Saturday, December 18, 2010

Computer Gaming and Fencing: the Transfinite Blade


One neat sub-branch of mathematics is Cantorian set theory. Cantor took one sly strategy, now sometimes called Cantor diagonalization, and applied it over and over again (in the same way Beethoven takes a single theme and develops it into a complete symphony) to develop the basis for an algebraic structure of infinities. Infinities?

Yes, there’s more than one if by chance you didn’t know. To be precise, there are a countable but infinite number of infinities. You can ask and answer questions like if I have two sets of two different infinite sizes and I put them together what is the infinite size of the result. Actually, that isn’t as interesting a question as it first sounds. It's more interesting to ask what is the particular infinite cardinality of interesting sets, say the Imaginary Numbers. And infinities can be ordered: one is strictly larger than another.

At this point I should mention that I have the highest regard for games, particularly those requiring strategy and analysis. Ever since 8 hours of Bridge with some particularly enjoyable partners turned a miserable, interminable wait in the Iquitos, Peru airport for a vintage airplane to take Lynn and I over the Andes into a pleasant day, I’ve had faith in the transcendent and transformative powers of games. And, obviously, games themselves can be art, just as playing them can be as shown by Ricky Jay, Bobby Fischer et al.

So I’ve just downloaded a wicked cool new game, an app for the IPAD, “Infinity Blade,” which, for once, lives up to the high praise it’s received. In spite of the limitations of the IPAD graphics engine, the game delivers dynamic real time graphics in a class with the best MMOs. But what I find particularly interesting is the game play itself, particularly the user interaction. For once, medieval combat is not trivially reduced to pushing a handful of virtual buttons. Instead, the touch screen swipe action is mapped to sword movement. Now, at any given instant you have to make the choice of whether to block or to attack and you have an infinite number of choices of how to sweep the blade, which yield greatly varying results. Combat requires continual focus, some precise hand muscle motor skills, even a little strategy. (Sound familiar?) In the parlance of the computer gaming development community, that makes the game deeply “emergent,” a very good thing.

Which leads me, naturally, to fencing. Among many other things it’s a game, too, in the strictest sense. However, I will spare you the formal, but trivial, argument showing that the infinity of potential actions in fencing is strictly larger than those in Infinity Blade. Further, stepping up into the meta-game, there are an infinite number of strategies within which are an infinite number of tactics which can lead to those actions. And it requires precise control and coordination of large and small muscles across the entire body.

So, from a certain point of view, fencing can be viewed as the equivalent of extreme computer gaming, even though a computer isn’t required.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

U of U Epee Circuit Tournament. On the Dangers of Exhilaration


One of the many memorable incidents in Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” is the is the camel charge of the Arab army into Aqaba during WWI. Freddie Young’s cinematography is spectacular; the young Peter O’Toole is dashing and passionate. Nevertheless, glorious as it is, T.E.’s description of the actual event in 7 Pillars of Wisdom is much better dramatically and has the signal virtue of being true. As Lawrence was riding pell-mell down a dune waving and firing his service revolver, his camel was abruptly shot out from beneath him and he was sent tumbling over the poor creature’s head. It was only after he’d stumbled to his senses and the tumult had passed that he realized that in the confusion he, himself, had shot his own mount by mistake. Lawrence’s self-effacing style is sometimes dismissed as disingenuous. I perceive his voice as a lens offering safety and strength through which he was able and willing to see the truth about the violence, chaos and weird, horrific humor of battle. In its own way it’s as immediate and visceral as the Wilfred Owen’s poetry or Hemingway’s early stories.

The incident came to mind Saturday at the USI Epee Circuit Tournament #4 at the University of Utah. Unlike the Weber State venue last month, the gymnasium was spare: just a large room with dirty white walls and, fortunately, a decent wood floor. The venue had been changed at the last minute requiring re-taping and setting all of the strips. Nevertheless, we started on time and the pools and DEs I saw were conducted efficiently and expeditiously. That may sound like a small thing but if you’ve ever participated in a competition where pool bouts were delayed because, for example, over-lapping events ran long, you know how dreary it is and how it can take a terrible toll on performance. If you don’t know when you’re going to fence it’s impossible to be ready.

We arrived a half hour early for the event, as had most of the other fencers. The room was cold. The pale faces and distract conversations suggested a higher level of stress than at the previous circuit tournaments, possibly because it was the last of the year. I stretched, warmed up and bouted with my cousin Robert in preparation, but it wasn’t clearly enough as I realized later. A critical mistake.

My first pool bout was against a newer member of our club. He’s capable, intelligent, athletic and he’s beat me in practice. It was a difficult and exhausting bout but I won with hand touches, one attack into his preparation and counter attacks that closed the line after his attack was short. The key was managing distance and that’s probably the most important thing I’ve been able to put into practice this year. Afterwards, I was confident, a bit exhilarated and totally exhausted. My warm up had been far from sufficient. Lynn suggested I eat a banana and I stupidly refused.

And so after that I promptly lost my remaining 4 pool bouts. Some were against better fencers, but some were not. And though I had a few good touches (a nice bind on a fencer with a rigid arm), my focus and attentiveness were far from where they should have been. Our pools finished early; many of the other strips were still busy. As I looked around, slightly dazed and embarrassed, Lawrence’s experience of shooting his own camel came to mind.

By the time DE’s started I was settled, nourished, warmed up and ready to battle back. I won my first DE, ironically against the clubmate I’d faced in my pool but then lost the second. He was a better fencer by multiple measures but I felt I should have taken more points in the encounter. The one positive point and most important aspect was that my coach came by during the bout and gave me some direction, which I then successfully applied to win a point. It may sound trivial, even to some fencers, but because of the speed and complexity of the sport it can be extremely difficult to do. But it can also be critical: at the last tournament the top fencer in our club won the final match in the tournament in part because he was able to do just that. To my mind, it’s a skill as important as knowing how to advance, lunge or parry.

My favorite bout of the day, however, turned out to be one that I had the pleasure to direct. It was a semifinal in the mixed senior event between two clubmates, Tom Gandy and Dakota Nollner. Both have improved during the last year and I suspect that improvement has not come easily for either, albeit for different reasons. From the very beginning it was clear it would be fierce. Almost every point was careful, demanding and draining. My favorite was the last: they were tied at 14 all. After a little blade play, Dakota suddenly and unexpectedly went for a low percentage shot, a toe touch. And got it. It was both elegant and clever. When he took off his mask and yelled I thought it was one of the few overt displays of passion that day that was merited.

The thing that stood out about the veterans event that followed was that everyone had improved. By now, I was fencing consistently, and doing consistently better. I was where I should have been in the morning when we’d first started.

Two regrets: the first, which I’ve already mentioned, is that in spite of my age and experience I persist in learning things the hard way. The second is that because I spent so much time watching the people I was competing against, I saw little of the other bouts, particularly, Lynn’s and Robert’s.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tourism at the Ends of the Earth...


This morning's NYT, has a pointer to some amazing video of a cruise ship in trouble in the Drake Passage on its way back from Antarctica. I recalled that Carolynn Foreman had said she'd had rough seas when she'd sailed to Greenland this past summer and I had both a renewed appreciation of what she'd weathered and how lucky we'd been when we circumnavigated Svalbard.

Here's a pointer to the article as well:

Running into Someone


It seems to happen to us more this time of year. You know how it is: you’re in Costco staring at an immense bag of lettuce heads wondering if you’ll ever use enough to justify it, or you’re in Neiman Marcus trying to make a rational decision about perfume for your wife, (both equally daunting and impossible tasks) when you look up and see someone looking directly back at you. You don’t know who it is but you know that both of you are trying to determine if it is the person you haven’t seen for years. Then there’s the moment of recognition and you think, it’s been so long, she (or he) looks so fit and prosperous. Or you think, she (or he), has really aged, how is they’ve aged when I haven’t? But then, of course you realize you have, even more.

