The Secret Ingredient

What are my goals in fencing? Winning clearly can't be one of them because the more I want to, the surer the guarantee that I never will. And yet...and yet, I am sick of writing these posts after tournaments. My eyes are puffy with crying, my head aches, I didn't eat properly today and now I can't sleep. How is this possibly worth it? Worth what? Why do I do this to myself?

I was having a really good day yesterday: I got the opening to my second chapter written; it's finally warming up and I was able to wear my new shoes; I'm going to get my new navel ring soon and it's going to be beautiful; my son is turning thirteen in three weeks. Life is good, but I'm sitting here now feeling miserable, life meaningless, wanting to throw myself under a bus. For a sport, God damn it. There had really better be an important life lesson in here that I'm missing somehow because otherwise I haven't a clue why I'm going through this--again. I must be really stupid not to see it after--what? nearly six years now. There are fencers who have made top 8 at Nationals in the events that I failed to qualify for today (Div II/III Women's Foil) after fencing for less time than I have been. Fine, I'm not a natural athlete; I have no particular talent at this. I have no idea whether I'm actually really any good at it or ever will be.

So, let's think. What went wrong? No, it's too painful. If I knew what went wrong in the bout that I lost--in which I was ahead, comfortably, until I got to 10, after which I only got three more touches and, let's see, she got seven--well, I would have fixed it at the time. My coach will tease me on Tuesday for crying--again--and tell me I just need to be patient. But one of my teammates who only started fencing two or three years ago qualified today. How much more patience do I need before I can fence as well as she can? Oh, and by the way, I beat her in practice on Thursday, so no, she doesn't actually fence better than I do; nor is she actually any better a loser than I am. She gets just as upset; I've seen her. So, phooey on all that advice about staying detached. These girls aren't detached. They just have something I don't and can't seem to find. The Secret. I know, I know; the panda movie taught me this. The secret noodle ingredient is that there is no secret; just your belief. F**k that. There is a secret and everybody is in on it but me. It has something to do with practice; it has something to do with heart. There's a key, I just know it, but I can't find it and I'm trapped, banging my head against a wall that for them simply isn't there.

We watched The Matrix (1999) tonight and it's all about the secret ingredient, that awakening for which we all long, the realization that we have powers beyond our wildest imagination if only we could open our eyes and our hearts to them. Okay, the movie doesn't really put it that way, but you know it's there. Even the panda had a strength--his appetite--that was the secret to his being able to learn kung-fu. He was hopeless as a student until his master realized that he could be motivated with food and then, montage! He trains and trains and everything falls into place. Here is my montage: train, train, train, lose. Cry. Train, train, train, lose. Cry. Repeat ad nauseum. Should I quit? But then I'll never know if I might not have finally found the secret. But there isn't any secret, so what am I looking for? I don't have it. That secret that doesn't exist. "Have fun!" Sure, I fence best when I'm having fun, but it's really, really hard to have fun when it never is, at least not at tournaments. Of course, if I were fencing just for fun, then it would be fun, but you know the temptation: you have a crappy day; you tell yourself you're going to quit; having surrendered ambition for the moment, you fence really well; ambition flares back up and you're no longer having fun because you're losing again. And then somebody well-meaning tells you a story about how he struggled for years (now, almost certainly fewer than I've been fencing) before he had his big break, and you want to sink into the ground and die. Again.

My father used to like to say how my brother was a natural athlete. He had a gift that made him one of the best swimmers in the country when he was in high school; really one of the best, top in his age group in 200 Individual Medley (or was it the 400?). Whenever I would say something about how frustrated I was that I had never been that good (I wasn't even top in our school district, never mind in the state or anything like that; I can't remember ever winning even one race and I swam all four years in high school), my father would trot out the "natural athlete" thing: "Your brother had a gift." Great, a gift. My brother worked his butt off; that was his gift. I got fat for reasons that I still don't clearly understand (oh, I was eating too much, but I still don't quite understand why) and blew any chance that I might have had at getting faster. Why did my brother have the gift and I didn't? I'm not talking Olympic level here, although my brother could have qualified, possibly, if he hadn't quit (long story, not mine to tell). I'm not competing at that level now and wasn't interested in competing at that level in high school. I just wanted to be better than I was. I don't want to be an A level fencer; I seriously doubt that is a realistic goal. But I'd like to earn my C before I'm 50. Ha! As if that will ever happen; I can't even qualify for Div III.

So what should my goal be? Not to lose my temper after tournaments. Yeah, right. Fence my best. Again, not a realistic goal; nobody fences her best every time. Have fun. Ha. See above. Keep my point on target. That sounds about right. Have no ambition. If only. Help others fence better. Yeah, I could do that, but it makes me feel like a real idiot to then lose to them; if I'm so smart that I can help them, why can't I help myself? Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. That's me, the natural teacher. Except the one person I can't teach is myself. How I wish that this blog post were something more helpful; wouldn't it be great to be writing about how I had learned how to deal with the nerves, the messy parries, the randomness of inexperienced fencers that is the stuff of Div III? About how, after all these years, I knew how to prepare myself for a competition? I want to be Josh Waitzkin and be able to fill these pages with great advice on how to win, not the pathetic loser that I am, whining about how yet again I blew it.

Look, it's nearly 2 in the morning and I'm supposed to get back in the car tomorrow (today!) and drive back up north for an hour and a half so that I can compete in the Div II/III Women's Epee qualifier. At which, perversely, I have a statistically better chance at qualifying, if, that is, what my coach said today about there being a minimum number of qualifiers is true and it's not just the top 25% that qualified in the Foil (4 out of 15; I was 5th). Except that I'm going to be wasted if I can't get some sleep tonight. Perfect conditions for doing well: be a zombie. Great. No, I won't even go there because that would be to have hope. And to have hope is a sure guarantee, for me, at least, of losing.

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