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.

Friday, September 26, 2008

On becoming the sword

When I first started out, I thought that the goal was to reach a point where the sword becomes an extension of my body. Something I had control over, somewhat like a part of my arm.

Then I thought no, I needed to become an extension of the sword. To take on the characteristics of the sword myself, becoming part of it, rather than it becoming part of me. I thought this revelation was quite clever, at the time.

The truth is not really either of those, and not a combination of the two, but something else entirely. A connection that cannot be fathomed before getting there.

The "getting there" part is infinitely fascinating.

I was pondering this while observing the classes today.

There is a process that is observable and predictable. People don't go through all the parts of it at the same pace, or in the same order, but they do have to go through them all. No shortcuts.

First off, it is very clear that when students start to work with a sword, it is a VERY separate thing from themselves. It is an inanimate object that they hold in their hand (or hands).

For some people, adding a sword to their learning experience makes them focus entirely on the sword, the weapon in their hands. These people hold on with a death grip. They tense every muscle, and pour huge amounts of energy and effort into wielding this strange new thing. In so doing, they lose all awareness of the movement of their bodies, and throw themselves off balance with nearly every movement. It is as if the sword moves of its own accord, and they struggle to hang on and keep up. With every movement, the tension increases, and every error of line is magnified. They come up on their toes, like a ballerina, and assume postures never before imagined, without realizing until afterwards where they are, and not knowing exactly how they even got there.

For others, adding the sword doesn't really change the struggle they are going through to control their bodies. They hardly hold onto it- and sometimes drop it. They look all around the room, trying to figure out their place in it, or simply not paying much attention to what they are looking at, with all their energy and effort going inwards, to try to keep from tripping over themselves. Some are relatively successful with the not falling over part, and others are not. Either way, the sword flails about fairly wildly, all over the place as they move about. They are not able to control the point of the weapon at all, and often are not even aware that they are not doing so. They appear to be unaware that they are pointing their swords in vastly different directions than anyone else, because they are not able to pay attention to that many things at once. They are not stupid- they are preoccupied.

These are fairly extreme descriptions of the beginnings of developing sentiment du fer. Each student will vary in which of these they are experiencing, and to what degree, at any given time, but they will all do both of these at some point, sometimes alternating between the two during the same class.

Part of what I find fascinating is how easy it is to observe a group and see where they are on this continuum. It is very easy to see from the outside what it is not easy to control from the inside.

When teaching, being aware of which of these situations a particular student is experiencing helps tremendously in knowing what they need to work on next, and why. The goal- or A goal- is to assist the student in incorporating the sword, in being able to shift focus at will and by necessity, rather than becoming "trapped" by an inability to control where they need to focus. Sometimes, I must control their focus for them, until they are able to do so. Other times, I provide a nudge, a suggestion, a direction, and they are able to follow.

When someone is trying to communicate in a language other than their native tongue, it is often possible to deduce what language they translate FROM by the types of errors they make. Likewise with the sword. Certain errors, or patterns of errors, are characteristic of certain people, and of certain difficulties they have in other aspects of their lives.

How do they deal with tension?
How do they approach new or unfamiliar situations?
What do they do when something unexpected happens, when things don't go as planned?
How well do they filter out distractions?
How aware are they of their space? Their body?

All of these will be reflected in how they handle a sword. Unerringly. This is why the study of the sword will teach you an enormous amount about your true self, if you are able to really look, and not give in to the temptation to avoid looking, or to make excuses, because it is often uncomfortable.

Fencing is about balance. About control. All of the exercises we do are to train the body- and the mind- to do exactly what is intended, in a coordinated and precise way.

In order to do this, every exercise must be done with care, with focus, with intent.
As the master says, practice slowly to learn quickly.

Make each movement as if it is the only one.
Do not anticipate the next movement. (This is very, very challenging, since anticipation, in some circumstances, is a survival skill.)
When it is necessary to move your body, focus on your body.
When it is necessary to move the sword, focus on the sword.
Yes, this means that if both must move at the same time, you MUST focus on BOTH.
In order to do this, you must be able to filter out everything that is unimportant and unnecessary.
And in order to do that, you must first learn how to TELL what is and is not important or necessary!

