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Another Fine Story in ‘Pen World’

October has another sizzling story by your’s truly in Pen World. In it, I delve into the undersung history of the humble inkfeed. Click on the images to see larger versions and enjoy a free sneak peek courtesy of editor in chief Nicky Pessaroff and Pen World Magazine. To read the whole incredible issue, be sure to pick up a subscription!

Click this image to read my latest story in Pen World Magazine. It is all about inkfeeds.

Here’s the cover of the October 2021 issue of Pen World Magazine.

 

 

 

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Decameron 2020: God of Carnage

Peanut

Scurrying into the town of Mouseville, a little grey traveler named Erasmus visited in hopes of seeking shelter from the rain.

Yet, on the streets Mouseville, between the basement and first floor of a century-old Sears Craftsman home, all was not well. Oh sure, there were the happy signs of chewed on wood debris and droppings everywhere, but the residents of Mouseville were in a nervous panic.

“What is wrong?” asked Erasmus, when he encountered a larger brown-and-white field mouse named Esther. “Why is everyone so upset.”

“It is the God of Carnage,” the trembling mouse replied. “He killed Aloysius early this morning.”

“Forgive me,” Erasmus said. “I just came to town. I have never heard of a God of Carnage before.”

“What?! How can that be?” asked Esther. “His savagery is epic. He is huge and vicious. He has large white fangs and razor-sharp claws. He is so terrifying that he doesn’t even camouflage. He wears a coat of tan fur, and his pale green eyes look right through you as he tears you to pieces.”

“Does this God of Carnage have a furry tail?” Erasmus asked.

“Yes,” replied Esther.

“Does your God of Carnage make an ear-shattering cry of death that sounds like this, ‘Meow’?” Erasmus asked.

“Yes,” Esther said. “You do know our God of Carnage.”

“I think it is just a cat,” Erasmus explained, confident his big city mouse experiences were more than these simple country mice were used to. “It is not a god, though they do think highly of themselves. Cats are just predators who happen to feed on mice and birds. They are pretty predictable, really.”

God of Carnage

“Mark my words, Stranger,” stated Atticus, who was a sleek black mouse that overheard their conversation. “The God of Carnage is no mere cat. He has never eaten a mouse. He is fed by his gargantuan servants, whom he himself has trained, something called Fancy Feast. It is a vile meat purée whose sickening stench alerts us to when he is near.”

“BUT,” nervously squeaked Wilhelmina, “Once he has consumed the Fancy Feast, he is sleepy and less apt to torment us.”

“Guys,” Erasmus laughed. “I’m even more convinced now that this is just a cat and not a god at all. They are pretty common. Trust me, I’ve encountered many in my travels.”

“Would a cat hold you down by the tail and slowly stick his claws in you, just to listen to you squeal before you die?” asked Esther, trying to trip up Erasmus.

“Yes,” he replied.

“But then he wouldn’t eat you…just leave your corpse in the shoe of one of his servants who must have displeased him,” Esther probed further.

“Yep. That’s pretty catlike,” Erasmus said, rolling his eyes at their simplistic nature.

“Would a cat play catch with your limp body?” Wilhelmina asked. “Tossing you into the air with his mouth only to catch you and grind you with his teeth until you ceased to try escaping and withered away in his jaws, only to leave you on his servants’ bed to reprimand them?”

“Uh-huh,” Erasmus nonchalantly affirmed.

“What about drowning?” inquired Atticus. “Aloysius did nothing to disturb or offend the God of Carnage. He simply saw a sunflower seed on the floor and raced to get it and return to Mouseville to eat it. Yet, the God of Carnage pounced from thin air and captured Aloysius. As Aloysius begged for his life, the God of Carnage didn’t even bite him. He held Aloysius down in a bowl of water until he ceased to struggle and fight for air. Then he plopped poor bloated Aloysius into the bowl usually left for Fancy Feast and walked away.”

“That does sound unnecessarily cruel,” Erasmus said, “But, I wouldn’t put such behavior beyond a mortal cat.”

“Have you slain such a creature, as you call, a cat?” Atticus asked.

“Oh, God, no,” Erasmus said, losing his patience with these country mice. “They are too big and deadly. I just try to steer clear of them. Haven’t you simpletons ever been taught to practice S.L.R.?”

“We have not heard of your magic,” answered Wilhelmina. “All we can do is pray to the great God of Carnage not to sacrifice us for his amusement.”

“Sniff. Look. Run,” Erasmus explained. “It isn’t magic. I’ll show you. Is that sunflower seed still out there?”

“No, Stranger,” Esther said. “Do not throw away your life. Do not tempt the Great God of Carnage.”

“Look,” Erasmus said. “Cats aren’t that bright. Let me show you how it is done.”

The mice led Erasmus to the hole under the oven in the kitchen. “There lie the bowls of this morning’s tragedy,” said one of the mice.

Erasmus crawled to the edge of the stove’s protection. “First you sniff the air for any sign of cat. Then you look to the left and the right for any sign of cats. When it is all clear, you run as fast as you can.”

Erasmus scurried quickly for the seed he saw on the floor.

Then…BAM!

He felt the weight of the cat flatten him to the floor.

Recovering from his leap off the counters, which his owners would have been angry about if they knew he was on the counters, the cat briefly let the mouse go.

Yet, Erasmus was too stunned to move. The other mice under the stove shrieked and began praying fervently for Erasmus’ release.

The cat held the recovering mouse with one of his back paws, as he used a front paw to lick and groom himself. He didn’t want to appear slovenly for his new playmate.

“Would you like to play with me?” the wheat-colored mini panther asked.

“Play?” Erasmus questioned.

“I’m bored,” the God of Carnage said. “My humans go to this thing called ‘work’ and leave me with nothing to do.”

“I thought you were the merciless great God of Carnage,” Erasmus said, then looked to the other mice as if to say, “Ya see, I told you so.”

“My name is Peanut. What is your’s?”

Erasmus began laughing as he’d never laughed before. It was a deep, uncontrolled laughter.

“What is so funny, new playmate?” the cat asked.

“P. P. Pea-nut!” The little mouse couldn’t stop laughing. “Ya-ya you are.”

The mouse laughed some more.

“Why am I so funny?” Peanut asked, perturbed by this mouse’s laughter.

“Don’t you know what a peanut is, you idiot,” the haughty mouse kept laughing. “It is a diminutive little legume that people eat at baseball games.”

More gales of mouse laughter.

“Why, you nincompoop!” Erasmus kept laughing. “You’re no God of Carnage. You’re a peanut.”

With that, Peanut bit off the impudent little mouse’s head and tossed it toward the cowering rodents under the stove.

The mice began to pray, “Oh, Great God of Carnage, be merciful!”

“That’s better,” Peanut said, strutting toward the sunny couch in the next room. “I’m going to take a nap. Try not to disturb me, or you’ll suffer a worse fate.”

Once Peanut had left the room, Esther said, “Is it just me, or do you think that Erasmus character talked way too much.”

“I thought he’d never shut-up,” Wilhelmina agreed.

“Good riddance,” Esther said. “Two newcomers in one day ought to keep Peanut satisfied for some time. I’m tired of this Kabuki theater. We’ve got some real work to do without him meddling.”

A New Dream for MLK Day: Reuniting America

We need more serenity in our lives. Enjoy this sunset over the Thames River in Connecticut.

Teetering on the brink of a new civil war, perhaps it is time to use the Dr. Martin Luther King jr. holiday to reflect on fulfilling his dream in a whole new way.

In his quest for equality, fairness and justice for all, Dr. King advocated for peace at every juncture of policy and protest.

I fix, restore and sell fountain pens for a living. I write stories to entertain people. I’m no politician. I intentionally avoid politics at all cost with regard to my business and this blog. BUT, I am heartbroken to see the nation I love falling apart. It is terrifying to see our capitol under siege. It is alien to have anything less than a peaceful transfer of power in Washington D.C. It is awful watching people whom I call friends so politically divided and letting their politics spoil their friendships.

