Friday, December 19, 2008

The point

Le point c'est tout.

The point is everything.

Fencing often presents the student with conundrums, and with paradoxes.

Things are not always what they seem.
This is true because what they SEEM is always colored by the perceptions, the conceptions, and the limitations of the person who is doing the seeing.

If one hopes to see the truth, one must remove the "self" from the equation. Remove the biases, the misperceptions, the slants, remove the emotions that cloud vision or that focus everything in an unbalanced way.

I've known this for a while now.
Learning to control emotions, not to allow them to get in the way of perception, is one of the most valuable things about the sword, most easily harnessed in everyday life to great benefit.

But it wasn't until yesterday that I truly grasped the other part of this, the physical part.

In order to see truth, and to act in truth, one must remove the PHYSICAL self, as well.

But this is clearly not possible. The physical self is, well... physical, right? Solid. How can you BE, if you have no physical self?

A lovely paradox.

I have long enjoyed that in fencing, there are a large number of pairs of things that must be balanced. I have often told students that one of the most challenging things is not so much what you must do, what must move, but what you must NOT do, what must NOT move.

Or, if you wish, yang/yin.

These are what fencing really is, the balance between these things, in each moment, in each muscle, each thought, each movement, each intent.

But how do you know which to do, to be, at any given moment? And how do you move between them?

The simplest answer is that you do so by feel.

But how do you know WHAT you should feel?

This is what came up in my lesson yesterday, that the concept, the understanding, can only come AFTER the physical ability exists. You must be able to do something, to feel something, before you can understand it. You train the mind by training the body FIRST, not the other way around. This is counter to almost all education- because almost all education is cognitive based, not psycho-motor based.

But let's back up a bit, to how I got there, and why it was yesterday that I reached a point I had not felt before.

There have been changes in my understanding of fencing, for all the years that I've been doing this. Some things come quickly, others not so much, and still others change as I change.

Recently, I've been considering the difference between the point PULLING the rest of the body into a lunge, and the feeling of PUSHING the point with the thrust, much like a punch. The interesting part is that almost everyone, almost all the time, equates intent with force, equates intense focus with tension, and these things are not necessarily connected in the way that most people connect them.

In fact, with the sword, it is important that these connections are NOT assumed.
It is not about forcing things to happen, it is about allowing them to happen.

Again, I've known this for a long time. But as words, as thoughts. As mental constructs.

Yesterday, I realized, incorporated, something important.

It is that while fencing, I exist only in two "places."
The point.
And my center.

The point pulls me to action.
My center provides the energy for that action.

The less anything else is consciously involved, the better.

In other words:
I do not move the sword with my hand, but with my center.
EVERYTHING I do originates there.

It is not I, not my body, nor the sword, that moves towards the target, it is the point.

The point is everything, moved by the energy of my center.

And when that happens, when it really is that way, in perfect focus, perfect relaxation, in the moment, the point pulls me into the lunge, of its own accord.

I do not lunge.
The lunge, lunges me.

It is as if time and space open, and create the possibility, and therefore, the inevitability, of the lunge, and the lunge creates itself to fill that opening.

Like lightning. The path for the lightning comes into existence, and the lightning fills it.

Between my center and the point... is the space in which I simultaneously do and do not exist.

That is how the physical self is removed from the action.

It is difficult to put this all into words that anyone else might understand at all.

That's okay.
I need to understand it, and I do. At least a little, and at least from the perspective I have right now.

All I ask of anyone reading this is to understand that there is more to fencing than meets the eye, literally and figuratively. And that it is this, the tangible intangible, that I find so compelling.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Evaluation time

It's the end of the college semester. That means evaluation time.

We always read the evaluation forms. Most of the comments are fairly similar, but sometimes, there are a few that stand out. I thought I'd share a few.

We see a wide range, from the ones who find something they didn't even know they were looking for, to the few who really don't get it at all. From those who appreciate the structure and discipline, to those who really just wanted to grab a sword and have at it.

Sometimes, the interesting part is the pairs of comments we get from the same class.

Like these:

Student #1: "I would not recommend it because it isn't much exercise."
Student #2: "I expected to have sore legs and arms and my butt too. Oh yeah, they were definitely met."

Student #1: "No, fencing is not as physical as I thought it would be. You don't even get a sweat."
Student #2: "I would recommend it based on the physical demands (good exercise)."

So what is up with that? Remember, these are two students from the exact same class, same semester.

You might assume that the first student is in better shape than the second student, that what is easy for one, is difficult for the other.
You would be wrong.

We can easily predict which students, if any, will make a comment about the class not being physically demanding enough, not being a good workout.

It's simple.
It's the ones who don't DO the workout. The ones who show up late, phone it in, and/or stumble through the moves without any actual effort or attention. The students who, at the end of the semester, look about the same as they did on the first day.

Contrast that with those who are putting in physical and mental effort, who are trying to gain some level of skill, who pay attention to details as best they can, and really try to get it right. They never complain about it not being difficult enough.

Likewise, we often have pairs where one person says there is too much discussion, and another says that's the best part. Pairs where one says the class moved too slowly, and another who says it should slow down. I don't believe we have ever had a class where we got only one comment from the usual pairs.

Some of the more fun comments, mostly from the newly converted, highly enthusiastic students:

"Yes, it is amazing, take it now."
"You would be a crazy fool not to take this course!"
"It is a class out of the ordinary."
"I learned so much and built strength both in a new physical field and mentally."
"Where else could you unleash your desire to be a chivalrous knight without seeming immature?"
"Not something you're likely to find anywhere else."
"Yes, because the instructor is insane, but it's a good insane."
"Make it once a day, not once a week, dammit! It hurts to wait for this class!"

My all-time favorite comment: "Workout with happiness!"

And some of the puzzling comments:

"I would suggest introducing the actual olympic game of fencing and allowing students to duel one another."

Wow. What class did they think they were in?!?
1. This isn't olympic fencing. Period.
2. Allowing students to get killed would be frowned on, I believe.

"It focuses more on technique than I expected."

Hmm. So what DID you expect it to focus on?

"I would recommend it, but only if they really wanted to learn to fence."

And you needed to point this out why, exactly?

In the recommendations for improvement section:
"A little less fencing instruction."

And what should we do instead? Go bowling?

"Be less concerned about safety."


From the rapier class:
"Lighter swords."

Uh... sorry. If you want to work with lighter swords, don't take the class with the heavy ones. It's that simple. If you want to learn to use a rapier, you pretty much have to use... a rapier. Who knew?

These are a few of the comments from the past couple of years. Stay tuned next semester. I'm sure there will be more.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Mother Letter Project

It's not often that I come across something that I'm impressed with enough that I want to immediately share it with everyone I know, but this has done it.

The Mother Letter Project.

It was started by a guy who is compiling these letters as a gift for his wife, as part of an effort to put more meaning into Christmas by spending more on relationships, and less on material gifts.

