Thursday, June 27, 2013

United States v Windsor (the DOMA case)

I've been staring at my screen for a while trying to figure out what I wanted to say about United States v Windsor, the DOMA case that was decided yesterday. My initial plan was simply to do a Natalie-style breakdown of the opinion for those of my readers who value such things, and then do a separate post with my personal responses, but after reading the whole thing, I'm not sure I can separate them cleanly enough to do that.

Some of our most celebrated Supreme Court cases have been, I think, wrongly decided. Brown v Board of Education is one such case (although some have argued that there was no legally correct answer, I don't know of anybody who thinks the Brown I decision was correct on the merits of the case). Griswold v Connecticut, the case that enunciated federal protection for the right to privacy, is another (that the constitution guarantees some privacy-like rights is quite clear, but not even the prevailing justices in that case could agree on where, exactly, the constitution guarantees the right to privacy in general). I think that Windsor is going to go down in history with these cases. Wide-eyed law students in the future will learn about the time in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck a historic blow for equal rights - by ignoring the law.

So ... what happened?

The Windsor in Windsor is Edith Windsor, a New York lesbian. Windsor and her partner got married in Canada, gay marriage jurisdictions in the United States being hard to find at the time. New York then decided it would recognize same-sex marriages performed outside of its borders (later it would decide to permit same-sex marriage within its borders, but that's not relevant to the story). At this point, Windsor and her wife, Thea Spyer, were legally married as a matter of New York law. Spyer died, and willed her entire estate to her wife.

As you may know, inheritance is subject to federal income tax - it is, after all, money that you didn't have before, which is pretty much the definition of income. For its own inscrutable reasons, however, the federal tax code does not require you to pay income tax on an inheritance you receive from a spouse. You can see where this is going. For purposes of New York law, Windsor had inherited from her spouse.

For purposes of federal law, though, Windsor had not inherited from her spouse, because Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act defines "spouse" for purposes of federal law as an opposite-sex person (I mean that literally; Section 3 of DOMA amends the aptly named Dictionary Act). As a result, Windsor paid the Treasury her inheritance tax, then sued for a refund. The Treasury refused, since Spyer had not been Windsor's wife for federal law purposes, and Windsor took the government to federal district court on the grounds that Section 3 of DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Her argument for that was fairly bold and very much in keeping with the story that is going to be told to future generations about the gay rights struggle. But this is where things begin to get weird from a civics point of view, so before we get to her argument, pay attention to what happened next: the government told the district court that it agreed with Windsor's argument and should be ordered to refund her tax, with interest - while simultaneously continuing to enforce Section 3. While arguing that Windsor should get her tax back because Section 3 was unconstitutional, the government was simultaneously collecting estate taxes from other people in her situation (and otherwise denying legally married same-sex spouses recognition under federal law).

As might be expected when the defendant's argument is, "I am wrong and the plaintiff is right," Windsor won at the district court level. The government then appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, while continuing to hold Windsor's estate tax. This is where the gentle reader may expect the government to turn its cloak and ask for Section 3 to be upheld and the tax retained. But what happened was even more incredible - the government's argument on appeal was that it should lose the appeal, because Section 3 was unconstitutional. Take a moment to appreciate that: the government said it should lose, lost, and then appealed its loss on the grounds that it should have lost.

Under these circumstances, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the government lost. The government then appealed again, and argued to the Supreme Court that it should ... wait for it ... lose.

And it did.

You can probably tell that I have some feelings about that whole process. But let's get on to the actual opinion.

If you have the good fortune to come across the better sort of popular news reporting about legal issues, you may have heard that the majority opinion in Windsor is ... confusing. This is absolutely true, but to understand why, we need to review a few basics of common law. One of the reasons I dislike popular news reporting about legal issues so much is that it can't seem to decide which story it wants to tell. On the one hand, there is usually a narrative about "winning" and "losing," as if people pay attention to these things strictly for the entertainment value of observing the litigants fight. On the other hand, there is usually a narrative about which laws have been struck down, died, revived, or other such agonistic terms.

Neither narrative is wholly satisfactory. What people really want to know, I think, is what the state of the law is after the case is over. And to understand that, you have to understand how the case arose (which is one reason I spent so much time sketching that) and how one side "won" or "lost," a law "died" or was upheld. Remember that the whole manner in which courts create law (which in a broad sense they are supposed to do; let us have no childish nonsense about "activist" vs. "conservative" judges here) is by articulating principles, so that the legal reasoning in one case can be applied to analogous - but not identical - situations.

