On making a difference (or not)…

The number of people who call my phone thinking they can steamroll me with some variation of the phrase, “My boss said…” would honestly blow your mind. I’m sure whatever their boss said carries some relative weight… with them. Since their boss is almost never anywhere on the list of people who sign my yearly performance evaluation, what we generally have is them passing along information that could, in a certain light, be considered interesting to me, but that is also almost entirely irrelevant.

I promise, I’m not out here making shit up as I go along. If I’ve done something, it’s because someone who does figure into my rating chain has either told me to do it or will support my interpretation of whatever led me to take a specific action.

After nearly twenty years at this, I don’t get impressed or intimidated by titles or shrill voices. But feel free to call and raise your complaint. I may even smile and nod sympathetically right before I proceed with doing whatever I was about before you called.

Follow my advice. Don’t. Either way, it honestly makes absolutely no difference to me. But good luck when someone higher up the pecking order asks your boss why it didn’t get done.

Coming at you quick…

I spent a lot of the summer of 2000 driving around the state of Maryland interviewing for teaching positions. I had interviews in every corner of the state from the Atlantic coast, to the upper reaches of the Bay, and back down the western shore to southern Maryland. The only place I didn’t have an interview was anywhere close to my home county. No amount of family connections in teaching there could overcome the surplus of fresh young grads wanting to stay close to home that Frostburg turned out every semester.

I signed on with St. Mary’s County for the princely sum of almost $30,000 a year. I could say that it felt like making big money after four years of full time school and part time minimum wage work, but it didn’t. Not after all the bills were paid and $25 out of each check went to a retirement account, untouchable until a day then so far into the future that it didn’t even seem like a real mark on the calendar. Maybe all time feels imaginary when you’re 22 and on your own for the first time. Being three hours away from everything and almost everyone I knew felt like it might as well have had me living on the other side of the moon

I’m not sure what got me thinking about those days in the pre-dawn hours this morning, but something pulled me back there – to thoughts of what passed as a “splurge” in those days. The most unreasonable was probably a set of marble drink coasters from Bed, Bath, and Beyond, purchased on a trip to the “upscale” shopping venues in Waldorf. They might have set me back about $20 at the time.

Now here I sit, plotting large scale home improvement projects – the bathroom renovation about to get underway, the roof that’ll be due for replacement soon, the HVAC system I could squeeze some more efficiency from, the huge oaks that needed to be tended to sooner rather than later, lest they drop thousand pound limbs on the house, and the first twinkling of an idea for a bit of renovation in the kitchen. The scope and scale of what passes for a splurge these days is absolutely staggering – well beyond anything 22 year old me would have even imagined back there and back then.

I guess my point is life really does come at you quick. But I still have those old coasters, so they might turn out to be the best investment of the bunch. They’ve certainly proven to be just about the only tangible proof that I did anything at all in a time so long ago and far away.

The eighth time around…

This morning I was granted official permission from the gods on Olympus to begin preliminary planning for the annually reoccurring piece of this job that I hate the most. Yay.

Putting a six month long planning process that stretches across a dozen different organizations, nearly a hundred separate contacts, and relies on offering a happy, welcoming face to our partners from the private sector into the hands of a well known introvert and misanthrope feels like the height of bureaucratic folly. It’s the kind of thing I’d intuitively want to give to someone who didn’t unflinchingly use the phrases “wedding planner,” “circus roustabout,”, and “welcoming the great unwashed masses” to describe his role even to the most senior of leaders.

But here we are. This year will be my eighth as wedding planner in charge of this particular effort. Years ago the bosses promised “just one more year” and we’ll get someone else to do it. They don’t even bother with those lies now… so I guess it’s eight down and thirteen more to go… unless I manage to cock it up in some truly spectacular and unanticipated manner. I’m not one to go in for sabotage, but I’m told that accidents happen, so a boy can dream.

That happy dream notwithstanding, I’ll get it done on time and to standard, but don’t think for a moment that I’ll be enjoying any of what I must do these next six months. It’ll be a product not done for love or pride of a job well handled, but purely because I enjoy getting paid every two weeks and would like nothing to interfere with that continuing well into the future. Nothing more, nothing less.

One of my best friends from college had a simple sign in his dorm room. It said “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” On such words, whole careers are built.

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Pennsylvania roads. With a tax base that includes two of America’s biggest cities and metric shit tons of New York City commuters, I’m never entirely sure why the roads throughout the commonwealth are so utterly appalling. Maryland is a tax happy, liberal paradise, and as annoying as the endless road work throughout the state is, at least the worst of the pot holes get filled. I mean a bit of decent infrastructure feels like the minimum one should expect from a state government with their hands so deeply into everyone’s pocket… but not Pennsylvania, though. They seem determined to let even their biggest highways turn back into dirt tracks and cow paths.

2. Bait and switch. You lured us into accepting a meeting request with promises that “lunch will be provided,” but suddenly the day of the meeting it ends up moving to 9 AM and there is no food. In any other context that’s plainly a bait and switch tactic and illegal in many contexts. I’m not saying you should never trust management, but a bit of good, healthy skepticism is always in order.

3. In recognition of a newly annointed federal holiday scheduled for tomorrow and noting the 14 working days that the creation of this lawful public holiday slashes from the number of days I’ll be in the office during the balance of my career, there is no third thing that annoys me this week.