That, in and of itself, is worthwhile. And a creative way to do it, I might add.

But he's also offering to send the compilation to everyone who participates.

A "Mother Letter" is a letter from a mother, to a mother, about whatever motherly thoughts or advice or concerns that the writer wants to express. In a culture where we often lack that mother-to-mother support, the possibility of this compilation becoming something truly valuable is quite high, I believe.

Maybe this touches me so because I can't ask my own mother for advice, can't share with her any concerns I have, and since she died, it is that conversation that I have missed the most.

Anyway. Go check out their blog. Write a letter.

And click on the "Are you a conspirator?" link.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

That's what she said...

Had a call the other day where there were multiple lacerations, and a lot of blood.
Scrubbed the entire rescue with bleach, a lot of blood, I mean.
Blood is like smoke- it gets everywhere. Places you didn't even know existed until you see that red ooze coming out from under them.

A few days later, back at the station after another call, one of the firefighters asked if anyone had been at the call "where the guy cut his finger."

I had to laugh.
Not at any of the people involved, mind you, but at the discrepancy between how he had interpreted what dispatch said, what dispatch actually said, and what actually happened.

Some of you reading this are likely familiar with how often what dispatch says is happening, and what is actually happening, are two different things. Sometimes, it's because of a misunderstanding. Sometimes, it's the similarity of road or street names that are confusing. Sometimes, the caller doesn't KNOW what is going on, or where they are. And sometimes, the situation has changed by the time you get there.

In the limited time I've been doing this, I've learned to keep an open mind. "Elderly female, fell from standing" might mean that there's no real problem, she just needs help getting back up- or it might mean a cardiac event. "One car MVA, unknown injuries" might mean someone slid into the ditch and is uninjured, or it might mean calling the helicopter- or it might be a car that has been sitting off the road for a week, and someone driving by called it in but "couldn't stop." "Abdominal pain" could be a big lunch, or appendicitis, or trauma that the patient didn't want to tell anyone about. An "alarm activation" might be just that, burned toast... or a working structure fire.

My point here... if I have one... is that everything is like that. Whatever you hear, you don't really know what is going on until/unless you are there. And sometimes, not even then. Whether it's an emergency call, or office gossip, or anything in between. People see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and jump to conclusions. All the time. It's not a vindictive thing, necessarily. It's a human thing.

The human brain excels at making connections.
Sometimes, it makes the wrong ones.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Getting older

Somehow, I've gotten old.

Although my kids constantly tell me I'm ancient, it didn't really hit me until a couple of days ago.

I didn't have a particularly difficult day, wasn't pulling out gray hair (I like gray hair!), didn't have a geritol moment.

What happened?

My little sister turned 40.

Somehow, that made me a whole lot older than my turning 50 will.
Go figure.

During that day, I saw or heard numerous references to aging, and nearly all of them were negative.

One was a suggestion that a man would no longer be interested in a woman as she got older. And vice versa.
There were several ads portraying elderly people as sick or with limited mobility. Or with dementia. As if these things are inevitable.
A lament about losing hair.
And on and on.

Here's the thing.

If you don't die young, you get old.

Why does this culture have such an anti-age bias?
Whatever happened to cultures who honor their elders, and appreciate the years of experience, and perhaps wisdom, accumulated by those people?

I sure as hell know more now than I did when I was in my twenties.
I'm a better person, too. More committed, more focused. More able to navigate interpersonal difficulties. Kinder. More patient. Better able to discern what is important from what is not.

But yes, I have some gray hair, some aches and pains, and I am reaching the point of being all too aware of my mortality.

One of the interesting things about being an EMT is that I meet a lot of older people. They are often the ones who call for medical assistance, partly because they have more medical issues, but also, often, because they have no one to drive them to the hospital.

So far, in this little town, all of those people have been wonderful folks. I wish I could meet them in a less stressful way, and spend time talking- or mostly, spend time listening. Some of them have lived here forever, I think, and have a wide variety of interesting stories.

This is a largely unappreciated resource.

I'm certain that they have no idea how positively they have affected me, giving me living proof that contrary to popular belief, cultural bias, and common fears, "old age" just might be an okay place to get to some day.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I've been thinking again.

About choices.
About decisions.
About mistakes.

We live in a culture that doesn't like mistakes. Most of the time, they are either ignored completely (no, really, it's fine), denied, (who, me?)(it was like that when I got here) or they are seen as a terrible thing (failure! idiot!).

None of these views is particularly useful.

It's not that I think mistakes, in and of themselves, are good. If they were, they wouldn't be mistakes, right? But they certainly are useful.

My kids are becoming adults. Not the easiest transition in the world, if I recall correctly. The thing is, when you are a child, your parents fix your mistakes. When you are an adult... nobody fixes them.


When my kids were little, they were, shall we say... stubborn. Hardheaded. Annoying. And they had very strong opinions about things. A whole lot like their parents, in other words. :-)

I used to tell people that I want my kids to grow into adults who can stand up for what is right, who can resist peer pressure, who can make good choices and good decisions. The trouble is, in order for them to be able to do that, they have to LEARN to do that, which means they need to practice it from an early age. And having children who stand up for what they believe, instead of always caving to pressure, from YOU, can be a pain in the butt.

In other words, in order to have strong adults, you must allow them to be strong children. In order for them to make good decisions as adults, they must be allowed to make decisions as a child.

It's a whole lot easier to learn to make good decisions by making bad SMALL decisions, than by making bad BIG decisions. Easier on them and easier on me. So it's important to let them make choices, even if you wouldn't make the same one.

Piled those blocks too high and they fell over? Try again.
Picked something you didn't like for lunch? No big deal.
Didn't wear a warm enough jacket, and got cold? Add a layer next time.
Left food on the counter and the cat ate it? Put it away.
Left a toy on the floor, then stepped on it and hurt your foot? Owie.

Or even: said something that got your friend really mad at you, and now they don't want to be your friend? Learn how to treat people respectfully, and/or learn how to move on.

I'd much prefer those sorts of mistakes than not coming all the way to a stop at a stop sign and causing an "accident," or an unplanned pregnancy, or going out alone in the wrong part of town and getting mugged (or worse), or any number of more serious mistakes.

Little mistakes can usually be fixed, or avoided in the future.
Big mistakes can mess you up for life.

So my theory is this: fail early, and fail often. Let your mistakes guide you to making better choices, better decisions. Help those in your life to be better decision makers by allowing them to make errors when the results won't be dangerous and then help them learn how to deal with those mistakes.

It may be the biggest favor you ever do them, and yourself.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Let me ask you a question

I need to ask you something...
Why do you...?

It almost doesn't matter what the rest of the question is.

People in this culture (and maybe in others, but I'm not IN others, so I don't know) frequently do not like being asked questions, at all. For some reason, they tend to interpret questions as an attack.

I did not always know this.

