphere I experimented with curriculum, students and my own training needs. Dozens of classes and students, t-shirts, tournaments and pounds of paperwork later I found myself in grad school, married and expecting my first child. Things were getting hectic, but I was doing 100% of the work at BB on my own. Now, let me give credit where its due here: I fully acknowledge and appreciate the individual effort of each and every BB member at that time who participated and supported what I was pushing. But when it comes down to the bare bones responsibility came down to one person, moi.

fencing image 1912 olympics

My first excursion in teaching outside of BB was at the Missouri Athletic Club. Some good people, the rest mostly those I wouldn’t normally find myself in company with. My classes did not draw a lot of attention from a mostly social organisation that offered its members normative athletic activities like basketball, weight room and a swimming pool. it was rumoured that August Busch’s personal bodyguard taught Judo there. I saw him one night walk past the door and recognized immediately a person with purpose. At nearly the same time I received the go ahead from the Program Director of Saint Louis University’s Simon Recreation Center to teach a beginner’s twelve week course in fencing. I allowed the MAC program to conclude naturally and kept up my pace with both BB and SLU.

I have left out my brief, unpleasant stint as an amateur/professional competitive fencer in the USFA. Suffice it to say that in my first regional tournament I qualified for Nationals where I learned the reality of modern sport fencing. After returning from our “San Francisco” vacation I was adamant about making fencing applicable, meaningful and affordable to anyone who was willing to learn. This was the mission behind much of my work at BB. If you are one of the sport fencing polemicists who argues that you can’t find me listed in the roster of competitors for July 1997 San Jose, I have pity for you.

What a difference SLU made in my fencing life. The response to the class offering was staggeringly positive. In less than a year I had a cadre of students who, under the leadership of Alexis La Joie, created the foundation for the Classical Fencing Society at SLU. It was during this time that I experienced high creative collaboration: feedback, involvement, a degree of thirst for knowledge drove me faster and harder to my limits as a teacher and fencer. Meanwhile, Alexis was pushing pen to paper and creating a student organisation recognized by the University. Student purchased their first equipment sets – my first undeniably autonomous success. If any other attempts to lay claim to my BB accomplishments, not a person can come close to doing so with what I was able to do at SLU. Again, let me say with great joy, that without the drive and contagious enthusiasm of Alexis it would not have been possible.

At once I began to compare and contrast my original environment of BB with that of my new home at SLU – it was a no holds contest in which SLU beat BB bloody. Where BB failed to provide support and encouragement, SLU and the budding CFS were brimming. Now a new father in the job market I assessed my options and decided that it was time to let somebody else take control of BB – I simply could not do both. Meetings were held, people spoke up and decisions were made. the short version is that things continued to progress as you might imagine and I simply left BB to concentrate 100% of my efforts on my new family at SLU. Mind you, keep these things entirely clear in your mind:

1) when I left BB they were still on good terms with the Community center and enjoyed the original arrangement for fees and classes

2) they had all the original fencing equipment that through my efforts they acquired

3) while it is true that some of the members who lived in the city limits chose to follow me to SLU, BB still had a larger membership than before

4) there were still adequate funds in the coffers as well as other resources of print material and fencing pedagogy

In other words, I did not sap BB of anything when I left. Whatever happened to it after 1997 was not of my doing.

 

Definitions

We say Classical Fencing a lot. What do we mean? Specifically, we mean a “gold standard” of instruction based upon proven technique. Very academic in nature and focusing on the non-fighting weapons, sometimes referred to as the conventional weapons: foil, epee and sabre.

modern foil break down image

In this way we think of classical fencing not as an end, but the means to the end. We use classical fencing as a pedagogical approach. Added to this concept is our own flavor of “perpetual training”. We do not offer classes. After a probationary 1 year period (the novitiate) novices become fencers (fencing students) and continue to train much as they had before, albeit with expanded privileges and more knowledge and skill. This process never stops. Some of my training partners who have been with me for over 7 years now continue to work with the same material as those 3-4 years their junior.

We have no ranks other than senior and junior. When you walk in the door for the first time everyone is your senior. You know that you can count on everybody there to help you out. The next person who walks in the door is your junior and you realise the reflexive obligation to help them, too.

Fighting Style is where we are headed. For us the academics and conventions and histories are very lovely and necessary; and yet at the end of the night we are left with the nagging question that haunts every fencer at some point in time – how is this practical? how can I best achieve an applicable technique with a sword and not just academic/technical proficiency with a training instrument? For some, this is not an independent question and they have gone so far as to start the carping at us for attempting to answer it at all. Others find adequate answers in the Classical pedagogy. Some people delve even further into the history and look for the answer among heavier and older weapons. We just try to look more closely at the body movement, blade efficiency and strategies that work consistently and practically. Applicable technique. (Example, in the CF world there is a slogan beat to death, almost to the point of meaninglessness – to fence as though the blades be sharp. But how many fencers train with sharp blades? How many fencers have ever seen one? Broken blades don’t count.)

 

 

Divisions

So my man in Japan is sending regular updates and many of us have been thinking about divisions between people and relationships and what all that means for longevity, dare I say, perpetuity. Adam can rest assured that he is only separated by distance (plus time), whereas some of my thoughts have focused on divisions of an actual and tangible nature.

