My Foil, My Self

There is a big tournament coming up in the next couple of weeks, and none of my weapons actually works well enough to pass the equipment check. So the thing to do is fix them, right? Real fencers (not just fencing bears) will tell you that it is important to learn how to make your own weapons, by which they mean assembling the various parts from grip to wire to tip. To a certain extent, this is because fencers, having spent so much on their equipment to start with, are trying to save a bit of money, particularly if the only thing wrong with the blade is the wire.* There is also the pride that one feels in understanding the way one's weapons actually work, how the various parts fit together and what it is that they do. But the real reason that real fencers know (or, at least, should know) how to fix their weapons is because, as we have seen, our weapons are extensions of ourselves. Caring for our weapons is as much about respecting ourselves as fencers as it is about being able to fence. Why, then, has it taken me so long to learn to take care of mine?

My first plea is of helplessness with all things electrical. I was the girl in physics lab who could describe on paper all the circuits my lab partner so effortlessly set up but who, when it came time to wire them herself, couldn't even get a proper reading across a simple resistor. I was great in theory, but hopeless in practice. To this day I don't know what I was doing wrong in the final practicum; all I know is that, left on my own, nothing seemed to work. So you can imagine how nervous I get at the thought of stretching a nearly hair thin wire the length of a blade and gluing it in, not to mention threading it through a tip, setting it, and screwing a barrel on, all without snapping that $3.99 wire and having to start all over again. It does not help that my husband, who spends his days doing even more fiddly work with irreplaceable archeological objects, is also a technical genius for whom a foil wire "is totally trivial".** I am back to the same situation I was with my lab partner: embarrassed to admit that although I understand the diagrams, I have no confidence that I will actually be able to follow the instructions correctly, even with Gilbert and Peter's excellent video to guide me.***

More serious is the problem of laziness, a.k.a. being "too busy". Some weeks it's as much as I can do to get to practice, particularly when the traffic is so bad that a 25-minute drive takes over an hour. By the time I get home in the evenings, I'm in no position to think about fixing equipment, and on the weekends, I'm recovering from the activities of the week. The last thing I feel like doing on a Sunday is risking frustration over a task that even fully rested I would find difficult to do. Of course, somehow in all of this activity I find time to do things like set up a blog, so there is clearly more at stake here than simply hours in a day. Some of it is mental energy: there are only so many hours in a week that I can spend focusing on things that I have to make decisions about and therefore risk making a mistake. Which observation should tell you something important about me, both as a scholar and as a fencing bear: I hate being wrong.

So why am I willing to practice with weapons that go off target, body cords that are loose, or a lame with dead spots?***** Some of it is surely "strip cred": only beginners have bright, shiny out-of-the-box equipment. The holes in my lame and on the bottoms of my shoes are witnesses to the amount of time I have spent moving up and down the strip and, of course, getting hit. I have a different lame for use in tournaments that doesn't have dead spots or holes, but there it is a different sort of cred, with its corresponding reverse. Only the really great fencers have the most expensive equipment (FIE everything, not just, as I do, a mask and my foils), but then, they deserve it, right? Because they're the ones who are going to win, whom everybody loves to watch and from whom all the other fencers hope to learn. It's important that they look good, especially when they're up there on the finals strip. Having great equipment when one is only a modestly accomplished fencing bear would be like showing off or pretending that the more expensive one's equipment was, the better one could fence regardless of skill.

Even as I write, I can tell how many things are wrong with this picture. A friend of mine who is a taekwondo black belt and deer hunter would be horrified both at my conviction of helplessness and at my reluctance to outfit myself in the best equipment I can afford. The hunter, he would say, who cannot sight in his own weapon shows disrespect not only for himself but also for his quarry, and therefore for the hunt itself. To be sure, I am not, as a sport fencer, out to kill my opponent, but I am engaging in a competition with her in which both of us risk self-esteem (a.k.a. honor) and self-control. Just as we salute at the beginning of the bout to recognize each other and honor the engagement, so we should come to the strip with equipment that will enable us to concentrate on the engagement. Modern fencers do not tend to treat their salle with the same reverence that (ideally, at least) modern budoka treat their dojo, but I'm starting to think that maybe we should. Likewise, our weapons. Our foils may not rust if we do not polish them properly after every use, but to treat them with anything less than the respect we would give an actual weapon, i.e. one intended for killing, is surely a mistake.

