SN 2013: Perseveration

Perseveration: the pathological, persistent repetition of a word, gesture, or act.

This isn’t exactly a new theme for me to write about:

SN 2010:

I’ve now been home from Atlanta for more than a week. Physically, I’m mostly recovered: my once-swollen ankles are back to normal, my sinus cold has vanished, I’m no longer constantly thirsty, and—though I still drop off to sleep remarkably easily—I’m no longer feeling just as tired when I wake up as I did when I fell asleep.

I’m lucky, though. Working from home to my own schedule, I’ve been able to sit with my feet up all day and nap at will. I hate to think of all those officials at SN who worked days just as long as mine who used vacation days to do so and are now trying to recover while working at their real (paying) jobs.

The inescapable conclusion I come to is that we cannot do this again.

SN 2011:

Those of us who volunteer for the satisfaction of doing our jobs well, for the fun and the community, no longer receive those rewards. Under the current conditions, we cannot do the job well, the community becomes almost non-existent, and fun is so rare that it startles, as it startled me on my Sunday off in Reno.

At this stage, deciding to quit working as an official is more a rediscovery of sanity than a conscious decision. We have to be lunatics to volunteer in the first place, but we’re not insane enough to keep at it forever.

SN 2012:

We can’t simply keep going on the way we have for the past few years—the way we are going is unsustainable, and we’re losing too many experienced people to the stress and frustration. We desperately need a new revenue model to support a more workable tournament structure, but can we—will we—develop both before the whole rickety USFA contraption collapses under its own weight?

Or even way back in 2006:

That punchy Day 6 feeling we’ve always joked about, that stage when we start asking each other again—only half-seriously—why we keep coming back to subject ourselves to this same old madness year after year, didn’t hit on Day 6 this year—it hit on Day 2. This year there was just enough more stress, just enough less resilience to make a qualitative difference in the feel of the whole tournament. By Day 6, we felt pummeled and battered.

It’s not a change that’s completely obvious to most fencers yet. But the change is there: everybody’s a bit testier than they used to be, coaches are more unhappy with referees, referees a bit readier to throw penalty cards. We’ve already lost some of the top referees who used to be SN regulars—they’re simply not willing to deal with the brutal conditions for referees, and the attrition will continue inexorably. That Day 6 query, “Why is it we do this?” is no longer just a joke—it’s a genuine question we can’t answer anymore because the Summer Nationals we asked it about is already gone.

Obviously, whatever’s wrong with SN has been wrong for years, and it’s clear that it can’t be all that serious, because all the people who keep complaining about it keep going back, year after year after year. I’m such an incorrigible BC person that, even in previous years when I knew the schedule would be difficult and likely to slip badly from projections, there was always a part of me that looked forward to it eagerly—the noise and the bustle, working with friends through the long and arduous 10 days, even dealing with silly people who had ridiculous problems only because they hadn’t bothered to read the athlete packet.

After last year in Anaheim, though, that changed. Anaheim was a great SN in many respects—it was a location I liked (“road trip!”) and the facilities were better than average. It was an easier schedule than we’d had the previous year and the tournament itself ran about as smoothly as could be expected. But somehow, without any major problems, simply within the normal routine of SN, the balance changed for me. The positives no longer outweighed the negatives.

Throughout this past season, I often mentioned that the only way I was going to be able to work this year’s SN in Columbus was to persuade myself that it would be the last of its kind. In April, because of a potential family conflict (which did not occur, after all), I stayed home from the first national tournament I’d missed in years and found I did not mind at all. That made getting on the plane for Columbus even harder than I expected, and not even when I arrived at the venue and saw all the nifty look-and-feel innovations or ran into the people I was looking forward to seeing, did I feel any of the old anticipation and eagerness. SN had become something to be slogged through.

Mostly it’s the collision between entry numbers and resources—and the resources in question are people.

Consider the photo below. It’s the referee corral in Columbus, maybe late afternoon—lots of tired referees sitting around, waiting to learn whether they’ll continue on to the next round of the event they’ve been working in or be traded to a different event, with entirely different timing. Lots of jackets off, rolled-up sleeves, a few refs in that semi-restful staring-into-space fugue, a couple with their heads down trying to nap, others just filling up yet again on coffee, hoping it’ll help them stay alert for the rest of the day, maybe 2 or 3 hours, maybe 5 or 6, depending on how well they hold up and how late the event they’re assigned to runs.

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Except this isn’t a late afternoon shot. This photo was taken at 8:18 am on the 9th day of SN, and these are referees waiting to be assigned to their first event of the day. This is not the noisy crew who filled the corral during the first couple of days—this group is exhausted. They’re battered physically from standing 10, 12 hours or more on concrete floors each day for a week or more, and they’re battered mentally from trying to maintain the focus and judgment required to work as referees over such long days and hours.

