Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Trypanophobia: Needle Phobia, fencing and my blood work

After a visit to the emergency room yesterday and my doctor this morning regarding heart problems and more, everyone was agreed on one thing: That I needed a full series of blood tests, and soon. However, what no one had yet faced seriously was the one thing which prevented that bloodwork from being taken: namely that I suffer from what many would consider an extreme case of Trypanophobia; a recognized condition in the DSM IV, but more commonly known as “Needle Phobia.”

The real problem is athough 10% of the population suffer from some aspect of Needle Phobia, medical practitioners rarely take it seriously, are never trained to deal with it and do not have the adequate medical equipment or procedures available to treat someone with it. My doctor (or rather my soon to be ex-doctor) after 12 months of repeatedly telling him my severity of Trypanophobia and the two ways I had found of overcoming it; basically did the old, “You just don’t want to have a blood test so buck up and don’t come back to my office until you get that bloodwork done.”

That’s an attitude I run into a lot, and it is stupid. You know why? Because Needle Phobia kills. Dr. James G. Hamilton, the first doctor to extensively research Needle Phobia in peer reviewed journals did so because his own father was one of the 23 medically reported deaths from just ONE of the ways needle phobics can die from getting a needle. His father went in for a routine blood test and suffered the most common Needle Phobic response, a rapid drop of blood pressure (these are people who often faint) which sent him into cardiac arrest. Half of all needle phobics fall into this category. I don’t (wish I did). Hamilton has recorded 63 different symptoms which can occur with needle phobia including: "transient psychosis, combativeness, random motor movements, rolling eyeballs, involuntary loss of bowel or bladder control, seizures, clenching of the jaw muscles, loss of responsiveness and transient coma."

There are however hundreds if not thousands of deaths or permanent injuries from the other three types of Needle Phobia, primarily because in a severe case, treatment will always be avoided all together (including such things as dying rather than take an insulin injection). Hamilton with Lamb interviewed 1500 people with needle phobias, finding that, instead of “bucking up” many people would simply go into extreme fight or flight responses including: "the woman who refused to have a Cesarean section because she didn't want the injected anesthesia; the man who jumped out of a second-story window at a hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., rather than have blood drawn for testing; the patient who tried to punch the nurse who was preparing to give him a shot, ran outside and swung a branch at the pursuing nurse until he passed out. He could remember none of this when he came to a few minutes later."

There are four types of Needle Phobia: Vaso-Vagal (5% of population) which is a passive response in which blood pressure drops, sometimes to lethal levels. This however is the easiest of the types to overcome. The second is known as Associative (3% of pop) in which the approaching procedure produces abnormal anxiety and is usually created by a bad needle experience. This can be helped by different forms of therapy but it can also be created at any age with one very bad experience (I know a person who developed it after three nurses tried 16 times to put in an IV line). Resistive (2% of the population) is the third, which is characterized by high blood pressure, adrenaline and a “fight or flight” response. The most important aspect to treating this type is to make the patient feel IN CONTROL and build trust. The fourth kind is Hyperalgesic (1% of the population) in which due to inherited pain sensitivity, needles are excruciating painful for these people. This can be overcome with using different anesthetics including topical and oral. There is also an associated disorder in which one is fearful of ALL invasive procedures. There is also “Vicarious Needle Phobia” where a person can be fine having a needle done on them, but will sympathetically respond when it is done to a loved one (like fainting). As for needle phobia, some research shows it is heredity, some an acquired phobia, some research suggests a combination of the two.

Unfortunately, my needle phobia combines the three rarest types along with an invasive phobia. Everyone has different pain threshold. Some people, like my father, can have dental surgery without an anesthetic or drive a bus for eight hours while having an infected internal organ (he drove his bus to the hospital, told the passengers another driver would be along soon, and then was rushed by the ER team to immediate emergency surgery). I am the other extreme. All of my long term GP’s have stated that I have the lowest pain threshold they have EVER encountered and am acutely sensitive to whatever goes on inside my body. What that means in the case of needles, for example, is that if a doctor needs three vials of blood, once the needle is inside of me, I am usually restrained and screaming every time he attaches another vial from the pain of the needle moving inside my vein. That is if with my and Linda’s help he gets past the “fight or flight” response because I have dealt enough with the Associative fear to actually make it inside a room where blood can be taken.

I have worked many times over the years to try and find a way to deal with my needle phobia. As you may have noticed from some of my other blogs, I am not a person who likes giving in to anything (even gravity, damn you, I WILL fly!). But from a few early experiences I knew that once a needle enters the room, Beth is no longer in the building. Instead there is a bundle of complete and irrational terror which will do anything to escape. When I was in second grade my friend at the desk next to me showed me his new clickable pencil shaped like a syringe. Two seconds and several desks knocked over later, my screams of terror convinced him (and the teacher) not to ever bring that pencil to school again. Until recently, I would try every few years several times with a “new therapy” to get a blood test. Nothing ever worked. One of the major problems was that my fight or flight reaction was so severe that almost no amount of medication would show a noticeable effect.

Things changed after I moved to Britain and found a doctor (Dr. E), an extraordinary man, who agreed that as long as I would keep trying, we would find a way to get a blood sample. He like virtually every health professional before and since had genuinely never seen anything like me (When you are screaming blue murder, crying, begging, your body arched backward off the bed while throwing off five grown individuals who are trying to hold you down because you are “trying” to restrain youself and get this blood test, medical personnel tend to stare, blink a lot and go, “Ohhhhh, you have a needle PHOBIA!”). After two failed attempts in his office he decided the most important thing was to prove to ourselves that it COULD be done. The plan was he gave Linda (my partner) pills to knock me out completely, then she would call him, he would come to our house and without a tourniquet take a blood sample, all while I remained unconscious. Well, we took his pills, along with some valium and washed it down with liquor and I was out like a light. He arrived, Linda told him what I had taken, he muttered something dosages and getting arrested and all went well until the needle entered my arm. The pain shot me awake with a scream of “I can feel it!” Linda, already anticipating this possibility was across me, holding me down while I screamed. He got the blood sample, I fell back into unconsciousness and that was the first time in 14 years of trying that I had gotten a blood test. After knowing it WAS possible, I began to get regular blood tests from him, eventually working out a protocol where I would have 20 mg of diazepam (valium), Linda would hold my arm and stand beside me, I would listen to my music on the headphones, use a topical anesthetic on my arm. When ready I would count down, then give the nod to Linda and the doctor, completely unseen and sometimes unfelt, would draw the blood. And I started to clear up a lifetime backlog of surgeries, dental work and other medical procedures.

Of course, every time we went for a procedure, we would explain to the medical staff at that location all over again, be told to “suck it up” or, “everything will be fine” or “We know all about people with needle phobia” only to arrive to have them give me 10 mg of diazepam and think that was going to solve everything. Luckily to Dr. E and Linda, we were well stocked. With one specialist, I had to go twice for a procedure which required me to go under, as depending on what was found, it could take multiple hours. Only they couldn’t get me sedated enough to start the anesthetic. In situations like this Linda ends up taking charge as she tells doctors and nurses how to proceed. “Give her these” she said, giving them more diazepam; having already discussed possible lethal doses with Dr. E. We went up to 60 mg before I could be restrained enough for the anesthetic, then my body overcame the anesthetic and woke up DURING the procedure. The next time I had to go in there, they must have doubled or quadrupled the dosage: they took it seriously, I was out like a light and there was no problem.

Thanks to the one anesthesiologist, who with advance notice, actually researched the subject, and ensured that I got a Teflon IV injection tube: no needle. And she used pills AND nitrous oxide before trying to inject me. Often Needle Phobics are the people who either invent or understand how to use technology to help their problem which to them is life threatening. Dr. Keith Lamb, a co-author on a book about Needle Phobia with expert Dr. James Hamilton is himself a needle phobic. In 2004 he twisted and tore his knee but was unable to get it operated on for three months until he could find an anesthesiologist who would work with his needle phobia. The needle came into use in 1853 but now it is slowly getting the boot. Thanks to Pfizer, there is inhalable insulin. Mark Allen has invented a “micro-needle” the width of only two hairs. Air injection, patches and ultrasound are other ways that are starting to avoid the need for needles, at least in delivering medication. There is not yet another way of getting blood.

Ever since my episode at the Battle of Seattle, the need for me to get extensive medical tests has growing immediate. However, my doctor, though outwardly sympatric, had still not acted to find out if any one, including himself, was willing to work with a needle phobic patient since the heart/collapsing problem was first reported to him four weeks ago. I had another “incident” the day after a fencing workout last week and Monday, after fencing, noticed that my heart rate was not going down. Hours after fencing, when I went to bed, with sedatives to slow my heart, it was still beating at 130 beats per minute (my resting heart rate should be 55-65, a slow jog should be about 130). Tuesday morning, it was still over 110 beats per minute. I called a medical help line and they said to go into emergency. At emergency 18 hours after fencing, my heart rate was still over 100. However, it was stable and as I was seeing my doctor this morning, it was decided he should do the referrals to heart specialists. Thus full circle, I am back this morning facing my doctor who tells me, “You are starting to annoy me.”, refers to my competitive fencing as “that lifestyle choice”, tells me not to fence, then tells me that I should try repeat the experience (passing out during fencing) so ER can “record the experience before handing me the forms to go to a lab with the message: don’t come back till it is done (Protocol for dealing with a person suffering from needle phobia includes having a crash cart nearby in case of arrest – I have never seen this along with any other of the protocols for needle phobia ever followed).

