Strange or strong…

I used to really geek out for the yearly State of the Union Address. I’d cheer and boo and deliver a running commentary to the television the same way some of you guys will watch the Super Bowl this weekend. Now there’s a better than average chance I’ll be asleep not long after the president delivers the near mandatory, if almost farcical, assessment that “the state of our Union is strong.”

It’s a subjective assessment. I mean I’m not sitting here expecting Civil War 2 to break out on Thursday, but we hardly feel as unified and well put together as we were, say, in the heyday of the Eisenhower Administration. 

Now if President Biden walked into the well of the House and proclaimed the Union “stranger” than ever, he’d be on to something. Between the current oddball economic conditions, Russia flailing around in eastern Europe, China doing China stuff, and the modern Know Nothing Party being determined to wreck the institutions of government for shits and grins, strange feels like the more apt description. 

Wrap everything up in the bow of a 24-hour news cycle that’s obsessed with views, and clicks, and clout and even the smallest fire can give off the illusion of burning out of control. With all that in mind, I’m sure I’ll watch the opening number, but there’s really very little that this president or any other could say to convince me that the state of the Union is far stranger than it is strong. 

I need it to feel longer…

I spent most of the day mulling over how it could possibly have been Monday again already. I suppose it comes fast when the weekend lasts approximately 37 minutes. I made my usual and customary early run to the local grocery store, stopped at Lowe’s to resupply on bird seed, and then made my way home to pull up the drawbridge. It’s the same basic rhythm that’s ruled life here since the earliest days of 2020.

It was a weekend filled with reading, cooking, and generally puttering around the house with the animals. The last person I had to contend with face to face was the supermarket cashier. Unless something slips from the rails, she’ll have been the last person I see “in person” until the next time I wander in to the office. It’s a real thing of beauty if one of your big objectives is not dealing with the general public unless it’s absolutely necessary.

The consequence, it seems, of being entirely pleased and satisfied with the state of things is that these glorious “off” days is the perceived speed at which they pass. Days feel like they’ve become hours – like there’s barely a pause between Friday and Monday.

My question, then, is there some way to consciously slow it down? Do I have to fill the weekend with activities I loathe to give the impression that I’ve gotten a full 48 hours? What’s it going to take to make weekends feel like more than a speed bump on the route to Monday? There must be a secret… and I need it.

It’s dog and pony season…

I spent most of my productive time today working on details of two separate events. I use the word “events” here purposefully instead of “projects.” It’s intentional, because these two items are absolutely events – occasions if you will. So, break out the floral arrangements and reserve your best rented tux, because it’s dog and pony season.

The first, a three-day series of informational briefings to contractors about how we plan on spending our cut of the defense budget over the next two years, is, as ever, the bane of my existence. This will be my 9th year though this particular wicket. For a while I had a series of supervisors who’d always promise that “next year we’ll get someone else on this.” Nine years on, my various supervisors don’t even bother saying the words. Death, resignation, or retirement seem to be the only path away from this particular bit of fuckery.

The other, decidedly less labor intensive event, is what amounts to an overgrown trade show hosted in northern Alabama every spring. Laying out who should attend, if we want to nominate some special bit of equipment or process for a demonstration, and reminding everyone to get their hotel rooms booked early or they’ll be staying in 50 miles away from the conference center is the regular drumbeat of my life in January and February.

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating, that none of this is especially hard work. Like most of my projects, I’m more a facilitator than a doer. I try to make sure the right people have the right conversations and nudge them back into alignment when they wander too far afield. None of it is hard, but every bit of it is a time consuming pain in the ass.

Almost every day, I ponder what one must be thinking to decide that I am the one who should be draped in the glory of planning conferences, events, and all manner of dog and pony related activities. My well-noted misanthropic opinions alone should make me uniquely unsuited for any assignment in which the goal is to engage and entertain large groups of people. But here we are. Again.

