A hit! A very palpable hit!”
–Osric in ‘Hamlet’
William fences. He uses rapier, foil and épée to score points against opponents in the martial art of fencing. I learned this today because instead of simply greeting him at the bus stop, then boarding and sitting near the front and opening my book to read while he went to his accustomed seat in the back, I asked him if he was following the Olympics at all.
He said, “Oh no, I don’t condone that sort of thing.”
“What, athletic excellence and prowess?” I laughed, thinking he was joking.
“Oh, well, that,” William corrected. “No, I mean anything run by the International Olympic Committee.” He went on to explain his view that the IOC is a corrupt body well known for graft and incompetence.
You’ve heard me kvetch about how hard it is to make new friends, and you’ve heard me admit that I don’t really give the obvious avenues very much effort. I find that it is so easy for my inner judge to disqualify people, to scratch them from a list of prospective friends. Examples:
“He’s an engineer so he’s probably overly pragmatic and wouldn’t appreciate the intense intellectual struggles that afflict me. Scratch.”
“He smokes. Scratch.”
“His eyes gloss over just when I’m making my main point. Scratch.”
“Probably a war-mongering conservative. Scratch.”
“Definitely an entitled, holier-than-thou Sierra Club environmentalist. Scratch.”
“Doesn’t eat anything with glutens. Scratch.”
How did I ever make any friends when I was younger? It was because children start out less judgmental, and their requirements for friendship are less strident. In Jeff I found an ally during my earliest years of trying to adjust to what seemed to me a hostile world outside the nest of home. We got to know each other on the bus ride home from school, recognizing a shared apprecitation for (what we would never at that age have called) the nobler ideals; principle, heroic bravery, dramatic narrative, epic quest. Later on in Junior High, Kip felt safe; I knew he had my back, he made me laugh, and was refreshingly smart and original. I don’t even remember meeting him. I think he had befriended Jeff first. I didn’t put it to a vote in my head, I just liked him and found myself at his house eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi. As for Chris, Bill, and Mark, the friends on my street that predated my school years — they were my friends simply because I had run outside and found them standing there trying to figure out how to dam the storm ditch. Common enterprise, kidly energy to burn. We ran like gazelles and climbed like chimps, wreaked havoc on infrastructure. Friendship was never asked for, it was assumed.
Today, I think my assumption is that people will be a lot of trouble. Friendship seems like the long-odds. And in a way it is. People are busy by the time they grow up. Most of them have also been careful, unlike me, to retain the closest of their oldest friends through various annual rituals such as hallowed sporting events (bowl games, etc.) and school or church organizations that keep them involved in each other’s lives. Socioclast that I am, I long ago shattered all those constructs that had any claim on me, such as the church bodies of my youth, and made sure I didn’t stumble into any memberships or associations during my college days. Lord knew, the dormmates, housemates, classmates and workmates in my life were enough without potentially finding new people to befriend in say, an association of persons interested in the preservation of old buildings. My mistake was in underappreciating — missing entirely — the role those group activities and interests play over the long haul in keeping people in friendships.
I don’t condone that
sort of thing.”
William rents a house one street over from us, a spiffy little Victorian house with a turret and cakey trim. He rides the 8:25 bus, which I only ride if I’ve missed the 8:05. We’ve spoken and jested before, and we’d exchanged names at one point. Months later I remembered his name and he did not remember mine (“He didn’t remember my name — probably self-centered and dismissive. Scratch.”), claiming he was lousy with names. He can’t yet be forty years old, but he dresses in colorful striped vests and antique-looking shirts, wears a watch on a chain, and in cold weather dons a long dark overcoat and sometimes even white gloves. He is bearded and stout, and if it weren’t for his long hair tidily pulled back into a pony-tail, he would look like a railroad baron in his prime. He is extremely intelligent, a little aloof and distant, but entertaining to listen to you if you can roll with a little bluster and hyperbole. I liked him right away, but something always made me want to keep a safe distance. While he likes to talk, I never sensed that he could listen equally well.
