Thursday, October 24, 2013

Remembering Scott Bauer

Death has been much on my mind lately, and every time that happens I think of Pastor Scott.  There have been other deaths in my life (not many, thankfully), and some of them have resulted in absences that I regret very much.  But a fresh death, or the prospect of a fresh death, always brings me back to Scott in a way that those other deaths do not.  I think it is because none of the others were so shocking to me, have felt so ... unfair.

I never wrote much about Scott on this blog, or about his death (I checked, and I can only find this post, this one, and this one.  That's fine.  As a record of my life, this blog quite intentionally has some very large holes in it.  But today I think I need to fill that hole in a bit.

He died ten years ago today.  He would have been 59.  When I got the news, all I could think of was Whitman's "Oh Captain! My Captain!"  I remember Chariessa asking me in the dining hall if I was okay.  I was not.  I had plans for Scott!  He was my pastor - the first person I ever felt was my pastor, who really cared about me.  He was supposed to meet my wife (he died two years before I met her).  He was supposed to watch me grow up.  Oh, how I valued his approval!

I remember him as a man full of prejudices - against videogames, against Catholicism, against Latino people.  When I had been going to Chaminade for a while, we visited his house once.  He stopped me in the foyer to ask me, in front of my parents, to do something Catholic.  He was teasing, but only sort of.  He was worried - genuinely, compassionately worried - about me becoming Catholicized.  I wanted to die.  I'm not sure I would have felt more uncomfortable if he'd called them Papists.  I wasn't really around when his son started dating a Mexican girl, but I hear it was ... uncomfortable.

But I also remember him as a man who overcame his prejudices.  He learned Spanish - painfully, but doggedly - to better connect with the woman who would become his daughter-in-law.  He built one of the largest Spanish-speaking congregations in Los Angeles.  And in 2003, when I was wrestling with the challenges posed by Reformed theology, I wrote to Scott.  I wish I still had the e-mail he wrote back to me.  It was the last thing I ever heard from him.  This was one of the men who taught me to be academic about my religion, and I can't do this final letter justice without the actual text.  But the gist of it was that he didn't hold with Reformed doctrine himself ... but if Scripture truly foreclosed either possibility, we wouldn't still be discussing it 400 years later.  I don't know if I can express how profound an impact it made on me to hear him say that.  Hopefully you can see it in me.

I remember the way he lead worship.  I remember the way he was able to make church satisfy the heart and the mind without actually being about either of those things.  I remember him being just square enough to be embarrassing (and that's coming from me, so ... you know).  I remember his focused intensity.  I remember the way everything was about Jesus to him, and how he could do that without being creepy.  A little square, maybe.  But he had the sort of faith you sometimes read about in books, the kind that you cannot engage with except by taking it seriously.

I remember the way he looked at me one Sunday evening at our youth group and I realized that the man actually cared about me, personally.  To my knowledge it was the first time a pastor had ever cared about me except in a general way.  At his memorial services one of his sons said that Scott was a great man because he cared about people.  This is true.  He cared.  He cared like Honor Harrington.  He cared so much that it transcended adverbs.  Scott simply cared.

I think that is what I admired most about him.  But what I remember most about him is the way he changed.  As I said, as I child I remember him as a man full of prejudices.  By the time he died, how he had changed in those regards!  What impurities in that irrefutable care of his had he excised!  But to say that he had excised them would be untrue.  Scott is the reason I believe that people can change.  He is also the reason I believe that people do not change people.  God changes people.  I have seen it.  I never told him how absolutely clear it was to me that those prejudices were worked out of him not through the proximity of other opinions but through his continual, fumbling, earnest, consistent pursuit of communion with Jesus.

