Category Archives: Miscellaneous ranting

We Get the Job Done

hmi701_1I’m obsessed—for entirely opposite reasons—with this year’s memorably insane presidential campaigns and with Hamilton: An American Musical (or more precisely, with the soundtrack, since both the commute and the ticket prices are well out of my range at the moment). But a peculiar synergy between the two sent me digging into the family history and genealogy files that I’d essentially ignored since I took possession of them after my dad died.

You see, I’m a product of white American suburbia. Not only that, I was born in the ’50s into a family that looked like every family you could see on TV back then. Just like in Father Knows Best, we lived in a house with a lawn front and back, and were a father with a job, a mother who took care of us, and three kids—me and my younger brother and sister. Oh, and most of the time, at least one dog. We ate hamburgers and meat loaf and hot dogs and Kraft dinner (sometimes with ground beef mixed in) and scalloped potatoes, with sides from the official rotation of suburban American vegetables (green beans, corn, peas, and carrots, with rare additions of asparagus or artichokes when in season). For exotica, there were occasionally ground beef tacos with faux guacamole (without chillies or tomatoes or tomatillos but with lemon juice and mayonnaise—shudder).

I’d been aware that my ancestry was mostly Scots-Irish and German, that one grandmother had come from England as a child, and a great-uncle many times removed had signed the Declaration of Independence, but that was about it. I’d never bothered to dig deeper. It was bound to be pretty dull, right?

Turns out, not so much.

Dad had pulled together information from various cousins who’d been interested in genealogy and added more from various online databases and more correspondence with distant relatives. Among my various boring ancestors were:

  • a guy who came to the Mother Lode for the Gold Rush from Maine and who, when the boiler exploded on the steamship he was going home on, ended up back in California as a rancher in Tehama County.
  • the Polish Jew who married an English Jew in Pittsburgh, upon which event her family disinherited her, apparently because he was the wrong kind of Jew from the wrong part of Europe.
  • a German family descended from at least eight generations who were born and died in the same Bavarian village who ended up starting vineyards to produce “medicinal and sacramental wines” in a Kansas that was turning Dry.
  • another German came to Chicago as a carpenter and cooper in 1860, stayed long enough to experience the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, and ended up in St. Joseph, Missouri.
  • a retired colonel who rejoined the U.S. Cavalry to serve under General Zachary Taylor in Florida, where he managed to get himself killed by Seminoles in the Battle of Okeechobee, which for some reason was seen by his relatives and many of his descendants as a “glorious” death.
  • a great-grandfather who served in the Army Signal Corps in the early 20th century, stationed in Seattle, Juneau, and Sitka, where he apparently became acquainted with Roald Amundsen.

Dad documented American ancestors back to the mid-1600s, to English and Irish who came to Virginia. But in that generation, which would include 4096 ancestors for me, he only found four individuals. For well over half the ancestral lines, the information just stops, usually because female surnames are unknown or the individuals had migrated to parts of the continent that maintained few vital records at the time. Maybe someday I’ll try to follow up on some of those missing people.

What I did recently, though, was make a diagram (below) from those ancestral charts, noting which ancestors were immigrants (green dots), which were born here (black dots), and where the trails stop (red dots). What jumped out at me almost immediately was that those green dots show up at least every two or three generations. I’d be willing to bet that beyond the red dots are at least as many immigrants as there are among my known ancestors.

immigrant tree

What you can’t see from this diagram, either, is that even that longest-documented line, the one that goes all the way back through colonial Virginia to England and Ireland, is full of people who didn’t stay where they were born, who moved hundreds of miles to explore unfamiliar places and build new communities. Or that some of those ancestors in both Virginia and even New York, far enough back, were slaveowners, so that it’s likely, given the reality of slave-based economies, that I’ve got more than a few undocumented and less white distant cousins I will never know.

Which brings us back to that synergy I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I am who I am because of not just where and when I grew up, but where and when all those ancestors grew up and lived, where they came from and what they built and moved on from and rebuilt. And that’s true of all of us. Whether our immigrant ancestors came for adventure, for a better life, for simple refuge, or because they were brought here unwillingly, we Americans are who we are because of them. Because of all those generations of immigrants who’ve never stopped coming, who’ve never stopped making us stronger, who even now make us more than we were.