So what are the principles that underlie Windsor? The majority spends several pages discussing the proper boundaries of federal action with respect to marriage. "By history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage, as will be discussed in more detail, has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States." Aha, thinks the reader - this is a federalism argument. "Federalism" is a fancy word for the principle that not everything is something that the federal government can regulate. Yet the majority then says that it is not deciding the case on federalism grounds, because that's unnecessary: "Despite these considerations, it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance."

So ... apparently we will not be hearing whether Section 3 violates federalism principles after all. What then? The majority turns to a principle that it will restate in several forms: "DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. [citation omitted] The Constitution's guarantee of equality 'must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot' justify disparate treatment of that group." Fair enough, it seems. New York wants to protect same-sex couples (by allowing them to marry); Section 3 does the opposite (by refusing to acknowledge their otherwise valid marriage). Equal protection violation, problem sorted.

Take another look at that sentence and ask yourself what the animating principle is. Is the constitutional problem here that Section 3 seeks to injure the class that New York seeks to protect? Or is it that Section 3 itself reflects a "bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group?"

If the former, then Windsor would seem to stand for the very alarming principle that federal law cannot override state law. That is entirely counter to our tradition of federalism. The federalist principle is that there are some areas as to which the federal government cannot make law at all, but in those areas where the federal government can act, its law is supreme. This is what Article VI, clause 2 of the federal constitution means when it says "the laws of the United States ... shall be the supreme law of the land, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding."

It seems incredible that the majority opinion would be based on such an elementary error. So perhaps the real principle is that laws that represent a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group are unconstitutional.

This is an attractive statement, but also an incredibly strange one to anybody who is even moderately versed in the actual law of equal protection in this country. As I've said before, neither the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, nor the general concept of "equal protection" means that all laws must treat everybody equally. This is easy to forget when one is caught up in the emotions of a righteous crusade for civil rights, but it is a very ordinary concept. Prior to Windsor, some people were denied the benefits of federal marriage law. After Windsor, some people are denied the benefits of federal marriage law. Let's call them "single people." Why can't single people demand federal marriage rights under equal protection?

The answer is as simple, and as complex, as saying that single people and married people are not the same. The Supreme Court puts it this way: "The equal protection of the laws must coexist with the practical necessity that most legislation classifies for one purpose or another, with resulting disadvantages to various groups or persons."

Because of this tension - on the one hand, we want everybody to enjoy equal protection under the law; on the other hand, taking that principle to its logical extreme means virtually no law is valid - American jurisprudence has a familiar and fairly well understood way to balance. This is the "tiers of scrutiny" or "heightened scrutiny" approach you may have heard about. The principle is this: when a law benefits or harms one class of people over another (say, giving married people benefits that only married people can have, or imposing penalties on convicted criminals that only convicted criminals have to suffer), the question is what the purpose of the law is and what sort of distinction is being made. Roughly, when a law draws a distinction based on something that is very rarely relevant to legitimate state interests in general, the classification must be narrowly tailored and the specific state interest in question must be a "compelling" one. The classic example is race (well, it is now; originally it was religion or national origin). For instance, suppose the United States were suffering from a plague that only infected white people, with a 100% mortality rate, which could only be communicated by shaking right hands. A state could very likely pass a law forbidding white people to shake right hands with each other, in this case, despite the fact that the law would only burden the behavior of white people (a class based on race), because preventing the spread of such a virulent plague is a "compelling" government interest, and the law was as narrowly tailored as possible (it would, for instance, be unconstitutional to pass a law preventing white people to have physical contact with each other - the goal is still compelling, but the method is no longer as narrowly tailored as possible).

At the other end of the spectrum is "rational basis scrutiny," which is applied when the law draws a distinction of the sort that is often relevant to legitimate state interests in general. In this case, the rule requires only that the government's goal be a "legitimate" one, and that the classification be one that a rational person could find legitimate - even if other people disagreed. Married people vs. single people is one such classification - if a law distinguishes between married people and single people (a distinction that is often relevant to legitimate government interests), it need only be based on a set of facts that a rational person could believe to be true. Those facts don't have to be true. They don't have to be popular.

What Windsor really wanted was for the Supreme Court to say that sexual orientation is very rarely relevant to legitimate state interests - to say that it is like race, religion, or national origin. I think it fair to say that this is what most LGBT advocates, including myself, want the law to say. And indeed, most of the legal arguments in Windsor were about precisely this question. This is how we decide equal protection arguments in this country, and the obvious fact that virtually every law creates inequality by the very nature of lawmaking.

