Ride 3E

“So your argument,” Coach Dan said, words coming slowly as if weighted with emphasis, “is that the fencing team is now strong enough to not need a captain any longer?”

Rex cleared his throat. “I just don’t think we need — ”

“But you admit we needed a captain two years ago?” Coach Dan continued after sensing Rex’s wordless nod. “You joined the team spring of that year, around the same time as Miles. How many team members did we have back then?”

Bernie sat silently in the back seat as Coach Dan and Rex sorted through a series of names, half of which Bernie recognized. Coach Dan coaxed Rex into stating that the Bark Bay fencing team consisted of nine members when he and Rex joined the team.

“So even before Miles joined,” Coach Dan said in summation, “there were seven team members — one more than we have now. So your argument for not needing a team captain, based on membership, does not ring true.”

Attack right is parried, Bernie thought. The riposte is yes — touch left.

Ride 3D

“When Miles went out for fencing, everybody in school, in town even, found out about fencing.” Rex’ voice sounded confident, his words thrusting firmly. “That’s how we got Jimmy, and Alec, and Vash.”

Coach Dan nodded, his driving eyes still focused. “All good fencers.”

“All of a sudden, we had an honest to God team, enough fencers to compete against Midland, or even the Academy. Following year we lost Alec and Vash, but picked up Annie and Bernie. Miles and Jimmy made it to States, Double-J and me almost made it.”

“So what’s this got to do with having a captain?” But before Coach Dan could launch his riposte, Rex drew back into his counter-parry.

“We needed Miles to be the center of attention back then, draw people to him, to the fencing team. But we don’t need nobody like that no more. We’ve got a team — ”

“Six fencers?”

“– as many as we had last year, more than you had the first year.”

“Hmmm.” Coach Dan rolled his head back until it landed softly on the headrest behind him. To Bernie it seemed he was now switching roles, from opponent to judge, stepping back and calling the action.

Implode

Had an opportunity to compete in that January tournament, but only if I had put up a fight, refused to leave without doing all I could to overcome the mask problem. (My coach said later she probably could have found a spare mask for me to borrow.) Instead, I chose not to fight, decided that if I wasn’t going to feel invited, I’d just withdraw.

In other words, I imploded. Let the pressure of the situation collapse my resolve. The same way I’ve reacted to every tournament I’ve entered, only difference this time was that the implosion didn’t happen after realizing I wasn’t going to have the success I’d assumed — no, this implosion happened before I ever got to that point.

Again, this has been my experience at every fencing tournament I’ve entered. It’s a horrific feeling, something I need to fight the next time I compete.

Ride 3C

Bernie followed his exclamation by leaning forward from the back seat, chin cradled on his folded hands, elbows propped on the two front seats. Lights from the dashboard illuminated the greasy smile on his face.

“I mean, do we even need a captain? I mean, Miles was captain last year, but he was freakin’ Miles, quarterback on the football team, there was no way he was gonna be on the fencing team and not be captain.”

Rex nodded over his left shoulder back at Bernie. “He’s got a point, coach. We needed a captain back when you started the fencing team, and Miles was perfect.”

“Go on.” Coach Dan’s command was filled with reserve and anticipation, reminding Bernie of times he had seen his coach on strip, calmly waiting in en garde position for his opponent to launch an attack, so that he could parry, riposte, score a touch. Bernie sensed this was the verbal equivalent of these moments, Coach Dan patiently listening for Rex and him to present their arguments, waiting for his moment to refute, to respond. Even though the greasy-haired teen knew that his coach had already made up his mind, he appreciated the opportunity for Rex and him to make their arguments, for being allowed to challenge. They might not win this argument, but like a fencer noticing a weakness in a superior opponent’s game during a loss, they might be able to use what they learned during this exchange in a future argument.

Ride 3B

Coach Dan shook his head, his eyes still focused on the two cones of lights illuminating the road in front of his sedan. “I don’t get it. Every other fencer I know would jump at the opportunity to be team captain.”