You frantically catch up. And finally, she (or he) asks what have you been up to that she or he wouldn’t know about.

“Tournament next weekend in fact.”

All of which brings me back to the nearly ten years we spent in Boston, (where I didn’t fence but should have). Its preferred vision of itself as a tough town is deserved. When I think of all the things I enjoyed about it: learning to sail in Boston Harbor, working with very bright people, sea-kayaking (once) out to Georges Island, Thanksgiving dinner at our house in the wintry woods 10 miles west of town, Saturday morning breakfast in one of the large hotels followed by lengthy and lazy bookstore haunting, and the list goes on, nevertheless, there was one thing that was particularly memorable on several different levels.

While we were there, we discovered the fiction of Dennis Lehane. This was before he’d written Mystic River, when he was known almost exclusively for his Patrick Kenzy / Angie Gennaro mysteries. I can’t think of a contemporary novelist who’s better at capturing the diversity, complexity and uniqueness of a particular place. Besides being a damn good story teller, his novels are paeans to Boston and reading them while we were living there made living there richer, deeper and just more fun. In the late 90’s, after Gone Baby, Gone, Lehane left Angie and Patrick for different times and different characters. I missed them.

So there we were, just last Saturday, having stopped on a whim at the King’s English Bookstore, (one of the best in Utah) and who should we run into, whom we haven’t seen or heard from in years? Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzy. Lehane’s new novel Moonlight Mile returns to them. And how are they ten years later? Richer, deeper, more ironic and complicated, and so even more fun than they were before. I could have devoured the book that afternoon but it’s way too good to be devoured. I’m pacing myself.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What Weekly Open Fencing is Like

Pursuant to my last post, there's a new Adidas Advertisement which captures the spirit of weekly open fencing.  If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fencing Instructor Essentials


“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn…, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn – pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics – why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”
(Merlyn to Arthur in T. H. White’s, The Once and Future King.)

I don’t know how much White is read these days, I fear he is less popular than he once was, which is unfortunate. His magnum opus is sometimes dismissed as pastiche which is lamentable and ironic as he is in many ways a 21st century novelist. He understood the medieval world in a way few people of his century did, (T. E. Lawrence being an interesting exception.) That is to say, he understood it by doing it. For example, he raised a hunting hawk using the medieval method using Hohenstaufen’s classic work as his guide and chronicled it in The Goshawk one of the finest and deepest books about a relationship between a man and a wild creature. Then there is that quote above. One can “spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing.” That isn’t hyperbole; it’s the practical humility of someone who actually fenced for years.

In that regard, I think my own skill has improved a little. For example, at open fencing a few nights ago I sensed I was at least a more interesting adversary to some of the more advanced fencers in the club. When I make a list of reasons for it, my coach, Kenny Nopens, tops the list. Here’s why:

1. Relentless attention to precision and detail. For example, something as basic as a parry four is still a complex movement of larger and smaller muscles requiring split second precision and nearly autonomic response. Kenny is able both to communicate that and work relentlessly with his students to achieve it. And that applies to everything: foot work, blade work, timing, observation, tactics, strategy.

2. Adaptability. In our club our fencers ages span fifty years. Kenny is able to work within the challenging and changing bounds of every person’s interest, skill, physical capacity and does so with good cheer and diligence.

3. Patience. When I taught (just before the end of the last ice age) I used to believe I was a patient instructor and I learned how crucial patience is. Kenny exceeds that by an order of magnitude. It produces results; I’m constantly amazed at how quickly his students improve and excel in competition.

4. Inspiration. On numerous occasions, Lynn, Robert and I have walked outside after a lesson and one of us has commented, “that was an amazing class,” even after practicing basic parries, or something equally fundamental. The reason is the depth Kenny approaches everything, whether basic or advanced. After each class, I always want to fence more and be a better fencer.

The point of this is not to embarrass my coach with praise (albeit deserved) but rather to identify what I think are the most important attributes for a successful coach, which I’ve just done.

Finally, on another note, I’m beginning to believe the multiple anecdotal pieces of evidence that suggest our sport is growing and in interesting ways. I don’t know that I believe Tim Morehouse’s quote that the number of fencers in the US has quadrupled in the last two years but I do know that the fencing equipment suppliers are doing well and that media attention appears to be increasing. And, there’s the local data point: our club is doing well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What I'm Reading, What I've Just Seen: "The Fears of Henry IV," "Agora"


My deep interest in history comes, I believe, as a result of wanting to understand how we came to be what we are. My particular fondness for the late medieval (13th and 14th centuries) stems from the general parallels between that age and our own. It was a time of significant cultural, scientific and industrial change. Institutions were either failing or reinventing themselves. The consequence was the Renaissance, obviously.

The last few years have yielded especially fine books on the subject. Juliet Barker’s Agincourt and Ian Mortimer’s 1415: Henry V’s Year if Glory are by far the most compelling and engaging books I’ve read on the subject. Barker’s empathetic rendering of Henry and Mortimer’s much more critical one, pull you inside life at that time better than anything else I’ve read, history or fiction. Barker’s book is worth it for the description of the battle of Shrewsbury and the subsequent treatment of then Prince Henry’s facial wound alone, but is much, much more. Mortimer provides a day by day narrative of Henry’s life and major events in Europe for all of 1415 and, as a result, gave me an utterly new perspective on that age. If you want to understand that time, I doubt you could do better.

And, while we were in England, I came across Mortimer’s biography of Henry IV, The Fears of Henry IV: the Life of England’s Self-Made King. It’s a much more traditional narrative, but is engaging and reveals a life much richer and deeper than one might imagine from Shakespeare or Holinshed, my first touch stones for his character. And now, Lynn has just given me Korda’s new biography of T.E. Lawrence which looks like particularly good fun. I have that peculiar sense of fantastical wealth that comes from having good books to read.

I’m also very fond of historical film although I’m a difficult audience. Example: I’m deeply fond of Ridley Scott’s “The Kingdom of Heaven” but can hardly bear his “Robin Hood.” I expect something truly exceptional about once a decade.

So it was with great joy that I recently found “Agora,” Alejandro Amenabar’s film about the life of the great female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia who lived in Alexandria in the fourth and early fifth century A.D. It’s the most ambitious film I’ve seen in recent memory; it’s portrayal of time and place are exceptional and beautifully detailed. And, Rachel Weisz’s nuanced characterization of a beautiful woman who’s great passion was understanding planetary motion while surrounded by acolytes all suffering from various kinds of unrequited love, is beautiful.

It belongs in the company of truly great historical films, such as Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" or Ridley Scott's "The Duelists."

Monday, November 15, 2010

WSU Tournament 11-13-201 - Errol Flynn's Grin

There’s a scene in “Downhill Racer,” the quintessential film about that subject in which the racer, played by Robert Redford, is complaining to his coach, played by Gene Hackman, about how he could have won the race if only he’d been seeded higher. Hackman, listens for awhile, clearly becomes more and more aggravated and finally explodes. “No,” he says, “you simply weren’t strong enough and the ruts took you out. That’s all there is to it.” Not only is it true it, more importantly, it is also the only way to think about it. When you lose, grow stronger. Grow better.

It came to mind several times on Saturday and Sunday, thinking about the Epee Circuit Fencing Tournament at Weber State. First of all, the venue was the nicest I’ve competed in so far. However, I’d felt punk during the week and felt less than perfectly prepared. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I did about as well as I would have in any case, and though my results were very disappointing there was much about the tournament that I deeply enjoyed.

In my open senior pool bouts I lost all but one. I definitely should have won another, but changed my game at the end for no good reason. It’s an issue my coach has reminded me of on numerous occasions. However, of the other losses, there were two bouts that I came within a point of winning: both were against much better fencers, (one a C rated fencer who took second). The other was against the coach of a local club. At one stage, Kenny, my coach came by, appraised my stance and said “relax!.” That was a significant part of my problem and I did better afterwards.

