Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)


So Christopher Hitchens is gone. He died in harness having just published feisty rebuttal to Nietzche aphorism that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Like a lot of people, I often found I disagreed with him, particularly during the early years of the Bush administration. But I consistently admired his will to reason and particularly the way in which he bravely followed the consequences of his reasoning. He was a journalist with a philosopher’s aspiration to truth and honesty which is rare these days, even among philosophers.
Vanity Fair and the Guardian each have a fine memoriam and Vanity Fair has a nice collection of his rejoinders on video.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Tolkien Mystery


I’ve been a mostly consistent reader of the New Yorker for more than forty years, since I discovered it, very improbably, in an elementary school library. I’ve read the magazine during the long sunset of William Shawn’s editorship, through Gotlieb’s, through Tina Brown’s revolution and have been delighted by David Remnick’s elevation of the magazine even as he’s broadened it to have a strong web presence and character. I’ve grown particularly fond of several of the staff such as Steve Coll, George Packer and Adam Gopnik. Gopnik’s recent personal essay, in particular, relating his experience as an art historian learning to draw was both delightful and revelatory as only the best personal essays can be. Somewhat to my surprise, I find myself reading the magazine cover to cover most weeks.

All of which is pertinent because I found Gopnik’s most recent article “The Dragon’s Egg” about fantasy literature so deeply disappointing and provocative at the same time. The subtitle of the article is “High Fantasy for Young Adults,” which gives a lot away. It was as if I’d stepped back in time to the 1970’s when there existed, more or less, a coherent literary establishment which pronounced judgment on fantasy as not serious and suitable only for young adults. Gopnik’s more than reductive set of examples includes Paolini, Tolkien, Stephanie Meyer with nods to Terry Brooks J. K. Rowling and T. H. White. Gopnik admit’s to a sneaking admiration for the intensity of emotion of Meyer’s characters but at best damns the rather curious collection of authors with faint praise while making time to suggest that for the most part fantasy fiction has the same plot that Tolkien revived from the Nibelungenlied.

I don’t read that much fantasy but even in my limited experience that criticism rings particularly hollow and ironic especially when George R. R. Martin’s highly sexed and discordant series has entered popular cultural via a very successful HBO mini-series.

I wouldn’t take time to comment except that Gopnik’s piece is provocative in an entirely different way. Midway through he attempts to identify what makes Tolkien’s fiction compelling. He writes,

"This is surely the most significant of the elements that Tolkien brought to fantasy. It’s true that his fantasies are uniquely “thought through”: every creature has its own origin story, script, or grammar; nothing is gratuitous. But even more compelling was his arranged marriage between the Elder Edda and “The Wind in the Willows”—big Icelandic romance and small-scale, cozy English children’s book. The story told by “The Lord of the Rings” is essentially what would happen if Mole and Ratty got drafted into the Nibelungenlied."

Now this is interesting. But it’s just a start, and the same start others have made, in trying to understand what makes Tolkien's fiction important, compelling and lasting. I recall a rather dismissive article the late John Gardner wrote in which he described rereading Tolkien and found so many reasons to dismiss it even as he himself was attempting to legitimize fantasy with his dark fictions such as Grendel. The truth is I’ve never read any criticism that provides anything like a comprehensive exegesis of the strength of Tolkien’s work. My sense is that that is still a mystery hidden in the plain sight of popular culture.

Friday, October 14, 2011



What of all things should remind me of East Coker, the second of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets on a Friday afternoon in October?

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire

Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations

Ballet West invited Lynn and I to watch a rehearsal this afternoon of their production of “Dracula” which opens on the 21st. Even though Lynn is recovering from a broken leg and complications we decided to go for many reasons, but primarily because we both are keenly interested in seeing sub-cultures, artistic, academic, ethnic up close. Also, although I’ve had a passing acquaintance with ballet since I was four when my grandmother first took me to the Nutcracker, (or as I prefer to think of it “The Lamentable Tragedy of the Mouse King” but that’s another story), it was only after I began fencing that I developed something like an appreciation for the particular athleticism and physical precision the pursuit requires. For me, that level, coupled with the artistic expression is what makes it interesting. It’s the bass clef to the to the treble clef of the dance itself. Both together are what give it depth, irony, beauty.

As for this imagining of Dracula, I had the sense that Ballet West has a hit on their hands. It’s melodramatic, structurally surprising, even to someone like me who knows so little about the art, witty and most importantly, deeply spooky at moments. The rehearsal was so strong and engaging it’s hard to imagine the formal performance itself could be more affecting. And it’s set to some of my favorite Liszt: Totentanz, the Faust Symphony and the Hungarian Rhapsodies. Wicked cool.

The surprising insight for me today, and the reason I was reminded of Eliot, was something that became apparent as I watched. I never knew how much a ballet company was a company, how they support and motivate each other. But it was apparent in the body language, the attentiveness of the dancers, their focus on their colleagues. Even though, it’s obviously very hard, delicate work, they all greatly enjoy it which is also wicked cool. In spite of the discipline, the sacrifice, the work, the art, they remained a group of people dancing together on a Friday afternoon.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Theatrical Competition


Last night Robert, Lynn and I reprised our viewing of the Globe’s production of Henry IV Part 2. We first saw both parts live last year and I wrote about it then, (Witches, Saag Gosht, Hal and Falstaff, Air Fencing, Castles, Cliff Walks). This time we saw the HD broadcast performance of the same production in a movie theater. Two weeks ago we saw the broadcast of part 1.