There a several fencing groups in the St. Louis metro area. Some of them are related in simple ways. An instructor has success at a YMCA and sets up a duplicate program at a public school or University. Some are related in a more subtle way. A student (often disgruntled) leaves his club or school and starts his own someplace else.

The CFS is almost like this. When I decided to leave BB I had specific reasons:

  1. I wanted to develop the potential of my classes in the city and experiment with the demographic which others had failed at.
  2. I was becoming more confident with the curriculum, or the progressive and perpetual training regimen and wanted a new set of partners to test it.
  3. The membership at BB was shifting with no leadership to guide it and those who had been vested with representing the members and taking responsibility were hardly in a position to continue in the direction I saw myself going.

My split, therefore, was done for the mutual benefit of both groups (did ya fall for that one?). Seriously, there was no better circumstance I could have left BB in for others to inherit and I didn’t feel I could continue to pursue my own ideas and training while there. But a decisive difference is that I have shared these reasons with my students and have, on many occasions, created situations for fencers from both groups to fraternize.

old fencing image

There is another group in the area (far to the West) which is another split off. Only, distance is not the only thing dividing them from the rest of the fencing community – they appear to have chosen to remain completely immune to outside influence. They, like many of the long established fencing clubs in town, seem to cling to an idea that they must not fraternize, that any sharing of ideas or training is dangerous. This makes for an interesting read on discussion pages in which participants talk about fencing as though it only exists for them.

If we exclude the duplicate groups under the auspices of the same instructor we might come up with six fencing organisations in STL. Two of these (one being the CFS) cooperate for an annual tournament. Some of the sport/rec fencers are members of two groups, going back and forth. But there is no inclusive training or exchange. In such a small space there is a very great divide.

I see this as a microcosm for what we now experience in the larger traditional fencing community. Seven years ago some of us thought that using the internet would facilitate the exchange of people and ideas. To some degree this has come about – but with a great price. The community today is more divided than ever before. Where once it was distance (plus time) and ignorance of the others existence, now we have egos struggling to keep a tight hold of what they claim to be theirs. The fractures run deep into what is allowable, forgivable, correct, defensible. More than closing the distance, we have learned enough about each other in the process that often we choose not to bridge the gap.

Look at the emergence of traditional fencing organisations just in the last six years:

Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA)

European Historical Fencing alliance — EHFA

Federazione Italiana Scherma Antica e Storica — FISAS

International Masters at Arms Federation (IMAF)

Association for Historical Fencing (AHF)

United States Traditional Fencing Association (USTFA)

Traditional Fencing International (TFI)

Swordplay Symposium International (SSI)

and that’s just the smattering I could quickly locate. Note, these groups are all espousing to accomplish the same thing. Interesting.

So no worries my man in Japan. We may be separated by an ocean and most of a continent and large airline fee and time for travel that doesn’t exist in my life, BUT, we will never be divided.

And as a side note of interest for all of you who won’t read this, let it serve as tacit warning (if needs be) that the CFS is on the prowl; we’re mobile and we’re heading for your door.

Fish, Fencing and Friends

Seattle

Clean air, fabulous. Easy to breathe. Want to breathe.

Mountains over there, Pacific water here, wonderful trees. They swoop – branches falling and then – swoosh, back up at the tips.

So we found a sushi bar and it was motorized and it was good. We ate and ate and as my tower of plates achieved ever higher proportions my wallet sighed and I stopped. When the bill came I was disappointed at how much more I could have eaten.

Miracle of Miracles! Next night we were back at sushi bar! More eating – this time in haste. Survived a famine. Ate sushi.

Last night in Seattle – more fish. This time at Ray’s Boathouse. Salmon, Sablefish, crab cakes, asparagus, crispy calamari, Columbia Valley Riesling, variety of desserts. Some kind of view not apparent at night. Excellent staff superseded only by the food. Please go there and then assist me in finding my own expeditious return.

This fencing trip was good for these fishy reasons as well as actual fencing reasons. First, a blast to have Alexis onboard anytime anywhere – Merci, mon frere! Two, Maestri Martinez reminded me why I like fencing – I kind of fell back in love with it. Concur with Lenard that it was its own joy to watch Maestro R Martinez teach – specifically his duelling sabre class.

How could I have forgotten this stuff?

What or who was in my way?

Am I that burned out?

Train Harder.

Big thanks to the Maestri, Teresa, “Fergy”, Lenard and Elisabeth who helped watch the kids thereby making trip possible, and the entire CFS for pulling this on me.

Glad to be home.

To

Train Harder.

Interlude: Not Quite Accurate

Just a break in the quasibiographicalfencingsaga to bring up a point which has bothered me for quite some time. It’s nothing I’m angry about and nothing which I hold as a grudge against anybody, but it is something which does not quite accurately reflect the truth of a moment in history, so all I ask is to give my side of the story.

In 1999 the Martinez Academy of Arms held their first Open Classical Foil Tournament and I went accompanied by a few of my students. We drove non-stop from St. Louis to New Jersey (16 hours according to Rand McNally) just in time for me to eat and crash while the boys scoped out the venue. That night I was talking to my wife on the phone and she asked how I was feeling and about the tournament and I remember telling her that I wasn’t really feeling very excited about it and if I had my preference probably would opt out of competing altogether. I always prefer working with a few good people for an extended period of time – something that no tournament can accommodate. I also felt pressured to prove that I could actually fence after many unpleasant exchanges on the newly formed CFML.