My first DE was against a clubmate (which I always feel conflicted about) but I won. The second was against the C rated fencer I’d done so well against in the pools. He took me out with ease and it was slight consolation that he eventually finished second.

Lynn also didn’t do as well as she’d done in the previous tournament, but like me she faced some interesting competitors. She told me later that she’d found her DE against a woman, an affable recently retired coach to be particularly fun.

Some of my best DEs of the day were in Veterans. One, against fencer whom I haven’t faced since January, was particularly rousing. I have height and reach on my side, whilst he has experience. I took an early lead, but then he came back, sometimes attacking into my preparation, sometimes after luring me into an attack which failed. I battled back, carefully watching distance and opportunity. At 9 all, we took off our masks, saluted each other and the director. I won the final point but it could have gone either way. I lost my final DE, 7-10, also against a clubmate, but was pleased in that I’d fenced much more assertively against him, in most of the points I’d set the timing of the "conversation of blades."

Addendum: now a few days later and after an evening of open fencing and reviewing the tournament in class, I have some further thoughts. First, and most importantly, I fell into the archetypical trap of caring too much about winning instead of fencing well. I intend to fix it; Errol Flynn’s grin comes to mind. It always conveyed two things: focus and enjoyment. I intend to keep it in mind. Second, on Saturday, I lost two “Olympic” points (to use Harmenberg’s phrase), by being too conservative. I changed my fencing style and strategy to avoid losing and, as a result, did exactly that.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pocatello Epee Circuit Tournament

The first Saturday, October 16 and all too soon after our return from Wales, was the USI Epee Circuit #2 tournament. Needless to say, we’d had three weeks to forget everything and I felt I’d done a particularly good job of it. In my still relatively new experience, I find that my skill as a fencer is highly dependent on the quality and amount of recent practice, my attitude and my level of adrenalin. Balancing them is as important as skill.

Nevertheless, we rose at 5:00, fed the tigers, made cheddar and Branston pickle sandwiches and coffee for breakfast on the road and set out. Though I’m a native westerner I’d never been to Pocatello and was pleased to discover how beautiful that part of Idaho was. I found autumnal distances, mountains and hills nicely settling. Lynn was particularly quiet. It was her first tournament. I completely understood.

I was very pleased with the venue, the Pocatello Methodist church, when we arrived. The gymnasium had abundant natural light from open windows through which fall trees were visible. We warmed up, dressed and greeted the people we knew and appraised the ones we didn’t.

My pool for the first event, mixed seniors, was a challenge: three C rated fencers and one other E, a clubmate, Kim Grundvig, who regularly beats me. This time, I beat her and came close with one of the Cs, the score was 5-4. Not a brilliant performance but given my lack of practice, respectable. Nevertheless, as a result, I expected immediate and certain death in my first DE. As it turned out, I won my first DE, (against another clubmate, a D rated fencer). My next DE, against another clubmate, Dakota Nollner, was another experience all together. I hadn’t fenced Dakota since early in the summer and in my estimation his fencing has taken a significant step. He was moving much better, hiding his attacks much more effectively. I won a couple of points then I never came close again.

Meanwhile, Lynn and Robert, who had been in other pools, were having some interesting times of their own. Robert told me later he found the first part of the day particularly difficult and Lynn was in the middle of a nail-biting first ever DE in which both fencers had periods of being ahead. At the end, they were tied at fourteen all and I recalled that Lynn has noted multiple times how hard it is for her at that stage in a bout to rise to the occasion. At that point, the fencers removed their masks, saluted each other and the director because it had been such a good bout and resumed. Of course, the tension was palpable. Lynn told me later that she simply decided she would not lose this time. She didn’t and won her first DE and a medal, as third among the women in the event.

In the afternoon, Lynn, Robert and I participated in a much smaller veterans event: only two additional fencers participated, one of whom, Jennifer Nopens, happens to be Dakota Nollner’s mother and the wife of our coach, Kenny Nopens. She and Kenny jointly manage our club and do a phenomenal job of it. I was aware that Robert hadn’t been doing as well as he’d liked and decided I had a good chance of medaling and perhaps even winning. And I was further encouraged by winning all four of my pool bouts. Then, in my second DE, I faced my nemesis: my cousin Robert. His fencing suddenly and dramatically improved: his stance was better, his attacks were more clever and hard to predict and though it was close at the beginning, it wasn’t at the end. His final DE, against Jenny, was a nail-biter, but Robert was as solid as I’ve ever seen him and he won the bout to take the gold. His grin in the photo says it all.

After that we watched and cheered for Kim in a particularly difficult DE with a Pocatello Club fencer, Amy McGary, in the mixed college practice event.

After the requisite ceremony and pictures, we joined Kenny and Jenny and several other members of the club for garlicky salads at Buddy’s restaurant. Kenny was chuffed: it had been a good day for our club: we’d taken first in 5 of the 7 events, and in Senior mixed, Dakota had taken third out of a field of 18.
Now, it’s November, some of the fall color is still with us but there’s snow in the peaks of the Wasatch and Oquirr mountains. Skiing is coming. We have another tournament this weekend. Time to practice.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Witches, Saag Gosht, Hal and Falstaff, Air Fencing, Castles, Welsh Cliff Walks (conclusion)


Wales. Just driving on the highway I sense it as we leave Shrewsbury: the wildness of the woods, the rugged glens of the marches, the dappled sunlight. The tall arches of a ruined castle on a high green hill made me want to pull off and hike and damn the schedule.

Often the trees arch over the two lane road keeping it in shadow. Even at the edge, the allusiveness of the place is tangible; so much comes to mind at once: the Mabinogion, gentle folk, Merlin, the cruel, proud lives of the coal and slate miners, all those who came from Wales and changed the world: Elizabeth I, Inigo Jones, T. E. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton, Bertrand Russell…

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of Autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)…

We listened to a silly 1950’s science fiction radio drama on the BBC and drove on, all the way to the northern corner on the Irish sea: Conwy.

We were greeted by heavy rain, which is to say a light squall by Welsh standards. It took me three loops through the compact medieval walled town to find our B&B, the Gwynfryn, and approach it from the proper direction. But once again, Lynn’s careful research turned up trumps: our rather red room was spacious and comfortable and Colin, one of the two proprietors, helped us lug in our stuff and find a parking place (no small thing in a walled medieval town.) Robert’s room was, well, pink. Dinner was at the Bistro Bach which specializes is new Welsh cuisine (i.e. fresh, local ingredients, bright flavors in a warm, casual setting.) Robert and I went vegetarian while Lynn opted for the lamb.

The next morning the clouds had lifted and after Welsh Rarebit for breakfast, we were off to the castle. I’ve explored castles all over Europe, from Carcassonne to the Rhine Valley to Scotland but the castles in Wales have my heart. The meaning and history of what survives, a tracing on a mantle, or a vaulted window are highlighted by the absences of what’s gone and the misty forests and fields beyond. They provoke and transport my imagination the way no others do. And among that select company, Conwy is one of the best. Though it’s in Wales, it’s an English castle (built by the great Savoyard architect James of St. George for Edward I) and it’s a mixture of grandeur and hominess that feels quintessentially English. (All of which takes nothing away from the grandeur of the native Welsh castles such as Dolwydellan.) It’s just that as a result of history Wales is home to best of the English castles as well.

The town of Conwy also possesses one of the best, extant Tudor homes, Plas Mawr, which was where we spent the afternoon as the rain had returned. Plas Mawr is fully restored and if you give it the time and focus, it also can reveal a lot about the texture of daily Tudor life. Elizabethan England was an age of reinvention, among the political consequences was the Commonwealth; among the cultural consequences was the Age of Reason. Yet, even in that transformative time at Plas Mawr in the distant north of Wales, you see ritual and ceremony embedded in the architecture. The rain settled in and we had a respectable dinner at the Italian restaurant a couple of doors down from our B&B.

