Monday, March 31, 2014

The warriors among us

It’s strange phenomenon, how easily a veteran can pick out other skilled fighters in a mob of Belegrim. It reminds me of a senior in high school, intuitively spotting gullible Freshmen ripe for pranking. Of course, there are some easy indicators like impressive garb or armor, but even with nothing but street clothes and a sword in their hand, the battle-hardened of Belegarth are still obvious.

Despite this, I often get pegged as a fighter. It even happens among people who have known me for years, casually asking “Hey, why haven’t you gotten on the field yet?” At first I assumed it was just how much I talk about fighting, or maybe a few friends trying to be nice to me, and maybe that is still part of it. But it has even happened from those who have no interest in me whatsoever, who just see me sitting at the sidelines and assume I’d rather be on the field. It’s a logical assumption, I suppose - they’d certainly rather be on the field than watching.

In light of this, I thought I’d explore some of the ways I spot experienced fighters short of their prowess on the battlefield, to maybe understand what they see in me.

1) They are fit

This is more true for younger fighters than older ones. Not all Belegrim who are in great shape are also great fighters, but most great fighters are at least in decent shape. Older fighters can get by possessing a grizzled demeanor instead of fitness, having already passed their fit glory days.

2) They hold conversations about fighting during downtime

Most good fighters never really stop talking about Belegarth when they’re at practice unless they’re in the company of friends from outside of the sport. They swap war stories, give advice, and complain about their fellow fighters. The longer the fighter has been around, the more elaborate and exhaustive their tales.

3) They seem to be friends with many other experienced fighters

Even the most reclusive fighter gets to know others when they’ve been to a few events. However, great fighters actively seek out a challenge. They are always sparring the best they can find, so you can expect them to be on speaking terms with many other top-tier combatants.

4) They hold a sword casually and comfortably

As it turns out, swinging a foam sword isn’t a natural motion for most people. For some, it can take years before the weapon feels like an extension of their arm instead of an unwieldy anchor. The familiarity from hundreds of practice hours shows not just in the speed and accuracy of their shots, but in how naturally a sword rests in their grip.

5) They carry themselves with confidence on and off the field

Like most things in life, talking and moving with confidence can be all that’s needed to make people think you know what you’re doing. For most fighters, there’s a swagger that grows with their kill count, a visible reminder of their place on the battlefield. It is the same attitude that sends newbies running, even if the fighter is only carrying a shield.

Looking at this list, I find myself surprised by how many of these items apply to me, and maybe understand a little more about why I’m often mis-identified as a fighter. Strong posture, a good head for fighting, and a clear voice when needed can be enough to make you look like you belong on the field. And who knows, maybe I do.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Typecasting female event-goers

An overview of some of the women you will meet if you go to a Belegarth event. What type(s) are you?

The Feminist - “I am woman, watch me fight!”

She is all about her other ladies, battling for equality within Belegarth. The Feminist can be found trying to pull other women together around her, forming strong bonds of sisterhood. She isn’t usually a man-hater, but can sometimes come across as over-sensitive when surrounded by so many guys.

The Dude - “Sisterhood? I prefer brothers-in-arms.”

This girl would rather be known as one of the boys. She doesn’t need to be good at fighting, but shuns the ‘girl-power’ notions of the Feminist. The Dude can usually be found with her guy friends, laughing about fighting or the sensitivity of other women.

The Dagor-ho - “Does this corset make my boobs look too big?”

The one who doesn’t bring her own tent, sure she can find a place to stay with so many men around. The Dagor-ho doesn’t need to be classically pretty; she knows she can use her femininity and too-tight garb to get what she wants. Many of the other men and women dislike her, seeing her behavior as hurting their sport or their gender.

The Unicorn - “Why yes, I am single.”

This woman is beautiful, smart and can fight well, yet somehow remains unattached. Both men and women are afraid to approach her because she seems too good to be true. The Unicorn remains completely oblivious to her own rare nature, just enjoying herself while fighting and socializing with friends.

The Cheerleader - “I love fighting! Everyone should play!”

She is the undying optimist, who adores Belegarth and fighting even if she’s not good at it. The Cheerleader wants to include everyone in her fun and will never stop talking about why they should try fighting. You can count on her to rally the troops for any Belegarth event, using her overwhelming enthusiasm as a weapon.

