Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some guidelines

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

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

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

I was highly offended. Shocked, even.

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

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

I don't have the answer to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a huge realization.

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

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

To be responsible, first you must be aware.

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

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

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

When necessary, apologize. Immediately, if possible.

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

A real apology has two important components.

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

Not useful.

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

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

There are two parts to this one, too.

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

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

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

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

5. How to be a friend

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


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

That's not friendship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, effort. Paying attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Too little, too late

I'm getting worried.

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

There are very, very few real fencing masters left.

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

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

Damned few.

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

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

Fair question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't believe it will be enough.

Me, cynical??

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I have to share

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

Possibly my favorite, ever.

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

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

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

So I have to share some of it.

It's hard to choose...

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

The title? "Ithaca Fire Department."

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

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

Some choice tidbits:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Betwixt and between

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

It appeals to me for two main reasons.

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

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

I love that.

The other thing I love is the simplicity.

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

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

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

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

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

So what usually happens is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a thing of beauty.

But it takes a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not teleport.

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

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

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

Monday, October 6, 2008

It happened so fast

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

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

I'm stunned.

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

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

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

What about her family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 3, 2008

Surely you jest

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

I am.
About some things.

But not always.

I have a ridiculous streak about a mile wide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, well. C'est ça.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

testing, testing...

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

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

We do.

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

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

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

They will likely not do so again. :-)

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

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

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

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

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

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