As a guy who loves vintage pens, it should come as no surprise that I love reading about history. Among other projects, I’m working on a book about the original American Civil War. Plus, with a master’s degree in journalism, I have a fairly strong understanding about the machinations of modern media.

There is one common factor that I have observed in recent years that conservatives and liberals can agree on: the media is biased. How many times have you heard conservatives blame the liberal media…or liberals blame the conservative media? How many of our friends who are 50+ bemoan the fact we no longer have an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite that every American can trust to tell us the facts and only the facts in a news broadcast?

Why do we have so much media bias in our current time?

In 1949, the United States enacted a law known as “The Fairness Doctrine.” After having watched the rise of fascism in Europe and communism in Russia, American lawmakers wisely foresaw the new invention of television (and the older medium of radio) being used in horrible ways to subvert our democracy. As such, they enacted “The Fairness Doctrine.” Under this law, nobody who owned a broadcast license could promote one political ideology or party over another. If a channel or network wanted to feature a certain political opinion, it had to balance it out with the opposing view to give viewers a fair opportunity to consider both points of view and come up with their own opinions. Any channel or network that violated that balance would be punished by the Federal Communications Commission, which was nonpartisan and watched networks closely—enforcing the policy with vigor.

The policy remained in force until it was eliminated by Congress in 1987. Not surprisingly, we saw a sharp spike in opinion-based and biased broadcasting in the 1990s through today.

I propose that if we really want to heal our nation, then liberals and conservatives must come together to demand their lawmakers reinstate “The Fairness Doctrine.” No more liberal media. No more conservative media. No more lopsided political coverage. No more ideological brainwashing. News shows go back to broadcasting facts and only facts.

News shows might become more boring, but after watching violent insurrection on our streets, maybe boring would be a good change of pace on TV. 

This week marks the start of a new presidency and the start of a new cast of senators and representatives. Call or write your representatives and president this week and demand the restoration of “The Fairness Doctrine.” It won’t solve all of our nation’s problems, but it will go a long way to help lower the national temperature and restore bias-free broadcasting to our airwaves.

Decameron 2020: Where did Janey Go?

There are so many beautiful scenes to photograph in Connecticut in the fall…especially a stone wall leading to oblivion.

“Wheee!,” cheered Jane, clapping her hands for encouragement. “Look at that little girl run.”

Vick looked up from the papers he was grading and smiled at his mother-in-law. “She’s adorable.”

There was nobody else in the living room.

Since before they moved into this fully restored, 3-story Queen Anne home in New Haven, Jane had been seeing people who just weren’t there.

Jane had early onset Alzheimer’s and was nearing the end of the line. This little girl she had been seeing since they moved into the house likely was a series of happy memories about Vick’s wife when she was a little girl.

Jane was happy and comfortable, and that was all that mattered to Vick.

Getting this tenured professorship at an Ivy League school was a dream come true for Vick. His wife Sue was an architect who was in high demand, and she could usually work from home, traveling when she needed to. She was 100% supportive of this move, and they both agreed their newly renovated home was the best home in which either had ever lived.

They took great care with the interior design. Each room was unique, creating its own ambiance. The living room was tastefully elegant in a rich 1890s Victorian motif to restore the home to some of its original state. Dark woods, red cushions and wall coverings. House plants helped fill the room with life. Ferns and vines threatened to overtake the windows and furniture. The walls had paintings or bookshelves tastefully arranged. It was Vick’s favorite room.

Sue came in and asked, “You didn’t happen to take a bath and forget to empty the tub, did you? There are watery footprints all over the floor.”

Vick gave a subtle head shake no, and they both looked to Jane, who was bare-footed, and playing patty cake by herself and giggling.

Sue sighed, “I’ll go drain the tub and clean up the floor.”

“That’s alright. I can do it,” Vick offered.

“No, you’re busy. I got it.”

Keeping tabs on Jane was easily a 2-person job. Jane always meant well, but she had virtually no short-term memory. Frequently, she’d wander off and do household chores or yard work. It sounded great on the surface…until they discovered she never used dish soap and stacked wet, dirty dishes in the cabinets, without any regard for the contents of the cabinets and drawers in which she placed them. The pantry was forever being reorganized.

It was easier when their kids were home, but their two girls were off at college. For now, Vick and Sue tag-teamed watching Jane or cleaning up after her. The hardest part was that Jane preferred to be busy. You couldn’t just plunk her in front of a T.V. Jane preferred mowing, raking or pruning to watching T.V. Yet, to set her loose on her own would be trouble. When they gave her a trowel to weed the garden and left her alone, she forgot to weed and dug a 4-foot deep hole instead.

Neither Vick nor Sue blamed Jane. It was the disease.

During the week, a caretaker came to look after Jane. On the weekends, it was just Vick and Sue. They didn’t mind. They had set some boundaries for defining the moment they would need to find a nursing home, but they enjoyed Jane’s company and knew how much she’d hate a nursing home in her present state of mind.

They were content to give Jane as many good years, months or days as they could in their happy home.

•••

Imagine being buried in red and orange leaves.

The advantage to having kids off at college was sleeping in on Sundays and rediscovering each other.

Sue and Vick were as flirty as teenagers while making pancakes and bacon in the kitchen. Vick was nibbling Sue’s ear when Jane rushed in, out of breath and wearing nothing but a bathrobe.

“Have you seen that little girl?” she asked. “I tried to chase her, but she’s faster than me.”

“No,” Sue said, putting down the mixing bowl full of batter that she was stirring. “You want some breakfast? I’ve got some strawberries and whip cream for your pancakes. I know you like that.”

Jane looked confused. “Not right now. I really need to find that little girl.”

Jane left the kitchen on her quest, and Sue sighed and shrugged. “I guess playtime is over, now that she’s up.”

Vick gave her a kiss. “To be continued.”

She gave him her naughtiest smile, then Jane came running back into the kitchen.

Jane was pale and trembling. Panic was in her eyes.

“There’s a man in the house,” she said.

“What?” Vick asked. “Where?”

“I don’t like him,” Jane’s voice was a tremor. “Make him go away.”

“It’s okay,” Sue soothed, as she embraced her mother.

“What did he look like? Where is he?” Vick questioned, grabbing a long, sharp kitchen knife.

Vick was a pudgy college professor, not a knife fighter, but he figured something was better than nothing.

Jane was at a loss for words  and just pointed out the kitchen entrance she came in.

“Be careful,” Sue cautioned.

Searching the first floor, Vick saw no trace of anybody. No broken windows. No disturbed furniture. No stolen items.

He was surprised to find the front door unlocked. Opening the front door, a package was waiting for his wife on the porch.

Snorting a small laugh, he put together the pieces of the puzzle.

He took the package back to Sue and asked Jane, “Did you see the delivery man? Is that who scared you?”

“What man?” Jane asked, confused.

Sue exhaled in relief.

“I’ll check the rest of the house,” Vick said. “But, I think we found our culprit.”

“Thanks,” Sue agreed, as she took the package.

Nothing was amiss as Vick explored from low to high. The only thing out of place was that the 2nd floor bath tub was full, again. Muttering to himself, Vick drained the tub and sopped up the mess on the floor with a towel.

•••

Not sure there is anything more beautiful than maple leaves at peak color.

Raking the last of the front yard leaves into a huge three-foot pile, Sue and Jane were dressed in gloves and heavy sweaters.

It was a crisp, late-October day.

“Watch that little girl play in the leaves,” Jane said, resting on her rake.

“I don’t know about any little girl,” Sue smiled mischievously. “I think you want to play in the leaves.”

“Noooo,” Jane protested. “I’m too old. What will the neighbors say?”

“They’ll say, ‘Look at the old lady having fun. Maybe she’ll let me play, too.’ Go on. Have fun.”

Jane jumped into the leaves with reckless abandon. Sue picked up a pile of leaves and dropped them on her. Then she fell into the leaves next to her mother.

