It’s not so much the “going back to the office” that’s agitating. I mean it is agitating, but that part was predictable. Sitting in a windowless room decorated in shades of gray and tan for eight hours to do exactly the same things I do while having a view of the woods of Elk Neck is, in a host of ways, unimaginably stupid. Even so, what’s raised my ire today is more the little things – like the 90 minutes a day utterly wasted every time I have to schlep to and from an eight hour stint in cubicle hell.
If I were a younger man, less vested, less tethered by the promise of lifetime health insurance and a pension, I’d be casting an awfully broad net right now. As it is, I’ll have to content myself to search for more flexibility among a smaller pool of potential employers. Many of those, I’m sure, share a common love of looking out over a vast sea of filled cubicles, because no one does group think quite as well as those whom our rich uncle has trained up for lofty positions of “leadership.”
Commuting, as far as I can tell, is nothing more than an added insult to the original injury of having an open bay cube farm inflicted on you in the first place. It’s mind boggling that we’ve collectively decided that this is the “normal” everyone wants back.
It took just under 100 minutes from the time I pressed the power button until the time my computer was fully booted up and ready to work. I’m sure it was downloading and applying some very important patch or update that we just couldn’t live without, but why that sort of thing couldn’t have been pushed on any number of the nights when my computer was dormant, but connected to the network by VPN, I’m sure I don’t understand. Later in the afternoon,I got the opportunity for another restart and update. Whatever. If that’s how our rich uncle wants me to spend a third of my time on the clock today, that’s his issue… but don’t ever tell me that having asses in these seats is about “productivity.”
The rest of the day was mostly keeping up with email and fiddling around with databases that it was my job to fiddle with today. This was all accompanied by the background noises, from a few cubicles down the row, of a colleague deeply in the grip of allergy season and their regular snorting, coughing, and hacking. Of course then there were the seven other people here with their own phone calls, random conversations, and general distractions rounding out the day. Remind me again why I should be in a hurry to return full time to a room full of this?
With the exception of being the designated warm body present to press the button that grants access to our little room, I’d be hard pressed to identify one thing that was better or more effectively done today because I was sitting in my cube rather than in my own office at home. Reports didn’t get done faster or with more precise information. The databases weren’t updated any more promptly. Yet, there I sat. Because it’s how we’ve always done things… and we operate in a world where that’s more than enough justification for the people who make the decisions.
1. Look, I never ask anyone to do anything on a whim. If I bother to send an email or pick up the phone it’s generally either to pass on a direct request from those at echelons higher than reality or something in general accord with some wild ass scheme of theirs. I don’t have the time or interest in creating requirements out of whole cloth – and as a matter of principle, I never make work just to make work. So, it would be incredibly helpful if people could just go ahead and do things instead of making me go 37 rounds on why. In the end, my rabbi has more suction than their rabbi and they’re going to end up doing it anyway, so why not save us both a few days of back and forth and just get on with it.
2. When I arrived back in Maryland almost a decade ago, I picked my primary doctor based on two factors. First, his office was ten minutes from where I’d be working and second, when the moment arrives that I need massive medical intervention for some reason, I want ready access to the combined expertise of providers and the advanced facilities available at Johns Hopkins. That’s all a fine thing… except, of course, in a plague year. In the before time, I could be there and back for an appointment in no longer than it took for a slightly extended lunch. These last few appointments, however, result in an 80-minute round trip and burning off 2-3 hours of sick leave. Sure, it’s still better than being in the office and having quick trip for appointments, but it’s bloody inconvenience.
3. I purged a fair number of people from my socials between the peak of Great Plague and the Capitol insurrection. I’ve always supported people’s right to say whatever they want… while maintaining my own right not to listen to whatever conspiracy fueled ranting they were on about. Just happening to know them twenty-five years ago, doesn’t create an eternal commitment on my part to listen to stark raving foolishness to the exclusion of all other topics. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a few of those exiles popping up as new “friend requests,” Yeah, that’s gonna be a hard no from me. I’d say it’s nothing personal, but well, I suppose it is.
Some people, probably those with a more optimistic world view, would say we’ve reached the point in the week where momentum has kicked in. My less generous take is that really it’s just bureaucratic inertia taking hold of the event. Once a program or project starts, they’ll mostly just continue along indefinitely until something forces them to stop. There’s no stopping function here until close of business two days hence.