I am now freaked and confused, since going hours at a time with 130 beats per minute worries the ER, but not my doctor. And until I get the blood tests, my non Dr. E (new doctor here in Canada) will not send me on for a holter, echo or other heart tests. Enter Linda, wonder woman, who in 20 minutes on the phone finds a woman in a pediatric (Childrens) outpatient unit where people HAVE dealt with needle phobia, they will do the test and today, for some reason, the waiting room is empty. We grab a ride out to the hospital, having slathered topical anesthetic on my arm (it’s called EMLA, I believe God made it just for me) and 25 mg of diazepam in my blood.

We are soon ushered into a room by a no nonsense female nurse/technician with an eastern European accent who has probably a trail of terrified kids in her wake. Actually being in the room with a needle has put me into shock and I am curled up on the bed teeth chattering. “Look at you! You are worse than the children” The woman tells me leaning over. “Here, you want your teddy bear?” She asks very sarcastically, offering me a stuffed toy. This would be very emotionally painful if I hadn’t already heard the likes a few dozen times before (it was a woman like her, who tried to take a shortcut by repeatedly attempting to put an IV into my hand that regressed about 2 years of Dr. E’s work – my screams were heard through the entire floor of the hospital. She never got it in). I rouse myself from my panic to bat the stuff toy away and say to her, “Look at you, you are incredibly condescending.” She left with a huff and a REAL professional came in, Nurse D. Nurse D was patient, and calm and worked with me through the various stages, including where I needed to have her just by me so I can try to relax and trust her, that she wouldn’t try to force a needle into me while I was still (which is often attempted). She had a special ultra small Teflon needle and tube system which meant once in, the tube wouldn’t move as she changed vials, which meant I wouldn’t be able to feel it once it had gone in. At one point Nurse D said to Linda, “Maybe next time she could have a valium before coming in to calm her down.” Linda dryly replied, “She’s had five.”

“Oh? Oh!!!” (they start to “get it”)

Meanwhile the eastern European nurse had gotten impatient, decided to try and speed things up by coming bac, grabbing my wrist and holding it down. I am getting blood taken from my “Epee Arm” so I lift her with ease which terrifies her and she leaves again. (Linda kept saying, “Just relax, she won’t come back” – afterward she told me when I resisted, my veins disappeared entirely as my tendons and muscles rippled against the skin). Nurse D is standing there with her kit. I am listening to my music and I start the countdown, gripping my other hand into a fist as tears start trickling down my cheeks. I am determined to do this, but Oh God, I wish, I wish I didn’t have to. I count down from 10 and then tell Linda, Yes. And Nurse D starts to work. I am holding my body as stiff as a board and screaming, “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes”, hanging on as long as I can (about 30 seconds) before I can’t take it anymore and am wailing and crying and begging them to take it, oh please, take it out. And then it is done. I am sobbing and thanking Nurse D. And she promises that she will do ALL my bloodwork in the future. The whole episode took 15-20 minutes. It was, Linda and I agreed, a medium experience. Not the best, but certainly not the worse. Somewhere to start. And now, I know, I can get bloodwork done in Canada (we were discussing having to fly back to the UK to get Dr. E to go it).

Since most people in the medical field don’t have it and deal with needles all the time, people like me are un-understandable. This is because people as bad as me never go to a hospital. I have been in large cities where I was the first extreme needle phobic person EVER that any anesthesiologist has seen or worked with or even heard about. Most surgeons, specialists or doctors come back and say, “Knowing what I know now, I never would have believed (X prodedure) would have been possible.” (and then they go over and thank Linda; rightly so).

For those who have not met someone with needle phobia or cannot imagine it, I hope this helps. If you cannot and think me "a wimp", let me put it this way: I have had a man hold a loaded gun on me, I have fallen off a cliff and ripped my leg open to the bone, I have been in a car skidding out of control into a intersection on a red light, I have faced what I thought was my imminent death, I have been in a car where the driver drove into oncoming traffic, and I have been lost and alone at night in sub zero weather as it snowed without provisions and I have never once come close to the terror I get from being in a room with a needle or that moment I tell Linda “Yes.” Trypanophobia really exists, so spread the word, particularly if you are in the medical field.

Monday, January 29, 2007

lesbian lolita goth girls, intersex romances and boy-love

While trying to work myself up to doing some serious research/writing, I am watching a music video of the film Kamikazi Girls to the song Teenagers by My Chemical Romance. It truly is a fine way to spend a morning and reminds me that if you are a lolita girl, a goth girl, a goth lolita girl or a lesbian goth lolita girl and you haven’t seen this film then you are missing probably the most amazing romance/friendship film between a headbutting, gambling, little too passionate biker girl and a girl who won’t do gym class because exercise isn’t “Rococo” (her term for ultra lolita girl who has transformed her life as a slave to fashion). Or rather two VERY strong independent girls who no one else really understands, including each other - but they do figure out that they are better together for reasons no one, include themselves really understands. (Youtube in its understanding of lesbians and goths have deleted the account for this video - so I can't have it embedded, but you can still see it HERE)

Are you LGBTI, living in North America and feel that the only time reflections of people like you show up in popular culture is when they are serial killers being hunted down by various straight detectives on TV? Then turn to manga or anime. For some reason, particularly for females, there is a giant slice of culture out there in anime/manga land that just doesn’t exist in North America. For example, last week I went to the library and asked the youth librarian to show me some of the books in Juvenile Fiction on teenage girls in sports. “Uhhhhh” The librarian showed me about a dozen with guys before saying, “There really aren’t any.” What? It seems there are plenty of books about “secrets and sleepovers” for 15-6 year old girls, but the cupboard is bare when it comes to females doing what more and more of what they ARE doing (getting into athletics). Never fear, with anime and manga, just name your interest and strong female role models will appear - Soccer: Angel Cup, Softball: Princess Nine, Basketball: Girl got Game, Volleyball: Crimson Hero; or are you just tall and kinda butch looking and want a straight romance on the difficulties of being a tall butchy teenage girl who is in love with a smaller more delicate guy: welcome to Never Give Up. Or if you are a urban north American gay guy going to school and want an action type romance there is the new series Offbeat (book two just released).

The new manga series which blew me away is called, Day of the Revolution which has only two volumes (both printed in English) which is...wait for it....a romance drama for intersex females. Seriously. Total Genius! The first series starts with Kei, a underdeveloped boy who hangs with a gang of four guys as their sort of mascot before hitting late puberty and fainting. After a visit to the doctor is it revealed that Kei is intersex and biologically female. With a family discussion, Kei decides that she will live her life as Megumi, along with the help of her family and the family of the doctor, whose daughter Mokoto takes her under her wing for guidance. Six months later she is back at school and not long after the “Gang of four” figure out that she was Kei, and (this is part where you know it is a fictional romance), they are not only fine with it but each reveal that they were attracted to Kei anyway and start fighting for dating times. Megumi is having problems emotionally dealing with the new romantic scenerios and finds guys a bit MUCH, which is fine for her mentor and guide Mokoto, since Mokoto is a lesbian and thinks Megumi would be a great girlfriend (this is how you know this isn't a story written in NORTH AMERICA). The story ended abruptly but part II was written due to POPULAR DEMAND (go Japan!). In part II, Megumi finds a relationship that works for her, becomes more comfortable with her femininity and learns how to deal with that borderline with guys between friends, romance and BACK OFF! So if you are an female with intersex issues out there who feels that there aren’t any books which cover your experiences and have a bit of romantic drama too, then I would definitely pick these up. I would also recommend it for anyone who is a little tired of the same-old romances ("not another cowboy!") and wants a little diversity (and humour) with their romance.

Apparently, Shojo (or female) manga have always featured LGBT characters, even in it’s postwar beginnings, as Ribbon Knight had as it’s main character a person with both male and female spirits. Gay and “alternative” romances are common manga genre, "Some Japanese women no longer believe in love between men and women as superior since they see the reality after
the happy ending," says Dr. Masami Toku. I guess nothing like a bad straight relationship to make you romantize being gay, eh? (If only this were true, US divorce rates show we would be awash with gay romantic TV shows) In Thailand, “boy love” manga, or manga which cover either the lives and discrimination of being gay or different gay romances is a growing trend in which up to five new stories are released a week and “In Thailand, more than 80% of readers are teenage girls and women in their early 20s” So fear not, reading gay romances is cool, even for straights!

"Nok, 17, said she started reading boy-love comics a few years ago after becoming bored with typical heterosexual romance comics, which she said are too repetitive and saccharine.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with us reading boy-love comics. They're fun, mysterious and have beautiful drawings. It doesn't mean that we have to become gays or lesbians too. I also think it's good because it makes me feel that I can better accept homosexuals and see them as a part of society," Nok said."

Couldn’t have said it better.

Jpeg 1 -

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Week's End: from breasts to massage and back again

A few of our conversations from Friday; snapshot from a typical North American household:

#1: Kate Winslet’s breast

Beth: “I watched part of Ricky Gervias’ series Extra today, the first episode had Kate Winslet having a “girl talk” with a film extra teaching her how to “talk dirty” on the phone.”

