Overthinking childhood, or Body by Barbie…

I noted with passing interest last week that apparently now Barbie will come in many shapes, colors, and flavors. That’s well and good, I suppose. What Mattel does with their flagship product is really of very little interest to me personally aside from the fact that the “news” report of this “dramatic change to a beloved toy” triggered a bit of a wander down memory lane.

Growing up as a boy in the early 1980s, I didn’t play with dolls, but I did play with an inordinate number of what some marketing executive cleverly labeled “action figures.” For their diminutive size, my GI Joes were all basically caricatures of Charles Atlas. Sure their plastic molded hair and facial features were all a bit different, but there they were, these 4-inch tall super men with their outsized biceps and chiseled good looks. I had a shoebox full of the things and yet somehow even as a child it didn’t occur to me that in order to be a successful adult that I’d need to look like a damned GI Joe.

Maybe it was a function of the time in which we lived, but I don’t remember spending any part of my childhood enamored with the cult of body image. It simply didn’t matter that my toys didn’t look much like me – or much like anyone else for that matter – because, well, they were toys. We played with them without benefit of (or need for) deep psychological consultation and analysis. The fact that it’s even a discussion today leads me to wonder if it’s the kids who are troubled by their toys or if they’re just reflecting back the fear and loathing of their parents own insecurities.

To listen to the media, we live in an age that’s apparently driven by body image. The modern man, right along with his female counterpart, is even beset by eating disorders and longing to cut just that one more pound to be “perfect.” I seem to have missed the boat on that. As a kid it just wasn’t something I thought about. As an adult I’d frankly rather be fat and happy than thin and miserable.

We were a generation of kids who were allowed/encouraged to play with pointy sticks and rocks and we all (mostly) turned out to be reasonably self-assured and productive members of society. I’m not a fancy big city psychiatrist and I’m certainly not a brilliant advertising executive, but it feels a bit like maybe we’re overthinking this whole childhood thing just a little. Fortunately I get to leave that fight for others and focus on the important things bulldog skin conditions and the endless pursuit of a better dog food.

Power and predictability…

Last night I once again woke up to the the neighborhood’s generators sputtering to life and then keeping their homes heated and lit for the duration of the five hour outage. By contrast my generator, perfectly capable of performing similar, if more limited, activities stayed warm and dry in the garage – mostly because 12AM in the rain is a really shitty time to drag it outside, tarp off a spot that will be dry enough to keep the direct weather off the running equipment, run extension cords, fuel the contraption, and then get it up and running.

So instead of noting the outage and waiting 20 seconds for backup power to bring itself online, I woke up once an hour from midnight to 2AM to serve as a one man bucket brigade. At 2:25 every smoke detector battery in the house gave up in unison. I chirping smoke detector under normal circumstances is unpleasant in the middle of the night. Five of them giving off their low battery call in a house that has no other items making noise is waterboarding for the ears. At that point it was off to the garage to drag in a ladder, replace the dying batteries, and restore peace and tranquility to the small hours of the morning. By that time it’s about 3:15, another bucket comes up from the basement and I’m staring at 3:30. Forty five minutes of dozing on the couch later and lights start to flicker. Somewhere ’round about 4:30 they come on to stay (so far).

It’s in that 30 minutes between “first light” and the scheduled alarm to wake me up for work that I decided to avail myself of the proffered allowance to take unscheduled leave due to the expectation of a snow storm that didn’t materialize locally. It’s safe to say I was in no fit humor to be around people – or perhaps that should be that my humor was even less fit than usual.

I’m forced to the undeniable, if obvious, conclusion that I am a creature of the 21st century. I expect the predictability of power coming more or less uninterrupted from the wall. Unlike that far off cabin I dream of in retirement, this place just isn’t built to operate in the absence of electricity.

The 20kW solution to that problem is coming sooner rather than later. Still, I find myself growing more impatient to arrive at the day when in a pinch I can be my own prime power provider and eliminate one more of life’s small annoyances.

Pepperidge Farms remembers…

I’ve used carbon paper, but it had its last gasp as an office staple while I earning a diploma. I caught the tail end of using overhead projectors to show written documents to large audiences. I can even vaguely remember using a typewriter to fill in some formsPepFarm carrying the dreaded “must be typed” instructions.

Looking back on those items, they weren’t particularly convenient. Using them was time consuming and far from automated. Even so, I have to grudgingly admit that they worked and were all successful at conveying some quantity of information from here to there. What they lacked in convenience and time saving, they more than made up for in reliability. Unless the bulb burnt out, that old heat throwing overhead projector would keep trucking along essentially forever. That’s one of the many beauties of systems with so few moving parts.

By contrast, most of my morning today was taken up by what felt like an endless do-loop of software updates and enforced restarts that made my computer at the office effectively unusable. It made me briefly long for a return to dry erase markers and acetate sheets and when ideas were communicated at the speed of fax. I’m sure that kind of throwback would make me miserable in its own unique way, but in the moment, anything seemed better than spending another moment staring blankly at the startup screen while the machine drug itself through the motions.