They both laughed like they did when Sue was a little girl.

When they tired of laughing and throwing leaves at one another, they lay quietly staring at the cold, grey sky through the nearly naked branches of an old oak tree.

“I don’t think I’ve got another winter left in me, Sue.”

Sue was shocked by the sudden return of dementia-free clarity.

“Of course you do, Mom. You’re a skiier.”

“Not any more.” Jane was silent a moment before continuing. “I really want to thank you and Vick for how well you are taking care of me, but I want you to know that it is okay…whatever it is you need to do to take care of me.”

Tears welled in Sue’s eyes, as she took in the full permission of what her mother was granting her.

“I love you, Susie.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” Sue said, hugging her tightly and crying. “I miss you so much.”

They cried and hugged some more, and before either of them was ready, the dementia returned.

“Why are you crying?” Jane innocently asked, oblivious to her own cheeks wet with tears.

Sue tried hard to compose herself quickly. “Nothing. Nothing, Mama. How about some hot cocoa?”

“Only if my little friend here can have a cup, too,” she said, climbing out of the leaves and on to her feet.

“Of course,” she agreed, absently wiping her nose on her sleeve.

•••

Later  that night, just down the hall from her loving daughter and son-in-law, comfy and warm in her bed, Jane passed away peacefully.

On October 30th, a small grave-side service was held for Jane. Her granddaughters came in from their respective colleges. Nobody in New Haven knew Jane, but a couple of Sue and Vick’s colleagues came to offer their support. The girls were upset. Sue and Vick had far more complex feelings. They were sorrowful for Jane’s passing. She died too young from a disease that deprived her of her memories and personality. Yet, being her constant caretakers had taken a toll on them, too, and they felt guilty for feeling some relief.

At midnight Vick was awakened by a small hand gently patting his shoulder. He groggily thought it was one of his daughters, momentarily forgetting they were now grown women.

Through his bleary eyes he saw a 9-year-old girl patiently standing next to his bed. She had curly hair like Shirley Temple and was wearing a 1940s’ dungaree jumper.

Coming to his senses, he gasped and sat up in bed—scooting backward until his back was against the headboard.

“Who are you?”

Sensing his fear, the little girl took a step backward and asked,  “Where did Janey go? I haven’t seen her for a couple of days.”

Sue started to stir next to him.

“What?” Vick asked. “How did you get in here?”

The girl smiled like he was being silly.

“You know me,” she explained. “I’m Janey’s friend. You called me adorable once when we were playing in the drawing room.”

Sue was coming to her senses and trying to understand what a little girl was doing in their bedroom.

Vick tried to explain gently to someone whom he wasn’t sure existed, “Umm. Jane died several days ago.”

She looked at him quizzically, as if she didn’t quite understand.

Then a soft familiar voice playfully called from down the hall.

“Evvvvelynnnn. Come out, come out wherever you are.”

“Mama?” Sue whispered, confused.

“Oh! There she is,” said the little girl, perking up. Then her eyes widened and fear shown on her face. “I forgot to warn her about the man with the bloody arms in the bathtub!”

The girl faded away as she looked like she was going to run out of the room.

Seconds later Jane screamed from the middle of the hallway.

“Mama!” Sue shouted, as she and Vick ran down the hall to the bathroom. Moments later they were joined by their daughters.

They stood silently watching the lit bathroom. Nobody else was in the hall or bathroom, but the tub was full and wet footprints led to the hallway and vanished.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

Decameron 2020: The Pickerel Witch

Here’s a Fowler’s toad lurking in the grass…or is it? Enjoy our modern fairytale.

Ilke and Streusel were walking through Germany’s dark, primeval Black Forest. They had been lost and wandering for days.

“Ilke,” her little brother called. “I’m hungry. Why did our evil step-mother send us on this horrible quest to find dingleberries in the forest?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “But even if we find this dingleberry bush, I do not think we can find our way back to our loving-but-easily-duped father and have a dingleberry pie.”

They trudged on, weak and trembling.

“Remember our friends, Hansel and Gretel?” Streusel asked.

“Of course.”

“Well, just last week I heard that they found a cabin made of candy,” he said. “Maybe it is still here somewhere close to us.”

“I hope not,” Ilke shivered. “I heard they met a witch who tried to eat them.”

“Yeah, but they pushed her into an oven and killed her. That means there should be plenty of fresh candy waiting for us.”

“I think we’d be better off avoiding witches.”

Eventually they came to a swampy clearing. They rested their weary little bottoms on a log.

“I’m so hungry,” Streusel exclaimed. “I could eat a frog.”

Here’s a real Pickerel frog?

Just like that a splotchy, warty Pickerel frog hopped up between them on the log.

With the last of his strength, Streusel caught the frog and held it gently in his hands as he contemplated eating it raw.

“Don’t hurt it,” Ilke commanded. “It never did anything to you. You have no right to take its life.”

Streusel cried with guilt for ever thinking of killing a living creature, and he cried because he was hungry. He carefully set the plump little amphibian down.

It looked at him and ribbeted, “Thanks.” Next there was a flash and poof.

The children screamed as a beautiful woman with thick, shoulder-length blonde hair appeared wearing a long, black dress, black hobnail boots and a wide-brimmed black pointy hat.

She produced a compact from her black-satin dress and powdered her nose. Then she gave a toss of her golden locks, just for effect before closing her compact.

“Hi there,” she greeted the children. “My name is Madison, but you can call me Maddie.”

The children looked at her and trembled in terror.

“Oh, you little lambs must be starving,” she said and handed each child a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off, just they way they liked.

“Our step-mother says never to take food from strangers,” Ilke declared.

In a sweet and sardonic voice, Maddie asked, “The same step-mother who intentionally left you in the forest to die so she could have lots of sex with your dim-witted father and raise her spawn in your place?”

“Ohhhh,” the kids sighed, thought about it and devoured their sandwiches.

Feeling better, Streusel asked, “Are you going to eat us now?”

Madison laughed with impish delight.

“No, Sweetie. That was Hildegarde, who Hansel and Gretel did in so nicely. She was old skool. Very conservative and traditional,” Maddie explained. “I’m with the more progressive Witchs’ Welfare League. We love good little girls and boys and think it is unfair to prey on them when they are already such easy and undeserving targets.”

The siblings nodded appreciatively.

“So what are you going to do with us?” Ilke asked apprehensively.

“Nothing, dear child,” Madison said. “The real question is, ‘What are you going to do to help me?’”

“What do you mean?” Ilke asked.

Madison pinched Ilke’s ribs and said, “Well, it feels to me as if you haven’t had any meat in ages.”

“No, we haven’t,” Streusel told her.

“How about you guys help me chop up your step-mother and eat her for dinner, and then you can live happily ever after with your loving father.”

“Yay!” cheered the kids, as they clasped Maddie’s hands, hopped off the log and skipped all the way back home to cannibalize their most-deserving, wicked step-mother.

T
H
END

Decameron 2020: Halloween Movie Night

Autumn is our favorite time of year. Even if you can’t party or trick ‘r treat this Halloween, you can still curl up with some good horror movies.

Pandemic Halloween totally sucks! Halloween is easily one of my favorite holidays. It captures all of the romance of autumn, along with all of the primal frights of life and death. Plus, there’s candy!

Worse, yet, for me is that this is my very first Halloween in New England…the primeval home of All Hallow’s Eve with its lore filled with witches, warlocks, devils and other medieval horrors imported from Europe.

So what do we do now that most reasonable people have called off trick ‘r treating to help protect the lives of our little ghouls and gobblins?

My top choice is turning out all of the lights, lighting a bajillion candles and reading Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (Doing this around a fire pit is a good alternative.)

Yet, my second choice is diving into great horror movies. Pop some corn, grab a couple bags of your favorite candies and dive into spooky cinema. Everybody has their favorite, of course. And I firmly believe all kids should be exposed to the joys of the early Universal monster movies, such as “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy” and “The Wolf-Man.” You can never go wrong with “The Shining,” but, my goal with these movie nights is to avoid the usual go-to films. It is time to delve into great movies you might not be as familiar with.