Don’t mess with immigrants—you’re talking family.

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Filed under Families, Just Because, Miscellaneous ranting

Signs of Spring

Spring is well and truly here: blue skies, sunny days, green hills (not that “golden” of which my mother fumes, “They’re not golden! They’re dried-up brown!”), poppies and lupines, open windows, fresh air, sense of impending doom.

You didn’t really think this would be an ode to nature, did you?

Spring is the time for recruiting and hiring officials for Summer Nationals. Recruiting and hiring bout committee staff means poring* over the schedule and pondering how much larger this year’s entry numbers will be than last year’s, and trying my damnedest not to remember what SN feels like.

A decade ago, I’d wait anxiously for the email that told me to book my flight, that I’d been hired, that I’d get to run away and play for the whole noisy fantabulous ten days of fencers and coaches and parents and vendors and officials running amok within their concrete bunker. And once my flight was booked, the two months until the start of SN seemed like forever. My most frequent thought, looking forward to my annual SN excursion: “This is going to be so much fun!”

Now I’m the one who sends those emails, after I sort through everyone’s availability and figure out whether we even have enough staff to cover all the competition days. Some BC staff volunteer for all of SN, while others are only available for 5 or 6 days. Some compete and others have family or friends who are referees or armorers, so they need specific days off. It’s always a bit suspenseful charting it in a spreadsheet to see whether I have enough people for each day or they’re all clumped at one end or the other. And will I have the right mix of chairs and computer leads and data entry and table staff to make it work?

We had almost enough this year, and only had to do a bit of finagling to get the combination we needed to be sure all the necessary functions were covered. Though a surprising number of us are still masochistic enough to volunteer for the whole 10 days, more and more of the most experienced and capable staff—perhaps those who remember better than the rest of us from year to year what working SN is like—are available for only 5 days or not at all. Dread is not an emotion conducive to volunteer retention.

I can’t blame them. After all, I’m not entirely immune, with that pesky sense of impending doom. Instead of my former cheery anticipation, what will be running through my head off and on until I board my plane for Columbus will be something more like this (the relevant content is at 1:15).

I’ve been whining about the size and stress and challenge of our national tournaments for years now, and some people tell me that’s exactly what it is—whining—and that I should just stop, suck it up, and deal with it. (Dare I add, “like a good girl”?)

But those entry numbers keep going up and up, and the competition days keep getting longer and longer, and I keep thinking back to that article I posted about after the 2011 SN, in which I immediately recognized the symptoms SN causes in those of us who work it. I’ve read a bit about partial sleep deprivation since then (for instance, here and here), which has not relieved my concerns. Sleep deprivation affects different people to different degrees, but the consequences are real: more than 4 or 5 days with less than 6 hours of sleep can cause cognitive impairment equivalent to a .05-.10 blood alcohol content.

We do what we can to try to mitigate the effects of our cumulative sleep debt. The plane trip always starts the process for me—my typical 6:30 am (or earlier) departure means I have to get up at 2:30 or 3:00 am to get to the airport in time, and when I finally reach what airline people call my “ultimate destination,” my sense of time is so messed up that I’ve made the successful transition to what I always think of as Tournament Time, where it doesn’t matter what day or time it is but only where I need to be and what time the next event is supposed to start.

I try to track the progress of my cognitive impairments as they develop. Talking myself out loud through previously routine tasks usually starts around the fourth or fifth day, though some years it’s been earlier. Around the sixth or seventh day, I usually have to start thinking consciously about how to manipulate my lips and tongue and mouth in order to form the words I’m trying to say. Part of me is interested in trying to determine what my own personal BAC would be if I exhibited the same symptoms due to alcohol consumption, but unfortunately for that analysis, I’ve never been that drunk.

As tired as I may feel toward the end of a 14- to 16-hour day, I’ve learned that I need to make the next day’s strip plan on the previous evening, usually while the final 8 of the last event is fencing down to the gold medal. If I decide it’ll be easier in the morning when I’m more alert, I’ll usually be wrong. I’ll be better off with the extra half hour of sleep.