By lunchtime whatever gremlins were afflicting my laptop seem to have satisfied themselves with the damage done. I gave getting on with the day the old college try. I really did, but the damage was indeed done. Oh sure, I spent a few hours after that mashing away at the keyboard, but as for how much really got accomplished, well, I won’t be the one to incriminate myself on that front.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Date night. Ever been on a date where you spend the entire time waiting for a polite interval to pass so you can extract yourself from what was clearly one of the more serious mistakes you’ve made in months without seeming like a total ass? Because I have. It’s the kind of experience that makes me a) appreciate the quiet companionship of a good dog; b) regret missing the first half of Maryland Farm and Harvest on public television; and c) wish I hadn’t worried about seeming like an ass and saved the cost of the drinks for better purpose – like setting the cash aflame or throwing it directly into the Elk River. Every single time I leave the house I’m just that little bit more sure that I should do it as little as humanly possible.

2. Leaving the country. For my entire adult life I’ve heard people bitch and complain and definitively assure the world around them that “if that happens I’ll leave the country.” If your love of country is made of such delicate stuff, then I urge you to go now, pack a bag, and enjoy your trip. I’m comfortable telling you that it is entirely possible to love your country without loving its leaders – or even most of the people in it. At any given time half the country is going to viscerally loath the person we elect in November. That’s the nature of the politics we’ve made for ourselves. People who would never dare speak a civil word of President Bush are the same ones who immediate condemn even the slightest criticism of President Obama. Likewise, those who long ago supported President Bush turn almost the exact tired arguments against President Obama. There’s plenty enough reasons to dislike all of these people without falling back into a trap where the world can only exist in black and white – or where the only acceptable outcomes are total victory or taking your ball and going (to a new) home. We should be smarter than that. America is my country – it’s yours too – even when she’s being a bit bi-polar, but if it’s all too much for you to bear, I urge you to go ahead and run off to join the foreign legion at the first available opportunity. Perhaps your exit can help free up some space for those with a thicker skin.

3. Raise. After a pay freeze that lasted for about a quarter of my career, it’s safe to say I was underwhelmed with the prospect of the whopping 1% raise we received this year. The actual cash value, after taxes, fees, and insurance premiums, works out to a staggering $55.30 a month or something like $.32 an hour. I get to keep a whole 47.3% of this new found windfall. I’ll try not to spend it all in one place, but if I go anywhere other than the Dollar Tree that goal could prove seriously difficult to achieve.

Two o’clock donuts…

In my experience the only way to get through the average weekday is to break it into small manageable segments and give yourself something to look forward to periodically as the time crawls slowly past. It may be simplistic, but hey, I’ll endorse just about any idea in an effort to stave off the madness.

Since they opened up the Canadian Starbucks here in the building my mid-afternoon way-point is a trip out to the lobby for the day’s two o’clock donut. I jokingly refer to it as the “highlight of my day, but you see the thing is most days it’s not a joke. Between meetings, people who can’t seem to complete the simplest tasks in a timely manner, all manner of surprise requirements, and the inevitable daily shitstorm that originate well outside my span and scope of control, the two o’clock donut is (usually) the one reliable sign that the end of another day is mercifully closer than it was a few hours ago.

Some days that doesn’t matter much, but on others it’s the difference between holding it all together or making an irrecoverable spectacle of myself. The restorative nature of donuts, however, is not always foolproof. Even two o’clock donuts don’t make up for meetings that end after you should already be home wearing your fuzzy slippers and making dinner.

The family business…

In most parts of the country maybe people don’t really think of government as a family business. Here in the greater DC-Baltimore area – and in many small towns who find their employment life’s blood tied inextricably to dams, prisons, or other federal projects, it’s just one of those facts of life. In my last job it wasn’t at all unusual to find three or more generations of a family who have worked at one location since back before we had to go liberate Europe the second time. I have my own share of family who spent time working for or who are still on the payroll of their elderly Uncle.

I don’t know why it always comes as such a surprise to me when someone in the office mentions meeting a colleague’s wife, husband, mother, father, sister, or brother in the course of flailing around trying to get something accomplished. Jobs are competed, personnel specialists live for making sure the rules are followed, and still often the “best qualified” are those who were raised from birth hearing about the Byzantine intrigues, conference room power struggles, and petty office politics the place seems to engender. We might be the single largest employer in the country, but sometimes, aside from marathon meetings, epic delusions of grandeur, and billion dollar operating budgets, it does feel like we’re running the average mom and pop shop.

But then you get out to the parking lot – which would make the biggest of big box stores blush with inadequacy – and realize, no, it’s not at all mom and pop. It’s not the family business. And you really are located somewhere deep inside the belly of the beast.