The next morning was bright and cheery and after a few snaps of the castle we headed south for Aber Falls, a favorite walk. It’s only a couple of miles long with a mild elevation yet in that time you walk through close thorps of beech, alder, hazel and sycamore trees. I took a photo of Lynn beneath a great witching, branching oak just as I had fifteen years ago and was very pleased that all three of us were hale and in the world. At the top Robert and I scrambled up a shale steep, then we photographed the falls and I found myself musing that the ancient woods of medieval Europe were wilder, more diverse and grander than anything we imagine. As we were coming back down Robert posed, a head atop a standing stone. After scrumptious cheese and pickle sandwiches at the café and community center at the base we drove to Anglesey to take a gander at a few of the pre-historic barrows and standing stones, then it was back to Conwy for dinner.

The following day was bittersweet because it meant leaving Conwy and we began our very gradual way home. After a several hours at Harlech, Y.A.T.F.C. (Yet Another of Thomas’s Favorite Castles), we arrived in Newport and our hotel Cnappan. When Lynn and I first stayed there in 1991 we almost didn’t: we drove into the small seaside town on the west coast and saw a bright pink building in the middle of all the gray ones and it was our hotel. It was foreboding, but like the stalwart heroes in a gothic novel we braved the ominous lodgings. And we were very glad we had. During those three days I had some of the best food I’ve had in my life. Two dishes, in particular, remain mythic: “the Pasty Pennebont,” a pasty of early summer vegetables and greens picked from the proprietors’ own garden the same afternoon and absolutely world’s best bread and butter pudding. The Coopers and Lloyds are still the proprietors and the food was every bit as good as I’d remembered although it was the wrong time of year for a Pasty Pennebont alas.

And for the next two days we walked. On Saturday we hiked up to the iron age forts in the hills above the coast, where, on one of the more dramatic promontories, Robert and I invented the rare art of “air fencing.” It was to become a theme for the remainder of our holiday. It’s a highly practical sport as it requires no gear and both competitors are free to imagine victory. It also offered a fine prospect of Newport and Dinas head which inspired me to recite some Dylan Thomas.

By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks,
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words…

Lynn assured me that the reason she’d married me was my ability to recite Dylan Thomas impromptu on a Welsh hillside. On the way down we passed a small cottage named Fern Hill.

She was coming down with a miserable cold that both of us ended up sharing but it didn’t keep her from the next day’s twelve mile rugged tromp around Dinas Head. The path rose and fell multiple times from sea level to several hundred feet above it and there was a substantial sea breeze. Each prospect, over a gate, or out to sea, or back towards the town pulled at me. What is it Faust says, “Oh moment thou art too fair to pass.” Our destination, in sight of the town of Fishguard, was a small seaside bar where we ordered three beers as a reward but we were forced to abandon them by the arrival of the bus (the last of the season) that took us back to Newport.

On Monday, we left Wales, stopping on the way to explore Kidwelly Castle, (Y.A.T.F.C) where Lynn may have once seen a ghost. We sadly crossed the Severn Estuary in an appropriately dreary rain. Our final nights were at Castle Comb, a picturesque village, whose thatched houses had served the day before as one of the settings for a film being shot by Steven Spielberg, “The War Horse.” It also portrayed “Wall” in “Stardust.” Our last full day, we visited Avesbury, Silbury Hill and Long Barrow. As we walked among the megalithic monuments, I couldn’t help recalling our hikes in Chaco earlier in the summer and wondering what the megalithic Britons and Anasazi would have had in common.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Witches, Saag Gosht, Hal and Falstaff, Air Fencing, Castles, Welsh Cliff Walks part 3


I’ve always been fond of Stratford-upon-Avon ever since my first visit (to see the RSC/Terry Hand’s production of Henry V with Allan Howard). Given the continual impact of tourism for decades I’ve always thought the District Council did a commendable job of maintaining the town’s character while allowing it to evolve. And this time, our accommodations (the Cherry Trees), was exceptional on all points and served one of the best English breakfasts I’ve had ever (replete with homemade marmalade). Lynn was particularly fond of their side jetting showers and the garden off our room.

For all that, I found the half day we were there to be saddening and I was glad to be away the next morning. Robert and I visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace which has evolved into a kind of Disney ride nightmare. To begin we were shuffled from locked room to locked room and shown banal, generic video presumably to increase our interest and understanding of the import of what we were about to see. By the time we escaped to the garden we were so bored and furious that we left without seeing the house itself. Who do they imagine it appeals to? Martians? I also discern a similar spirit of frantic, popular appeal in some of the recent events the RSC has advertized while the old theatre has been gutted and remodeled. Fortunately, that is nearly done. I can only hope that the RSC, the National Trust (or whoever is responsible for the Birthplace nightmare ride), and the District Council can find a better vision of what Stratford is and can be.

To my mind, it’s all about the plays: introducing people to them, creating seminal productions that stay with people for a life time, showing people how a glover’s son from Stratford came to write them.

The next morning after rambling all over Ludlow Castle, we continue northwest to Shrewsbury and then, Wales. To be continued.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Witches, Saag Gosht, Hal and Falstaff, Air Fencing, Castles, Welsh Cliff Walks part 2


I first saw “Henry IV part 1” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City Utah shortly after graduating from high school. At the time I’d read some Shakespeare, seen some plays, like any sentient eighteen year old could identify deeply, passionately and morosely with Hamlet (no doubt to the great boredom of the friends and family around me.)

But “Henry IV part 1” was a vision. It challenged me at so many levels at once. It portrayed the end of an age, the late medieval, giving birth to a new one, the Renaissance. It portrayed a political climate fraught with conflict, rebellion and ambiguous choice. Both were more than relevant to life in western America in the 1970’s. Finally, and most pertinently for me then, it portrayed a young person inventing himself from the flawed examples of many people from many different ages and social classes and achieving a kind of redemption as a result. Not only did it provide a model of how the world worked, it gave me practical clues about how to be a better and stronger person in it.

Since then Shakespeare’s English histories have risen in everyone’s consciousness and most critics estimation. They are “the national epic.”

I’ve lost track of the number of productions I’ve seen. Some were exceptional: Adrian Noble’s RSC production in 1991 with the late Robert Stephens, Michael Maloney, and Julian Glover and more recently, the Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National with Matthew Mcfadyen and Michael Gambon in 2005 to name two. To my mind, Dominic Dromgoole’s production this year at the Globe with Roger Allam as Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Hal belong in that extraordinary company.

Allam’s Falstaff is new, (no small accomplishment when you consider the legacy of the role). He is comic without being a buffoon. His imitations of Hal and youth are funny but not comically pathetic; they’re self-knowingly silly and clever. And yet, given how funny he was, he still was almost evil enough, but not quite. (On that point, Anthony Quayle’s performance is the archetype.) Hence, Jamie Parker had no small task: Hal has fewer lines, is less funny, and all to easily can fade into the background. But finally, it is his play. And Parker managed it, his comic timing was perfect and he used ambiguity at multiple levels to hold focus. He makes us wonder if Hal is “good” and what that means. He makes us wonder if Hal is on a hero's path or a tragic one and are the two necessarily the same. Mr. Dromgoole and the cast more than deserve the kudos they’ve received.

At Robert’s suggestion we went for an early visit to the Tower Sunday morning. I’ve seen the place many times but am finally beginning to see it in a new way. It’s as if I’m beginning to see beyond the veil of all the dramatic historical events that took place there to see it in a broader, historical and archaeological context. The restoration of Edward I’s medieval palace within the Tower helps immensely in that regard. The Historical Royal Palaces Charity that manages the Tower has done something very valuable and interesting. They’ve taken what used to be a warehouse for crown jewels, armor, and implements of torture and quietly made many more historical aspects available to visitors.