Linda: “Mmmmmm?”

B: “It was interesting, I never really knew what “talking dirty” was. It’s saying things like, “Oh, I'm all naked and I’m rubbing myself.””

L: Has look on her face which asks, “So this is “important research” is it?”

B: “Anyway, it ended with Kate Winslet grabbing her breast and flicking her tongue in and out.”

L: “Uh huh....”

B: “Well...uh...anyway....I liked it.”

#2: Beth’s job prospects

B: “Business Week magazine says 75% of employers google their interviewees. Do you think they googled you for the manager’s job at the government?”

L: “No, I think they are too busy to bother googling anyone.”

B: “What would they find if they googled you anyway? Not much.”

L: “No, they’d find lots, like all those classes I taught (on international business).”

B: “Know what my employeer would find if they googled me? A guide to masturbation. Do you think that would help me get the job?”

L: “Uh....It depends what job you were applying for.”

B: “I think the only qualifications I have left are to sell sex toys.”

#3 : Erotic getaway

B: “So Seattle wasn’t really the erotic getaway was it?

L: “No. I think because of all know.”

B: “Tournaments. Yeah. Though we did go to Victoria Secret.”

L: “Yeah.”

B: “And I gave you that foot massage, remember, with the massage oil.”

L: “That was nice.”

B: “Except afterward you just kind of lay there....and then went to sleep.”

L: “I was really tired.”

B: “I know, I was just know...reciprocity?”

L: Perks up, “Oh, are you saying you want a massage this weekend?”

B: “This weekend? Oh...uh, I dunno, I'm really tired....let me think about it.”

Linda sighs.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Battle of Seattle Sunday II: The DE's; two miracles and 45 seconds

I found out that for my DE (Direct Elimination) I had been paired with Jackie Johnson, the woman from Alaska who not only helped me with pain pills but had given me the bottle of water I was re-hydrating with. “I did not want to get you.” I told her. And I meant it. When I had done warm ups at the September competition, a few points with her taught me that she was tricky, she knew binds, and that she was a very technical fencer. I also didn’t want her because before the competition I had been telling her about some of the medical problems I had been having over the last few months; in particular this mystery problem during extreme fencing which causes me to lose mental focus, dizziness, ability to control my extremities followed by collapse. It was becoming increasingly obvious, at least to me, as I searched for the DE strip, that something was significantly wrong with me physically. I worried it was the same problem which caused me to lose consciousness on the strip a few weeks before and I hoped that Jackie had not noticed and would not consider going easy on me or that I was trying to play mind games on her.

There was another DE on our strip, which Jackie and I would follow, so I went to go see Linda against Sutton. I had told Linda that Sutton would not attack (as she never did me or anyone else I ever saw) and gave her suggestions on what to do. But when I get to the strip, I find Sutton aggressively attacking Linda again and again. I am not sure why Sutton changed her strategy; perhaps it was because she was confidant Linda could not capitalize on the openings she was creating in her attacks or whether it was just one too many McClung’s in one day but this was a Sutton I had never seen before. Linda was hanging on in counter attacks but generally losing points 2-1. I could see Linda was tired as her tip had fallen out of line and she wasn’t retreating before Sutton’s attacks. My heart went out to her and frankly I wanted to jump on the strip and drive Sutton off. After three minutes Linda was down 6-13, which was still a respectable score. But it was obvious that Sutton was going for the kill and wasn’t about to stop attacking. I told Linda that while she had an extended left defense with her arm, she was bringing her arm back in every time she was about to extend it or attack, telegraphing her intentions. The minute was up and Linda went back, launched an attack which Sutton danced away from while tagging her for a point. There was a final flurry of in-fighting and it was over. Sutton won 15-6. I told Linda she had done a good job and it was strong fight to the end before I wandered off to sit down by my DE strip (I hope she wasn’t too disappointed as Sutton is a ranked D after all). I sipped water and waited to see if I would feel any better.

The other DE finished and Jackie and I assembled at the line and no, I didn’t feel any better. Just remember, I told myself: 15 points. My memory of this bout, unlike almost all other bouts I have done over the past year, is sketchy. There were a couple double points and I saw right away that Jackie would not be an easy opponent. I know that I caught her on offence, and that somewhere around point five she fleched, I retreated, parried and got the point. She wouldn’t fleche again (I head her coach yelling her not to) which is ironic as that was the last significant defensive movement I would make. I had beaten her fleche, I had beaten her in a stop hit on attack and I had gotten a point in a lunge and we ended the first three minutes with the score 7-4 in favor of me. Leaving the strip, I read in her body language that Jackie believed that I would out-fence her. Jackie however had a coach and conferred with her. And I could not believe, as I leaned on Linda drinking water, that she would not find one of my many weaknesses. The only thing I kept mumbling to Linda was, “It’s not enough” referring to the three point lead. I knew that my strength was almost gone and unless Jackie believed I could win, three points wasn’t going to be enough.

We came back and the way Jackie moved displayed an entirely different bearing. She now believed she could win and I could see it in the way she moved in on me aggressively. We doubled and she lunged and got a point, then came back for another. And then time became grey. I moved, or some part of me moved, and I reacted but the only thought in my head was in hanging on. And by hanging on, I mean, remaining upright. Linda said later that after that break she could see the signs and gave me only 50% chance that I would get to the end of the match without passing out. Later, I asked Jackie’s coach what she told her in the break and she said that she told her I wasn’t moving, I was just rocking back and forth and thus my timing was predictable. It was a good insight. I was in that stage you get when in a road race when your body is able to keep up a rhythm, long after you should be able to keep going. My body was doing the same.

Jackie extended into a hard lunge to my arm, breaking skin and bringing to me a wash of pain and anger. Not just another point but the point which gave her the lead. Thank God. Thanks to the abusive fencing of one of the male fencers at my club; I knew this feeling and I knew how to use it, to milk it for energy. I couldn’t do defense because I couldn’t react in time. I wasn’t sure if I could hit her arm if I aimed for it so I let the anger give me the energy to come out and lunge for the body, and lunge, and lunge. I didn’t care if I got the point or if it was a double; because at least I was still moving. Until even that anger and energy ran out.

Linda said that the ref would instruct me to come to en garde to start a point. I never heard it. All I could hear was my voice inside shouting at me; “Raise your head, yes I know it’s heavy, but come on, just this one time...I know I said that last time. RAISE your HEAD, dammit! Okay, good, you can see her can’t you, it’s only a few more points, but you have to raise your blade....raise the blade. No, don’t fall down! Just raise the blade.....good girl, good girl!” Jackie was one point ahead of me. Linda kept watching the ref, wondering if he would call the bout for medical reasons. And meanwhile I was trying to focus ten seconds at a time, or five seconds or two seconds or to just remaining standing. I knew that I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t lie down till I had that fifteen. I had to act as if the energy would come from somewhere.

Sports isn’t like Hollywood, and I don’t know if anyone outside of Linda could see the pain beyond the white of my uniform. But I have seen those few athletes who will risk everything rather than give up. I remember one Canuck hockey player in a playoff game of years ago who, the team score down, charged four opponents with the puck. It was insane. It wasn’t possible, and everyone watching knew it. And yet as he avoided the first guard and slid around the second you began to hope, that maybe this time, maybe there would be a miracle. You started to believe. Well, I got my miracle. Somewhere, somehow, my body operating on training, I got a single point. And suddenly we were tied at 13-13.

I think Jackie asked for the time, and it was 20 or 30 seconds. I don’t remember because I was just standing, my body giving little jerks as I leaned too far this way and then too far that. Two points, I told myself. I just had to get those two points. I decided to risk all on a fleche and as soon as I saw an opening I put everything I had into launching myself at Jackie. But I couldn’t control my limbs and I stumbled. Jackie’s tip hit me coming in as, out of control, I ran into her, my arms clinging to her as I tried to stop myself from sliding down to the floor. “I’m sorry.” I said, again and again. “I’m sorry.” Jackie said later that she was literally holding me up with her hands. 13-14. I couldn’t come to the line. But I must have because they called time. I had a minute. God, another minute. Linda held me upright. I didn’t have the ability to speak anymore, so I just clung to her. And then it was time to go back to the line. “More energy” is all I could remember. I don’t know what Jackie’s coach told her that break, I didn’t ask later.

When we started, I tried to do high energy jumping back and forth, to keep going, to give it all. I don’t remember how I lost the last point. I just remember knowing that it was over now and I could give into the darkness. Did I salute? Linda said she ran onto the strip and held me up. All I remember is someone trying pushing a pencil into my hand and trying to get me to initial my name. I stared at my hand, it was trembling. I stared at my other arm. It was trembling too. Linda said Jackie asked her if she would take care of me.

Linda helped carry me off. She found me a couch and pulled off my jacket and kept putting a water bottle to my mouth. She found a towel, soaked it water and put it around my head. Then she decided to take a picture? Since I was “away with the fairies” at the time, I couldn’t complain, but really, why did she want a picture? I remember starting to come to and Sutton asking Linda what happened. Linda said I had overheated and Sutton told me in a superior tone that I “should try to work on my endurance by going for a run or something the day after fencing.” If I could have crawled over to put my hands around her neck, I would have.