I am a very curious person, as a rule, and often ask a lot of questions.
When I ask a question, I am most often looking for information.
The trouble is, people get very defensive, and I don't end up getting the information I was hoping for.
Amusingly, the very same people will often, later, say "You could have asked."

Clearly, there is an issue here.

I first became aware of the defensiveness when I had a partner who could not deal with questions at all. He responded to "Why did you...?" as if I had said "How on earth could you do such a stupid thing, you moron?" The problem was that I really wanted to know why he made the choice he made, so I could think about it, address the issue, and/or explain my side. Then, perhaps, with both of us having more information, we could make a better plan, or come to a better agreement. Instead he would just get pissed off, and accuse me of nagging him. He could not listen long enough to even find out whether I agreed with him, or not. "Why?" to him, ALWAYS meant I thought he was wrong.

I am absolutely sure I am not alone in this.
For a while, I thought it was men who interpreted questions from women as nagging, but that's not the entire story.

Sometimes, it's when someone is asked about something they don't really have an answer for.
Sometimes, it's being questioned about something for which they feel guilty.
Those situations, as annoying as they might be, at least make some sort of sense. People get defensive and evasive when they perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage, or somehow in the wrong.

But it isn't only that, either.

Take this example:

I once knew a student who could not deal with questions of any kind. She clammed up. Got upset. Got emotional. Couldn't answer. And it didn't matter what the question was about, at all. ANY question would do that. Even something as simple as "Did you eat breakfast this morning?"

She would overinterpret.
Why are you asking about breakfast? Are you saying I'm fat? Are you going to criticize what I ate? Is there some particular reason I was supposed to eat... or not eat...or...?
And then, she would overanalyze her answers.

She was, as people often are, trying to find the "right" answer. Trying desperately to give the answer she believed the asker to be trying to get. Not the TRUE answer mind you, but the RIGHT answer. There is a world of difference.

This difficulty with questions, I believe, comes from faults in the public education system. Lots of questions there, many of which don't matter, and most of which are used to "grade" someone, to decide their value, their importance, how popular they are. People are HIGHLY motivated to figure out what they are supposed to say, what they are supposed to think, what they are supposed to do. Again, it isn't about what is RIGHT to say, or think, or do, it isn't about what they actually think or believe, it's about trying to play this match game with the person in authority who is asking the questions.

This is a dangerous precedent to create for nearly all of our adult citizens.
People who grow up in an environment that is hostile to asking questions, and surrounded by questions they are supposed to already know the answers to and regurgitate on command, don't learn to really question things, and don't learn how to give AND SUPPORT their own answers rather than whatever has been fed to them.

Back to my experience with this student I knew.

When I was first learning to teach, one of the master's primary tools for teaching was questions. Lots of questions. Some leading questions, some not. Some genuine requests for information, some to see what I knew. Some- probably most- to get me to think, to evaluate, to understand, and then be able to explain my position well enough to teach it to another person, who would ALSO be able to understand and explain it.

Fortunately for me, I love questions.

Not so much, this other student.

I can recall many instances where, after much discussion and such, I would be asked a question. After I gave my answer, the master would ask "Are you sure?" or some variation thereof, like "Do you want to think about that further?"

Here is where my unusual education has been a great help to me.
I could answer the question. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes with more questions.

But what happened to this other student was instant paralysis. She invariably interpreted "Are you sure?" as MOST people with highly schooled backgrounds interpret it- the teacher's attempt to let you know that your answer was WRONG, and you need to change it. So change it, she would. And then, when asked to defend that answer... she had no idea what to do. She had backed herself into a corner. She behaved as if she felt guilty, when she had done nothing wrong, because the QUESTION ITSELF, but its very nature of being a question, made her ASSUME she must be guilty, of something.

It was... uncomfortable.

I remember being asked this many, many times. Sometimes, the answer was "yes, I'm sure." Sometimes, it was "...uh... no, not really," and that would lead to more discussion and clarification, which was the purpose of the question in the first place. And a few times, it was "yes, I'm absolutely sure," and upon further discussion, I would come across information that changed my perspective, and then, I would realize that I was BOTH absolutely sure, and WRONG.

Being sure, and being right, are not the same thing.
Being sure, and refusing to question, to constantly re-evaluate and clarify and think it through more, means that you might miss that bit of information that lets you find out that you were wrong, and you'll go on believing you were right. Not a good thing.

The other thing that becomes clear with being comfortable with being asked questions, is the distinction between fact and opinion. Some things are opinions, what I think. Some things are facts, what I know. And some things- this might be the largest category- are things I think I know.

Those things are always up for re-evaluation.

I'm big on "as far as I can tell with the information I have right now..." I have no problem with differentiating between what I really know, and what I think, and what I'm not even sure what I think about. If I'm asked a question I don't know the answer to, that's okay. If I'm asked a question that is critical of my position, that's okay, too. I can state my position, and defend it- and if I can't, then I need to get more information so that I can. That's not being wrong, it's simply not knowing. I know I don't know everything, so it doesn't embarrass me. I can say "I don't know." Or I'm not sure, or I hadn't thought about it, or I need more information, and be comfortable with that.

So let me ask you something...

Why are you afraid of questions?

Friday, November 7, 2008

obstacles, or, whatever it takes

Okay, I probably shouldn't post this.

It requires much explanation, which will not be forthcoming. :-)

My father would say "there is more than one way to skin a cat" but that's a horrible image.

Posted to honor the hard work and joi de vivre of those involved.

Sometimes, indeed, play's the thing.

My place in the world

I'm going to do something I haven't done much of... post some pictures.

I added sitemeter a while ago, so I could see if anyone is reading this. Didn't realize I would also find out how many different places people come from to get here.

Since I started keeping a list, there have been visitors from 62 distinct US cities, 29 different states, and 14 foreign countries. And these are only the ones that sitemeter can identify the location for- which isn't even half.

It's very interesting.
I wish I could go to all the places people come here from.
Sadly, I can't.

But I can show you a little of what it looks like here where I am. I happen to live, I think, in one of the most beautiful places there is.

These pictures were taken in early October, about a week before peak leaf color.

I walked outside after teaching a class on a Sunday afternoon, and after putting gear away in my car, I looked up and this is what I saw on a rare sunny day. This is taken from almost exactly in front of my parked car. A week or two later, that hillside would be even more colorful. In the winter, this part of the lake freezes over, and inevitably people walk out onto it. I've done so, years ago. The year I got my first camera for Christmas, we went to the lake, and I walked out on the ice and took a picture back towards the shore.

This was taken on my way home, from about two miles up the hill to the East. I usually drive a sightly different way home, coming over the hill a bit to the North of this, but I like the view coming this way. It's about a mile or two longer to get home, but worth it.

About a mile closer, coming down the hill. That part you can sort of see, between the hill I'm driving down, and the one on the other side, that altiplano area... that's the town I live in, in all its glory. And this is what the sky usually looks like.

