The Good Stuff

One day, I am going to be able to write a post about what it feels like to win at a fencing tournament. That day is not today. Perhaps, indeed, that day will never come. I will keep going to tournaments until I am too ridiculously old to compete, and I still will never had have the sensation of having won every D-E that I fenced.* So why do I even try? Because quitting would be even more painful? Because I really still do have hope that one day it will be different? What on earth gives me the confidence to believe that it ever could? Look at me: 44 years old, only been fencing for six years as of this coming summer. Even against the women my age, it is actually probably hopeless. Sure, they are not necessarily that much stronger or fitter than I am, but many of them have been fencing since they were in high school or college. There is no way that I will ever beat them on experience, and I don't seem to be able to tap into the luck.

My husband is sick beyond words of my coming home feeling like this. Not that I blame him. It can't be pleasant seeing the woman you love in tears week after week for something as stupid as a sport. I wish for his sake that I could quit. Think of the money we would save, maybe even enough to have a proper holiday together some place nice. And the evenings together at home, without me haring off to practice every other night. I could quit now, just like that. Vow never to go back to the club. And yet, somehow, even feeling as sick as I do this evening after losing every one of my pool bouts (three of them 4-5, just to give you an idea of how sick I really feel) and my second D-E (I won the first so that I didn't come in dead last, but then lost the second--no surprise--to the number one seed), I know I am going to be getting in the car again on Tuesday night and going back downtown for practice. WHY?

I wish I knew. It's like a disease, this need to compete. Or a drug. Because, of course, winning is great, a real jolt of endorphins or whatever they are. I'm addicted. I'm addicted to the feeling of competence, to the sense of knowing what to do in a complicated situation, to the testosterone rush of dominating another person--yes, even in something so mind-numbingly stupid as a sport. I won't save the world with my fencing; I won't even help other people, except, of course, to feed the need my opponents likewise apparently have for competition, otherwise they wouldn't be there on the strip challenging me. So there we are, junkies all, searching for that elusive high. I hate that some of my clubmates seem to have found the route to the good stuff more quickly than I have (the one that I lost to in my second D-E started fencing only two years ago--and he's already a C).** Why do they get it and I don't? It's not fair.

I could cut myself. I'm told it is very effective at relieving feelings like this. Or maybe a scourge. I wonder where the Dominican nuns got theirs. Oh, right, that was the thirteenth century; I'm probably out of luck. Throwing and breaking things sometimes helps. There's a reason, after all, that we have the rule about not throwing your mask at a tournament; it's just too tempting. But, then again, unless it's something fairly valuable (like one's glasses) it doesn't always work either. Time tends to do the trick--at least, dull the pain--but that's just the thing: it takes time, and I want relief now. The problem is, there really is no substitute for the feeling of winning--or, in my case, not losing. Winning means I avoid feeling like this; it's a reprieve from the expected misery.

If only I could find pleasure enough in the little victories that I did have today: three pool bouts to 4-5 (I only lost by one point in each); one successful D-E (15-3 at that); getting my second D-E into the second period even though I wasn't really trying. Indeed, I had no intention of trying to attack as I knew I didn't have a hope of hitting my opponent (very tall young man, extremely long arms, impossible to land an attack before his counter), so instead I went completely limp, almost begging him to hit me and get it over with so that I could leave and get something to eat. And yet, passive as I tried to be, my opponent couldn't just hit me. I lost 1-15, but it was by no means to fifteen straight attacks.***

But it's not enough losing slowly or by only one point. I want to win. It's not that I don't have the skills; I know I do. Nor will I accept that it is inevitable that I lose simply because the majority of my opponents are teenage guys. I've seen veteran women beat plenty of teenage guys. Giving up would be to accept that being older and a woman actually means that I'm not as good as the young men. At least: as the young men who do not have the experience that I do. And yet, they do have something that I don't, otherwise they wouldn't all beat me all the time. I don't want to be a guy; that isn't what this is about. Nor do I want to be young again; I am still young. I regret not having had the opportunity to start learning this sport when I was younger, but I doubt very much that I would have done any better at age 20 even if I had started at 14. The problem is not my age or my sex; it's my head. And I've been pretty much stuck with that all my life.

It's actually taken two sessions to write this blog post (apologies if you read the first part already). My family dragged me off (at my suggestion) when I was in the middle so that we could see the new Star Trek movie. I'm sure you've seen it. Wasn't it great?! The actors did an incredible job evoking the characters from the original series, and there were all sorts of nice touches throughout--including the reference to Sulu's fencing. But did you notice how much of the movie--not to mention, the previews for all of the other movies--was about breaking stuff? Kirk getting into all those fist fights; whole planets being destroyed; ships breaking up all over the place. Does everyone get high off of breaking stuff? Okay, now I'm just getting pissed off again, wishing there was some way I could change the way that I fenced today, because, of course, what I want is what everyone wants: to be the hero who makes the difficult decisions and stays focused under pressure, able to solve complex tactical problems when everything around him is breaking up.**** Instead, I'm the loser, the one who can't.