But, I can hear some readers objecting, fencing as we practice it nowadays is a sport, not a martial art. We are not trying to learn to kill, even in theory; only make points. But why then do we still call our foils, sabres and epees "weapons"? And why do we take such pride in playing with "swords"? My deer-hunter friend would insist that what we are doing is a martial practice, however abstracted from mortal combat it may now be. Certainly, the emotions provoked can often veer close. And yet, even here, most would agree that to give way to the more violent emotions, particularly anger, is the surest way to lose a bout (not to mention get blackcarded and expelled from a competition). We know that in order to succeed in making the touch we need to have disciplined our selves to the extent that we can act at just the right time, with just the right amount of force. Surely our physical weapons should be as well-honed as our mental ones. If we cannot make the touch with a poorly executed attack, no more can we make it if our weapon fails. No warrior, at least not one who hoped to survive, would go into combat without checking to make sure all of his equipment was in order. Nor, I now realize, should we.

I am fully aware that what I am saying here may sound excessively precious. Our "weapons" as we call them are not in fact swords, but sports equipment, like tennis rackets or hockey sticks. They are tools for performing a particular action. To fetishize them as sources of killing power, like actual edged-weapons or guns, is to fall into the fantasy so many non-fencers suspect us of, wishing we were Jack Sparrow or Aragorn, swashbuckling our way to treasure or hewing down Orcs. But then, why don't we? Okay, so I'm not suggesting we should all dress like pirates or imagine that our foils are the reforged shards of Narsil. But what I do realize now, on reflection, is that in refusing to allow myself to learn how to care properly for my weapons, I have been more than just nervous or lazy. I have been refusing my own greatest fantasy: that I might actually one day be the one on the finals strip whom everybody is watching fence. So what if I'm not there yet? The first step is surely acknowledging that every engagement is worthy of proper preparation, every bout deserves to be fenced with weapons that work. Aragorn, even in his days as a Ranger, would not have shirked attending to his blade, broken as it was.

The same friend who has taught me about sighting in has also written to me about living with one's weapon until it becomes as much part of oneself as one's hand: carrying the rifle through the woods for days on end, knowing its mechanism, its dimensions and weight, feeling naked without it. In preparing for his role as Aragorn in Peter Jackson's movies, Viggo Mortensen reportedly did much the same thing with his sword, wearing it everywhere, on and off set, so as to become comfortable with having a four-foot-plus metal stick in his hand or strapped to his hip. I admit, I am not ready to start carrying my foil into work with me, fun as it might be. But I am now prepared, I think, to indulge the fantasy that I deserve to know how to care for my weapons because one day, like Aragorn, I might actually need them to work.

*Replacement cost of FIE foil blade wired by the great guys at fencePBT: $139.99; replacement wire for a blade that you already have: $3.99.
**Actual quotation. He's sitting next to me correcting my English because he is English. Now he is correcting my punctuation.**** See? Why would I try to fix foils myself under such circumstances?
***Also, my eyesight is such now that, even if my hands were steady, I can't always see such tiny parts, but since I couldn't do wiring even before my eyes started to change, I can't really use this as my principal excuse.
****He says there should be a comma after the first "English". I disagree. Why should the Brits tell us how to punctuate? They can't even spell.******
*****For non-fencers: the whole point of all of this equipment is to make a complete electrical circuit, from the signal box through the floor cord to the reel that allows the fencer to move up and down the strip while still connected, to the body cord which connects to both the lame and the foil. The circuit opens when the tip on the end of one fencer's foil presses into the lame of the other fencer, at which point one of the colored lights on the box lights up. If there is a break in the wire at any point in this circuit, the white light on the box will illuminate, showing "off target." This is a bit confusing in foil because the off-target light will also light up when the foil tip presses into anything other than the opposite fencer's lame. For a better explanation, see Rudy Volkmann's "Electrical Fencing Equipment" (2003).
******Which, by the way, doesn't mean I'm not a grammar stickler. Why else would I disagree with him?

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