This takes some time.

The most common error, by FAR, of new students, and even of experienced students, is to go too fast.
To start combining things, taking shortcuts. To prioritize ease, and comfort, rather than precision.

Slow down. (Hmmm... where have I heard this before?)

Think of it this way:
Rarely is it necessary to be able to do anything with the level of precision required to be able to control yourself, your sword, and your opponent.
Even a brain surgeon only has to control two of the three. They control the "opponent" by rendering them unconscious. Chemical control. Plus, their "opponent" isn't trying to kill them at the same time.

You don't get to do that.
You have a live, conscious, dangerous, armed person to deal with.

Anything you can control, you MUST control.

Otherwise, you don't stand a chance.

Slow down.
Let the sword teach you.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hearts of Fire

I met some incredible women this past weekend, and have been trying ever since to figure out how to put into words some of the thoughts, experiences and impressions I had. There is so much that it's difficult to find a single thread of thought to express it all.

Some of these women were at Ground Zero, and that, in itself, would be enough of a story to tell. But truthfully, we didn't discuss that day. We talked mostly of the future, not the past.

Some of these women are ground breakers. The first to do things no woman had ever done. Impressive things. First woman battalion chief in FDNY. First woman to be promoted into an elite rescue company in FDNY. But I only know this because I did some research afterwards. They never mentioned it.

I think that's what affected me most.

They don't talk about doing heroic things.
They DO them.
And they work very hard to encourage young women to find their way, to excel, and to live what is in their hearts of fire.
They specifically want to help MY daughter to follow in their footsteps. The best mentors she could possibly have.

They're simply women.
Extraordinary women, at times.
But ordinary women, too.

Mothers. Sisters. Lovers. Friends.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Carbon dating, of sorts

Had some online fun last night.

No, not that kind. :-)

My oldest discovered that Google Maps had updated their maps of our area. We used to be able to zoom in only far enough to see vague greenish fuzzy blobs for most of this area. Now, we can zoom in far enough to see a whole lot more.

So we embarked on a game, of sorts, to try to figure out WHEN the new pictures were taken. We have it narrowed down to sometime between March 4 and June 30, 2007.

We did this by looking for things that we know had changed, and that we know WHEN they changed.

That barn that burned? Not there in the picture, so it has to have been taken after that fire. The image shows the burned house of a couple of my students, so it has to have been after their fire, but before the house was demolished. The trailers we lived in after our fire ARE in the picture, so it has to have been before we moved back into our house.

Some people date by tree rings.
We apparently date by fire damage.

We tried looking at area construction- and there is plenty of that!- but we didn't know the dates of different parts of the construction process well enough to narrow things down any further.


Try it.

Look at where you live, see how far you can zoom in, and see if you can find details that tell you when the picture was taken.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dancing in the moonlight

Had the opportunity to spend some time a couple of nights ago, out in the night, with brisk winds and a beautiful full moon.

I love being out in a storm. Always have.

Of course these days, "being out in a storm" isn't always just to enjoy the feel of the dropping air pressure, the wind in my face, the sense of anticipation in the air.

Our first call a couple of nights ago was for a tree on wires, causing sparks.
Never found it.
Apparently, whatever it was that whoever saw, had corrected itself somehow before we got there.
Those who responded to the call stood out in the night for a while, enjoying it, and then headed back home for bed. Not everyone is sociable at 2:00am.

About the time I fell asleep, the pager went off again. This time, for our "sister company," the other company in our district, to go mutual aid to a neighboring town for what turned out to be a large barn fire. Not for us. We listened in on the scanner for a while, and then, back to bed.

About the time I fell asleep, the pager went off again, and, for the third time, I rolled over on my poor dog on my way out of bed.

Off we go again, for a tree down across the road.

Which it was. Large tree, for once. Covered in wild grapevines. And all the way across the road. This is going to take some time and effort.