It’s been a day…

The longer I go along in this career of mine, the fewer days I have that seem to slide completely off the rails. I like to think that it’s because I’ve gotten exponentially better than I use to be, but I suspect the reality is that after 18 plus years, it’s mostly that I keep seeing the same things happening over and over and over and over.

Painful years of experience is one of the biggest reasons why when these anti-Midas days come along, they really catch me so completely by surprise. I’ve gotten use to knowing what’s likely to turn to shit in my hands and can often avoid the worst of it. 

Today definitely was not one of those days. Every single thing I touched turned into a big steaming turd. Some of it was clearly my fault. Some of it was inflicted by the actions or inactions of others.

I use to take that kind of thing personally. Now, I mostly just shrug and move on. I guess that counts as personal and professional growth.

Eleven too many…

It took well under fifteen minutes of being back at work for the restorative effects of nine days of rest and relaxation to be completely worn away.

Even in a plague year, even doing nothing of any significance, not having to dick around with “work stuff” was absolutely lovely. I’ve often heard people say they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they didn’t work. I literally have no idea what they’re talking about. Get a damned hobby or something. I’ve been accused often enough of not knowing how to “properly” have fun, but sitting quietly in an empty room, staring at a blank wall is better than the endless trickle of emails and questions that could have been resolved if someone had bothered to read the God forsaken memo.

I didn’t so much as give a though to needing to be off-site support for fluorescent lit cubicle hell until about 3:00 Sunday afternoon. Within 40 minutes of being at it, though, the only thing on my mind is how many days are between me and the next long weekend. In case you’re wondering, the answer is 11… and that’s awfully close to 11 too many. 

I’ll always be glad of having a job that allows be to take care of the animals in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed… but there’s no power in heaven or on earth that can make the think it’s a good time.

There’s a first time for everything…

I’ve made something of a hobby out of ranting and raving about the job, poking fun at the nature of the bureaucracy, and generally saying out loud what I suspect a lot of us have thought at one point or another. The truth is, I’ve had a remarkable career – well beyond what any kid born down the crick in the late 1970s had any right to expect.

With one or two notable exceptions I’ve been blessed with bosses who existed somewhere in the good to exceptional range. Again, with occasional exceptions, I’ve mostly had colleagues who I both liked and respected.

In a few months, I’m coming up on 19 years on the job. Through all of that time, I always felt capable of informally working through any problematic issues that came up. At worst, there would be an awkward conversation and things could be nudged back on track. For the first time in almost two decades of service, I’ve encountered an issue that couldn’t, by its nature, be resolved informally, off the books.

Despite my reputation as a grenade thrower, let me say that I absolutely hate having been put in this position. I hate that I needed to be the one to say something in a universe that values going along to get along. I hate that it puts more trouble on my boss’ plate when it’s already piled high with shit sandwiches. I hate that I have colleagues who could be put into a worse position than they were before I opened my mouth.

Mostly I hate the fact that decisions made by those at echelons higher than reality made any of it necessary in the first place. 

Times change…

Once upon a time a category four bruiser churning up the Gulf would have been just the thing to get my juices flowing.  I’d have had a bag packed a week before the thing even got in sight of landfall. Being seconded over to FEMA during these big storms was one of the few times in my career I could see an immediate impact of whatever I happened to be doing. In retrospect, turning loose a 25-year-old with a blank check and a sense of purpose may not have been the most well thought out idea anyone ever had, but it all seemed to turn out for the best.

Maybe it’s the years I’ve picked up since then… or the deep joy of sleeping in my own bed after not working a fourteen-hour day for the 45th day in a row, but the big storms don’t seem to get my heart rate up anymore. Oh, I’ll still keep an eye on the Weather Channel this week, but that’ll be purely for the fun of armchair quarterbacking how the response is handled – and how we’d have done it better way back when.

If you’d have asked me fifteen years ago what I wanted to do with my time working for Uncle, I’d have immediately said I wanted to live that emergency manager life. Now I’m not sure it would rank in the top twenty answers. At this point, the only things I want to do are those that can be safely bookended in an eight-hour day, with further preference given to those I can accomplish while wearing shorts and fuzzy slippers at the house.

My how times have changed.

Windows…

I think I’ve said it before, but it feels well worth repeating that the standard work day is considerably less onerous when you’ve got a view of your own sun dappled woods rather than the inside of a concrete box coated in low bidder paint with a view of your closest colleague’s lunch leftovers. Increasingly, as spring weather tries to take hold, the windows in my home office have become the best part of the work day. 

I’m not a head shrinker, but I’ve long suspected that at least some of the general antipathy I feel about most days at the office can be attributed to having spent the vast majority of my career occupying horrifyingly bland interior rooms. I’m sure there are a host of other reasons too, but just now, with the good light streaming into the room, that feels like an element that can make a significant difference in the day’s mood. Having a couple of dogs and a cat who are blissfully indifferent to rank around shouldn’t be undervalued either… though my chance of having a window to look out feels far more likely than ever working in an office where bringing your pets to work is encouraged.

For now, though, I’m focused mainly on the idea that my office here at home is more comfortable, better laid out, and significantly more pleasurable to work in then even those reserved for the most high of our own little band of Olympian gods. Giving that up to go back to sitting it a poorly ventilated, badly lit, and overcrowded little corner of cubicle hell will probably be the single hardest thing I’ll have to do in my career.