Horror movies fall into two groups for me. There are the genuinely scary horror films, and then there are the campy horror films. I grew up in a horror movie household. My mom loves campy horror, and my dad loves the movies that will keep you up all night for a week. I got to see them all. And it is funny to me how much movies changed for me as I got older. I was genuinely terrified of the campy horror films as a little kid, but now I laugh at them as an adult.

The key to really enjoying any horror movie is to suspend all disbelief and fall into its world for about 90 minutes. With that said, let’s dive in.

THE BLOB (1958): In Steve McQueen’s first movie role, a meteor crashes to earth near a small town. Teenagers discover the space rock with an old guy. The rock splits open to reveal a small gooey blob that begins eating the old man alive! Rushing him to the doctor, the blob goes on a ravenous rampage, oozing under doors, through vents and anywhere it wants. Is there no way for these good-hearted teens to “extinguish” its hunger? True story: I watched this for the first time when I was about 9 and lived in terror of the film for another 15 years or so. When it came on TV in my 20s, while I was visiting my folks, I tried to get out of watching it with them. “We think it might be a little different than you remembered it at age 9.” Okay, I watched it again, and I laughed at myself and the movie for the rest of the night.

THE  TINGLER (1959): Vincent Price plays a scientist who discovers that each of us has a little creature living on our spines called a tingler. It feeds on fear and can kill you by crushing your spine if you don’t scream to release your fear. When he successfully captures a living tingler and it gets loose…well, all hell breaks loose. This was director William Castles’ classic B-movie where he rigged seats in movie theaters with buzzers to randomly scare the audience members. I don’t think this one ever scared me, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t loved it for all of my life.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956): Mysterious, human-sized pea pods start showing up at people’s homes. And as people try to make sense of them, the pods create a human clone of the person it was delivered to. Not sure what to make of these clones, the humans are reluctant to do anything about them, but the clones have no compunction about killing their humans and taking over their lives. A fun psychological thriller that is undoubtedly campy at times, but it can give you the creeps if you really let yourself become one with the film.

WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953): H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi horror story comes to life in amazing Technicolor with this blockbuster. The world’s best special effects were employed for this movie when it first came out. Sure, they look a little hokey now, but I still love the terror imposed by the seemingly unstoppable aliens. The biggest laughs come not from the effects but the blatant sexism and condescending patriarchal nature of the leading men and scientists.

THE CHANGELING (1980): George C. Scott plays a man struggling with the loss of his wife and daughter in a tragic car wreck. Moving to a new town for a change of scene, he rents an old mansion that is already inhabited. To this day, I will contend that this is the most frightening ghost story ever filmed. I love it! I’ve seen it a dozen times, and it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

Decameron 2020: Elementary Human Nature

Nope, again this has nothing to do with the story, but it is a beautiful swampy nature preserve in Wisconsin.

Mrs. Peebles loved her first-grade class. Each of her 20 students was a clever little sponge soaking in knowledge, exploring and learning in their own ways. High-energy and mostly adorable, she wished she could protect each one from all of the dangers in the world.

To help keep them safe, near the end of the school year, she’d have a special class to warn them about the dangers lurking within their own homes. She explained how bleach and ammonia could be wonderful cleaners for their homes, but they could also be deadly poisons if drunk. Just getting the chemicals on their skin could hurt them, if they didn’t wash them off quickly. She let the kids come up and give a quick little sniff of each chemical to make sure they knew what they smelled like and should avoid.

Next she warned them of other dangers, such as hot stoves and space heaters.

She would wrap up the discussion with a dire warning never to stick anything other than an electric plug into a light socket. Electricity was vital to powering their lights, TV and computers, but it also was deadly when touched directly. She explained how a shock could stop their hearts or burn them.

After answering the children’s questions and reassuring them that all of these dangerous things could be very safe if only used properly, she began to put away her sample chemicals in a locking cabinet behind her desk.

At the very second she knelt down, there was a loud pop in the classroom and the lights flickered.

She stood up and screamed when she saw little Johnny Whozit lying unconscious next to an electric outlet on the other side of the room, a small pair of scissors clenched in his hand.

***

Dear Friends,

It is easy for us, as adults, to see that Johnny had a severe lapse in judgement when he was just told that the very thing he was about to do could kill him. The vast majority of us don’t need to stick things in an outlet to know it is an insanely terrible idea. The overwhelming majority of us have never stuck anything other than proper plugs in an outlet.

While quarantine totally blows goats, for the life of me I cannot understand why grown adults think it is suddenly a good idea to drink bleach, break quarantine and stop wearing masks in public, in close proximity to other people.

With increasing repetition, I’m hearing all manner of virus conspiracy theories, as if Covid-19 has ideological intentions.

It doesn’t. The virus isn’t liberal, conservative or even political. It is a mindless microscopic thing that isn’t even a complete single-cell structure that scientists define as only being on the “edge of life.” It isn’t living in the traditional sense that we understand living to be…but it isn’t quite not-alive, either. No wonder it is difficult to treat. It only has two goals: quasi-live & replicate. It sickens and kills everybody equally, regardless of politics, race, religion or wealth.

I am blessed to count many EMTs, nurses, doctors and police officers among my friends and customers. Many of them have told me how insanely contagious this disease is. Most of them have seen people die of the disease…many people, in some cases.

Many of the best scientific minds in the country are working on cures and vaccines to save the rest of us from this plague. At the moment, we have no known, proven cure. We’re mostly keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t kill us. True, for as many people who get it, only a small percentage of them die. Who wants to take that risk when a cure or vaccine might be just around the corner?

Yes, the economy is in rough shape. Absolutely, people need money to continue on. All of us would love to gather with friends and family once again. We all want life to return to normal as soon as possible…and I hope with as little suffering and death as possible. OMG! Warm weather and a beautiful springtime make it even harder to stay indoors. I get it.

But these are extraordinary times, and they call for extreme measures to protect our family, friends and neighbors as much as humanly possible.

One of the most dangerous parts about Covid-19 is that you can get it and never know it. You can also get it and spread it for up to 14 days before coming down with symptoms. Why put yourself at risk? Why put your family and friends at risk? Why pass it on to some friendly elderly person you accidentally bump into at the grocery store? Who knows how many people someone you might infect can then turn around and infect?

Until we have a cure or vaccine, the only thing we can do for ourselves and everyone else is stay home…and wear a mask if you have to go out for supplies. It totally sucks, but it is the only way to stay safe…minimize the spread of the disease…and buy the many doctors and scientists working around the clock to find a better way to kill, cure and prevent this disease a little more time.

Regardless of politics, for the health and lives of our families and friends, we need to unite as a nation and a planet. At no other time in human history has it been easier to be a hero that helps save humanity. All you have to do is continue to shelter in place.

With great love, health and respect,
Nathaniel

Decameron 2020: Saturday Matinee

Well, my friends, we’re two months into quarantine/lock down/self-isolation…whatever you want to call it. By now, you’ve caught up on all of your TV shows. You’ve binged watched your favorite movies. You’ve read that book that’s been collecting dust for a few years that you’ve been meaning to read. Household projects are getting completed.

What do we do now? We have to stay strong. Whether we like it or not, this virus isn’t going away soon, and the quarantine must continue not just for our own health and safety, but for the health of our friends, neighbors and families.

Soooo, I propose a trip into classic Tinsel Town. Among my many passions in life are old movies. I spent 10 years writing about classic cinema for a catalog company, while I was building ThePenMarket.com. It surprises me how forgotten old Hollywood is, and it amazes me how good the entertainment remains, even in the 21st century.

Today, instead of a story, I want to recommend 5 great films to watch, that you might not have seen before, but that might just blow your mind and at least help you forget your worries for 90 minutes. Most of these films are easily accessed on various movie services that you can get with your smart TVs. If worst comes to worst, you can “rent” them from Amazon Prime. It will be worth every penny.