When I was a younger man, I wanted Scott to look at my choice of bride and tell me I'd done well.  I wanted him to be the one who married me, because I wanted him to know that I wouldn't have been the sort of person a woman would want to marry without his influence.  These desires are a little embarrassing to remember - the sort of thing a young man is wont to imagine before he has quite realized that the young lady in his imagination is going to be a person, too.  I don't know if Thayet would have liked Scott.  Maybe not.  I think he was the sort of person whose faith and general goodness sort of demanded respect, but certainly not to everybody's tastes.

One thing about that is not embarrassing to remember.  I do think that much of my problems with Thayet can essentially be attributed to a certain ... smallness of heart that my lady knight found rightly repellant.  My prejudices are not the same as Scott's were, but I certainly had a lot of them, and Scott's example proved to me that authentic engagement with Jesus enlarges the heart.  You can phrase this in a lot of ways.  Some people would tell me that a person can't change unless they want to.  Others would point out the influence of other people in my life in that time, or point to the seeds they had sown years before.  Those things are all true.  But what I would say is that none of it would have mattered without the work of the Holy Spirit.  And I would say that I wouldn't have been open to that if not for the example I had seen in Scott Bauer.

I wish he had known that.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

There are many like it ...

There is a long tradition in historical European martial arts (well, as long a tradition as there can be for a practice that is really only about thirty five years old) of modifying equipment.  Mostly this is because even after thirty-five years we are only just getting commercially produced practice gear specifically for HEMA, so for most of the past four decades people have had no choice but to repurpose other equipment.  Sometimes this results in less than satisfactory work-arounds.  But what is satisfactory is the way in which even small modifications can imbue a piece of gear with totemic significance.

A few weeks ago my studio went to a tournament for the first time (I should post more thoughts on tournaments later).  In preparation for the tournament, we had school patches ordered to put on our fencing jackets.  I sort of expected to dismiss this as a cynical marketing ploy.  I was surprised to discover that I didn’t.

Like a lot of my fellow students, I own an Axel Peterssen Pro fencing jacket, which incorporates a leather plastron in the front.  This poses certain difficulties from a sewing perspective, as the whole point of the plastron is to resist penetration by a sharp object (for instance, a steel trainer that breaks in the thrust rather than flexing like it’s supposed to).  Some students decided to glue their patches on.  Others decided to take it to a tailor.  But I found that it mattered to me a lot that I do it myself, the hard way, with needle and thread.  This wasn’t just free advertising for somebody’s business.  This was an expression of who I am as a fencer, and I needed to make it.  I am a student of the Akademie des Heiligen Schwertes, and the crest of that school has pride of place on the chest of my jacket.  Through Tristan’s teaching, I am associated with the New York Historical Fencing Association, and the crest of that school belongs on my left arm.

And then I realized that one day there might be others, and the order of patches might need to change.  As much as I love the Akademie, it might not be my school forever.  This is really a pretty disquieting thought, because I actually do love the Akademie a lot, but I am … well, me.  Whenever I leave, if I ever join another school, it will be important to me that the crest of that school take its place on my chest, and the AHS crest move to my arm.  Which of course will mean that the NYHFA crest move, and so on …

So I bought a leather needle and some upholstery thread, bought or borrowed some Velcro, and I lovingly added Velcro to my patches and jacket.  The stitching is not fabulous, but it is mine.  And now my fencing jacket is not just protective gear.  My jacket says, This is me.  This is where I come from.  These people have supported my development as a martial artist, and I honor them.

If my jacket describes who I am as a fencer, my waster - my, well, my sword - describes what fencing itself means to me.  When I went to fencing last week, my waster had a bright orange grip.  It got a few looks.  Of course there is a story behind it.

