My daughter is at Phoenix Firecamp. She is having a fabulous time. I'm sure she is having experiences she will eventually tell her grandchildren about, making friends she'll keep in touch with for life. Thanks to the Fire Service Women of New York State, she is getting the chance to find out first hand what firefighters do, and how difficult- and rewarding- it can sometimes be.
That's the good part.
Since her arrival at the camp, there have been four firefighter Line of Duty Deaths in the US.
Four in four days.
On July 20th, David Meron, a 58 year old volunteer from Hoosick Falls NY, died from a heart attack.
On July 21st, Ryan Hummert, a 22 year old career firefighter/paramedic, from St Louis, MO, was shot and killed as he exited his apparatus at the scene of a vehicle fire.
On July 22nd, Brian J Munz, a 24 year old volunteer from Fairbury IL was killed during a structure fire when the floor collapsed, trapping him in the basement.
On July 23rd, Frank Wichlacz, a 75 year old volunteer from Pulaski WI, died when he was pinned between two vehicles while fire apparatus was being backed into the bay.
Four in four days. Ten so far this month. Sixty-seven so far this year.
All that writing about not procrastinating, and what did I do?
Take home test due in my class tonight, one last thing I needed to write up for it, and I was gonna do it right before heading out there.
It had to happen.
We got a call.
It was my Dad.
He's doing okay, but will probably be in the hospital a while. Don't know how long.
The hospital that is an hour away.
So all that other stuff I need to do this week? The stuff for the fire company fundraiser that I had put off?
I still have to get it done.
Don't know how I'm going to do it, what with driving back and forth to the hospital, trying to keep up with the class I'm taking, and the classes I'm teaching... and it's time to schedule my clinical time at the hospital here, as soon as possible.
There's a lesson in all of this, for sure.
And anything you say can and will be used against you...
Life is short. Stop and smell the roses. Live like you were dying. Live like there's no tomorrow.
There are many of these little bits of advice, all about appreciating the moment, and not putting things off until it's too late.
Everyone knows that life has no guarantees, that any moment could be your last.
Most people happily ignore this for most of their lives, until something happens that forces them to pay attention to it. Some tragedy, usually. And most often, this tragic thing has already happened before people pay attention, and then it's too late to do anything about it.
Being a volunteer EMT/firefighter has given me new perspective.
The obvious thing is that EMTs are sometimes in a situation to appreciate how very quickly and easily life can end. That moment between living and dying is so very brief.
But fortunately, that happens relatively rarely.
What affects me far more is something that happens all the time.
I wear a pager now.
At any moment- and I do mean ANY moment- that pager could go off, and I'll need to immediately stop whatever I'm doing, and take off. I could be sleeping. I could be eating. I could be in the shower. I could be grocery shopping. Filling the car with gas. Writing this blog. Anything.
Most of the time, it's not a big deal. Most things can be interrupted without much difficulty.
But some things are challenging. Like if I've just put something in the oven. Or I'm on the phone, and the other person is just answering. In the register line at the store, with a cart full of frozen food. Waiting for dinner to be served at a restaurant. Having just sat down on the toilet (you knew it had to be on the list).
What this means is that I need to pay attention to what I'm doing, and have a plan for if I have to go on a call. For example, I might be sure someone else knows when to take food out of the oven. I warn students that a class might need to be suddenly canceled. I tell anyone I make an appointment with that I might have an emergency and not be able to make it, and let them know what I will do if that happens. I consider back-up rides for my kids. I have to anticipate whatever of these sorts of complications there might be.
Someone in our fire company told me that if he is in the grocery store when there is a call, he puts his cart in the beer cooler and comes back for it later. Interesting idea. I've yet to use it.
The other thing I've had to learn to do is not to procrastinate. There's the long term "don't put things off" because you never know if you'll get hit by a bus tomorrow, but that's kind of abstract, and doesn't really affect what I do or don't do. Sure, it's POSSIBLE that I'll get hit by a bus or suffer some other calamity, but none of those scenarios are particularly LIKELY.
What DOES affect it is having a paper or exam due... if I put off studying or writing until the last minute... what if there's a call in that last minute? Oops. I can't let that happen. So I've learned to do assignments as soon as possible, because I really DON'T know if I'll have time to do them tomorrow. This goes for anything that is time-sensitive. It is relatively likely that we'll have a call between the time something is assigned, and when it is due. The question is mostly WHEN that call will happen. I don't want to end up not having a cake for my kid's birthday because I was "going to" make it, but ran out of time.
And you know what? All of life is like that. I don't want to run out of time, period.
Learning to build flexibility into any plan is a very good thing. Having a plan B, and a plan C, is a good thing.
Prioritizing everything is also a good skill to have. It's good to be able to change focus quickly, and to stay in the moment and go with what needs to be done.
All of these skills are directly related to fencing, so this cross-training is beneficial all around.
But I swear, if I hear another page for one assistant chief to call another that sets off my pager and has me in my shoes and out the door before I realize it isn't an emergency...
Interesting how sometimes the same theme will show up several times within a short period of time.
I had a discussion yesterday about perception.
It started out being about how even when you think you are looking at the same thing as someone else, your perceptions will not be the same. You may focus on different aspects, or have different connotations from different experiences. It may be difficult to know what someone else's perception is because it can be difficult to communicate precisely and accurately about what you see or experience.
But even if you were to have the same experiences, the same beliefs, you still won't perceive things exactly like someone else does. You may be looking from a different perspective, a different angle.
Or your brain may simply not interpret the information the same way.
That's another part of this.
