Respect the rank, not the person…

We’re the government and no self respecting government agency goes more than a day or two without having a meeting. Mostly, given our slightly inconvenient location just outside of BFE, we keep our meetings to ourselves. Sadly, though, there are times when someone vaguely approaching the definition of a VIP shows up. Such an arrival, of course, requires a meeting befitting the distinguished status of the guest. That means the development of many, many wonderful charts… because the more charts presented for your consideration, the more important you are in the hierarchy. And then there’s the hardcopy – because a VIP apparently can’t be troubled to remember something from one minute to the next without having a fist full of paper slides in front of him. Reading the ones projected across the room onto a 8×10 foot screen would certainly be below his esteemed level of dignity.

With enough notice, it’s generally possible to make anything happen. Deciding at 8:30 that you want to change half the slides for a meeting starting in half an hour, sure, that’s manageable. But for God’s sake don’t come back ten minutes later and tell everyone they’re late to the meeting… that isn’t supposed to start for another twenty minutes. And then pace the aisle sighing and making comments under your breath about being unprepared. When the only thing keeping someone from beating you to death with a keyboard is an ingrained sense of respect for rank and a desire not to go to jail, it seems best not to antagonize that many of your underlings all at one time.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Deal breaker…

A few days ago, I was asked why I was so intransigent about not wanting kids and invited to come up with a post expounding on my view of what has been described more than once as a deal breaking issue. At an age when nearly all of my friends have settled in to the routine of child manufacturing and upkeep, it’s a fair question. It’s also a question I approached with some trepidation, because of the inherent risk of causing unintentional offense as I refine and clarify my own thinking on the issue.

While these may not be the best or most altruistic reasons, they are mine… at least my top five.

• People seem hard wired to think babies – their own, ones they pass on the street, any babies really – are adorable. That gene seems to have skipped me. My response is more along the lines of “Ohhhh look… a small scrunched up human.”

• I’ve heard my entire life “having a child will change everything”. That’s great and all, but I like my life. I like the things that are important to me now and I want them to continue to be important to me in the future.

• Having dogs has meant giving up a certain degree of freedom to travel and do things on short notice – but I can lock them in a cage for a few hours and go do what I need to do or drop them off at the kennel for a few days and fly off to whatever tropical place interests me. With a baby, that’s apparently considered “neglect.”

• It sounds selfish, and it undeniably is, but I’m my own highest priority. I’m not wild about the thought of completely subsuming my goals, wants, and priorities to a small human for the next 18-25 years.

• Kids are crazy expensive. I bitch about $200 vet bills and $50 a bag dog food. Want to guess how I’d react to a $500 stroller or thousands a year in private school tuition?

I’m not a militant kid-hater (unless they’re crying in a movie theatre or throwing food at a restaurant). I’m a three time Godfather. My friends’ kids are awesome. But when the end of the day rolls around, I’m not the one with the responsibility for clothing, feeding, and educating said friends’ kids and I’ll be going home to a house not strewn with toys, without crayon on the wall, grape juice stains on the carpet, or crumbs on the couch. Being Uncle Jeff is great like that. It’s having all of the perks without any of the drawbacks.

I just don’t see how this can be a point of compromise. It’s a binary sort of thing – unless there’s a lease-purchase arrangement that could be worked out – maybe two days a week and every third weekend. If there’s any uncertainly at all about the desire to procreate, it seems best to err on the side of caution. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days resenting the hell out a child or its mother for finding myself living a life I was never sure I really wanted. Maybe in my declining years, I’ll wonder “what if I had….” But those thoughts for a few years in my dotage seems like a far better option than spending the next 30 years wondering, “what if I hadn’t”.

For me at least, it’s about risk management. I’m mostly happy with the life I’ve got. As much as I love a good day at the casino, I’m not about to give up a sure thing now to roll the dice on the long shot that I’m wrong about all this. If that’s a deal breaker, I guess it is what it is.

In the streets…

I was a kid when the Berlin Wall fell. I watched it, like the rest of the world, from on the living room television on the still new medium of 24-hour cable news. A few years later, on Christmas Day 1991, I watched the red banner of the Soviet Union lowered atop the Kremlin for the last time and the Evil Empire vote itself out of existence. It was supposed to be the “end of history” and a new era of peace and prosperity as the cold war between superpowers ended with a wimper and not a bang. And it seemed that way. For a while.

With the benefit of hindsight, we all know now that history was mostly just taking a breather. An operational pause if you will. Instead of stable, peaceful, and decidedly American, we discovered that without the weight of two competing superpowers, the world was a complex and and downright messy. The price of winning the Cold War was learning to live in a much less certain world full of unintended consequences.

I’m once again watching unimaginable events beamed from space into the comfort of my own living room. Twenty years have passed, the names and places have changed, but it’s the same old story. A change is gonna come. In Egypt. In Libya. Perhaps in Saudi Arabia and across the whole Middle East the world is proving, once again, that it’s still a complicated place. After all, we’re still America and it’s our long-held obligation to midwife democracy wherever in the world it might take root. We must, together, stand with these people who are rising up against decades of ruthless tyranny – not to dominate them – but to help them on the path to real and lasting democracy crafted to suit the particular needs of their country and their culture.

We have a moment, and just a moment, where history hangs in the balance. We’ve proved our mettle in two grinding wars to defeat a ruthless enemy on the battlefield. Now let us show our mettle as peacemakers and diplomats to take away the very chaos, instability, and hatred that sustain our enemies.

