Sunday, July 21, 2013


People ask me with some regularity how things are going in New York.  This is a difficult question to answer since the vast majority of things I do here are work.  There's only so much I can talk about work period, and I know a lot more people who want to know "how I'm doing" than I do who want to hear about the nuts and bolts of a lawyer's life, anyway.

In a lot of ways I don't really feel like I'm in New York.  I don't really have the time to explore the free places (I have not gotten to explore any more of Prospect Park, although it remains on my to-do list), and I don't have anywhere near enough money to explore the local restaurants (even the cheap ones), museums, theaters, or any of those things.  That is to say, I could have enough money, but that would mean cutting down on saving, which is the whole reason I'm here.

Nevertheless, the emotional reality that I am Away From Home remains, lurking on the periphery of my soul.  This makes it extra necessary to pay attention to my touchstones.  These are things I have had as long as I can remember, although the actual touchstones themselves have changed from season to season in my life - the things that help me remember that I am still me.  They aren't the things that make me me, just reminders.  These are things that I expect everybody has, but I am by nature very sensitive to symbols, so I think about them a lot.

Here are some of my touchstones in New York:

My signature seal.  This is something Thayet had made for me a long time ago.  It's a pewter seal with my initials carved into it in a design she did herself.  Seals are like flowers - despite the outward appearance of their function, their real function (at least, in Natalie) is to honor the recipient.  My signature seal reminds me to honor others.

My Phoenix Earth seal.  Every week, I send a letter to Thayet signed with my signature seal, and seal the envelope with my Phoenix Earth seal.  This has various ritualistic layers of significance - the colors of the waxes, the act of letter-writing itself, the use of seals, and so forth, most of which are an idiosyncratic Natalian mix of meanings culled from various sources.  One of the layers that actually has nothing to do with Thayet at all, though, is the opportunity to handle the Phoenix Earth symbol itself.  The Phoenix Earth symbol was designed by my sister for the roleplaying game of the same name, but it actually holds very little significance for me as a symbol for all those bonds forged around the table and stories told (though those bonds and stories are, in their own right, very dear to me).  The Phoenix Earth itself, rather, is my personal expression that I still believe in the Second Coming of Christ, that the king will return, that God is in his heaven and still in charge of the universe, that things will get better, that he is here.

The mythosaur.  Another symbolic touchstone these days is the mythosaur.  This one really crystallized when my cousin bought me a set of Star Wars pins from Disneyland, one of which is a red mythosaur skull on a yellow field.  As the prototypical symbol of Mandalorian culture, the mythosaur emblem stands for the application of will to the concept of family: of choosing to make a person your spouse, child, or parent (that is, loving them as those things), and doing what has to be done for them.  I wore this pin to every job interview when I was looking for work, pinned to my tie under my left collar, and I still sometimes wear it to work when I feel like wearing a tie.  There are a set of mythosaur cufflinks on eBay that I'd like to buy one day.

Star Wars.  My adult relationship with Star Wars is sort of weird.  After loving it to death as a child and teenager, I came to a sort of love-hate relationship in my twenties.  This post summed up my feelings about it for a long time.  I didn't like Star Wars anymore, and I felt mostly relief.  But that was never entirely true, and I think I've finally kind of figured out why I can't leave Star Wars alone.  In many ways, I value it the same way I value Disney (an ironic identity, now that Disney owns Star Wars): it teaches me to believe in magic.  I am currently teaching myself to read the aurebesh and Mandalorian alphabet by transliterating On Basilisk Station in Word and reading it in the different alphabets, one chapter at a time, on the subway to and from work.  It's hugely geeky, I know, to want to read fictional alphabets with the same facility with which I read the English alphabet (I'm getting pretty good at the aurebesh), and it's probably even geekier to read an Honor Harrington in a Star Wars script.  But it's cheap entertainment, and ... well, it's a touchstone.  I need to believe in magic.

KDF.  KDF takes up virtually my entire discretionary budget, and is actually rather more expensive than I would like.  I still love movies, and the ritual of eating out, and buying toys.  I would like to have some money to do those things, even if only once a month.  But in general, the expense is part of the point.  It's often said by swordspeople (as by many martial artists generally, I think) that the point of their discipline is ultimately control of the self.  Certainly that is what I primarily value KDF for: control, control, you must learn control.  Discipline in spending, working, exercising ... these are the things that KDF has become my touchstone for.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Never Pick Up A Weapon ...

On Saturday, we spent the entire hour drilling krumphauen.  I was very happy about this, since at this point what most interests me about cuts is the how and why.  The krumphau ("crooked hew") is a sort of windshield wiper movement of the sword - if you suppose you have your weapon in both hands on the right side of your body, imagine twisting your wrists such that the sword cuts down and to the left.  Simply twisting your wrists is not likely to cut anything, of course (and even if it does, it's inefficient body mechanics), so you actually sort of drop into a lunge while dropping your whole arms to help power the sword down, but that basic windshield wiper movement seems to be what ties all krumphauen together.