To sum up – I didn’t want to fence the tournament.

The next morning the guys were in good spirits and I kind of forgot about the technicalities of fighting a tournament. I hadn’t fought in one since USFA Nationals in 1997 (that’s a nightmare for another story) We were, unfortunately, on time and waited around a bit and the event took some time getting started. Which was okay – it gave me time to meet people, put faces to names and generally cool down and relax. I was expecting to get trounced by Maestro Martinez’s students and truthfully looking forward to it. It’s hard to get a good fight these days.

So I fenced. I was having fun, but knew that I was underperforming for several reasons:

  1. The 16 hour drive was catching up with me (did I mention I did a lot of that driving myself?)
  2. Due to equipment requirements for the event I was not wearing my own gear but the jacket of one of my students and the knickers of another – thankfully I was allowed to fight with my own weapons
  3. Adapting to new Directors and Juries and format,
  4. My daughter had just turned one year old a month earlier and it was the first time I had been away from my family and I couldn’t stop thinking about my little baby. As I say, I was having fun and enjoyed talking with people between bouts. At some point I realised that I hadn’t yet lost a bout and was a little stunned. To this day I have NO CLUE WHAT THE ACTUAL FORMAT of that event was. I was just going with the flow – fencing when I was told to and sitting down at all other times. That is a crucial bit of information for any non-fencers (or non-competitors of any sport) to realise. When you don’t know how to advance yourself through a tournament it’s very difficult to know where exactly you stand. I knew I hadn’t lost any bouts yet, but I had a few touches against me and there was this mysterious inclusion of a ‘style’ or form criteria being assessed simultaneously for another award.

Then I was called up for the final bouts. Surprise! I watched the first one and had to pick up my jaw from the floor when it ended. One of the Academy’s senior fencers seemed to lose the match without much care in the world. It was odd because I was looking forward to fencing him the most as he was left handed, technically my senior and we hadn’t yet crossed blades.

scoring sectors in fencing image

I fought my first final bout and won fairly easily.

The beginning of the final-final bout was me getting touched. I remember being thankful for that first touch because it clued me into how the Director and Jury were going to call subsequent actions. I landed the final three touches.

Somebody mentioned at that point that I had won the tournament.

Then Mr. Loum (where are you now, Dave?) had the points for style recalculated because it came down to he and I being within a tenth of a point of each other. It ended with him coming out in the lead with that tenth (Dave correct me please if I’ve misrepresented that – I’m going from a 6 year old memory of a 30 second event in my life).

So, what is not quite accurate?

To this day when you go to the Academy’s website and find the page dedicated to the results of that Tournament (http://www.martinez-destreza.com/competition/) you will read:

“It was apparent from the beginning that he came focused and determined to win,…”

I hope it is clear now, after my little anecdote, that I went with no determination and certainly no expectation of winning the Tournament. If anything I would have been more pleased with one of my students having fought in my place – because, as mentioned above, I wasn’t up for it anyway. Or better yet, to have lost and had the pleasure of somebody kicking my ass.

With that cleared up I’ll just end by saying that I am glad that I went and am grateful to the Martinez Academy for their generosity that day.

Observations

In many media and private conversations you can hear of the alleged conspiracy to remove Christianity from the world – or at least from the USA as we know it. In many places I have heard and read very concerned people of faith expressing the POV that if we don’t all act now it will spell the certain doom for their religion.

This idea is false beyond reason.

First – this concern stems from the healthy attribute of faith, as I understand the term. Namely, doubt. From your natural human doubt arises your faith in whatever you believe in. No doubt – no faith. It really is that simple. When we no longer doubt a thing we KNOW IT TO BE TRUE. In such cases as these there is no logical reason for faith. I do not have faith that I weigh 207 lbs. I know it to be true. I can observe it, quantify it. On the other hand, I have faith that my kids will grow up to be healthy, intelligent human beings. I have no proof that this will actually happen, but I sure hope it does.

All this goes to say that these very concerned people of faith are not dealing with their doubt in a healthy manner. Instead of appreciating it as the initiator of their faith, they resist it and use to hurt other people. There is no conspiracy to ruin your religion – your doubt is just responding to different circumstances. As they arise you start ot feel your doubt and look around for external causes for that feeling. DON’T. Accept it for what it is.

Second – Christianity is ubiquitous. Really, its everywhere. Want proof? Go someplace. Seriously, you can’t appreciate this observable fact until you see it from a religious minority’s point of view. Everything from the calendar to Walgreens reflects the very fact that this is a culture centered on Christianity. At times it can feel oppressive, like trying to get something done on Easter. At other times it can be mindboggling.

Last night we ended up walking around a local Borders. It was shocking at how much it resembled a nondenominational Christian bookstore. God was everywhere! Books with God, Jesus, Christmas, the Roman Catholic Pope on covers were placed in prominent locations. The no-attempt-to-be-subliminal attempt to market the new Narnia movie as the next best thing to Gibson’s Passions movie was overwhelming. Back in the children’s section there is a section for religion. Then there is the section for Christianity. I can’t kid you about this because my wife pointed it out to me in the first place. All of the World’s religions – according to Borders there are 3, Buddhism, Judaism and ‘Kwanzaa’ – fit in no more than a palms width next to shelves of Christian material. I can only imagine that these concerned Christian polemicists are threatened by the 5 books on other religions. Obviously their presence weakens your hold on our culture.

