Hail and farewell, Barb

My friend Barb died last week.

the one and only Barb Lynch

She was a fencing friend—one of those people from the opposite coast who I saw only at national tournaments. She was also one of the people who taught me how to run tournaments in the first place. In recent years, though, due both to her illness and the fact that we were both most often hired to chair, we didn’t work the same tournaments all that often, so I didn’t see her nearly as much as I’d have liked to.

Barb was a New Jersey girl through and through—you could hear it as soon as she opened her mouth. She was funny and generous and ferociously competent, and never someone you could mess with. But boy, could she mess with you.

A few years back when we were co-chairs (along with Tanya, I think) for a Summer Nationals, she got me good. She’d known for years that one of the major reasons I started working bout committee was that I couldn’t tolerate watching my kids fence—the suspense and the fact that I couldn’t do a damn thing to help them in their bouts made the experience far too stomach-churning for my taste. Working BC I could keep track of how they were doing without that close-up attention that was so nerve-wracking.

So there I was, up on the BC stage working on something or other, and Barb suddenly said, “Mary, turn around—you’ve got to see this!” I turned around, and there was Christie, fencing on the strip smack in front of the BC. “NOOOOOOO!!!!” I said. “I don’t WANT to see her fence!” But once I knew she was there, I couldn’t not watch. I don’t even remember what event it was or how Christie did that day, but I’ll never forget the evil glee Barb took in having arranged for Christie’s bout to be right there where I couldn’t miss seeing it.

I keep thinking now of a couple of years ago, when I was brought in to be “emergency back-up co-chair” for the Junior Olympics. Barb’s mom had died the Friday before JOs, and nobody knew for sure whether she’d be able to make it to JOs or be able to handle it once she got there.

She came, of course, and handled things with aplomb. When people kept wondering how she could even consider being there under those circumstances, she just said, “Mom would have killed me if I didn’t come just because she died.”

I can almost hear her now, laying into any of us who might—even briefly—consider dropping something we’d meant to do because we were grieving for her.

She made it hard for us, though. Wherever Barb was, she was always fully present—it was impossible to be unaware that she was around. And that was a great and good thing.

It will be impossible to be unaware that she’s not there anymore.

(Official obituary)

Layout & Strips, Part 2: Numbering Strips

Seriously? She’s going to write a post about numbering strips? Don’t you just start at the beginning with 1 and go on until you run out of strips?

Once upon a time, it was almost that easy. When strips were set up in rows from one end of the hall to the other, the only question we had to decide was whether to go back to the other end to start numbering the next row or to snake the numbering back and forth. When I first began working bout committee, I favored going back to the start, so that the numbers all increased in the same direction. It seemed to me that way was the easiest for fencers and coaches and spectators to grasp. But snaking has its advantages, often allowing strips across both rows at the same end of the hall to be numbered consecutively. (This only works at one end of the hall, though.)

But straight rows aren’t the only way strips are laid. Sometimes we get one row straight down the length of the hall and several clumps of strips at right angles to those, with or without large gaps between groups. (Structural columns and power access plates in the floor are often the reasons for such odd layouts.)

With pods, we number consecutively within the pods, and then down the rows through the pods in order. Not only does this make sense to fencers looking for their strips, it makes it easy for the strip assigner to keep track of which events are where—pods are always contiguous numbers on the chart we use to track our assignments.

(One time a few years ago, I arrived on setup day to find that the strips had already been numbered. Unfortunately, whoever’d done it had put the numbers up before the pipe barriers had been installed, so that the numbers went straight down to the rows with no regard for the pods. This meant that the first pod had strips 1, 2, 15, and 16, the second had 3, 4, 17, and 18, and so on. Keeping track of which pairs of strips matched up into pods would have been ridiculously confusing—we changed the strip numbering immediately.)

With some layouts, such as the one we had for Summer Nationals this year in Atlanta, there is no obviously good way to number the strips. When I first looked at the map of the layout, I thought, “There’s got to be a better way,” but after looking at it for a few minutes, I realized that it was already numbered in the least horrible order. (Sigh. So much in Atlanta this year amounted to “least horrible” options.)

With a good pod layout, good numbering can make the strip assigner’s job much easier. When pods are strips 1–4. 5–8, 9–12, and so on, it’s easy to visualize where strips and events are. In Atlanta, with that less-than-optimal layout, the first pod contained only two numbered strips (along with the Wheelchair frames), so that the pod numbering was off—whole pods were 3–6, 7–10, and so on. Combine that with the odd groups of two and three strips in half the hall, and it was almost impossible to assign events without constantly referring to a map. The layout and numbering were so unusual that it never began to feel familiar over the whole ten days.

Another issue to think about when numbering strips is whether a finals strip should be included in the numbering system. Actually, this is an issue that shouldn’t take any thinking—unless it’s absolutely the last strip, it shouldn’t be numbered at all. Anywhere else, that single strip will mess up the pod numbers and make the strip assigner’s job half again as difficult as it might otherwise be.

Next time: Figuring out which strips to use.


