We meet again…

I spent the morning starting to think about the next iteration of the project that over the last seven years has become the bane of my existence. I’d have rather spent the morning crushing my thumbs in my bench vice… but since I used up most of the last two weeks finding other things to do that could theoretically excuse the lack of progress on this particular project, I had a hunch the forbearance of those at pay grades above mine was nearing its end. 

We laid the 2020 version of this benighted event to bed back in June – all online and a shadow of the usual circus of a boondoggle we throw each spring. Maybe I had fever dreams that somehow it would never come back. More likely I had secret hopes that someone, somewhere would have realize that by being online we can get the same results without acres of “stuff” tacked on because everyone likes a party. 

But here we are, starting to gin up a 2019-style plan as if we have learned exactly nothing from this plague year. I won’t even pretend I’m in any way shocked… but I will say a two-month break from this mess wasn’t nearly enough.

Give it a lick…

For most of my career I’ve been a jackass of all trades – a circus roustabout thrown at whatever needed doing at the time. Sometimes that keeps life from getting dull… but then sometimes you show relative competence in doing that which no one else wants to do and it becomes attached to you permanently. One of those perennial problem children raised its ugly head again this morning.

You see, it all started as a small conference that grew over time to include tents, a technology exposition, food trucks, and a weekend carnival before radically shrinking down to a simple online “event” under the weight of the Great Plague. 

Today I was dragooned into a meeting based on the threat that the Gods on Olympus are dreaming up ways to reinflate the demandable thing in a new and potentially painful way. 

It’s disheartening to discover that we’ve learned nothing in the last five months – that the plague hasn’t managed to kill off the whole idea of professional conferences / boondoggles as monumental wastes of money. The beginning of the plague year held so much promise of losing the old ways in favor of methods that don’t involve dragging hundreds of people around the country, jamming them all in the same room, and putting 20,000 square feet of parking lot under roof.

As always, even in a plague year, the bureaucracy often exists simply to lick its own ice cream cone.

Yummy.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Embedded links. We have you a nice, prettied up agenda. We even tucked the event links into the text of the document so it wasn’t a three line line long ugly-assed URL. But that doesn’t stop several hundred of you from not reading for comprehension and emailing that you can’t find the URLs. I mean how the hell hard is it to either click the embedded link directly or to right click and copy the link to paste it in your browser? Given that two thirds of your contemporaries managed to get it done without our help, I’m forced to conclude that one third of the total are just total mouth breathing wastes of space.

2. Podcasts. I haven’t deleted any social media friends as a result of COVID-19, protests, riots, or political affiliation but in the last week I’ve dropped a shit ton of podcasts that have vered way the fuck off topic. Everyone’s entitled to their position and perfectly free to use their platform to do whatever they want, but if I show up expecting insights on contemporary television and find deep dives on politics and current events, I’m out. I’m headed to my podcast list to avoid the general fuckery on television, not to find more of it. Hard pass.

3. Steady working. So far during the Great Plague, I’ve been steady working. I’ve missed my scheduled vacation and now the couple of days I usually take off immediately following the massive organizational vanity exercise that I’m nominally charged with carrying off every year. Yes, I’ve been working from home… but it’s still very much working and having my head in that space continually. Physically being back “on campus” these last few days just feels like heaping insult atop injury and it’s got me moody as fuck. Plague or not I think I’m going to need to start burning some days off that sweet, sweet pile of vacation time sooner rather than later.

EndEx…

Some will say I’m wrong, but for my money the happiest word in the English language, at least today, is EndEx.

Twelve months of bashing my head against the wall is now concluded – more with a whimper than with a bang. I’m fine with that. It means whatever cockups happened were transparent to anyone who didn’t know what should have happened. Ignorance truly is bliss for an audience.

So the big show is over for another year. Now we’ll unpack it, look at what didn’t work, and make recommendations for next year that we’ll all later ignore. The heavy lift is finished, but I’ve still got a few weeks of living left to do with it’s corpse.

Once it’s well and truly in the ground, it’ll be time to start planning for 2021. That effort usually kicks off in June – delayed this year because the Great Plague has delayed everything.

Every year someone cheerfully says, “Oh, we’ll tag someone else with this next year.” It’s a happy fiction, but organizational dynamics tell me that I won’t be relieved of this particular opportunity to excel except by retirement, resignation, or death. So I’ve got that to look forward to in the next few weeks too.

But today is EndEx for Big Event 2020. I’ll be savoring the moment for the next twelve hour or so before schlepping back to the office to deal with whatever fresh hell Outlook brought me overnight.

Half done…

Well, there’s day one in the books. No one set the stage on fire. No one fell down the steps. Lights didn’t fall on anyone. The tech (mostly) worked the way it’s supposed to.

Now that I’m mostly in spectator mode there are obviously things I’d change up a bit – items that made sense on paper but less so under the lights. If that’s the worst of Day 1 I can live with that.

There’s still another day to go. Tomorrow has more people and more moving parts. If something is going to cut loose, tomorrow is really when I’m expecting it to happen.

We’re half done with half to go. I’ll still sleep well tonight, but I’ll wake up tomorrow morning wondering what shit will find the fan.