Believe it – no, KNOW it people – you are the winners! Your religion has successfully penetrated absolutely everything. I suspect that what we find above is in effect here. But also, you must become careful and realize that Christianity is now a marketable commodity grasped for by the largest corporations. In the end you will face branding and labeling unlike anything any religion has heretofore suffered.

St Phillips church image

Or, look at it another way. Early Christians threw themselves into the full horror of persecution: young women choosing execution over sex, defenders of the faith accepting martyrdom rather than betray their god – and you people of today can’t handle a little diversity. For cripes sake – Jews reverse-circumcised themselves to walk around naked with Romans! Give that a try! Your religious ancestors are shaking fingers at you and demanding that you develop half the backbone they had. Times have been much harder. This is not a life or death century for Christians. Relax.

Finally – the real enemy of Christianity will now be revealed to you. If it comes as a surprise let me prelude this revelation by the fact that you can relax and take confidence that Buddhists and Muslims and Jews are not your enemy. In fact, Atheists may probably be your greatest ally in this affair.

Christianity must wake up and recognize that the transformation of Christendom to Christendumb is the real enemy.

When I was a kid my Grandfather – today is his birthday and he has passed away so I am honoring him in my own fashion – a Baptist Pastor told me a story as we drove around his community.

“In the early seventies,” he told me, “our church membership dropped by almost over 50%.”

“That must have been terrible.” I replied. Now concerned for the past I tried to think of all the negative effects a mass migration like that would produce on a large church: fewer people to staff and stock food pantries, smaller youth groups, tighter restrictions on services to shut-ins, cutting back of funds sent to support missions and their missionaries, less money to reach out to other local charities and funds, the constraints of maintaining the hulking mass of the material church constructed to support its previous inhabitants. The list seemed to go on forever.

“No – it was the best thing that ever happened.” he said, shocking me as the trees whizzed past. “You see, in those days, most people went to church because they had to. There was a social obligation to go to church, to be a Christian. Society was just getting out of this very restrictive environment and many people started to live the life they wanted to and to stop doing the things that they did just because society told them to. When that happened the people sitting in the pews out in front of me every Sunday were those who wanted to be there and who would always be there no matter what changed. That is why it was a good thing to have happened.”

Whoa.

Now we are beginning to see our society reverting – in part – to this old kind of obligatory religion. Politics and policy, the people we vote for or against, schools, friends and families – they are all feeling again the crunch. The new RC Pope is no friend of Buddhism because he sees it as a threat – not to Christianity – but to the number of Christians. Kind of the reverse of my grandfather.

So the real threat is internal. In your Church, neighborhood, Dioceses, Presbytry – there are people trying to make Christianity different – trying to make it in their own image. These people are Dumbing down your religion. The mega churches that make it fun and more a way of life than a lay person could ever have hoped for before – these are your enemies. Watering down the principals, removing obstacles and challenges and always making sure that it feels good.

Christendumb is taking over and unless you take back your own religion you’ll wake up one day not knowing what happened. Demand more basic education about your faith and denomination. Understand the history and the core concepts that make it worthwhile. Don’t be a Methodist just because your Mom was one – find out why she was and what it means for you. Do you know the difference between a Methodist and an Episcopalian? Find out!

Pastors, Priests and Bishops of all denominations: implement immediate educational reforms in your churches to ensure that your people comprehend your religion. Accept the responsibility of failed and anachronistic initiation ceremonies. Take a more direct and personal role in this process. Stop with the sensationalism and polemics – cancel the class on Revelation and Deuteronomy and start one OF the Gospels and the Epistles. Teach courses in the history and development of your denomination.

Sometimes people insist on change outside their own system for fear of accepting the changes within. No more barking for prayer in public schools or scripture sculptures – clean your own house! Stop the spread of Christendumb now before it’s too late. And in the mean time, refraining from the lies that you are a persecuted religion will go a long way in dialogue with other groups of people.

(NB: my Grandfather also made a stand against the beginning of the Fundamentalist movement in the Baptist Church before most of us knew what that was – if we were even born. His concept of faith by reason – even though I don’t share it – should be adopted by many today who seek the security and perpetuity of their religion.)

What the Ronin Want

You’ve been fencing just about x years. You’ve seen it all, from hardcore national level sport fencing to truly wacky Gladiator Cop SCA types. You’ve trained, you’ve taught, you’ve plotted and planned, you’ve traveled and mingled, you’ve written, read and reread.

  • What next?
  • How will you keep it all fresh?
  • How will you keep from trading it all in for something new?
  • What is your criteria?

Sometimes we used to think about the intended goals of fencing. Some of that thinking gets put into simple phrases like:

— give them whoppin’s like they’re all your sons —

or

— be a walking encyclopaedia of fencing ability —

Sometimes these two ideas meet and cooperate, sometimes they don’t.