There’s a schedule we’re vaguely close to following. People are showing up more or less at their designated times. We’ve trudged through the first and longest day without any overly serious problems. Don’t get me started on people’s seeming inability to brief and then immediately go away so we can proceed on schedule to the next segment. This introvert will never understand the tendency to stand around, blocking the camera, glad handing for ten minutes once you’ve finished what you’re there to do. Personally, once my piece is finished, I want to be the first out the door. I’ve never felt the need or desire to mill around talking about what I just talked about when there was literally anything else I could be doing.
On a positive note, I haven’t had to worry about a giant tent blowing away during a freak thunderstorm, the caterer not making enough food for lunch, or issuing refunds for people wo decided to spend shit tons of money and then not show up. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice. Still, from my wheelhouse down at the edge of the stage, the only good event is the one that’s already over.
It’s Friday. That used to mean something. Usually I’d welcome it unreservedly. This week, though, it just means the countdown to the inevitable raft of stupid that will consume all of next week is about to set sail.
There’s one final waypoint on Monday. It’s the last formal opportunity for the gods on Olympus to inject changes into a timeline that’s been tinkered with for months now. Certainly it’s been sloshed around long enough that a reasonable person could have already spotted anything they wanted to change. Life in the bureaucracy, of course, mustn’t rely on the expectation of the gods being reasonable… or even that they’ve looked at anything until the last possible moment.
It may be Friday, but there remains an entire weekend and a Monday before things start to happen and inertia exerts itself on the course of events. On Friday evening it’s still entirely possible for someone to breathe the wrong way sometime in the next 72 hours and send the whole thing spiraling off into a chaotic hell dimension.
But sure, other than that lurking in the background, I’m ready to enjoy the weekend.
One of the many exciting “other duties as assigned” I enjoy during this, the worst month of the year, is that of circus roustabout. It’s toting, hauling, setting up, shifting, tearing down, followed by more hauling and toting. This time of year, my position description might as well read “Laborer, General” as opposed to anything that has “analyst” in its title.
Today’s major project was retrieving a dozen “VIP chairs” from one auditorium, loading them onto pickup trucks, driving them a thousand yards, and then unloading them into another auditorium so there could be a nice matching set on stage. I was reminded with every bit of toting and hauling why furniture moving is the kind of thing I happily pay someone else to do these days.
Believe me when I tell you I don’t in any way presume that moving furniture is beneath my dignity. I’ve had far worse jobs for far less pay… but then that’s kind of the point, I suppose. By the time you add up the hourly rate of all the people involved in shifting these twelve chairs and account for their individual overhead rates (to account for non-salary payroll costs), it would be far more cost effective to outfit each auditorium with twelve matching chairs instead of paying people to shuffle them from building to building as needed. If you assume a fifteen year life cycle for a chair that’s only used a few times a month, it’s an investment that would pay for itself in the first five years. That’s before you even look at lost productive time or basic opportunity cost of having a bunch of analysts move furniture around instead of working more “high value” tasks.
I’m sure there’s a parable about the nature of bureaucracy here. I try not to dwell on it too much.
One thing I can say for sure is that a year of working from home has not prepared me for a day of standing on a concrete floor. Even my best Docs are no match for a day on my feet.
By the end of it, sore feet wins hands down over the building flooding, last minute briefing changes, and scheduling problems that would have otherwise been contenders for the worst thing about the day.
It’s only Monday. I have no doubt the week will slide further and further from the rails as it trundles on towards Friday afternoon. There’s nothing to be done for it now, but to grimace behind my mask and get through it. Maybe the only good thing about mandatory mask wearing, aside from not passing on the plague, is that it least keeps some of the worst looks safely trapped behind cloth. They can still see my eyes though… and there’s no hiding what’s happening there, I’m afraid.
1. Repetitive question syndrome. In my particular area of effort, questions are unavoidable. That’s fine. Nothing I’m tinkering with is overly complex, so the answers generally come easy. The real kick in the junk is when the same question comes from three people who all work in the same office. Maybe sort some shit out among yourselves before blasting away on the email… because, honestly, anyone after the first person from your organization is going to get a verbatim copy/paste response, regardless of what subtle differences they inject into the question. I don’t mind doing the work, but I absolutely mind doing it three times with vaguely different shading.