What an extraordinary and amazing thing the Globe has done. Of course, something like it has been done before. For example, the Burton/Gielgud Hamlet was broadcast back in the early nineteen sixties (in black and white at much lower quality and resolution of course) and earlier this year, the Royal National broadcast their award winning production of Frankenstein. But I’ve never seen anything to equal what the Globe has achieved. Their cinematographic direction captures a level of experience not possible in any other way. In particular, for all the apparent visual tradition and conservatism of the productions, they are in fact a very edgy company. A perfect example is Hal’s meeting with his brothers after his father’s death. Usually, Hal is quite naturally somber and abashed. In contrast, Jamie Parker’s Hal is almost manically cheerful, conveying a realistic response to grief that could be easily misunderstood. The cinematography, in particular, the adroit use of close-ups captures the complexity of his performance, something it’s difficult to appreciate even if you’re sitting in the ground level galleries as we were last year.

I hope and expect the productions will find their way to DVD later this year and of course we will want them in our library. They are among the great productions of what now, justifiably, are being called England’s national epic. I feel honored and incredibly lucky to have seen them.

In contrast, there’s the lavish production of five of Shakespeare’s plays that the RSC has brought to New York. Two are reviewed in this week’s New Yorker by Hilton Als who calls them “dated and musty.” There was a time when I would have taken issue with such a scathing dismissal but unfortunately it’s consistent with my experience of the RSC productions I’ve seen while Michael Boyd has been director. I felt much the same way about their production of Hamlet with Toby Stephens and the Romeo and Juliet performed in the same season. It’s particularly sad for me, as more than a few years ago, they mounted a production of Henry V with Alan Howard, a play I wasn’t greatly fond of at time, which was life changing.

The two companies are competitors, of course, though I’ve never seen any statement from either company acknowledging that obvious fact. For decades the RSC had no competition and now that they do they’ve yet to figure out how to respond gracefully and successfully. Worse, they are uniquely disadvantaged: though they enjoy exceptional public support, their home is in Stratford whereas the Globe is in London which is much more accessible to a broader audience. Further, there is the immense advantage of the recreated Glove theatre, an experience in itself.
So what can the RSC do? Do what hi-tech companies do: steal their competitors good ideas, elaborate them, and innovate themselves, dramatically. It’s what Apple did and does.

Formal fencing begins for us next week in earnest. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Irrelevant Details


A couple of nights ago, Lynn and I watched “Marathon Man,” which neither of us had seen for years. Of course, I remembered and expected to enjoy all the classic set pieces, Olivier’s Nazi war criminal as dentist, the wonderfully horrific attack on Dustin Hoffman’s character , Babe, while he’s soaking in the tub. The film is a classic demonstration of the power of the horror that can be derived from everyday experience, particularly everyday pain, everyday vulnerability.

But something else stood out for me this time: the tone and brilliance of the direction and cinematography. John Schlesinger, the director, and Conrad L. Hall, the cinematographer, had the wit to find the surprising, sometimes even obtuse detail or point of view and used them to impart suspense, or heightened reality, sometimes as a result of finding a gritty note of absurdity that is always present in daily life. For example, the plot is set off by an automotive battle between an aged death camp survivor and an old Nazi on the streets of New York. The concept is almost farcical, and there are moments that are played for simple black humor. But often, the camera chooses to find and dwell on the faces of the onlookers, real New Yorkers of various ages who look on the developing incident as it hurtles by them, with amazement, and even horror as the incident moves to its inevitable, catastrophic conclusion.

These days, the final explosion as the two cars collide with a fuel oil truck would be filmed with much more attention to detail and much greater expense, all for a very slight return on investment. But it’s everything that comes before, such as the startled look from an old woman in a faded floral dress as she stares at them from a tenement window, that really counts, that makes the drama compelling.

In part, it was a 1970’s thing. In many current films, the creation of suspense, which sometimes requires giving attention to an apparently irrelevant detail, is often neglected or managed in a very ham-fisted way. Sometimes that lack of apparent subtlety is rationalized as necessary as we now all live in a social networking age of necessarily immediate gratification. We just don’t have time for the clever or the subtle. I don’t believe it, of course, and I think the movie industry’s declining revenues, properly understood and analyzed, support that. The success of the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which is molded from the clay of modern methods of communication, succeeded in part because of its ability to create suspense, often in very old-fashioned ways.

That use of the subtle detail, and teaching an audience to look for it, is socially healthy. Perspicacity and skepticism were never so useful as they are in a world as hyper-connected as ours is. As I’m writing this, the US House of Representatives and the US Senate are attempting to find a last minute compromise to raise the debt ceiling and avoid possibly catastrophic consequences in the global financial markets. I wonder what are the telling, possibly small, or apparently disconnected details that have brought our government to this pass. One might be that the Bush era tax cuts will expire at the end of the year unless the congress takes action and the Republicans lack the legislative strength to pass such legistlation. Are they not using perfunctory but critical legislation to blackmail the country into passing such ill advised legislation?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fencing Summer Nationals - July 2011


I feel the way I feel after a long hike somewhere new. The world is refreshed, bigger, more interestingly complex. “Got to love it,” to use D.Z.’s expression. We’re back from fencing in the USFA Summer Nationals.