But, having raised the specter of equal protection law, the opinion doesn't even mention the tiered scrutiny test. Instead, it recites a variety of ways in which Section 3 makes same-sex marriages "second class marriages." Now, it is undoubtedly true that Section 3 has this effect. But notice what the court goes on to say: "What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage. This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution."

I confess to being skeptical that one can, as a matter of principle, determine the "purpose" of a law with any degree of certainty. But let us leave that aside, and assume that it is theoretically possible to determine a law's purpose. What exactly is the rule here? Would it be enough if Section 3's principal purpose were to demean same-sex marriages, even if it didn't really have that effect? What about the other way around - what if a law accidentally had the effect of demeaning same-sex marriages, even though that wasn't its principal purpose? Or does a law have to have both? What if a law does neither? What if a law merely makes a distinction between opposite-sex and same-sex marriages, but manages to do so with neither the purpose nor the effect of demeaning either class?

If the court had simply followed the tiered scrutiny test, none of these questions would arise. Instead, they do. The court never explains the test it is using to make its decision. It never even explains its reasoning. It simply lays out a bunch of statements, and then says, "Somewhere in here is our warrant for holding as we do." What are we supposed to do with that? What is the law?

One might well ask why the court did things this way. We may never know. It may be that in the strictest sense we can't know, any more than we can know why a law was passed. If one were feeling cynical, one might imagine that the court wanted to make a statement on gay marriage without articulating a usable test that would be applied throughout the nation. Yet if that were so, why didn't they simply dismiss for lack of standing? Did they feel like to dismiss both Windsor and Hollingsworth (the Prop. 8 case) without making some sort of statement would be somehow cowardly?

Which brings us to the question of standing. Recall that, from the very first trial, Windsor won, and the government repeatedly urged successive courts that Windsor should win. I am incredulous that, under these circumstances, the court agreed to decide the merits of the case at all.

There is a tendency nowadays to imagine that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of justice in the land, and the ultimate word on what is the law. This is not true. In fact, Article III of the constitution specifically prohibits the judiciary from issuing what are called "advisory" opinions. In some countries, one can essentially ask the judiciary a hypothetical question, and the judiciary is allowed to answer - to give its legal advice about the query. One can imagine the usefulness of such a situation. However, the constitution prohibits the federal judiciary from doing any such thing. In this country, if one wants mere legal advice from a government official on a constitutional question (e.g., "Hypothetically, what level of scrutiny should be applied to classifications based on sexual orientation?"), one asks the attorney general. The American judiciary is only allowed to decide actual cases. Doing so may require it to state what the law is, but that does not mean that the judicial branch has the power, in general, to state what the law is. First, there must be two parties who disagree over which of them is entitled to redress.

And yet in this case ... where was that? Windsor won. The government agreed that she should win. Where is the disagreement? At every stage of the litigation, the government loudly and forcefully denounced its own cause. Truth be told, the Supreme Court was not allowed to decide this "dispute," but if it wanted to avoid the clarity that the tiered scrutiny analysis would give, it certainly had an easy out.

I do not think that Section 3 was good policy, and I would - in general - be glad to see it gone. But I am deeply disappointed in the way that this all played out. The judiciary ducked its responsibility to say that this whole appeal was an unconstitutional attempt to weasel an advisory opinion out of it, and then issued a confusing muddle of an opinion with a clear result but no clear reasoning or statement of principles (again, if one were of a cynical mind, one might think they didn't want to make their reasoning clear). But the deeper cowardice belongs to the executive branch, which got us into this whole mess by continuing to enforce a law that it believed - as it told everybody who would listen - to be unconstitutional. This is unacceptable. If the executive believes that a law is unlawful, it is supposed to refuse to enforce it, in which case it will never have to defend it in court. If the legislature has a problem with that, the two of them are supposed to fight it out. If the executive believes that a law is lawful, it is supposed to enforce it, and defend it in court. But the executive cannot have it both ways. Either it has the courage of its convictions or it does not. If one were of a cynical mind, one might think the executive wanted the political cache of being an LGBT ally and the political cover of only ceasing to enforce Section 3 after the courts had "agreed" that it was unconstitutional. Cowards.

