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 na├»ve 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.”