My condition is not unique. Look at the referee corral around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, and you’re likely to see unassigned but unreleased referees staring into space or napping with their heads on the table in front of them. Then think about the referees who are working, who’ve probably been working the whole day already and might have 3-5 more hours left before they’re done for the day. Standing, signaling calls, focusing on actions, coping with athletes and coaches and parents—sore muscles, achy joints, tired brains, testy moods. Cognitive deficits? We don’t allow referees to consume alcohol while they’re working, but we let them work while suffering from the same symptoms excessive alcohol consumption would cause.

Or take a look at the trainers’ clientele every so often. They handle a constant stream of fencers in need of ice or taping or stretching, punctuated by emergency calls out to strips, and they  treat a lot of referees, too, keeping them on their feet and functioning. Might our long competition days adversely affect our trainers’ skills and judgment, too?

Are we really serving the best interests of our athletes?

How did we reach a point where 14- to 16-hour competition days are considered even remotely acceptable?

This is wrong. We need to change it.

* I can’t use that word now without giggling (and more weirdly, worrying about my coffee), and we know whose fault that is, don’t we, Peach?

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Filed under Fencing, Miscellaneous ranting

Burning My Bridges

I’ve written several times before about how I got into working bout committee at USA Fencing national tournaments, about how annoying it was for both me and my daughters for me to be right there at the strip watching them compete. For them, I was a distraction; for me, watching them fence was uncomfortably stomach-churning—there was nothing I could do to help them except refill their water bottles and try not to bother them. When someone suggested that I help out with bout committee (BC), I jumped at the opportunity—it gave me something useful to do far enough away from my daughters’ strips to eliminate the stomach-churning, but still gave me access to plenty of information on how they were doing.

This is me having fun.


Next thing I knew, I was working more tournaments than the girls were competing in. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t just helping with data entry—I was running competitions and then entire tournaments, assigning strips and BC staff, and dealing with questions and problems from fencers, coaches, parents, referees, and spectators. I discovered that I love running huge fencing tournaments—the bigger, the better. I love the combination of detailed and big-picture focus required to chair a tournament. I love watching the interpersonal dynamics: fencers & referees, fencers & parents, parents & officials, coaches & officials, officials & officials. I love watching fencers work their way through an elimination tableau, managing their intensity and stamina to keep winning all the way to the gold. I love watching fencers cope with disappointment and frustration to keep coming back and trying again.

my typical concrete playground

I’ve never been one for resort-type vacations, the kind where you sit on the beach and relax in the sun. Masochist I may be, but give me the 15-hour days within concrete walls, listening to the whines of scoring boxes and the screams of Cadet saber girls. Give me the parents who haven’t yet learned that it’s their kids who are fencing and not them. Give me the coaches who believe I’ve deliberately assigned their fencers as far from each other as possible within the venue. Give me the referees who never seem to learn that they should eat lunch when they’re told they should eat or they may never get another chance. Give me the generically awful concession food, the kids who roll their eyes at their overprotective parents, and the cranky and charming veterans. Give me the fencers tickled out of their minds to have won their first DE and those for whom winning gold medals has become almost routine. Give me the ten days of chaos and 6,500 7,000+ entries that is Summer Nationals and let me play.

I love running huge fencing tournaments.

the bigger, the better

So why am I ready to walk away from fencing?

_________________

One of the first—and most important—concepts we teach new BC trainees is “You will make mistakes.” Everyone involved in fencing learns this: fencers choose wrong actions, referees blow calls, BC staff mis-transcribe scores or names. What is crucial is what happens next—do we learn from our mistakes to prevent them from happening again? On the BC stage, that means we figure out how the error happened, and do what it takes to minimize the chances that it will happen again—refocus attention, improve staff training, alter our procedures, and if it comes to that, change personnel. Our mistakes, if they are unavoidable, should be brand new mistakes we’ve never made before.

Some of my tournament peeps
(l. to r., seated: Wayne, Other Rich, Nancy, Carla; standing: Marc, Irena, me, Coffee-Joe, Linda, Rich, Tanya, Brandon)

For several reasons, we are not learning: the United States Fencing Association is making the same mistakes it’s made for the past two Olympic quadrennials. A couple of weeks ago (courtesy of Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words), I came across the perfect word to describe USFA’s current straits: “omnishambles.” Apparently gleefully in vogue to describe British politics, it is a combination of tragedy and farce in politics, encapsulating “serial misjudgments and misadventures.”