But you know what? When you can assess a fencer in about 30 seconds and you are already looking around for somebody else to fight, it’s difficult to stay on track to give him the proper whoppin.

So you know what happens next? You start looking for that person to give you the whoppin of a lifetime. How does that look? There was a movie some years ago called Our Man Flintour man flint movie image, a great spoof of the Bond genre, and in that movie Flint discovers that a poisoned dart intended to kill a VIP had trace amounts of what he deduces are ingredients to bouillabaisse – and no ordinary bouillabaisse, but only that originating in Marseilles. Only there do they use that proportion of garlic to saffron!!! So wasting little time Flint flies in his personal jet (which he pilots himself) to France where he begins sampling the best bouillabaisse they can muster. This is where it gets classy – and bear with me if I take too many liberties with the exact chronology of fictional events here – in the first restaurant Flint sits down, orders, bowl is brought, he smells the aroma, and with spoon tastes what must be pure delight. Puts spoon down, dabs corner of mouth with napkin, thanks the waiter and walks out.

Pimpin? Wait for it…

Next restaurant same procedure only he barely sits down and waits for the bowl when its brought – cuz he can smell it and senses that its not the right one, stands up immediately and walks out.

Pimpin!

Now that’s you on the piste looking for that whoppin of a lifetime. Only the guy in front of you hasn’t got the ingredients in the right proportions. And you can tell this almost as soon as you _smell_ him.

So what do we want – keeping in mind one day that we may actually get that whoppin?

  1. regular days and times agreed upon when everyone will do their best not to schedule anything else in their lives.
  1. a constant location
  1. training partners dedicated to keeping training difficult, never accepting the easy way, always discovering new ways to challenge themselves.
  1. being open to students once in a while to keep things fresh and to maintain contact with the larger community.
  1. to remain true to the fundamental truths of the art and science.

This is a daily prescription. What do we do when en piste with others? Do we exert our abilities and look for defeat in their eyes? No, we take that in stride as we continue to look patiently for those that can actually give us the whoppin we deserve.

And that may be the final word between what a person of the sword wants as may be compared to the sport fencer. My experience is that in the sport of fencing you want to win and that forms the basic struggle. And with such uncertainty built into the current iteration of the sport that can actually be up for grabs. But outside of the sporting environment things take on a different colour. I agree with Christoph Amberger’s recent essay about conflict and fencing so I admit that this is all academic and to some degree artificial (even if in unison we all hail, “As tho they be sharp!” three times). Our training is such that we know what may happen – knowledge provides a degree of certainty. We can measure the opponent objectively based upon powerful criteria: velocity, distance, geometry of lines intended and actual, control, etc. Sometimes you get the urge to prove something to the fencer who simply doesn’t measure up to these criteria, but that’s just to satisfy the ego momentarily, because we ALREADY KNOW WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. Science is funny that way.

So we wander occasionally from the cooperative home environment of our training, we wander as we like, where we like, outside the parental scope of a master.

We go wandering for what we want.

Ronin – Revisit

It just occurred to me – thanks to an email just arrived – that I did a poor job explaining what happened between Nick Evangelista and the CFS. At first I was relieved, because I didn’t want to break into personal attacks and unwarranted accusations. Apart from what actually happened – the termination of a teacher relationship with about 50 students – we have no information. Nick simply didn’t explain himself to anybody. When Nick writes things like “I really do not wish to be associated with your group in any fashion” and “You do not teach or advocate anything I would I want to have my name attached to — even remotely” we have no idea why. He has not explained why he wishes no contact, he has not described nor identified what it is about our teaching that he doesn’t want his name attached to.

But you know what the irony is? He was the fencing teacher!!

From early 1999 to about 2002 or 2003 Nick Evangelista was the principle fencing teacher of the CFS.

Is it his fencing he has problems with?

Has he changed some of his ideas?

Or is this a personal attack on loyal students?

I suppose one has to respect the audacity to alienate oneself from over 50 students and friends – at least as potential buyers of your goods and services.

I apologize, therefore, for not having a clearer picture to present to you, dear readers. I can only speculate and driving down that avenue we arrive at unpleasant destinations.

For the record there is one link to Nick left on the Kabal Fencing website – listed with the other CF groups that I know or have worked with. I will respect Nick’s wishes and remove him from my list of Classical Fencing Teachers. After all, I don’t really know what he’s been teaching lately. I may not wish to associate with it.

Yours in confusion, etc. etc.

Ronin – On

Segue :: my reasons for chronicling (however poorly) the beginning of my fencing life was to illustrate that there has never been a “perfect” place to study around here. The fact is, if you want it bad enough, you do it yourself. I am checking many emotions at this minute regarding other local groups – it’s that kind of environment here in STL. Everybody thinks they’re the shit. Sport fencers deride traditional fencers, traditional fencers laugh at sport fencers, would-be ‘classical’ fencers hate everybody. Then there’s us right in the middle trying to figure out how Adam got on top of Fuji.