What you see isn't really what you see. You see light reflecting off of surfaces, and your brain interprets that light and assigns it meaning. You have no DIRECT way to see anything.
This became most obvious to me when I had trouble drawing or painting, while my sisters had the artistic talent in the family. Turns out, I don't see what I see. I interpret it.
Let's back up a bit.
Newborn babies don't interpret what they see. They can't. They have no frame of reference. They have to learn that an object viewed from different sides or different angles is, in fact, the same object, even if it looks different.
Go too far with that, and an object is interpreted as "the same," regardless of angle, even though it looks different in concrete terms. Seeing it as "the same" makes it difficult to draw what you "see." In order to draw something, you need to really see it, see the relationships between the lines and angles and colors. If you can't see it, you can't tell what to do to make your drawing more realistic- there is no feedback to guide you.
Look at a stationary object. Try a window, for example. Turn your head at different angles. The window appears to stay the same, oriented the same way in space. "Up" and "down" are relative to the window being placed in the wall with the bottom parallel to the floor.
But really, every time you move your head, you are seeing the window from a different angle, and all the angles you see change. If you put your hands around your eyes to narrow your field of vision, and remove the contextual information, it is easier to see that, to see the new angles.
Your brain loves context. Ooh, it says, that's a window. And it's still a window. And I know that windows are rectangles, and I know that they line up with the wall and the ceiling and the floor. So no matter what angle you look at it from, I'm going to tell you that it still lines up. Up and down. Right angles.
All you artists reading this, get ahold of yourselves. It's not that funny for people who are challenged in this way.
So. There is no way to directly see a thing, you can only see reflected (or refracted...) light. Your perception of a thing is always filtered through your mind's interpretations. Reflections, refractions, interpretations... all these things distort the image, and change your perception of a thing from an accurate, true perception, to something else.
I've had this basic conversation and train of thought numerous times, with family members or with friends.
Today, it showed up in a slightly different situation.
My fencing lesson this morning.
The master was showing me how he does something, and as is often the case, he was moving in a way that is simply not humanly possible. I swear that the point of the weapon was moving of its own volition, without his having to move it.
Rationally, I know that this can't happen.
Also in today's lesson, he was showing me something, and he did something that he could only have done if he was able to read my mind. He responded to a movement I made... before I made it. Not by assuming I would make it, but by being able to see, to perceive, EXACTLY when I decided to do it, in the moment BEFORE I actually started to move. He has mentioned this concept before, of being able to subconsciously perceive at that level, but this time, I know for sure that it is exactly what he did.
Stunned me for a moment.
And another thing from the lesson today. In general, movements in fencing do not originate where people believe they do. Everything originates from your center. You do not move the blade by moving your hand. You do not step forward by moving your foot. You move your center. I know I can say this over and over, and people won't get it until they experience it. So for now, take my word for it, if necessary.
How does this all tie together?
In fencing, everything- and I mean everything- is not as it appears to be. And yet, at the same time, everything is exactly what it IS.
Fencing, itself, is not so difficult.
The difficulty is in the PERCEPTIONS of what you need to do, how you need to do it, and in the attempts to do those things. Learning to fence is the process of learning to perceive reality more accurately, to take yourself, your filters, all those things that distort, out of the equation.
The master often uses the image of a pond to explain this.
Imagine a pond on a clear, still day, the surface as smooth as glass. Look at the reflections in the pond. They show everything surrounding the pond, clearly and accurately. No distortions. The trees, the birds, the clouds in the sky. Now throw a stone in the pond. All the ripples distort the reflection, often so much so that it is unrecognizable.
Your center is the pond. Your mind is the stone and all the ripples.
In order to perceive things as they are, you must not allow ripples in your pond. "Ripples" take many forms, such as assumptions, expectations, emotions, biases, thoughts. They may be conscious, or subconscious, or even reflexes or instincts.
The difference between a master and everyone else is that the master has learned to make his center still and calm, so that his perceptions are not distorted.
Came across a poster today for a "fencing club" in town. I happen to know most of the people involved, and that this group was started by and for people who want to do what is called "fencing" these days, but isn't. It's a sport that has changed from fencing as if the swords are sharp, to a stylized game of tag with lights and buzzers. The equipment they use is similar in some ways, but the ways in which they use it are not. Simply put, they disregard all of the laws of combat.
I could go on. I won't.
Part of me feels obligated to do whatever I can to inform the local public that we exist, and of the differences between what we do, and what everyone else does. Of the importance of those differences.
But I'm tired of having to explain that. Tired of the feeling of trying to explain to someone that what we do is "better."
"Better" is subjective.
What we do is REAL.
Real fencing. Not a sport. Not pretend. Not about scoring points or turning on lights. Fencing as if the swords were sharp, with the same level of control and coordination as if your life depended on it, with the same focus on defense, on not being hit. With all of the personal development that comes with achieving excellence at a highly precise physical skill, including discipline, confidence and the ability to perform under pressure.
People either get it, or they don't. And mostly, they don't.
I had thought, for a long time, that we were trying to prevent the demise of something important, of a set of skills, and more importantly, a way of learning, and a way of being. Chivalry. Prowess, truthfulness, loyalty and benevolence.
But if no people value those things, they can't be saved.
How can there be truth, if no one values the truth?
What I realized today is that it isn't fencing that needs to be saved. What needs defending is the environment in which chivalry can exist.
We were talking about plans for a new class we'll be teaching next month, a sabre class. We were also discussing a plan for a set of classes we'll be teaching at the local University. Going over exercises and skills, and the order in which we'll introduce them.
At some point, the master said something about how, as always, we'd start with the "easy" stuff, and progress to more difficult skills.
