Category Archives: Fencing

Throwback Thursday: A Toast to Incremental Improvement

(Nostalgia for those preparing for yet another SN)

These days I usually don’t think much about fencing tournament logistics, having been out of that business now for the better part of a decade, but my husband just had his second total knee replacement early this week, and I’m cognitively in a weird place, somewhat reminiscent of working long BC hours at Summer Nationals, back when tournament operations left much to be desired.

This morning I woke up thinking about the worst SN I ever worked as BC chair. Took me a bit of research to figure out which SN it was, because the part haunting me was specifically the strip layout, but my vague impression that it was at the Georgia World Congress Center was correct: Atlanta 2010.

Come with me now back to the Bad Old Days, before the feather banners marked pods, back when we numbered all the strips consecutively, and didn’t even routinely use pods of four strips.

I don’t have a copy of the map, so we’ll have to get by with a paragraph from my blog post for that setup day (

At the bout committee stage there are stacks of the strip map sitting on the tables, so I grab a copy to see what we’ll have to work with. Looks like nine pods of four strips—oops, no, the one in the corner is really only two strips plus the wheelchair frames. The other half of the hall is an assortment of twos and threes, but I can’t see what the pattern is—2, 3, 2, 2, then the BC stage and the trainers, then 2, 3. The next section is 3, 2, 2, 2, the Finals area, and another 3. Sixty strips total, plus the Finals strip. But two of the three-pods each have one of the “banana” strips, the congenitally curved strips that tend to come apart when people fence on them, and four other strips are roll-out cloth strips that we shouldn’t put epee or large people on.

BC chairs tend to think in multiples of four strips—ideally, we want to put direct elimination rounds out on 8, or 16, or 24 strips, as much as we can on the same strips used for the pool rounds. At huge events like SN, I normally learned the map really quickly, knowing which part of the room the two pods of strips 17–24, say, were located. But this particular layout was nearly impossible to learn, because of that pesky layout. Strips 1–4 were not a pod unto themselves; the first two strips were shared with those wheelchair frames, so the four-pods were weirdly 3–6, 7–10, 11–14, etc.

And then there was the other half of the hall, with all those twos and threes randomly distributed. It was impossible to assign strips without constantly referring to the map to figure out what was where.

That was the single most exhausting SN I ever worked, and we BC/TC folks yelled about it quite a bit afterward. The following season we pretty much moved to four-pods exclusively, and we began to experiment with better strip numbering. I think we had a couple of NACs where we numbered the pods and gave the strips within each pod letters (e.g., 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D), and then someone—I can’t remember who—suggested lettering the pods and numbering the strips within the pod, and the national office eventually ordered those nifty feather banners and we could retire our worn laminated office-paper strip numbers.

There’ve been lots of other improvements, too, obviously, not least of which was the replacement of the once-miraculous XSeed tournament software that Dan McCormick had written with Dan Berke’s FencingTime. (Remember back before live results on your phone there were just the monitor screens in the venue, and before that, only those damn wobbly bulletin boards where BC staff posted paper copies of all the assignments and tableaux, and there was another area where we posted the paper results. Sometimes the local organizing committee was even organized enough to make copies of the results so people could buy copies for themselves.)

I looked up the entry numbers for that 2010 SN in Atlanta: amazingly, there were about 6,270 individual entries in what was then considered an excessively large SN. Last year’s SN in Minneapolis, with over 9,000 individual entries, had nearly half again as many. And it was a lot easier to find your strip than it used to be.



Filed under Fencing, Just Because


Back when I wrote more often about education, I occasionally posted what I called “DUH research”—usually, reports of academic or clinical findings in education or cognitive psychology that seem so obvious to those of us who’ve spent any time at all paying attention to how our kids learn that it’s hard to believe anybody ever bothered with formal studies. Of course maniacal LEGO kids get to be good at visual geometry. Or those who play games like Yahtsee and poker get better at arithmetic and probability. Or kids who get enough food and sleep tend to be better adjusted and more capable than those who don’t. Duh, right?

My post today is a different kind of DUH post because the duh is aimed squarely at myself. I’ve been in a weird sort of funk or malaise for the past couple of months, not working much on the mystery novel that’s supposedly my main project these days, but not doing much of anything else, either. Which led eventually to a couple days ago, when I found myself on one of my occasional one-question-leads-to-another stream-of-consciousness meandering conversations with myself:

Why aren’t you working on the book?

Don’t want to.

Why don’t you work on something else?

Can’t, because I need to finish the book.

OK, then work on the book already.

Don’t want to.

Oh, get off it. “Want” has nothing to do with it—you get your fingers on the keyboard and get to work, and the work will get done.

But I don’t know where the story’s going.

Why not?


A few hours passed like this, with the same basic questions bouncing around and around my brain, until I realized I have no story because there is no story. There are a few characters, composites not unlike many people i’ve know in the fencing world. There’s a setting, a national fencing championship tournament in a huge convention center concrete box, not unlike many I’ve worked through as an official and parent and spectator. There’s a lovingly crafted atmosphere that I’ve tweaked over and over to get the details just right.