Among fencing’s omnishambolic aspects:

• USFA members often receive incorrect information from national office staff who neither know nor consult the appropriate rules and policies before answering questions from members. Avoidable errors in the processing and updating of tournament entries have caused event delays of 10–30 minutes at every national tournament this season. Confusion and misunderstandings about travel and hotel arrangements for officials have also been common. As noted in the draft USOC audit report (and not specifically addressed in the executive director’s April 26 report to the board), 24 individuals have left positions in the national office since 2008; the staff of the international department alone has turned over completely twice in the past two years. Such rapid turnover certainly helps to explain the staff confusion about fencing policies and procedures, but what explains this number of departures from a staff of only 13 or 14 individuals?

• Others can speak more authoritatively about USFA finances, but I cannot help but wonder at the sloppy controls noted in the USOC audit report draft: after the USFA financial debacle of 2008, how is it that our accounting procedures are anything less than squeaky clean?

(And while we’re on the topic, I can imagine an executive director who, on receipt of a USOC audit report draft, might share it with the full board, explaining what it says, where he thinks it’s wrong, and what revisions he’ll recommend to the USOC for the final version. But that’s not the ED we have. And I can imagine a board less concerned with the “premature distribution” of a document marked neither “confidential” nor “not for public distribution,” and more concerned with the substance of its content and the frustration that led to its public release. But that’s not the board we have.)

• The bulk of the work developing USFA policies is done—in theory—by various committees appointed by the board. In practice, the four “standing committees of the board,” six “additional principal committees,” six more “committees of the board,” and four “task forces” comprise an ungainly, labyrinthine governance structure, suffering from murky delineations of responsibility, diffused authority, difficult communications, and a notable lack of direction.

Consider one relatively simple example: determination of the national tournament calendar. Let’s see—that’s to do with domestic national tournaments, so obviously that should be determined by the Tournament Committee (an “additional principal committee”). But wait, there are other interested groups, too: the National Team Oversight Committee is concerned on behalf of the high performance director, the national coaches, and the elite programs; the Athlete Council has an interest, obviously; other groups (the ROC Committee, the Youth Development Committee, the Veterans Committee) have regional calendars dependent on and potentially affected by the national calendar. Now, of course, we have the recently created Tournament Oversight Committee, composed mainly of the chairs of most of these other committees, to help coordinate matters.

So whose job is it to take the lead on creating a future season’s calendar? The TC could start, but would end up needing to get input from the NTOC. How do we do that? We committee chairs don’t get a directory with emails and phone numbers for all these committee chairs, so we’ve got to start with tracking down contact information. If our calls don’t get returned or emails answered, we might decide to talk with the appropriate people at the next NAC (if we happen to see them and if they’re not in the middle of fencing or coaching or refereeing or running an event). Or maybe we have a nice chat, and the chair promises to consult with her committee and get back within the next couple of weeks. Or maybe it’s the TOC’s job to coordinate proposals? Who’s in charge here?

The next thing you know, it’s already April and everybody’s in panic mode because there’s no calendar yet for next season, and it needs to be decided right now so it can be posted to the website within the next couple of days, and suddenly there’s a proposal floating around which the committees only just found out existed, and oops, I guess we’ve got to go with this one because we don’t have the time any longer to consider all the ramifications more thoroughly, so whatever the problems with it, this is what we’re stuck with for next year. (But we’ll fix it for the season after next—we’ve got plenty of time to start thinking about it now.)

Apply the same process for qualification paths, classifications, team selection, and other policies as needed. Repeat annually.

Last August, I was cautiously optimistic that we could break this pattern when I was among a group—tournament-related committee chairs, as well as a few board members and national office staff—invited to come to a weekend-long “Tournament Summit” in Colorado Springs to work out a competition plan for the coming Olympic quadrennial. Then I saw the agenda—we were to start by identifying problems; developing solutions was not on the schedule. During a morning break on the first day, one of the board members mentioned that he’d been to a similar meeting four years earlier. “Nothing happened after that one, either,” he said. At the end of our weekend, the executive director gave a nice pep talk about what a good start we’d made and promised that he would send out the notes from our discussions to us within the week. He has yet to do so.

