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.
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.
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.
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.
There are other people who do the things I do. Most of them do one or two of those things, but individually my skill sets are not particularly unique. What is unique, apparently, is my capacity to do all the things more or less at once. That doesn’t usually bother me far beyond my normal daily baseline level of thinking the world is going to hell in a handbag, but today is one of those rare exceptions that sent my blood pressure soaring to new and interesting levels.
I had the occasion today to observe a program that is about two thirds smaller in scope than just one of the projects I’m working on had been assigned a full time project manager, who was leading two full teams of subject matter experts developing content and managing logistics, and a full staff of support personnel. By contrast my own project has me and a pick up team of folks who make it to the meetings when it doesn’t interfere with something else they’re doing, where I’m managing my own logistics, and hoping that someone, somewhere might actually develop the content we’ve agreed needs to be developed.
Because as has been noted in this big green machine of ours, gripes go up the chain of command, I noted the discrepancy and opined that things might go better if we applied a few additional resources in the race down the home stretch. Given the time and manpower the collective “we” seem willing to throw at other projects, it didn’t feel like an unreasonable request.
If anyone wants to know the exact moment I stopped caring whether this mother turns out to be a success or failure, you can trace it directly back to that time that leadership shrugged and responded that, “well, you know life’s not fair.”
I’ve built a career on getting shit done on time and to standard, but you can damned well believe I’ll remember that one the next time someone calls wanting to pick my brain on a day off or comes around looking for me to pull another minor miracle out of an empty ruck sack.
When I worked in the District, the most important question asked at every social engagement was some variation on “What do you do?” or “Who do you work for?” The answer, of course, would immediately raise or lower your social standing or level of attractiveness. There was a while there I was introducing myself as Jeff, the young and idealistic Chief of Legislative Affairs for Some Random Made Up Hippy Dippy Non-Profit. That had way more cache than being a bureaucrat from deep within the bowels of some big agency.
To those who know me, I often answered the question with a touch more realism. When asked what I did, my stock response was almost always “I do PowerPoint.” For long stretches of my career it had the additional benefit of also being largely true. There was a while there I could diddle a PowerPoint the same way a virtuoso can make a Stradivarius violin sing. Plus it always seemed just a little bit funnier than the usual, “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
Now if people ask, well, the answer always comes with a little less humor. What do I do? Depending on the day you ask, I either have meetings about meetings or I’m the Organizational Party Planner in Chief. The irony of an arch misanthrope being the touch point for planning your next 1500 person event isn’t in any way lost on me. It’s one of the reasons I know the universe has a sense of humor.
At least when the time comes to punch out of here, I’ll know that I am fully prepared to begin my second career as the most overly officious and bureaucratic wedding planner in all of human history… because dealing with overly sensitive, emotional clients who want their special day to be just perfect sounds an awful lot like dealing with the day-to-day demands of your run of the mill general officer. The only thing missing is the poofy white dress.
I found out this week that one of my oldest friends was going to be in the area over the weekend. Of course I’m using “in the area” here in the broadest possible sense of the word to mean somewhere within a three hour radius. There are precious few things that might tempt me out of the house, but the chance to nosh on steaks, have a few cold beverages, and shoot the shit telling stories about the olden days is just too good an opportunity to pass up.
From that long ago day – almost fourteen years past now – when we met as interns at a Shoney’s in Petersburg, Virginia to a few golden years in the District to the misadventure that was life in west Tennessee to our continued years in service to the great green machine there’s plenty of ground to cover. He’s one of the very few people from back there at the dawn of time who I’ve managed to stay in contact with. Even more important, he’s one of the few living human beings who I’ve learned to trust implicitly.
When we last parted company, I remarked that I always counted myself fortunate to play the role of Sherman to his Grant. I still do… and just now I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than sit down and rehash our war stories. Think of it as a mid-career assessment of just what the hell we’re doing and the long strange road that got us here. It’s a hell of a long way from where the story started.