And there’s a slight wisp of a plot with empty channels big enough to sail a cruise ship through.

That there is no story was not my big DUH epiphany, though. The big realization was that I DON’T CARE that I have no story. My revelation was that my book wasn’t a story at all, but therapy. I was involved in fencing—as a parent of a relatively accomplished athlete, as a volunteer official, as chair of a major national governance committee, as a member of the board of the national governing body—for over fifteen years. Fencing was a huge part of my life, both incredibly rewarding and unbelievably frustrating. Even though I finished my board term and resigned from my other fencing commitments more than three years ago, it was only last fall that the new fencing season started without me even noticing I wasn’t obsessively tracking national tournament entry numbers and event end times the way I usually did.

In 2009, my first draft was a lark and a catharsis. It was great and unexpected fun to write, not least because I realized that writing fiction—this was my first—could be even more fun than reading it. I was obsessed with it, constantly wanting to get back to work on it to find out what would happen with all my characters. The several abortive rewrite attempts over the next decade have been less fun, but often interesting and useful, and they taught me a ton about writing fiction, what does and doesn’t work and what is and isn’t publishable. Mostly, though, those rewrites were therapy, helping me complete my withdrawal from my fencing world addiction.

So, farewell, fencing manuscript. (Not totally goodbye, though—like most professional writers, I don’t ever throw any work away. I just pack it all into files and stash it in my abandoned/unpublished folder. You never know.)

I’m a teensy bit sorry to disappoint all my fencing friends who had volunteered to be beta readers. And it would have been fun to watch people try to figure out which real people my characters were based on, when none of them were based on real people. (Admittedly, a couple were at first inspired by real people, but that all disappeared in very early drafts.) But now all I have to do is figure out which of the half-dozen other projects rattling around my brain I want to tackle first.

This is going to be fun.

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Anniversary of a (Mostly) Past Life

Today’s date almost slipped by me, even though it had occurred to me a few months ago that it was coming up. Twenty years ago today—June 8, 1997— was when I officially became a Famous Homeschool Author™*.

It was very nearly an accident. We were a homeschooling family, of the secular if-we’re-going-to-spend-most-of-our-time-reading-we-mght-as-well-be-comfortable school of thought. (Seriously, the best way to understand the attitude with which we approached learning is to go watch Carl Reiner’s new HBO documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. Those over-90s totally get it.) I was active with a statewide homeschool organization, and one day got a call from an editor at a local publisher (then the “5th largest independent publisher in the United States”) who was interested in developing curriculum packages to sell to homeschoolers. I sent them a bunch of articles, magazines, and other info, got taken to lunch, had my brain picked, and was eventually asked to give feedback on a truly awful proposal they came up with. (I tell the complete story in the introduction to Viral Learning.) That was the end of that, I thought.

But a few weeks later, I got a call from a different editor at the same company, who told me she thought there was a market for a trade book about homeschooling and invited me to submit a proposal. Soon, I had signed a contract to write at least 70,000 words about homeschooling over the next 18 months, which seemed an incredibly generous amount of time. It turned out to be far more time than I’d needed, because—inevitably—i procrastinated so much that I ended up writing the bulk of the book in the last two months before my deadline.

Then came the fun of learning how the publishing world worked. I was asked for title suggestions, most of which were completely ignored, because the publisher was more concerned with appealing to book store buyers than the eventual retail purchasers. (After all, if the books aren’t in the stores, either physical or online, nobody gets the chance to buy them.)

There were multiple, seemingly endless opportunities to read my book—over and over and over—copyediting run, making the index (which I did myself because I was too much a cheapskate to pay $400 for someone to do it for me), proofing run, final proofing run.

And somewhere in among the rereads, the publisher sent me the proposed cover, which I detested from the moment I saw it. I hated its homespun faux-denim look with the red scalloped line that looked like a badly tensioned line of machine embroidery. I hated the run-on multi-part title/subtitle/sub-subtitle. Most of all, I hated that damn pencil, irritatingly bearing that smarmy SUCCESS, which seemed to me to symbolize every homeschooling stereotype my homeschooling friends and I had been fighting for years. I suggested a few changes. (My friend Kim Stuffelbeam even mocked up a lovely red cover for it, which I passed on to the publisher, who said thanks, but no thanks. They really liked the faux denim.)

I did win the fight over the back cover copy, persuading the publisher that the original “THE ONLY HOMESCHOOLING BOOK YOU’LL EVER NEED!” would alienate more potential purchasers than it would attract. I decided I could live with “Don’t Even Think About Teaching Your Child at Home—Until You Read This Book.”

Eventually a carton full of books showed up, most of which I signed and sent to all my contributors who’d filled out an obnoxiously long questionnaire for me. June 8 rolled around, the book was officially published, and I was a Famous Homeschool Author™, learning to form coherent sentences on the fly for radio interviews and obsessing over the book’s Amazon ranking. Somewhat to the publisher’s surprise, the first printing sold out within two weeks, and they went back to press, and then asked me, “What’s next?”