Lynn and I drove to Reno, Nevada on Thursday, July 7th. I hadn’t driven that road in years and had forgotten how wild and even mysterious some of the basin and range geography was. Along the way Lynn texted Robert and Kim, who were driving behind us, and we listened to a fine audio book of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. After we checked in at our hotel, the four of us went for dinner at the Pneumatic Diner, a vegan grill. A word here about the food in downtown Reno: some of it is excellent. My tacos at the Pneumatic Grill were really good, simply and perfectly because the fresh vegetables were so flavorful, and the dinner the next night, at La Vecchia, was some of the best Italian food I’ve had outside of Italy.

Of the four of us, I was the first to compete; check-in at the Reno Convention Center for mens Div III epee was the next morning at 7. I slept fitfully and dreamt my epee failed to pass a strange voltage test. Of course, there is no such thing. Kenny and Jenni, my coach and his wife arrived shortly after we did and I found them chipper and willing to hand-hold me through the formal details of national competition, even though they’d already been at it for seven days. As a result, I achieved a signal personal goal: not to embarrass myself or the club during the competition.

Though there were seven of us in the club fencing during the following three days I always had one of Kenny or Jenni strip side when I was fencing which was no small achievement. The best thing, though, was the warm-ups with Kenny. Not only did they serve to optimize my frame of mind for the competition, they were also compact, perfectly focused lessons, which have also helped me build a sharper set of priorities for the coming year. The prospect of competing in a national event focuses the mind wonderfully, to rephrase Johnson. In fact, that may be one of things I love most about fencing. The discipline tunes and strengthens perception.

I was lucky in my pool draws both for Div III and Veterans: everyone was better than I was and most, probably all, had been fencing longer than I had, in the case of Veterans, sometimes by decades. Even so, I won one pool bout, came very close in two others and there was no one I didn’t get at least a point on. Since a large part of my game involves going for hand touches, it’s a point of technique I need to give particular focus, especially aiming for where the target will be, not where it is. Similarly, my parry-ripostes need a lot of work: too often I try to counter attack in opposition and fail when a parry-riposte would be successful. In general, I found that I was seeing the weaknesses of my opponents and could discover their “emergency responses” but, having done so, was unable to take effective advantage of that knowledge. In general, my points often came early in the bouts: clearly my opponents were figuring me out as well, which is yet one more thing to work on.

Lynn had a similar experience in that regard and her results were similar to my own. One of my favorite moments of the entire competition was watching her veterans event. Suddenly, she started bouncing, which is something she normally never does. It was as if she’d suddenly discovered an infinite pool of energy. And she didn’t stop. After, I told her she reminded me of the Energizer Bunny. Her veterans bouts were as difficult and hard fought as mine as most of the women were competing for a place on the national team.

My major regret is that I was unable to see any complete bouts of some of the highly placed fencers competing, either in Nationals or in the Pan Am games in the hall next to ours. I also saw very little of Robert and Kim fencing. Afterwards, Robert told me that he’d felt that he’d never fenced better and that he’d made a kind of perceptual leap as well: there were times, he said, when he felt like a predator, keenly observing his opponent’s weaknesses. He certainly fenced exceptionally well against me in our warm-up bouts and both Kenny and Jenni commented that he had done very well against an accomplished fencer he’d drawn in his pool.

With a little encouragement from the four of us, Jenni had decided to fence and I was able to see a little of her bouts, albeit mostly from a distance. She seemed quick and formidable, significantly more so than when I’d last fenced against her in Idaho late last year. Her results were better than the those of the four of us and I found her skill and focus quietly inspirational.

So, “I’m back.” And already consider myself in training for next year.

If you’ll forgive the echo, I choose to fence not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal serves to organize and measure the best of my energies and skills. It will be interesting to see how we do next year.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Belonging


King Henry V: I wear it for a memorable honour; For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.
Fluellen: All the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty's Welsh plood out of your pody, I can tell you that: God pless it and preserve it, as long as it please his grace, and his majesty too!
-Henry V, Shakespeare

In Branagh’s memorable film Henry’s line isn’t tossed away with an ironic grin as it usually was; rather it is delivered with conviction and tears of affection coming as it does at the end of the battle of Agincourt. Henry’s parentage was almost entirely Norman English but he was born in Monmouth, Wales. Did that make him Welsh or was it that he was distantly related to Llewelyn the Great through his mother making him 1/128thWelsh? My guess is that Shakespeare meant the former. Branagh’s original dramatic insight to use the line as a cue for emotional release(which is perfect for the dramatic shape of play) may also reveal Shakespeare’s vision of the character and possibly even reflect the personality of the historical Henry. Who knows? Was Henry Welsh? Does it matter?

What I find of greater interest is the audience’s response to that reading of the line. We accept it. No one takes umbrage, no one suggests it’s pretense.