No, I won’t lob softballs at you like “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind” or “Some Like It Hot.” Even people who’ve never seen any other black-and-white or Technicolor films have seen those. Nope. I want to get into the not-obscure, but certainly not on the tips of most people’s tongues these days films.

HORSE FEATHERS: The Marx Brothers made the first screwball talking picture (“talkie”) in 1929 with the madcap “The Cocoanuts.” It was deliriously funny in the year it came out, but it doesn’t hold up half as well as 1932’s “Horse Feathers.” Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo are called upon to save a university from ruination…while seducing the “college widow.” How do you save any college? You give it the best football team money can buy. My, how so little has changed. After a slow opening scene, the movie moves at a manic pace with a non-stop stream of witty one liners and slapstick comedy. The film is a riot, and you’ll instantly be tempted to change the password on your computer by the end of the film. If only Harpo’s pantomimes were emojis.

THE BIG SLEEP: Long before the world obsessed about the romance between Brad and Angelina, a real romance electrified the silver screen. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had dynamite chemistry on and off the set. Meeting on the set of “To Have and Have Not” (1944), Bacall was only 19 and Bogie was married and 45. Their sizzling screen romance boiled over into his divorce and their marriage. What makes Bacall stand out so much for me is not only her beauty, but she is tough as nails and cool as a cucumber. While I actually like “To Have and Have Not” a little better than “The Big Sleep” (1946), it is easy for some folks to think it is a little too derivative of “Casablanca,” just set in the Caribbean. “The Big Sleep” is hard-boiled film noir at its edge-of-your-seat suspenseful best. Bogie is a private eye hired to keep a grifter from ripping off a wealthy family whose youngest daughter is a dope-fiend wild child. Her older sister is played by Bacall, she and Bogie spark, but she’s hiding a much more sinister skeleton in her closet. When Bogie goes to uncover it, it might just cost him his life. The banter between Bogie and Bacall is as sharp as the crack of a .38 in the night.

TOP HAT: Even if you don’t like musicals, it is nearly impossible not to love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing their way from London to the most beautifully stylized Venice in 1935’s “Top Hat.” Often thought of as their best picture, the film’s formula has gelled perfectly. Irving Berlin wrote the songs, while Astaire choreographed some of the most dazzling tap dance routines caught on film. Astaire plays a tap-dancing playboy who is trying to help his buddy, the hilariously bumbling character actor Edward Everett Horton, smooth things over with Horton’s wife, played by Helen Broderick. Broderick is close friends with Rogers. Astaire is smitten with Rogers, but she thinks he’s her best friend’s husband, whom she has never previously met. Things get out of hand, but hilarity and great dancing ensues. For fans of “I Love Lucy,” Lucille Ball makes her film debut as a platinum blonde shop girl in a flower shop. She probably only has one line, so you have to watch closely.

SUNSET BLVD: Most of you are likely familiar with the catch phrase, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” but have you actually seen the psychological thriller “Sunset Blvd” from 1950? A struggling young Hollywood writer stumbles into the home of fictional silent film star Norma Desmond (played by real silent film star Gloria Swanson) in contemporary 1950 Hollywood. In a short while, she hires him to help orchestrate her return to modern stardom, and he is happy to take her money and lustful desires. But things quickly turn ugly when things inside the bubble-life she’s created for herself get out of hand and he falls for his best friend’s fiancé. Legendary film director and writer Billy Wilder hit a home run with one of the few older films to truly capture psychopathy and other mental health issues. I saw this film for the first time when I was 12, I looked at my mom wide-eyed at the end and said something to the effect of “Oh my God, they get it.” She knew then that I’d never be a normal kid. Keep an eye open throughout the movie as dozens of real silent film stars populate the background as extras.

CITY LIGHTS: Charlie Chaplin brilliantly understood one thing: His character “The Tramp” was dead as soon as he talked. Chaplin was at his wittiest when he didn’t open his mouth and let his actions speak for him. When “City Lights” came out in 1931, people thought he was insane to be the only holdout for silent movies. Yet, the genius here is that it isn’t silent. He recorded the film with all of the music and sound effects needed to keep the story flowing. Yet, he didn’t give the actors any lines. He continued to use title cards when words were needed. Sadly, most of the music of the silent movies has been lost because the sheet music was never stored with the film canisters. With “City Lights” the movie comes with its original soundtrack, so you can hear it the way it was intended. Oh, yeah. The plot. Chaplin is in love with a blind girl, who doesn’t know he’s a homeless tramp. He learns an operation can save her vision, so he sets out on a madcap course to get her the needed money. As she thinks he’s rich, will she still love him when her vision is returned and she finds out who he really is? If you aren’t used to silent movies, sometimes you just have to get your head in the right place for them, but when you are in the zone, these movies are as powerful and hilarious as any made today. “City Lights” is a great place to start, although Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is also a great entry, also with a recorded soundtrack and effects. (Did you know the famous song “Smile” was written by Chaplin for “Modern Times.” He was an amazingly good composer, although he rarely gets much credit for it.)

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 2

Among my many careers, I was a fencing portrait photographer. The following are photos I used as advertising and pose options. I own the copyright to all of them, so please don’t steal them, without permission.

Latching the floor cord to the D-ring just above Jill’s left hip, Dan took a moment to appreciate that he was standing in her shoes only 20 short years earlier.

When Jill finished plugging in her favorite electric foil that she named Annibelle the Cannibelle, she rushed to get to her en garde line and start the final bout of the women’s national foil tournament.

Seeing her haste, Dan grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him.

The 18-year-old was bright and smiling from the joy of fencing for the title, but Dan could also see the nervous tension around her eyes. He had butterflies in his stomach, but he didn’t show it.

Placing his hands on her shoulders, he looked deeply into her brown eyes for a second before speaking.

“It feels just like yesterday that I was teaching some skinny little 11-year-old girl how to kick the asses of 2 17-year-old boys twice her size.”

She exhaled a laugh, and the tension left her face. “If they could see me now.”

“They’d shit their pants and be grateful you didn’t kill them.”

She laughed, again.

Now that her nerves were steadied, Dan helped her focus: “Don’t think about the title. Only think about the touch in the moment.”

She nodded.

“How are you going to beat this girl?”

“First, I’m going to figure out how the director calls right-of-way. Then, I’m going to test her distance, comfort zone and weaknesses.”

“Good,” Dan encouraged. “What else?”

“Fence for only 1-light touches. There’s no trusting the call on double-light actions,” Jill replied. “Oh, and listen to her coach give away her strategy.”

“Excellent,” he said. “What do you do if your attacks stop working?”

“Play defense.”

“And if your defense isn’t working?”

“Go on attack.”

“Perfect,” he said. “So, in other words, this is just a normal bout for you.”

She nodded.

“Good. Just keep in mind one more thing. Give yourself a little extra space until you know her reach and abilities. Never hesitate. You have the best instincts in the game. Trust yourself.”

“Got it, Coach.”

“Good. Stay grizzly.”

She gave him a low, menacing growl with a lop-sided grin.

He winked back at her. “You’re ready. Go kick her ass.”

Jill turned on her heel and strode confidently to her en garde line, her sweaty brown pony tail swaying with each step.

He watched her from the coach’s box like a proud father. Jill was not his daughter, but she had become very much like the daughter he never had.

***

Upon winning the silver medal at the national championship, Dan was more determined than ever to take home the gold. He trained like a man possessed. He won countless tournaments and defeated many world-class competitors, but, at the following national foil championship, he failed to make the semi-finals.

And so he would preserver in the years to come. Through bad romances and good, economic boom times and bust, his love of fencing never wavered. Back in college, he assumed adulthood would be glamorous. With a professional career would come professional paychecks that would finally pay for the travel and gear that he could not afford in college.