“So ask one of them.” Rex turned his head, stared out the side of the car.

“I don’t want to ask anyone else. I’m asking you. The rest of the team looks up to you — ”

Rex snapped his head back at Coach Dan.

” — well that too, but you know what I mean.”

“Double-J’s our only senior. We’ve only had fencing at Bark Bay four years, and he’s been on the team every year. He’s also our best fencer.” Coach Dan was familiar with Rex’s arguments, having heard them several times in the past few months. From Double-J.

“Rex, you know what would happen if I made Double-J captain. Annie would go crazy, and if she didn’t snap immediately Double-J would go out of his way to make it happen. Kassie’s terrified of him, so’s Butch. So there’s a good chance if Double-J were captain, we’d lose half the team.”

Rex nodded slowly.

“You, on the other hand — you’re at every pratice. You work with the newbies, make them feel welcome, help them get better. The team responds to you, they see you’re a good person.”

“‘Good person’?” Rex sounded defensive. “Don’t – no. Just – no.”

Hey!

Ulysses – Difficulty, Part 2

There is an abundance of irony in “Ulysses.” Its notorious difficulty is a cause for at least two such points of irony:

The plot is remarkably simple. A university student and middle-aged advertising salesman go about their business on a pleasant summer’s day in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Many unremarkable things happen; there’s a funeral, a parade, a lecture; the salesman meets a young girl by the seaside, their encounter leading to a scene that somehow gets the novel banned in the United States for over a decade; the salesman’s wife has an affair; the principals have a surreal encounter in a brothel — and then everybody goes home. While it’s often difficult to figure out what exactly is happening in “Ulysses,” the truth is that there really isn’t that much that actually does happen.

The most infamous episodes are actually more accessible than most of the novel. During our junior year in high school, my classmates and I were assigned to read Melville’s “Billy Budd.” This being the 1970s, a decade of outspokenness (sometimes appropriate, many times not), we made our displeasure known to our teacher, who brushed off our complaining with an admonition — “you think Melville’s tough, that’s nothing compared to ‘Ulysses.’ It ends with sentences ten pages long!” (I get the feeling our teacher was assigned Joyce’s novel in college, and didn’t enjoy the experience.) She was referring to the concluding episode Molly Bloom’s soliloquy eight ginormous strings of associated words that can only by the largest stretch of imagination be considered sentences requiring over two hours to recite in that Naxos audiobooks I keep raving about. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) This and the episode in the brothel are the two scenes I’ve seen most often cited to support the argument that “Ulysses” is difficult to the point of incomprehensibility. However, I find that once you accept that the surreal environment at the brothel, and learn to focus on Molly’s phrases rather than get hung up on her (lack of) punctuation — both scenes are very readable, certainly more so than the third episode, where I find that trying to follow Stephen Dedalus’ rambling thoughts is like a drunk man trying to read hieroglyphics while riding a motorcycle.

Salvage

So it was decision time. I can’t compete without a regulation mask, the lame attachment on my bib isn’t sufficiently secured, and I’ve just been handed a needle and thread — needle and thread — and told I have 25 minutes (at least I got there early enough to deal with mishaps like these) to sew the lip of the lame attachment onto the bib. About a half hour to salvage my participation in this tournament.

Now my tailoring skills have never been that good, and the thickness of the bib (an otherwise benefical quality, given the frequency of hits to the throat area) posed special challenges. I tried, but five minutes into the task, after multiple finger pricks and even more loses of thread through the needle’s eye, I looked at my progress — thread through two holes, covering perhaps 5% of the area that needed securing — and acknowledged the futility of this task.

Options? My coach was there, I’d seen her as I had been checking in. Go to her, let her know the problem, see if she can come up with a solution? That, or throw a fit in front of the judges — no, wouldn’t work, would only cause irreperable damage to my fencing reputation, such as it is. No, seeking my coach’s advice was the only course of action that made sense.