When I fully came to, I asked Linda, “How much time did I lose?” Linda thought about 10 or 15 minutes. And she helped me over to the strip so I could sit and root for Jackie in her bout against Ellary Tucker-Williams. I wasn’t sure if this was the quarter finals or semi-finals as I didn’t know how long I had lost full consciousness. It turned out to be the quarter-finals and Jackie was putting up a strong fight. But Ellary was always managing to keep just ahead of her. It ended 10-15.

Tucker Williams went on to fence Anna Telles in the quarter finals which was so close it was still tied in at 12 when Ellary got a lead. Telles, missing a hit, started chuckling when Tucker-Williams caught her out in a good move. Anna was still laughing when the match ended at 14-15 to Ellary. Telles projected such good humor as a person who had tried her best but this just wasn’t her day that you wouldn’t know she just lost the semi-final by one point. Ellary went on to win against Birgit as well, her consistency of performance holding her in good stead.

By now, enough time had passed that I was able to think again and begin to ponder what would haunt me for the next four days: What had happened to me? Along with this question were the feelings, at times overwhelming, of guilt and shame at failing. Not shame at failing to win, but at failing to be able to give my full game and not knowing why. Shame because the bout ended for me at 13-13, and that I couldn’t get another 45 seconds of focus or reflexive reaction from my body: That I fell across the finish line instead of running it out. Guilt that though I did not and still do not know what happened, that I was somehow responsible. That I could have prevented it from happening. Shame from letting everyone who supported me online during my training down. I looked at the final board and saw that, unlike September, when two more people or one more B ranked fencer would have meant getting I would have received a D rank, this time 6th place DID get a D rank. But, because I failed, it wasn’t to be mine. (please understand, I am not saying I would have beaten Jackie if I wasn’t ill, it simply would have been a different match, one that didn’t happen because….I don’t know).

Yes, I had had a tournament the day before but this wasn’t much different to training schedules where the last two weeks I often fenced four to five fifteen round bouts without a break after 60-90 minutes of five point bouts, followed the next day by the same routine. Two to three hours of training followed by 90 minutes to two hours the next day were so common place as to be unremarkable. But it was a few weeks ago that this mystery ailment first appeared, an exhaustion that separated me from both my energy and my neurological control. It started occurring randomly, sometimes not for two weeks, then twice in a week. Was it overheating? Was it under-eating? Low sodium? Low body fat? Heart problems? Not enough oxygen? Not enough glucose? Pain over load? Did I damage myself so much Saturday I used all my energy to heal? The night before both competitions I had a carb meal and I drank water both days. What was it? I still don’t know.

I haven’t picked up a blade since then. Only yesterday I started light exercise. From Sunday to Tuesday I could barely use my right leg, so severe was the pain. Linda keeps telling me that she knows I gave 100% to my fencing but I can’t stop thinking about those 45 seconds. I used every trick I knew to get energy and keep going including using the way a runners body can keep making the same motion, long after they should have fallen over. And yet, I failed myself and I feel I failed all who have encouraged or supported me, not because I tried my best skill and it wasn’t enough that day but because I was barely conscious.

Linda says there were two miracles that day. The first miracle was I got as far as I did as she says I had been pushing myself beyond reason for far longer than three minutes or eight, but maybe the whole previous hour. And what was I planning to do if I won? She wanted to know. What about the next DE? I hadn’t though that far ahead. I guess stay upright until I lost consciousness. She would have defaulted me.

Since Sunday I have cried a few times a day from the conviction that I failed in the trust of hope people placed in me. That I should have, somehow, found someway, to justify the belief of others that I had offered to carry.

Linda told me it is like Terry Fox; that in those last few weeks, he probably pushed himself harder against the pain so that he wouldn’t let people down, but that at the end, he was just physically unable to continue. She said that while people may have rooted for him to recover and continue, they weren’t upset at him for letting them down.

“But I bet he was,” I say.

So I am very sorry to anyone out there who I let down. Please believe that I did not do so deliberately or in any way that I could see how to prevent.

I will be going to a doctor; probably a lot of doctors because if it happened once it could happen again. If it is my heart, I will have to choose between the operation or the beta blockers. As for rest, I limbo.

Will I fence epee again? Will I compete again? I don’t know. Am I a person who can face the full agony of defeat and stand again willing to risk the same road leading to the same outcome? I don’t know but I suspect I will; after all, isn’t that what we all hope for: the hero to stand back up?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Battle of Seattle Sunday I: Women's Epee; hitting the pools

We arrived at the hall at noon, and got our equipment and blades checked out. This was Linda’s first tournament and many fencers couldn’t understand why I would so strongly encourage Linda, who had only picked up an epee four weeks before to come and compete (indeed I had this exact conversation with a woman going around the country photographing epee competitions). First, I understand Linda, someone who likes to see "the big picture" and a person who on getting an extremely techincal government job was told it would take "two years" to learn, was TEACHING courses on doing the job within six months (she learns quick). As a fencer, she already had a good foundation from foil in footwork and stance and has great hand eye coordination and control. This would be an opportunity for her not only to fence 10 different women and get a sense of different styles in women’s epee but to also get the social and concentrated “feel” of a tournament. As anyone who has been to a tournament knows, a club bout and a pool bout are completely different things and until you experience that, it can often be abstract theory.

Jackie from Alaska was there, her sister who came with her for the September tournament was not but she had come with her own coach. Marla Clem, a bouncy blonde from Seattle, was there and looking very fit and energetic. I asked her to warm up a little with Linda because Marla is a like a friend we had in Wales; she is short and somewhat stocky and you think that she isn’t going to be athletic (Our friend in Wales saw that look on my face and said, “I did the London Marathon last year”, she also was the Welsh Judo Champion). Marla really moves, and lunges, and counters and does everything and anything you don’t think she is going to do all while being very nice and perky and cheerful. I warmed up with Helen Jolley from Oregon who had nice stop hits and we had fun. Helen and Marla ended up in the same pool as Linda while I ended up in “hell pool” with EVERYONE I dreaded from last time: Brigit Salas, Ellery Tucker-Williams and Sutton were all in my pool. And if it was bad for me, Josephine Rorburg, who I had fought yesterday and beaten 5-1 was also in the pool, so I am imagining if I was going “Oh no!” she was going “super oh no!” (Our one pool took 50% of the first 6 places – so yeah, it was a tough pool).

After my squeaking by at Canadian Nationals and my getting (insert appropriate body part here) stomped on the day before, I was really asking myself, “Why have I been doing all this training?” I just couldn’t tell if I was getting better or not, since I never seemed to be moving ahead. Today, I thought, would be the final indication of whether I was to forever be a fencer barely making it or whether I was improving my skills. This tournament was just under four months since my last Seattle tournament and I was facing the same fencers. Emotionally, I was low. I had the exhaustion you get from being in very severe constant pain. And when I went into the change room, I just sat on the stool and looked at my bag and tried not to cry. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to have to put that fencing gear on. I had tried so hard in the last six weeks (and failed) that I didn’t think I could try anymore.

I did change and when I came out I told Linda and we asked Jackie for some pain pills, which she gave and then gave me a banana (against my protests) for my ailments. It is hard to be friends and competitors but she manages. Before my bouts I will give a brief rundown of Linda’s bouts, since during breaks we mostly ran to each other and she would say, “I got 3 points that bout” or “I got 4-5”. Linda’s first bout was with Helen from Oregon who treated her very cautiously. Linda has a unique guard in that she puts her elbow against to hip to make sure her arm doesn’t get tired (when she is more experienced the guard will move out) and instead works on not showing any arm behind the guard. So she has good looking arm form, plus, the guard is so far back it sucks other fencers in close enough that she can easily hit you just by extending her arm (which we practiced with the ping pong ball). She also has a good sense of counter-time attack and can really charge! Tournaments are hard because you are so busy trying to DO stuff that you often forget what you were going to try to remember to do. So I make her an acronym M.A.C.E for Move, Attack, Counter-Attack and Extend the arm: the only four things she would need to remember (this tournament). I also showed her before we came the way lefties attack and how to beat them.

In her first bout with Helen, she took her all the way to 4-4 before losing at 5-4. She then went 4-4 AGAIN with Karen Portch but lost. Something she learned this trip was that 4-4 at a tournament is different than at the club and her opponents will be taking more chances and being more on edge and she needs to be that way too if she wants to win. With the B ranked lefty Anna Telles, she got three points, which made her proud (since Anna ended up 3rd over all), which is the same score I got with Anna after 5 months of fencing (Linda says after watching me fence for 10 months, she has picked up a lot of strategy). She got three points on Marla as well as two points on the underrated E Jackie from Alaska (I am convinced if Jackie was living somewhere within 1500 miles of tournaments, she would already be a D).

Linda's last opponent was Kundry, another B ranked fencer. As you can see in the picture, Kundry could see how far back Linda’s guard was and with Linda’s lack of strong attacks, Kundry crept in until her blade tip was up to Linda’s guard. At that point, Kundry only need a very short fast lunge to close the final distance before Linda could react in time. In the picture you can see Kundry is getting Linda to commit to a defence in 4, and is about to lunge to her outer arm in 6. Kundry won 5-0 (and gave a few bruises). Linda was happy she had gotten so many points on most people as her indicators were pretty much the same as people who had won a bout, however she had secretly hoped she would win at least one bout! But she had a couple close bouts, and I think in a few months she will definitely win at least one in the next tournament. Most of her opponents were very positive and complimented her strong points post bout. When people asked how she did, she named dropped Anna shamelessly, saying she got three points on her. Which was, admittedly, pretty impressive.