I wobbled deciding how much to reveal about Baited Blade, too. In the end I think it’s too much, but credit where its due, man. I haven’t done anything for fame or glory, but don’t take credit for what I have done. ::Don’t you recognize the P when you see it?:: But that’s the problem for many folk, too busy to really _see_ you. It’s easier to let the oh-too-sensitive-alarms go off and stereotype you out of the conversation. So I am happy for BB and JOS and everybody in the world who wants to realize their fantasies. Be want you want, when you want to whom you like. I bow to the perfection in you 😉

On with the story :: fast forwarding a few years we have a strong CFS pushing all kinds of boundaries. First fencing program to succeed in the city limits, taking other people’s students and retraining them our way and keeping them, generating revenue like gangbusters. What could go wrong? Oops…damn email. Got involved with a group of people online who think talking about fencing is the same thing as actually fencing?! Made a few enemies, learned less about the growing classical fencing community than how to repeatedly put same foot in same mouth more than two hundred times in one email-post. There was only one thing to do – go fence them. And I did, accompanied by a small posse. I have already talked enough about my experience at the Martinez Open Foil tournament in 1999 elsewhere, but we learned a few things we hadn’t expected to. Most importantly, people take this ‘master’ shit seriously. Even when they don’t personally get any instruction from the ‘master’. NB: I’m using quote around the word ‘master’ not because I disrespect fencing masters (there are actually a few of them I like) but because as I write this now the images popping into my head are from Doctor Who – and we all know who called himself ‘master’ in that show…

When we returned from NY I set about investigating an old lead received from one of my students back in the MAC (mac mac) days on Nick Evangelista. He was all over the internet having just published some books (Art and Science, Encyclopaedia of the Sword, but some of my faves were the non-fencing books he and his wife Anita did on living on the farm). At first I was surprised to get so many negative results on him. The internet overwhelmingly did not approve of Nick. I wasn’t sure why – I hadn’t read his books yet. I contacted him by email about convening a workshop here in STL. We agreed on the details and it worked very well. Afterwards, as we discussed things at dinner, I asked Nick about my fencing students and he said they looked great. I wanted more than this so we started talking about holding regular workshops – to give us all more time together and to develop a better sense of the fencing between us. We quickly developed a groove for monthly workshops where fencers experienced both group and individual lessons with Nick.

Fencing School Leiden 1610 image

digression :: I am calling him Nick here for two important reasons. the first and singularly important reason is that Nick _NEVER_ wanted _ANYBODY_ to call him ‘master’. Got that? The second reason is that our families got very close – I thought – and were all great friends. They stayed at our house over the weekend for workshops, we stayed at theirs for Christmas – it’s a friendship thing.

Almost immediately somebody from CFS realised that if we had a regular ongoing relationship with a professional fencing teacher then we were a Salle d’Armes – not just a club. We were proving by example what dedicated students of the sword did by investing in as much to study and learning as the ‘snotty nose’ does to chrome. Why was this important? It kind of leveled the playing field with other groups of fencers who had their own fencing ‘master’ (many of whom have the same beard as Roger Delgado!).

So let me briefly summarize:

  1. professional fencing teacher (master) with respectable credentials and lineage
  2. regular instruction and contact (which was making money, too)
  3. increasing positive visibility for both CFS and Nick

I approached Nick at the end of another successful weekend and basically told him it was his – tho whole kit an’ caboodle. The CFS was under his direct authority and all matters of fencing would be his to govern. In return he would continue to provide monthly instructional workshops and be our fencing ‘master’. He accepted.

And that’s when things changed.

It was like really bad luck at the table after a killing at Blackjack – and you loose everything. I’m going to take this in chunks – or chunk – because I don’t want this misconstrued as an attack on Nick. Rather, as an explanation for why the CFS is no longer under the tutelage of a fencing ‘master’, who happened to be Nick.

First, attendance at workshops started dropping like flies. I berated the CFS and told them they had asked for this and they had better live up to it. The enthusiasm for the workshops was gone. Nick even stopped wearing fencing clothes at one point. It was bad. They stopped being monthly and became more when we could ‘get up to STL’ workshops. One year Nick came for a whopping two workshops (that’s 2 lessons in one year).

I think some things may have changed for Nick personally after he moved into Springfield where he found more private students and formed a university group – curiously called the Fencing Society…

The final, surreal blow came via email during a slight center temps with Alexis and I. Understand that Alexis is very evangelical with his fencing and he does a good job at it and people respond to his good nature and charm. I think he is also becoming an excellent fencing instructor. Something he and I have always struggled with working in the university system is how to form years worth of training in a university co-ed in such a short period of time. Sometimes we are very lucky to get freshman into the CFS. And when we do that’s just 8 semesters – not nearly 4 whole years. We wanted to ensure that we were cramming as much into them in that time as possible, but we also wanted to provide for them after they’d gone and graduated as well. Alexis came up with a possible solution. Basically a fencing primer: hardcopy of drills, terminology and suggested lesson plans for continuing fencing after school and after CFS.

Nick blew a gasket. And an oil pan, and threw a rod.

I tried to mediate between them – extremely confused myself – but was very unsuccessful. Nick was clear that he disapproved of the primer and furthermore didn’t want his name associated with it. I could understand the name association on somebody else’s work more than I could the way in which he was responding to his two senior most students. It got worse. Much worse.

In the end our fencing relationship was terminated. We removed his name, as he requested, from all CFS materials and websites. Still without any reasonable explanation for why he was doing this I didn’t tell but my senior most training partners what had happened. The end of this story is sadder still because, despite trying, I have been unable to maintain even my friendship with Nick (my kids still ask when Nick and Anita are coming to visit again).