I’ll do it. Everything will exceed the baseline standard of “good enough.” If, however, you think I won’t bitch and complain about the process, the attendees, the inability of our own bosses to get documentation approved on time, and my general disdain for in person boondoggles and the utterly unnecessary logistics tail that accompanies them, you must not know me at all.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. AFGE Local 1904. Here we are 18 weeks past the “end of max telework” and the union, such as it is, still hasn’t come through on delivering the new and improved telework agreement. So, we’re still grinding along with only two days a week like pre-COVID barbarians… as if 30 months of operating nearly exclusively through telework didn’t prove that working from home works. All this is ongoing while hearing stories of other organizations tucked in next door that are offering their people four or five day a week work from home options. It’s truly a delight working for the sick man of the enterprise. There’s probably plenty of blame to go around, but since the updated and perfectly acceptable policy for supervisors was published 18 weeks ago, I’m going to continue to go ahead and put every bit of blame on Local 1904 for failing to deliver for their members (and those of us who they “represent” against our will) for not getting this shit done. No one’s interest is served by their continued intransigence and the elected “leaders” of 1904 should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves.

2. People. I was pumping gas Monday morning. While standing there waiting for the Jeep to drink its fill, I watched someone pull in to the pump next to me and then realize that his filler cap was on the other side of their car. A normal person might just pull around to one of the ten open pumps, but not this hero. He proceeded to do a 37-point turn right there under the canopy so he could use that specific pump. I try not to stare when obviously stupid people are going through their life, but this was one of those times when I really just could look away. Neither it seems could the pother 4 or 5 people there pumping gas as we all exchanged looks of surprise while this was taking place. I’ve long since gotten use to people being stupid in public, but this feels like an exceptional example of why we should just let Darwin do his thing.

3. Chickens (but really people). Every third or fourth story I’ve seen this week is about people running out and buying their own flock of chickens to “get cheap eggs.” Sure, a few people might make a go of it, but the time John and Jane Average get to the point where their hens are laying, their eggs are going to have cost $48 a dozen if the price in the startup costs,  feed and accessories, and built that darling little henhouse wifey saw on Pinterest… and that’s assuming they manage to keep the birds alive and don’t completely lose interest somewhere in week three.

Keeping up appearances…

I had to host a meeting today. Those of you who have been following along for a while will know how I feel about meetings. In my 20 years of government service, I’d estimate that no more than five meetings I’ve attended couldn’t have been an email instead. All the information would have been conveyed and everyone would have saved big swaths of their day. Nevertheless, the powers that be demand that there be meetings, so meetings we shall have.

Today I hosted a meeting about the annual conference / boondoggle / waste of time that for reasons that defy any kind of human logic has lain on my desk for the last nine years. This meeting absolutely could have been an email. I talked about three schedule changes and a few administrative notes, asked for questions, and called a halt all within 16 minutes. It was still 16 minutes too many. 

The only reason I even scheduled this meeting was because there’s another meeting next week where my senior rater’s senior rater might possibly ask when we had the last working level meeting for this project. If this happens, I can say without any purpose of evasion that yes, we met just last week on this topic and all is well. 

The real work on this questionable exercise won’t start for about two months yet. Then the occasional meeting might be almost justified. For now, it’s mostly a function of keeping up appearances… and as we all know, in the belly of the bureaucracy, the appearance of productivity and accomplishment is far, far more important than actually achieving either those things. 

Sources and methods…

I consider myself fortunate to not be one of those people who has an unseemly love for hearing his own voice. Like Mr. Ed before me, I try to make it a policy to never speak unless I have something to say. It mostly leaves me free to observe people’s comings and goings, their small tics and tells, and generally to spend my time trying to read the room rather than just sitting there cobbling together whatever I want to say next.

Once I make whatever point I believe needs making, I’m perfectly happy to fade into the background as things play out to their logical or illogical conclusion.