So we parked the truck, and set out to mitigate the hazard. Hazard Mitigators 'Я Us.

Gear on? Check.
Chocked the truck. Check.
Set up the scene lights. Check.
Started the generator for the lights. Check.

While my partner went to get the chainsaw, I started to evaluate the tree, to see where we should start.

I took about two steps from the truck.

Looked up.

And now that we had the scene lights on, saw what we could not see in the shadows.

Power lines.
Going from a pole... to the ground.

A few feet in front of the truck.

We rapidly formulated a different plan. An orderly retreat, of sorts.

At this point, all we could do was get out of range and wait for NYSEG. Which we did.
For four hours.

Watched the trees swaying in the wind- gusts of 40-50mph.
Communed with the deer and chipmunks.
Saw the sun rise. Stood through a couple of brief rain showers, as light and delicate as the morning air.

And we got a good reminder of a thing or two, which I would like to share.

All guns are loaded.
All swords are sharp.
All dogs bite.
And all downed trees are on power lines.
(Either that, or they have an ectopic pregnancy, until proven differently.)(A little EMT humor.)

Look into the shadows.
Look up.
Whatever you do...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Off to a good- if crowded- start

Second class of a ten class series today.

Brand new students.
40-something of them.

That is a whole lotta people to fit into one class!

We're splitting them up next week, but for some of the introductory introductory stuff, it's good to have them all there and only have to go over stuff once. That way we know they all heard it, and they all heard it the same way.

It also gives me a chance to evaluate them, in order to make the best decision for splitting the group.

That was my task today.

41 students.
5 of whom have taken a class before, so I know who they are.

That leaves 36 names and faces to learn in a hurry.

Tried something today that I hadn't tried before- nametags.
The good thing about nametags is that I can keep associating name with face.
The bad thing is that a good, sweaty class does not bode well for stick-on nametags.

I had three primary goals for the class.

1. Safety. As always, the top priority.
2. Have one-on-one interactions with EVERY student, by name, at least half a dozen times each.
3. Get enough of a general idea of the group to be able to make the decision on how to split them.

Priority number one was covered.
Priority two as well.

Now for number 3: how to divide the group.

The question, of course, is how DO I make the decisions on how to split the group?

I look at a variety of things.

1. General body awareness level. How coordinated are they? Is this someone who is accustomed to physical activity, or not?
2. Level of focus and attention. Some of this is indicative of the level of interest, and some is a developmental issue.
3. Are there any kids who need to be in separate classes because they might become disruptive if left together?
4. Likewise, are there any who need to stay together? Siblings. Carpoolers. Best friends who want to take the class together.

For both three and four, it is important to watch interactions between students. Some combinations work very well together, they each encourage the other to excel, and some work the other way around, dragging each other down.

5. Age and gender. Not to discriminate, but because I like to have the classes maintain a balance, if possible. This is way down on the priority list, but if it's possible to keep a mixed group, I like to do that. This is different from most places where they try to group LIKE ages and genders.

Sometimes, with some classes, the split will be along skill level lines, but in an intro class, there are not different skill levels. Everyone is a beginner. In this specific class, all of the returning students first took the class over a year ago, and some of them, it has been several years, so there is no significant difference in skill level for those students. Difference in interest level, maybe.

6. Equipment needs. We have a limited number of certain sized weapons. We can't put all of the students who need those in the same group, or we won't have enough. So the eventual split needs to work with the equipment we have available. This is mostly a size issue. Sometimes works out to fit age/gender lines, but not necessarily.

7. Stated preferences of the students. We had a few specifically request to be at a certain time because of their schedules. As much as possible, we honor those requests. We would have to have a very good reason not to- and we don't have one.

So today I got to do one of the things I enjoy most about teaching.
I got to watch people come up against their lack of experience and knowledge in this particular field, and see what they did with that. Who keeps trying? Who starts to slack off? Who toughs everything out? Who is looking for a way to fake it? Who looks like they are enjoying the challenge? Who looks like they feel like they have just fallen off a cliff into hot lava?

