On the wrong side of truth in the internet age…

The internet may be a cesspit catering to humanity’s worst instincts, but one thing I can’t take away from it is that this interconnected series of tubes and wires had made it very, very difficult to lie. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just that it’s the kind of unintended consequence that I don’t think anyone expected when the internet came along and let us all start downloading songs on Napster.

By way of example, I’ll offer you a short story from 2002, my third and final year as a teacher, when I was already desperate to get out and mostly indifferent to the concept of consequences.

Picture it… St. Mary’s County… 2002… While I was busy lining up another job that I knew was starting in January, several friends were planning their week-long vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The problem was that the week they picked was somewhere towards the tail end of September – when the weather along the Atlantic coast was beautiful, but also when school was most decidedly in session. They wanted to know if I wanted to go along.

Me, being all of 24, did what any rational person would do and concocted a wild story of needing to be away from the classroom for a week. It couldn’t be that I was sick. Being away for a full week would have triggered the need for pesky things like a doctor’s note. I don’t remember what excuse I ginned up in the moment, but it worked well enough that I wasn’t asked for any additional evidence of need and I got to spend a long late summer week boozing with my friends and driving my Jeep on the beach. A few weeks later I was able to tell those long ago bosses that I wasn’t going to come back after Christmas break. I’d also managed to burn off all of the personal days and sick time I was entitled to take that year. So it was a win-win for me at least.

Admittedly that wasn’t my finest professional moment. Today, backed by the power of the internet, social media, and the fact that we all carry around a world-class video production center / photo studio in our pocket, trying to pull off a similar scam would be almost guaranteed career suicide. I can’t imagine a circumstance where me and a bunch of my closest friends and their significant others could spend a week beach bumming around the Outer Banks and managing to avoid being tagged in a picture. Surely I would forget to remove the geo-tag on some innocuous tweet or when posting the great view from somewhere north of Corolla Light to Insta. 

I’m not implying that the internet and our current brave new era of modern technology has in any way made us more honest, but it does feel like it has made us a hell of a lot more likely to get caught living on the wrong side of the truth. 

On personal fulfillment…

Some days you feel like you may have actually contributed something – made a difference to someone, somewhere. More often, in my experience, the average work day is more a haze of answered emails, unavoidable phone conversations, and shuffling papers from one side of the desk to another. At best, maybe you manage to shuffle some of the papers from your desk to someone else’s. As often as not, that’s as good as it gets.

Maybe there will come a time when I look back on these 35-ish years of professional “life” fondly, though sitting in the middle of it, I current can’t imagine why. I accept it, grudgingly, as a means to a desired end. I’m lucky to be good enough at the work that I don’t get hectored too much by the bosses and the pay is reasonably good. It’s got that much going for it – but ginning up spectacular PowerPoints, enduring meetings that never quite seem to end, and the inevitable zero-sum bureaucratic infighting isn’t the kind of thing I can imagine anyone getting passionate about. I’ve met a few who find it their true calling, though. That’s something that convinces me more than ever that we can never really hope to know what evil lurks in the hearts of man.

There’s not really a point to all this beyond saying that today I felt like a particularly ineffective cog in a uniquely inefficient machine creating marginal products for an apathetic audience. At least such feelings only occupy 40/168ths of an average week so that’s a bit of a mercy.

Look, I’m glad I’m not out there passing around resumes and all… but lord almighty am I glad I have other other interests that round out the “personally fulfilling” side of life’s ledger.

The difference a day makes…

I’ve been working one day a week from home for a little over a year now. There are many reasons I’d recommend it to anyone who is even marginally a self-directed individual. It does, however, feature two distinct problems that I’ve found so far.

The first is that in those rare moments when you actually need to talk to someone immediately you’re limited to phone, email, or text. If you happened to be sitting in a cube farm in those moments you could at least add “wander over to wherever that person is supposed to be” to the list of ways to get in touch with them. Needing someone right-the-hell-now, though, is such a rare occurrence in my experience that the issue is hardly worth considering.

The second, and more problematic issue, is that doing the work from the comfort of your own home establishes in clear terms just how utterly unnecessary sitting in one specified desk in one specified room of one specified building really is in the course of day to day activities. It makes then going to sit at that desk, in that room, in that building on the four other days of the work week even more difficult than it would be otherwise. Sure, I suppose there are a handful of good and legitimate reasons for needing to spend time in an actual office, but for all other times I have not one single clue why anyone would want to endure more time in cubicle hell than is absolutely necessary to getting the job done.