As for me, I was taking pictures of Linda. I was tired and I was trying to MAKE myself care, doing some high leaps in place to try and get the adrenaline going. My first bout was with Cynthia Glover and I soon had a 3-1 lead when I could hear what sounded like someone on the strip behind me talking. I was backing up and waiting until Glover gave me an opening because I was hoping I could end this first bout 5-1. But I kept hearing those voices; two guys talking. I looked back and again. Glover used my lapse of attention to lunge and I countered, a double. Ooooooooh, I was irked. I looked and there were two guys in the corner, but as our strip was in the corner as well, their voices were bouncing off the brick walls. Okay, problem solved. I went out to find the final lunge (probably on 6 to the outside arm), when someone shouted, “Move more” Who were they talking to? It took me another moment to figure out it wasn’t me but that Glover was getting some “on strip” coaching. Bam! Bout over 5-2. Maybe it is because I don’t HAVE a coach but I really don’t like on-strip coaching.

My next bout was with the lefty Rorburg from the day before. I had figured out where I had left myself open and did 5 straight counters to her upper shoulder when she dropped her arm to attack me. 5-0. I hated doing that. One of the things I am having difficulty with is being “that fencer” – you know, the tough fencer who takes out almost everyone (I overheard someone saying something not so nice about Tucker-Williams as I stood talking to her father; that wasn’t a good moment, and I’ve heard people say things about me too). Honestly, I like being friends with people but I could understand when Rorburg wasn’t too happy to see me. Her face after the bout reminded me of the day before when Rose Theresa and I had bouted together to warm up for the mixed epee and she said how she had been fencing three years and how sometimes it was frustrating to still not to be doing well at tournaments. She wasn’t, thankfully in my pool, but I understand her frustration (because I felt it yesterday, and at Nationals). She has a very nice underhand pick since she is small and I hope she finds a coach that helps her have a really good tournament.

Finally I get my rematch with Birgit who says she hasn’t been practicing for months. That might be true as her style has changed slightly, and while she still comes aggressively forward, she doesn’t have the same control of distance, in attack and retreat as in September. This is not to say she is not giving me a sound spanking; it was just that she had moved down the rank from “Ultimate Fencing Goddess” to “Mortal”. She tended to lean forward to press attacks and I managed two hits on her helmet because of it. She is still very strong and manipulates your blade to create the opening. At 3-3 she did an attack on wrist immediately followed by a lunge to the thigh which hit for 4-3. Linda told me after that her husband Eugenio was standing behind me, showing her exactly which attacks to do (pointing to the wrist and then to the thigh). Sheesh, is it not bad enough I have to fight Birgit, now I have to fight her, outthink her AND outthink her husband as WELL? I told him later that next match I would be moving to block his view of anything but my ASS, and see what strategy he could come up with that! He told me to go right ahead. Hmmmm...maybe that wasn’t the threat I intended it to be. With a flurry of blades, Birgit won the bout, 5-3. Suck! Okay, NEXT time, I am going to be all over her. And I will fleche her!

By this time I was tired. Like TIRED! I mean, you know that feeling of tired where you are pretty sure you either have bone marrow cancer or leukemia. That’s how I was feeling and my next bout was with Sutton. As someone said to me, Sutton is the passive aggressive lefty fencer. I watched as she beat Tucker Williams by getting one point ahead and then getting two more as Tucker tried to get the point back, all on defense. She doesn’t tend to move, but goes up on her toes and rotates her back foot and hip so it “looks” like she is bouncing back and forth. But she isn’t. My worry was I KNEW that Sutton was going to take the whole three minutes and I wasn’t too sure at this point if I could stand up the whole three minutes. Also, if I intended on getting a bye, I needed to beat at least one of the “power three” of Birgit, Sutton and Tucker-Williams. I had blown my chance with Birgit so I better concentrate on Sutton, who I overtime....on my last DE. Not exactly a confidence booster. The only advice I took in with me was a comment from a parent about Sutton: “Sometimes you can win a bout with a coin toss.”

We played around for 40 seconds just to make sure she hadn’t changed her strategy and that YES, I was going to have to attack her if I wanted a point. I did my usual multi-attack to the hand and lunge to the body and voila! Point Beth. Sutton counter-attacked right away and I caught her shoulder coming in; suddenly I was up two points. This was looking pretty good, I just needed to play keep away. Sutton however was a foil fencer, and the day before had come in third in women’s foil. So avoiding my arm completely she did a lunge to the body. 1-2. This is when I realized that I was in trouble. Within 30 seconds she did it again and I could neither retreat, stop hit or defend fast enough to stop her. Now I knew I was in real trouble. “Time?” I asked the ref. I had 32 seconds. What Sutton didn’t know and I did is that I was too exhausted and my reaction times were too slow to be able to beat her. As it was, I was struggling to stay standing. On a good day, a different day, playing defense would be smart because it would work, today it wouldn’t. Plus, I was getting muddle headed but this I knew, if she lunged again, she would win. So I started bouncing, I started little attacks on her hand and I prayed that she would keep to form and decide to run out the time than risk attacking me. She ran out the time.

The ref asked for a call, I said “Tails”, it landed heads. I got confused and started to unclip. Someone told me that it mean I had to get a touch on her in one minute. “Oh, that again” I said, as this is the exact same scenario as the DE of September. I knew I had to lunge to her body, I did about 25 seconds of dancing around, and attacked her arm a few times to get her jittered and then lunged, half fleche, half falling toward her body. When I go, I always go 100%, no matter how low that 100% might be. I connected. Point and bout Beth. Sutton was not pleased (understatement). I think I was kneeling on the floor and someone came to help me take off my cord. If I had won the toss, I would have lost, I couldn’t have held out for a minute. Anyway, it was over. As I walked off the strip past the parent I said to him, “Sometimes a bout IS decided by a coin toss.” He smiled at me.

I talked to people to keep going, parents mostly. I am so socially trained that I can’t show how tired I am if I talk to someone. So I talked until they called the next bout for me. I was against Carola from Washington, who I hadn’t fenced before. I asked her if she had a coach here, she didn't. I told her I wanted to check because I was going to ask the ref to not allow on-strip coaching and I didn't want her to think it was something to do with her. She said she understood. I asked the ref, and he said the rule was changed and on-strip coaching is allowed. I said it seemed to give a home team advantage. He said then I should bring my coach next time. Grrr....bit of a sore point there. After the pools I asked the ref if he would coach me for my DE, he said that as he belonged to a Washington club, he should only be helping them. home team advantage eh?

Back to the bout with Carola. I hadn’t watched her bouts but she was tallish, and as I stumbled about the piste, I wondered what would happen if she was tricky. I spent 30 seconds trying out a few feints and moves and she didn’t twitch or counter so figured she was either very cautious or didn't know what to do so I lunged, point. I came out again and lunged, point. And again. I was up 3-0. Suddenly, Carola got it. She shifted over her guard so that I couldn’t lunge her arm in 4, I would have to risk the outside in 6. Normally when I fence, I am reviewing all the previous moves of a fencer in my head and comparing them to all the possible variations for a best choice. Not today, today it was simple questions: should I defend? I wondered. No, I decided I didn't think I could stand up that long. I waited for a while anyway. She didn’t attack. I lunged and she countered. Double points. Darn. She shouldn’t have gotten a double on me. I thought about working up a new plan, but in my hazy mind, that was just too hard. It was hard enough to holding onto one thought, which was, "Find opening: lunge". “I can live with a double” I thought as I lunged again. 5-2 bout Elizabeth. (Please understand, I always consider a double to be a personal failure – this is NOT normal thinking for me, but desperate and confused thinking). I complimented Carola on her quick reaction to close that line and keep her defense steady. I was at 5 bouts victory to one loss. So I smiled a little as I sank down and drank some water. It seemed all that training was some use after all.

My last bout was with arch nemesis number 2, Ellary Tucker-Williams. Her father told me she finished #63 in division one at the NAC in Columbus, OH. Amanda from Victoria, after her daily training program on the High Performance program went to the same NAC and finished #68. Amanda still kicked me around on a regular basis. Ellary's father was not giving me good news. I faced Ellary and we tested each other out, she attacked, I countered and suddenly there was an opening, and I lunged, she retreated, I kept going in with fleche as almost all female fencers are unable to stand up to a strong running attack. Both of my feet and body were in the air and Ellary was backing up, totally in control as we flew down the strip, as I swung my left foot down, I felt it catch the ground just for a split second giving me the little burst of speed I needed. I could see it in Ellary’s eyes that moment before my blade touched. Yes!