It made me smile because I know that as simple as some of this may be, none of it is "easy."
Except... some of it is, now. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the beginning stuff IS easy, now. Certainly compared to the more complex stuff I know how to do.
But I don't think I would ever tell a beginning student that, exactly.
It's just like how I don't tell new mothers that all that they're going through, the sleepless nights, the fussy baby, that's the EASY stuff, by FAR. Infants are a piece of cake. Their needs are so simple.
It's all the same thing.
Most new parents have a difficult time with their infant because they don't know what they are doing. They are trying to take the new situation, the baby, and somehow fit it into the person they've always been. Trying to mold the baby to some sort of schedule, the parents' schedule.
It doesn't work that way.
When you become a parent, you change. The "you" who you used to be becomes the "you" that is a parent, and you learn to adjust your needs to fit the baby's schedule. Until you do that, you'll get no sleep and it will all seem insurmountable.
The sword works the same way.
You can't start studying the sword, expecting it to somehow adjust to you. The sword doesn't give a damn about you. Nothing about it will change for you. You have to change, to adjust, to become part of the sword. The sword has no illusions about what it is, what it is meant to do, or how it is meant to do it. You have those illusions, and the sooner you rid yourself of them, the easier things will become.
Come to think of it, maybe everything works this way. A horse isn't going to change from being a horse just because you want to ride it. You are the one who has to learn how, the one who has to adjust body movements and communication methods.
An actor I once knew told me that for him, acting is not about pretending, not about trying to appear to be something you are not, it's about finding the facet of yourself that is most like what you want to portray, and turning that facet outwards so it is the one that is visible.
Becoming a swordman or swordwoman is finding the parts of yourself that are most connected with the sword, and allowing those parts of you to become dominant. Once you do so, then you will be able to learn, to see, to feel. Many things that have until then been confusing or difficult, will make sense, and be easy.
Finding those parts of yourself, and acknowledging them? Not so easy.
Sometimes I think the hardest thing about fencing is not what you must do, but everything you must NOT do. Body parts that need not to move. The need not to think, but to feel.
Take your shoulders, for example.
Shoulders are perhaps one of the friendliest parts of the body. They shake when you laugh loud and hearty, they're available for a friend to lean on, and for some reason known only to them, they want to take on the stress of everything else in your body- perhaps the origin of the phrase "to shoulder your grief," or when someone has "the weight of the world on his shoulders."
Sometimes, this is a good, helpful thing.
Not so much in fencing.
Controlling the point of the sword requires very small, very precise movements. That requires the coordination of some very small muscles, muscles you don't even know you have.
It might seem logical to suppose that using small muscles would require less energy than using large muscles. That might be true, it IS true, once you are able to use only those muscles required, but that ability takes a long time to acquire. Until then, not only do you have to move the right muscles, you have to NOT MOVE anything else.
But your shoulders want to help you. Those tiny muscles fatigue easily, and as soon as they do, the surrounding larger muscles step in to help out. First muscles in your forearm, and then your biceps and triceps, and very soon, your shoulders.
You may be able to easily see that large muscles, like those in your shoulder, simply cannot have the required precision of the smaller muscles in your hand. If not, take my word for it for now. Large muscles are for "gross motor skills," small muscles are for "fine motor skills." In plain English, this means that when your shoulder attempts to "help," what mostly happens is everything is thrown haywire, and your point ends up somewhere in Toledo. That, and all that large muscle movement burns a lot of calories, and wears you out quickly.
Not helpful. Good intentions of your shoulders notwithstanding.
Your shoulders like to help in other ways, too.
For instance, when you lunge, you are attempting to move the point of your sword closer to your opponent's body, and to do so in a way that preserves your aim, so you hit what you are aiming at. In order to do that, you must keep your upper body in the same alignment, from the beginning through the end of the move.
But lunging, especially when you are first learning, requires a significant expenditure of energy. Again, this means you get tired quickly. It also requires a high level of coordination between a large number of body parts, and it requires some flexibility, both of which must be acquired through practice. Lots of practice.
Most people do not enjoy the feeling of muscle fatigue. Most people refer to that sensation as "pain." Most people avoid pain.
So most people, after one or two lunges, will start to shorten their lunge, in an attempt to avoid what they expect to be a painful experience.
When they do that, they suddenly fall short of their intended target. And when they see that they will fall short, their shoulders step up to the plate and say "Aha! I can fix this! I'll save you!" and the shoulder of their swordarm will extend forward in an attempt to close the distance that their feet are suddenly not taking.
Remember what I just said, about maintaining your aim by maintaining the alignment of your upper body?
Your shoulder does not give a damn about this. You can argue with it for a very long time, trying to convince it to stay still, and it will not believe you. (Yes, I talk to my body parts, doesn't everyone?) Shoulders are not easily convinced that they are not, regardless of their good intentions, your savior. They will rant. They will insist. And they will keep trying, and keep trying, to bail you out.
And they will get tired. Very tired.
Be kind to your shoulders. Do not ask them to do what your feet should be taking care of. Do not ask them to take up the slack for your fatigued hand muscles.
Practice a new movement only until you begin to fatigue, and then rest. Be precise in your practice. Go slow. Learn the pattern of the movement. Speed is unimportant.
"Most people practice something until they can get it right. A master practices until he can not get it wrong."
From the beginning, I could tell that the master perceived things differently than I did. I'd say "at a different level," but that's not exactly what I mean. I mean in an entirely different way, from a different perspective, a different world-view.
It felt like there was some sort of barrier, or curtain, between where I was and where I wanted to be, that I would only really see once it was gone. I could only recognize the change after it happened.