It keeps me up at night…

I’m not generally given to bouts of fear, but sometimes, lying in bed, late at night, I think some moments of trepidation are unavoidable – a product of a brain churning through a 100 different scenarios each more unpleasant than the last. Perhaps that’s the curse of the educated class; that we know the things we know and are thereby unable to live lives of oblivious happiness.

There are hundreds of possible “bad things” that one can reasonably fear. There are the perennial favorites: war, famine, plague, pestilence, dogs and cats living together. Then there are the more personal fears. Is tonight the night the “big one” is going to hit the New Madrid Fault? Is Uncle Sam going to open his doors on March 5th? And what could I have done to be better prepared? While those are quite real possibilities, that’s not the one that wakes me up at night.

The one that gets me every time is the fleeting notion that this 30-day hiring freeze could easily be extended through the end of the fiscal year – or beyond. Even more vexing is the thought that I’d then be sidelined here in Memphis indefinitely. It’s not an unreasonable thought. Should Congress pass a Continuing Resolution at or less than the funding level during FY10, I fear it’s altogether possible that the human resource managers at echelons above reality could decide that hiring and transfers are not currently in the best interest of the government due to the costs involved and in an effort to attrit the workforce into its desired size and composition. That would mean another six months marking time awash in a rising tide of disinterest and discontent.

To have gotten so close only to be turned away now would be a hammer fall. Even my self-confidence has its limits.

A clean desk…

I suppose if you’re an egomaniac, it’s easy enough to confuse your way of doing something with the only actual way of doing that thing. Usually when the boss is out trying to manage by walking around, I make a concerted effort to be on my own walkabout and thereby avoid the three or four random tasks that he wants to focus on that day. Sometimes, though, he’s on me before I can make a clean getaway. Yesterday was one of those days… and led to this exchange:

Boss: What are you doing?

Jeff: I’m reviewing the last twelve monthly reports from human resources to validate year-over-year workload and staffing requirements.

Boss: There’s nothing on your desk.

Jeff: Everything is on the network drive. I’ve got all the data I need on the computer. *gesturing weakly towards my monitors*

Boss: If there isn’t paper on your desk, you’re not doing anything. You’ve seen my desk, right?

Jeff: Uhhh… Yes. I’ve seen your desk.

Boss: Good, then. Make an appointment to talk to me about some-random-other-issue.

Jeff: *Bangs head on desk as boss walks away.*

I’ve increasingly come to suspect that the reason that an employee “goes postal” from time to time just might not be a defect in the employee.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Planning for the end…

I’ve been thinking alot about retirement this weekend. Not the actual act of filing my paperwork and getting my gold watch, but of all the preparation and planning that needs to go into making that moment happen. It’s the big picture questions that have been bothering me lately and that’s probably the internet’s fault for running adds screaming “will you have enough money to retire” on three sites I visited yesterday. I’m not a financial genius by any stretch of the imagination and I’m not even all that good at the day-to-day stuff. I’m not going to sell the truck for a bag full of magic beans or anything, but checking out my Target cart on any given visit will show there tends to be more wants than needs loaded in it.

I’m throwing a respectable percentage of my pre-tax salary into the Thrift Savings Plan, the government’s version of a 401(k) and have an IRA that isn’t as well funded as it probably should be. I’ve got the real estate portion of an investment strategy covered (even if the part of it that’s in Memphis will never be more than a tax deduction). Gold and precious metals were out of sight before I ever thought about stashing any money there. Still, I feel reasonably good about my allocations… but that doesn’t overcome the voice in the back of my head that keeps whispering “you should be doing more.”

The element that’s still working in my favor is the sorcerer’s elixer of investing: time. I’ll be 33 this summer. Under the current rules, it will be another 29 years until I can retire “early” and collect social security at age 62. If I wait for full retirement, now set at age 67, it’s another 34 years. Of course as social security implodes in the next two decades, I don’t have much expectation of those milestone ages meaning much. Even if the system is “saved,” I expect the age to collect will be much higher. Under any set of rules, it’s safe to assume that I’ll be working for at least as many years into the future as I’ve been alive and probably more. Assuming an uninterrupted federal career, I’ll meet my age and years of service requirement at age 57 in 2035. That’s a full five years before the current Social Security early option and 10 years before full retirement under the system. I don’t necessarily “have to” walk away at that point, but by that far off moment in 2035, I’d like to be well enough financed to do it if I wanted to. I’m pretty sure that is the working definition of having “F%#& you” money.

I suppose the good news is that I’ve got the better part of 30 years to throw money at this particular problem. The bad news is that it looks like baring a PowerBall win, I’ve got almost 30 years of bitching and complaining still ahead of me.

Authority: 1

I’m pleased to announce that http://www.jeffreytharp.com is now registered with Technorati. If you’re blogging, there’s a fair chance you’re familiar with the site. If you’re not, the gist is that Technorati racks, stacks, and compares your blog based on a system of algorithms that are far beyond my meager abilities to understand and spits out your “authority” among bloggers. That is to say, it gives you a number you can compare against other blogs on similar topics and lets you compare your relative importance in the blogosphere. The scale is between a no-name, nobody of 1 and the elite-of-elite 1000.

Current jeffreytharp.com Technorati Authority: 1. This is one of those moments where it’s ok to be optimistic, because there’s absolutely no way to get lower than 1 on this scale. Onward and upward!