Here’s a different context. I was born in the American Southwest but am of northern European decent. If I were to say to a member of the Acoma tribe of New Mexico, “I am Anasazi, you know, good countryman,” he or she would be offended, have a good laugh and perhaps even wonder if I was in need of a professional psychologist.

The thorny issue, of course, is cultural membership and ownership. When does someone have the right to claim membership in a culture. And what rights appertain to a cultural group? The problem is international and diverse. It dramatically affects how Archaeology is done in the southwestern US and politics in the Middle East to name just two examples. And it is far from sufficient to allow cultural groups to make decisions alone because of cultural conflict. Governments and global organizations are forced to arbitrate and we need them to do so.

This week I’m attending a fencing camp my club is holding. I’m looking forward to it in furtherance of my challenging goal of avoiding complete embarrassment at Nationals. The thoughts above derived from realizing that a fencing club is a kind of culture, too, with particular rules and values that differ, sometimes dramatically, from club to club. I’m particularly fond of the culture my club expresses.

And yet, isn’t every sense of belonging also haunted by a ghost of pretense? And is that such a bad thing? Pretense is sometimes the beginning of transformation, just as standing in front of a mirror with an epee repeating the same parries over and over is a kind of pretending, too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Reason for Time

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once,” according to Albert Einstein. My spring has been like that, more and more everything seems to be happening at once. Also, the proportional acceleration of time due to age, (a simple lemma proceeding from the fact that one of the ways we perceive time is in proportion to the amount of time we’ve lived) contributes to that sense. Or maybe it’s just that didn’t ski enough this winter as a result of severity of the weather, especially the wind and cold.

Even so, we managed to find the single best week in May for an excursion to Chaco and Mesa Verde with Robert and Tyler. It deserves an entry of its own, obviously. What I will say now is that as a result I’m rereading Lekson’s History of the Southwest as well Marietta Wetherhill’s memoir. Both give me the sense that in spite of southwestern archaeology’s extraordinary best efforts, my view of what can be known of that time is veiled and skewed and a careful look at first sources is required to center myself again.

And, in that connection, a wicked cool video of Dr. Patricia Brown’s lecture at the Archaeology CafĂ© of the Center for Desert Archaeology is available online and well worth watching. Dr. Brown discusses the curious route that led to her discovery that a particular kind of pot found in Chaco was used for chocolate, Science and Serendipity: the Recovery of Cacao in Chaco Canyon. Warning: the tragic fate of fluffy, cute macaws also imported into the ancient southwest from Mesoamerica is also discussed in graphic detail ;-)

As of late, we’ve been fencing a lot. Besides our daily training regimen, we have three classes per week as well as two, sometimes three open fencing sessions. And, yet it’s clear from my bouts that it isn’t enough.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Three Arrows in the Ceiling of a Bologna Colonnade


Bologna, Italy is a city of colonnades which makes it pleasantly walkable in all but the most inclement weather.  In one of the ceilings are three crossbow arrows which presumably date from the 15th or 16th century.  When you stumble across them, or have them pointed out to you, as they were to me after a sumptuous business dinner at the Trattoria Battibecco, they’re startling.  History is suddenly immediate, continuous and palpable in the most ordinary way.  Yet the same three arrows in a museum might hardly warrant a second glance for all but the Renaissance warfare specialist.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the planes were slamming into the World Trade Center in New York, I was landing in Bologna, having taken off from Boston, as had many of the hijackers.  When I reached my office an hour later, I found my Italian colleagues not quietly at work at their computer screens, as they almost always were, but rather sitting rapt in front of an old black and white television watching that terrible history unfold.  I joined them and felt more than anything that I should be home in America.  History of the most horrific kind, the slaughter of innocents, was happening in my own country.

Very early the following Saturday, I went for a long walk, much of it beneath Bologna’s colonnades though it was a crisp sunny morning, and found the early Renaissance architecture and, eventually, the three arrows strangely comforting.  They reminded me that history isn’t a series of discrete dramatic, violent events, but a river, or rather a maze of rivers flowing constantly and just as the survival of that ancient city was testament to its resilience to such events, so was there the resilience and courage at home to face the events that had suddenly made the future so much more uncertain.

The three arrows and those events were brought to mind as I just finished  Craig Childs fine personal essay, Finders Keepers:  A Tale of Archaelogical Plunder and Obsession.  Through the lens of his own experience and research he explores the question of what is the right use of the remains of the past, an issue of immediate and continuing concern for those of us who live in the American southwest.  The answer is rarely easy and some choices are horrific.

One possible answer, which he doesn’t address, is to get the history and pre-history out of the museums and into the daily environment.  Of course, such a course of action is fraught with difficulties, least of which are security and proper preservation.  Nevertheless, nearly all of us live in places in which human habitation has been continual for sometimes thousands of years.  What if most of us had the experience of seeing some of that history or pre-history daily.  How would it inform our daily lives?  You can never tell what effect three old arrows in a ceiling might have.

The qualification tournament for nationals is next weekend; time for daily fencing practice.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Once More Unto The Breach...