The Archer - “Boys are stupid, shoot arrows at them.”

A very specific type of fighter, the Archer only uses a bow on the field. She usually has a sharp eye and wicked sense of humor, happy to shoot annoying combatants in the face or groin. She is also friends with the other female archers, so be careful before you cross one lest they all decide you need to die a painful death.

The Camp Mom - “When was the last time you had some water?”

Also known as the one who keeps the fighters alive. She always has food, water, and a first aid kit at the ready because she knows fighters won’t remember those things until it’s too late. The Camp Mom is also often in charge of cooking dinner, and no one is better loved as soon as fighting ends.

The Mundane - “I can’t believe he talked me into this.”

This woman is usually a significant other, but could also just be a friend of another Belegrim. She comes along for the ride without too much complaint but is secretly wondering how she ended up with all these weirdos. Still, the Mundane is often friendly, trying to keep on good terms with the natives before they turn on her.

The Party Girl - “I was so wasted, I got kicked out of four different camps last night.”

The one who lives for the night life. She drinks early and often, wandering from camp to camp all evening. The next morning, the Party Girl will always have raunchy stories to brag about, while everyone else wonders why she’s proud of losing her bra between Hellhammer Camp and her tent.

The Amazon - “Whatever, I just want to fight.”

The female equivalent of a stick jock, the Amazon only cares about fighting and fighting well. She can come in both Feminist and Dude varieties, finding her motivation for combat outside of her gender identity. She spends her free time at events sparring, uninterested in other activities.

Looking for more? There's a male version, too.

Friday, March 28, 2014

How NOT to pick up a Belegarth girl

It is inevitable, given the ratio of men to women in Belegarth, that you will eventually be hit on if you’re female. Even I, in my quiet corner of the game, have managed to attract the odd suitor. And, like anywhere else, it always seems like those most confident in their pickup lines are the most awful.

So, this is a little PSA for all the guys out there who might try to pick up a girl at Bele: don’t do these things!

5) Bragging about your kill count - “Yes, I’m in beast mode today! I’ve killed five people in the past hour!”

This one is especially funny when the woman you’re trying to pick up has a boyfriend who kills as many people in one battle as you do in an entire practice. Best case: she isn’t impressed. Worst case: she laughs in your face.

4) Bragging about your pain tolerance - “It’s probably broken, but I’ve had worse. Grew up on the wrong side of town, y’know.”

The only thing this tells me is that you’re too stupid to get a broken bone checked out. Trying to prove you’re “hardcore” by playing a game through pain doesn’t show toughness; it shows you’re incapable of taking care of yourself.

3) Bragging about your real life weapon collection - “I have, like, 20 swords at home and I practice with them all the time.”

I happen to like weapons and will happily chat about your collection if it’s relevant to the conversation. Don’t try to make up for your lack of skill at Belegarth by claiming you’re a badass who knows all about “real fighting” behind the scenes. You want to impress me? Do it on the field.

2) Awkwardly offering to teach her to fight - “If you ever wanna learn to swing stick, I’d be happy to give you private lessons.”

This can be both insulting and creepy, especially if the woman in question fights at all. It’s okay to tell someone that you’ll be happy to train them if they want to come out to the field. It’s not okay to make phallic references to your sword and tell her you want to teach her one-on-one. It amazes me that there are people who think this is an acceptable thing to say to someone they don’t know.

1) Saying this - “Ugh, I couldn’t stand the last girl who came with me. She kept calling Belegath a LARP. Belegarth isn’t a LARP, LARPs are for fags!”

If this is leaving your lips, picking up women is the least of your worries. You better hope no one with a sense of justice and strong sword arm heard you say that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Honor and Respect - The Pitfalls of Hit-Taking

Every vet has had to explain the phrase “honor sport” if they've ever taught a new person. This is usually followed by rounds of questions about cheating, making you wonder if they’re gauging just how much they can get away with. A few minutes later, you still find yourself giving a stern lecture that they can’t yell out “I hit you!” like they’re a kid playing cops and robbers.

It doesn't matter that they are absolutely sure the other guy is cheating. It doesn't matter that they felt something solid under their sword. It doesn't matter that their opponent staggered backwards as if hit by a cannonball. You can’t question it - that’s in the rules.

