It’s not most weeks…

Most weeks, by the time Friday rolls around, I’ve simply had it. I try to eat a big enough lunch that dinner can be a piece of fruit, some cheese, and, if I’ve remember to pick one up, a soft pretzel with good mustard. By Friday evening the thought of the time and effort involved in actual cooking is a bridge too far – and you might as well forget about taking the 30 minutes to an hour it takes to find decent carryout. Delivery? Right. I live far enough into the wilds that nothing I’d want delivered even comes close to me with their drivers – Those that do, arrive with a stone cold meal.

This wasn’t most weeks, though. This week was special. I skipped the fruit. I skipped the cheese. I even skipped the pretzel and mustard. Moving straight on to the gin and tonic portion of the evening felt like a far better use of the small motivation I was able to dredge up. Maybe in a bit, once the juniper and botanicals have worked their magic, I’ll feel up for a trip to the kitchen to raid the peanut jar or open a can of something. Maybe. If not, that’s fine too. At the moment I’m perfectly fine and happy sitting here with no bells ringing, no email, and no one asking for a damned thing.

Three cheers for the bloody weekend.

Cynical and jaded…

My laptop took 90 minutes to boot up this morning. Combined with the more than an hour it took to get access to our primary workspace, that put me about three hours into the workday before I could really even start “working.” That’s the point at which I realized that thanks to some very helpful new “improvements,” I didn’t have access to one of the email boxes I need to do my actual job.

The whole thing got mostly unfucked sometime after I’d have usually gone to lunch, so now you can add general hangeryness to the mix of what was stupid today. Add it atop all the things, unseen, piling up in the mailbox I’m supposed to be working out of today. They were all things piling up on me, because I’m the designated stuckee for the next week, so there’s no reprieve in knowing I can just pass the buck to the next sucker who comes along.

The very best part of today is that even though all my systems are now “working,” in order to send an reply from Mailbox #1, I first have to copy the body of the email and the intended recipients into a Word document, close Mailbox #1, open Mailbox #2, paste in the reply itself and the rest of the email thread, manually build the distribution list, hit send, close Mailbox #2, reopen Mailbox #1, and hope the reply shows up. All told, something that should be as easy as sending email could take 5-10 minutes per message depending on how slowly the software opens and the size of the distribution list. There’s a recurring report on Monday with upwards of 100 recipients. It may be the only thing I get done before lunch.

Normally I roll my eyes at coming to the office to do things I could just as easily do from home. Today, of course, I spent a large portion of the day not even able do those things. If you ever find yourself thinking I’m too cynical or jaded, I promise you, it’s all for cause.

On that one time when the job mattered…

There aren’t many days from my distant past I can point to and tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing. August 29th is one of the rarities. 

Right around this time 16 years ago, I was sitting in a back room on the mezzanine level of FEMA headquarters. I was on loan from Uncle’s big green machine and there wasn’t space in the old National Response Coordination Center for all of us, so the logistics cell had been shuffled over to adjacent office space. I didn’t realize then that I’d spend most of my waking hours for the next 75 days huddled up in those offices. 

It was mid-morning, August 29, 2005. Katrina had made landfall earlier and the initial reports, what we were seeing on television, looked like we’d dodged a proverbial bullet. Back there and back then, a direct hit on New Orleans was always one of the nightmare scenarios emergency managers talked about in hushed tones. We let out a sigh of relief and talked about where to get lunch. 

Then the levees broke – or “overtopped” – depending on how technically correct you want to be. There’s an image of a huge barge slammed hard against a widening breach as canal water pours through that’s going to stick with me forever.

I’ve got definite opinions about the now infamous failures in the initial response to Katrina. The federal government – and FEMA in particular – makes a big juicy target for news organizations. We weren’t guiltless, but there’s a shit ton of blame to also spread around on New Orleans’ mayor and Louisiana’s governor. Under our federal system, at least back then and maybe still for all I know, it’s important to remember that states have to ask for federal assistance before the resources flow. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s all I’ll say on that particular sore topic.

Watching the news this morning has brought back swarms of memories from sixteen years ago. Mostly it’s memories of the people I was working with at the time – some of the best I’ve ever known. More than a few of those thoughts, though, are of being young and just a little bit arrogant, of too much coffee and not nearly enough sleep, and of one of the handful of times in my entire career that doing the job meant making a tangible difference rather than just making the PowerPoint slides a bit more spiffy.

