Undue strain…

Focus is a funny thing. I say that because for most of the day today seven minutes seemed like just about the maximum amount of time I was able to focus on any one thing before my eyes started going twitchy. By ten minutes, I’d be working on a dull ache in the back of my head. Past fifteen and the ache would be running down my back and I’d find my shoulders somewhere up around my ears. Good times.

Honestly it reminds me of nothing so much as the one time, many years ago, when I had inflicted a mild concussion on myself by falling over and bouncing my head off the driveway. I’m just assuming it’s all some kind of reptilian brain trauma response running in the deep layers of the human operating system. I’m sure the brain is a remarkable organ, but sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass.

It’s well that no one came along asking me to do something that required any level of academic rigor, because I’m not at all sure I could have managed it even under duress. Getting out a few unremarkable emails and sitting through a thoroughly a probably necessary, but thoroughly uninteresting meeting seemed to be just about the limit of my mental prowess today. I’m sure I won’t win any prizes for the off the cuff word salad I spit out during that last meeting of the day, but I’m putting it squarely in the pile of things I’m choosing not to care about. 

Even under those conditions, today felt like putting a lot of undue strain on the engines.

My own personal hell…

The only sure things in life, it’s said, are death and taxes. Those do seem to come with alarming regularity while most other aspects of getting by are a bit more sporadic.

There are, though, other truisms of life in the bureaucracy that feel as if they are just as certain. Unsurprisingly, the one I’m most focused on today relates directly to events… because no bureaucracy worth its salt can seem to resist the temptation to throw itself big, showy parties for no discernable reason whatsoever.

In terms of bang for the buck, I’d be hard pressed to give you any real return on investment for these adventures. I’m sure it makes someone, somewhere, probably those managerial gods on high Olympus, feel good. For the rest of us, it’s nothing so much as a good old-fashioned pain in the ass. One more thing to do on a list that never, ever gets any shorter regardless of how many items a day you manage to strike down.

The only thing consistent across the universe of these parties and events is that they start more or less on time, some bits in the middle go well, some others slide off the rails, and then they end slightly earlier than scheduled. Everything else is details and by the time the next week starts, no one remembers any of those as they race off to do the next Very Important Thing and try to scratch out a modicum of credit from whatever bosses they serve.

My career is well into its back half now. Mercifully the days of feeling the need to get every attaboy or head pat are long gone. Now, my only love language comes in the form of a time off. I’ve already got a box full of certificates and general officer notes that will never see the light of day again. Cash awards end up being taxed away before you even know you’ve gotten one. There’s no appetite for time off awards at echelons higher than reality, though. They mean for some fixed amount of time there’s some other Very Important Thing you’re not working on… and the bosses hate that.

I’ve reached a stage of bureaucratic enlightenment beyond the trivialities of cash, certificates, or time off awards. All I really want is for this thing to start so that it can eventually end and we can all forget the part in the middle. With this agonizing exercise in organizational self-gratification wrapped up, so I can think about something – anything – else for the next six months before the planning cycle starts for the 2023 version of my own personal hell.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. “Emergencies”. We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating. The way people throw around the work “emergency” in the contemporary office is basically laughable. No one is bleeding. No one is about to start bleeding. The word you’re probably looking for most often is “embarrassing” as in you’re about to be embarrassed due to something you did, were supposed to do, forgot about doing. ​Alternately, you might be about to get blasted because of poor decision making skills. In any case, those things might represent a legitimate personal emergency to you, but to the rest of us it’s really just a shrug and a so what. Let’s try to leave the talk of “emergencies” to the times when there really are barbarians at the gate or brass hitting the floor, ok?