Turns out, this was true. Some things now seem easy, simple, obvious, that I couldn't begin to grasp before.
One of the things that first attracted me to teaching fencing was also one of the first things I learned to do.
I feel a little like a magician giving away secrets here, but it's important enough that I'll take that chance. It's such a simple and obvious thing once you know it, that it hardly qualifies as a "trick."
That gymnasium full of patient, quiet, respectful children.
The master has been asked, more than once, "What do you do about behavioral problems? How do you handle them?" His answer? "We don't have any."
How is that possible?
Clearly communicated expectations.
Children- most people- prefer to know what is expected of them, upfront. So tell them.
They key is this:
1. Never make a rule you don't need. 2. Never make a rule you don't enforce.
And then, clearly state each rule in the very first class.
But there's more. The other half of the equation.
Enforcing the rules.
This is the part that makes it work. Enforce the rules, every time, immediately, without anger. If someone breaks a rule, they sit out. The first time. No second chances. After they have had time to reconsider their actions, invite them to rejoin the group, if they are ready to do so.
Once the class discovers that you mean what you say - and it won't take long, especially if your swift enforcement startles the heck out of them - two things happen.
One is that they respect the rules. And in this business, using weapons, that's critically important, for safety reasons. The other is that they respect YOU. Equally important, and also for safety reasons.
Set this up correctly, and you will not have behavioral problems.
Funny thing... it works just as well at home. Only rules that are necessary, communicated clearly, and enforced rationally. Make sure everyone knows both what is expected of them, and what they can expect from you. Then do that.
If you fail to enforce the rules, even once, you will have done yourself no favors and will have caused yourself considerable difficulty.
There is a lot to learn about how to make rules, how to communicate them, how to enforce them, and especially what to do after you've needed to enforce a rule, but that will come with practice. Teaching, and leading of any kind, whether it's as a parent, an employer or whatever else, isn't about being liked, or being "nice." It's about respect, and it's about safety. It's about saying what you mean, and doing what you say.
Just watched an episode of The Baby Borrowers. In case you haven't heard about it, it's a reality show where 5 teenaged couples are temporarily taking care of other people's kids, to learn about parenting. Last week it was infants. Tonight, it was toddlers.
Had a discussion with my daughter about it as we watched.
Kids can be so frustrating sometimes. Watching these teens try to deal was entertaining, but it also reminded me of one of the things about the dominant culture that really concerns me.
Everyone is always in such a hurry.
The primary tool of parenting is patience. Whenever possible, just wait. Give them time. Let it go.
Especially with toddlers. They are so involved in their world, in whatever they are doing, heart and soul and body. Try to get them to do something else, something YOU want them to do, and they understandably get upset. Yet this frequently seems to surprise parents. I don't get it.
Think of your own life. You do what you do, feel what you feel, think what you think. You have our own plans and priorities. If someone were to walk in and tell you to stop what you are doing, right now, and do something they want you to do, regardless of your own interest, how would you probably react? I would guess that you probably wouldn't scream and cry or hold your breath, like a toddler might. Hopefully, you have learned more mature ways to communicate.
But you wouldn't be very happy about it. You'd probably be resistant, either outright refusing, or, as happens a lot, by being passive-aggressive.
Even so, it is culturally popular to do this exact thing to children all the time. Parents- and schools- want the child to follow their schedule. Often, without any attempt to explain or to sympathize.
Imagine, instead, if you lived your days at a more relaxed pace. Take your time. Play in the water. Enjoy the sunset. If there is something your child- or you- enjoy doing, do it. If they want to play in the mud, let them. Join them.
I learned this lesson when my younger sister was a baby. She was crawling on the kitchen floor, playing with a gum wrapper she found there. I felt obligated to take it away from her- it might be dirty. But when I took it from her, she started screaming, crying inconsolably. Fortunately, I figured out pretty quickly what could have taken me years to learn.
What business was it of mine if she wanted to play with a gum wrapper? Where's the harm in that? As long as I was watching her to make sure she didn't choke on it or anything, what right did I have to take it from her, and ruin her fun? Just because I wasn't interested in playing with it didn't mean it had no value to her.
I gave it back to her. She smiled, and continued whatever it was she was doing with it, without my overbearing interference.
Another thing about this culture that is crazy-making, is what I call the "labor theory" of life. Something stressful happens. You try to get through it, hoping things will get easier. That particular stress lessens somewhat, but before you can do anything more than take a couple of breaths, you get hit with another crisis. Life goes from crisis to crisis, contraction to contraction, with only occasional momentary breaks. You keep hoping that things will settle down, even out, that you'll get through whatever the current crises are, and life will be better, easier, less stressful.
I've got news for you. It won't. THIS crisis might resolve, but there's always another one coming. Always.
But if you live your life bracing yourself for each incoming crisis, you'll lose your mind.
Instead, slow down. Breathe. Every moment you possibly can, appreciate that moment for the small breathing space it gives you.
Is your house burning down? No? Good. Appreciate that for a moment. It might not always be true. Are you currently in prison? If not, appreciate that. Kids not screaming? Good. Anyone bleeding? No? Great! In each moment, appreciate the pain you don't feel, the argument you aren't having, appreciate everything good that is happening, however small, and everything bad that isn't happening, however large.
Sometimes, that's all the break you're going to get- so take it.
Appreciate your role in other people's lives, too- and give them a break when you can.
Cooperate more. Communicate better.
What is that famous phrase? "Live well, laugh often, love much."
Yeah. Do that. Right now. At least for this one small moment.
I'm going to stray over into the EMS part of my life for a moment or two.