It is ALWAYS interesting to watch the very beginning classes. Always.

Usually, there are a few who connect right away, who have found a spiritual home, and who really want to do this, who put in a huge amount of effort, pay attention, and start to self-correct early on. There were definitely some of those today.

There are usually some who are not developmentally ready to do this at any appreciable level of skill. As long as they are not being a danger to themselves or others, and they are getting enough out of it that they want to continue, that's fine. It will come. They will "get" what they are able to get. There's no hurry. These are usually the youngest boys- boys develop slower than girls, so we see some of that lag here. But it isn't always just that group.

There are usually some who appear to have come into the class thinking it would be easy, or expecting that they would just grab swords and start whacking at each other. These kids don't usually have a great time, and some of them will stop coming to class, usually because they don't want to do the work on footwork before being able to use the swords. Some will have their attitude adjusted, figure out the score, and do okay. Can't tell which will do which, and I'm not going to assume.

And then, usually the bulk of any class, there are those who want to do this, who find it difficult, and who aren't sure themselves exactly what to make of it yet. Everyone learns at their own pace, in this perhaps even more than in some things. Again, there is no hurry. And there is no way to hurry, either. The process of incorporating this new information takes the time it takes. These folks usually finish out the class, work very hard, and then have to decide whether they are interested enough to continue.

Our goal with the introductory series is to get them to that deciding place. To give them enough of a feel for what fencing is, for what it requires, and for what benefits it provides, that they can make a rational decision about how much effort and time they want to devote to it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

You don't have to SAY you love me...

I was thinking about love this morning.

Well... not exactly. I was thinking about how it is people know when they are loved. What makes someone FEEL loved?

There's an odd thing about that.

Everyone knows that "actions speak louder than words," right? Of course.

So why is it that so many people seem to need to hear those three words? Why do they need to be TOLD "I love you" for them to believe it?

I can tell you- as can many, many other people, I'm absolutely sure- that someone SAYING "I love you" doesn't necessarily mean squat. They can say it every day, for years, and still have it not mean a damned thing.

And yet...
how do you know if you are interpreting someone's behaviour accurately? How can you tell if what they DO means what you think it means?

Some behaviours are relatively easy to interpret, that's for sure. If someone beats the crap out of you, chances are pretty good that they don't "love" you. There are all sorts of other ways of treating people badly that are a really big clue that love is not the primary motivator.

So how do you account for people who stay in bad relationships, even abusive relationships, regardless of how they are treated? How many of them believe that the other person loves them? How many people believe that BECAUSE the person apologizes, and tells them that they love them?

And the flip side... what about when someone treats you well, or nicely? There are all sorts of possible positive behaviors, but I'll cut to the big one: If someone makes love to you, does that mean they love you? Ha! I'm betting we can all easily agree that that ain't necessarily so.

It's a quandary.

I think people often want to be told "I love you" because they somehow believe that it is EASIER to interpret those words accurately, than it is to interpret behaviour accurately. They want verbal confirmation of whatever actions they are experiencing, as if somehow, getting those to "match up" makes everything clear. They want that "missing piece" of intentional verbalization of feelings, in order to put it all together.

This would all be much simpler, of course, if people actually MEANT "I love you" when they say it, rather than the entire gamut of other things that are generally meant by those words, ranging from "I want to have sex with you and I think this is how I can get it" to "I'm afraid if you leave and I haven't said this, then if you die in a horrible accident I'm going to feel guilty for the rest of my life" to "this is what I'm supposed to feel, so I'll say I do."

It would also be much simpler if everyone agreed on what love itself MEANS, anyway.

Most people seem to think it means something along the lines of "Aren't you lucky! I have chosen YOU to be the person who meets ALL of my needs!"

I'm more of the "I really enjoy being around you, and I'd like to share some of myself with you, and do whatever I can to help you meet YOUR needs" persuasion.

At any rate, the very definition of love is not well established, nor agreed on.

So. Back to the beginning.