Now, on the way home, a mile away, from the other direction. The previous picture was taken coming down the hill you can see in the distance, on a road almost directly across from this. Almost, but not quite- they are offset a few feet because a creek crosses the main road there, and there is a little bridge between the roads to the East and West.

Almost home! People who live here might be able to tell just how close. Or not- roads that look like this are very common. I kind of like the "artistic" blurriness in this one... I was driving, and took it through the windshield, the view I see.

One more.

This is one of my favorite little spots. It's on the way down the back side of the hill, and ends up at about the city limits, the end of the "miracle mile," heading into town. That would be the nearest city/town, not the town I actually live in. We don't have a miracle mile. We don't have a miracle FOOT. We don't have stores at all. No fast food, no gas station, no nothing.

I like it that way.

There's a guy who wants to change that soon, and put a gas station about a quarter mile from my house. As convenient as it might be in some ways, I hope he doesn't.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

ode to the net

Been thinking a lot lately.

Not writing much, sad to say.

A few nights ago, one of my sons and I went to an open play rehearsal for a work-in-progress. It was... interesting.

One of the characters in the play, a woman in her forties, had apparently never heard of the internet. A male character was trying to explain it to her, and at one point, in a flirtatious voice, she said "Tell me more about this little internet of yours..."

"This little internet" is an amazing thing.

I've been online almost as long as there has been an online. My life has been entirely changed because of people I met online, in ways I never could have predicted.

I thought I might write a little about some of the ways the internet has become an integral part of my life.

1. I have the most incredible source of information at my disposal, nearly instantly. Google has changed the world. And Google Maps makes it visible.

2. I know people in countries I've never visited, and can talk to them, realtime, for free.

3. Facebook. I never thought I would join facebook, never. But I did, and to my great surprise, it has delivered exactly what it claims to do- it has connected me to the people I know. And impressively, to people I used to know. I have reconnected with people I had not seen in thirty years. Old high school friends. And maybe, the one that amazes me most- I found a brother and sister from Iran, who I knew in Peru in 1977, and had not communicated with since then. Maybe the best thing about this is how low key it is- I can see a status message and have some idea of what is going on in people's lives, with no obligation on either side to keep writing back and forth.

4. Communication, communication, communication. Whether it's a note to a friend, or exchanging files for work, maintaining a website for my fire company, or keeping in touch with a group of women I've known online for a dozen years, homeschoolers all over the country. We talk politics and religion, exchange recipes, congratulate new grandmothers, discuss health issues and our kids. I read blogs written by other EMTs, by college professors, and by a number of friends and students or former students. I can post training schedules, and proofread publications. I can send notes to my kids, reply to posts on freecycle and let my students know when a class is canceled.

5. Tying up loose ends, and closing circles. I have been able to find some folks to whom I owe apologies, and apologize. In some cases, many years late, but at least I've been able to do so. Without the internet, I doubt I ever would have been able to do this.

6. The world is my marketplace. Ebay, the world's largest garage sale, where, among other things, I have been able to purchase swords I would never have been able to find locally because they do not exist here. Craigslist. Ticketmaster for tickets to just about anything, anywhere. The Fire Store. Anything I need, and can't find locally, I can find online. And I can pay for it through PayPal.

7. Fun stuff. iTunes. Youtube. xkcd! The potential for entertainment is unlimited.

8. This blog. :-)

Anyone reading this is already well aware of the internet- or you couldn't be here.

My point is that I've been appreciating how much this has become integrated into my life. College students were born after the internet; they have no idea how much life has changed.

But I do. It is nothing short of amazing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some guidelines

When my children were very young, I had a conversation with my mother that has stuck in my mind since then.

She told me that I should not be so attentive to my children or their needs. That it was all fine and good to try to treat them respectfully and kindly, to anticipate and meet their needs, and to be gentle with them, but that I should not do so as much as I did because the rest of the world would not treat them that way, and they would not be prepared for that.

I said "Mom, are you saying that I should abuse my children so that if, someday, someone else abuses them, they'll be used to it???"

I was highly offended. Shocked, even.

I've come to see that perhaps there was a grain of truth to what she was saying.
Not that I should abuse my children, of course.
But that people who grow up in a loving environment really AREN'T prepared for the harsh realities of the world, sometimes.

The question is how to teach your children- or yourself- how to survive in a world that is often cruel and discourteous, where lies are rewarded more than truth, and where "go along to get along" seems to be the most popular motto.

I don't have the answer to that.

I do have some suggestions for things I think people need to know. Not so much to get along in this world, but to be able to live with themselves, with integrity intact. These things seem to be learned most frequently through living through unpleasant circumstances. This, I think, is what my Mom was getting at- that it is through the hard times that we learn most.

I would not artificially create hard times in order to teach these things to my children, but it is sadly not generally necessary to do so. Difficulties are plenty to be found.

1. The concept of cause and effect: understanding consequences
The most natural thing for a parent to do is to "make everything okay." They don't want their children to suffer, whether it's physical pain, or mental anguish, or any other emotional trauma. So they fix things. They hold their crying child and tell them everything is okay, that it isn't their fault. They tell the child not to "feel bad."

This is, sometimes, a disservice. If a child does something wrong, they SHOULD feel bad. That is how they learn not to repeat it. This does not mean making them feel worse, or punishing them, or holding a grudge. It does not mean refusing to help them deal with the situation. It just means that children should be allowed to own their mistakes, and feel what they feel.

What happens if a parent always makes things better is you end up with fledgling adults who have no idea how to deal with the consequences of their actions. They expect- sometimes demand- that someone else fix the problem. An example I see frequently is college students who skip classes where the only requirement is attendance, and then expect to pass anyway. Who expect an exception to be made for them.

The reality is that sometimes, mistakes happen. And sometimes, they can't be fixed. You can't go back in time and "undo" things. You can only move forward, and accept the consequences.

This is much easier if someone has learned that ALL actions have consequences.

2. How to be responsible for your actions
This naturally follows from accepting that there are consequence to your actions.

I don't think I ever really understood the concept of personal responsibility until I became a mother. I still remember the very moment. When my oldest son was a few days old, the day we came home from the hospital, I remember looking at him and realizing that his very LIFE depended on MY actions or inactions. I was responsible not only for my own life, but for another person's.

This is a huge realization.

I started to pay a lot more attention to what I did. I now had to consider the effects of everything I did or didn't do, on this other person. This meant considering a lot of consequences, from simple things like what I would do with the baby while I took a shower, to how long I would let him cry. And as he grew up, there were many other things to consider, and there continue to be, even as he is becoming an adult. I am a role model, 24/7. Everything I do, everything I say, affects how my children experience the world, and it is part of what is the ongoing creation of them as individuals.

What I figured out later on is that this is true all the time, with everyone I come in contact with, not just with my children. True, a parent is SUPPOSED to be a role model for their children, so there is a level of expectation of responsibility. But every person affects everyone else, and that is ALSO a responsibility.

To be responsible, first you must be aware.