Breathing is good. Not breathing, on the other hand, does not usually do good things for your complexion. That, and it tends to upset the people around you.
Most of those people have one task when you stop breathing: get help. Around these parts, that means to call 9-1-1.
Some people choose to learn to do more than that.
When I was about 8 years old, I took my first "First Aid" class. I learned what was then called "mouth-to-mouth resuscitation." Sometimes called the "breath of life," or, especially for making younger folks uncomfortable, the "kiss of life."
A good thing to know, all in all. If someone stops breathing, breathe for them.
The thing is, all that breathing isn't going to do any good if there is no blood circulating. The next step to learn is how to do chest compressions. Which I learned as a teenager.
What is my point, here?
Learning is not always linear. It may seem that way, at times. But if you REALLY want to learn something, what happens is that you learn it over and over and over again, reviewing the basics and re-learning them at a higher level of understanding, and a higher level of skill.
Imagine a spiral staircase, where as you climb, you keep returning to the same side, at a higher level each time around. Learning is like that.
So the bottom of that spiral staircase might be "call 9-1-1" The next level might be mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Next time around, add compressions.
I recertified in CPR several times. Each time, re-learning the skill. Some of it was the same, and some changed, as the general understanding, and the protocols, of CPR changed. Fairly recently, AEDs became available, so that was added.
I decided to become a CPR instructor. What was the first thing I did in the instructor class? Recertified in CPR.
Not long after, I started an EMT-Basic class. The first thing we did? Recertified in CPR. This time, with a few added twists- CPR for the professional rescuer.
Then, as the class progressed, we learned some new airway management skills, because we would have access to different airway management tools. Adjuncts. Oxygen. Bag-valve-masks. We're at a higher level on that spiral staircase now.
Now, I'm taking an EMT-Intermediate class. What are we going to do? No kidding. Recertify in CPR.
Then we'll get to add some more tools, tools and techniques an EMT-B doesn't have. The big one: intubation.
I'm certain that if I take another class after this one, either the Critical Care class, or the Paramedic class, CPR will be there again. And more tools, too, but I don't know yet what all of those are.
My point is this: all of this is basically the same thing. If someone is not breathing, breathe for them. If their heart isn't pumping, pump their blood for them. Each time I recertify, or review it, I'm not "going back" to where I was before. Re-visiting, yes. But not going backwards.
There is no going backwards.
Everything in life follows this pattern. It's all cyclical. Emergency medicine. Fencing. Relationships.
So if it feels like you are "stuck" doing the same thing over and over, that some things take forever to learn, or it feels like you've been working on something for a long time, and you're still at the basics, look deeper.
Maybe you know more than you think. Maybe you're higher up on that staircase than where you started.
And some things, life-or-death things in particular, can never be reviewed too often, or practiced too much.
Learning to teach classes was pretty easy. I assisted for quite a while, learned the class format, knew what to do and in what order, and slowly, started teaching one or two of the series of classes on my own, eventually able to teach an entire series. There were some specific things I needed to learn, but nothing terribly difficult.
Learning to give individual lessons was a different story.
For one thing, fencing, and teaching fencing, are sometimes diametrically opposed. The goal in fencing is to touch without being touched. In teaching, you purposely allow the student to touch you.
But that wasn't the most challenging part.
Some of the physical movements are very different. Plus, you must be able to simulate, for your student, all of the different sizes and types of opponents they might face.
That wasn't the hardest part, either.
One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is observing the learning process. Each person learns things in an individualized order. It's fascinating.
No less so, when I'm the one learning.
My biggest stumbling block?
Giving good feedback.
It isn't that I don't know how to give feedback. And it mostly isn't that I didn't know when to give it, or what to say.
It was something else.
Partly, it was that I really, really dislike being told to say something. Shuts me right up.
I talk a lot. Believe me. The quickest way to put a stop to that is to tell me to say something, something specific. I can't do it. (Or at least, I couldn't.)
So imagine, if you will, me trying to give a student a lesson, trying to remember what to do, when and how to do it, trying to maintain my own position, AND trying to observe what my student is doing, so I can make any necessary corrections.
Now imagine me not being very practiced at that. It's somewhat like trying to juggle three bowling balls, a cat, and a couple of knives, while balancing on one foot on a rocking chair- and then being asked where your car keys are.
The neural connections necessary to get words to come out of my mouth, and for them to be genuine, honest, constructive feedback just weren't happening. Not no way, not no how.
So my ever-helpful master would "suggest" to me that I should give more feedback. A reminder, if you will. Encouragement.
Except it triggered every button I had in the "I hate being told what to do" department. And I'd clam right up. Whether I wanted to or not. And I emphatically did not.
"Suggesting" would rapidly escalate to "outright ordering," and all the while, my poor student would be standing there not knowing what the hell to do.
This is not, shall we say, an ideal situation.
Hard to understand, now, why they didn't all quit, and why I wasn't tossed out on my ass.
Resistance is futile.
The next phase would be for him to tell me to repeat specific words, as if they were honest feedback, to get the feel of when and how to do it, but because it was NOT real feedback, it fell into the chasm of "but how can I say something I don't genuinely mean?" and I couldn't do that, either.
We had more than one of these lovely episodes. I'd say how many, but I've apparently blocked most of them out. There is no way, reading this, that you can understand exactly how paralyzing this was, or the emotional abyss it would throw me into. I don't think he ever understood, at all, what was going on- it simply did not make sense to him. On the face of it, repeating a word or two is a VERY simple task. Something everyone should be able to do without thinking about it.
All that psychological baggage was not so simple.