The obvious use of this cut is to remove your opponent's hands.  Suppose, as he cuts or holds his sword in front of him in what we call "long point" (langenort, which seems to refer to the fact that the sword is at a point that is "long," or far, from the body - not "point" as in the sharp tip of the sword), one lunges to his left.  One can then use a krumphau to amputate both hands at the wrists or forearms.  A man with no hands is obviously still capable of killing you, but you have at least removed a major threat source.

I mention that a man with no hands is "obviously" capable of still killing you advisedly.  This is grade-school stuff for a certain class of nerd, but it bears reflecting upon.  Heinlein puts these words into the mouth of Sergeant Zim:
"Well, suppose all you have is a knife? Or maybe not even a knife? What do you do? Just say your prayers and die? Or wade in and make him buy it anyhow? Son, this is real -- it's not a checker game you can concede if you find yourself too far behind."
So suppose somebody does cut off your hands.  You might run away - surviving is often more important than killing one's opponent.  But suppose it isn't?  Or suppose you can't?  What do you do? Say your prayers and die, or wade in and make him buy it anyhow?

One of the reasons that I think it's so important to think about this sort of thing is that it's particularly hard (maybe impossible) to drill.  Obviously a body with no hands is still physiologically capable of killing an assailant in any number of ways, but of course getting one's hands cut off is likely to be quite the psychological shock, both in terms of surprise and pain.  How do you train for that?  I'm not sure you can.  But you can at least meditate on it.

There are difficulties the other way, as well.  One of the other uses of the krumphau, apparently, is to defeat an oberhau (overhand strike).  As the opponent's blade descends, a krumphau can be used to smash it into the ground.  This momentarily disables the opponent's sword (from the sudden and unexpected momentum change), and places one's weapon on top.  From here, it can be flicked into the opponent's head.

Now, it was made very clear to us that such an attack is not going to kill one's opponent.  The point is simply to wound him so that you have a window for a follow-up strike.  I wonder: will we train that way?  It won't be until August that I can participate in our sparring hour, but I wonder what our rules will look like.  It seems obvious to me that, if we are truly practicing a killing art, a krumphau used in that way should not end the bout.  In fact, most attacks, it seems to me, will not actually kill an opponent except over a period of many seconds or minutes.  I am curious to see what our practice will be.

A related question this brings up: how should a man in the modern world fight?  This is perhaps more philosophical than practical, as a sword is not particularly likely to be at hand in a modern fight scenario, but I think the philosophical point is still important.  Suppose I have successfully cut off my opponent's hands, or flicked my sword into his face.  Neither wound is especially likely to be fatal; neither removes the opponent as a threat.  What should my instinct be?  To attempt to disengage, giving my opponent time to reconsider whether he wishes to continue to attempt to kill me?  Or to follow up with an attack that will actually incapacitate him?

It seems to me that the wisdom of the martial community is that one does not let up - if the opponent removes himself as a threat, well and good, but until that point, his life is forfeit - you continue to strike, or shoot, or whatever, until the opponent is either unconscious, paralyzed, or dead.  This seems to me like it has to be the right answer.  It is a sobering thought, though, to consider that the thing you do to a man whose hands you have just cut off, whose face or throat you have just opened, is hit him again - because he still has a brain capable of ordering your death, and a spinal cord capable of relaying those orders to his body.

Firearms practitioners have an old chestnut that I think is applicable to all fighting: never point a gun at something you are unwilling to destroy.  It's important to remember just what that destruction means, though, in the context of a human being.  If you aren't willing strike down a man whose hands you have just cut off, you shouldn't cut off his hands in the first place - shouldn't even have drawn your sword.  These words, from Weber's Honor Among Enemies, have always haunted me:
"Course, you knew it wasn't real.  It was just training, and you figured - hey, I'm a little, wiry guy, and I've never had a fight, and I'm never gonna have a fight, and I don't want to have one, even if I could.  That about sum it up?"
"It sure does," Aubrey said feelingly, and Harkness chuckled.
"Well, looks to me like you were wrong.  You are gonna have a fight - the only question is whether or not you're gonna win it or get your fool head busted.  And do you know what the secret to not getting your head busted is?"
"What?" Aubrey asked, almost against his will.
"It's busting the other guy's head first," Harkness said grimly.  "It's making up your mind going in that you're not just gonna try to defend yourself.  It's deciding right now, ahead of time, that you're gonna kill the motherfucker if that's what it takes."