As I said, I am sure that striking down Section 3 will be remembered as a landmark victory for the cause of equal rights. And I suppose that it is. But I cannot escape the conclusion that it was a victory achieved by the cowardice of two branches of government whose essential reasoning was that the ends justify the means. A marriage regime that is no respecter of sexual orientation is a good end. But the ends do not justify the means.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

New Every Morning

In the morning, I drag myself out of a surprisingly snuggly bed in my surprisingly dark room. I put on headphones given to me by my father and running shoes given to me by my wife, lock the door behind me with keys given to me by my landlord, and go running in a park given to me by a city that is home but not home. I pass the relief honoring the Marquis de Lafayette, with the tip of his sword shiny and bright from all the people that have rubbed it. I pound past the playground, across the grass and under the tree, wet my shoes and socks in the dew of the Long Meadow, and pass into the trees. I loop around and up the stone steps that sag in the middle back to the Long Meadow, and cross it until I reach my knoll. There my hands curl around empty air, and I begin to drill. There is no morning gloom, and Prospect Park is full of dogs and their people not far away, but this is still my space, and I am thankful. My muscles answer the thrill of the movements, and I am alone.

This is often the highlight of my day, and my days are actually not that bad. It will be another week or so before I can figure out for sure whether this is a sustainable activity, but I dearly hope that I may. This past Saturday was - I was about to say especially fun, but perhaps that is a silly thing to say given a history of only two actual lessons. It was, at any rate, exceptional in recent history. One of the things we got to do was practice unterhauen (cuts from below, beginning with the sword held down and behind), which was extra cool as I have been somewhat entranced by them ever since I discovered that you could strike from that position. But the really remarkable thing was that I found myself thinking of Tokyo Rose, someone I have not thought of in many years ... and I realized that I felt like I was in Social I again. I had that same excitement, the same eagerness to do more, to learn how it all fits together. I was, in the very Natalian sense, happy.

At my teacher's invitation I stayed to observe the open level class, which was equally exciting. The studio's kendo and siljun dobup sensei participated, and happened to be drilling right in front of my chair, so it was especially interesting to see the way he was able to teach his (much less experienced) partner about what they were doing and why. I find my own mind putting together what bits and pieces of information I have, trying them in various combinations looking for insight. One of the minor revelations was that we have actually practiced only two of the meisterhauen, and that the other cuts we have practiced were all simple oberhauen and unterhauen - whether delivered from the left, the right, or directly overhead.

The meisterhauen, I now realize/begin to suspect, are one of the organizing principles of KDF. To give a dance analogy, I break [rotary and Viennese] waltz variations into four basic categories: turns, pivots, redowa, and mazurka. Proficiency in all four of those categories (plus the basics of frame, balance, and rotation) is basically how I define proficiency in waltz itself. Yet they are categories, not individual steps or variations. I group them together partially because all the individual variations under those categories share certain physical similarities, and partially because they respond to the music in distinct ways - a musical phrase that says "redowa" to me might prompt any number of redowa variations, but it doesn't prompt a mazurka step. That phrase is not what mazurka is "for" in my head.

Similarly, KDF "cuts" do not seem to be listed by individual cut but rather by category of cut. I have practiced three individual cuts now that are all described with the word oberhau, two that are both unterhau, and so forth. Of the mastercuts I have definitely been exposed to, the scheitelhau (there seems to be no good translation; the scheitel is the crown of a hill, but also a mathematical apex, and also the part line in your hair) I have only done in one way but I suspect could be done in at least two, and the zwerchau can be done either from the left or from the right, with each individual variation performed in a slightly different way (a left zwerchau is not simply a mirror image of the right zwerchau). The jargon is not of individual moves but of categories of moves ... and so, I realize, my task as a student is to get it into my bones what these general categories are for. Just as this phrase may signify a redowa and not a mazurka, so this disposition of opponents signifies a zwerchau and not a ... well, whatever else it doesn't signify.

Interestingly, I begin to suspect (which is to say, I have read but cannot yet confirm through my own experience) that the meisterhauen are so-called because of their dual function. Prior to the smallsword revolution of the 17th century, people were generally taught to fence in what the Italians and English would call "single time," which is I think is a stupid terminology that simply means with single actions. If you wish to attack somebody with an arming sword, for instance, your sword only takes one action - the attack. It does not attempt to defeat your opponent's defense and then attack, as does a sport foil. If you wish to defeat your opponent's defense, you must do it with another weapon (such as the buckler in your left hand) or through movement. The meisterhauen, by contrast, take advantage of the longsword's greater length to become movements that are both attack and defense, in the same action - they are ways of moving your sword to attack such that your opponent's ability to counterattack is foreclosed, and ways to parry your opponent's attack in a way that simultaneously attacks him. This is, obviously, superior to a movement of the sword that only attacks or only defends - hence the description of these five categories of maneuver as "master."