Consider also the black cards that were awarded at SN this year. I don’t remember the exact numbers—there were around half a dozen total—but I found the distribution and type enlightening. During the entire first half, there was only one black card awarded—the kind I think of as routine, typically a teen or younger, relatively new to fencing, who’s still learning mood control on the strip and either spikes or punts a mask in frustration at losing a touch or a bout. We used to have a lot more of those, but fencers seem to be getting better at coping with calls they don’t like, and I suspect it’s also that our referees overall are better at making calls, too.

The black cards during the second half—at least 4 on the same day, too—were of a different character. All of them were awarded to spectators—coaches or family of competitors—who swore at or threatened referees or accused them of cheating. I’m definitely an absolutist here, with zero tolerance for this kind of behavior, so there is no doubt in my mind that the black cards were properly awarded. But I have to wonder how many fewer would have been given if both referees and fencers weren’t operating with exhaustion-impaired judgment. Referees who weren’t so deathly tired might have been better able to defuse those situations before they escalated into black card territory. Those coaches and parents, too, might have reacted more appropriately to what they saw as bad calls had they not themselves been utterly worn out.

This year in Columbus we had a bit under 4,000 competitors in about 7,250 entries. That’s about 500 more entries than last year in Anaheim, which itself was up a few hundred from the previous year. So we’re likely to see an additional 500 or so entries for next year’s SN from normal growth, plus the 900–1200 additional entries due to the addition of the Division I NAC events. (Why the wide range of numbers for Div I? Normally, we expect around 900 for a Div I NAC event, but at SN in conjunction with other categories we have to expect a lot of crossover entries, as is especially evident from the Junior NAC events since they were added to SN—from their projected 900, they were 1097 in Reno 2011, 1224 in Anaheim, and 1302 in Columbus. Similarly, Division I events at SN in 2014 could be very large indeed.)

Large events themselves create problems for us, too. It’s not so much the size of any one event as the effect that large events have on our ability to run other events. (Actually, for the BC, large events are easier—we have to start and turn every event, no matter the size, so fewer large events take a lot less work than a bunch of little Veteran events, aside from just waiting for all the DE bouts to fence out.)

Colored markers are essential for keeping all the paper organized when 2 BC table staff run 6 Veteran events simultaneously.

Colored markers are essential for keeping all the paper organized when 2 BC table staff run 6 Veteran events simultaneously.

Take Saturday, July 6, for example. That’s the day we held Junior Men’s Epee, at 324 entries going in, our largest single event. If 321 or more had checked in, that would have been a DE tableau of 512. At check-in, we lost enough to avoid the 512, but we still had enough fencers for 45 pools. Because we had an extra pod (64 strips instead of the originally planned 60, plus the finals strip) and enough saber referees, we could send out both 8:00 events—the JME pools and the 18 pools of Junior Women’s Saber—without needing to flight either of them. This was good, because at 10:30, when the JME was supposed to finish its pools and drop down to 24 strips for its DEs, I had 8 pools of Youth 10 Women’s Saber coming in, followed a couple hours later by 17 Junior Women’s Foil and 38 Junior Men’s Saber teams. But the key fact to remember is that the JME had to be at least down to its round of 8 on a single pod before there would be room for the afternoon Cadet Men’s Foil (33 pools, DEs on 24 strips) and Youth 12 Men’s Saber (16 pools flighted, DEs on 16) to start.

That’s a problem we’re seeing more and more, and it’s one that’s only partially remedied by more strips. Junior Men’s Saber now is often as large as JMF or JME, but we simply don’t have enough referees to send out 35 or 40 pools of saber at once. And even if we did, once events are big enough for a mostly complete table of 256, it takes a certain minimum number of hours for those bouts to fence out. When I first started working BC in 2000, we could start the then-large foil and epee events at the same time and still have room, even with only 36 or 40 strips, to squeeze a much-smaller (as they still were, then) saber event onto the leftover strips. Now, there’s no way we can start two large events at the same time—and the larger our events get, the later in the day the afternoon event has to start, which means the overall day runs late into the night, 10:00 or 11:00 or later.

I worked 8 days as BC chair in Columbus. I had a relatively good schedule so that I never worked more than 3 days in a row, but it still added up to around 115-116 hours over those 8 days. I chose to stay on as BC chair for my whole time because I had such a hard time last year switching over to table; I decided it was safer to stick with the job I was already used to. But by the last day, I was having just as much trouble as the highly rated referees who couldn’t see actions any longer—I sent two events to the same strips more than once, and miscommunicated strip assignments badly enough that DEs for one event had to be reposted.

Most of my staff worked days just as long, just like every other group of officials—referees, armorers, trainers. Some of the most tired and stressed weren’t those who signed up for the whole tournament, but those who came for only 5 or 6 days, who therefore didn’t get a day off. (Officials who work the whole shebang are entitled to 2 days off, for which per diems but not honoraria are paid.) And then there were those who caught this year’s plague, a nasty stomach bug that meandered through the officials’ corps at its leisure—within the BC alone, we had 3 cases of the flu and 1 case of food poisoning (better because only 24-hour duration). How much less vulnerable to these itinerant microbes would our crews be if they were less exhausted?

That was this year. What will next year be like, with maybe 4,500–5,000 competitors and as many as 9,000 entries?

