Priority

I was getting into the car in the parking lot the other day, and as I was opening the door, it swung out and (gently) bumped the car parked next to me. As it turned out, there was a couple sitting in the next-door car, and when the woman in the passenger seat felt my door hit theirs, she turned on me a face of pure hatred and rage. Who did I think I was paying so little care for her property?, her face screamed. She rolled down the window and I asked if she wanted to check for scratches (none), at which point she shook her head and dismissed me with disgust. The incident passed, but as I got into my car and drove away, I was still writhing with indignation at the implication in her face. Her anger only fueled mine as I started to tell myself stories about how "women like that" always treat me.

Imagine if I had played the moment somewhat differently. I might have been more careful about the car door, but the cars were really so close together, it was almost impossible to open mine and get in without touching the other car. She very likely would have responded with much the same face. Now it's my turn: do I simply follow her lead and counterattack in kind? Or do I change the action, parry, as it were, with a smile? Of course, it would have to be the right kind of smile, open and calm, not superior, as if to say, "I'm in more control than you are here." The latter, smugger smile would only provoke more anger on her part. But if I were able to turn things by reacting differently, perhaps both of us would have suffered less in the exchange.

So far, so good; this is the usual advice one gets about such encounters: answer anger not with anger, but calmness. The question is, who actually started it: she or I? I have told it above with the implication that it was her response to my action that initiated the attack, such that I was the one having to respond to her anger, but in fact it was I who started the encounter, by opening my door to get into the car. Perhaps if I had taken more care with the door, or perhaps if there had been a way to park the cars slightly further apart, we could have avoided having to interact with each other in such a volatile way. But was this, in fact, the case? Why was I so careless (if I was) in opening the door? More important, why did her reaction to my clumsiness leave me feeling the way that I did?

Anybody who has spent any time at all watching fencers fence will have noticed that, in foil and sabre at least, it sometimes happens that the colored lights (red and green) on the scoring box both seem to register a touch, i.e. they both light up at the end of the fencers' action. At which point, particularly if the fencers are fencing without a director, a discussion will almost inevitably ensue about who had priority, that is, who started the attack and/or who had control of the blade before the lights went off. Sometimes it is the case that both fencers attacked more or less at the same time; if neither took a parry or a beat and yet both attacks landed, neither fencer gets the touch. (Things are different in epee; more on that some other time.) But if one fencer clearly started before the other and there was no action against each other's blade, then the second fencer's attack is declared a counterattack and only the fencer who initiated the action wins a point.

Now, beginning fencers often have a great deal of difficulty (I certainly did) distinguishing between an attack and a counterattack, if not while they are watching other fencers fence, more or less inevitably when they are fencing themselves. They will be watching their opponent intently for clues about what he or she is about to do; they will notice, just, as it were, on the edge of their awareness, something in how their opponent moves and will realize that he or she is about to attack. At which point, they will move, too--but it will be too late. The movement that they saw was already the beginning of their opponent's attack and while they think that they started the action, what they were actually doing was responding not, as they hope, to an opening in their opponent's defense, but rather to the attack itself. Attack, counterattack, and the attack gets the touch.

After losing more touches than I care to recall to this mysterious (to me, at least) sensation of starting and yet having all the other fencers declare that I had counterattacked, at long last I started to get a feel for what they were describing when they talked about making an attack. Yes, you look for an opening, but you also in a very real sense create it ("set it up," in the usual phrase). To a certain extent, the sensation is similar between making an attack and counterattacking into your opponent's attack; both are responses to potential opportunities to make contact between your opponent's body and the tip of your blade. But in actual fact there is all the difference in the world between being the one who started the action and being the one who countered.

More experienced fencers might be able to describe the sensation of knowing when to make an attack better than I can at the moment, but not necessarily. I have yet to have anyone describe to me clearly how to tell when you have set up the attack properly and when to go. It is something you learn by doing it in practice, over and over again. Moreover, it is different with different fencers, depending on their tempo and level of experience. For my purposes here, what is most intriguing about it is how it depends not simply on one's most immediate preparation--a feint, a disengage--but, indeed, on the whole attitude that one brings to the bout. Once again, the Japanese concept of sen is helpful here: the one who makes the attack is the one who has initiative in the bout, but having initiative in the bout depends on more than just physically moving--extending one's arm into the attack--first. Rather, it depends quite literally on whose mind moves first; who it is who is creating the interaction by the way in which he or she pays attention to the bout.

What does any of this have to do with what happened in the parking lot? Only this: looking back, I started to realize that perhaps, in fact, it was I who had "started it", not by my immediate action of opening the door, but rather by the attitude I carry with me when I go out into the world. Not that I am looking for fights in the sense of wanting to provoke them! Quite the reverse: I am terribly afraid of getting into fights and so do everything I can to avoid them. Unfortunately, what this means is that I carry with me the anxiety that others will not like me, which means that it is my face that is more likely than not registering discomfort at the prospect of a random encounter. So, ironically, I am the one who initiates the attack whereas what I am seeing in other's faces is not an attack but a counterattack--a reflection, as it were, of my own anxiety and discomfort.

I say, ironically, because this would seem to be the exact reverse of what I have said about the interaction on the strip. Beginners typically counterattack; it takes years of experience to be able to be the one who consistently controls the attack. And yet, it would seem, socially we can attack without even being consciously aware of the fact that we are doing so. But then, being a somewhat older social actor than I am a fencing bear, I am hardly unpracticed in interactions off the strip. Perhaps, in fact, I am controlling the encounter or, at least, I am making the opening moves, which, on reflection, fits very well with the way that I behave even on the strip. One of the things that I am working on now is being more patient and waiting to make my attack, so anxious am I that my opponent will begin and I will fail on my parry or make a counterattack. Translated into every day terms, so anxious am I to gain priority I do not watch my interlocutors carefully enough to see what they are actually doing. I simply assume they are planning to attack.

Okay, so the metaphors are getting fairly tangled here, but then so is the action of stepping onto the strip and engaging blades with an opponent. The take-away lesson is not to try to avoid such interactions (how could we, socially speaking, unless we never went outside?), but rather to recognize how much the way in which they play depends on how we start. Interestingly (and here is where the metaphor gets really involved), I fence better when I step on the strip with a smile, undoubtedly because I am more relaxed, but also, I suspect, because of how it helps me to think about my opponent. To be sure, she is going to do everything that she can to outwit me and make more touches than I do, but it is nevertheless wholly within my power to control (for myself, at least) the terms on which we engage.

Why was I so affected by the woman in the next-door car's reaction to my clumsiness? In large part, because I am so nervous about being clumsy; likewise, when I fence, I am nervous about not being able to do the actions right and, as a consequence, being thought badly of by my opponent. But what if I were to step onto the strip expecting not disapproval, but pleasure? What if I were to go out into the world expecting not grimaces but smiles? I have been testing this hypothesis over the past week and found, to my delight if not in fact to my surprise, that, indeed, the more I smile, the more others smile at me in return. Which rather makes me suspect that they were willing to smile all along, just that I had seized priority and determined with my own anxiousness that they would not.

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