Now I just need to learn how to, you know, do them. And when. While moving. When the blows are coming about once a second. I can't wait.

But enough of my amateur musings on the art of fighting. The point is, this makes me happy. And I am grateful to have it out here, where I can greet the day and its promise of mercies new with this one small mercy. There is city glass ground into the dirt beneath my feet, but the morning breeze blows through the trees, my muscles answer the thrill of the movements, and I am here.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

KDF: Round One

My first KDF class was, I feel, an unqualified success. My lesson with Sword Class NYC (which I only name because I was so impressed) was held at a dance studio in the garment district of Manhattan, which in retrospect makes a lot of sense as mirrored walls are a very useful tool for anybody attempting to improve their technique in an athletic discipline that involves relatively large motions. My thoughts:

I happened to arrive on the first day of a recurring three-week introductory series, which was nice. I was immediately surprised that we got access to training weapons (Knightshop nylon wasters, if I'm not mistaken) on the very first day. My only previous fencing experience is a quarter of foil fencing I took at Stanford, during which we were taught feet first. In fact, as I recall, it was several weeks before we were allowed to handle a foil. Which method is superior pedagogically I couldn't say (or perhaps each is equally appropriate for its respective discipline), but it was pretty cool to get hands on a waster straight away.

The reason we had wasters right off the bat is because apparently the first class in the introductory series is cuts. We went through six, which as far as I understand covered three of the five so-called KDF "master cuts" - the krumphau (left and right - at least, I think it was the krumphau [EDIT: Pretty sure the krumphau is a different technique]), zwerchau (left and right), and scheitelhau, with the addition of a straight oberhau. I call those cuts by their German names partially because that's the way they were taught, partially for my own edification, and partially to highlight the fact that Tristan (whose name I also mention only because I was so impressed) did a really good job using the German terms. They were not used to show off, and very little was made of the fact that German was being thrown around the studio, but I think it was pedagogically useful. It is already clear to me that the cuts we were learning have a lot of fiddly little components that go into them, and associating them with a compact German word creates an efficient jargon - code words that are not only quick to say, but that we can fill with our understanding of the technique.

I was quite pleased with the whole class' practicality. One of the things I most liked about learning from the Dance Master was that he always explained technique in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. Usually the objective in social dance is pleasure - one's partner's pleasure first, but also one's own. He taught us points of technique that directly furthered those goals, and when he mentioned a point of technique that was something else - merely decorative, say - he always made sure to label it clearly. This class worked the same way. Although there was no explicit discussion of objectives, all of the points of technique we were taught were brought back to some practical martial point. For instance, my zwerchauen (high horizontal cuts) tended to end too low - about the level of my shoulders. Tristan corrected that, but he did so by explaining why I would want my hands higher (because otherwise my sword is too low to guard my head). I appreciated both the fact that he corrected me for that reason (as opposed to say, "Because that's how Talhoffer taught it"), and that he told me that reason explicitly. There were several other times during the class that sort of thing came up, and that is exactly the sort of practical, objective-based approach I was hoping to find.

My actual experience of the class was also nothing but positive. The wasters we were using were light (about 1.73 pounds - more or less 50% as light as the real thing), but manipulating them for even an hour with the arms properly extended (there is a tendency, I gather, for newbies to try and cut with their arms too close to their bodies, because, you know, holding up even less than two pounds of nylon at arm's length gets tiring) left my arms with a pleasant burn and my chest feeling full of vital breath. I was also left feeling like the arm work we were doing would make a lot more sense if paired with footwork - even the limited amount of hip rotation we threw into the mix made things feel much more natural. I think this is cool, because it indicates that I am interested in putting together more pieces of the puzzle.

So ... there we have it. My first experience with KDF was pretty much as fun and satisfying as I wanted it to be, and way more fun than I expected from a first class. Now I just need to see if I can find a way to make this a regular thing, because at this point, I really want to.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Art of Fighting

This Saturday I’m going to have my first lesson in German longsword fencing, which I have high hopes for as a source of exercise, entertainment, and organization while here in New York. I don’t know if I will like it, or if it will turn out to be affordable in the long term, but let’s say that I will and it will. Why fencing, and why German longsword in particular?