So Henry V is bound for film once again. This time it’s going to be science fiction in a “post-apocalyptic” world which combines the stories of Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2 and Henry V into one screenplay. The cast includes Michael Caine, Derek Jacobi and Ray Winstone. Sigh. My expectations are less than high. The title is “Henry5.” At least it isn’t “Mad Henry Beyond the Thunder-Somme.”

For my part I’d deeply love to see a serious new film of any of those three plays set properly in the early 15th century when the events actually took place using Shakespeare’s text. As recent and not so recent theatrical productions at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and the National in London have shown, exciting, original and provocative productions are possible within those generous constraints. Ray guns and Mohawk haircuts really aren’t necessary.

As Branagh showed way back in 1983, it’s possible to create an original and powerful version that speaks to the concerns of the times in which the film is made even though the setting is historical. Branagh wasn’t overwhelmed by the looming legacy of Olivier’s version. There was more than room for them both.

Branagh did good service when it came to the speeches and captured the feel of the sodden October of 1415.  Still, Olivier’s Agincourt speech remains my favorite on film.

But there is a version of the speech I like even better: Richard Burton’s. An audio version on a BBC CD entitled “All the World’s a Stage” can be found if you’re willing to look for it. What I particularly like about Burton’s reading is its dynamism. It isn’t all declamatory heroics. Rather, he takes the tone way down to begin. His Henry really is speaking intimately to a "band of brothers," perhaps around the remains of a campfire. It’s only when he reaches the line “Then shall our names…” that he allows the strength of his great Welsh voice to inflect the importance and greatness of the moment. Sometimes power is all about dynamics. (That’s true in fencing, too.)

Burton performed the role for RSC on stage. What a production it must have been.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How does a fencer beat Goliath?


Fencing is nearly unwatchable. The things that are important are so subtle and interpreting them is equally difficult. For example, when is one competitor’s forte (the third of the blade closest to the guard) overlapping the others foible (third of the blade toward the tip)? Does a slightly lifted arm after a parry indicate a mistake or is it a provocation? Who is provoking whom? And there’s the footwork. And all of it is happening so quickly. Even if you’re an experienced fencer it can be a challenge to know what to watch when.

But if you do have an eye for what to look for it can be compelling. The final of the senior mixed epee event of the last tournament I attended was such an event. The eventual winner had had a mixed day at best. He’d lost a pool bout he should have won and his quarter-final and semi-final direct elimination bouts were precarious. The latter was won by one point with a toe touch, if I remember correctly. And then, he had to immediately proceed into the final against a well-rested opponent. Nevertheless, he focused and rose to the occasion, which is archetypical element of almost every sports story. What was more interesting to me, however, was how he won. To my mind the single most important element was the breadth and diversity of his game. Besides being an obvious advantage to him it was also a significant disadvantage for his opponent in an interesting way. Because, there were so many possibilities, his opponent simply had to think more and more often. That made him necessarily slower, as Czajkowski points out. It increased his latency period.

A related theme is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s article How David Beats Goliath, currently available in the New Yorker online. Gladwell focuses predominantly on National Junior Basketball for girls and one coach’s innovative application of the full court press. The theme is that the outsider, the underdog, can win if he or she is willing and creative enough to find an unconventional strategy and sufficiently diligent to apply it successfully (as it often requires more work). He mentions several other examples, T.E. Lawrence’s innovative strategy for defeating the Turks in WWI by not attacking Medina but by disrupting the Hejaz railway instead, a naval war gamer who used an AI program to surmount nearly insurmountable odds coupled with labyrinthine rules and conventions, and George Washington’s early strategy in the US War of Independence.

Needless to say, it’s a particularly appealing stance for me as a fencer. The problem is that fencing is very old, fencers are very clever, so they’ve institutionalized the idea of stepping outside of the ordinary. Finding something truly innovative is less easy than it might be in other endeavors.

The illustration is a cartoon T.E. Lawrence drew of himself for "7 Pillars of Wisdom," one the greatest and simply enjoyable books written in the 20th century.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Cheerful Discovery


I made a cheerful discovery this week. It was one of those rare experiences that makes something old vitally new and compelling.

Though I’m very fond of orchestral music, I’ve never been overly fond of Rachmaninoff with the exception of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which I can only listen to occasionally, and one other. The other is the prosaically titled “Symphonic Dances,” his last composition.

For some reason, lost to memory, I always associate it with Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Gareth Beaumains defeating the Red Knight, but the composition in three parts is rich with allusions and associations that are not so personal and obscure. Nevertheless, I think that it is that allusive richness both personal and cultural, combined with its mood that is at once melancholy and energetic, an unusual combination you must admit, that has made it a favorite for much of my life.

The discovery was that there exists a version for two pianos, instead of orchestra. Further there exists an exquisite recording of that version by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andre Previn. And, while that version will not supplant the orchestral version for me, it does augment and transcend it. Listening to it is a little like having the patina removed from a great painting revealing bright, clear colors and, occasionally, lost subtlety. In the two piano version I hear Rachmaninoff’s summary of a creative life, the drive, the sadness, the will to discover beauty and express it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Unexpected Gifts from Unexpected Lives


When I was a child, one of my father’s favorite retorts was “you don’t know how it is. You think you’ll live forever.” The irony was that even then, when I was green and golden in the mercy of Time’s means, I was all too aware that one day Time would take me up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand, to borrow those famous words from Fern Hill. I’ve never felt distant from my own mortality.