The result of this long practice is that, to quote Jed Bartlet, “I hear things. I don’t understand most of it, but I hear it.” Hearing the things, over the course of being dragged into a multitude of meetings, having offhand conversations, and overhearing random comments in passing over the last two decades has proven to be a veritable treasure trove of information about this, that, or the other thing. The vast majority is information that may not prove useful today, but that’s available to dredge out of deep memory at the point where it may be useful.

The trouble with sitting on this vast amount of information ferreted away in dribs and drabs is that much of it was never presented for public consumption. The amount of great stuff I have to write about that’s being self-embargoed because I don’t want to burn my sources and methods is an absolute absurdity… but since using any of it overtly risks leaving me out in the cold, embargoed it shall (mostly) stay.

Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing another helpful guide – this time one on not just joining, but learning to survive decades in the bureaucracy. It’s not the worse idea I’ve ever heard.

Expecting the unexpected…

About once every six weeks or so I start thinking that hey, maybe it’s time I add another dog to the menagerie. Two always felt like the right number of dogs in my mind, though I’m not sure if that was a function or Winston and Maggie being so well paired, or if there’s any actual data to back up my wild assertions. 

It doesn’t take long between having that thought and finding myself scouring Petfinder, local Facebook groups, and checking in on some reputable breeder’s pages. Before you know it, I’m hours down a rabbit hole looking at available dogs 300 miles away.

After a bit of that, though, I remember the times when there were puppies in the house. Young Winston gnawed through the rails of my kitchen chairs like a psychotic beaver. I’d arrive home from a day’s work to find young Maggie covered from tip to tail in poo that she seemed to take great pleasure in rolling in. Jorah, though not really a pup when he came along, relegated us all to six months of living in the easy-to-bleach confines of the kitchen because of his determined inability to grasp the basics of going outside to pee.

The fact is, life is significantly easier (and less expensive) with one dog instead of two. Even if it weren’t easier, I’m not in any way sure Jorah will be particularly welcoming to a new canine friend. His track record with meeting and interacting with unfamiliar animals isn’t great. When confronted with a new dog, he swings between attempting to hide under the nearest piece of furniture or growling like he’s been training to go to the fighting pits.

Every time the idea of bringing home another one takes hold, I seem to come up with a bunch of perfectly valid reasons why that’s a perfectly dumb idea. I haven’t ruled anything out, of course. Over the years I seem to have come by most of my animals some kind of accidentally, so at this point I’m just letting nature take its course and expecting the next fuzzball to show up more or less unexpectedly.

Federal entitlements… 

There’s a lot of tongue wagging about Republican efforts to fold, spindle, or mutilate federal entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. From the opposite side of the aisle, Democrats insist that the programs must be preserved in total or even expanded.

Having the conversation doesn’t feel unreasonable. In or around 2035, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted. That will automatically trigger an estimated 24% reduction in benefits as the system will only be able to pay out as much money as it has coming in. 

If the system is going to be preserved in its current form, the solution is going to have to be some combination of raising the age of eligibility, decreasing benefits, and increasing payroll taxes. Just the hint of an honest discussion on those terms won’t make anyone in Congress the next winner of the most popular person in Washington contest. 

All of this, of course, is based on assuming we should preserve the system as it’s currently put together. I’m not entirely of the opinion that should be our goal. If my records are right (and they are), I’ve paid just north of $110,000 in Social Security payroll tax since I started working. If Uncle Sam were to give me the choice of accepting his pinky promise of some undefined benefit at an undefined time in the future or to cut me a check for that amount today to invest in the manner of my choice, I’d sign a quit claim on all future social security benefits and never look back.

Letting it sit in a low-cost index fund until I turn 65 would give me a far better return than anything the future U.S. Congress will want for me. This alternate future looks even rosier if I were allowed to regularly contribute an amount equal to my current social security taxes into that account. Over a span of 20 years that would end up being real money and more importantly, not in any way reliant on the largess of whatever bunch of crackpots and shysters happens to be running Congress in that distant future.