Pay attention to what you choose to do. Make conscious choices.
Be aware of how you affect the people around you. You are not responsible for their actions, but you cannot ignore your contributions or pretend that you are never a catalyst. How you treat people matters.

Step up.
Acknowledge what you do.
This does not mean to brag about your accomplishments, but to be honest about your mistakes.
But also, be objective about your actions. Evaluate yourself fairly. Sometimes, you might do something that is NOT a mistake, and it's okay to own that, too. :-)

Constantly strive to improve the ratio of conscious choice to habitual action, and of appropriate actions to mistakes or "accidents."

When necessary, apologize. Immediately, if possible.

3. How to apologize
Most people do not know how to apologize. They are not taught to do so. They are, generally, expected to mouth the platitudes, but no one expects them to mean it. What child has not been told "Say you're sorry!" about something, at which point they say it, but then go on as if nothing happened?

A real apology has two important components.

The first is that it is simple, and is not clouded with a variety of excuses and whines.
Apologies don't start with "I'm sorry, but..."
They don't include a suggestion of fault in the other party.
Apologies are not about excuses. They are not even about reasons. Excuses and reasons matter far more to the person making them than to the offended party. They are an attempt to "not feel bad," in keeping with the usual early training of avoiding the consequences of mistakes. Salve to the conscience.

Not useful.

The second part of an apology is that it must be genuine.
For it to be genuine, there must be real, ongoing action taken to avoid the same mistake happening again.
If you do not attempt to avoid a recurrence, then you clearly were not sorry in the first place. If you regret what happened, you'll make sure it doesn't happen again.

4. How to keep your word
This one is pretty simple.
If you give your word, keep it.
If you say you'll do something, do it.

There are two parts to this one, too.

The first part is to be careful what you say and particularly what you say you will do. This doesn't mean semantic word-juggling, to avoid pinning yourself down. It's the same basic thing as I've already mentioned- make conscious choices.

The other part of this is to avoid trying to weasel out of anything, ever.
Do not make excuses, to others, or, most importantly, to yourself, about what you did or did not say you would do. Be clear in the first place. When in doubt, interpret things in the most honorable possible way. Not the most "convenient." If fixing a mistake comes down to inconveniencing either yourself or another person, choose yourself.

It all comes back, again, to what I learned as a brand new mother. Consider well the consequences of everything you say or do. Pay attention. Consider where things might lead before committing to a particular path.

Getting in the habit of this ability to stay aware and to anticipate possible problems may be one of the best things you learn how to do for yourself. One way I suggest for honing this skill is to become an assistant to someone, and learn to be the best possible assistant, anticipating every need, every possible error, and be prepared to handle any of it as smoothly as you can. Think ahead, but act in the moment.

5. How to be a friend

I have come across people who really do not know how to be a friend to someone.
It seems the popular culture definition of "friend" means what I would consider an acquaintance, if that. Facebook and MySpace are excellent examples of that, where people have long lists of "friends" which often include anyone they happen to be able to recognize on the street, or, even more interestingly, anyone who happens to ASK to be a "friend" online.


Another part of the popular definition seems to be that a friend is someone you hang out with, but have no other responsibility to. Like often happens in school cliques. "Best friends" today, enemies tomorrow, and what's the difference, really? As long as it's convenient to hang out, people do, and as soon as something better comes along, sayonara, baby.

That's not friendship.

Friendship is a relationship, a commitment.
Relationships require effort.

I had someone tell me recently that she was not interested in any "friendship" or relationship that took effort. She believed that "friends" should just be that way, no effort required, and certainly no responsibilities other than what suited her mood at the time.

She's young and inexperienced (although I'm sure she would argue that point). I have had relationships last longer than she has been alive.

Any real relationship requires effort, especially in the area of communication. Also, to be a friend requires consideration of the other person's feelings, of their needs, and of their preferences.

In my book, being a friend means something along these lines: "I will give to you the best of myself I am able to give, and I will help you to do the same for me."

This means being able to call your friend on their bullshit, even if that's uncomfortable. It means being absolutely honest with them, and continually working to improve communication, checking and double checking to be sure that things are clear between you. It means not taking them for granted, while also being able to depend on them, and having them be able to depend on you. It means offering- and accepting- help when needed. It is a give and take, a two way street, a meeting of minds and hearts, where both people give more than 50%.

And it is chock full of the other stuff I've talked about so far- consequences, being responsible for your actions, apologies, and keeping your word.

In other words, effort. Paying attention.

6. How to be poor
This one is a little different than the rest.
It has to do with appreciating what you have.
And it has to do with keeping in mind that you may not always have it.

Learn how to make do with less. Don't waste things- whether they are material things, or relationships with people. Have a plan for how you will get by if things get worse because, I can almost guarantee it, they will.

When I was growing up, we didn't have a lot. I didn't feel poor at the time, most of the time, but it was clear that we didn't have or do the same things a lot of other people had or did.

When I was first out on my own, at one point I was supporting two people on a part time minimum wage job.
We had a place to sleep, and didn't starve, so what's the big deal?
We could not, however, do things that many people took for granted- like having a car, going to a cheap movie, eating at a restaurant, or buying new clothes.

It was not a particularly fun time. But it probably was one of the most beneficial times of my life because I gained an appreciation for what we did have, for earning my way, and especially an understanding that what someone earns is not who they are, and certainly is not their "value" as a person.

So now, when my kids and I have financial difficulties, we are well acquainted with figuring out how to make do with what we have on hand instead of running to the grocery store every day. It's not such a big deal- and I am glad, for them, that they will never panic at the thought of not having money for a few days.

This is not, by any means, an all-inclusive list. Just some of the stuff from conversations I've been having lately.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Too little, too late

I'm getting worried.

Fencing, real fencing, is very close to passing from this world.

There are very, very few real fencing masters left.

There are plenty of coaches, and instructors, and people who believe they are teaching fencing.

But those who are able to pass on the knowledge, the theory- the art, science and spirit of the sword?

Damned few.

There are many reasons for this, ranging from lack of time, to lack of opportunity, and a variety of other things in between. I could write at length about any of them. The fact that people do not need to rely on the sword to defend themselves is a very good thing- but it means that very few ever do what is necessary to gain the skill to actually be able to do so.

So, you may ask, if people don't need the sword, then why does it matter if the skill and knowledge of it disappear?

Fair question.

It's not that I expect some sort of apocalypse, where people will suddenly find themselves needing to fend off attackers- although, the way things are going, that certainly could happen.

And it isn't that I think it's important to save the knowledge simply for the sake of saving it, for history, or some such. Although I could make an argument for that, too.

It is that as the foil is the training weapon for the sword, fencing itself is an excellent training method for so much else.

Self control, both physical and emotional.
An understanding of conflict, and the ability to manage it.
An appreciation of the truth of combat, of what it is like to face death, and to be able to cause it, so as to avoid the necessity of doing either.
An understanding that some laws can't be broken, that who you are, what you have, who you know, or what you say does not matter.
An understanding that it is not what you meant to do, but what you actually do that counts.
Likewise, the understanding that it is what your opponent actually does that matters, not what they intended to do, or might do in the future.