Lots of people are keeping a good though for those in harm’s way today. Me? I’ll keep mine for those sitting in the mezzanine trying their hardest to do the right things. I’m proud of the work I did 16 years ago, but sweet little baby Jesus am I glad someone else is sitting in that seat this morning.

Same as it ever was…

There are about 16 different online or in person “training modules,” I’m required to take annually. Most take an hour or two of endurance. A few take a bit longer, particularly if you get a live host who likes the sound of their own voice.

This is the time of year when I’m working against the clock to get all of them finished… not because I think I’m going to gain any benefit from them, but because it’s just easier than fighting city hall on why this sort of thing is mandatory in the first place. 

I registered for one of the last two modules I need to knock off for fiscal year 2021 this morning. The registration guide for this particular class noted in bold red text that “the content for FY21 is the same as the content for FY19 and FY20.”

If the content is exactly the same this year as it has been for the last two years, it begs the question of why anyone is expected to cover that ground again – since they presumably passed the training on both previous occasions. I’m not saying it’s all perfectly wasted time, but you’re free to draw your own conclusions. 

It’s the kind of thing that will drive you to madness if you dwell on it too long.

If I’ve learned nothing else from almost trips through most of these training opportunities, it’s that sometimes it’s just better to turn your brain off and check the box.  

Dick…

Here’s a short lesson: Don’t be a dick.

Some people will let you bully them because you get loud and turn red. Some will think pushing back is just more effort than it’s worth. Some will be quiet because they work for you and don’t want the trouble standing up will cause them.

This ain’t my first rodeo, cowboy. If I didn’t get intimidated by agency directors and political appointees, random managers in the depths of the organization marking time until retirement aren’t exactly apt to get under my skin.

Sometimes people get the misguided impression that they’re important. It’s almost never true… especially when they have to beat their chest and pitch a fit trying to make their case.

At various times in my career I’ve been privileged to work for people who others have wanted to go out of their way to help. I’ve also run into my fair share of blowhards who think everyone should bow and scrape purely by virtue of some title or other.

Like I said, the lesson for today is don’t be a dick. It’s surprising how much further it’ll take you.

Grace note…

Thanks to ballooning community spread of COVID-19, presumably among the unvaccinated masses, my employer’s almost 4-week-old effort to begin returning the workforce to something approximating pre-pandemic working conditions has been dramatically curtailed. All that really means, of course, is that instead if extra days of schlepping across two counties to sit in a cubicle, I’m back to mostly working in tatty shirts and fuzzy slippers from the comfort of my home office.

For all the hand wringing that’s accompanied the Delta variant, as a fully vaccinated person with a statistically miniscule chance of dying from a “breakthrough” infection, rolling back our return to the office policy feels like a grace note. It’s the Indian summer following the Great Plague’s golden age of working from home. It’s one more glorious moment in the sun – or at least being able to see the sun since my home office has windows and my designated place in cubicle hell doesn’t.

The whole thing, I’m sure, is giving management several kinds of fit. I almost feel badly about that – at least for a few of the bosses who are in their trying consistently to do the right things for the right reasons. I don’t feel anywhere near badly enough to pass up another, probably all too brief, opportunity to spend my days at work dispensing occasional ear scratches and keeping a cat from laying on the keyboard while writing memos and building slide decks.

All things considered, my mood about the current work environment has once again improved dramatically. It’s temporary, of course, but this is clearly a case of beggars not being choosers and I’ll cheerfully ride out this new, new, new normal for as long as possible.

A trusted professional…

I am a professional bureaucrat. Not the best pusher of paper that ever lived, but there aren’t many cases where I have trouble holding my own.

In that role, one of the things you are faced with is that while you can be an advisor – a voice of reason – you’re not in any way to confuse your position as being that of a decision maker. That function is performed by others. It’s a fact that you either accept fairly early in your career or it slowly drives you towards a special kind of madness.

I’ve come to terms with it.

I’ll give the very best advice my seven years of running certain projects can provide. It will generally be insightful and guided by the experience of having been there and tried that at some point in the past. I can tell you where the bodies are buried, why certain ideas have never worked, and the kind of feedback we’re likely to get if you follow any specific course of action. What I can’t do is force you, as the decision maker, to follow the best path. That part is wholly out of my hands – and often beyond my ability to influence.