If someone acts like they care about you, there is often this nagging doubt (and sometimes it is accurate!) of the validity of the interpretation of such behaviour. So most people also want to be told. But if you are TOLD, then you can't be sure that it means what you think it means.

Most people default to wanting the words. Words seem to be so much more concrete, so much simpler, so much easier to grasp.


That's mind boggling, what with the rampant misinterpretation of nearly everything ever said, about anything, whether such misinterpretation is intentional or not. And what about that "Actions speak louder..." thing?

Back to my question.

What makes someone FEEL loved? How can you know, for sure, how someone feels about you? How can you ever get off that edge of "maybe," of doubt, of having SOME evidence to support caring, loving feelings, but never enough to let down your guard?

I guess my real question is this:

Do people who have never loved and been betrayed not go through all this torturous questioning? Do they just believe, without hesitation, without doubt, without twisting themselves up into knots needing to be sure they are not, once again, misinterpreting or falling for bullshit? Are they able to give and receive love, whatever that is, without the crushing pressure of knowing exactly what it feels like to have that turn out to be a load of crap? Can they just hear the words, or be treated well, and feel loved?

And if so, is that a good thing? Or a dangerous thing?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The season is almost upon us

It was chilly today. Had to start the day out wearing a sweatshirt, for the first time in months.

Ah, fall. I had that cider and a doughnut, by the way, courtesy of the little country fair we went to last weekend.

When I was a kid, my memories of this time of year are mostly the beginning of school, and the shortening of available daylight. Had to come in earlier at night, and it was starting to cool down then, anyway, so coming inside wasn't such a bad thing. Reading books in the living room by lamplight, rather than up in a tree, by dappled sunlight.

When I reached the age of paying attention to things such as time and dates, other than birthdays and Christmas, I realized that September is the beginning of that oft-dreaded time, Holiday Season™.

So I thought I'd write a little about the season, as it is celebrated in our house.

Starting the second weekend of October, we have what WE call "Christmas," the Friends of the Library Book Sale. Ooh, baby. The mother of all book sales. A few years back, when I lived out in CA for a couple of years, we went to something called a library book sale there, and woe, the disappointment, the long faces and teary eyes, to walk in and find a couple of tables with a few books on them.

The Library Book Sale here is an Event. One that brings visitors from far and wide. People camp out the night before, even in the rain. I've even camped out. It is Christmas and Birthday, Great Pumpkin and Easter Beagle all rolled up into one. As it says on their website, the "number of items for sale usually exceeds 250,000."

And that's for each sale, now that it happens twice a year.

Plus, the prices start out quite reasonable, and get progressively cheaper every day of the sale, so on the last day, everything is a dime, and there's usually a lot of interesting stuff left. Most of my classic literature collection was purchased at ten cents per book.

The sale runs right into our next family celebration. We celebrate Thanksgiving on Canadian Thanksgiving, for a variety of reasons, not the least being it's when we're all here to celebrate it. A brilliant suggestion from a friend the first year we were faced with spending the american version not together as a family. Not nearly as stressful as trying to get everything together the same time as zillions of other people, for one thing. And closer to when things actually are harvested here. Not to mention, it avoids the whole pilgrim bullshit story.

After that comes the season that most people don't consider, and those who "celebrate it," rarely wish to do so again.

I'm talking about Chimney Fire Season.
In conjunction with Turning the Heat Back On Season.
And also, Kerosene Heater Accident Season.
Celebrated by a bunch of firefighters running around like mad, trying to keep up with it all.

This was all a long-winded introduction to a Public Service Announcement.

Get your chimneys cleaned.
Have your furnace cleaned.
Don't postpone it.
Don't decide not to bother.

Change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Add a few more smoke detectors. The more, the merrier.
Get some good-sized fire extinguishers, learn how to use them, and mount them on your wall in an accessible location. I'm a big believer in bright red home decor.

Don't leave space heaters unattended, especially any kerosene heaters.
Make sure you have Carbon Monoxide alarms if you have any kind of source of combustion in your house. Fuel oil, kerosene, natural gas, propane, whether it's for heat or hot water, your dryer or your stove.