He's probably reading this, and though I'd like to think it would make him chuckle, it's more likely that the reminder makes him want to kick my ass even now. It makes ME want to kick my OWN ass.
I got better. :-)
I don't really know how that happened, what made the difference. Part toughing it out, part conscious choice to just do it, even if it didn't feel "right," part practicing a lot while not being so closely observed. Part getting better at the mechanics of everything else in giving a lesson, so it was possible to focus on the feedback part. Part having a better understanding of the purpose and meaning of feedback, and of the cyclical nature of learning.
One thing I learned from all this is that "simple" and "easy" are not always the same thing. Maybe not EVER the same thing.
"...willing to sacrifice what must be sacrificed to achieve your goal."
Want to know what the hardest thing to give up is? The one that makes people quit most frequently?
People hang onto that one tooth and nail. The hardest thing to let go of is doubt and fear, particularly to do with your ability to succeed. Doubt that you can, fear that you won't.
I think it's a crutch.
So instead of having to face "I could have done it, but I didn't" you get to say "I knew it all along, it was fate, it's not my fault, it was just something I could never have done no matter how much I tried..." or somesuch. I also think people put themselves down so it doesn't hurt so bad when someone else does. The "silly hat" defense.
Anyhow, it's the hardest thing to give up- and the thing that gets most in the way.
One thing I was taught way early on is how students are always willing to believe something bad about themselves, but may refuse to accept any praise as legitimate. Tell them they did something well and they'll almost always say "not really" or "it could have been better." Sometimes even "no it wasn't" or the currently in vogue "I suck." So part of the teaching process is to teach people how to accept positive feedback.
Trouble is, a lot of people use positive feedback dishonestly. And people catch onto that, which is why when you teach, you must NOT do that. All feedback must be legitimate, or there will be no reason for the student to trust you, ever.
And if they don't trust you, they won't believe what you say, they won't accept feedback, and if they don't accept it, it won't guide them, they won't learn, and you'll both be wasting your time.
At the same time, some positive feedback is not so much "that was perfect" as it is "that is what I wanted you to do right now" because beginners aren't going to be perfect, but they CAN take steps in the right direction. You have to be sure the student understands the cyclical nature of learning, so they can accept praise for an action as legitimate and true, even when it isn't perfect.
Accepting feedback, like anything else, takes practice.
It isn't "do as I say." It isn't "do as I say, not as I do." It's "do as I say, and eventually, you might be able to do as I do."
It's about trust.
Trust that he can, in fact, convey his knowledge and expertise to me. That he will do so in a safe manner. That he will push me, expand my limits, my "comfort zone," but he won't actually kill me. That any information I give him will be used to help me reach my goal, and not to attack me or belittle me in any way. That if I do what he says, it will lead me to where I want to go.
Learning to fence, and to teach fencing, is not like anything else I have done in my life. (Except for the ways in which it's all the same stuff, but I digress.)
In order to fence, you must first be able to control your own body, and then, to control the weapon. In order to fence well, you must also be able to control your opponent. And in order to do that, you must be at a level of awareness that is not often reached by anyone for anything. It is all counter-intuitive, and much of it is at the level of instinct and reflex.
Like an onion- and an ogre- you have layers.
And fencing, really, takes place at the innermost layer. REACHING that layer is at the heart of everything I am training to do.
I can't reach it by myself. I don't know where it is, how to get there, or what to do with it when I do.
I need the daily, constant, guidance of a master.
The only way to do that, to have that guidance, to benefit from it, is for me to be absolutely honest and open about everything about myself. To be transparent.
To be naked. Emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
This is quite difficult to do. :-)
The dominant culture is driven by the fear of, and avoidance of, embarrassment. People seek approval, acceptance, affection. They avoid, at almost all costs, any situation that opens them up to being seen as lesser, imperfect, or mistaken, equating that with stupid and worthless.
I have to do the opposite. I have to purposely ferret out and expose every weakness I have. Every doubt. Every fear. I have to seek out opportunities to work on the very things I can't do, or am afraid of, and embrace those.
At the same time, I have to have absolute trust in my master, to respect my fears, and to go ahead and push me off that cliff, out of the nest, if need be, so I can learn to fly.
It would be lovely and poetic to say that I trust him to catch me if I fall, but it isn't exactly like that. In a way, I have to trust him to LET ME FALL, so I can learn to pick myself back up when I do.
This is an ongoing challenge, this effort to go against what is most natural. To continually open myself, layer by layer, so I can learn, so I can improve my skills, so I can get closer to being centered and balanced.
I won't pretend it isn't difficult, and sometimes painful. It is.
It's a word full of meaning, full of promise, and full of misunderstandings.
It basically got a well-deserved bad rap when connected to "slave." Tell someone you have a "master," or refer to someone by that title, and people get very nervous and uncomfortable.
Right up front, I'll tell you that's not what I mean by it at all. I'm not talking about a "power-over" relationship where one person has no say, and no choice. I'm also not talking about a BDSM thing where people are playing with the master/slave power structure.
Apprenticing to a master is full of choice. And it isn't play, or pretend.
What I'm talking about is someone who has mastery of a skill, who embodies that, and who is able to teach that skill, that way of being, to an apprentice.
Not an easy task.
Being a master is two-thirds of a very specific trust relationship, with a huge responsibility. Being an apprentice is the other two thirds.
Yes. I know. And we'll talk about math a lot more as time goes on. But it's exactly what I meant. Each person has to give more than half.
First of all, the master has to actually have the skill. Has to be able to do the thing, not just talk about it.
But it's more than that. Being a master is about teaching, and it isn't always the most highly skilled practitioner who is the best teacher.