What he did not count on was that a professional career also required far more time out of his day. The more he succeeded at work, the less time he was able to devote to training. While he remained one of the most gifted naturals in the sport, the general effects of age and the inability to train and travel as much as in college cost him his dream of a national title.

Still devoted to the sport and fly-over country, Dan began helping out more at a local park district club, like where he first learned.

Fencing had changed over the years from a mostly adult sport to a mostly kid sport. On the circuit, 12-year-olds just getting into the sport were practically too old to have a chance. The kids who started at age 8 were nationally rated and winning major circuit events by age 12.

Teaching had moved on from classical fencing where students were taught all of the moves until they learned each to perfection and also taught how to think and react under pressure to teaching kids a few basics and then one or two power moves. The power moves were dominant and won tournaments, but the kids knew nothing else and became proud and arrogant in their ignorance.

Most flicking had been eliminated from the sport by stiffening the foil blades, but directors still based their calls almost entirely on footwork, regardless of the way the rules remained written.

Poor sportsmanship was promoted to appalling levels. Dominate young fencers were encouraged as young as 9 to create their own victory dances and war whoops after every touch scored. The days of fencers winning and losing with stoic grace, dignity and honor were long dead.

As Dan began teaching kids, he taught them the old ways. Realizing 90% of the kids he taught were only interested in living out their pirate and Jedi fantasies, he had fun with them, adding more advanced classes for the kids that actually wanted to learn something and try competition.

Dan didn’t remember meeting Jill. She was just another scrawny 11-year-old who was rather shy and quiet. He never really took notice of her until he noticed two of his nearly grown high school students going way too rough on her in the advanced class.

“What on earth are you guys doing over there?” Dan called out across the gym. He left the two younger kids he was helping.

One of the older boys stammered, “She wanted to fence us. She said for us not to go easy on her.”

Dan looked at him doubtfully and asked the girl.

“It’s true,” she agreed enthusiastically. “I’m tired of beating everybody else in the club. These are the only guys I can’t beat, and I want to learn what they’re doing that I can’t beat.”

“You mean you’re beating all of the other students?” he asked doubtfully.

“Haven’t you noticed?” she asked, hurt in her big, brown eyes.

Dan felt horribly because he hadn’t.

“Aren’t these guys hurting you?” he asked.

“Yeah, but it is the only way to see what they are doing so I can beat them.”

Dan looked at her thoughtfully, as she gazed up earnestly. Dan placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the boys, and they walked a few steps.

Squatting in front of her he whispered, “You can’t beat them fencing them like they fence you. You’re too small.”

“I hate being little,” she said. “I can’t wait to grow up.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dan asked. “Being small and fast are the two best things for a fencer to be.”

“No, they’re not,” she dismissed him.

“Yes, they are. You have no target area to stab when you’re small,” he said. “Put your foil down and go en garde.”

She did, and, crouching down to her level, he went en garde, extended his right arm and index finger, gently poking her leading right shoulder.

“Now, extend your arm and finger.”

She did, poking him in the bicep.

“Who is going to win this fight this way?”

“You are,” she said.

“Now, how are you actually going to beat me?”

Jill thought a second and cautiously bent her arm, parried Dan’s arm—which he kept rigid—, stepped closer to him, resting his straight arm across her belly, extended her arm and finger and poked him in the right shoulder.

“Very good,” he said, genuinely impressed, as he stood back up. “You made yourself safe from the tip of my foil and put yourself in a position to stab me repeatedly with impunity. Go over there and kick those boys’ butts.”

Jill smiled and ran back to her en garde line.

Dan stood in the director’s position and loudly told the boys, “I want you to fence your best against Jill and not give her any easy touches. BUT, you also can’t fence to hurt her. There is no reason at your size and skill level that you can’t beat her without ever letting her get close enough to you that you even accidentally leave a mark.”

One of the boys volunteered to go first. Jill scored the first two touches and was beaming at Dan. She then lost 5-2, when the boy changed tactics. Still, that first boost of confidence was there and Jill dug in. At the end of a month, she was an even match against the older boys. At the end of two months, she dominated the boys, who were now taking special instructions from Dan on how to beat her.

Dan added more classes for the kids who wanted to go even further in competition. Plenty of boys and girls signed up, and the group gelled as a team, working together to always get better.

Over the years, several qualified for the national tournament.

Jill had been qualifying since she was 13. Now, at 18, she had gone as far into the championship as her coach, who was barely competing and mostly focusing on his students.

***

Jill snapped a sharp salute with earnest intensity, as her coach had before her.

When the director said go, both women rushed forward.

Jill’s much taller opponent suddenly dropped down with perfect poise and form, scoring a touch on Jill’s 8, just below her sword-arm elbow.

Jill replayed the move in her head. For as surprising and perfectly executed as the move was, Jill noticed the woman’s hips seemingly unhitch, as if she were double jointed. Then the opponent kicked with her front leg and pushed off her back leg, extending it completely until the contours of her left calf and thigh lay flat on the floor, her left bottom cheek smacked the floor and her right thigh angled up to her knee positioned directly over a shin that was perpendicular to the floor. The competitor’s torso was erect, right arm straight as an iron rod that was holding a 35-inch long foil. This woman gracefully covered 10 feet of ground from her back foot to the tip of her foil.

The entire maneuver didn’t take more than a second to execute. When her back side tapped the floor, it gave her the momentum she needed to pop back up into en garde.

Before the director called the point in her favor, the woman unleashed an ear-shattering, primal shriek of a victory cry.

Jill’s parents looked at Dan from the stands, mortified. Neither they nor most of the audience had ever seen a fencer move like that and sound so intimidating.

Dan nodded reassuringly to them.

“Taylor Swift!” is all he shouted to Jill.

Jill performed a little hand-flicking dance move from the “Shake It Off” video, as she reset herself on the en garde line.

Given how closely they listened to opposing coaches screaming and yelling at their fencers, Dan only spoke in code to his fencers at tournaments. He taught them to think and act for themselves. Jill’s little dance move told him she’d seen the woman’s hips unhitch and that she knew what to do.

When fencing resumed, both women rushed off the line. Two steps in, Jill stopped as the other woman’s hips unhitched. Jill waited for what felt like an eternity, as she let her opponent overcommit to the attack. Once the shrieker’s arm was extended, Jill swept down for an almost clumsy parry 8, riposting for a touch in the middle of the opponent’s chest.

Jill was soundless and expressionless, her actions were more intimidating than any screaming.

Dan clapped three loud, rapid times, indicating nice touch. Get back to work.

Jill’s opponent looked back at her coach a little nervously. Nobody had previously denied her the long-lunge touch in 8. Jill heard him tell her to switch attacks, and she knew what was coming.

When her opponent rushed her, sword windmilling counter clockwise, Jill waited, feigned a parry, retreated a couple steps and picked off the attack with ease, riposting and then parrying one last time to guarantee 1 light.

2-1 Jill.

Clearly, this was the shrieker’s second favorite attack, as she did it again. Jill easily defeated it.

3-1 Jill.

The attack came again, but this time Jill skipped a step in her defense. The opponent landed and shrieked.

3-2.

“Don’t get overconfident,” is all Dan told Jill.

Emboldened, the shrieker renewed her efforts with the same attack. Jill recovered her form and defended it easily.

4-2.

Not willing to believe Jill, of Fly-Over Country, could beat her special moves, the opponent asked the director if she could test her foil on Jill. Both acquiesced, and the equipment worked perfectly.

The opponent’s coach was furious with the shrieker, yelling at her to change the direction of the attacks.

The shrieker tried three more attacks from the opposite direction. Jill was waiting for them, and when the first 3-minute period of play came to an end, she was up 7-2.

Jill swaggered over to her coach for the 1-minute break.

“Stop right there!” he reprimanded, handing her her favorite sports drink. “You’ve got nothing to strut about, yet. Right now her coach is plotting your demise, and she didn’t get this far by giving up. What do you think he’s telling her?”

“Play defense,” Jill said, sobering up.