So next comes the call to the herald to sort it out. “Watch that guy, I think he’s sloughing.” If the herald is lucky, they’ll manage to catch a bad shot so they can look like they’re doing their job, and might even call something questionable just to be safe. The individual fighter can’t supersede their opponent’s honor, but they can use the herald to do it.

That’s the herald’s job after all, right? To keep track of everything on the field, make sure it goes smoothly, and be sure no one is cheating. Nevermind that it’s difficult to get a clear view on two fighters going at it, much less twenty. They must keep everyone safe and honest somehow. It’s no wonder so many hate being a herald.

That’s not to say that there isn't a time to intervene. Some sloughers can cause a battle to fall apart, unbalancing teams. Others are dangerous, not clearly communicating the shots they ignore, causing confusion on the battlefield. Often new fighters just don’t know any better yet and need help calibrating their hit taking. In the interest of safety and enjoyment, it has to be policed, honor be damned.

Still, a cheater rarely stops cheating even if caught. So how to avoid the insanity of practicing with those who are impossibly thick?

Trust your opponent’s honor above all else. Take their word over your own, no matter how much it stings. You thought you hit arm but they took nothing? Ask them where you really hit; they know best. Hit harder and cleaner, but never out of anger and never with intent to injure. Encourage more communication and less assumption. Words like “light”, “garb”, and “hand” can make a world of difference.

The Fighter's Shadow

Who is the fighter’s shadow?

They are the tireless men and women who serve Belegarth, never receiving a word of thanks or praise.

They are the non-coms, spending hours making garb for their friends, forgotten with the words “lay on”.

They are the significant other, left alone all day as they wonder what role they have at an event.

They are the curious newbie, full of hope and questions but ignored by their veterans.

They are all those who suffer under the weight of Belegarth’s apathetic, abrasive culture but still believe in its promise.

We are often not seen, not heard, but we are always there: watching, working, and waiting for the chance to make a difference. We know the sport and love it, even as we can barely find our voice.

This blog is to catalog the thoughts of one woman who has always struggled in the shadows other great fighters, including friends. It is a way to speak out and share the world the fighters do not always see, even on the field. I encourage every Belegrim who stops by to leave their comments and stories, that we can understand more about the diversity that is part of the Belegarth Medieval Combat Society.

Do you want to spar?

“Do you want to spar?”

An innocent question, asked thousands of times at every Belegarth event, dozens even at a single practice. It is short and sweet but holds layers of meaning. It can be sign of respect, an offer to help, or even the beginnings of friendship. It is a symbol of inclusiveness, a way to reach out to our fellow Belegrim and say, “Hey, let’s learn together.”

But, despite its benign nature, that simple phrase has triggered terrible anxiety in me for nearly eight years. After a lifetime of competing with men in academics and my career, I’m paralyzed when I try to compete with them in Belegarth. Do I want to spar?

Yes, but I am afraid.

I fear embarrassing myself in front of you, whom I respect.
I fear losing the respect that I have already earned from others.
I fear letting how easily intimidated I am by the strong and athletic show.
I fear crying in front of you, not out of pain, but frustration.
I fear making you feel guilty for pushing me and watching me struggle.
I fear being yet another woman who is seen as female first, not a fighter.
I fear failing not only myself, but those who might walk my path in the future.
I fear disappointing you and myself.
I fear my weakness, my insecurities, myself.

So I answer, “No, I don’t fight.”

And that is sometimes that. They assume I don’t want to get hit, and leave me be. But often, especially among new fighters, they ask the next dreaded question, “Why?”

I can’t answer that I am afraid, or they will try to fix it. They will tell me as I’ve told hundreds of fighters before, “Just do it and have fun.” or “Oh, don’t worry, I won’t think any less of you if you’re bad” or “No one will care if you’re just an archer.” It’s kind, but that isn’t what I want out of fighting. It isn’t who I am.

Instead I make an excuse:

“I can take a hit, but I don’t want to get hurt.” “I’m too competitive and don’t want to lose my temper.” “I hang out too much with great fighters, they wouldn’t have fun fighting me anyway.”