So that is the quick and dirty (internet) version of how this all came about. For consequences you’ll have to stay tuned for the next part:

Ronin – on the prowl

Think Horizontal

In the hopes of clearing the negativity of my fascism entry let us embark on the course for a cure. This is a thought exercise and I hope that you can take it with you a little everyday and think on it. Previously (March 17), in L. Britt’s article, we were introduced to his 14 observable fascist behaviours. If these 14 behaviours represent a common factor in 7 fascist regimes we can ask ourselves if they have a common denominator. I think they do.

Each behaviour depends entirely upon the concept of vertical organization, either as a pre-existing function (as in the nature of the State) or as relational cause (i.e., personal interaction). Vertical organization is literally up-and-down. Think classic hierarchy (or any -archy) in which there is a ruler (or system which rules) with the grandpoobah at the top, a variety of middle management and lords, and the vast ‘ordinary citizens’ or plebs at the bottom. At any interval along the ladder you can observe the relationship of ‘subject to’ another person. We can see vertical organization in fascism by the number of behaviours defined by words like:

control, nationalism, enemies, ruling, supremacy, elite, suppression, obsession

These are all vertical modifiers, i.e. words used to associate a vertical organization of people in a ‘ruling’ society. Somebody is always over you. You are kept under somebody else. In everyday terms the phrase “keeping up with the Jones'” actually means to keep them slightly under you (or at least to prevent them from superseding you = vertical relationship). Sexism is another obvious example of vertical organization as is racism. But what about the more subtle verticality of the State? Subtle in the way that we know it’s there, but we take it for granted that it needs to be there. The idea of vertical organization may seem natural and even good. After all, at times it’s apparent that somebody else just knows better, right? Somebody else deserves to govern.

I think not.

Vertical alignment is (a) not natural, and (b) leads to violence – on the personal and national level. We know now better than ever that this is true. What appears to be vertical organization in nature is actually cyclical and a cycle is flat. Think of the ouroboros – a symbol of undifferentiated unity. A cycle is like that. In Buddhism we talk about sameness and undifferentiated as egoless states. A cycle is flat, therefore, because in undifferentiated sameness nothing and no one can be subjected to another. It is the opposite of vertical in which everything is subjected to something. Nature is not organized vertically.

early settlers 1866 image

Early human settlements give us examples of societies with ‘degrees of flatness’ which also dispute vertical organization as a natural way of being. Alternative business models are running away from the traditional hierarchical model proving that the corporate world can not only function with greater ‘degrees of flatness’ but also thrive.

The thought experiment is to examine aspects of your life in which you find vertical organization. You can do this by sitting down when a few minutes of time is yours or try to do it actively – on the fly – when it happens and where. Try to understand the vertical nature of your experience. Next, try to come to an understanding as to why that particular structure is vertical: could be tradition, could be lack of known alternatives. Finally, decide for yourself if the vertical organization is necessary.

Don’t be shy. You may be surprised at just how much of your life is vertical and alienated when you realize that most of it doesn’t need to be. The Steam Punk fashion for example is thought of as weird, but is quiet the opposite, being old style and ornate. That is the flatness thoughts of the majority of us that need to change, to be accepting of all others, cultures, religions and even fashion.

Degrees of flatness above has been shorthand or foreshadowing for the natural alternative to vertical organization. I hope to explore this idea more completely as it has helped me understand how aspects of my life which had before seemed so dissimilar are in fact completely compatible. The problem was that they did not fit vertically – they fit horizontally.

My own thought experiment has lead to my current musings on

Marriage: Prototype for Anarchy through Horizontal Organization

Train Harder

The topic of teaching and Classical Fencing has been floating around, coincidentally in several places. As a fencer who has been “teaching” for 10 years now I have a few thoughts about this topic. Disclaimer first: I have been fencing for well over half my life and I’m not yet 31 years old. Because of an intrinsic, seemingly biological connection to fencing, I often find it difficult to remain calm and dispassionate when talking about fencing. I truly do not know why. And yet there it is. So as I continue to talk/write about fencing here please keep in mind that – while the words may not adequately reflect it – I am trying very hard to be at once, lucid and nice.

In the very tiny world in which I began fencing there were no teachers, masters nor instructors. There were guys who either volunteered or who were volunteered to show the new people what to do – and they had about 8 weeks (about 8 hours) to do it. Some were better than others. Some only louder.

As I continued to survive despite inadequate fencing nutrition it dawned on me that if I ever wanted to get better – if I ever truly wanted to understand what it was I was trying to do I was going to have to find other fencers who were after the same type of training and better yet – a place where they were actually doing what – in my mind – must be the best fencing environment.

I traveled everywhere I could in the region seeking – and find it I did not. Actually what I found was very depressing. You ever look at people listening to country music like they’re having a great time and wonder why? That’s how I felt. I saw hundreds of fencers all having a swell time but I couldn’t figure out why.

I couldn’t locate them, so I decided to train them.

Since I was not an instructor and since I had nothing but my experience and motivation to improve I formed my training upon ridiculously simple principles of movement, body and blade. Examining the greatest effect produced by the smallest effort. Form and Function (thank god for art history).