We started talking about ways to make next year work while we were still in Columbus. We’ll need more strips and more days, and shorter days, and a day’s break in the middle for meetings and clinics and other non-competition activity. We’ll need to put a limit on officials’ working hours, to make sure that they’ll actually be capable of the work we recruit them to do. And if we do that, we’ll need to come close to doubling our corps of officials.

It will be horrendously expensive. We will have to work like crazy this coming season to recruit and train the extra volunteers we’ll need, both entry- and higher-level. We’ll have to talk ourselves blue in the face persuading all those who’ve already opted out of SN or are now planning to, to give it another shot with improvements in working conditions. I don’t know yet whether we’ll be able to pull it off.

But we don’t have any choice. Because if we don’t make those changes, I won’t be the only official who’ll opt out of SN in 2014.

SN 2013: Show & Tell

I’ve been back home for 10 days now. I no longer wake up at 2:30 am like I did all last week (my alarm was set for 5:30 am in Columbus), I no longer drop off to sleep unpredictably in the middle of the day, and I’m no longer constantly thirsty. I can make my coffee without hurting myself and can even form the occasional coherent thought.

There were many good things about this year’s Summer Nationals, but it was every bit as difficult to work as I’d expected and only confirmed my belief that we cannot do SN this way again. (I mean that “cannot” literally, that it will not be possible.) But that’s for a future post, one more serious than today’s.

Today is for the cheery show-and-tell, scenery and carpets and the BC’s 3D Tetris game.

My trip to Columbus—which I think of as an excursion through a wormhole into the detached-from-all-circadian-rhythms universe of Tournament Time—began inevitably, not at 6:30 or 6:00 am, but at 5:45 am, good practice for the 5:30 am my alarm would be set for in Columbus. Uneventful flights, though, and I actually stayed awake long enough to see some of the views on the way to and from my layover in Phoenix:

The official officials’ hotel—a Hampton Inn—did not have enough rooms for all of our officials, so the armorers, trainers, and BC staff were switched over to the Hilton, a comfortable hotel of modern but not stark design, with not only carpet patterns worth adding to my collection but ceiling art in the rooms, too:

The convention center carpets were color variations on a uniform theme:

A pleasant surprise this year was the visual upgrade of SN—14-foot feather signs to identify each pod, logo banners for the scoring tables, red and blue drapes and flags wrapping all the pillars, an honest-to-goodness raised finals strip with multiple repeaters and light-up front panels and three sections of bleachers. You wouldn’t think frills like this would be such morale-boosters, but over the course of the whole 10 days, they did quite a bit to reduce the feeling of being trapped forever in a cinderblock basement. Larry & Duane, of Socket Events, installed all this, and were also the guys in charge of the finals show, introducing fencers and referees and making those gold medal bouts more of the showcase events they should be. (Both guys were pretty impressive, too, with the long hours they worked and the speed they learned—once they pick up a few of our more challenging name pronunciations, there’ll be no stopping them.)

One of the innovations that made me really happy was our abandonment of bulletin boards and pushpins in favor of monitors for posting event information. We need a couple more sets of monitors and a more robust network to support them, along with more control than the software currently gives us over the speed and content of what is displayed, but for the most part, the monitors were a success.

A couple of photos to hint at our competitive numbers:

I was happy to be able to slip away from the competition for a little bit on the first Sunday to drop in on the memorial celebration of Ed Richards’ life. I couldn’t stay very long, but I got to hear a couple of good stories, take a quick look at some of the artifacts that Andy Shaw had gathered, and chat with family members. It’ll take some time before I quit expecting to see Ed’s lanky frame at national tournaments.

Packing up on the last night brought us a brand new puzzle with the monitors needing to be packed. Since they’re still traveling in their original manufacturer’s packaging, they had to go into our BC crate, and most of our bins and cartons had to be palletized instead. The monitor stands don’t need tools to assemble or take apart, and came with nifty carry bags that might even survive at least a partial season. Eventually they’ll all need serious shipping containers–our Pelican cases for shipping are more expensive than the laptops they carry, but with them we know the laptops will still work each time they arrive in a new tournament city. It was kind of fun having the new 3D puzzle to solve, though it also added an extra hour of packing time to our usual routine. We did manage to make it back to the hotel while their kitchen was still open (everyplace else in the neighborhood had already closed theirs), though we didn’t cut it as close as the armorers, who made it with only 10 minutes to spare to order their food that night.

The flights home were easy, too—especially that first leg to Las Vegas, which seemed much shorter than it should have been. Couldn’t have been that I was unconscious for most of it, could it? I still managed to take a lot of pictures of the western half of the continent, of which these are a small selection. (Once upon a time, probably in the early 1960s, UC Extension offered a California geography course that was a few hours of classroom work capped with a flight in a small plane to see the what all that geography looked like from the air. I was only 9 or 10 but I really wanted to take that class. It was ridiculously expensive and was dropped by the time I was old enough to take it, but I’ve never understood why anyone wouldn’t want a window seat every time they fly.)

Next time: I’ll explain why I won’t do this again.