Chapter 3 No Reason: How and why I became Buddhist.
I was nineteen when I finally fell in with bad company. I thought I needed a little exercise. I needed to get out and meet people. Aerobics and spinning were out of the question. If I was going to sweat, I was going to at least learn something useful while I did it. The choice was between Tae Kwon Do and Beginning Fencing. Fencing was cheaper. So I signed up for the non-credit class offered through Metropolitan Community College held in a run down storefront in Benson, an older neighborhood of Omaha, taught by a strangely charming man we would all affectionately come to call the Evil Little Gnome.
Ian, aka E. L. Gnome, was born in the wrong century. He was wine, women, fencing, and motorcycles, more or less in that order. He reminded me of Porthos in the 1993 Disney version of The Three Musketeers. Gold rings flashed in both ears, he wore his hair long on his neck, and he made the most of his brilliant white smile despite being five foot three inches tall. He was also the nominal leader of The Musketeers Fencing Club, a loose conglomeration of random people who all enjoyed the art of fencing. (The ‘art’ being distinct from the ‘sport’ of fencing, though we did a little of that, too.)
Now, this may seem a strange place to begin the story of how I became Buddhist, especially considering it was not anyone in the fencing club who influenced me towards Buddhism in particular. Rather, the fencing club, and certain key individuals specifically, might best serve as an illustration of anti-Buddhist principles (if there are such things). In other words, I first had to learn what not to do, how not to live my life. I cannot say that this adventure drove me towards Buddhism, for it didn’t, but it did prime the pump. By the time I finally picked up a Buddhist book, experience had already led me to many similar conclusions, and when I also found them in the Buddhist teachings it encouraged me to look deeper.
But back to our story.
So I fell in with bad company. Ian taught fencing classes because he wanted to have someone to fence with. He wasn’t a coach or a team captain. He was flamboyant and a good showman and, as already mentioned, charming. He had also been a corporate trainer, before I knew him, and had a knack for explaining things well. He taught two eight-week classes a quarter, the one on Friday nights (my class) geared specifically towards women. Ostensibly, this was to encourage women to enter a male-dominated sport, start them out on even ground, and make them feel comfortable. In actuality, it was so that he could meet women.
While he taught class in one half of the room, members of the club would set up a single fencing strip on the other half. Class was three hours and afterward people would go out, the students mingling with the members at the biker bar down the street. It was often said we were “a drinking club, with a fencing problem,” though there was myself and others who never really drank much, but we were there as much for the social aspect as everyone else.
I was always chronically early to everything, and fencing class was no different. It was just Ian and I gearing up before the third class when he looked at me.
“So why didn’t you come out with us last week?” he asked as he laid out masks and jackets for the rest of the class.
“A little thing like legality,” I answered as I fastened my plastron, the double layer of nylon that covers our chest and upper arm on the fencing side (right if right-handed) as the last line of defense against a broken blade. Plastrons are made from the same dense weave nylon used in bullet proof vests, made not to cushion but to prevent penetration. Blades, though blunted, create a sharp, ragged edge when they break, and Ian was serious about no one being stabbed to death in his classes. Ironic, considering we were all diligently learning how to do just that.
He stopped what he was doing to look at me, really look for probably the first time. “How old are you?” he asked.
He looked me up and down one more time. “Well, we’ll pick somewhere you can go tonight.”
Thus began my education, and it had very little to do with fencing.