Let's get through this cooling down time of year, without any rapidly heating up occasions.

Then we can go on to discuss the rest of the holidays.

I'll even tell you about my family's four Major Holidays of the year:
November 1st, December 26th, Feb 15th, and the day after Easter.

Cheap Chocolate Days.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Now listen up...

I was catching up on a friend's blog the other day, written about her experience in Europe this past year. She spent her academic year in Switzerland.

One of the things she mentioned was about living somewhere that she did not speak the language.

She had to really listen to people to be able to follow conversations at all. And although she picked up the language fairly easily, there was still a period of time when she could not understand it quickly enough to be able to understand AND contribute her own thoughts to a conversation.

Among other things, this helped her learn the value of listening more than you speak.

It would be good if more people were to learn this.

We had the first classes today for a couple of the PE classes we teach. Brand new students.

It amazes me sometimes to watch the behavior of people in brand new situations. How some dive right in. Some hang back and observe for a while. And some seem not to notice that anything outside their experience is happening at all because they are absolutely unaware of their surroundings.

We spent an hour and a half setting the stage for the semester. Talked about safety rules, and about how nothing can be guaranteed safe, but we can make things as safe as possible. Talked about how we do that- by having very regimented classes, with everything done by the numbers. There is no improvising.

We talked about fighting, about how it's not possible to win a fight, only to survive. Talked about how one of the valuable lessons learned by boxing is that in a fight, you will always get hurt.

These classes are not for the lightweight, thin, modern fencing weapons. One is a longsword class; the other a rapier class. Much heavier. Much more dangerous. These are not weapons designed to poke a little hole- they are made to remove parts of someone's anatomy.

So how is it that after one of the classes, when asked if they had any questions, the first question asked was "When do we get to do real fighting?"


NEVER, if you're lucky. Do you get that? N-E-V-E-R. Never.

So what, exactly, happened? What was this guy thinking the entire class? Did he never get past "Oooooh! Swords!"?

These are students at arguably one of the best Universities in the country. IQs way above average.

But often, way too often, they don't listen.
They are in too much of a hurry. For what, I'm not sure. To prove themselves somehow? To have the last word? To make an impression?

Whatever it is, they would be well served to learn the lesson my friend learned overseas.

Listen well.

And learn to tell the difference between reality and fantasy...

but that's a different story.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Two years

Saw this in the news today:

   A house fire in Summit, Illinois left three children dead and the mother
   in critical condition. Investigators believe the fire started in the living
   room of the two story wood frame dwelling.

Two years ago today, we had a house fire. It started at around noon, on a Sunday. We were watching TV in the living room when we noticed smoke coming up the stairwell.

We were able to get people and animals out of the house safely- although we had only about a minute or two to do so before the smoke was so thick you could not see. I was able to knock the fire down temporarily with a fire extinguisher, but was not able to get close enough to put the fire out.

Funny thing- fire is hot. Really hot. With an outdoor fire, like a campfire, the heat and smoke rise into the air, so most of it dissipates quickly. Not so much inside a house.

The fire department took about 7 minutes to get there. We live half a mile from the fire station, but it is all-volunteer, so the firefighters had to go TO the station first, and I knew that. I stood in the front yard listening to glass jars and picture frames in my house explode from the heat while waiting.

We had no idea at the time what an unusual situation we would have, where the fire was mostly contained to the room of origin. What they call a "good stop." The house filled with thick, black smoke, so much so that it ran down the walls in the back of my closet. The fire itself came up the stairs, and it spread outwards from the room where it started to the ceilings of the other rooms downstairs, but the fire department was able to control it before the temperature got hot enough to flashover.

It was amazing how rapidly our thoughts turned from intense concern over possibly losing our house and everything we owned, to realizing it's all just stuff.

We were fortunate. We had insurance. After living in hotels for a month, we lived in travel trailers in our yard for 9 months while our house was first mostly gutted and then rebuilt. We have been back in the house for 14 months now, and although we have yet to finish going through the boxes of salvaged stuff, we are very appreciative of being here.