“Right,” Dan said, softening.

“What should I do?”

“Well, do you want to try winning by risking running the time out or by mopping the floor with her dirty-blonde head?”

“Mopping,” she said, with a grim set to her jawline.

“Give her a dose of her own medicine. Finish her off before this period ends. Don’t give her time to think.”

The director called the end of the break.

Jill took a last swig.

“If you’re in such a hurry, old man, you better start filling that bucket with soap and water,” she called back to him, making her way to her en garde line.

Dan loved her moxie, but he hoped it wasn’t overconfidence.

When he saw Jill blaze across the strip, windmilling and flicking with a hard shot to the stomach, he knew Jill was focused and playing for blood. 8-2.

The next attempt had her opponent ready. Another shriek and it was 8-3.

“You’re a shark,” Dan shouted, letting Jill know she froze her feet at the end of her failed attack. After all, sharks and fencers have one thing in common, when they stop moving, they die.

Re-invigorated by the parry-riposte touch she just earned, Jill’s opponent went back to her own windmill attack. Jill was waiting for it. 9-3.

“Crazy Monkey!” Dan called out.

The Crazy Monkey attack was Jill’s own invention. It took the windmill attacks that were so popular to a whole new level. She could land the tip on all four corners of the body and on the back by windmilling, which all top fencers could do. Her special ability was to keep moving forward and reversing the windmill in a heartbeat while also stutter-stepping to throw off the timing of the attack…or more specifically, throwing off the timing of the defense, allowing Jill enough time to pick where she wanted to most safely land. To make it harder to defend, Jill would also change her height from normal to low to up on her tip toes, never stopping forward progression and losing right-of way. It was extremely difficult to parry, until you got used to it.

Jill’s opponent fought with desperation, hypnotized by Jill’s elusive foil point that connected with her again and again.

It was 12-3 now, and Jill was so locked into the zone, she couldn’t hear the spectators. She could barely hear the director. She couldn’t even hear Dan.

As she began running down her opponent on the next action, she noticed the woman backing up far earlier than previously. That’s when she spotted the woman unhitching her hips.

Although it wasn’t what she planned on in her attack, Jill was so focused, she didn’t hesitate to press on, sweep a parry 8, bind her opponent’s blade and throw the entire weapon out of her opponent’s hand before dropping in to lunge dead center on the shrieker’s sternum.

Jill held her lunge for effect, and her opponent stood dumbfounded.

The crowd roared at the thrill of the site. 13-3.

Jill was so focused, she didn’t hear the crowd. She didn’t hear the director. She stalked back to her en garde line, lost in her own thoughts of strategy.

Dan saw it the instant the foil flew out of the hand of the woman across from him.

Jill didn’t see it until after resetting en garde. As her tall adversary tugged at the body cord by her hip to pull her foil back to her hand, Jill could tell she had broken her opponent’s spirit.

For a true warrior, it is both a beautiful site and a little sad. It is fun to be a lion and take down a wildebeest. Yet, there is little joy in putting down a whimpering wounded animal.

“Stay grizzly,” Dan warned. Jill looked back and growled. All he could see were big white teeth behind her black-mesh mask.

Jill made solid attacks that were responsibly cautious, given that her rival was no longer putting up much of an obvious fight. It was quite anti-climactic.

When the director awarded Jill the 15th touch, Jill trotted back to her line, gave a sincere, crisp salute and walked up to her opponent for a customary handshake and whispered, “Good game.”

To the dismay of the fencing officials, Jill never shouted, danced or screamed. She didn’t need to rub it in, as her opponent wept at the side of the strip.

Wearing the biggest grin he had ever seen, Jill swaggered back to her coach, joy radiating. He offered her his customary high five, and she wrapped him in a bear hug.

He hugged her back, picked her up and swung her around. They were then mobbed by her family and teammates.

After the awards and photos, when things started to calm down, Dan asked to hold her medal.

He looked over the enameled front and read the inscription on the back. It wasn’t real gold, but he stared at it wistfully, as he hefted it.

“Thank you,” Jill said. “I never could have done it without you.”

“Nonsense,” he said, looking up at her with a wan smile. “All I said were silly things like ‘Be a shark,’ and “Taylor Swift.'”

“No,” she softly protested. “You took me all the way to the finish line.”

He shook his head. “I shined a flashlight down the path for you. You did all of the work, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

She attempted to say something, but Dan held up his hand to stop her.

“I’ve been chasing this damned thing all my life,” he said, as he gently placed the ribbon back around her neck. “And I have to admit that it makes me ten times happier to see it on you than on me.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I also never coached any national champions. The passion, strategy, changes and sensations in this story are all true. Fencing has given me 25 years of joy, which I hope I passed on to my students…and maybe you, with these stories. In the event you want to learn, you are never too old to start. Although I’m taking a break from the sport for a little while, I hope to be fencing into my 70s, like my mentor, the great Jack Warner of Spokane, Wash., not Hollywood. If he is still with us today, he’d be about 95 or so years old. Yet, at age 70, with 50 years of fencing under his belt, he’d mop the floor with us cocky 20-somethings who foolishly believed their youth would destroy his experience and strategy. Special thanks goes out to him, Blue-Hair Cathy, Maria D. and Bakhyt for teaching me so much as a competitor and Tracy for teaching me so much as a coach…and to all the many other wonderful friends, teammates and students along the way. It might not sound possible, but you are all the best.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 1

This is me on the left with my University of Montana fencing mates after we had just kicked the asses of our arch rivals at Montana State…on their turf.

Snapping a crisp salute by bringing his foil blade parallel to his unmasked face—inches from his nose—Dan’s grey eyes sharply gazed upon his opponent across the strip.

It was the final round of the men’s foil championship, and the winner would earn the national title.

Dan’s opponent returned a half-hearted salute without eye contact. It was dismissive and derisive of not only Dan but the moment.

This wasn’t another bout. This was the culmination of a lifetime of drills, learned strategy, conditioning, tournaments and the climax of a day of the most intense swordfighting against the best fencers in the country.

Both men were in peak condition and bone weary. Tired as he might be, Dan was elated to be 15 touches away from the national title. It was his life’s dream and sole desire since he started fencing in high school. He couldn’t wait to cram that weak salute down his opponent’s throat.

The director of the bout called the fencers to “en garde” and began the first of 3, 3-minute periods to 15 touches.

Only a junior in college, Dan understood he was fencing two opponents simultaneously: the man with the foil across from him and the bout director serving as referee.

Although the governing body of the sport in the U.S. rarely admitted it, Dan understood that no two directors interpreted the rulebook the same way, nor did they usually call the rules as they were written. As he hadn’t seen this director all day, Dan decided to take the first couple touches to learn his director’s style of rule interpretation.

His opponent obliged in the most comically sloppy way—a blazing running attack, his arm raised and cocked so far back that the electronic tip on the foil aimed at the wall behind the running fencer, 180-degrees in the opposite direction of Dan.

Dan held his ground and extended his sword arm at the center of his opponent’s exposed chest. The opponent impaled himself, and then flicked his own foil over Dan’s shoulder, landing a touch perfectly at the center of Dan’s back, which was a valid target.

20 years later, some of us UM fencers reunited for an evening of laughs and impalements.

Both men’s scoring lights and buzzers went off, registering valid touches. It was up to the director to decide.

Any spectator could see that in a real duel Dan would have run through his opponent’s heart, without so much as a scratch of damage to himself.

Yet, this was the 1990s, and even though the rulebook still declared the all-important rule of right-of-way as the first person to extend his or her weapon arm and threaten his or her opponent’s valid target area would have right-of-way and win the point if both fencers scored valid touches at the same time, the director ruled in favor of the now-smug opponent. Dan knew from experience that it was because the other fencer moved his feet first, even though he withdrew not only his arm but his entire foil behind his head. It was a flashier move, and after the 1980s, style always trumped substance.