We came out both a bit more cautious and a bit more aggressive, and quickly launched together for a double. Then Ellary countered with a lunge to my foot. Ha ha! I hit her shoulder with ease. (Everyone in the club tries to hit my foot almost every bout, so knowing how to “just” pull it out of reach is something I don’t think about anymore) I was up 3-1. My brain repeated that: I was up 3-1 on Ellary Tucker-Williams! OMG! Okay, I thought, let’s time it out. I asked the ref for the time remaining: 1:52. Hmmmm, that plan wasn’t going to work. So I went on defense. We dance, I retreated and with a fast bind, Ellary was in past my guard and got the point. Now, since I can never get anyone to teach how to counter-bind or avoid binds, I am terrified of binds because as you may notice, people who know how to bind my blade tend to win by doing it again and again and again. So, if Ellary had already bound my blade once, that was it, no more defense. During the next point I could see Ellary getting ready to lunge so I pulled out a trick I had used before: fleching directly at the face of the opponent in the fraction pause while they are preparing the lunge. I have found most people, particularly female fencers get unnerved at a 200lb plus tall woman flying toward them aiming a sword directly at their face; it makes them pause a fraction of a second, and then I drop the sword tip during that fraction to hit them on the chest instead (the angulations of the helmet could cause the point to skid off, the chest is a lower risk). I saw the fraction of a second where Ellary was pausing before lunging and fleched her face. Without a hesitation, she dropped vertically to sit on her feet and I impaled myself on her sword which stuck straight up. Brilliant. Disappointing for me, but brilliant; and now it was 3-3. I’m not sure what I did after that, probably some attacks, or attack on the arm or beat attacks but this I know, the bout ended 5-3. Ellery kept her cool and came back. If I could say one word about Ellery it would be consistency – it is not that she is super-fast, or super-tricky (though she does have a few tricks I have picked up), but that she is, in every bout: consistent. And she wins out.

I met her father afterward. “I was up 3-1,” I told him.

“I know.” He replied.

“I really, really wanted that win!”

“I think she really wanted it too.”

“No, you see, I REALLY wanted that win.”

He laughed, I think he knows me too well. I sat down and had some more water. Linda came over and I consoled her on not winning a bout. I think pointing out that probably one or two of the other women were REALLY glad she was in the pool because otherwise THEY wouldn’t have won a bout today wasn’t as encouraging out loud as it sounded in my mind. Marla came by and told Linda, “Remember, you beat two women.” Linda wanted to know who. “Those two women who signed up and never showed...oh, I’m going to get that (name withheld), I mean here you come from Canada and she can’t come across town.” Marla’s a hoot! The female photographer who was taking epee pictures was moving on, so Linda had her take a picture of us together, post bouts. The family McClung goes a fencing! (and gets a lot more questions like, “So are you sisters.......?”)

The results were posted and I was 6th after pools, even with the two losses. All I could think was, “Thank goodness, I don’t have to go do a DE right away.” Linda, was 21st and though her indicators were good, as the only person to not win one bout, she ended up last out of the pools. Her first DE bout was with....wait for it..Sutton. (It’s like the Family Feud!)

Tomorrow: Battle of Seattle Women’s Epee: The DE’s and beyond.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Battle of Seattle Saturday: chasing after boys

Well, I went down saying I was going to open a can of whoop-ass on those male fencers. Someone, I think, must of have shook it up first because somehow THEY weren’t the ones getting the beating. My fencing tournament day actually started Friday morning when I found out that my lower right leg was severely infected.

A few days ago, I received a strong epee hit to the top shin which dug out a chunk of flesh out of me. I cleaned up the blood, bandaged it and went on my way. But it started to hurt. By Friday, when the doctor removed the bandages a 2 by 1 inch section of shin was raw, infected oozing membrane, and the parts of the shin that weren't yet oozing, were red and inflamed. There were, as yet, no maggots. So when I blogged thursday that I felt flush and dizzy and flu-like; that might have been blood poisoning. Anyway, I got two prescriptions (one for curing the infection and the other prescription for when the first one doesn't cure it) and off to Seattle I went!

Saturday morning, 8 am and I am up, almost awake and getting my equipment checked. Guys are already running up and down in salle, they are serious...very serious. I try to chat with some, ask where they are from. They give curt answers, so serious are they. Either that or focused, or seriously focused, or just boring. So, by default, I end up with the other nine women in the event and we hang together. It is already an us versus them atmosphere (since the guys treated us as at best an annoyance and at worst with complete dismissal). And when you try to connect with guys talking about women's epee, you might as well be talking about the sport of watching grass grow. Come on guys, I know that fencing has it’s own little world but as epeeists, knowing who Sherraine MacKay shouldn’t be out of consideration for A ranked males should it (since you know....she wrote a book last year....on epee fencing?). Sherraine MacKay is the world champion female epee fencer, first North American one too (Canadian!). As one looked at me and said dismissively, “I don’t do the women’s circuit.” (you know who you are Josh!) Okay, whatever buddy. There were 70 people signed up for mixed epee but only 60 showed up. However, of the 15 A ranked fencers, 14 showed up (plus Jeff Bowman), which meant that this was a "top heavy" event. In fencing, the higher the letter, the better the fencer; so an A is supposed to be national elite level (I am an E with bitterness at not being a D). So, looking at 15 really, really good male epeeists. Then we get to the really, really almost as good male epeeists (B ranked).

I had what is known as a “tough” pool. There were two A ranked fencers (a left hander named Josh Conner and Nathaniel Strauss), a B from California named Contway(who an A ranked male on the strip next to me kept saying to me, “I know he is an A, he won it from me in the finals last summer”). A C ranked male, Friedman, who was at the junior Olympics, a lefty woman named Rorburg and me. With 6 fencers in the pool we should have one in each 10 point area - instead our pool had 2 fencers in top 9 places and all the males in the top 30. That equals a "tough" pool.

Okay, lets get back to the fencing. I started with Friedman, who had this move where he flipped my blade aside and then flipped it back and hit me. I don't know why it worked three times in a row....but it did. I never win first bouts. My ancestors were cursed 100 years ago for buying the last issue of the 1907 Christmas Annual ahead of a bitter spinster with occultic powers and now, I have to pay the price. Or...I just don't get my head in the game until the second bout. I was like, "That sucked but now I am really to focus." I didn't know that I had just lost to the "easiest" male.

I had come today to beat men, plain and simple. I knew that meant a lot more movement; a lot more stopping fleches, some longer lunges, faster reactions and extreme effort. I soon found out that with A ranked or elite male fencers, pretty much everything I know and have been trained with epee is useless. First off, they don’t have an epee form, they just keep their hands by their side. Nor do they use traditional footwork but bounce around. So, I could throw out what I had learned from the few lessons with Mr. Ho: beat attacks, attacks on stationary hands, etc.

I faced Strauss next (he finished 7th overall), and found that the only way to attack him was long lunges, which he would counter attack (which is about the only time he raised his sword). I found that he was just slightly underestimating my reach. He got the first two hits but by the third hit I had the distance and got him, only he got me in counter attack and again, score 4-2. I was going to try a long, long lunge when he fleched me, end of game, 5-2.

By this time the other woman, Rorburg and I are eying each other up because we realize after watching these guys that the bout between us is likely the only one where ONE of us will win a bout. Our bout was next and though she was a lefty, I took and early lead of 2-1 and then every time she would try and come in, I would just keep hitting her outside shoulder to win the bout. Which was good because most of the bout I was thinking "Don't think about what will happen if you lose this bout, about how you will finish without a single win...and don't screw this up!"

Josh Connor was next and everyone seemed pretty terrified of him, because he was young, cocky and left handed (oh and seemed to win a lot) since he was undefeated so far in our pool and ended pools fourth overall. However, since I seem to fence an average of three lefties a tournaments, I wasn’t particularly concerned. Josh didn’t seem concerned with me either, until he fleched me and I doubled. I went on the attack, and he countered, point Josh. Then he fleched again and I got a point on his approach. Josh was faster than me, sure, but I was taller than him and as long as I got my arm above his on his fleche, I could counter. He decided to try for a toe hit. BAD IDEA! Every single elite fencer tries to toe hit me and overall, I am way ahead in hitting them on the shoulder as they drop down than they are on hitting me on the toe. Still, I was downn 3-4 when he fleched again. I got my arm up and felt my tip run along his outer arm but the light never lit, and bam! I was out (Josh Conner finished 9th). However, since he seemed to terrify everyone else, I name dropped him shamelessly whenever someone asked how I did: "I got 3 points off Josh Connor." They would look me over, "Wow." (I was tempted to add a bit about making him cry with the shoulder hit, but thought that might be pushing it).

I had fought three guys, I had lost to three guys. I don't get it, I beat club guys all the thime. What was going wrong. The last guy left in the pool bouts was Contway; the same guy who had beaten both Strauss and Josh in pools (not a good sign for me).