My head hurts and it's late. And I still don't know what to do. Losing hurts. Quitting hurts. Winning is too elusive. Nothing in any of this really matters; it's only a stupid sport. And yet, its only point is to pretend that it matters, otherwise why do it at all? Kinda like life, don't you think?

*I have in fact, come to think of it, had the experience of winning all my pool bouts, which is cold comfort when one then goes on to lose a D-E, let me tell you.
**Just to put things in perspective, it took me four years of fencing to earn my D and I haven't managed to renew it yet. One great day out of six years of competition. Some record, eh?
***Again, just to put things in perspective, my opponent was one of the fencers from my own club, against whom I have fenced fairly regularly. The best I've ever done against him is 10 touches out of 15. I usually get maybe 4 or 5. I wasn't going to win that bout short of a miracle, but I was surprised it took him as long as it did to finish, given how passively I was fencing.
****More perspective: the tournament was the first I'd ever actually fenced on my own campus and many of the fencers were former students of mine. It shouldn't matter, but it did.


  1. You probably wouldn't guess it from talking to me, but I'm a person who believes strongly in "breaking things" as a part of the natural human condition, heh.
    That being said--and I don't know that this will really help, per se, but still--I don't think that feelings like this ever necessarily go away.
    My major attitude, at least superficially, is that every bout is a learning experience. I focus on that because, well, it's true, for one; but I feel like it's sometimes the only way I can accept defeat. But it gets to the point, sometimes, where that becomes impossible. My atrocious performance at Divisionals, for example. I forgot how to fence halfway through pools, apparently; then, in DEs, I tanked against a fencer whom (despite believing that I am relatively modest when it comes to my developing fencing abilities) against I find defeat both unacceptable and humiliating. Even though I don't think I'm a particularly effective fencer. Even though I've only been doing this for...what, two and a half years.
    It's hard to remember, sometimes, how small a period of time that is on any meaningful level. Because I feel I should be better than that. I work my ass off three or four nights a week, compete almost every chance I get, and in my head I ought to, need to be better than that. So when stuff like this happens, and keeps happening--I haven't been able to figure that part out.
    Maybe it gets easier with experience. But I see people who've been fencing for ten, fifteen years who are still hitting--and getting stuck in--that rut of anger and disappointment. Every time I get there I'm absolutely terrified that maybe this is it: maybe this is all I can do. And it's a deeply paralysing fear. I ask myself, if I were in better physical condition, if I were a cardio beast or lost weight, would it fix my problems? It could make me more agile, or give me a faster arm, or a better athletic edge--but at the same time, I know that's not what's really holding me back from becoming a better fencer. There's something in my head that I just can't shake--I try to go one bout, one touch at a time, but there's only so many touches against you can take before you just don't know if it's worth it any more.
    Sorry for making this so long--but when I read this, I was surprised at how much of my own mental process I found reflected within it.
    Maybe I will take this and build a blog off of it. (I have one, but they're only poems from the past year of classes, cathartic in their own right but not quite the same.) I feel like "talking" it out might do me a world of good--I couldn't really even begin sorting this out until I saw it written out in someone else's words, really. Go figure.
    But you're not alone in this. I know we're not really in the same situation in terms of life in general, but I feel like that's something worth mentioning.
    Sorry again for making this so long, and hope things start sorting themselves out soon :)


  2. Thanks, Stefanie. Believe me, I know where you're coming from! It does help to know that we're not alone in feeling this way; that's one of the things that makes it so painful, after all: feeling so abandoned by...what? Post for today ("My Fencing Genius") is kind of about this. As a writer, too, I'm sure you've been through what Gilbert is describing. And, no, it doesn't get any easier, even with writing. I still hit black periods when nothing seems to work. Gilbert is also good on this feeling; we all dread it, and yet we still have to write. Maybe this is the lesson we have to learn: keep going, even when it seems we can't.

  3. Thanks for pulling another poem out of me, FB. See "Obsession" at --the closest I can come to answering your question of "why?"

    A dimension I don't think you have mentioned in your writing: the horrible embarrassment I feel after losing my temper in practice. Even though I am (relatively) restrained compared to, oh, say, my coach (who, at competitions, is a black card waiting to happen) I still feel acutely that I should be able to bear my disappointment with myself with grace and humility. And, you know, good sportsmanship.

    Anyway, see what you think of the poem.


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