I can only promise that I’ll always give you my fair and honest estimate of what should be done, the resources it needs, and how to avoid the foreseeable pitfalls… but don’t think for a moment that means I won’t be right there cheerfully dispensing a loud and hearty “I told you so” when the thing turns into a barely mitigated shitshow because you wanted to go your own way.

I might be a trusted professional, but don’t think for a moment I’m above gloating even when the cock up means I’m doing 5x more work than we’d have needed to if we did things the right way from the start.

Meaning and subtlety…

I spent a fair amount of today screwing around with PowerPoint. It’s only worth remarking on because I do it far less often now than I did once upon a time.

There are a chosen few people who can make PowerPoint sing. They turn it into a real dark art form. They’ll add all the bells and whistles and make the thing look like the slickest sales presentation you’ve ever seen. I’ve long known that PowerPoint is a tool of the devil, but I’ve always had just a little bit of admiration for these sorcerers and their unholy works.

On my very best day, my own slide decks could best be described as “wordy.” Some people think in charts an graphs. Others think in numbers. Me? Well, I think in words. A big beautiful block of text gets the point across to me far better than any amount of razzle-dazzle you can jam into a chart.

The written word, when used correctly, is a thing of real beauty. When used in conjunction with a slide deck, even the best words are a bit of a red headed stepchild. Even with that being the case, words are still the very best way I know of conveying meaning and subtlety. In retrospect I’m not sure I managed to do that either… but there were a lot of words on the page so I suppose that counts for something.

Partial victory…

As sometimes happens when you write in advance of publication, yesterday’s post went live shortly after “breaking news” that would have changed how I approached the narrative.

My little corner of the bureaucracy has, as I write this, a spanking new telework policy wending its way through the approval process. Late yesterday afternoon it was sitting with the union bosses for their final review. Sure, it’s a union that can’t negotiate salary or benefits or extra vacation days, but there they are – one more inexplicable wicket for policies to pass through on their way to final approval.

Pending this final review and eventual signature by one of our very own star spangled gods of Olympus, I understand the new policy will allow eligible employees to work from home 40 hours out of each 80 hour pay period. That’s not quite as good a deal as the three days per week that was initially rumored, but marginally better by than the current allowance of a flat two days per week – and much improvement over the one day a week that was often the “unofficial” standard.

Would I have liked to see a new policy that went further in really minimizing the days the average person needs to spend in the office? Sure. It’s possible the next guy who sits in the big chair will look upon telework as just normal “work” by another name rather than as something new and different that is frightening and needs to be constrained as much as possible. In this deeply traditional workplace, being able to work from home half the year is a pretty significant shift in how we do business under regular order versus in plague conditions.

Call it a partial victory…. if it ever actually gets signed, of course.

Long and lingering…

So we’ve been back to the new, new normal for a few weeks. I’ve never been in love with cube farm life – much less so after demonstrating that 95% of my weekly tasks can be completed from the comfort of my sunroom office at home – but I like getting paid, so I more or less toe the line. It’s something to bitch and complain about, so at least I’ve got that going for me.

While being back in the office is less than ideal, the shift to two day per week telework has been surprisingly helpful during this transition. Adding a mid-week day at home to my traditional Telework Monday at least breaks up the otherwise unpunctuated days of loitering in cubicle hell between Monday and the weekend. The middle of the week reprieve makes the three other days considerably more tolerable. There’s nothing, of course, that would make a week in the office all sunshine and lollipops, so anything that makes it even marginally more endurable is a net good overall. Never let it be said I can’t acknowledge the small mercies when I see them.

There’s still the vague promise of allowance for an additional telework day or two in every pay period working its way through our Byzantine review processes. As of this afternoon it remains spoken of, but un-adopted. I’d optimistically looked for official word on that to reach us by this point, though that’s obviously more a case of my own wishful thinking than the reality of the speed at which the paperwork flows. That more days, even if only an even split between home and office easily qualifies as a win – an opening gambit for future agitation if nothing else… but with each week that passes without it being enshrined into policy, procedure, and guidance there’s more opportunity to get it twisted or for it to become just one of those things we talked about but never put in practice.

Such is life in cubicle hell… where good ideas go to die a long, lingering death.