Jeffrey Tharp and the Zombie Conference from Hell…

For the last six years I’ve found myself saddled with one project that I haven’t been able to shake. Reorganizations and realignments have come and gone and yet this project hangs on grimly, like Marley’s suffering in spectral chains for a life misspent. It’s the classic example of creating a massive boondoggle where having a simple website would be sufficient. Circus tents, cigar bars, catered lunches, live bands, and evening socials… for some reason, the Gods on Olympus have pegged me as they guy you want running your social extravaganzas. Yeah, the guy whose idea of a good time is getting home early and tucking in with a good book and avoiding people as much as possible. That’s exactly who you want to plan your biggest party of the year. 

You’ll never convince me that the universe doesn’t have a particularly fucked up sense of humor. 

It’s really only on my mind today because, in the era before the Great Plague, today would have been opening day for this particular event… and I’d have been two wake ups away from getting the shitshow over for another year.

Other, more reasonable organizations, have decided this isn’t the time to do big productions. They’re being cancelled left and right, being pushed into the fall or into 2021. We’ve gone with a different option of kicking the can down the road a scant five weeks and “reimagining” the whole thing as an online event. That’s fine. I’m sure there won’t be any problems at all with scrapping nine months of planning and collapsing three days of material into a single day using a webcast platform that none of us has ever used while coordinating with 30-40 key players via email and phone because we’re mostly home hiding out from the Great Plague. Seriously, I mean what could possibly go wrong with this plan that’s been too-quickly conceived, barely coordinated, and will be almost completely unrehearsed?

Even in the face of mayhem, chaos, plague, supply disruption, fear, anguish, loathing, and common goddamned sense, we will drive this project forward. For reasons that defy any mere human logic, it’s the unkillable zombie conference from hell and the absolute bane of my existence.

I’m sure it will be the best doggone conference ever. 

The waiting is (almost) the hardest part…

For me, the waiting is just about the worst. Sitting in a quiet place knowing in an hour or less it will be swarming with hundreds of people who talk for a living and are yelling to be heard over one another is really just like a descent into madness. Or maybe a decent into hell. Possibly both. 

Business developers, sales execs… as far as the eye can see its people who want to talk and want you to talk with them. I’d very nearly rather set myself on fire. I’m sure they are all very fine human beings, but their innate mode of operation exhausts me at a very base level.

Waiting for this barely controlled chaos to start is awful… but pretending to be engaged, polite, and vaguely interested for hours on end in what several hundred complete strangers are saying is really just about the very worst thing you can ask me to do in terms of mental health and wellbeing.

Frankly I’m amazed that year after year I get through it without completely withdrawing into my own head and slipping quietly into psychiatric emergency.

Fifty percent…

With today’s setting sun we’ve arrived at the halfway point of this week’s events. It’s also the shortest day on the schedule, so thinking of it as halfway done is a bit deceptive. Even if we are fifty percent finished, the more demanding elements of the schedule are still to come – the ones that historically run way over or way under their allotted time without much rhyme or reason for why it’s happening other than the vagaries of public speaking and lack of effective rehearsal time. Fun fact is that most people apparently have absolutely no concept of time once they’re in front of an audience… and they tend to ramble. A lot.

There’s a part of me that wishes I was an optimist and thought that all will be smooth from now through the end. The part of me that has done this more often than I want to remember knows that tomorrow will be the day the wheels fly off if it’s going to happen. I also know there isn’t a think I can do to change that trajectory in the next twelve hours. So, in the finest traditions of the bureaucracy, I shrug, get a few hours of sleep, and wait for the feces to intersect with the air movement mechanism… and people say I don’t know how to have a good time.

The calm…

I had a moment today. It was a moment in the late afternoon when the phone wasn’t ringing, there weren’t two dozen emails demanding immediate action, and no one was parked at my deskside expecting a decision of any kind. It startled me. It startled me and the the reality set in that I was in the calm… that last moment of peace, the deep breath before the inevitable shitstorm crashes over your head, swamps all efforts to manage it, and defiles everything it touches with its unholy stench.

Yes friends, I had that moment of calm this afternoon and every finely honed sense developed during nearly half a lifetime as a professional bureaucrat is screaming out a warning of rough weather ahead. Truth be known, I could have done without the calm – without the chance to sit back for a minute and think on the myriad of ways the thousand moving parts of this circus can come undone between now and Monday.

Someone once said that “Jeff is happiest when he’s bitching loudest.” There’s probably some truth in that… although I’d settle for being a little less happy if there were reason to need to do a little less bitching.

On the week before…

Next week will be my personal version of hell, featuring 12 hour days, 750 of my new best friends all crammed into one room, and having all the responsibility to make it go right, none of the authority to make any actual decisions, and every bit of the blame if the wheels fall off for any reason. If I were in any way in control of my own destiny this would basically be the very last thing in which I would ever knowingly engage. Yet, party planning sticks with me from job to job like some kind of Gypsy curse.

If next week is hell, this week is a strong contender for that title. It’s the week in which everyone who has been ignoring the impending arrival of hell week has their “oh shit” moment and realizes if they don’t do something they’re going to look like utter twatwaffles in front of a live studio audience. When I was teaching this was the part of the year when I got to tell students that no, they really were going to fail because they didn’t bother to do any homework. I’m told, however, that letting these people fail, regardless of how deserving they may be of it, is “unprofessional.”

It all means that in many ways I’m spoon feeding adult humans a lot of information that was previously made available in slides, and memos, and email, and through various and sundry face to face conversations. I’m paying for the same ground five or six times a day in some cases… and paying for the same ground over and over and over again makes Jeff very, very surly.

Whatever else may be in doubt this week, you can rest assured that behind this serene exterior is a stroke or heart attack just waiting for the right moment to strike me down.