Fifteen…

This coming Saturday will mark an auspicious milestone for me – The 15th anniversary of signing on as one of Sam’s civilian employees. The truth is that number feels vaguely fictitious. It clearly isn’t possible that much time has passed since showing up to meet the bosses and a gaggle of other new employees at a Shoney’s restaurant just outside the gates of Fort Lee in Virginia. As much as those days in the old Blue Auditorium and nights of bar hopping between Petersburg and Richmond feel like a different lifetime, they also feel a bit like they happened last month.

Due to some of the vagaries of the dual age and years of service requirement of the federal retirement system, racking up half of 30 years doesn’t quite put me officially halfway through a career. I won’t hit that magic point until March of 2019. Having fifteen years down still feels good. Just knowing you’re close to the back half of the game give a bit of comfort that sitting in cubes working on PowerPoint won’t last literally forever… even on days when it feels that way.

So what have I learned over the last decade and a half? I’ve learned that some people are heroes and others are knaves. I’ve learned that management and leadership are rarely the same thing. I’ve learned that no matter how hard you roll your eyes they actually won’t fall out of your head. I’ve learned, perhaps most importantly, that given enough time and distance, even the worst of bad days isn’t as awful as it seemed in the moment. That’s the kind of folksy wisdom you need to remind yourself of as frequently as necessary.

So as for me, Saturday will mark 15 years down and about 17 ½ left to go. For anyone else out there following along in Uncle’s great civilian army, you know that magic 15 year mark also means one very important thing. It means that I’m adding another 52 hours of vacation time to the mix. If you think having an extra week plus a little of new found time off coming my way every year from here on out to the end doesn’t hit me right in my happy place, well, you might not know me at all.

Miles to go: or Reaching for that long, long weekend…

When I see stories like the death of Malcolm Young at age 64, I’m even more convinced of the need to retire at the earliest available moment. All life is a gamble. Sure, your day is probably going to go without much trouble – or it might be the day you get run down by a bus. Malcolm was 64 – an age that I increasingly think of as “not that old.” He has the resources of a lifetime spent as a rock star to draw on to fight the disease that struck him down. He died anyway.

Just last week, someone in the office next door went to meet her maker. She left Friday afternoon, called out on Monday, and on Tuesday she was dead. She had four decades of good and faithful service under her belt. She died anyway.

Given my lifestyle – with its love of red meat and carbs – I can’t reasonably expect to be a centenarian. I’m under no illusions there. Still, I don’t intend to die in harness, although I understand random chance could have something to say about that. As of right now, unless Congress weighs in and changes the rules mid-game, I need to reach the magic combination of 57 years of age and at least 30 years of service. I’ll land on that milestone on June 1, 2035. It’s a date that still seems awfully far away, but not nearly so far as it was once.

The very fact that time is limited drives me to gather up what I can as fast as I can and then get on with enjoying that (hopefully) long, long final weekend. I’m determined that I’m not going to allow myself to be the guy in the office who sticks around until 70 out of fear that the money might run out before I do. At least I’m well served that my desired lifestyle in retirement is largely quiet and relatively inexpensive. As long as I’ve got coffee, a few books, a quiet place in the woods, and a handful of critters warming themselves at my hearth, my needs and wants are largely met.

Now I’ve just got to try to not drop dead before I can get all the pieces lined up.

And then there were none…

I’ve been trundling along enjoying myself, taking on one or two projects that always seemed to be getting bumped to the bottom of the list of things to do, making a few trips off the homestead, and generally being responsible to no one other than myself. The days stretched out with very little other than my natural sleep/wake cycle to regulate them. Now with the setting of the sun there are none of those days left and tomorrow I’ll be back to the whims and vagaries of the bureaucracy. It won’t be for love, or for pride, or for a sense of accomplishment other than making sure the coffers are filled again for the next time I need to spend a week or ten days doing something else. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Thanks to Facebook, I know that today is the 6th anniversary of accepting the job offer that ultimately let me escape West Tennessee and more importantly, carried me back to Maryland’s blessed shores. Believe me when I tell you that’s not what annoys Jeff this week. In fact it’s a day that I should probably be celebrating with feasting and fireworks and parades. As disgruntled as I now may be, I know that six years ago my mood was far more vile.

What annoys me is the realization that it’s actually been six damned years. That took more than a couple of minutes to really sink in. Even then it still doesn’t seem quite right – like maybe I’ve misapplied some basic mathematical concepts somewhere.

I’ve been forced to admit that it’s more likely the days have crept past at their petty pace more or less unnoticed to cobble together the passage of so many years just 24 hours at a time. Even that feels like a bit of a stretch, though, because I really have no idea where the time went – and that’s profoundly annoying.