That won’t be an option, of course. The second President Bush brushed lightly against the idea of privatized accounts way back in 2004 and was roundly shouted down. The U.S. Government simply won’t want to give up direct control of a pot of money as big as Social Security. By the time I’m age eligible – in 2040 if the earliest age to claim isn’t raised – I fully expect Social Security will be yet another one of those government programs I’ve paid for my entire working life from which I won’t be qualified to draw any benefit. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. AFGE Local 1904. Here we are 17 weeks past the “end of max telework” and the union, such as it is, still hasn’t come through on delivering the new and improved telework agreement. So, we’re still grinding along with only two days a week like pre-COVID barbarians… as if 30 months of operating nearly exclusively through telework didn’t prove that working from home works. All this is ongoing while hearing stories of other organizations tucked in next door that are offering their people four or five day a week work from home options. It’s truly a delight working for the sick man of the enterprise. There’s probably plenty of blame to go around, but since the updated and perfectly acceptable policy for supervisors was published 17 weeks ago, I’m going to continue to go ahead and put every bit of blame on Local 1904 for failing their members (and those of us who they “represent” against our will) for not getting this shit done.

2. Home cooking. Week in and week out I make variations of the same 20 or so recipes. Most of them are easy. Most of the are the living definition of comfort food. I want to branch out with more options. I mean as much as I like it, even I don’t want a roast every Sunday. I also don’t want to waste a limited amount of time, not to mention the weekly food budget, by inadvertently making something new and different that just so happens to taste like broiled shit… which is why I always end up sticking with variations on the tried and true 20. It’s a vicious cycle. 

3. Tim Hortons. For years we had the most southerly outpost of the Canadian staple coffee shop in the lobby of our building. Despite their best efforts to recover and reopen when employees started to trickle back to the office in small numbers, they didn’t survive the Great Plague. Now, Tim’s wasn’t what you’d call great, but they were tasty enough, portion sizes were decent, and they had the undeniable virtue of being right there in the building on days when it happened to be raining or when it was ten degrees with the wind blowing 20 miles per hour. I realize now that I probably didn’t appreciate them enough. I find myself missing my regular 2:00 donuts and having the option for a frozen yogurt.  

On Leopard tanks and Russian impotence…

Let me start by saying I’m not an expert on the employment of armored formations on the battlefield. Neither have the big brains in the Pentagon called me up to ask my opinion on grand strategy. I’m just a guy sitting over here halfway paying attention to what’s going on in some of the world’s hot spots.

With all that said, I’m thrilled and excited to see Germany finally giving in and allowing the export of Leopard II’s to Ukraine. The fact that the official media mouthpieces of Putin’s Russia are howling about it means that it’s an excellent idea. If it were a weapon’s system that the Russians expected to do very little damage to their cause, they wouldn’t be making much of a stink about it. Put another way, I suspect the Russian bear is deathly afraid of facing actual working versions of the equipment they expected would carry them to an easy victory in Ukraine.

If the last year has taught us nothing, it’s that Russia has clung to its classic approach of relying on throwing tons of badly trained and ill led men and unmaintained equipment into the fight in hopes that sheer numbers will be enough to overwhelm and swamp whatever opposition it’s facing. It’s a reasonable approach if you happen to be a country where leaders don’t have to account for tens of thousands being killed and wounded and divisions worth of equipment being turned to scrap in what was billed as a 4-day excursion into a neighboring country.

I’m enough of a son of the Cold War to get a little flush of joy when I see Russia flailing around, rattling the saber, and making wild threats and accusations. That was their play book all through the long decades of the 20th Century. The louder they’re screaming, the more wild eyed their threats, the closer they are to the precipice. My read on the current situation is that Russia’s would be tsar is scared shitless that his country is about to stand entirely exposed as a 4th rate power, unable to enforce its will even on its closest neighbors. It’s the worst nightmare for the man who promised to resurrect the Russian Empire.

Give the Ukrainians anything they need to win the day and shove the Russian invaders back across the border. A declawed Russia, its impotence laid bare to the world, is in the vital national interest of the United States and the world.