And eventually, the fighter who offered will accept my answers and walk away, never approaching me again.

But that isn’t right.

I have seen it on the sidelines; the losses to apathy and tactlessness. I have seen fighters and non-coms leave in disgust at the attitude of their leaders. I have seen them walk away simply because they had no one they felt they could turn to with their problems. I’ve seen them fade into the ether with no one even noticing they left. I’ve even talked to new potentials who are afraid to go out on their own and directly contributed to losing them by saying “Sorry, I don’t fight, I can’t go out there with you.”

I never again want to be the reason we lose a fighter. I never want to be held powerless to change what needs to change. I want to help. And do to that, I must fight.

It is my personal challenge to overcome my fear, to accept the losses that will happen and embrace the strength gained. It is my duty to silence the voice that says “You can’t” and prove I can. It is for myself, yes, but also for the quiet Belegrim that may one day look for hope that they, too, can overcome.

And to those who already do fight, who have overcome the trials and tribulations of their personal path to great martial skill, I offer this challenge:

Watch, listen. For one event, do nothing but sit at the sidelines and be still. Do not socialize, herald, or fight. Just focus on those around you. Understand the quiet ones, the non-coms, the forgotten and voiceless fighters of Belegarth. See the potential for growth yourself, the holes that are invisible when you always stand on the field.

I think you may learn something. I know I do, everytime I answer “Yes”.

How it began

I was first introduced to Belegarth as a Freshman in college. It was not through the fanfare of U of I’s Quad Day, a sea of wide-eyed hopefuls seeking their fortune, but at our local realm’s opener. At the time I didn’t even know the name “Numenor”, but it would come to define most of my days at the university.

My first experience was completely uneventful. I had been invited by an old high school friend who had already fought for a year, asking me to to watch over his things and take pictures if I’d like. He figured I’d enjoy it; after all, I was known for being a lover of medieval warfare. So I came along for the ride, sitting quietly by the treeline and waiting for him to finish. It was fun to watch, but I didn’t know when practices were or how I would get involved, and it quickly fell from my mind. The year came and went, filled with struggles around classes and friends, Belegarth completely forgotten.

The next year, a woman I had just met in my major invited me to the “Numenor Combat Club” because they were having a big event. Not thinking much of it, I again trudged out to the field, silently watching the battles rage on and again idly wondering how people got involved in this. Like the last year, I was approached by no one, left to watch over her things on my own. Unfortunately, her hand was stepped on and broken at this opener, which ended her time in the club for several months. And so I forgot about Belegarth for yet another year.

The third year, though, was different. I was invited by my boyfriend at the time, who recently started living with a very talented Belegrim. I remember him telling me that his roommate had even won some money at Belegarth tournaments. Intrigued, I followed him to the opener, suddenly remembering this event from my previous two years. But this time, as I sat down to watch back in the trees, the student president of Numenor sat down next to me. He wasn’t a Knight of Numenor, as I would learn later, but he tried to make sure things ran smoothly with the university. He noticed I had a camera and handed me a yellow tabard.

“Go take pictures. Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you if you wear this.”

I was shocked. Someone had noticed me! Thanking him quietly, I put on the tabard, finally moving within a few feet of the field to take better photos. Just a few battles later, he came by again:

“I give you that tabard and you’re way over here? Come on…”

It took all my courage not to protest as he dragged me between the two lines, just as “lay on” was called. I cringed in fear as two teams of heavily armored men marched in my direction, feeling an occasional arrow whiz by my head as leaders shouted orders at new fighters. Standing there, shell-shocked in the midst of it all, I took some of the best pictures I have ever taken at a Belegarth event. It was exhilarating and terrifying, chaotic and awesome.

Shaking as I stepped off the field, I handed the tabard back to him, saying, “Thank you. I think I might want a shield next time, though. It’s scary out there!”

And he laughed, replying, “They might try to hit you if you do that.”

Just with that, I was hooked. I still didn’t know the name of this ridiculous game or how I would fit in it, but I knew I wanted to be a part of it. From then on, I could never look away from the field - fighting was my obsession, even if I would never stand side-by-side with those awe-inspiring warriors.

A man whose name I didn’t even know changed my life, just by handing me a yellow tabard. Never think you can’t do the same for someone else.

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