Some other necessary qualities:
1. Honesty- especially in evaluating performance. 2. Sensitivity, and the ability to discern subtle changes in the student. 3. Communication. This should have been first on the list. Should be the first ten, really. 4. Good listening skills. 5. Patience- but not for bullshit. 6. Willingness to learn. 7. An understanding of how people learn. 8. The ability to model, and to inspire 9. The ability to be whatever the student needs in the moment in order to facilitate learning. Sometimes, this is the toughest part, when there is a need to be stern or demanding with someone with whom you have a close relationship. You must be able to do this without anger, staying in control of your emotions, especially if your student is not.
There's more, but that's a decent start, and enough for now.
One last bit... what kind of master are we talking about? The name of the blog includes "swordmaster" but I've also referred to him as my "fencing master," so what's the difference? Are they the same thing?
The answer is "it depends."
In general, most of the time, no, probably not. There are a large number of people out there today who have the title "fencing master," but who are not really masters. The "authority" to give that title originally was only in the hands of other fencing masters. But for a variety of reasons, it currently is not so, at least not in the US, where that title is given most often by the United States Fencing Coaches Association. A coach designating someone a master is a lot like having EMTs giving out medical degrees. Coaches are only qualified to designate another coach- and that's basically what the USFCA does. They CALL them "fencing masters," but they are coaches. They also call what they are doing "fencing," and it isn't, but that's another story.
For our purposes, with this particular person, yes, they mean pretty much the same thing. Part of that has to do with the fact that my master is trained in more than the modern fencing weapons, and was trained by a master in a long line of fencing masters. And part has to do with what skills and knowledge he is able to teach me, what I'm trying to learn from him, which isn't only about the three modern weapons, or about sport competition. It isn't only about fencing, even. And part has to do with the fact that he is trained to teach, to develop mastery in another person, not just to help someone win a game.
That's his part. Next time, I'll talk about my part.
"Fencing is the ultimate fighting art. It offers a clarity like no other, a completeness unsurpassed. A scientific reliability that suggests that there are inescapable laws at work to hold the fabric of creation together. It demands every shred of muscle and nerve, a balance of sensitivity and strength, decisiveness and flexibility. It will teach you things about conflict most people never learn, teach you things about human beings that most people never understand- and teach you things about yourself that most people would rather not know.
Assuming, that is, that you learn it from a real master."
Things I think anyone considering such a thing should know
1. It's a process, not an event.
2. If you think it's only about fencing, forget it.
3. It requires both commitment and change. Real change. It is not just the gaining of new skills, but the replacement of old unproductive thought patterns and habits. Changing how you see and relate to most everything and everyone. These changes will not necessarily be easy. And that's not only for you, but for other people in your life- they may find the changes difficult.
4. People are going to think you're nuts. As a rule, even those who most want to be supportive will only support you to a point- the limit of their understanding of what you're doing. To most people, fencing is a sport, an insignificant one at best, a game, and what you are doing is learning to be a coach. A coach, mind you, for a sport no one watches, participates in, or understands. At best, a marginalized activity, a part time thing, benefitting very few. So why do you care so much? And if you make any attempt to explain why, to get at the level of personal growth and where that leads you, they'll think you've gone right over the edge entirely, because the concept is not in their worldview, it's a bunch of hooey. (Are you sure this isn't a cult?)
5. It's about teaching, about learning. If you aren't enthusiastically interested in both of those things, this is not the opportunity for you.
6. The level of detail will astound you. Repeatedly. The sheer number of hours this is going to take is huge. We're talking years, not months. A long term commitment.
7. This has the potential to rearrange your entire life. In ways you may not expect. It will change your priorities, change how you relate to people, change what you think and do, change how you make decisions. It may well change your very values- or at least, accentuate them if yours are already compatible.
ps. This scares people. A lot. Do not underestimate this.
8. If you think you understand all this, and you still "agree" and you're rarin' to go, you've got a handle on it, this is the path for me, made my decision, yessir...
you're wrong. :-)
No matter how much you understand of it, no matter how much awareness you have of what is involved, no matter how ready you are for that, no matter how committed you are, you will still have moments of nearly-overwhelming mind-boggling eye-opening "what the fuck?" discovery of yet another level of possibility. It may delight you. It may astound you. It may temporarily (or permanently) overwhelm you with the feeling that you will never, ever, be able to do this. But you cannot possibly, right now, really understand what you are getting into because you simply do not have the ability to understand things that you can't yet imagine exist. You can't see around corners, or into the future.
Did I mention that this is not a smooth featureless landscape?
Perhaps the reason the process takes so long is that it takes years (what is the theoretical number, seven?) for your body to replace every cell- and that, in a nutshell, is the level of change you're attempting. Every cell. Every nerve. Every pre-existing pattern. Every instinct. Every "natural reaction." That level of growth and change. Becoming, literally, a different person.
It's not that it can't be done.
But it can't be done by someone attached to what they've known before, or know now. By someone resistant or reluctant to change. By someone who enters into this with any intention of withholding or being in any way- even the tiniest way- dishonest.
It is about exposing your own weaknesses, not hiding them. Admitting to difficulties, not avoiding them. Embracing responsibility. About understanding, not pretending.
Perhaps the simplest way of explaining is to use something my fencing master has said to me. Simple as it is, I only began to understand it in layers, as I met them, and I'm sure I have not reached the deepest one yet.
You must be willing to do whatever must be done to achieve your goal. Further, you must be willing to sacrifice whatever must be sacrificed to achieve your goal.