It is easy to mouth these concepts and give lip service to them. Most people know what is right- they just don't do it if it is difficult.

It is difficult to put your body where your mouth is, so to speak, and to put in the mental and physical labor and effort required to really know these things. To live them. To control not only your thoughts- or absence of thought- but your emotions, actions and reactions, to the level of reflexes.

If there ever was a time that the world needs people able to do this, it is now. We live in a time of madmen, when those in power routinely send OTHERS to risk their lives, to kill other people, for reasons that are largely about power and money and most of all, greed.

Most people, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, live at the level of sheep. Living how they are expected to live, doing what they are told, keeping their mouths shut, and going along to get along because they perceive anything else as too dangerous, too "weird," or too something else undesirable to be able to step out of their perceived safe little worlds to take action. Shakespeare's Hamlet was written how long ago, and we still have the same damned problem?

Fencing is not a sport.
It is not a game.
It is not a recreational pastime.

If it was, I wouldn't give a damn what happens to it. It wouldn't matter. There are billions of games to play.

But it may well be one of the only accessible ways left for people to learn some vitally important things for the very survival of any real "civilization."

It is a shame that almost no one recognizes or believes that. Certainly not enough to keep it around for very much longer at all.

All of us who care will do everything in our power, for as long as we can, I'm sure.

I don't believe it will be enough.

Me, cynical??

Go ahead.
Prove me wrong.
I'd be delighted.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I have to share

The library book sale has yielded, as usual, a surprise find.

Possibly my favorite, ever.

It's a small book. Sixty-three pages. and it has more interesting history in it than I've read almost anywhere else.

There is no way to tell how much of it is completely factual- it is likely that there are exaggerations, given the nature and subject of the stories.

But it is a wildly entertaining read, and has been the subject of read-aloud fun here for days now.

So I have to share some of it.

It's hard to choose...

The book was published in 1977, written by Bob Robinson.

The title? "Ithaca Fire Department."

I knew we were in for something when I opened it and the first line reads:

"Several centuries ago the Scandinavians had a God they called Thor."

Some choice tidbits:

"On June 6, 1823 a bunch of the leading businessmen voted to purchase a hand pumper, of the gooseneck type, so that water could be forced through a short length of hose and nozzle to the scene of the fire. A fire company was formed and a hand engine ordered from New York at a cost of $350. It arrived near the end of the summer."

"...on May 12, 1828 another fire company was formed and a new hand engine ordered.

When the new machine arrived it proved so much better than the previous engine the original company wanted it for their own. The new apparatus already had "RESCUE COMPANY TWO" painted on the sides of it, so after much bickering it was agreed that the original company would become company two and the neophytes would be company number one. Thus company two is the oldest."


"Let's go back a bit so as to build up to the year of 1845. Luther Gere came to Ithaca in the early days with a few bucks in his pocket. He started a lumber business and built the Ithaca Hotel. After a few years he was persuaded that prospects were better in Ohio so he sold the hotel, and the lumber business, and headed west.

In 1818 Luther returned to Ithaca. Opportunities for making money were just as good here as in Ohio. He constructed the Columbia Inn on the northwest corner of Owego and Cayuga Streets. When it was completed, in 1819, business flourished but being convenient for the clientele living west of Albany Street, the atmosphere of the Inn changed. One evening, in 1831, Guy Clark brought his wife in for considerable elbow bending.

Before morning Guy had swung an axe through her head. He was tried and hung, the first hanging in Ithaca, on the grounds now occupied by the Fall Creek School. He was buried there but before morning the body had disappeared presumably for the use of a doctor in making further studies in anatomy.

After the Guy Clark episode the Columbia Inn lost it's business. The building was torn down and parts of the lumber were bought by a Mr. Carson who constructed a tavern on the west side of Cayuga Street between Owego and Green Streets. People knew where the lumber came from and refused to patronize the tavern so it was sold to a Mr. Franklin who converted it into the "Franklin House." It still had some sort of stink about it so people would walk on the other side of the street instead of passing it's door."


Some notes:
"Owego Street" is now State Street.
The corner where the Columbia Inn stood is the same location as the most recent fire in Ithaca's downtown business area, this past January.
I don't know the exact location of the Franklin House, but it is approximately where the Lost Dog cafe is now. I'll see if I can get more information.
Ithaca no longer has "companies," as such. The different stations are the descendants of the original companies. There is no longer a station one or two. The current Ithaca Stations are Central, Five, Six, and Nine. None are in their original locations, although Nines is very close.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Betwixt and between

Did one of my favorite exercises in class yesterday. It was the first time that class practiced changing from the guard of sixte to the guard of quarte, and back.

It appeals to me for two main reasons.

The first is mathematical precision. One of the things about fencing that I love most is that when you execute things correctly, it is not dependent on strength or speed, or on the strength, speed, or skill of your opponent. When you are absolutely precise, you have all of math and physics on your side.

And you can't beat math and physics. Some laws can't be broken.

I love that.

The other thing I love is the simplicity.

To change between these two guards requires a movement of your hand of about a few inches.

You might think this is a very simple change- and it is.

But, as usual, it is not that movement of the hand that is the difficulty.
It is everything else.

What we are looking for is independent, yet coordinated, movement of several body parts. There must be some movement of the rest of the arm- or the hand can't move, right? There is progressively less movement in the arm, the further from the hand you go. So the elbow moves a couple of inches, but the shoulder barely adjusts its angle.

And then there is the sword.
For nearly all of these students, the sword is still a thing in their hands, and they have to be able to move IT in a coordinated way, when they do not yet have the facility to make subtle movements of the sword without gross movements of the body.

So what usually happens is this:

The first move, from sixte to quarte, goes relatively okay.
But going BACK to sixte... not so easy.
That elbow insists on taking the lead much of the time.

Or, the other common alternative:
on that first move, the student will turn their body and move their shoulder, in order to get their hand where they want it.

Both of these errors come from the same place as most errors at this stage: a lack of "connectedness" between the student and the sword, and between the student and his or her body.

It's like an infant.
A newborn has no muscle tone. When you pick them up, they come up all akimbo, arms and legs and neck floppy and in need of support. But a few weeks later, pick up the same baby, and they come up "in one piece," as a unit. They have become connected to themselves.

New students- and by "new," I mean relatively new, which can go on for years for some things- have the same thing going on. They are not yet able to execute fencing movements in a coordinated way, so arms and legs, elbows, shoulders and hands, often go places they did not consciously intend. They then have to make corrections- which often continue the same pattern, of not being entirely controlled.

This is why I love the simplest exercises most of all.