A purist devotee of the sport, Dan hated the ruling, but he smiled because it only cost him one touch to learn how the rest of the bout needed to be fought.

His rival attacked three more times the same way. Three more times, Dan extended…BUT…at the last possible instant retreated 2 quick little steps, raised his arm and sword into a high tierce parry, dropping his foil back down, ever so gently tapping the electronic button on the tip of his foil into his opponent’s chest in riposte. In the psychological warfare of the moment, Dan said a cheery little “Bink” with each tap, fearlessly antagonizing his opponent.

Stripped of his primary attack, the flick artist wisely held back when fencing resumed. His goal was to draw Dan out to play offense and see if he could handle reverse roles.

With the 3-1 lead in his favor, Dan could afford to run down the clock, but that was hardly honorable, nor the way he wanted to win. The only way to have satisfaction would be a 15-point victory or go down trying.

Dan was a classically trained fencer, and he preferred outwitting his opponents and dominating conversations of blades instead of all-or-nothing power attacks. His first attack was really a cagey defensive maneuver testing both his opponent and his director.

Dan rushed his opponent with perfect footwork and a simple lunge that he knew his opponent could easily defend. Although he triggered the flicker’s defenses, Dan deliberately fell 1 inch short. This allowed Dan to witness his rival’s reaction time and motions, while giving Dan all the time he needed to retreat gracefully out of the way and counterparry-riposte for the point. As an afterthought, Dan’s opponent reached out and tagged Dan without any right-of-way in a move called a remise.

Two valid hit lights went off, and the director called the point for Dan’s opponent without any hesitation.

Disappointed, Dan wasn’t surprised. He knew he had the fastest, tightest parry-riposte reflex in the country and quite possibly the world. This was far from the first director to miss it.

Okay, Dan thought, I’ll just need to make my actions cleaner to the director with a little more style and panache.

Across the strip, Dan heard a little “Bink” in rebuke.

Surprising his opponent, Dan reacted with a deep and genuine laugh that forced him to cock his head back like a defiant Errol Flynn.

Game on, he thought.

In the resumption of play, Dan repeated every move perfectly—only this time holding his opponent’s blade in a slightly prolonged proof of parry before riposting.

Again, the director called the point in favor of the opponent’s remise.

One more time Dan executed to perfection, only parrying his opponent’s blade to the floor where Dan trapped it, made eye contact with the director and then riposted his opponent.

Again, the director credited his opponent’s remise. 3-4 in favor of the opponent.

Dan inhaled sharply and let it out slowly, as he walked back to his en garde line. With another deep breath, he collected himself. There was no such thing as an instant replay in fencing then and he thought to himself, Not at this level.

Then he rationalized, Especially at this level, you idiot.

Dan came to the sport of fencing only a few years earlier. Attending a local park district class in high school and then an extracurricular group at his university, Dan was from what the governing body of the sport and the elites from New York and California callously dismissed as fly-over country.

There were no former Olympians watching over his young career. He was a natural, and he loved the sport. He had an insatiable hunger to prove himself to be the best. His friends would never have considered him an athlete. He was a slow runner and didn’t like team sports. In school, he was a brain. He loved academics.

It was his brain that loved the sport so much, as it was a sport where the physically strongest fencer rarely won. The smartest fencer usually did.

He only enjoyed the conditioning and drills because they allowed his body to do whatever his brain commanded. Unlike so many fencers, he studied the sport inside and out from its history to obsessing over each opponent’s every move and nuance, memorizing them for each future tournament. His memory was deep and agile enough to recall the most minute details about an action and reaction on the strip. If he lost a bout, he always asked his opponents what they did to beat him. Some people might have thought him arrogant, but he wasn’t. He was a sponge constantly learning and very accepting of his own weaknesses, as only they showed him how much more he had to learn and perfect.

In college, the upperclassmen soon taught him everything they knew. He returned the favor by analyzing the team’s performance and creating new drills based on the moves their opponents beat them with. Everybody contributed equally as best they could, and they had the time of their lives together, traveling and competing, working as hard as they could to get better. Dan was so obsessed with the sport he began examining all of his classes for better ways to understand fencing through the lenses of psychology, philosophy, literature, science and more.

Dan improved so quickly that he came to love losing, as it meant there was more to be learned and do better against. The only thing he really hated was losing to bad officiating.

Nevertheless, to prove himself as good as he wanted, he refused to lay all the blame for an “officiating loss” on the director. If he truly wanted to be as good as he could be, that meant he couldn’t give them an excuse to deny his greatness.

With the bout now 4 to 3 against him, Dan realized that this director was never going to award any double-lighted actions in his favor, no matter how well he executed his maneuvers. There was an unspoken bias for fencers from elite academies over nobodies out of nowhere. Only making the task at hand more challenging, and, ultimately, more rewarding, Dan bore down with gritty determination. From this moment forward, he could only engage with actions that guaranteed a one-light resolution in his favor.

His opponent might have been a dismissive snob from an elite New York fencing academy, but Dan had to credit the man with being an amazingly talented competitor.

Together over the next three periods of fencing, they darted, lunged and entwined like rattlesnakes fighting over a mate, immune to one another’s venom.

Dan didn’t win a single point on a parry-riposte exchange that ended with two lights, but he listened to his opponent’s coach’s instructions. More than half the time, the coach gave away his student’s next move, setting up Dan for an easy touch.

As they made their way to a 14-14 tie, Dan discovered his rival’s greatest weakness. He had trouble defending a quadrant of his body fencers refer to as the 8—the rib cage just under this right-handed fencer’s sword-hand elbow.

Dan scored two touches there before realizing what an Achille’s heel it was. He refused to exploit the weakness immediately because he needed an ace to fall back on if he found himself in this very situation.

Chests heaving, their lungs incapable of sucking enough oxygen, uniforms sopped in sweat and muscles fading, both men had reach absolute exhaustion with one touch to go.

Dan gave a little hop at his en garde line, trying to psyche his opponent into thinking he had more energy than he did.

The director gave the command to fight.

Dan fleetly covered the ground between them, measured clockwise circles of his blade timed to his footfalls.

Feigning high toward his opponent’s left shoulder, Dan drew the parry response he wanted. Dan then cut down to the open space below his opponent’s elbow and lunged. His opponent knew Dan had him and freaked out, starting a late counter attack with no right of way. Dan timed his move so well that when his tip hit his opponent’s ribs, it would time out the scoring equipment.

Euphoria flooded Dan’s body for a nano-beat of a time, as he realized he was about to become the national champion.

It seemed like a lifetime of waiting for the point to strike home, and then he recognized his incomplete muscle control from exhaustion.

Dan’s tip was skewing wide. Trying desperately to redirect it into his opponent’s torso, Dan couldn’t override the momentum of his attack.

Time slowed in his whirring head, as his foil missed by less than an inch and his opponent’s act of desperation landed on his uniform.

To the world outside Dan’s mind, it all happened in the blink of an eye.

Dan’s opponent drown out the director’s final call by screaming, fist pumping and dancing about his half of the strip in the worst display of sportsmanship Dan had ever seen…though the governing body of the sport encouraged, as it looked more exciting to the cameras not yet covering the sport.

Determined to lose with as much grace and dignity as he intended to win, Dan blocked out his emotions, returned to his en garde line, removed his safety mask and snapped a crisp salute—his foil inches from his nose—and held it until his opponent finally made eye contact.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many of you know I was actively involved in the sport of fencing for 25 years. While the truths of the sport are valid in this story, this story was in no way autobiographical. I was never close to a national title. The best I ever did was 25th out of 200 at the 2001 U.S. Nationals in Div. 3 Men’s Foil. I lost to an elite NYC fencer, and he was actually the nicest guy I met all day, and he went on to take the title. That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of elite fencers with attitude problems. A future (now former) olympian once brazenly mocked one of my students and cruelly rubbed in her 15 to 1 victory, even though my student was never going to be a threat to her under any circumstances. To my former student’s credit, she cheered on said olympian at the following summer games.