So for 1998, I wrote another one, The Unschooling Handbook, which I liked much better. By then, the publisher had decided that my advice about reaching my part of the homeschooling market wasn’t completely baseless, so I ended up with a cover I liked much better, too. The new book sold well enough that the publisher decided not only that we needed a new updated version of my first book, for which I wrote about 40% new material, but that it would be the first of a whole series of homeschooling titles in uniform, identifiable covers. The Homeschooling Handbook, Revised 2nd Edition, came out in 1999, with a cover that was less interesting than that of The Unschooling Handbook, but at least had an illustration of a kid with a book and a magnifying glass, looking at a ladybug, which reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

My publisher was a bit shocked, I think, that I wasn’t at all interested in writing any of the titles for the new series, but after three years of writing about homeschooling (and talking about it at conferences and in interviews), I’d said what I’d had to say about the subject, and had no interest in rehashing it into further titles. After my younger daughter started college, I sent out another of my long and obnoxious questionnaires to as many of my previous contributors as I still had contact info for, and in 2007 came out with my self-published Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life, a collection of linked essays, plus an appendix full of the questionnaire responses. But that book was just for me, and for the contributors, not a real part of my Famous Homeschool Author™ collection.

The HH and UH, as I think of them these days, are still in print and still selling. My little “5th largest” publisher was acquired by Random House, so my books are now published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Books Group, a division of Penguin Random, owned by AG Bertelsmann. (My contacts and communications with my publishing conglomerate these days are entirely electronic and non-human.) Both books are in their 14th or 15th editions, at least the last time I saw copies in a book store. with cumulative sales now approaching 95,000 copies. (To put that number in perspective, back when I still knew humans at Crown, they declined my fencing book proposal with a kind “We think it would be a great book, but we’re not interested unless it will sell 100,000 copies in the first year.”) My little backlist homeschooling titles have been only enough to keep me in new glasses and occasional computer and phone upgrades over the past two decades.

But backlist titles still earning royalties after 20 years is still kind of amazing.

*”Famous Homeschool Author™” is the term coined in sarcasm by my then 12-year-old older daughter to keep me in my place. The whole family (including me) has used it off and on ever since, invariably ironically.

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A Necessary Missive

Wrote a letter to the USFA board today:

Dear USFA Board Members and Staff,

I was disappointed and disheartened to see or hear no public statement from USFA after the recent reports of at least two of our members having been singled out for unusual attention going through U.S. Customs when returning from fencing-related international travel. Perhaps, I thought, there was a statement being worked on, to be posted to the USFA website. Or, failing that, maybe there would be a formal motion or resolution to come out of the February meeting of the Board of Directors.

When the agenda for that meeting was posted today, I therefore read through it in search of such a resolution or proposal, and the only item I could find even plausibly related to this issue is Mr. Alperstein’s motion in the Good & Welfare portion of the agenda:

“RESOLVED: USA Fencing remains committed to the principles of diversity, inclusion and openness, and reaffirms that it welcomes and embraces members and participants without regard to ethnicity, religion or national origin. In furtherance of these values, USA Fencing reiterates is commitment to pluralism and its opposition to any practices, policies, rules or laws that discriminate against or stigmatize individuals or groups, that mark them for special treatment, or that deny them the full enjoyment of liberty, opportunity and equality on the basis of superficial or pretextual criteria.”

This statement is, to be blunt, a “Miss America contestant” statement—one that uses a lot of pretty words to say virtually nothing. Is it intended as a statement of support for those USFA members and others who have experienced unusual attention when traveling internationally? How can we tell?

To fail to take a strong public stand against policies and procedures that have already affected at least two well-known USFA members and may yet affect others is to implicitly approve such actions. While I understand the desire to avoid making a public fuss, this is exactly the sort of situation which requires a public fuss. That two United States citizens could be pulled aside on what can only be interpreted as the basis of race, religion, or culture is chilling. That effect can only be more threatening to those of our members who are legal residents, but not yet citizens.

A significant number of the referees and other officials the USFA depends on to staff our domestic tournaments and serve as part of international team cadres are immigrants and permanent residents. Impingements on their freedom to travel on our behalf have the potential to discourage their service and hamper our operations. Were such incidents to continue or increase, we could also expect to see fewer international competitors and officials willing to travel to the United States, and might find our ability to win bids to host World Cups, Championships, and even the Olympic Games compromised.

Beyond any practical potential effects of these troubling incidents is the simple fact that what happened to Ibti and Abdel was simply wrong. Like that of the United States itself, the history of the United States Fencing Association is not free of policies and periods of which it now has reason to be ashamed. Do not allow these incidents to join that part of our history. Do not allow these incidents to pass without notice or protest.

I urge you to strengthen the language of this motion to make clear that it is meant to specifically address threats to our members’ ability to travel freely, and then to approve it and urge other sports NGBs, as well as the USOC, to take similar strong public stands. I also recommend that the USFA provide appropriate information about travel rights and contacts for legal representation to any and all who travel internationally on the USFA’s behalf.

Mary Griffith

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