I found myself at a place where I had to teach – everybody had just signed up and knew nothing! I couldn’t fence them! What sense would that have made? I couldn’t ethically recommend that they go someplace else – when there was nowhere else I felt right to send them. So once again basic principles guided us all through a process at the end of which I discovered that it was possible to teach another person how to fence. Not only that, but you could get reasonably decent results.

fencing tournament image

 

Then the internet opened up the larger world of fencing to us all and we took notice: other people were not only out there doing what we were doing, but they had been at it for a longer time!

From two directions I take my stand to elevate the role of the fencer, not the fencing master/teacher:

  1. The shear poverty of quality fencing out there. it’s easy for people to ruminate about the sad state our fencing world will be in after the current masters depart this mortal coil – but please – look around – the fencing isn’t that great right now while they’re here! logic dictates that there must be something each of us can do – beyond a personal devotion to trying better ourselves – to improve the quality of the fencing.
  1. The cult of the master, while correctly admiring knowledge and seeking it out, is lopsided – or perhaps, top heavy. the world is a larger place and a handful of masters cannot have the same impact on fencing as they once did. even those trying their best by traveling to organised workshops and seminars end up failing – attendance is too high and anything more than a skim of the material often leaves the attendee in no better position than before.

 

There is a responsibility with skill and experience – to put it to a greater use. Fence and continue to fence, but take time every week to help somebody else to fence. Don’t wait by the deathbed waiting for permission and don’t hock the family farm to pursue a degree. If you don’t have the skills, work on them. Train harder.

Train Harder. Train Harder. Train Harder.

And then start helping others. You may find one day that you need help. Look for it.

And for all the carping out there – knock it off. Spend more time TRAINING HARDER. The CFS has no pretention about having a fencing master, nor do we relish in our liberty from one. Thats just how it is. It’s doesn’t keep us from training as hard as we can as often as we can. I have no pretention about being a fencing teacher – I just happen to have to do that job once in a while because people keep asking me to (and I like to be called Provost – its nothing fancy – it just means I’m the dork in charge of the stuff nobody else wants to be in charge of!). Heck, we don’t even advertise anymore. No shingles being put out over here. Most of the CFS knows that I have an unwritten policy to ignore the first 3 requests from a person looking for classes. You want to confuse that with trying to be something I’m not then go for it.

So, you may say, Dave, I can point to places and times when you’ve ridiculed others for doing exactly what you’ve told them to do up there! You would be right. But that’s only because, in my humble opinion, those fencers couldn’t fence their way out of a paper bag let alone teach somebody else. This is where it gets tricky: have the skill and the motivation (and the mental disorder) to teach – then do it; if not, don’t! Keep training until you have the skills and then reconsider the idea of teaching. Ask yourself why you want to teach. If you find yourself in Inner Dolpo then yeah, yer probably going to have to train a local how to fence to keep your practice up. If you’re looking to be the next alpha male in the group then piss off. Sure, I got problems with other guys trying to teach and at first they look a lot like me in terms of what they’re trying to do. But then, why do their students end up coming to me for instruction? Why do their students consistently under perform? Why have they not yet themselves attained a new level of comprehension?

Standards – eh, they already exist. You know good fencing when you see it, when you fence it. Standards for teaching – you can tell by the fencing. Now this advice won’t serve for anybody trying to start a legacy or a new cult, but then again most fencing advice doesn’t.

Just a Thought

I have been thinking.

There is so much going on today with fencing. Things that were not happening ten, twenty years ago. Some of these things I have kept up with – most I have not and much less than a clue as to what they may even be. The situation may even appear severe: new groups of fencers bloom locally and I don’t find out till a year or so later.

Also, it seems that everybody needs to own or belong to an organisation. New workshop groups, new “schools” and clubs, new instructors of virgin births every week. Crazy.

I also like it when I read a bio on one of these miraculously birthed fencing instructors that they have been fencing “for about 20 years” or (this is my favourite) “on and off for 20 years”.

When all along I know exactly what that means: “I started fencing around college time and got bored after 3 years and then I went to a club one night for a week and then I met some guys that actually taught me how to fence but I got an ego trip and left them so I could start my own fencing empire.”

I also like it when people list fifty names of popular fencing masters/instructors and say “I have trained with all of these great teachers and they love me.”

Translation: “I read their book/attended a 3 hour workshop given by this person I never met before and they couldn’t pick me out of a crowd if their lives depended upon it.”

I REALLY like it when people go to great lengths to make a great website that really makes them look like the shit – only when you choose the “gallery” button it takes you to a page of photographs intended to represent their amazing fencing abilities and it comes off like a bit of rotten lemon peel floating down the Mississippi.

I’ve been hard to handle in the past. I will admit to being a downright asshole at times and probably deserve much of the ill favoured feelings directed at me from the great horde out there, but of one thing I’m sure: I never pretend to be something I’m not.

pariser image

I have plans to make changes – to my own fencing and in particular the Kabal Fencing website. But I’m in no hurry. I can start to laugh about some of this stuff, which is good. Though it may be that I enjoy fencing less than I used to.

Remember? back in the Day when you could just go fence? When people just wanted to fence?

Now everybody is an expert – everybody has to put their shingle out.

Well, I’m pullin’ all shingles in.