I’ve been vaguely interested in fencing for a long time, as I suppose anybody is who consumes much fantasy literature or roleplays in any pre-modern setting. But more than that, it has long seemed to me that a proper philosophical appreciation of force requires - or at least significantly benefits from - experience with a killing art. Force may be much more than killing, forming (I think) an essential part of character, morality, honor, spirituality, sex appeal, good parenting - but I don’t think it can be divorced from killing. If I want to study all the various aspects of force, at some point I need to do at least some study of killing.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning at this point that I am not unaware of the many benefits martial arts study brings even to those who never kill or attempt to kill anybody. Many of those benefits, I think, are still force-related. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In addition to the philosophical study, there is also the need for athletic activity. I think I was probably in the best shape of my life during college, when I was generally dancing at least three and sometimes seven days a week, and I rediscovered something then that I think a lot of people (especially geeks) forget when they leave childhood: athletic activity is fun. I like being in shape. Muscles want to be used. It feels good to know that my body is ready to do whatever I want it to do. It feels manly. It feels mando. It feels right.

That said, I hate exercising, and I do not yet have sufficient self-discipline to exercise in order to stay in shape. I am much better at exercising in order to achieve some other goal - in order to dance, in order to attract a girl. As New York is apparently something of a vintage dance wasteland compared to the Bay Area, that may not be possible, and while I do want to be physically attractive for Thayet, being in love with somebody doesn’t provide the same neurological feedback as courting somebody. Exercising in order to fence seems like it might be an achievable goal, though, since I take it as axiomatic that all martial activity, be it harness fighting or tank driving, is founded on physical fitness.

So why German longsword in particular? The kunst des fechtens, as it was called when actually practiced, has a few features that are particularly attractive to me. The first is that it is about killing - that is to say, it is not an art that is aimed primarily at achieving physical fitness, spiritual enlightenment, or athletic or exhibitionist skill. Those are all valid goals for athletic activity, but they don’t appeal to me. They feel like sports, like games, and I have never been particularly motivated by sports or games. Then too, I don’t think that force is a game. Force - even if only used to build character - is deadly serious. Actually attacking somebody, especially with a weapon, is at least as serious as building character. I want to study a martial art that is comfortable with, and will invite me to wrestle with, the fact that the use of force in defense of oneself or others is serious business. (This is why I sometimes call it “fencing,” from the 16th century English usage, meaning, roughly, the art of self-defence.)

The second appealing feature of the kunst des fechtens is that it is the kunst des fechtens; that is, the art of fighting. It is not actually the art of swordfighting (another reason I prefer the term “fencing,” which in original usage was not sword-specific even though it is now). As I understand it, KDF (like all the medieval and Renaissance-era European martial traditions I’m aware of and, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn, all non-sport martial traditions everywhere) attempts not so much to teach students how to fight with this weapon or that weapon as to teach students how to fight, period - which happens to entail the use of weapons. This seems to me like a much more martially authentic approach than one focused solely on a given implement, even if the longsword is the basic or exemplar weapon of the tradition. It also seems much more athletically authentic to me, based on my very limited experience with athletic activity. Certainly I don’t feel like a waltz dancer or a polka dancer or a swing dancer - all the kinds of dance I know influence all the other kinds of dance I know.

Nevertheless, a third appealing feature of KDF certainly is that it teaches how to kill people specifically with swords. I cannot deny that I think swords (and polearms, etc.) are cool. I would like to expand my martial education into how to kill people with firearms as well, which may well be the more practical pursuit of the two (even if both are, I think, mere variations on the art of fighting). It may well be equally profitable in terms of exercise. Why start with KDF? It’s cheaper, for one thing, which is certainly an attraction. But to be honest, I just think it sounds cooler.

And fourth, there’s a historical appeal as well. KDF is, as far as I know, the earliest European martial art for which we have enough period texts (that is, texts written by actual practitioners who lived when the tradition still had an unbroken history of practice) of sufficient quality to attempt reconstruction. It isn’t the earliest historical European martial art, not by a long shot, but it is the earliest one for which reconstruction can be attempted - and I think that’s pretty cool too.

So ... here's hoping.