This is the level one must work at to incorporate fencing, to reach the level of unconscious control that is required. Start at the beginning, with a move that requires very little change. Work to be able to change only what needs to change, while everything else remains the same. Then, progressively add complexity. Make that simple movement of the hand, while simultaneously taking a step. Just that, a movement of the hand, simultaneous with a movement of the foot, can take hours and hours of devoted practice to master. Then, add a movement of the blade. Hand, foot, and blade precisely coordinated.

It is a thing of beauty.

But it takes a while.

Until then, it is as I mentioned before, with students who are so focused on that thing in their hands that they seem to forget they even have a body.

The first attempts to manipulate that "thing" go something like this:

Start the first movement.... ack! urgh! yikes! whoops! ... end up... somewhere.

All that part in the middle- they have no awareness of, whatsoever. None. As if time skips that part, and the only things that exist are the beginning, and the ending, with no middle.

This is partly because they cannot yet divide time very well or easily, but that's for another post.

Another part is something I've mentioned a couple of times- they are in a hurry, and rush to the end.

But mostly, it is because they don't know where, or what, the middle is supposed to be. They conceive of every action as where it begins and where it ends.

This is another one of my favorite fencing math moments. :-)

Part of what I try to help students understand is that fencing movements are not made up of pairs of points- the beginning, and the end- but are vectors, of a sort. They have both a magnitude and a direction. It is not only where you end up, but HOW you get there that is important. The entire pathway, mentally and physically, from beginning, through the movement, to the end. How you move, when you move, where you move, why you move, and what all you refrain from moving, all are important.

We do not teleport.

There is, and must be, a "between."

That is where fencing is.
Between space, and between time.

It works best when you can mentally be there, too.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It happened so fast

I just learned this evening that the woman who taught my EMT-I class over the summer, died suddenly this past Friday.

The person who told me, and whoever told him, had no information on how she died. None of us knew of anything in particular going on that would make this expected, by any means.

I'm stunned.

I was just thinking about her today, intending to e-mail her and check in, see how things were going, and share my own situation and progress.

I guess I won't be able to do that.

All I can think about is that she didn't know this was coming. She hadn't planned for it. I'm sure there were tons of things she intended to do that now won't get done. I know she was spending a fair amount of time caring for her dog, who had had surgery and needed assistance in getting around. Who is going to do that now? She was the director of a paramedic program near here... what happens to those students? To the program? She had plans for changing it over to do more online, and had worked very hard on that. Now what?

What about her family?

She never got to retire. She never got to do whatever it is she would have wanted to do in those years. Whatever it might have been.

The thing is, of course, and you KNOW this, but like most people, probably avoid thinking about it- we're all going to die. None of us know when. And for most of us, it will be unexpected; the timing, at least.

I have done some things in the past couple of years that I had wanted to do for most of my life, and that's a good thing.

But, of course, there are more things I want to do. Want to see. Want to know.
There are things I have planned- from simple things, like going to the library book sale this weekend, to more complex things, like eventually becoming a paramedic. From getting the groceries, to watching my kids mature, and eventually being a grandmother.

There is no way to know whether I will do any of them.
There is no way to know if I will wake up in the morning.
A time will surely come when I won't.

And I can't do a damned thing about it.
I can't live life any faster, to get things done more quickly- or any slower, to postpone the ending.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Surely you jest

If all you knew about me is what's in this blog, you might get the impression that I'm a pretty serious person.

I am.
About some things.

But not always.

I have a ridiculous streak about a mile wide.

I was a professional clown for a few years way back when.

I love silly hats. Used to have a fairly large collection of them, but most of them did not survive our fire. They took a direct hit. I have a picture somewhere of the "remains," including a bug-eyed fish hat, where the eyes were the only part that was still recognizable.

And then there's the story about the time I got half a school bus of high school kids drunk, on Dr. Pepper. Almost got in a whole lot of trouble over that one, until I managed to finally convince the teachers that there really WASN'T any alcohol in it. It's not MY fault if everyone thought there was, and acted accordingly.
Or the time, when I was about 12, that a group of us stole the back seat out of the school bus, carrying it past the driver, who was apparently distracted. (We gave it back.)

There are numerous chicken dance stories. A couple of fern helmet stories.
And, contrary to what some people insist on believing, I did NOT lick that chair!

I have a tendency to come up with cockamamie ideas, and then get people to join in. "You know what we should do...?" either makes people run and hide, or run to sign up.
I have a surprising lack of embarassability in public. Or maybe that's simply no sense of shame... depends on your perspective.

Anyhoo... I've been noticing that I tend to write about the serious stuff. Most of the blogs I enjoy reading are pretty funny... and mine isn't.

Ah, well. C'est ça.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

testing, testing...

As a mother, I know quite well that children are obligated to test their parents. They need to find out what the rules are- not what you SAY the rules are- in order to know how to function in that environment.

In our classes, the students also do this. For the same reason- to know whether we really mean what we say.

We do.

It often comes as something of a surprise. You may have noticed that there are plenty of times and places when people do NOT mean what they say, or at the very least, give mixed messages.

This morning was the first of one of our current series' of classes where I was teaching alone, so it was the first time this group of students had the opportunity to test me, rather than the master.

They did. A couple of them decided they wanted to talk during class.

They will likely not do so again. :-)

It is almost inevitable that this happens in the classes where we teach together. The first time I'm there alone, they all think that somehow, I'm the "nice" one or something, and they can relax the rules. I'm not, and they can't. Maybe they make that assumption because I'm female. Maybe it's because I'm generally softer.

The thing is, I can't afford to be the "nice" one, and get any respect. Doesn't mean I have to be rude, or overpowering, or anything- but I inevitably have to assert my authority. The bad part of this is I'm a firefighter, not a cop. If I wanted to be a cop, I'd be one. I'm a relatively easygoing person almost all the time, and I dislike having to pull rank and be a hardass.

The good part is that I'm perfectly capable of doing so when circumstances require it.

We had a brief discussion of this after the class today, how it always happens the first time I'm there alone. If the master was there, it wouldn't happen, so he never sees it. They don't test him in the same way, or with the same regularity, and they don't test me if he's there. Why do they not? At least partly because he LOOKS scary, and has an aura of control and, well, masterliness. So they don't dare. He can be relaxed and verbally gentle, because his obvious strength is enough to keep them from daring to try anything. I, on the other hand, have to prove myself, to every class. Because I am naturally more soft and yielding, both physically and otherwise, I have to demonstrate my strength- or they can't see it.

It is somewhat interesting to observe the reactions to this situation that is not... quite... what they expect.

It's a little different with my regular students than it is with the new ones. The regular ones already know what is expected, and don't do so much testing. I can be much more relaxed with them, almost all of the time. An occasional reminder that we are not just hanging out is all that is necessary to keep the class focused. The main thing I have to watch out for in the regular classes is that no one ever has the opportunity to confuse "relaxedness" with "laxness." As long as everyone stays focused (myself included), it's not a problem.

Monday, September 29, 2008

... and don't do anything else

We introduced the weapons in class today.
This is always the most challenging class.