2. County taxes. The proposed Cecil County budget for FY18 includes increases in both the real property and income taxes. It’s made all the more noxious because it was proposed by a Republican county executive who ran less than a year ago on a platform of fiscal accountability and no tax increases. I know, lying politician isn’t exactly breaking news. Still, though, I’m left to wonder why at some point it isn’t perfectly acceptable to say that we have X number of dollars to spend against Y number of services and when there’s no additional revenue for new or existing services, some things need to be cut. The politicians first response is always to borrow or tax their way into all the revenue they need instead of being required to live by an actual budget in which they can’t always purchase all the goods and services they’d like to have. In the end the bastards always end up with their hand just a little deeper in our pocket. I suppose that’s just what you get when every level of government desperately wants to buy the love and affection of the voters and seeks ways to be all things to all people.

3. Keeping my head in the game. I’m probably expending at least as much energy just trying to keep my head in the game as I am actually doing any productive work. That doesn’t feel like something that’s going to be sustainable over the long term. It’s easier some days than others, but for the most part by the time mid-afternoon rolls around I’m dumping every bit of available effort into just staying awake and some delusory productive activities. Believe me when I tell you that you don’t want to read some of the written products that fly off my desk after 2PM. Unless I absolutely can’t avoid it, I hold them as drafts and then clean them up the next morning when I’m still relatively fresh. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

It’s a skill…

I’d hate to calculate how many hours of training I’ve sat through over the last thirteen years. Only occasionally, when it was hosted in such exotic locations as Tampa or Dallas, have I ever voluntarily inflicted such opportunities on myself. Far more often it’s a statutory or regulatory requirement or worse drawing the short straw as a seat filler. Occasionally you can draw off some nugget of useful information, but more often it’s a study in watching the clock creep from one hour to the next.

Like so many other meetings, the first question asked by the would-be trainer should be “Can I convey this information in an email?” If the answer to that question is in the affirmative, you should write the email and forget about the training. If the answer is no, you may proceed with your planned training, but understand that anything of value or importance should be covered before 11AM, by which time all but a handful of the most dedicated and/or fanatical people will have stopped paying attention anyway.

Trainers tend to take this disinterest personally. They shouldn’t, because it has almost nothing to do with them or even with their content. You could be talking to me about the next sure fire way to make a million in the market and if you haven’t gotten to your point in the first three hours I’m going to lose interest. That’s just the way it is. I’ll most likely be polite and not focus all my attention on my phone. I’ll probably even nod at appropriate intervals and because of my years of practice I can probably even materially contribute to the conversation  just based on whatever I’ve managed to overhear while most of my brain was otherwise occupied. It’s a skill, but not one anyone ever talks about.

But there it is. I’ve done my duty. Attended the training. Checked off another box. And as a reward, I don’t get any new knowledge, but I do get to look forward to trying to cram two days worth of work into a Tuesday and who doesn’t like that?

Seditious thoughts…

There’s no way to better be assured the long weekend is over and you’re back to business than spending two hours locked in a meeting. That’s especially true when your speaking roll takes up about 1/240th of the allotted time. It leads to a lot of looking around, checking to see in anyone has fallen asleep, and repeatedly jabbing a pen cap into your own thigh in an effort to make sure you aren’t the one who nods off.

My feelings about meetings are fairly well known. Over the course of a career I can count on one hand the number of meetings that were really worth having or couldn’t have been more effectively dealt with in an email or by just sending out the slides. Sitting there, glazed eyes staring blankly at whoever happens to be sitting across from me, my mind wanders. There are a few other people who seem obviously bored. Others are giving a good account of paying attention. I wonder if it’s just me whose mind has slipped its tether and is wandering unescorted from idea to idea without purpose or destination.

I wonder if I’m the only one who’s attention span isn’t up to the task at hand. A few seem to be held in rapt attention, hanging on every syllable while it’s taking every bit of rapidly decaffeinating will power I can muster just to keep my chin from dropping slack to my chest.

We all proceed as if things are as they should be and the happy fiction is maintained for another day. I can’t imagine the furor that would erupt if one brave soul were to stand up and call the bloody great waste of time out for what it is. In fact I’ll probably be forced to give up my Senior Bureaucrat Secret Decoder Ring for having the audacity to speak aloud of such seditious thoughts.