We learned yesterday of the sudden death of a neighbor. Death is terrible but common place in spite of all we do to insulate ourselves. John Donne’s 17th meditation (1624) comes to mind on this occasion, as well it should. And may it always do so. But there is a reciprocal: in my selfish way I look at other lives for sources and models of strength and just as Wayne Trenbeath’s death diminishes me so am I heartened with the obstinate will and humor with which he faced his Multiple Sclerosis during the few years I knew him. Certain lives are unexpected gifts at unexpected times.

On other topics, my fencing has been a little less than optimal as of late. In the tournament before last I managed to lose all my pool bouts and in the most recent one I lost two pool bouts I could have won. Then, in the same tournament, I lost my first direct elimination bout even though I was up 12-9 at the beginning of the 2nd period. Indeed, that is becoming a dark and regular theme: I pull significantly ahead then lose. To put it more succinctly, at the moment my fencing sucks.

All of which would be fine, perhaps, if my enthusiasm for the sport wasn’t continuing to grow. The problem is that more I do it, the more knotty, difficult and interesting it is. In Tuesday’s class we worked on a new (to me) denial-of-blade counter attack that is wicked cool. So I will keep at it, remembering to apply an appropriate measure of obstinate will.

By the way, the photo is of a cottage above Newport, Pembrokeshire, Wales. I took it during the trip Lynn, Robert and I took last summer.  The name of the cottage is "Fern Hill."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Glimpsing the Future with Felicia Day and Kudos for a Fine Fencing Blog Post


There are moments when current events allow you to glimpse the future. One example took place on May 21st, 1929 when Charles Lindberg landed at Le Bourget field in Paris having crossed the Atlantic alone in the Spirit of Saint Louis thus presaging an age of international travel and catapulting himself into instant celebrity, one of the first. Another such moment , was in September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland using highly coordinated massive air, artillery, armor in their strategy of lighting warfare or “blitzkrieg.” The highly coordinated use of overwhelming force was not only a defining aspect of World War II but remains a viable strategy as the US demonstrated in its “shock and awe” campaign against Bagdad.

I have the sense that two recent events, of vastly different scales, in very different areas of human experience may prove just as prophetic albeit in a very different way. The first, and most obvious, is the nuclear crisis in Japan. It’s hard to imagine a more clear and terrible demonstration that statistically highly unlikely events must be planned for and managed at an international level. It’s an expensive and unpleasant realization, but the plain truth is that the world is too interconnected, the technologies are too potent and the potential consequences of indifference are too terrible for us not to do so.

The other example, has to do with business. Not too long ago, the movie rental giant Blockbuster was forced into bankruptcy by Netflix and their inability to adapt to Netflix’s online/mail delivery based model which eschewed late fees. For their part, Netflix always saw that innovation as a bridging strategy and now it’s battling against Amazon et al, for online streaming delivery of entertainment content.

My sense is that even if one of them wins that war it may be a pyrrhic victory. That surmise follows from the other recent event I alluded to: the announcement by Bioware/EA that they had begun production of a web fantasy series with Felicia Day. Ms. Day is perhaps best known for her project “The Guild,” an indie web series about the fortunes of a group of people playing a massively multiplayer online role playing game akin to World of Warcraft. The DVD of season 4 of “The Guild” has just been released to DVD and, according to Ms. Day in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, the series has had over 100 million viewers online. I consider it a seminal event because it’s hard to imagine a more clear demonstration that financial power in entertainment is flowing inexorably from distribution organizations to content creators such as Ms. Day. Bioware/EA’s new project with Ms. Day could be seen as a clear recognition of that fact. I suspect Netflix realizes it as well as they are in negotiations to produce and develop Kevin Spacey’s project, a remake of “House of Cards.”

On an entirely separate topic, there’s a fencing tournament in Park City this weekend which I’m going to try to make even though I’ve had to miss my last two weeks of open fencing practice as well as class. I must admit to being inspired to do so by Fencing Bear’s decision to compete in Detroit last weekend in spite of much greater obstacles. And I should mention that her blog of March 15th contained one of the coolest and sharpest descriptions of what goes through your mind while fencing that I’ve yet read. It’s definitely worth a read, Why that last bout really sucked

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Good Stories are Hard


A day ago, on the Guardian site, Jonathan Jones took critics to task for criticizing Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” for its lack of historical accuracy and pointed out that many historical films, including last year’s “The King’s Speech” also were less than completely accurate. All true, but alas historical verisimilitude isn’t the issue at all. Finally, "Robin Hood" wasn’t a good movie because it wasn’t telling a very good story. Script writer Brian Helgeland gave us a character who was not particularly clever or interesting and nothing particularly clever or interesting happened to him. Who cares if the medieval world may have actually had something like a Higgins boat, as Will Mclean cleverly pointed out, ,so that the final scene was not nearly as anachronistic as it seemed?