My point is this:

We did the right things, in the right order, and we all made it out okay. There was a series of fortunate circumstances that made it possible for the fire to be controlled quickly, with minimal, albeit still considerable, damage.

It so easily could have gone another way.

Had it begun at night, or when we were not home, the story would have likely had a very, very different ending. I can't even think about it.

My heart aches for that family in Illinois this morning. We are so grateful, and very aware, that but for the grace of god, that might have been our fate.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Here it comes

It's almost that time of year.

Colorful falling leaves, the hint of apples in the air, suggesting cinnamon doughnuts and cider on a chilly morning. Crisp breezes, with sudden surprising sunny afternoons. The first frost, which makes the grapevines wilt.

I love the Fall.

For years, I couldn't enjoy it because it only reminded me of how quickly winter would crash into town, like a retaining wall suddenly collapsing. Winter and I have not been friends for most of my life.

A few years back I discovered it isn't winter I hated, it's being cold. Stay warm, and winter has its own stark beauty. I found out I enjoy shoveling snow. It's a very warm activity, outside in the cold, yet not cold on the inside. And since joining the fire department, winter has a new personality, where the weather isn't nearly as important as getting to where we're needed. No time to indulge in not liking the snow. I've seen more of the winter NIGHT since then than I had the rest of my life, when I used to just stay indoors.

I have, in fact, had to pick up the garbage in the snow, but that's not what I came to tell you about.

Came to talk about the draft.

Err... ummm.. not exactly. :-) (Anyone who gets the reference gets a prize. Anyone except for you, SJ. If you DON'T get it, I'm going to come right over and check your BP.)

It's the time of year when new classes start. We have four starting in the next week, and that's pretty danged exciting.

When I was a child, the "first day of school" meant getting up early, and turning lights on in the morning- something I've never really done other times of year. It meant packing a lunch, and going off to a different world. It meant that giddy anticipation of finding out. What classes was I in? Who were the teachers? Who would I see that I had not seen all summer? Where am I in the complex social structure of the school-world? (That last one had an easy answer, but I digress...)

Now, it is not so much the getting up before dawn to try to get ready... I do that frequently enough, anyway, when the pager goes off in the middle of the night. But there is still that sense of anticipation, and, for some reason, I still get the urge to go buy new notebooks and pencils.

I love new classes. New students.

I love that first day, the first impressions, us of them, and them of us, watching them try to figure out what they've gotten themselves into. I love watching people see the fencing master for the first time, because it is NEVER what they expected, and that's no matter what they expected. I don't even have to know what it was, I know this isn't it.

I love to watch people learn.

They start at zero, especially in this, and then there is a continuous stream of moments of incorporation. I can watch, from the beginning of a class to the end, 45 minutes or an hour later, and see learning take place. The subtle signs of a shift in stress level as things start to connect. The bright-eyed look as with connection comes enjoyment.

It is especially fascinating at the college level where most of the new students are not only in our class for the first time, but they are freshmen, away from home and on their own for the first time, starting their entire college experience. There is a rawness to it that I find delightful.

One semester, there was a student who purchased our textbook with the first check he had ever written- I had to help him figure out how to fill it out.

Our classes are sequential in nature, each class building on what was in the class before, and it is in these first introductory classes that it is the most obvious that this is so. A roomful of students trying things they've never done, with mixed success. What we are asking them to do is both simple and complex at the same time.

I love seeing which students figure this out first. That each skill is expanded on in each class, and what appears to be "review" is in fact a deepening of understanding. Who recognizes that the master's monologues are not, as they may seem to be, irrelevant personal commentary, but are, in fact, directly connected to the subject matter? Who thinks that after a couple of days, they know how to do this, and who realizes that this is only the tip of the iceberg? Who clearly actually wants to do this, and who just wants to float through the class, undoubtedly the same as they do through everything else in their lives, without appreciation, without attention, without intent?

I look for the few who seem to have found home, at last.
Kindred spirits.

And I look for those who appear to be totally lost.
They, more than anyone, need to learn what we can teach.