Walked into the gym, saw her working with her students as they competed in epee. Keep distance . . . Not so big, use your fingers not the arm . . . Riposte, riposte! She was i her element, completely focused on her students, who matched her concentration with a passion that was almost tangible. It was a small gym, typical for most fencing tournaments, narrow walking lanes outside the painted edges of a basketball court. Four strips, the clinking of steel blades intermingled with electronic beeps and the occassional victorious yelp; fencers off-strip, conversing with each other while always keeping their eyes on the bouts in progress; a handful of specatators in folding canvas chairs, mostly parents or siblings of competitors. Everyone focused on the competition.

And me with my silly little wardrobe malfunction. Disrupt the beauty of this moment, everybody focues on competing solely for competition’s sake, to find a solution for my petty little problem? It just didn’t seem right at the time.

So I withdrew. Handed back the needle and thread, said I wouldn’t be competing. The judges were gracious enough to refund my entry fee, and I let my coach know what had happened. And then, I left, feeling as if I had never really been there in the first place.

Ride 3A

October. The third Tuesday.

“Bernie, you mind telling me what you said at practice today, my friend?”

The oily-haired teen in the back set recognized the tone in Coach Dan’s voice, a tone heard often in the Honors English classes he taught, a tone that expected rather than hoped for an answer.

“I said” — he glanced quickly at Rex in the front passenger seat — “that Rex had been working with me a lot lately at fencing practice. And . . . that I was learning a lot from him.”

Coach Dan nodded, his eyes still focused over the steering wheel to the road in front of him. “And I’ve seen the improvement. You’re developing a good parry/riposte game, quick and under control. You couldn’t do that last spring.”

“Bernie’s been working hard at it.”

“It’s kind of fun, actually. Doesn’t seem like work.”

Coach Dan waved his right hand in Rex’s direction. “See? Like I’ve been telling you, that’s what leaders do, tap the potential in their teammates.”

The slender teen in the passenger seat shook his head in response. “Sorry coach. I don’t want to be team captain.”

End of the second ride

In the arc I just completed, I stumbled across two techniques which I want to explore:

Tag phrases. I tried to identify Laura Hutchinson’s dialog by ending most of her sentences with dear. People use tag phrases like these all the time (mine is OK, which I’ve caught myself using at the beginning and end of the same sentence — “OK boys, let’s put our shoes on and get in the car, OK?”), and in fiction they can serve as alternatives to the standard he said or Laura commented. I might identify a tag phrase for each character — I’m thinking Coach Dan’s will be my friend.

Kassie’s indirect dialog. I want Kassie to struggle with communication, and by not quoting her directly, I think I’ve found a way to demonstrate the difficulty she experiences in trying to be understood.

Both techniques have to be used judiciously — I can easily see both becoming tiresome from overuse very quickly — but I like what I did with them the last couple weeks.

Now I’ve got to get Bernie and Rex in a car, perhaps with Coach Dan.

Ride 2M

The Cadillac sped through curtained walls of trees on either side of the road, leafless elms and poplars and oaks looking like giant brown stakes driven in the ground among the dark green of the pines and spruces.

Annie asked her mother about her brother’s vacation schedule at the Academy. Laura Hutchinson replied that his exams would be the first week in December. Kassie listened to their conversation as if she were watching a television show barely interesting enough to make the passage of time bearable.

The curtain of trees on the left suddenly gave way to an open field. Kassie saw a white soccer goal pass, the other goal coming quickly into view, then pass as well. A short wall of trees, then another field. The Cadillac slowed, Laura Hutchinson flicking the turn signal to the left ca-click, ca-click. An arch of iron, suspended on broad stone columns on either side of a paved driveway, asphalt darker than the road from which it led. The Cadillac slowed, pulled into the driveway.

Kassie looked up as they passed under the iron arch. Although Kassie had never been here before, did not know any students who attended the school, she instantly recognized the scripted A, the distinctive emblem of the Academy.

End of second ride