Two interesting counterpoints are Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” Neither had particularly strong stories either but both immersed the audience in a world that was surprising and new and which alluded to central historical truths about their respective times. For example, the beginning battle scene in Gladiator illustrates the power of technology, organization and discipline even in a relatively primitive world, a key aspect of historical Roman success. Of course it is also relevant to the kind of real warfare we see on the news at the moment. In that context, it’s interesting to compare “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger’s documentary about a US platoon in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, with "Gladiator" which suggests that very different kinds of stories about the Roman invasions of Gaul and England could be very interesting indeed.

Good stories are hard.

But they always have been. Very occasionally, I find myself musing that in spite of the sea changes in media at all levels, we’re becoming worse at it as a culture. Certainly, the immediacy of things like Facebook pose interesting obstacles to the creation of suspense, a vital narrative element.

Unfortunately, a couple of experiences this week have only served to support that rather gloomy opinion. Lynn and I watched the first episode of the Camelot miniseries on Starz. Like, Michael Hirst’s previous production, “The Tudors,” it seems to have no idea of what it’s about. The first episode gave me no reason to watch a second and even if we do I fear I may be unable to keep with it due to severe, aggressive apathy.  Ironically, one of the six word stories from the New York Times,, serves as a perfect review:  "Note to self:  no more surfers."

More interesting and possibly more sadly, Bioware has released a demo of their RPG "Dragon Age II." "Dragon Age I" was one of the most successful computer games of last year and was particularly interesting because a story with strong ironies, difficult choices and well-realized characters was one of the central and unique elements. I’ve long felt that computer gaming, still relatively young, was waiting for its “Birth of a Nation” and "Dragon Age I" suggested that moment might be very close indeed. Alas, the demo of DA II suggests that those elements have been forgone in favor of developing an anime-styled game to appeal to fourteen year-old ADD console players of FPSs, a caricatured demographic I suspect is actually microscopically small. I have fingers crossed in hopes that it was no more than a terrible demo.

I’m going to go reread some Borges and Lovecraft.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Recalling December Fencing on a Windy Evening


There’s a frantic wind again today. We’ve had a lot of it during the last year. Even the day last Spring when we did our little 10 mile hike in the cliffs above Pueblo Bonito in Chaco it was roaring. So I’m not skiing even though I’ve done far too little so far this year. And now Spring looms with so many different things to do.

I finally fenced in my first tournament of the new year, on February 5th, and it turned out to be particularly good fun. I won 3 of my 5 pool bouts and one was agreeably dramatic. It was against a fencer from the Pocatello club and I haven't been doing well against them lately. This time, I was soon down 3-1 but rallied and came back so that it was 4-4 when time ran out. That alone was a kind of personal victory; I’m not particularly good at coming from behind. He then won the spin of the pencil for priority so that if neither of us scored in the extra minute of overtime he’d win the bout by default. We began again. I carefully and relentlessly pushed him to the end of the strip and then simply waited. There was a moment when something in his body language told me that he was beginning to think the clock would just run out. I went, won the point and was very chuffed.

He was not.

I owed the strategy to another member of our club, a much more capable and clever fencer than I, who’d used it in the gold medal DE bout in an earlier event on the same day.

I was seeded 10th of 32 after pools and won my first direct elimination bout. My second, against a young lady in our club who has fenced internationally and is a much, much better fencer than me, went well. I lost but the score was much better than I would have hoped. And it also yielded a photo, which my cousin Robert took, of which I’m particularly fond. Here it is:

And, I owe Robert further thanks for doing the research and finding what finally appears to be some decent HD video editing software (Cyberlink’s PowerDirector 9) which works well enough with the mts HD video our Canon camera produces. This morning, I roughed something up from the footage we took at a tournament at the University of Utah on December 15th.

I should mention that though I won the bout; it was very close, much closer than the video suggests. I just happen to be more fond of the points I won, which should come as no surprise.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Those Moments of Transcendence


Everyone who fences sees it happen at tournaments or at practice: a less capable fencer beating a more experienced one. Certainly, it happens in other sports, too. But I suspect it’s more common in fencing than say tennis for reasons I’ll get to shortly. And it happens because of something hard to quantify or measure or even see. It’s the kind of thing that might make you believe in magic or lucky t-shirts.

In chapter 6 of Understanding Fencing, Zbigniew Czajkowski addresses it: the importance of motivation and arousal. He is careful to discriminate between the two, the former being the reasons we fence and the latter being our state of excitement during a bout. Czajkowski quotes the work of two early 20th century psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson, and the two laws they formulated about the effect levels of arousal and motivation have on performance. Their work was published in 1908 based upon empirical evidence.

The first law states that there is an optimal level of arousal and motivation for performing a task and that if you graph levels of arousal and motivation versus performance the result is an upside down U-shaped curve.

The second law states that the more complex a task is, the lower the level of arousal and motivation necessary for optimal performance. In other words, if you’re doing something that is complicated for you, if you’re too excited, you’re less likely to perform it as well as if you were more settled.

Further, and provocatively, Czajkowski suggests that one goal for training fencers is to make very complex tasks trivial to execute so that they may be performed at much higher levels of motivation and arousal. And he discusses strategies for accomplishing that, such as over-training.

By the way, Czajkowski’s book was published in 2005. In 2007, Yerkes and Dodson’s work was corroborated in part by Lupien et al, and their work on stress hormones, particularly glucocorticoids.