Saturday, June 01, 2013


One of the things I have tried really hard to do in Skyfall is to not make it about Chaos. I think the Chaos gods are one of the best and most original pieces of both the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes, and I really, really like them. Ultimately, though, I do not think they are a credible threat as villains (The DM might disagree, given that to all appearances one of the Chaos gods is the ultimate threat in the Circle, but Monica [Jasmine]'s response to that is essentially to disbelieve the threat, which is basically mine as well). This is both for inherent reasons, which I don't want to sidetrack the post into just now, and because I feel like the Chaos gods are the ultimate villain of every 40K story. I wanted to do something more original, with an Ultimate Problem for the party to solve that was a believable threat to everything they hold dear, and without Skyfall sending the message that 40K is ultimately about good and evil.

So it is with a mixture of delight and disappointment that I note how much questions of who is and who isn't Chaos-tainted have dominated the psychology of recent sessions. On the one hand, all the roleplaying involved has been delightful, and I feel pretty good about the general way Chaos has been used - more as the Chaos Question than the Chaos Threat. And yet, the fact remains that Chaos is beginning to dominate my game.

This may be because of the way I run games. This morning's session, for instance, was entirely improvised - I had absolutely no plans for what to do with it. I actually run most of my games without any clear notion of what I am going to do in a session before I do it; rarely do I even have 25% of the events of a session in mind before they happen. This is not so much because I am lazy as because planning out sessions in detail doesn't make sense to me - roleplaying, to me, is essentially oral, and thus essentially improvisational. That doesn't change just because I'm a DM instead of a player. A good aoidos doesn't go into a performance already knowing what words he's going to sing, only generally what he's going to sing about.

So - perhaps because this last session sprung entirely out of the moment, and I find Chaos endlessly fascinating even if I also think it has serious limitations as a storytelling tool - the party at last answered one aspect of the Chaos Question. The name of Nurgle was spoken. I think it went reasonably well. One problem with using a known horror figure as an object of horror is that being known and being horrible are sort of antithetical. The known can still be horrible, of course, but generally only in spite of being known. In order to properly present Chaos - in order to properly present anything in 40K, I think - one has to present it as utterly horrible (and utterly reasonable, but one thing at a time). So far there hasn't been a lot of horribleness, only creepiness. The transition can be tricky but I think it went off pretty well, in no small part thanks to Neani. And more or less by accident, too.

Now, perhaps, I can stop being such a cliche and get back to what this game was supposed to be about. But who knows what next session will bring? I certainly don't.


People seem curious to know how "New York" is, or how I feel about the whole thing. I don't really have useful answers to either of those questions. I have no idea how "New York" is beyond my tiny little slice of Brooklyn. I am gathering that New York is essentially preindustrial in that most people live in settlements whose geography is defined by the local river (I mean, easily accessible subway routes), and only a few people can afford to feed their mules enough to go any appreciable distance by land (I mean, car). While I am amazed at how much land-starved people can cram into walking distance (and am grateful for the chance to walk more), this seems distinctly primitive.

As for how I feel about the whole thing ... I need more time to develop feelings about this other than, "My little girl is going to miss me!" I am sure those feelings are there, but they haven't surfaced yet. Also, I have not really been able to complete the talismanic rituals that say, "I am here." My faithful desktop/gaming PC, Monica, arrived somewhat the worse for wear, with a cracked subwoofer, monitor that won't adjust, a RAM DIMM whose heat sink cracked off, and a case that is sufficiently battered that it won't close or hold my hard drives anymore. She is still operable, but kind of sad. As I write this, she is is supine atop my 40K models and missing her right side panel, like a surgery patient in stasis. I have been able to stock the kitchen, bring my Honor Harrington pictures out of retirement, and do those other such things, but ... no Monica. So I myself am a little bit in stasis still.

I do have some feelings, but they are mostly impressions. I spent most of the flight over devouring The Night Circus (which I strongly recommend to anybody who enjoys the fantastical, the romantical, or the fantastical romantical - to put it another way, it is the most Natalian book I have read in years), because ever since my sophomore year of college, "west" has been the direction to go. West is chasing the sunset. West is home. East is retrograde motion (though I did take some comfort in the thought that east is also greeting the sunset). I stopped reading to watch the landing out of a sense of duty. There is a moment in any landing that I have never been able to define in which the people and structures below stop being a mere representation of the ground, as you might find on a model train table, and become real - another moment, similarly indefinable, in which one ceases to be "flying" and becomes simply rather high off the ground. A gentle bump, a sense of incredible speed as the air brakes deploy, and then one is down with a finality so real that it takes the brain several minutes to catch up.

In my case, the sense of transmission was marred by my increasingly desperate need to pee.