That evening, we dined at Tas, a Turkish restaurant a few steps from the Globe Theatre, that Robert had pulled us into the last time all of us were in London together. It was packed; nevertheless, we were seated quickly, service was prompt and the food was better than the first time we were there. I particularly enjoyed my Kusbasili pide (lamb, green peppers, pine nuts, parsley, oregano.)

All day long I looked forward to the evening and “Henry IV part 2.” For many reasons it is a difficult play and calls for different imaginative leaps than part 1. While it was definitely successful and accomplished, I left feeling that the cast hadn’t had the time to invest the imaginative energy into it, because of the claims of part 1. Still I have all toes and fingers crossed hoping that video productions that the Globe have made are released to DVD as they’ve said they will be.

Early Monday, we checked out, rented a car in Russell Square and headed for northern Wales with an evening’s stop in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Witches, Saag Gosht, Hal and Falstaff, Air Fencing, Castles, Welsh Cliff Walks part 1


Klee’s Walpurgis witches, Tamarind’s Saag Gosht, Hal and Falstaff, air fencing on Iron Age monuments, cliff walking in Wales, where to start? At the beginning. Lynn, Robert and I are just back from a couple of weeks in the UK.

Lynn and I flew Virgin Atlantic Upper Class over the water and it was a treat as it always has been in the past. Nothing beats sleeping flat and the difference it makes in the first day. After we arrived and rendezvoused with Robert, the three of us walked a bit, spent more time than Lynn would have liked looking at hand painted soldiers and knights at a shop in the Piccadilly Arcade, then hoofed the short distance to Queen Street and Tamarind, my favorite restaurant in London. They serve, in their words, “traditional Moghul cuisine,” prepared meticulously with fresh ingredients. I’ve never had any other Indian food that even came close, even in the UK. That night we tried Dal Makhni, (slow cooked black lentils), which were a revelation. I don’t even like lentils. Correction: there was a time when I didn’t like lentils.

As we walked back to our hotel, the Swiss Howard on the Thames across from the National Theatre, we walked through Trafalgar where there was a curious exhibition of automotive factory robots re-tasked to write text on a circular screen that on-lookers had sent from their cell phones. Someone wished someone happy birthday; the arms of the robots swung and reached in unison as they wrote. There’s always something going on in Trafalgar it seems. I was more drawn to a large ship in a bottle on a pedestal that looked like some kind of Asian homage to Nelson and HMS Victory but could have been something entirely different.

The next morning we breakfasted early at Pret-a-Mange then, after the requisite raptor’s eye view of the city from the Eye, walked to the Tate Modern. On the way we stopped at a small jewelry store in the XOXO group of shops where we’ve found jewelry for Lynn before. This time it was a necklace by an Irish artist who takes her inspiration from bog artifacts. It’s a strand of carnelian beads with occasional gold circles and a triangular pendant with an abstract design that reminds me of thorny woods.

This time the high point for me of the visit to the Tate Modern was the black and white photographs of August Sandberg and Klee’s “Walpurgis Night.” Each of Sandberg’s images is a richly allusive, frozen story in the way that Vermeer’s best paintings are. They ask you to consider both what’s gone on before and what happened after. Even the portraits and landscapes have that affect. It’s a kind of instantaneous tension. The three witches faces in Walpurgis Night are another thing all together. They ask about the absence of context. And they’re just plain spooky. After lunch in the museum restaurant looking out over the Thames, we were disappointed at St. Paul’s. Like Westminster Abbey it was closed as part of the preparations for the imminent visit of the pope to London which we planned to give a wide berth.

So we were off to the Tate Britain instead. Both Lynn and I wanted to look at the Pre-Raphaelite works there, inspired, in part by having recently watched the BBC series on the artists “Desperate Romantics.” That goal was delayed just inside the entrance by Fiona Banner’s exhibition which consisted of real jet fighter airplanes. One was suspended by its tail from the ceiling; another was on its side in the middle of the gallery. The first was a dusty gray and had feathers hand painted all over it; the second had been chromed so that you couldn’t look at it without seeing your distorted self reflected back. She was inspired by her memories of military jets flying over her during walks in the Welsh mountains with her father when she was a child.

We eventually found the Pre-Raphaelites though. And of course, I couldn’t see Millais’ Ophelia (floating in the water grasping wild flowers) without thinking about the model, Elizabeth Siddal, who’d spent hours in a Victorian bathtub and who had become seriously ill as Millais had allowed the oil lamps positioned around the base of the tub to keep the water warm to go out. But what held me was one of Burn-Jones Persephone paintings. I am deeply drawn to its wintry, gun metal spectrum as well as the characters’ expressions. Pluto, who sits almost at Persephone’s feet, looks at her with such longing and she stares out at us with such clarity, strength and loss all at once. I must also admit that I’m envious of Pluto’s armor; if only fencing gear looked that cool.

By the time we walked out, we were exhausted. “Find me a cab, I’m walked out,” Lynn said as we stepped out on a strangely empty Atterbury Street. Cars were parked all along the road but there was no traffic. Helicopters circled high over head.

Since there were no cabs we started walking east toward our hotel and then we saw the crowds and the yellow vested police. And, as Westminster Bridge came into view, our fears were confirmed: in the midst of the crowds a motorcade was crossing the bridge and in the middle of the bridge was a white vehicle with a kind of dome and a tiny red clothed figure within. In spite of our desires to the contrary, we’d found the Pope who was just arriving in London. A good English mile of walking finally led us around the commotion to a cab who in turn dropped us at a pub with a single tiny table upstairs, institutional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding but, fortunately, cold Stella Artois. “Belike then my appetite was not princely got; for, by my troth, I do now remember the poor creature, small beer.”

The next morning, which happened to be Saturday, we rendezvoused with Carolyn Foreman, a friend we’d first met dog-sledding in Svalbard. She lives and works in Oxford and drove down to join us for breakfast at Covent Garden. She was just back from a rough crossing to and from Greenland and was about to depart for South Africa. I felt fortunate that it had worked out so that the four of us could share a lazy breakfast in the sunshine which had been rare in that part of the UK as of late and would be so again very shortly. There’s nothing quite like a lazy, sunlit breakfast in a Covent Garden restaurant to make you feel that all’s right with the world even though you know it isn’t.

After a short sojourn in the British museum, we took a break and then set out to attend the primary and central reason for the trip in the first place: “Henry IV part 1” at the Globe Theatre in Southwark. To be continued of course.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fencing on the Roof Redux


It’s Friday so we must have fenced on the roof again this morning. And we did. Kim joined us so that we were four. We began at 7:30 which meant that the sun was only a glow behind the mountains and there was a steady canyon wind.

I’m continuing to work on my 3 parry (close in, last minute parry to the outside). I died every time I tried it, especially against Kim who was unstoppable today. Worse, I saw her doing very successful 2 and 3 parries and ripostes almost nonchalantly. However, I now have a sense of what I was doing wrong: I wasn’t stepping in close enough, and I was chicken-winging so that my arm was exposed which was where she and Robert were getting most of their hits. As Kenny, our coach, pointed out at class on Tuesday, I need to practice in front of the mirror to correct my form.

Lynn had some nice bouts even though she’s fighting off a cold at the moment. She did particularly well against Robert in the first bout (7-4). Robert’s form also looked much better today than it did at open fencing on Monday.

Eventually, the sun rose, the wind fell and you could see that some of the trees on the hillside had that paleness that presages a change of color. Fall is coming.

Over on the gray epee , Jim Kent has a very enjoyable post on his most recent tournament experience and his predilection for playing Sherlock Holmes as he watches other fencers. He mentions that a majority of his touches were from straight attacks. I had an experience something like that during open fencing a week ago. Nevertheless, it’s surprising how complicated you can make a straight attack using timing, distance and speed.