If we lived in a less hurried time, when skill with a sword was both valued and necessary, we would not be introducing the weapons anywhere near this early. We would be teaching people who are already familiar with swords, and with the process of learning to use one, and they would know coming in that it was going to take a long time.

But we don't live in that world.
When I was a La Leche League Leader, we had to recognize that many women were not at all familiar with breastfeeding, that most new mothers had not been breastfed, and had not ever seen anyone breastfeed, or known anyone who had done so, so they came to us with absolutely no knowledge or understanding of even the basics.
Teaching fencing, we similarly have to realize that no one comes to our classes with any level of familiarity with a sword. The closest most of them come is having seen swords in movies- and most of what they have seen bears no resemblance to actual swordfighting at all. Anyone with experience "fencing" elsewhere usually has done what has even less resemblance to swordfighting than the movies.

So our introductory classes are not really to teach people how to fence. That can't possibly be done in ten or twelve weeks.

What we teach is enough familiarity, enough of a "taste" of the sword, that they can then decide whether it is something they wish to pursue. At that point, if they continue, the pace slows down considerably.


Here we were today, introducing swords very early. Most of the students, of course, would consider it to be very late, wanting to have started whacking each other in the first class, but that's another story.

The reality is that some of the students are simply not ready to handle a sword. They're just not. They can't really handle themselves yet. So our task becomes not to let anyone injure themselves or anyone else.

We do this mostly by not allowing them close enough to each other to hit anyone.

The other part of how we do that is to have very strict safety rules, which include doing what they are told, when they are told, how they are told, and not doing anything else.

It's the "not doing anything else" part that seems to be most difficult.

Especially for the youngest ones.

They fidget.
They wiggle.
They swing their arms.
They look everywhere except where they are going.

Trouble is, they can't do those things AND handle a sword safely.

The challenge of the day is this:

How can you tell whether someone CAN'T do something (like stand still) or whether they are choosing NOT to do it?

As Spartacus Jones says over in his blog, about a slightly different subject, there are three reasons why someone does not do what you ask:

1. He does not UNDERSTAND what you want.
2. He physically CAN’T do what you want.
3. He REFUSES to do what you want.

How do you know which of these three is the case? And what do you do about them?

I'll start with the first one: understanding.

First of all, it's my responsibility to present the material in a way that they CAN understand it.
Then, to observe what they do closely enough to be able to see if they are attempting to do what they have been instructed, or not, and to make any necessary corrections.

By far, most of them, most of the time, appear to be doing just that- attempting to do what they've been shown and told to do. They may have differing levels of ability to do so, but they are at least trying. Some might need other teaching methods before they really understand what they need to do- not everyone learns the same way- so in addition to being shown and told, they might need to have me physically put their body in the right positions, to feel it. Almost all of the time, once the student understands what they are to do, they set about working on doing it.

But not always.

Once in a while, we'll have a student who physically can't do something. Might be because of a prior injury. We have had students with conditions ranging from a broken bone, to a brain injury, to a lack of flexibility due to a previous surgery, or a congenital condition of some sort. Might be because of their developmental level (this is usually the issue).

In these cases, they mostly need more time and practice, and occasionally need a slight alteration or adaptation of technique, either temporarily, in the case of an injury, or permanently, in the case of a congenital condition. These students benefit from a slower pace, and generally do fairly well as long as they stick to that slower pace, and learn what they are able to do as they develop or heal.

And rarely, we have a student who appears to understand what is being asked of him, seems to be physically capable of doing it... but still doesn't. These students need to be dismissed from the class. Period.

The toughest part of teaching is that sometimes, it is difficult to tell which case we are dealing with. There are a variety of clues and signs, but they are not always clear, and sometimes contradict each other.

The other part of this question is whether it MATTERS what the reason is why a student is not behaving appropriately. Does it matter whether they don't understand, can't do it, or are refusing to do it?

The answer is yes... and no.

If the difficulty is something that is not a safety issue, then sure, we can work with whatever is going on and check to be sure the students fully understands, or ascertain if there is some physical difficulty. We can take the time to figure out what is going on, and to help them adjust their behavior.

But if it is a safety issue- swinging themselves around, waving the sword around uncontrollably, or not paying attention in class, then regardless of the reason, we simply have to stop it RIGHT THEN. Questions and such can happen later. But during the class, that means we have to step in, take the sword, and have the student sit out.

You can imagine how popular this is.

One of the most valuable things I have learned about teaching, by far, is when and how to do this.

When is easy.

How is a little more complicated, but not much.

The key is this:

Sitting someone out isn't a personal beef.
I'm not angry at them.
I'm not punishing them.
I am simply removing a dangerous situation from my class.

It isn't about being the boss, or being controlling, or telling them all what to do out of some desire for power. And it isn't unfairly depriving anyone of anything.

Sometimes, if I suspect that there might be difficulties (for example, if we have a large number of very young students), I'll tell the class up front that this is the situation. That sometimes, people are just not ready to use a sword yet, and we are not going to put them into a situation that they cannot safely handle. That they may be asked to sit out temporarily, and to watch for a while. That sometimes, even people who have had no difficulty before may have a day where they are not able to handle a sword safely- maybe they are tired, or not feeling well- and we may ask them to take a break. Nothing personal. As soon as they are able to safely participate again, they are welcome to do so.

Sometimes, there are certain groups of kids who, for whatever reason, don't take us seriously when we discuss the rules. Kids who thrive in this culture of whining and complaining, of fooling around, and of doing whatever they can to get attention. They believe the rules don't apply to them, or that we don't REALLY mean not to do ANYTHING else. They need to understand- quickly- that our class atmosphere does not allow those indulgences.

For these kids, the key is to put a stop to it the moment any one of them does anything at all that they are not told to do, so they understand that we are serious. Usually, it only takes one or two of these instantaneous, focused, "reminders" for the whole class to settle down. For all of them to understand that it is NOT cute or funny or in any way appropriate to be incompetent or discourteous. And to understand that if they want to learn to use a sword, appropriate behavior is required.

But the thing that I learned from the master that is so valuable about all of this is what happens next.

What happens next is that when it's over, it's over. There is no ongoing attitude or punishment or anything. As long as there are no safety issues, I'm fine with whatever level of ability a student has. I don't expect them to do what they are not able to do. I don't expect "perfect" behavior. And I don't keep some sort of "black list" in my head of the "misbehaving" kids. It's all in the moment. That day. That class. That drill.

It's very simple.

Follow instructions.
Do what you are told and nothing else.
Put in your best effort.
Take the study of the sword seriously.
As long as you are able to do these things, you are welcome in my class.

If you can't do these things, then whatever the reason is, you simply can't be there. I will not risk your safety, or the safety of other students.


You wouldn't enjoy the class or learn the skills, anyway. It would be far better for you to spend your time doing something else, something you really want and are able to do, and come back to fencing some other time, if you're still interested.