It was raining when I arrived and wrestled my luggage into the back of a taxi. No city shows itself to its best advantage in the rain, so perhaps Brooklyn can be forgiven if its first impression was rather dismal. Years ago, I remarked to my family how much I hate the brick architecture that dominates the middle colonies, and I found my hatred intact. The red brick seems to suck the light out of even the sunniest streets, and with no unbroken surfaces even the largest buildings seem crowded and cramped. I realized on the cab ride over that it is not just the brick I hate - I also despise block house architecture. On the west coast (except for parts of San Francisco, which I also loathe), lots slope up away from the street. Here, the buildings tend to present themselves straight up and down right from the sidewalk, their baleful monolithic faces making even the broad Brooklyn avenues seem like the urban canyons I have assiduously avoided all my life. On my street the houses (I cannot really think of them as "apartments") at least have stairs that lead up and away from the sidewalk, which has an outsized psychological impact.

I do not intend to write much about my housemates, although I have only positive things to say.

I am very close to Prospect Park, but owing to computer-related issues and staying up practically all night to play the X-Wing miniatures game with my father I didn't get a chance to explore it until fairly recently. I went in search of greenery and a place to practice fencing between lessons (more on that later). I had a much more detailed running narrative in my mind as I wandered, but I'm afraid it has largely devolved into flashes now. I remember trying to remember the wretched east coast humidity and the heat of the sun - really remember, trying to place myself on Nova. The map of the park, glanced over and then ignored. The enormity of the tree branches - not the trees, but the branches, heavy and thick, arcing overhead - I finally understand why trees can be a symbol of strength and not just endurance. The rough-hewn ashlar wall that borders the park, good cover in a firefight. A playground near the 9th St. entrance that Meshparjai would like. The wide open spaces of grass beneath the trees that she might like even more. I pass couples picnicking on the grass, and think, I could bring Thayet here. More children than I have seen in one place in a long, long time. A little girl running through a shower of delicate golden leaves blown in the breeze.

Beyond the children is the so-called Long Meadow, full of actual baseball diamonds occupied by what appear to be pick-up games of baseball. People actually play pick-up baseball here? On the other side of the Long Meadow, inviting and mysterious trees. I wander through them, following the trail as it winds up and down hills. This would be a good place to run, I think. A man who can only run on flat paved surfaces cannot run at all. I relish the sense of being surrounded by trees filled with actual birdsong. I close my eyes and try to add the sounds of monkeys and tigers, again attempting to seize this moment for Nova. This is my life, now, and all life must eventually come to the story, to the game. Somebody has constructed a shelter beneath the canopy, lovingly piled branches against the spine of a fallen tree to form a sort of cave in which are three small logs, clearly intended as benches. It is not my space. I enter anyway and begin to understand how centuries ago people could fall in love with this coast, with its wretched waterlogged air and magnified heat and greenery that is resplendent even now.

There is a road on the other side of the trees, and I cross it. I am on a path again, one that climbs a small hill with three sets of quasimonumental stairs. Somebody put these stairs here with a foreign country in mind, I am certain in that moment. They remind me of Cambodia, not that I have ever been there. The long stone steps actually sag in the middle. Remember that detail. I take the first set of stairs two at a time. I am compelled to jog up the second and third.

I continue to wander and find myself back at the Long Meadow. This time I walk its length, past the baseball games and towards an even greater concentration of children. It must be school, I think, then realize no - these are summer camps. So this is how the children of the city enjoy their resplendent greenery. Near the children is a hillock, the top of which is too shaded for grass by a ring of trees that enclose the space. I remember the walls I excavated at Monte Polizzo and have a similar impression of sacred demarcation. Broken glass is ground into the dirt, but here - this is the spot. I have not yet taken up fencing, and I do not know for sure there will be drills I can do in the early morning if I do, or even if I will be able to get up in the early morning before work - but standing on this spot as the breeze blows back my hair I can see myself, patiently drilling in the morning gloom before the children arrive. It took me two and a half years to get any good at dancing, practicing four and often seven days a week - the only athletic endeavor to which I can compare. I mentally give myself five years to get any good at fencing, and smile at my own optimism.

I leave the ring of trees and wander through the summer camps. The children ignore me and this suits me. Past the picnic house I go, a great brick block in the middle of the park. Now I am on a pathway of grey hexagonal bricks instead of plain asphalt, and this pleases me. I wander until I reach Grand Army Plaza, then turn around to wander back through the park listening to worship songs.

I discover afterwards that I have explored about 25% of the park.