On The Fence

by Monica McCarthy on November 6, 2014


Last night I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: I took a fencing lesson.

I knew nothing about the sport going into it, and had no idea what to expect. Honestly, I thought there would be a basic warmup and some theory. I certainly didn’t expect to be handed a weapon and to start using it.

But I was and I did.

It was intense, but great.

I learned quickly that in fencing, there is never a dull moment or a taking-of-turns against your opponent. You are both “on” at all times. Rarely have I been required to be so focused. Fencing is as mental as it is physical.

I also learned there a lot of polarities in fencing. For example, your power and strength come from your back leg, not from your arm wielding the blade.

Perhaps more importantly, is the emphasis on the retreat instead of the attack.

To hit your opponent you first must learn to retreat.

This was the mantra of the first lesson. And it wasn’t until the lesson was over that it actually sunk in.

When we’re too close to our opponent we can’t see the whole picture. Much of the sport comes down to reading the other person, anticipating their next move. This is harder to do if we can’t read their entire body language.

And when we’re within reach of the opponent’s blade, it’s harder to think clearly.

To mix sports metaphors, offense is easier than defense.

When we step back, we can get a better perspective for where to strike. Retreating allows us the time we need to refocus, breathe and strategize based on the new information.

The most crucial time to retreat is after a missed strike.

Didn’t hit your target? Don’t hover or flounder.

Move away as quickly as possible.

The speed with which we retreat determines whether we get another opportunity to strike.

If we waste even one second in wallowing, we lose.

This concept of retreating is not the cowardly sort. We aren’t turning our back and running away, tail between our legs. Our eyes are still on our opponent, and both our blade and guard are raised.

So that the next time the referee asks:

Êtes-vous prêts ? (Are you ready ?)

We can wholeheartedly reply, yes.

En guard.



* image


7 Life Lessons Learned From The Learning Lab

by Monica McCarthy on November 3, 2014


In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. – Eric Hoffer

I love school. I’ve always loved school. When people ask me what my dream life would look like I often respond that I’d love to spend my days studying, learning, experimenting, and creating stuff that I was interested in. You know, like, just because.

And while I think it’s fantastic that we can learn almost anything we want simply by opening our laptops and taking on online class, I don’t do it. I understand why online courses are terrific tools for some people and circumstances, but they aren’t ideal for me and how I like to learn. I like the environment of being in a community of learners IRL.

I also spend way too much time in front of my computer screen as it is.

Over the years as an “adult” and (mostly) for fun I’ve taken classes on: acting, singing, dancing, French, Holistic Health, Ayurveda, yoga, meditation, art history, photography, French Literature…. to name a few.

So you can imagine how excited I was to create an entire program of classes at Holstee in Brooklyn (which we dubbed the Learning Lab) to help people pursue their own dreams. And even better, I got to wrangle some of my favorite people to teach the classes. One of those classes may have been devoted to all things whiskey. Just because.

Our fall “semester” wrapped last week and I’m in process of planning the next round. While pondering the upcoming iteration, I’ve been processing the lessons I learned from our inaugural Learning Labs.

So I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you, in case you’re a fellow life learner or thinking about starting a school of any sort, or you’re just a fan of lists:

It takes courage to be a novice.

When we’re children, we get a lot of credit just for trying new things, be it foods or hobbies or making friends. As an adult it’s harder to be in a room full of peers and admit that a skill or topic is new for us. But taking that first step is necessary and only need happen once! And the truth is, it’s typically never as scary as we imagine it to be. The advantage of learning as an adult? We can serve wine. Liquid courage helps.

In-person community trumps all.

Sure, people want to learn from the expert in front of the room. But we also want to learn from, and get to know, each other. Seeing people connect and exchange contact information at the end of every workshop made me smile. It helps to keep the class intimate in and have the students sit in a U shape instead of rows so they could be within eye contact throughout. Thousands of online followers pale in comparison to a handful of true connections. People want to make friends. Let ‘em.

The best way to teach is often to listen.

My favorite workshops included time to let the students share their own experiences, questions, and lessons learned. When we allow space to listen to each other, we are better able to discover patterns and recognize potential solutions to universal problems. Having time for Q&A and activities for the students to pair up and discuss amongst each another enhances the experience for everyone.

The best way to learn is to teach.

Obtaining knowledge and experience is one thing. Discovering how to share that knowledge and experience in a way that others can learn from is another. What is the real problem you are trying to solve? That answer often becomes much clearer when we help others solve it for themselves. The more opportunities we take to share our knowledge and experience with others, the more of both we’ll receive in return.

Concise is nice.

We don’t try to play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony when we’re first learning to play the piano, nor can we comprehend the entire history of music theory in one lesson. When it comes to teaching (and this includes writing and expression in all forms), restraint is welcomed. Keeping the topic specific and the lessons relevant helps the students absorb more information and leads to more tangible progress.

Be flexible.

Things go wrong. Subways run late, printers run out of ink, life happens. The show goes on. Adapt as quickly and graciously as possible to the unexpected, and you’ll be far ahead of the game and more able to focus on what needs to get done. In the words of Ray Bradbury:

Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.

Be all in.

As students, multitasking and sitting on the sidelines is cheating ourselves out of opportunities to grow. As teachers, being fully present means being able to have a better read of the room. The truth is we all split our time on both sides of the proverbial learning coin. And by embracing our moments as teachers and students we can learn, do, be, feel, and share faster and deeper than treating those times as to-dos to be checked off a list.


Class dismissed.



The Ecstasy of Time

by Monica McCarthy on September 18, 2014

Time is a lost art form.

This is the first thought that comes to mind as I sit down to my computer to write.

We live in an era that has become particularly time-centric. We are obsessed with the notion that we can somehow control time. We attempt to reverse time with creams and pills and photoshop. We try to expand time with life and health hacks. We attempt to capture a moment in time with our smart phone images.

But the reality is, despite our best efforts to barter/beg/steal, time just is.

Not that this stops us from trying. We humans are a rather stubborn lot.

Writer and philosopher Marcel Proust attributed time as being the catalyst for the very existence of art: The fragility of time is found in the futility of our effort to grasp what is fleeting.

In this way, Time reminds me of Truth. As director Werner Herzog stated during his recent talkback at BAM,

Facts do not constitute truth, per se. There is a deeper truth… an ecstasy of truth.

Time acts much the same way, in that there is the factual concept of time (the minutia of minutes, hours, days, etc) but there is also the deeper understanding of, and relationship with, time. This is the level of time that ceases to exist when we’re in the throngs of passion, and bears down in moments of pain. The time that plays tricks like a slight of hand magician when we’re working on a critical deadline, and the time that sheds a glimmer of light in our darkest moments of sorrow.

Stating I don’t have time is akin to claiming I don’t have oxygen. Of course we have time. Or rather, there is time and there is us, and any discussion of existence or ownership is futile. If you are here, you have time.

Why time is on my mind at this moment, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps it’s due to waking up in new surroundings, having moved to a new neighborhood this week, or the cosmic snapping of fingers declaring the sudden scents and signals of autumn, or the quickening arrival of twilight.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is my own fear of running out of time. Of worrying that I’ve made the wrong choices in how I’ve spent the minutia of “my” own minutes, hours, days.

Too late now.

That time has past.

Better instead to focus on the time at hand.

Tick tock.


{ 1 comment }