Linda had been taking pictures of my bouts with Conner and in every shot, Contway is in the background me (go back and look at the Josh pictures). My impression (after the event) is that while Contway may not be as young or flexible as his opponents (he had more braces on than I have ever seen before on an athlete, I don’t think there was a single unbraced joint) – he was a great tactician. I asked around about his style and everyone said the same thing, that he fleches...a lot. Last guy, so I went into the bout with a win or die attitude and started aggressive by doing all sorts of long lunges. I mean really long lunges, with fast recoveries. This was the guy I needed to beat. Contway, like the mature male fencers I fenced, didn’t have a problem backing up, in fact, there was a sensation of constant pulling and pushing in the space between us. This space and their lowered hand gave Conway the ability to often simply avoid the blade completely. Like the boxer said, the best way to box is not get hit, and the way Josh, Contway and Strauss fenced was to never allow the tip of a lesser fencer near enough to hit them. I charged Contway and there was an in-fight. I lost. I decided to charge and lunge him. I lost. At 2-3 I actually said, “When are you going to fleche?” Apparently never. Soon I was down 2-4 and I was going to play my last card: the super-lunge. When the referee says “fence” I can, if I explode with all my strength, do a sliding lunge the entire distance between the two starting positions. The two starting positions are 4 meters from each other, just over 12 feet. The referee called us to position...ready.....fence. I immediately took a half step forward, to steal 6-8 inches and my back leg exploded with my super-lunge, and I rocketed forward in full extension. Then I watched my blade tip, aiming for his shoulder, just miss him as he twisted his whole body downward and sideways. I let out a little shriek at the miss and waited the half second for his counter hit. Bout Contway. He was pretty friendly and I think shook up as a little with my last lunge because he kept showing how he reflexively just somehow twisted away. I wanted to know why he didn’t fleche. He said that watching me in with Josh Conner, I was getting 50% of the points against people who fleched me, so he decided it wasn’t worth the risk. See, the only guy who respected me enough to actually work out a strategy to MAKE SURE and win.

So, that’s it, pools are over and I hadn’t beaten a single guy, I am in 46th position and for the DE, I got a guy called John Varney who is in 19th place. I looked him over and he seemed to have some grey hair so I told people my plan was to “wear him down.” Everyone I told that to was soon bent over in hysterical laughter. There were, I concluded, some pretty odd people in Seattle. What they knew and I didn’t was that Varney was the number 1 veteran male fencer in North America, is currently #2 for the US and the current #1 epee male points holder for Western Washington. Knowing absolute NONE of this, I went over and asked him if he had any tips for me on how I might best go about beating him. Some weaknesses he might want to share at this time? He smiled but said that no, nothing he wanted to share. He was ranked 19, I was ranked 46. I told him I was sorry but I REALLY did need to win and I would likely be doing moves he had never seen before. I also warned him that I sometimes laugh when I miss very badly, so I wasn’t laughing at him. He said he understood and we were called to the strip.

For the first three minutes I worked on a tight defense and counter attacks. John Varney twice got me by getting me to roll my hand inward in a counter parry and then hitting the 1/8th of an inch of pinkie I showed. Very tricky. But I corrected that and at the end of the first three minutes it was still close at 3-7. I had done all that my defense could do and realized that while I could probably slow his points even further while picking up a few points, I was still going to lose. He was more accurate and more experienced and I was the one sucking wind, not him. Go out with dignity? Naw, remember, I wasn’t there to lose.

In the second three minutes I went on the attack: lunges, long lunges, again and again, lunges with secondary lunges, leaping attacks, anything to get past his guard. We went corp-a corp-six times (when you are both so close you are almost touching but you have both missed your targets and are trying to hit the other person before they hit you - other people might call it "blind and frantic jabbing"). I lost all six times. At one point I did everything I could to either push him off the strip of make him fleche – no matter what he counter attacked with, I blocked and lunged, forcing him back, but I just couldn’t force him off the strip. In the end, I leapt almost literally into his lap, missed him, and ran past. So the ref started us up again. This time I feinted to his wrist and then jumped under his sword and poked at his leg....and missed, I poked again, and missed, I poked again and just as my sword was about to hit, his blade got my back (Linda said a parent was shouting “poke him again, keep poking!” to me). I started laughing. I mean, you have to don’t you? I was down 4-13, crouched under a man’s blade poking at his leg and I miss three times? Linda said afterwards that I moved more in this match than she had ever seen before. I also did the bouncing footwork the entire time as well. Must be why I was seeing those floating black dots. By point 14 I was laughing so hard that the referee was laughing as well. It’s not that I wasn’t trying, it is just that he wasn’t hittable. So I lost 15-4.

Afterward everyone came up and told me how good he was and how he was Veteren champion. Even George Tidrick (14th out of pools) came up later and told me I did very well. As George put it, “Don’t feel bad, you got twice the points on him that I did.” (George faced him after me and lost 15-2; John Varney was eliminated by the Canadian Habib Farooq who went on to come in second).

It was, everyone said, a very, very hard tournament. Most of the men who won their first 15 point direct eliminations were the guys used to winning all the tournaments in their club. The guys who advanced after winning their second direct eliminations were the ones who won state, or region, or division competitions. The only surprise for people was Canadian Jeff Bowman who was listed as a C. "How is he doing it? He's only a C" people were muttering.

“But it’s a Canadian C!” I would try to explain, since there were 4 times the number of A’s in this one tournament than in all of Canadian male epee fencing. Canada is really, really stingy with rankings. I think you might get a cape and special rocket boots if you are an A ranked Canadian fencer. (Monica Kwan, who won three nationals in a row and is ranked #65 or so internationally was and might still be a B ranked Canadian fencer). Jeff went on to win the tournament easily, his only tough match was his last against the Canadian Habib. For example, by the table of 16 it was pretty much A’s against A’s as the Canadian epeeist Habib, after beating Veteran champion John Varney faced Birgit’s Husband and ex-international fencer Eugenio Salas (who has won almost every Washington and Oregon Tournament in the last two years), who he beats 15-14. Get the idea?

All I knew was that my thighs were killing me, as in “ow, ow” every step killing me particularly the right thigh, particularly going up or down stairs. I measured the thigh and it is now 70% the size of my waist at 25 inches around (can anyone say “freakish>” – I did when I saw it in the mirror – “Come look Linda, I’m a kangaroo!”). I ended up 46th out of 60, which was 3rd out of the females who came. I still believe that I can beat MANY guys in epee, but until they put me in a pool with at least a D or a couple C ranked epeeists (or forbid, even an E, the same ranking as me), I guess we won’t find out?

While I was there, most of the women were very “up” and friendly and there was a definite fencer buzz as we rooted for ANY women to win ANYTHING. But afterward, I had a bad case of the blues and felt like crying. The tournament I had supposedly come for (Women's Epee) was tomorrow, my body currently felt like it had flopped down several flights of stairs and all I could hope was that tomorrow wouldn’t be a repeat of today.

What is the solution to teary eyes? Carbs and credit cards. I went out for a bite and we went shopping. Linda and I left the Seattle club at 2:00 pm and we didn’t stagger back to the hotel until 9:00 pm (and ordered in pizza). Now, you might ask, is it wise, after one tournament and with another the next day to walk endless blocks hauling around seven hours worth of shopping? Damn straight it is. Seattle is just as much a vacation for us as it is a sports event; and part of this whole attempt to not get so down is making sure there is "more" in my life than huge I mean like NEW CLOTHES! So spending a few hundred dollars is the “more” in my life, particularly when I cleaned up at the Victoria Secret sale. One good thing about the whole superwork-out aspect is that the “Active wear” in Victoria Secret (which is often more revealing about bumps and body curves than being naked) is you can finally wear it AND look in the mirror. With my ever thinning waist, I also got size 13 jeans (Linda is not so in love with my plan to lose “just a bit more” so I can buy size 12 jeans). Linda did very, very well at Old Navy getting a bag o new clothes for her and then we had to go to REI to buy a new backpack to carry all our clothes back home. See how sensible we are.

I would like to say there is a happy ending to this day, but truth was, once I stopped moving it was pretty painful. That night, I was using a platinum strength muscle relaxant, valium, and a prescription painkiller they gave me at the hospital once as an interim drug to take me off morphine: all mixed with wine in order to get a few hours sleep, repeated as pain pulled me awake every 3-4 hours. If you want to know how part of me felt, then imagine a supernova out in space, a fireball of constant eruptions and unbearable heat. Now put that supernova in your right thigh. Until about 6 am, it felt like my leg was trying to explode but somehow the skin was JUST keeping it from succeeding. Thus ends day one of the Battle of Seattle, in semi-conscious dreams, drugs and delirium.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Going to epee competitions in Seattle, might do some screaming.

Well in less than 24 hours I will be outbound to the epee fencing competitions in Seattle. Saturday morning the Mixed Epee has 69 pre-registered participants including 15 A rated men and is looking to be an A4 event USFA event (the highest rated event they have). There are 18 clubs represented including Nevada, Georgia, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, California and Canada. Sunday is the women’s epee with 22 fencers including Linda’s first competition (assuming we can find her some regulation breeches in Seattle).

I was supposed to be doing some final practice with a left handed epee fencer tonight only I am trying to recover from a cold before the weekend. Nervous? Heck yes! Facing 50+ guys rated higher than me. Unlike the women I don’t think fencing someone over six foot is going to throw them that much. Once again I will at the bottom of the pools, fighting against tougher opponents. I do however have a few advantages. Recently, I’ve decided that the calm strategic fencing is fine for Canadian competitions but when I go down to the US; it is time to open up a can of “Whoop-ass”. Ha ha ha! I remember Alex Edelman’s face the first time I drove at his knees, hitting his ankle. For some reason he thought I was insane. Hmmm, funny that. I’d like to come in the top 32; but there is little REALISTIC chance of that; other than that I suppose I would like not to be so badly bruised or injured that I can’t continue the next day. Honestly I just can't pass up the chance of having so many top epeeists and not at least trying to scare the living bejeesees out of them: Live the Dream!