After fencing we had Lynn’s exceptional breakfast of perfectly fried eggs, toast from my homemade rye bread, chunked cantaloupe and blue berries and a glass of carrot juice mixed with orange juice. Not such a bad start to a Labor Day Weekend.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Fencing in the Room Full of Mirrors


We fenced at the University of Utah yesterday afternoon in my favorite room. It’s primary use is for ballroom dancing practice. It’s warmly lit, has a nicely cushioned hard wood floor and it’s full of mirrors. During summer break the very long halls leading to it weren’t lit which made it pleasantly spooky as well. Perfect.

There were only four of us and one strip yesterday which meant we all fenced a lot. My favorite bout was between Lynn and Kim that Kim won by one point. In spite of the gentle light and their collegial relationship it was evident that both really wanted to win.

At the end we did a quick team match (two against two) to twenty which was particularly fun. What is it about team matches that increases the stress and adrenalin, all in a good way? Kim and Robert beat Lynn and I but it was close.

During the bouts I worked to use close and ceding parries (3, 5 and 2) and was killed almost every time. Not only does it take a bit of courage to step in at the critical moment, the timing is delicate. I’ve only had it work once. That was last Friday morning when we were fencing on the roof.

I’ve added Claire Bennett and Tim Morehouse to the set of fencing blogs I regularly look at. But my favorite post this week was from Peach on entitled Grrrr. She writes about fencing a curmudgeonly 90 year old. You can’t help but chortle but I think they’re both heroes, too. Not such a bad combination.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dear A. S. Byatt


On the Guardian website this afternoon there’s an interview with A. S. Byatt, a favorite novelist of mine. I first came to her with Possession, a deliciously dense literary romance. It’s a highly allusive book, both literally and virtually as she creates her own fictive 19th century poets whom the twenthieth century characters pursue. In the context of that quest, it is a romance in the medieval sense as well, a kind of virtual romance if you will. Nevertheless, my favorite novel of hers is The Virgin in the Garden which takes place during an Elizabethan festival in Yorkshire celebrated during the coronation of Elizabeth II. The festival is also a virtual counterpart and foil to the bare, parsimonious life of post war England.

Now, what I find curious and humorous is that in the Guardian Interview, Byatt discusses “the blogosphere,” Facebook and twittering and states that they have replaced god for many people. She says that the name “Facebook” is telling because people need it to show themselves who they are. She finishes by stating that she would like to see someone who can explore such lives in fiction but she is too old.

I disagree completely. She’s “up in the night,” as a favorite grandmother of mine used to say meaning that someone was utterly wrong-headed. Facebook, etc. have nothing to do with anyone’s belief in the existence of god. What they are part of is the increasing spectrum of virtuality that now inflects all experience. It’s a broad spectrum indeed, subsuming something as simple as cell phone communication and extending to the richness and complexity of virtual worlds found in computer gaming.

Given the parallel worlds present in most of her work, the virtual connections she makes in the two seminal novels of hers mentioned above I’m surprised she doesn’t feel equipped to explore it. Or maybe it’s just that she thinks her virtualities lie outside of that spectrum. I don’t think they do.



Monday night and in yesterday's class we worked on feint-of-parry to each quadrant and possible responses. There are always three other main parries available (the other three open quadrants) and at least one ceding parry. Kenny, our coach, presented this so clearly and succinctly that I actually can imagine taking advantage of the diversity during real bouts although my attempts during open fencing Monday evening were less than successful. I like it a lot. It's yet another way to introduce and manage complexity in the game.

Also, as I was suiting up, I watched the other fencers in the club. We'd only missed a week because of the Pecos Conference, but I could see distinct and significant improvements and changes in several of the fencers. It could be a very interesting and surprising year for several of them.

And last night, Lynn and I finished watching Desperate Romantics the BBC series drama about the Pre-Raphaelites. I was very fond of it, on a number of levels. Indeed, it's possibly the best BBC series I've seen in years. Rossetti dominates and poor old Burne-Jones (of whose work I'm most fond) receives short shrift. But that's to be expected I guess. A little web research revealed that Ken Russell ("Women in Love," etc.) made a bio-pic about Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal back in the 1960s; I definitely need to check that out.

I also discovered Zoe Keating's music this week which I find I can listen to over and over.

The Burne-Jones painting of Perseus seems like a nice representation of fighting and managing complexity.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pecos Conference 2010 and Mesa Verde


For five days my epee has stood in the corner of my study untouched and I’ve given little thought to fencing. Lynn, my cousin Robert and I have been in Silverton, Colorado for the 2010 Pecos South Western Archaeology conference. It’s been held under open skies in various places in the southwest since 1927 and is an excellent way to glimpse the state of the art ahead of the sometimes lengthy process of peer-reviewed publication.

My interest in the archaeology of the South West stems from the simple premise that you should understand as much of the history and prehistory of where you live as possible. Since I began hiking in Chaco and lesser known sites it has become a passion.

Robert picked us up at six in the morning on Thursday, the twelfth of August, and we drove south. We breakfasted in Moab, Utah, then turned east just afterwards in the shadow of the La Sal mountains, including pyramid-shaped Mount Peale (12, 721 feet) which Robert has climbed. The treeless peaks of gray igneous rock which are snow-covered most of the year are old friends. Lynn and I met a bear when we drove the La Sal mountain loop in a convertible roadster more than a few years ago.

Originally, we had planned to take the Black Bear Pass road from Telluride over to Silverton but changed our route when we learned that the 3 unpaved miles would add an extra 2-3 hours and would include backing up some switchbacks because there is insufficient space to turn. We rerouted through Ridgeway and, as we approached Ouray, had an excellent view of Mount Sneffels (14,150 feet), the highest peak in the vicinity. By the way, it’s named after Mount Snaefell, a volcano in Iceland that plays a prominent role in Jules Vernes’ “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Robert has climbed it as well and said that it was just a walk. Sure.

South of Ouray we diverted ourselves onto the dirt road into Yankee Boy Basin hoping to see the beginning of the trail but didn’t make it that far. What we did of the road proved more than sufficiently entertaining. It’s narrow and in several places the cliff face on one side falls off a thousand feet or more. We paused at a turnout where someone had left two wilting bunches of red and yellow flowers. Were they left to commemorate someone who had gone over the edge? For the final leg of the trip, we returned to the “Million Dollar Highway” which parallels the Animas river much of the way. The waters were a bright metallic orange possibly due to the mineral wealth of the mountains.

The town of Silverton, our destination, sits in a steep, glacial valley at the confluence of the Animas and Cement Creek rivers. It makes no sense at first. Late in the afternoon, it’s a sleepy town of mostly 19th century buildings, many of which were restaurants and tourist attractions. Yet there were only a few motels and the modest Bed and Breakfast we stayed at, the Villa Dallavalle, may well be the best accommodation available. Most of the 350 archaeologists at the conference were camping, an expedient Pecos Conference tradition. We found the registration tent, let them know we’d arrived and enjoyed the welcoming antipasto and a glass of wine. Overall, it felt very much like the Mathematics conferences I’ve attended and participated in although perhaps a little less competitive and intense. The median age of the attendees also seemed significantly older which worried me a bit for the profession.

The conference formally commenced the next morning, Friday the 13th, at 8:30 with a paper on a Mesa Verde cistern investigation which proved again that the ancient puebloans were capable hydrologists. The cistern is close to the Mud House cliff ruin (94 rooms, dated 1066 via Dendrochronology and discovered by Weatherhill in 1890). We’d seen other evidence in Chaco and so didn’t find the results surprising but I was curious about the differences and similarities in hydrological engineering between Chaco and Mesa Verde. I also wondered if a sufficiently complete picture of ancient pueblo hydrology could be applied to addressing other questions, such as inferring population at other sites or even identifying potential sites for excavation.