But a couple times recently including today, William has approached the bus stop and said, “Hi Matt.” Call me a softy, but it seemed like the guy was trying. Despite a known inability to remember names, he had logged mine in and was willing to use it. I always greet people by name. Using a person’s name makes them feel validated, like you actually notice the difference between their existence and someone else’s. These days, however, few people use your name as you greet them, especially among younger generations, who seem to consider the practice formal or even stilted. Anyway, my nickel-core heart was charmed and moved by William’s effort.
Instead of sitting and reading, which I really felt compelled to do, I went and sat in the back of the bus with William, who continued the conversation by admitting that he might watch the Olympics if they had fencing, though at the same time registering his disapproval of the criteria by which the sport is increasingly judged. With a little more prompting from me, he went on.
“Well, first of all, it’s all electrified now, which is a sin against God, ” he said. According to William, the electrification of the weapons changes not only how a match (called a bout) is judged, but also consequently how people use those weapons; it affects their form. “The foil is very flexible, it is a little like a whip at the end, and now people will reach around your arm and tag you just slightly using the whipping of the foil. If I get the slightest touch on you it’s registered electronically as a point.” That’s not a travesty in itself, William said, but what it means is that people start valuing speed over control. I’m not sure why this would naturally follow, and maybe I didn’t understand him correctly, but that’s what I thought he was saying.
A moment later William was describing the concept of right of way in fencing, whereby one player (player? combatant? épéeist?) may not go on the offensive while the other player is on the offensive. You have to wait until their offensive move is done before you can assume the right of way.
I said that sounded awfully British, a merriment he noted before continuing to acknowledge that there are certain moments, defined by the rules, when you may take the right of way from your opponent — such as when he or she has executed a move called a fleche, which is an overextending move sometimes used to good advantage if the element of surprise accompanies it — and begin your own offensive, but it’s not supposed to be a free-for-all. But he said people now will try to keep the right of way so that they can continue making an attack. Or maybe it was vice versa. In any case, William was saying that members of this newer school of fencing are frustrating to play against because they are chaotic — the give and take is not there — and that electronification has encouraged this artless style.
Speed and strength are the
things you should fall back
on — and only briefly —
when you make a mistake.”
“They put themselves in positions that they never would if their opponent were holding a real sword,” said William at one point. “They get off balance. It looks really dramatic, but it’s not the same as classical fencing. You see these photographs of people lunging, completely stretched out, completely exposed. That may work against someone playing the same way, but if you’re playing that way against someone who knows what they’re doing, you can’t win. Well, once in a while you win, but not often. You’re relying on speed and strength, but really, speed and strength are the things you should fall back on — and only briefly — when you make a mistake, when your form fails.
“The closest metaphor I can come up with is that it’s like a debate. There’s a sort of dialog back and forth, where I’ll say ‘what would you do if I did this?’” He flicked his wrist just slightly to indicate a move of the foil. “And they’ll say ‘well, I’d counter this way.’” He gestured a countering move. “‘Ah, but what if I then did this?’ ‘Well, then I’d respond this way.’ ‘Oh, but maybe that’s exactly what I wanted you to do, and now you’re overextended and I can do this.’”
I was fascinated by the whole thing. I really enjoy listening to someone who knows something thoroughly. William was expressing dismay at changes in fencing that are so subtle that the uninitiated like myself would not be able to notice them. I would see someone overextending themself and becoming off balance, but would be mesmerized by their speed and not realize that mastery lay instead in the subtlest flicker of the well-balanced, classically inspired opponent maintaining better form.
I always say, you learn something new every day if you’re not careful. What I learned today is that sometimes, the early maneuverings and positionings of male bonding are a little like fencing. One combatant approaches and says, “how would you respond if I call you by your name?”, and maybe the other says “well, I might sit near you and engage you in conversation.”
The risk is always the same, that you will overextend and the opposing player will strike. But maybe an occasional point scored against you is the price of a worthwhile match.