On Monday, two male club members really offended me by assuming that if I could see someone was injured, I would hit that injury intentionally to win the bout. I told them if I thought someone was injured I would ask the ref that they be medically checked. They thought I was joking. “You know you would hit them” one said to me, “I’ve seen how competitive you are.” Yes, competitive to fencing someone’s best, not competitive as in possibly giving someone a lasting injury in order to win a bout. Linda said this was “male thinking.” I vacillated on condemning most males, that was until I found the same topic on the US Fencing Net where they gave two examples and asked, would you, knowing these weaknesses, intentionally change your strategy to increase the pain and possibility of injury of your opponent in order to help you win? Current poll says 26 people (all male but one) say yes, one person says no. To those who said “yes” I posed a counter question, “In a mixed epee competition, would you recommend a female who is facing a male without a protective cup, to maybe risk losing two points in order to deliver the strongest possible force full extension lunge directly into the man’s genitals, which are a legal target?” (my total commitment full force lunge has enough force to slide my whole body forward a foot and lift a male weighting 150 pounds off the ground – remember, I can do one armed naked pushups)). Of course, I don’t do that (push-up's: yes, groin destruction: no), though I did recently, after being very tired of one fencer who kept doing full aggressive lunges every single time, in an attempt to convince him to try something else, extended and locked my arm pointing directly at his crotch so that if he did a full lunge without engaging my blade first, he would impale his genitals directly onto the blade. He lunged anyway. I’m still puzzling out that particular choice. (And people call being lesbian a “lifestyle choice”? When a guy would rather get a point HIS WAY rather than avoid getting hit in the groin, doesn’t that seem like a “lifestyle choice”?)

Anyway, I plan to laugh a lot; and hopefully that won’t scare as many people as it did last tournament. Birgit Salas has just signed up for the women’s epee and her husband for the mixed so are you thinking what I am thinking? “Rematch! Rematch! Rematch!” Note to any guys who fence me; if you are one of those people who start yelling during points or matches – I can and will scream louder and higher than you can (I won a children’s screaming contest when I was 10 – not good at athletics – however, always had BIG MOUTH). So unless you want it to sound like a combination of trailer trash sex and a hissy fit, you might want to rethink the shouting factor.

See ya in Seattle.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Need a hero, need a book, need some sleep

Normally I don’t write about books, but I had a very bad night of insomnia and when I took a bunch of sleeping pills this morning and lay back down again at 7:30 am, they started doing drilling outside my window. So, I have had hours to think about books and I’m cranky.

My conclusion is that a) I LIKE people who read books and b) Most books which are popular are not great books. You see, for many, many years I believed that somehow, through some sort of collective readers understanding that the best books were the ones which ended up being taught or talked about. The quick disillusionment of this idea started when I was working in a bookstore in the late 80’s and Random House was buying every publisher in sight and slashing the mid-list. See, “back in the day” every publisher would carry writers that were good writers, had a following but weren’t instant successes. These authors would start off selling a few thousand, then as they continued their audience would grow so the investment the publisher put into them would be rewarded. But in the harsh world of this new competitive publishing it was decided to go instead for just bestsellers. The problem is that of virtually every book that ends up on the bestseller list, and every book which is a “cult” phenomenon they are, at best, a moderately written but not particularly significant work of fiction. I can see you recoil in irritation. Okay, raise your hand if you have read Advise and Consent by Allen Durey. No, don’t give me those baffled looks, this is a book which was on the #1 spot for fiction bestseller for over a year (unheard of) and won a Pulitzer prize. Such a significant book, you must have read it in University? No? That’s okay, because what you read in University was largely decided by two people who drew up a list in the 1920’s – a man called Leavis and his wife (who felt that things like “bestsellers” should be burnt for the public good).

Anyway, Advise and Consent was the book for 1960, you just couldn’t live without it. Much as a man who wrote about submarines dominated western world views in the 1980’s and 90’s (remember Clancy?). See, a study over the last 50 years has found that the number one bestseller in fiction is a quickly fleeting thing; that in the sixties, a number one book stayed there for 21 weeks, in the eighties it stayed for 7.2 weeks and this year, less than three weeks. But as you worryingly clutch your Harry Potter or recent best seller, I ask, how many of the following fiction books, all bestsellers, in some cases for decades, have you ever read or even heard of: When it was Dark by Guy Thorne (listed by Montgomery, leader of the WWII British forces as the most influential book in his life), The Garden of Allah by Hichens, The Long Trick by Bartimeus, If Winter Comes by Hutchinson, The Shiek by Hull or The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy.

You see, as eagerly as the next J. K. Rowling book is anticipated today, so were the names Kent Carr, Westerman and G. A. Henty many decades ago (indeed, if you want to read some more Harry Potter books, I recommend Kent Carr, since the plots and characters are almost identical - why not try the interestingly titled "Dixie of Cock House"). Or how about the first book to create all the basic principals of a bestseller, Haggard’s She, which used what we would now call guerrilla marketing with signs and graffiti everywhere in London reading “Who is She?” weeks before the book came out. That was 120 years ago. Ever read it? Not really life changing stuff is it?

The problem, simply put is that there are four different groups: publishers, academics and critics, readers and writers. The first two groups are determined to convince the last two groups that THEY are the ones which know what is and is not a great work. Unfortunately, both those groups have a strong self interest: publishers to make money and academics and critics to perpetuate a certain type of book as “literature” (which is ironic because the man who first used that term to refer to fiction, Arnold Bennett, isn’t really remembered or read by anyone anymore). For instance, the Booker Prize is supposed to a short list of the best of all books published in a year, from self published to small press to big press. Yet not once has a single science fiction or fantasy book been included on the short list. Indeed, what is known as “genre fiction” never makes it into the big prizes. And if you follow the Booker Prize, you, like me, can probably name at least four the authors whose books will be included in it this year, next year, last year, whichever year.

The problem is that historically, what people love to read and treasure do not often match the books which are held up as “literature”, nor ones which a generation cannot live without (bye, bye Dan Brown!). Indeed, there is one book, which every time Waterstones surveys readers (every three years) to find out which books they treasure most always ends up at number one; yet it won no awards, and if it is taught at universities it is taught as a “fringe” or “out there” course. The book is The Lord of the Rings. Number one book for decades by the choice of readers. And it took them over 50 years to make a film of it.

You see the real problem is....I’m bored. The last time I read a decent book, and I mean a book which actually excited me, grabbed and changed my world view was months ago when I asked blog readers for suggestions. Which I find is pretty much the only way to truly find amazing books...ask another reader. I also tend to dig through a lot of genre fiction. Why? Because if you are a starting writer and you are tortured or out there you usually end up finding that either the only people who will publish you are genre fiction publishers or you end up there anyway (like the way a book about people doing heroin in a high rise is science fiction/fantasty – no, not bitter!). Or kids books; as there are some amazing kids books out there, from Jan Mark’s Ennead to Napoli’s Daughter of Venice to Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. See, sadly, the closer you look, the more you find that publishing only promotes really good accident. Like To Kill a Mocking Bird, which I thought was universally accepted as a great book because…it was a great book. No, not exactly, because the book would likely have never been printed by Harper Collins or touted in Harpers’, Atlantic Monthly or the New York Reviews had Lee not been so closely associated with super literary famous Truman Capote. If To Kill a Mockingbird had been published by Punstwood Books of Illinois would it have won the Pulitzer Prize the following year – not a chance. Even the great “American Classic” Moby Dick was only noticed 60+ years later, after Melville’s death, because someone dug it out and made a movie out of it called “The Sea Beast.”

Okay, I am admittedly more than a little tired, but I am also literarily lonely. I have no interest the books of pretty words and empty souls. You have to understand, after the first 10,000 books, Lovely Bones reads just as relevantly as Ed McBain. I did however like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which most of my students did not. But then, they also disliked The Little Prince, which to me displays some deep deficiency which indicates the person should probably either work for the IRS, an accountant in a bank or an acceptance editor for a major publishing house. I like Sleepwalking by Meg Wolizer, Bringing out the Dead by Joe Connelly and the early works of Van de Wetering. I do not hate Henry James, I loathe him so much I would dig him up to slap him about if that were possible (he actually reedited all his earlier books to match the “tone” of his later works – AHHHHHH!). Alastair Niven, head of the British Council of Literature says the works which will be literature in 100 years.....Sons and Lovers by Lawrence and everything by Dickens (I am clawing at my neck trying to open a vein in despair at this future vision.) And guess what Martyn Goff, the administrator of the Booker Prize says is a book that SHOULDN’T have ever been called a classic: The Catcher in the Rye (message to Martyn, remove head from ass as soon as possible).

Oh someone save me, please, send me the name of a book I must read, a book which changed how you look at everything, a book which gave you a “Zing!” a feeling that you and the universe has somehow just transcended each other (No, I am not asking for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). You know that rare and occasionally amazed feeling you get at the end of a book when you realize you may never have this many feelings and synapses firing all at the same time the rest of your life. You know THAT book (or books as the case may be). I remember the first time I read The Face on the Cutting Room Floor or Dodges' Stone Junction, or the lesbian mystery writer J.M. Redmann. Zowie! How did they do that? Okay, tag, you’re it.