The reason I hypothesize that motivation and arousal play a greater role in fencing than tennis is that fencing reaction times are so very short. Both the tip of a fencing weapon and a tennis ball are generally estimated to have a top speed of approximately 120 miles per hour. However, the tennis ball often traverses a much greater distance (42 feet from service line to service line) versus a mere 2 feet in a fencing attack. The corresponding times for response are .23 seconds and .011 seconds respectively. Hence, if motivation and arousal affect reaction time it is probable they could play a much greater role in fencing where even a slight change in reaction time can change who gets the touch.

So motivation and arousal deserve particular attention from the fencer. And Socrates’ maxim, “Know Thyself,” has terrible, practical importance. Nevertheless, although Czajkowski addresses the differences between individuals in this context when he talks about the differences between “warriors” and “technical fencers,” I think the kind of motivation and arousal also deserve particular attention as well. I know I’ve been much less successful at tournaments when I was worried about doing well. Who hasn’t?

On the other side, I’ve also had the opposite experience: once almost a year ago and then again more recently. In both cases, I surpassed my self-expectation in bouts with fencers who were better and more experienced even though they were fencing well. And at both times, I recall a particular lightness of being and a sense of slowed time. My perception seemed heightened and I was able to fence with particular quickness and precision. I sensed I could do no wrong.

Do I think I was actually fencing perfectly? Of course not. But I was fencing as well as I could within the limits of my technical skill and, more importantly, my response times were substantially better than usual.

It happens in other sports as well and to competitors at the highest levels. In Levels of the Game, John Mcphee’s classic essay on a single tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, the same thing happens to Ashe:

   Nothing has happened to Graebner’s game. It continues
   at the level of solid  excellence that has brought him, all
   even, to the present crisis.  The level of Ashe’s game,
   however, appears to have risen. He is playing with loose,
   all out, fluid abandon – prudence be damned.

Thus, among all the other things there are to learn about fencing, an important one is how to find the particular psychological regimen than optimizes your chances of finding such transcendent moments. I suspect it’s a continual battle. What works once may not work a second time, just as an attack against a good fencer may work only once. You have to find another.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Missing Fencing


I have a severe case of the grumps. Today I’m missing a second fencing tournament in as many weeks due to a respiratory infection. I’m now on an antibiotic and am starting to respond but the antibiotic does nothing for the grumps which is particularly dangerous since I’ve suffered from chronic curmudgeonery for some time. I also was unable to ski this week. My sophisticated, wise, witty comment about this? “Grump, grumpity grump, grump, grump.” Feel free to quote me.

So what does one do when one isn’t up to fencing?

One reads. In particular, I’ve returned to Czajkowski’s Understanding Fencing. I first started it six months ago but quickly discovered that my fencing lexicon was not what it needed to be. To my surprise that state of affairs has greatly improved. The language of fencing, a little like Russian, which can be particularly challenging due to the large number of irregular verbs and constructions (thanks to Old Church Slavonic, the Greek Orthodox Church’s attempt to create a rational, literary version of the language in the 9th century), is an amalgam of several traditions each of which both modified existing diction and introduced new words. My lexicon is now sufficiently complete and nuanced that I’m finding the book both interesting and enjoyable. My fencing may even improve as a result.

One of Czajkowski’s several, useful points is that feints are not practiced nor attended to nearly as much as attacks or counter attacks but that they should be.

Of course, they should: a feint is the means for setting up a successfully attack. If your feints are weak and predictable the success of your attacks will be random at best and probably much worse as your opponent will easily guess what you’re up to. Also, as I read that I realized that it both characterized one of the most important strengths of a fencer in the club who’s style I particularly admire and that the paired drills our coach has us practice almost always include feints as a key element.

At the same time I’ve also been re-reading George R. R. Martin’s “Fire and Ice” books, inspired by HBO’s decision to create a series from the first one which will be broadcast in April. The first time through, I found the books overly fragmented. Martin jumped between characters so often that I found it difficult to ignite the necessary imaginary engagement which is essential for enjoying that kind of fiction. This time, no doubt due in part to familiarity, that is much less of a problem and I’m finding the dramatic arcs much more satisfying. They are more successful as individual novels.

So, I’m looking forward to the series and from what I’ve seen on the web it’s received the budget and attention to detail that could make it very good indeed. Having said that, however, it makes me long for someone to undertake a more ambitious project, one of Martin’s obvious inspirations: the century of conflict in English history known as the War of the Roses. The period is rife with the stuff from which good drama is made, from the relentless ambition of the Duke of York to the cruelty of Margaret, Queen of England, the “She-Wolf of France.” And it’s already been scripted into 8 amazing episodes by a reputable writer.

I refer, of course, to Shakespeare’s 8 English history plays. The first four, which are later works, are widely recognized as the masterpieces they are, but the three Henry VI plays, which were among Shakespeare’s first, are better than many people know. As with Martin, the number of characters and complexity of events sometimes obscures the strength of the drama. Nevertheless, a coherent, historically accurate production of all eight, even possibly augmented by dramatization of events in the Pastons’ letters, could be amazing. If only someone had the requisite courage and imagination.