2. Entitlement. I know this is going to be a hard pill to swallow, but no one owes you anything just because you happen to exist. The level of entitlement I see, particularly on Twitter, is almost breathtaking. I have no idea where people find the nerve to think they’re somehow entitled to the exact job (or societal permission to not work) they want, in the city where they want to live, in a home they shouldn’t have to pay for, with food and healthcare all provided on demand at someone else’s expense. Being a guy who left home at 22, schlepped all over the country to work where the opportunities presented themselves, and made shit tons of sacrifices to build the life I wanted to live, I truly don’t know from where they get the nerve.
3. Junk email. The longer the Great Plague rages, the more junk email I get from any company with which I’ve ever even thought about doing business. Look, I know everyone is jumping through their ass trying to stay in business, but I don’t need 10 emails a week from the company I bought a watch from five years ago. It’s not going to make me want to buy another watch or really any widget I’m not already thinking about buying. I like the companies I use on a regular basis, but honest to God being regularly spammed makes me want to look at other options… which sadly would just lead to even more pointless email which would fill me with even more hostility. There are about 50 businesses that are one or two more emails way from earning a “send directly to trash” rule.
1. The office. Days I have to schlep over to the actual office to do things I’ve been successfully doing from my living room for a year are annoying. And not just for the usual reasons surrounding spending a day locked in cubicle hell. A not minor part of the annoyance package on those days is the fact that right out of the gate it means I’m losing 80-90 minutes of quality reading time just to get over there. It just adds insult to injury.
2. Emotional responses. It seems that Ted Cruz flew to Cancun while the power was out in Texas. Sure, the optics aren’t ideal, but if Ted stayed in Texas, do you really think he’d be sitting in the dark just waiting for the lights to come back on? Unless your senator moonlights as a power plant operator, electric lineman, oil well repairman, or LP gas tanker captain, there’s very little role for him beyond making phone calls and prodding the people who run the grid to get their act together, which could be done from Houston, Washington, Cancun, or the International Space Station. Honestly the last thing anyone needs in a disaster situation is one more politician wandering around getting in the way of emergency responders. Having worked a fair amount of my early career in emergency management, I can’t remember a single thing that was improved when the politicians showed up in the room for their photo op.
3. Prediction. Let me start by saying that I recognize that “the weather” is a ludicrously complicated system. Predicting how it’s going to behave at one particular spot on the globe at any given time involves huge assumptions and massive amounts of computing power. With that said, three weeks ago the experts were calling for 4-6 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Last week the experts called for 4-8 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Today, the experts called for another 4-8 inches of snow. Thus far, the results have been less than an inch of sleet, freezing rain, and snow. I’m not saying the daily weather forecast is absolute hokum, but maybe instead of trying to project exact details, we focus more on whether the storm will produce liquid or frozen precipitation and leave it at that since nailing the details seems awfully problematic.
I took a bit of time this morning to engage in one of my favorite work activities – gazing at the calendar for the next 11 months and starting to plug days I know I want to take leave into Outlook. It’s a delicate balancing act between maximizing where vacation days adjoin various federal holidays and holding enough time in reserve to scatter around the rest of the year on days when I just don’t have the mental energy for bureaucrating.
It’s probably more art than science, but it’s one of the more personally vital things I do every year. I’ve long known myself well enough to understand I do better when I have well-marked targets. I can plow through almost any governmental foolishness when I know there’s a long (or very long) weekend somewhere out on the horizon at a date certain. I do better when I’m working towards something – and there’s not one thing in Uncle Sam’s gift that I value more than time off. Cash awards get taxed to hell and back, medals gather dust in a drawer, and certificates won’t even get you a cup of coffee… but time off, time not spent updating spreadsheets or sitting though meetings that could be emails, that’s the good stuff.
Like 2020 before it, we’re still in the belly of a plague year with 2021. Days off in the back half of the year, after we’ve all been shot, and are presumably back in cubicle hell, will be more valuable than days off here on the front end when I’m still mainly at home. My plan of attack is weighted heavily in favor of days in June and onwards, with a balance of seven days in reserve to take “just because.”
No plan survives first contact with the enemy. Some of these dates will slide about a little. It’s a mark on the wall, though – something to work towards beyond hours of mashing at the keyboard on behalf of our wealthy uncle and that’s exactly the kind of motivation I need.