Sigh. The lies we tell ourselves.

The illusion of interest…

I could probably fill a book with number of bits and pieces of daily ephemera I declare “one of the hardest things I do.” Somehow that doesn’t keep the list from growing. In that spirit, one of the hardest things I do currently is simply pay attention. Actually it’s not even that so much as it is just trying to look interested.

Once the charts start flipping, I’ve got a window of 20-30 good minutes where I’m attentive and focused. After that it’s a doodle-fest or I start making notes on whatever it is I would be working on back at my desk. Either way, whatever is on those slides is barely getting a head nod. I’m basically doing whatever it takes to keep my eyes from glazing over and accidentally falling out of my chair. Nodding off and landing on your ass is considered bad form at meetings. I’ve seen it happen and it’s not pretty – although it is completely, gut wrenchingly hysterical.

The challenge to look interested doesn’t discriminate between my own material and stuff that has no impact or influence on my day-to-day existence. After the 30 minute mark everything falls into the category of probably interesting, but irrelevant. It’s not irrelevant by nature, but simply because my brain has lost the capacity to receive new information while struggling mightily just to give the illusion that the lights are on upstairs.

If you see me in a meeting blinking rapidly, shifting in my seat every 30 seconds, or jabbing a #2 pencil into my thigh, try not to take it personally. It’s probably not your subject matter, it’s just that you let your meeting run way, way too long and I’m doing my level best to offer the illusion of interest or, if that proves impossible, to not fall asleep and start drooling all over myself.

Fruit fly…

I pride myself on a whole host of things, but one of the most important has been being able to keep a precision focus on whatever task happened to be at hand despite multitasking to keep up with emails, text messages, and the six dozen other things that crop up to distract us in the course of the day. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but being able to hold multiple irons in the fire is a point of personal pride. Or it has been until the last couple of days.

I don’t know where that part of my brain that usually handles multiple relatively complex tasks at once, but it’s well and truly out of service at the moment. Focusing in on just one thing at a time has been more of a challenge than I really want to admit. Thank God it’s winter. If the weather was better every bird or squirrel passing the window would be cause to send me off on a wild tangent. Just keeping my focus with the myriad of conversations going on around me has proved to be something close to a full time effort. Quite frankly, work is traumatic enough without also dealing with the attention span of the average fruit fly.

It’s one of those inconveniences that I’m sure will sort itself out in a few days or a week, but in the meantime, I’m driving myself bloody crazy over here. The number of Post It notes now decorating my desk at work and the kitchen table is bordering on ridiculous. Getting back to an even keel where I can remember to pick up dog food or make a phone call without a reminder would be most appreciated. Until then, if I’ve told you I’m going to do something, feel free to remind me often, because there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to forget about it completely before it actually gets done. I really hadn’t planned on hitting the “always forgetting stuff” part of my life until much later, so hopefully this is just a temporary sneak preview of the impending joys of much later middle age.


After a long stretch of blogging five or six nights a week, I’m starting to understand why television shows go on hiatus between seasons. No matter how crack a writing staff you’ve got, getting anywhere in the vicinity of a consistently good product is tough. It’s tough for a staff of writers and it’s tough when all you’re looking for is a couple of hundred words a day. The only reason I haven’t declared a summer hiatus here is that I’m notoriously bad at getting back to things once I walk away from them. Once I stop doing this on a regular basis, I’ll find something else that needs ridiculous amounts of attention and then go hellbent for leather on it until something new and shiny comes along to be interested in. It’s not exactly that I suffer from a short attention span as much as it is I suffer from a long attention span punctuated by periods of extreme indifference and then substantive redirection of attention.

Maybe I’ll scale it back for a bit and see if an easier schedule is more to my liking. Then again, it’s possible that the ego hit of seeing the daily hit count drop off might drive me right back to daily posting. It’s a battle royal between summer laziness and shameless self promotion. Should be an interesting match.