• Finally, there is our board of directors, which utterly baffles me. I’ve worked with most of these individuals at tournaments for years; I consider many of them friends. Individually, they are energetic and accomplished people—coaches, club owners, athletes, successful professionals in non-fencing businesses. As a governing entity, though, the board meanders unpredictably between ridiculously detailed micromanagement (such as 45 minutes in February spent discussing whether the automatic award of classifications to members of national championship teams should be discontinued) and unwillingness to exercise appropriate oversight of USFA operations (as in “we cannot micromanage office personnel”).

Watching board meetings is painful. Some parts are routine: approving the minutes, accepting committee reports, complaining about financial reports getting to the board too late to allow for thorough review before the meeting, hearing the executive director say, “I don’t know; I’ll have to look into that and get back to you,” especially disconcerting in regard to budget line items.

The Strategic Plan is much admired—by the board, at least. But without effective leadership and mechanisms for achieving its goals and objectives, it’s just a wish list, a long, comprehensive, intimidating wish list. Every so often I look at this part, relevant to my work on the TC:

USA FENCING STRATEGIC PLAN

Goal 4: Enhance and grow the sport
• Strategy 2: Review and refine tournament purposes and program structures.

• Objective 1: By April 1, 2012, have an approved plan for tournaments at all levels for the 2012-2016 quad. Proposed schedule to accomplish this objective:

  • September: Create a Tournament Oversight Task Force (TOTF) and sub- task forces for Local, Regional, Sub-National (SYC, ROC), National events and ranking/ratings. Each task force and sub-task force must have deadlines and a specific set of objectives to complete.
  • October: Formulate questions for committee and membership surveys and research.
  • November: Go live with surveys.
  • December: Formulate proposals based on research and survey results.
    Disseminate proposals to committees and general membership.
  • January: TOTF to provide final report for BOD including recommendations.
  • February: Present to BOD.
  • March: Vote on strategic tournament plan for 2012-2016 quad.

Ambitious and worthy objectives. They sound a lot like what the TC was originally meant to do, and quite a bit like what that Tournament Summit last August was intended to work on. I’m even a bit sad that the TOTF isn’t on the current task force list—it would have made a nice addition to the committee alphabet soup, fitting in well with the TC, the NTOC, and the TOC. That strategic tournament plan for the new quad might well have been a good thing to have done, too.

Our whole governance structure seems to be best at creating committees and making lists, but we’re not good at all with the follow-through, with the accountability. What we’re missing is leadership.

And that missing leadership is why I’m going to need a lot of persuasion to vote for any incumbents at all in this year’s USFA board elections. I’ve worked through the established channels. I’ve talked with national office staff and management and with elected board members about the problems that plague us, and I’ve seen no improvement. Going public is the one option I’ve not yet tried.

I wish I could say that I am alone in my frustration, but I am not. It is not my place, however, to speak for the other volunteers who’ve reached the same point I have, where we’re ready to walk away from the tournaments and the sport we love. They must speak for themselves.

Elvis has left the building.

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Filed under Fencing, Just Because, Miscellaneous ranting

Duh.

Years ago, with the state in the midst of what was then the latest education crisis, California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown convened a big-deal “Education Summit.” he invited scores of experts from all over the country (off the top of my head, I most remember Marian Wright Edelman and Robert Reich, who was still Clinton’s Labor Secretary) and representatives of every group concerned even the slightest with education: teachers, school boards, unions, private and parochial school administrators, parents, employers, financing experts, even a few cognitive scientists. (I attended as a representative of the HomeSchool Association of California.)

Essentially a giant photo op, there were lots of lights and cameras and reporters, corporate-sponsored lunches and gift bags, and three solid days of talking and talking and talking . . . . But what I remember most is that, among the more than 1,000 people gathered, aside from the student member of the state board of education, and the representatives of the high school student body president association and the college student body president association, there were no other students of any age there–no representatives of the people to whom all this effort and concern was ostensibly aimed.

So nearly two decades later, I can’t say I’m surprised at any surprise at this:

What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students

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Filed under Just Because, Learning, Miscellaneous ranting