When I moved to New York, Blue Rose and Karyai gave me a month’s worth of fencing lessons as a going-away present.  I turned this into a Pentti+ Type III nylon waster, which for a variety of reasons I am quite happy with both as a solo drill and as a sparring tool.  The only thing I don’t like about it is the grip, which is more rectangular than oval (KDF requires a loose grip on the sword that can slide easily around the handle, and which rather awkward when the handle isn’t, you know, round).  As far as I can tell, nobody likes the grips on the Penttis, though they have enough other positive characteristics that they are still the international standard in synthetic wasters.  Some people (including some of my fellow students) are of the opinion that since tournaments don’t allow you to compete with your own Pentti, you might as well get used to the square grip.  But most of those people have steel trainers with much more realistic handles that they can use for drills.  Since I’m not likely to have a steel sword for a while, I decided to modify my Pentti’s handle.

The grip tape on mine was shredding anyway (nobody told me you aren’t supposed to fence while wearing rings), so I decided to insert some cardboard shims to round out the grip, and then rewrap the whole thing.  And then I thought, since I was going to be exposing the nylon of the handle anyway, maybe I should inscribe something on it.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe I was inspired by Shanah Van’s love tattoo.  Or maybe there’s just a universal impulse to inscribe things that are important to us.

I decided on a tennis overgrip for my new wrap, which in turn meant I needed to decide which color I was going to get, because apparently tennis overgrips come in a bewildering variety of colors.  Naturally, this decision could only be made from a heraldic standpoint, and naturally, the heraldry in question could not just be classical.

I had recently decided that whenever I finally get my steel trainers (I can only use one at a time, of course, but many people eventually acquire two, to train with a partner) I wanted one to have a green grip and the other a blue one.  In classical heraldry (much of which is surprisingly modern; of course I am aware medieval and even Renaissance heraldry was much more practical than the symbolism-laden construct that we have inherited), green is associated with hope, joy, and fidelity in love; while blue is associated with truth and loyalty.  In Mandalorian armor, green is associated with duty, while blue is associated with reliability.  These are fitting reminders for something that supports me as an absent father and husband and as a lawyer.  So I resolved to own a trainer with a green handle, named Ijaa’bora - Duty.  After that, eventually, one with a blue handle, named Ruusaan - Reliable One.  But with green and blue taken, what color should my Pentti be?

Ultimately I decided to answer that question by asking what my Pentti means to me.

Drilling with my Pentti is calm.  Even if I am tired and cranky from my run up and down the minor hills of Prospect Park, when I am on the knoll or in the hollow where I drill my mind is quiet, like it is when I am painting.  At the same time, it is deeply invigorating.  When I wield it during warm-up cuts in class, I feel my muscles awaken and my breathing deepen as my whole body looks forward to what is to come.  It is satisfying.  The end of a sparring session, when I have withstood an hour’s worth of sweat and blows and know that I could keep going, feels like the end of a dance.  And it is a symbol of my friends’ love for me.

So I no longer own just a Pentti+ Type III nylon waster.  I own Shereshoy, whose name means … well, shereshoy.  Openness to what life will bring, and the groundedness to eagerly seek it out.  The desire to live, and the drive forward into the unknown - which is, really, simply another facet of the desire not just to live but to liveShereshoy means … I think the best literal translation is to seize life.  But what it really means is joy.

In Mandalorian armor, the color associated with this lust for life is orange.  In classical heraldry, orange is associated with worthy ambition - a fine synergy for this foreign adventure of mine, and coincidentally related to Master Liechtenauer’s characterization of the art of fighting as the art that dignifies.

So I took down my Pentti from its hook on my door and carefully cut out the shims using a pattern cut from paper borrowed from my Brooklyn roommates, from cardboard that came from the chair I bought when I finally admitted in a deeper way that I am here, and not elsewhere.  Beneath the shims I carefully inscribed the handle with orange ink: ner gai cuyi shereshoy - “my name is Joy.”  I wrote it in Mandalorian to remind me of family, in the style of Greek dedications to remind me of friends.  Then I bound that up beneath my cardboard and sealed it with an orange tennis overgrip, and I hung Joy upon my door.