The high point of the morning for me was a series of talks by Steve Lekson, Professor of Anthropology and Curator of the Natural History Museum at the University of Colorado. His most recent book, A History of the Ancient Southwest is one of the most useful and important books I’ve read on the subject. Not only does it present a cogent, revolutionary picture of the prehistory of the Southwest, it also is a history of how the archaeology was performed and the political and cultural forces that that shaped and directed it. This morning he discussed recent University of Colorado work at the Bluff Great House in Bluff, Utah and presented recent results of a colleague, Catherine Cameron, from work at Pinacle Ruin, north of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. They have determined that the Bluff Great House, 140 miles northwest of Chaco, was 4 stories, making it one of the tallest outside Chaco. The artifacts have all been Pueblo II and Pueblo III (900-1300 CE) . He also mentioned that the BLM is sponsoring a comprehensive archaeological survey of the Coombs Wash to the west. The work of Professor Cameron from field work at Pinacle ruin in 2004 and 2008 was particularly intriguing. There are two ruins, one with 500 rooms and one with 200 which was built when the 500 room Pueblo was “running strong.” The 500 room site “looks like Mesa Verde.” The artifacts in both sites cluster around three dates. These correspond to periods of great drought in Mesa Verde and, even during those periods, Pinacle had water. The implication is that this could reflect migration between the two sites. My naïve view has always been that significant migration began with the departure from Chaco in the 1250s. But the archaeological record is much more complex and I realized that migration, even annual migration may have been a significant and useful coping strategy throughout Pueblo II and Pueblo III. Maybe the Anasazi were always moving.

Brenda Todd’s subsequent talk about Chimney Rock, “the smoking gun Chaco Outlier,” was also provocative. I was particularly intrigued by the 2 stone pillars which frame lunar standstills and the room empty except for a Grizzly Bear mandible and a bear petroglyph.

In the afternoon, the Silverton mystery was resolved: the narrow gage steam engine train arrived from Durango. Suddenly, the town was filled with tourists there for two hours for lunch, trinket and t-shirt shopping. Now the current evolution of the town made sense.

After lunch, Jim Copland’s work on the north road from Chaco using LIDAR and any and all pertinent technologies, including Google Earth, gives me hope that such new research could reveal much more about ancient puebloan road works, both in terms of geography and purpose. But the biggest surprise was the session on historic Archaeology. Minette Church addressed the role of childhood in shaping an archaeological record informed by historical resources. She discussed the differing perspectives of siblings separated by twenty in years and growing up in a contested region. Of course, I couldn’t help reflecting on how the implicit presence of children informed the prehistoric record as well. For example, the raised doorways in the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde could have served to ensure that small children wouldn’t wander out to a dangerous precipice. Further, considering the very different perspectives of siblings separated by such a short period in an historical period, why couldn’t the same be true of prehistorical periods? The ancient southwest could have been much more dynamic socially, culturally and politically than we currently believe. The shared elements between the Hohokam, Mimbres and Colorado Plateau cultures may suggest that as well as the variety and complexity of puebloan languages.

The keynote presentation that evening was by Dave Snow, the retired Curator of History Collections at the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe. The primary theme and focus of his short, droll lecture was “archaeology that revealed the structures of daily life.” I thought about what I know about daily life of the people of the Colorado Plateau, or the Aztecs, Toltecs or Maya. Embarrassingly little.
Afterwards, Robert happened to see Stephen Lekson and went up to him to ask if any work was being done to trace migration using corn DNA. (Corn, which began as a small, tropical plant, was richly hybridized by ancient Americans, yielding, for example, the hearty varieties that could be successfully cultivated in the high deserts and even alpine regions of the southwest.) Lekson was more than generous with his time. No, he wasn’t aware of any work on corn DNA, but some researchers were considering looking at canine DNA for the same purpose. I asked about using recursive sight lines as a method to determine the extent of the Chacoan region. “That stuff is absolutely real,” he said with some passion. We talked about simulating it, particularly given the accuracy of LIDAR surveys and he said that nevertheless in his experience there were cases where actually experimenting using flares was the only way to accurately reveal sight lines. This was exactly the kind of experience we’d come for.

But the evening wasn’t over. We drove to the Memorial Park and Robert set up his telescope. We star watched, counted meteorite sightings from the Perseid Shower, ate Ginger Snaps and got very cold. I wrapped myself in a blanket and stomped around to keep warm. Lynn, wrapped like a mummy in multiple blankets and quilts laid on a picnic table. Robert, as expected, was unaffected.

The next day was a little less intensive. We played hooky late in the morning to explore some of the skiing sites in the vicinity. There’s little formal resort development in Silverton in spite of the presence of high, steep mountains that get a lot of snow. We learned from a barrista at a coffee house on Main Street, that it is growing in popularity among the extreme skiing crowd and that Shaun White had stayed in Silverton and practiced nearby in preparation for the last Olympics. We also visited the local Museum and jail which has a fine collection of 19th century mining gear, a vintage sewing machine and an early twentieth century telephone switchboard. My grandmother and mother used the same model of sewing machine when I was a child and my mother had worked as a telephone operator on just a switchboard when she was a young woman. I recalled her telling me that the supervisors all wore roller skates to move quickly up and down the rows of operators.

Several papers stood out in the afternoon session. Dana Hawkins’ thoughtful and well-reasoned discussion of the late Pueblo III burning in Salmon Pueblo led to the conclusion that the burning was not accidental and must have been planned. Thomas Windes and Stephen Nashes discussed application of Dendrochronology and the dangers and pitfalls of applying it without care as wood was often reused by the ancient puebloans as well as the Park Service in restoration. William Lucius talked about his work in tracing the clay sources and fabrication locations for a particular redware and finally Benjamin Belorado discussed dating Coombs Ridge petroglyphs using figurines of similar shape and texture found in nearby sites. And that was it.

The next day we set out for home planning to stop at Hovenweep along the way. But as we passed the road to Mesa Verde we decided at the spur of the moment to change our plans. The lodge had rooms, which amazed me. We registered then drove to the Weatherhill Mesa to see the Long House and Badger House ruins. The ranger who led the Long House tour made a point of reminding us to think about what daily life had been like for the Mesa Verde puebloans and of course I was reminded of Dave Snow’s talk two days before. As we were hiking down to Long House, Robert commented that since they had domesticated turkeys, they obviously had turkey eggs. We considered the other known components of their diet, including pinion nuts, corn, beans, sage and other desert herbs and decided that Anasazi cuisine might have had more variety than people imagine and could have included some very good recipes.

That night, we ate at the Metate Room restaurant at the lodge and had what was by far the best dinner of the trip. All three of us had the Cinnamon Chile Pork Tenderloin (with portabello mushroom, chile polenta and Chipolte cream.) Do I need to say more?

The next morning, we tromped through Spruce House, took a blood oath to come back soon and drove home, stopping in Green River for a cheese burger at Ray’s and to buy a couple of melons.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wondering How To Write About Fencing


This morning, as I'm waiting for my IPad to sync a few trillion photos, (you never know when you'll need to show someone all 300 pictures of an ancient Aber Falls hike), I'm wondering about how to write about experience of sport fencing. I haven't found much and most of what I've found isn't that good or it gives short shrift to the experience itself, what you think about when you're doing it, what you perceive. I like Richard Cohen's book, By The Sword, very much, but there's very little about the intimate experience of the sport.

Over on Mark Watkins blog, he's just reviewed a surfing novel which seems to favor loquacious and digressive description which I find interesting. When I think about sport I always come back to John McPhee's Levels of the Game, which is a long essay about a single tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Grubner in the late 1960s. It captures the immediate experience of the players at the same time it covers class and social history along with each athlete's development.

I need to work on my parry 4 some time today. Wyrd oft nered unfaegne eorl, fonne his ellen deah.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010



Open fencing last night marked our clubs resumption of our regular schedule. All through July I’ve fenced three times a week and been diligent about my daily training. And then there was fencing camp at the end of June. I may well be at the peak of my form.

Last night I lost every bout but one.

