Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Happy New Year

As of about 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time (USA), the sun was on its way back north, signalling the beginning of calendar winter and the approach of the spring to follow. This is the true New Year. It's the bottom of the cycle, the alpha and the omega, and all that jazz.

Have a fine one.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Stupid Holidays

Modern society has succeeded in turning what was once just a way to inject some light and music into the darkest time of year into a monumental exercise in deadline pressure. It has become a huge logistical problem. All right! On your mark! Get Set! BE FESTIVE!

Did the gifts arrive on time? Did the party go well? Is everybody happy? Does it fit? Right color? Is it The Right Stuff? Buy it. Wrap it. Maybe even ship it, if you can't be with the ones you love. Move that merchandise, or the holiday ain't jolly.

Great. As if we didn't have enough to feel depressed about this time of year. That's why we started partying in the first place, you idiots. Why pile all these conditions on our happiness?

It was a gradual process over centuries (at least), which is why so many people let it get so far out of hand.

Ah well. I chalk up a lot of religion to death fear and survivors' guilt. Think too much about the wrong things and you completely lose sight of what's really important, which is to get through the dark time as best you can and avoid doing anything rash until your head straightens out some time in January. Water down the religion and crank up the consumer angle and you get the holly jolly mess we all negotiate today.

Be of good cheer. Season to taste.

Why Fencing is Nothing Like Chess

Fencing has been referred to as "high speed chess." There's even a supplier that calls itself Physical Chess. That's very self-flattering, but fencing is really nothing like chess.

In chess you get to examine the board. In fencing you are immersed in a constant flow of movements, some relevant, some not. In chess what matters is where you put the pieces, not how you put them there. Slam a piece down or set it lightly, its value depends on whether the opponent sees all the implications of its position. The board stands until the next move is made. In fencing a combatant may parry with only enough force to deflect the attack or hard enough to knock the weapon out of the opponent's hand. A fencer may attack directly, or with a beat or bind, to name just a few physical possibilities that are far from the realm of chess.

Chess is based on the combat of armies. Fencing is based on the combat of individuals. An individual in actual combat might sacrifice a finger to deliver a fatal blow to the heart, but that's not the same as sending a division of pawns to slaughter while the cavalry swoops around the other flank. Really, it's not. And in modern sport fencing all wounds are equal.

Fencing is the physical expression of argument. I mean that in the intellectual sense of point and counterpoint. Fencer One offers a thesis in the form of an attack. Fencer Two must decide whether this is a serious proposal or a ploy to slow his thinking.

Fencing is all about pointing out each other's mistakes. While this is like chess, the form of expression is much more immediate and subject to a lot more variables including but not limited to dumb luck and brute force.

The true fencer will know many ways to circumvent the strength of an opponent, but there is no defense against dumb luck.

Fencing involves a lot of timing. Chess really involves very little unless it is artificially injected. I might be totally fooled by my opponent's clever gambit on the fencing strip, only to notice it at the last possible instant and head it off. Ha ha! Eat that, Smartypants! Whereas if I'd boned it on a chess move I would just have to eat it.

Sure, sure, you can keep your finger on the chess piece and take the move back, but in fencing the window of opportunity lasts all the way until the opponent's blade arrives. If you twist cleverly you might even evade it then.

I'm only thinking about this as I pine a little for the simple directness of combat sports in contrast to the dense, convoluted maneuverings of real life. I would really like to have a certain couple of people on the other end of an epee right now.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Other Regional Customs

In Maryland, the forecast of a crippling snowstorm (anything bringing an inch or more) leads to a stampede to the grocery store, where panic-stricken residents empty the shelves of milk, bread and toilet paper. I don't know if the prospect of snow creates a craving for calcium and vitamin D, accompanied by loss of control of body functions, or if the shoppers think that when the bread runs out they may have to subsist on a nutritious, high-fiber meal of toilet tissue soaked in milk. Delicious cold or hot!

In the south, people head straight to the liquor store at the forecast of frozen precipitation. No one's houses are insulated, so they feel the need to load up on antifreeze and deaden sensation so they won't notice the cold. It's probably a form of the dormancy exhibited by certain animals in adverse conditions. Fish and frogs burrow into the mud of evaporating ephemeral pools, hoping to remain vaguely alive until refreshing rains recreate their habitat. In other climates amphibians rest on the bottom of frozen ponds. Inebriated southerners awaiting the return of their normal temperatures fit neatly into this category.

In the north, residents try to act as much as possible as if nothing at all is happening while blizzard winds blast the landscape. Some of them even affect short pants throughout the entire season. And everyone has seen the news coverage of the various polar bear and penguin clubs taking unseasonable swims to mark the new year or some other significant occasion. Let's not even talk about how some people drive, as if their vehicle generated its very own patch of Floridian road under itself.

When wintry weather threatens us up here, we buy whatever we happen to need at the grocery store and go home to watch TV until the power goes out. We save our real panic for summer's heat waves, when the mercury might top 70 DEGREES for days at a time. That's another whole story.

Ah, Tradition

The first real snowstorm of the season is a good time to ponder some New England traditions.

In weather like this, when driving to work, dress for the ditch, not the office. Several times I've stopped to help dig someone out of the snowbank, and a couple of times I've had to dig myself out.

Something about the snow just brings out people's urge to help. The time my car got sucked down on its side about four feet deep in a roadside ditch, a beat up Nissan stuffed with sturdy lads pulled up within minutes. We all just gathered around and heaved my car bodily back up onto the level roadway. With cheerful thanks and warm wishes back and forth the guys piled back into the Nissan and zoomed on their way.

Always drive small cars. People can lift them.

Another time I had to do a hockey stop into the snowbank, I was shoveling away when
a car pulled up and two guys practically snatched the shovel out of my hand. They really wanted to help, with no profit motive. Once again, when my car was back on all fours, pointed the right way, the two helpful souls just hopped back in their car and we went our separate ways.

Another New England tradition is The Freezing Bathroom. I blame this one on the Puritan heritage and the persistence of outhouses well into the 20th Century in rural areas. When you're used to a drafty shack, with subzero winds hissing through the cracks (as it were), a 50-degree room feels quite tropical. If you believe in punishing the flesh for its sinful, decadent urges, a 50-degree room probably strikes you as unpardonably indulgent. If you don't freeze to the seat, it's good enough.

Despite my best intentions, the bathrooms in my house honor New England custom. Space heaters take the edge off, but require a bit of pre-planning if you anticipate a longish sojourn. But I feel connected to the region's long history.

Monday, December 05, 2005

More Prehistorical Trivia

In ancient times there were natural checks on our population. People smelled so bad that the only time men and women got together was when the women were going crazy in heat.

The guy who invented deodorant became instantly incredibly popular. Unfortunately, he died soon afterwards, either of exhaustion or at the hands of a stinky, jealous man.