The Things We Wear

 I’ve spoken some about the types of training tools we use in KDF in terms of swords and sword simulators, but I haven’t spoken much about the protective gear we use.  There are different philosophies towards protective gear.  As far as I understand it, there are two arguments in favor of wearing less gear.  The first is that one should train for the combat scenario one is ostensibly training for.  If one is training to fight armored, then one should wear armor; but if one is training to fight without armor (and unarmored longsword fighting is considered the foundation of the whole art), then the more armor one wears, the less realistic one’s training is and the more one’s technique will be distorted.  The second is that we shouldn’t be afraid of getitng hurt.  It’s a martial art, after all - most martial artists expect to break bones and otherwise injure themselves over the course of their training.  Those injuries are thought by many to be a good teaching tool.

In favor of protective gear is the fact that injuries can prevent one from training at all, and that full-power sparring with wasters and blunt steel is really quite dangerous - the moreso because of how many of our techniques target parts of the body that are naturally not very padded, such as the skull.  I’ve cut a partner’s forearm in drills with blunt steel; I don’t care to think what would happen if a full-powered strike in sparring slipped through to hit somebody’s head or neck.  This risk can be mitigated by partners fencing at less than full speed or by pulling their strikes at the last instant, but that too distorts technique.

As with the problems presented by the various types of training swords, I think the answer is to practice in a variety of ways with a variety of gear.  This is the approach we take, anyway.  Sometimes we practice slow, and sometimes we practice fast.  Sometimes we drill with no contact or light contact, wearing no protective gear.  Sometimes we drill with full contact but in a very targeted way (practicing only strikes to the head, say), wearing only partial gear.  We only ever spar at full speed, wearing full gear, which is one of the things I like about my school.  I do understand the arguments for slow-speed freeform sparring in less than full gear, but I personally feel like I have enough issues with aggression that I need to practice at full speed.

So what is “full gear?”  As historical European martial arts becomes more of a commercial market, that definition changes, but here is what it means to me right now.  Here is the full panoply of protective gear that I personally own or would like to own at some point.

The first thing is a fencing helmet.  I say “helmet” rather than “mask” because head protection in HEMA should protect not just the face but also the side, back, and top of the head - any of which might be targeted.  I use a fencing helmet from Absolute Force.  It shares a lot of construction details with a traditional sport fencing mask, but it’s got a lot more structure on the sides, back, and top.  I haven’t taken a full blow to the back of the head yet, but I have been hit pretty hard everywhere else, and while some hits have stunned me, I haven’t yet sustained even a minor head injury.

Most fencers seem to feel that the neck deserves special protection, above and beyond the bib of a fencing helmet and a high-collared fencing jacket with a blade catcher.  I don’t currently own a gorget, but at some point I would like to get one.  I haven’t really identified a particular model I’m interested in.

My torso is protected by a thickly quilted fencing jacket, which is essentially a gambeson with that takes advantage of modern fasterners like zippers and Velcro.  I use an Axel Peterssen Pro, which also has a leather plastron to offer extra protection against accidental penetration.  Like most jackets, mine also covers my arms.  Most fencers feel the arms deserve rigid protection over at least the elbows and forearms (the elbows because they have so little natural padding, and the forearms even though they have somewhat more padding because they are a frequent target).  My jacket incorporates hard plastic plates all the way down the outside of the arms from shoulder to forearm, which have so far prevented even bruising from the hardest strikes I’ve received.