Tournament Layout & Strip Management, Part 1

For years, we bout commitee people have known we need to get better at collecting and organizing the expert knowledge we’ve accumulated while running national tournaments. We need to know what we know in order to transmit that knowledge—it’s tough to train new staff when we can’t explain what we do. So I’ve been thinking about how to figure out what I know about strip management, and being a writer, the obvious course is to write about it and see what comes out.

In 2000. when I first started working national tournaments, there were no pipe-and-drape barriers around strips—no barriers at all between strips and spectators. Not to mention that there was often not even any carpet for referees to stand on—usually there were just strips and concrete. Strips were not grouped into pods but were laid uniformly from one end of the hall to the next, with breaks only for structural columns or access aisles sought by the local fire marshal. The halls we used then were smaller, too. A NAC might use 24 strips; Summer Nationals might have as many as 40. or even 44. (For the 2009–2010 season, we used 40–48 strips for NACs and 66 for Summer Nationals.)

One big problem with this layout was the lack of barriers. It wasn’t just the people constantly cutting across strips or walking in front of referees during bouts, but even well-behaved spectators tended to crowd in ever closer while watching fencing, making it difficult for referees to do their jobs.

Over the next few years, we experimented with pipe-and-drape barriers. Sometimes we had sections of 12 or 16 strips set off by barriers, with entries only in one or two places to limit access to fencers and officials only. We experimented with the placement of the openings—two at opposite corners weren’t quite enough for convenient fencer access, but two openings directly opposite each other created major traffic through pods.

Such large pods also made it difficult for coaches to even see their fencers, let alone give them advice during bouts. Spectators could often watch bouts only from the ends of the strips.

Eventually, someone thought of trying pods of four strips, with pipe-and-drape barriers along the long sides of the pod (two strip-lengths) and the ends without barriers at all. I’m not sure this arrangement would have worked if we’d started with it, but by this time, fencing crowds had learned not to wander through pods during bouts, so the open ends provided plenty of access for fencers and officials without causing extra traffic through the pods.

A couple of years ago, when the budget crunch hit, we even went to barriers of pipe only—no drape. Christy Simmons told me at the time that eliminating the drape saved USA Fencing several thousand dollars per tournament. And it not only made it easier to see the strips from the bout committee stage, but tended to reduce the litter and random abandoned gear left in the pods, too.

Pods of four worked well for people-handling. But they turned out to be a good choice for managing strip assignments, too.

More on that later, though.

Next time: numbering strips.

Ooh, it’s science-y!

We made our (mostly) annual trip to the State Fair last weekend. Our usual ritual is to hit the livestock barns first (my husband as a kid often spent summers on relatives’ hog farms in Iowa—he thinks manure smells good) to watch the 4Hers and their animals. If the dairy goats are still in town, we’ll look for Shining Moon Ranch’s Alpines to say hi to Micki and her goats. She was there this year and had practically the whole gang in town—Grant, and Reed and his kids, and Garth and his kids–Colfax grandkids, that is, not more dairy goats. We watched Grant and his crew win a couple of doe groups they showed in, and then we wandered on to other parts of the fair.

The counties exhibits were pretty low-key this year–not so many big and complex mechanical displays as in past years. I imagine state fair displays are among the first items (and rightly so) to be cut from ever-tighter county budgets. The exuberently silly commercial exhibits made up for that, though.

I always forget how entertaining all those sales booths can be. Sometimes it’s the hawkers—the manic guys with the headset mikes touting their superior pots and pans, vegetable juicers, exotic knives, or mops. There are the sneaker-cleaner vendors, who will happily clean one of your shoes in hopes that the dazzling results will make you buy their product so you can clean the other shoe, too. There are the sellers of cheap imported plastic toys and jewelry—this year, a guy at one of them was shouting out, “Fair Trade! All Fair Trade products!” I wonder if that will become a selling point for more of them next year (and whether it will have any basis in reality).

Then there are the exciting high-tech booths: The personalized horoscope place with the mock-up of what looks like a 1950s-era mainframe computer from which your personal individualized horoscope can be printed (for a fee, of course).

And there are the exercise devices. Last time I made my kinesiology-major daughter laugh when I sent her a photo of a vibrating-plate exerciser. This object is similar to those 50s-era machines that wrapped your hips with a vibrating belt to “melt the fat away,” except that there was no belt—you just stand on it or do exercises with specific body parts resting on it. This year there was a major technological advance: instead of just the plain vibrating platform with its attached controls, the vibrating plate exerciser now offered cable pulls from the base, so you can do bicep curls while you stand there getting yourself shaken. At least with this one, you’d actually get some exercise.

The other new health-and-fitness trend this year was “ionics.” A couple of booths were selling “ionic watches,” which looked exactly like the cheap plastic watches you could also buy in some of the import booths. But supposedly when you wear these special cheap plastic “ionic” watches, your arthritis and heartburn and miscellaneous other health problems will be relieved.

Another booth took the ionic trend to a whole new level, offering a snazzy, sparkly, souped-up blood pressure cuff attached to a control box, with electrodes to attach to various parts of the body. In operation, this device’s “ionic wave action” would relieve your arthritis, heartburn, aches and pains, and whatever else happens to be ailing you.

When I asked my husband, the physics guy, what ionic waves were and how they worked, he just made a funny gargling noise.

We passed on the chocolate-covered bacon, too.