These are not lofty statements, intended to inspire. They are the literal truth, each word specifically chosen, and equally important. "Willing" is as important as "must." And you can't possibly predict what things these will be, in either direction. They are different for each person, bound into your very self, your life, your beliefs, your experiences. Some will seem small things. Easy enough to let go of. Some, your ego will fight you tooth and nail over.
There. That about sums it up. Ought to scare off any sensible person.
Interestingly, both none of it, and all of it, are directly related to fencing itself.
I decided I wanted to study foil, after all, some of my misconceptions having been rectified.
In addition to the appeal of the sword, itself, I found the environment of the classes to be something I very much enjoyed and appreciated. Good, honest, hard work. Respect and encouragement from the other students. Overall, a time and place set apart from the rest of the world, from the stress and everyday troubles I normally dealt with.
A place I could stop thinking, and just feel. Moving meditation, in a way.
Each class in the introductory series of classes has its own "personality." Certain topics are covered in very specific ways. I began to recognize some of the patterns.
The first class is the set up for all the rest. That's an important thing. Safety rules are laid out. Expectations communicated. Students are welcomed to the art, science and spirit of the sword.
One of the best thing about classes taught by our fencing master is that he often illustrates things by telling stories. And he's a great storyteller.
I remember one particular first class when he talked to everyone about what they were getting themselves into. He talked about the three musketeers. About honor. And about how if you want the world to be a certain way, it is your responsibility to do everything you can to make it that way. Sometimes, there won't be much you can do- but you must try. Sometimes- maybe always- it will cost you, but you still must act to create the good, to stand up for truth.
You can only affect those within your sphere of influence, which means there will be many things, many people, you can't reach. But those you can reach, you have a responsibility to. Those who can, must, because those who can't, can't. It is the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak.
For some reason, that particular day, those thoughts really struck me, really hit me hard.
I had somehow found this place in the world where people treated each other with respect, where it was a safe place, emotionally and physically, to be, where no one was treated differently because of their age or size or sex or skin color. And I liked it.
While there may be little I can do to change the world at large, this, this fencing thing, this is something I think I might be able to contribute. Maybe I could help, somehow, by keeping alive the spirit of chivalry, by providing at least these students with an environment that is so seldom found elsewhere. I realized that these very people were the ones in my sphere of influence, the ones I therefore have an obligation to.
If I didn't do it, who would? Fencing, real fencing, is fast disappearing from the world, after having been a part of it for hundreds of years. There are things, important things, to be gained from its study that are likely disappearing as well.
I did not - do not- want this to be so.
So I did the only thing I could do.
I went to talk to him about wanting to teach, if he would help me learn how to do that.
Interestingly (though no longer surprisingly), he seemed already to have known I would do so, and was prepared for my questions, and invited me to start assisting him.
I had no idea, at the time, what I was getting myself into, how much effort and dedication it would take, or how profound the changes in myself would be. Not a clue.
I've mentioned more than once my early feelings about foils, my lack of respect for them. They reminded me of car antennas. Whippy little things. Not real swords. Toys. For pretending. And there's still that French thing going on.
I'm sure many, many people- especially those who have a romanticized image of swords, as most people do- feel pretty much the same way.
I'm equally sure that they, like I was, are mistaken.
I could go on at great length about what foils are and are not, how they are made, why they are as lightweight as they are, what the practical applications of that are. I could write about how they are safer to use. I could explain how the foil is a practice weapon, never intended to be "real."
And it would be deadly dull and boring. And it wouldn't convince anyone of anything anyway.
They still don't look like real swords.
Here's the thing: what makes a sword real? Is it the size, the weight, the shape of the thing? Or is it something else?
Way back in the long time ago, when I was just starting to pick up the foil, when I was still trying to reliably find my feet, and when I was beginning to realize that waving those things around might not be as easy as it looked, I finally accepted the invitation to watch a tournament.
Not just any tournament. A fencing match between two fencing masters.
Can't get any better than that, right?
Until this point, I had seen my mild-mannered fencing master.... oh, wait. That must be some other guy.
I had been taking individual rapier lessons for a couple of years, and had taken some foil classes by this time. I had only seen our fencing master as a teacher. His persona as a teacher was one of strength, focus, balance and mystery, mixed with patience, an uncanny skill in knowing exactly what a student needed to work on next, and an attitude gained from having grown up in Chicago. Not someone anyone would want to meet in a dark alley. Not scary, exactly, but... well, maybe scary, exactly, at least some of the time. Stern, when necessary. And no nonsense, always.
I didn't know what to expect, seeing him fence for the first time, but whatever it was, it wasn't this.
He picked up his foil, and stood on guard.
And became someone... something... else.
A cat. Playing with a mouse.
Light hearted, joyful, even.
Still the same focus, the same intensity, but with an undeniable joi de guerre.
And something else.
That foil in his hand was clearly, unmistakably, a weapon.
No willy-waving here. Nothing silly or frou-frou about it.
Even though it looked exactly like one of those lightweight things I had held in my hand, in HIS hand, it was something else entirely.
It was, in a word, real. Dangerous.
There are some questions that new students often ask. One of the most frequent is some variety of "If one person had one kind of sword, and the other had a different kind of sword, who would win?"
They almost always expect the answer to be that the longer sword would win. A few, occasionally, hoping to be clever, expect the smaller sword to win, that somehow there is some "trick" to it.
There's no trick.
I usually ask them this: if I had a rapier, maybe even two rapiers, and the master had a toothpick, who would win? That gets the point across.
The truth is... he wouldn't need a toothpick.
It is not the sword in someone's hand that is, or is not, "real." It is the hand- and the heart- that the sword is in, that makes it real.