Fur, Foil & Friends*

I haven't written about this much yet for fear of embarrassing my friends, but it really is one of the most important reasons I fence. As my friend Neal always says, you meet such great people on the strip. Many of us (at least, this goes for Badger and me) think of ourselves as relatively shy beasts, but give us a mask and a foil, and there we are, scrapping it out like the fiercest of rivals. But take us off the strip and it's all hugs and kisses. It's a paradox worth contemplating.

Many of us would never even meet in "real" life. Among the women whom I have fenced at the national veterans' tournaments, including Badger, who works in museum design, there are several fencing coaches (perhaps less surprising, given the context), another history professor, a Latin teacher, a dentist, a social worker, a lawyer, someone who works in insurance, even a graduate student in medieval literature--and these are only the ones whose off-the-strip occupations I know. Who knows what else some of us do? There must be artists and doctors and businesswomen and real estate agents and financial traders and geneticists and journalists and mail carriers and sociologists and computer programmers and agricultural scientists. (At least, I've met fencers who do all of these things, some of them men, some of them women, not all of them old enough to fence veterans'.) You would think we had nothing in common, and yet these are some of my very best friends.

More than that, these are some of the very few people in the world who actually understand me, at a visceral level. Why is it that we have such a great time at the tournaments, whether going out for dinner and drinks in the evenings or hanging out at the venue all day? It's not just that going out for drinks is fun; hanging out at the venue, as at all sporting events, can be (could be) deathly boring when you're not yourself on the strip. (Certainly, fencing is not--for most non-fencers--one of the great spectator sports.) But we will travel hundreds, sometimes even thousands of miles, pay hundreds of dollars in plane tickets and hotel fees, just to fence five or six pool bouts and, depending on the day, maybe a D-E or two. And it's all worth it, even when, as the majority of us must do given the structure of the event, we lose.

You would think that being beaten as I have been, more than once, by all of these women would make them if not my enemies, at the very least my rivals. And, in a very real sense, as you will remember from some of my posts this summer, they are. These are the opponents whom I have to beat in order to realize my ambition of being a good fencer; they are the ones against whom I am measuring myself. If I lose to some of the younger, stronger, faster men, well, not so surprising, if nevertheless still galling. But if I lose to a woman my age in roughly the same condition, well, it doesn't feel so good. And yet, without them--young men or older women--whom would I fence? I wouldn't even be a fencer without them, because if there is one thing that is clear about fencing even before you first get on the strip, it's that you can't do it alone. You need somebody else who also knows how to fence.

But it goes deeper than that. Fencers have to fence; there's really something addictive about it. Perhaps this is true of all competitive activities, but in fencing, or so I have found, the feelings are particularly raw. There you are, with only your wits and your training, pitting yourself against another human being, your goal being at once to out-think and to out-maneuver him or her. Sometimes you get lucky, but for the most part it's up to how you move, whether you're able to concentrate properly, whether you can control your impulse just to want to hit and get the point, whether you can conquer your nervousness and fear long enough to psyche him or her out. And all the while he or she is trying to do the same to you. It's an incredibly personal engagement, almost as intimate as, well, you fill in the blank. Certainly, there are few things that I do during the day that are as psychologically, never mind physically, engaging. There is good reason that fencing is often called a "conversation of the blades," with the very great difference that in fencing, unlike in verbal conversation, if your attention lags, you know it--pointedly and immediately.

Which means, of course, that fencing is the occasion for no little emotion. Losing--not to put too fine a point on it--hurts. Not (usually) physically, but, as I have said more than once on these pages, mentally and emotionally. The thing is, why? It hurts because you have put yourself on the line and, in some way or other, failed. But it also hurts, at least for me, because I feel that I have somehow let my opponent down: she has given me the opportunity to fence as well as I could, and I haven't. (If I feel like I have, then losing barely hurts at all.) Odd thought, perhaps, but think about the way you feel when you win: aren't you grateful to your opponent for giving you a good fight? Herein lies the great paradox of our relationship. We need each other even as we are trying to beat each other. No wonder things get so complicated, both on and off the strip.

I was so happy that my friend Badger came to practice with me this week. She's a wonderful animal, a great poet as well as a skilled fencer. But it's so hard for me not being as good a fencer as she is. I want to match her, blade for blade, and yet, I can't, at least, not yet. She's been fencing for longer than I have and not only knows more, but has much more experience. And Badger is not the only one: all of the women whom I have met at the tournaments would not be there if they were not at least as addicted to this sport as I am. I want to give them a good fight, not just beat them. The thing is, I know that they understand this and feel it themselves, too. I've watched them fence and know how much of themselves they have poured into it. And there they are, risking just as much as I do whenever they get on the strip. We all end up in tears at one time or another; happily, almost all of us have also had the occasion of winning a bout we never thought we could. Watch our faces when we take our masks off; we have been naked out there, despite being covered in protective "fur."

It's very hard to pretend to be something other than you are while on the fencing strip. You have to commit to it fully, however embarrassing it might be. The strip is no place for pretense in the social sense; you can't hide behind fancy clothes (although some of those colored lames are nice...) or who you know or whether you've been at a big tournament before. There's just you and your opponent, body, mind and weapons. And when you come off the strip, there's only the way you have fenced, no excuses, nothing to protect you from what others have just seen. Whether you've lost or maybe even won, it's at this point when you most need your friends, who will console you for the mistakes that you made and rejoice with you over the touches you got. And who are they? The ones who know what you have just gone through; the ones standing there on the side of the strip waiting their turn to fence; your opponents--and, therefore, your best friends.


  1. Badger says: many thanks for ursine hospitality!



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