The hands are one area where I think HEMA is still struggling for a really good commercially available solution.  The difficulty is that there are not many sports in which the hands must be dextrous (KDF requires a fairly loose grip on the sword because the grip changes fairly frequently) and yet are expected to take a hefty wallop on a regular basis.  A lot of fencers settled on lacrosse gloves as offering a good compromise between padding and dexterity.  I use a cheap pair of Maverik lacrosse gloves, which I don’t really feel are particularly adequate.  Of course, that’s not really a surprise - one doesn’t grip a lacrosse stick the way one grips a sword, one doesn’t swing or check with a lacrosse stick the way one swings a sword, and targeting the hands in lacrosse is against the rules (it is often considered unwise in KDF, but not always, and it certainly isn’t off limits).  I haven’t broken any fingers in my lacrosse gloves, but I regularly bruise in them even though I am getting better at protecting my hands.  What I’d really like is a pair of five-finger hard-shell gloves, preferably with at least some padding.  Steel gauntlets are one option, though they’re really expensive.  When I can afford them, I intend to pick up a pair of gloves by Black Lance Technologies, which also protect the inside of the forearm (my jacket has no plating on the inside of the forearm, only the outside), and can be bought in a model without a palm glove, so the sword is still gripped more with bare skin but the outside of the hand has protection.  Black Lance is a very new company, but they make the only non-steel fencing glove I’m aware of that fits all my criteria.

I wear a pair of Absolute Force HEMA pants, which I am quite happy with.  They are close fitting but allow my legs to move without binding, and are designed to stop a broken fencing weapon from penetrating the legs.  They don’t have any padding except for a strip of dense foam to cover the top of the hip bone, though, so I’d like to add a padded fencing skirt by SPES to give my upper legs some more protection.  I’ve never taken a truly solid hit to the legs, but I’ve certainly delivered them, and the size and severity of the bruises I’ve seen on legs have convinced me that actual padding around the upper legs is probably a good idea.  I also wear a hard shell cup from Absolute Force, because I never want to hear my doctor utter the words “penile fracture.”

My lower legs are protected by a pair of SPES fencing socks, which offer extra padding around the shins, and SPES shin guards.  I am not entirely happy with the shin guards in three respects.  The first is that the elastic straps that hold them in place need some extra Velcro to really be cinched tight enough around my calves.  I can certainly do this; I just haven’t quite gotten around to it.  The second deficiency is that they don’t offer any ankle protection, the way that, say, proper riot gear does.  Hitting the ankle with a sword is not exactly easy, and perhaps not especially wise in most cases, but I have been hit there, and I’m not really sure why HEMA shin guards shouldn’t protect the ankle.  The third deficiency is that they don’t really cover the knee - they are tall enough to offer some knee protection, but at some point I think I should pick up some actual kneepads.  On the other hand, I will say that I am happy with the level of wraparound protection they offer (not just the front but the sides and back of the lower leg as well), and their slim profile has never given me any problems while fencing.

Because I wear fencing socks with my shin guards, I need something to give my feet some more grip.  We generally drill in bare feet, so I tried sparring in socks for a while, but I found them much too slippery.  There doesn’t really seem to be much need for rigid protection over the foot (and I don’t think there are any commercially available products for any martial art that offers it, anyway), or even much padding beyond the socks - it’s just a matter of grip.  Some people seem to like tae kwon do or other martial arts shoes, which are designed to give grip but have as thin a sole as possible.  I’ve started using my old dance sneakers, reasoning that they’ve always left me plenty light on my feet yet very connected to the floor.  I’m not sure how well that’s going to work out in the long run but I am hopeful.

All this gear - particularly the jacket and helmet - can get pretty sweaty, especially since we generally don’t “gear up” with jackets unless we’re going to spar, which is itself pretty winding.  Even with the gear, though, it isn’t as winding as a good polka (maybe it should be and my form just isn’t quite there?), so I make it a policy not to take any breaks during sparring except to let other students get their time on the floor.  After all, while I do want to get good at the actual art of fighting (four years and nine months to go based on my original challenge to myself), this is also about physical fitness.  This is a martial art, and the foundation of all martial arts is physical fitness.  Then too, even leaving aside the martial arts aspect, it’s simply important to me that I at least be fit enough to spar in full gear for an hour straight - just as it’s important to me that I be at least fit enough to dance for three hours straight, or redowa for five minutes without breathing hard.  As Master Döbringer said, exercise is better than art - for art without exercise is useless, but exercise is beneficial even without art.