Last night and this morning as I’ve reviewed each one I find myself finding different reasons for each loss. For example, against Kim, a left-handed fencer with excellent reach and quick and precise blade work, I persistently attacked in four and lost with a touch to my arm or shoulder. What was I thinking?

I could write a similar paragraph about each bout. They would all finish with that last sentence. And there is the common thread. I was thinking about myself: making sure I was fencing at the right distance, making sure my arm position was right, trying to minimize wrist action and maximize finger movement. All good things.

But, what I wasn’t thinking about was my opponent, his or her legwork, his or her timing. I do this from time to time and I need to find a way to jolt myself out of it.

A movie image comes to mind. Early in the film “The Thirteenth Warrior,” Herger tosses a Viking sword to Ahmed who complains “This is too heavy.” Herger cheerfully responds, “Grow stronger.”

So, for me: “Grow quicker. Grow cleverer.” And, as John Gardner has Beowulf remind Grendel in his retelling, “This is reality.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Fencing Terror


I’m enjoying a cheerful fencing morning. First, FencingBear left me a book recommendation motivated by my post on fencing and training. Although my fencing library has been growing exponentially this year, I’m looking forward to her recommendation particularly as it is something I would never have found by myself.

And then I just saw GreyEpee's droll post from July 17 in which he recites an incident in which someone asked him “Did you fence?” because of his fencing t-shirt, presuming, he no longer does so. I had an experience at a tournament this year that was an interesting counterpoint. I was chatting with a fencing parent who looked longingly at the piste and said, “I’d really like to fence but I’m 47.” As there was quite a gaggle of veteran fencers older than that there, two of whom are coaches with C ratings, I didn’t know what to say except that he should try it.

As for age and physical endeavor, when my wife and I returned from Boston several years ago, I had the opportunity to ski again with an 83 year-old maternal uncle who was also a ski instructor. He put me to shame that first day touring a few of Alta’s more physically demanding routes. And he continued to ski and teach skiing up until the last six months of his life. The relationship between age and physical capacity is much more complex than most people, including many physicians, realize. My experience with my uncle was a not-so-gentle reminder of what diligence, persistence (coupled with enthusiasm and love for an endeavor) can achieve.

On the other side, I’ve had the good fortune to watch two organizations being born during the last few months. One is a high tech start-up on whose board I’ve served for the last few years and the other is the University of Utah Fencing Club. The former has just become profitable without venture capital, no mean accomplishment, particularly in this economy, while the latter is just beginning. My experience of both reminds me just how much diligence and persistence is required to give birth to an organization and that all too often a real achievement can only be appreciated in retrospect. The U of U club looks to me like they just might start something important and lasting. I’m looking forward to fencing with them again this weekend.

The Gray Epee’s post also reminded me of what I fear most in fencing. At another tournament, my coach, in describing another fencer who appeared to be fit and in his thirties, said, “He’s been fencing for about twenty years and he still fences the same way.” That’s my fencing terror.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Memory from a Lonely Afternoon in Scotland


The wind has a frosty bite with occasional slashes of rain. I’m on a low hill, in the woods of northern Scotland and I’ve just smeared some baby chicken parts on to the heavy leather gauntlet on my right hand which I’ve stretched out.

But it’s coming for me, not the gauntlet as far as I can tell. Accipiter Gentilis, a Northern Goshawk, has a wing span nearly as wide as I am tall, and I’m tall. This one is brown and the slow flex of the wings as it flies toward me conveys perfected strength. The tucked talons could tear me apart.

The idea is simple. I’m supposed to hold out my arm, allow the great goshawk to perch on my wrist for which it then receives its baby chicken snack. It feels a little more like a test of courage. I’m reminded of the evening in the mews in “The Once and Future King.”

No doubt the falconer, who’s standing somewhere behind me, is bemused.

More than anything, though, the thing that’s overwhelming are the raptor’s eyes. They’re set on me, perceptive beyond human comprehension, unblinking, perfectly remorseless. It is a creature perfectly itself. It defines a special kind of beauty.

Now, a few years later, that memory returns. That is how I want to fence, with such effortless focus and concentration. A very good friend and colleague, Mark Watkins, wrote in an email recently that he thought competitive sports are particularly important after you leave your twenties. He’s right of course. I think it expresses a fundamental human attribute and psychological tool. The trick is to use that aspect of ourselves sensibly, constructively, even with generosity and affection.

At the last moment, the goshawk weaved elegantly, dove a little below, then swooped up, stalling, to land on my wrist. And have a snack.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fencing and Training


Since our advanced fencing camp I’ve stepped up both my training and my fencing. I’ve also started reading James well regarded “Strength Training for Fencers” which, so far is illuminating. Example: connective tissue develops one seventh as fast as muscle tissue which is one of the reasons that strength training needs to proceed at a proper pace and why injuries are such a real danger as you seek to increase strength.

All of which alludes to an interesting point. Literature is rife with fencing and sword fighting of all kinds. Archetypical heroes with little or no experience or training regularly trounce evil villains presumably hampered by their years of practice. Rarely, if ever, is the necessity of training given it’s due or even any attention. The two obvious reasons are that most writers aren’t fencers and, more importantly, training is singularly undramatic. A story about Ralph who trains harder and more effectively than Fred then triumphs over him in the grand Pris de Fer tournament in Wiley, Oklahoma isn’t particularly interesting.

But training, for all kinds of reasons, is fundamental to the sport and it must have always been so. Further it isn’t enough to have trained once. It’s a continuing essential. Fencing isn’t riding a bicycle.

There are a few counter examples of course. When Horatio expresses his concern after Hamlet accepts the king’s request that he fence Laertes, Hamlet replies, “…since he went into France I have been in continual practice. I shall win at the odds.” Shakespeare knew a bit about fencing it seems.

I’d love to read something fictional about fencing in which training, in all its complexity, with all its nuances, is given its proper role.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Fencing Mystery: What to Think About When You Fence


You hook up to the reel, plug in your weapon, take a few steps down the piste, salute your opponent and the director. The masks go down, you go on guard. Ready. Fence.

And then what? What do you think about? What should you think about? Sometimes for me it goes like this:

“I know this person. We fenced before and I watched him in one of the pool bouts today. He’s fencing pretty much the same way. He moves in and out of distance a little but his real attack is always a ballestra followed by a lunge deceiving in six to finish in four. So I’ll act like I don’t know that and at the end of the his attack I’ll defeat it by closing the line in four, counter attacking in six.”

Or maybe it goes like this:

“I know this person. He’s a lot better than me. His hand touches are incredibly accurate. He will almost certainly beat me, but my goal has to be to fence the very best I can against him, no matter the score. (Bless you Johan Harmenberg). So, is my stance the best it can be? Are my advances smooth enough? I need to be a little lower. I need to make sure my forearm and hand are right. I don’t want to give him a hand touch. How’s my grip?”

And it goes on. There are more themes and variations. I’ve won bouts with both of the above inner conversations. But they are very different. The first is tactical while the second is focused almost purely on technique.

In the issue of American Fencing I just received, one of the articles provides a well reasoned and supported analysis stating that fencers do better when they think about what they want to achieve, not the technical aspects of how to achieve it. I buy that, sometimes. Yet there are times when thinking about a few technical issues starts you down the right trail of solving the complex mystery of how to win.

Indeed, every bout is a mystery. It more than helps to be a be a bit like Sherlock Holmes or Daryl Zero. The two “obs” (observation and objectivity) are as important in Fencing as in any endeavor I can think of.

There are so many possible things to think about. Even the number of perfectly correct ones is uncountably infinite (George Cantor’s famous diagonal proof applies). But you can think of only a few. How do you choose? Especially, when the person hidden behind the mask is a stranger. Every bout is a new and different mystery.

And then there are the bouts, sometimes even 15 point DEs, when you finish, perhaps you win, and your coach comes up and asks “So how did you do that?” And you realize you have no idea at all what you were thinking.