Asked in a certain way, by a certain kind of person, the question, “So, what’s do you like to do?” can be something of a loaded gun. It’s marginally less awful than the introductory questions in DC that always seemed to be either “What do you do?” or “Who do your work for?,” but it’s only a very slight degree of less awful.
It’s almost the perfect encapsulation of a no-win question. You see, the things I like to do are not the things that most people want to base a conversation around, let alone a lifestyle. I like taking trash to the dump. I like cutting the grass. I like fiddling with projects around the house. I like hanging out with dogs, cats, and sundry other animals. I like sitting on the back porch in the summer time with a cold beer and a thick, meaty book about English history.
I forgive you if those aren’t the activities that set your heart aflutter… but I’m never going to be someone who longs to spend holiday weekends at a bed and breakfast, or driving into the city for a show, or really wading into all but a rare few circumstances that involves me and a large group of people. I enjoy the beach, though I’ve never felt the compulsive need to take long sunset walks on it. I’m far more likely to fall down the basement steps than I ever am to consider climbing K2.
At 40 I’m acutely aware that time is increasingly limited. I spent a large amount of that time already finding out what I like and what I don’t and given the option, I’d like to continue doing the bits that I enjoy as often as possible. I think you’ll find that if your follow up question is “Yeah, but what do you do for fun,” our conversation is very rapidly drawing to a close because it’s likely we’re never going to actually understand each other.
I’m not saying that all new things are out of bounds, but whatever it is you’re reaching for had better be spec-goddamned-tacular to convince me it’s better than the joy that only comes from comfortable familiarity.
1. Forgetting Tuesday. So as it turns out, when I have more than two days off I lose all sense of time and do things like completely forget to write a blog post in the middle of the week. Since the chances of finding too many four-day weekends in the course of a year is slim to none, I’m not worried that this will become a regular occurrence… but really any deviation from the normal schedule is enough to make me just a little bit twitchy, especially when it’s something as built into the daily schedule as writing. Maybe we are all entitled to an occasional misfire, but I like to think my inner sense of consistency is stronger than that. Apparently it is not.
2. Luddites. I work from home one day a week. To make that possible I rely on a lot of decades-old technology such as email and the telephone to stay connected to the home office. When I discover that my normal day for working at home is going to be shanghaied because I’m “needed” at the office, that usually translates into having to have someone available to flip the slides. That’s fine. Whatever. But when you’re going to want to do things like that could you please not let me find out that the person we’re staging this meeting for will be talking to us from his car on the way to some other meeting while I drag myself in to the office to huddle around a single land line like a congress of latter-day Luddites. If only there were a fancy device that let people hear voice communication from more than once location simultaneously instead of trying to pretend we exist in a universe where the best solution is two tin cans and a bit of string.
3. The oblivious. There are any number of awkward things that can happen in the modern office. Of them, the one that annoys me the most is probably the people who have no natural sense of when a conversation has hit it’s logical conclusion. They just continue to stand there looking at you as if you’re supposed to stop the world and entertain them for whatever duration their attention span can muster. Look, even when I’m not pressed for time, I don’t want to spend any significant part of the day in idle chatter. I’m just not that social. If you’re that desperate for social interaction, hit me up on instant messenger like a normal human being. I can work with that. But please, for the love of all the gods, don’t just stand there with your arms draped over my cube wall hoping that I’m suddenly going to get chatty. And yet I’d be the asshole if I just looked directly at someone and told them to go the fuck away.
The internet has given us a world where information is hard to escape unless you really make an effort at it. Most days I find myself absorbing as many audio and visual signals as I can stand. Usually those feeds are clogged with finance, history, science, politics, and a bit of local news. Today it’s just chock full of the NCAA basketball championship and opening day of baseball season.
While I’m not actively taking any steps to avoid those things, my level of interest can best be expressed by a long, gaping mouthed yawn. It’s not that I hate sports in general. I don’t spend nearly enough thinking about them to be that bothered. I’d describe my attitude towards them as one of abject disinterest.
That disinterest carries the day most of the time – except on days like today. When everyone assumes everyone is a fan of something and every conversation turns on the Local Professional Baseball Team or Collegiate Basketball Program of Choice. On days like today, my disinterest is elevated to something more monumental in scope and scale.
Despite that, mostly I smile and nod at what feels like appropriate intervals… because being in polite society implies that you’ll spend a great deal of time listening to things in which you have no interest. The fact is, in addition to the lack of interest, I lack the specialized vocabulary and background information to speak on the subject in any intelligent way. I can only assume that since so many seem determined to live and die with their team, there must be something to it. I realize that in this one case, perhaps I’m the one who’s the extreme outlier – though that may just be part and parcel of my long standing personal feud with major social conventions. Regardless of the why, however, it’s simply that the part of a fan’s brain that gets tickled by a grand slam or a long three point shot, doesn’t get my neurons sparking in the same way.
I almost wish it did… if for no other reason than it would make these “big days in sports” feel a little less torturous than a slow death by a thousand cuts.
1. 2 for $5. In the late 1990s I worked at McDonald’s. Every couple of months the sandwich specials would come along pushing two Big Macs or two quarter pounders for two dollars. Aside from the occasional Egg McMuffin for lunch these days, I’m not a real connoisseur of the golden arches. I did notice their billboard a few days ago advertising their current special listed as two sandwiches for five bucks. Inflation and decreasing profit margins are a bitch, even for a company as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. That being said, I’m not sure that half-sized portions at double the cost from back in the “good old days” is what anyone would call a deal. Now you damned kids get off my lawn.
2. Leisurely conversation. I know some people come in to the office later than I do. When I’m on my way out the door at the end of my day, theirs may have another hour or two to run. What those people shouldn’t do is try to sidetrack me in the lobby and want, expect, or otherwise think about having a detailed conversation. A polite “have a good night,” or a “see you later,” is just fine. Wanting to talk details, schedule, and priority of effort are issues best – and only – left until I’m on the clock. These people may be under the false assumption that I’m focused on what their saying in order to contribute meaningfully to whatever-the-hell they’re talking about. In reality I’m trying to use the sheer force of my will to set their head on fire. Getting in my way at the end of the day is really the only sure way to guarantee that whatever you think is so very important drops to the very bottom of my list of things to do.
3. Eliminating the Electoral College. Every time I see a post about eliminating the electoral college, I want to grab people by the scruff of the neck and give them a “friendly” shake. Despite what your civics teacher told you the United States isn’t a “democracy.” It is, however, a federal republic operating under a representative democratic framework in which the states are sovereign, but ceed certain powers to the central government. You see, after ye olde Revolutionary War, we existed as thirteen new and sovereign countries – states – not as a federal government with a baker’s dozen of geographic subdivisions. We’re not a direct democracy and the founders never intended us to be. If anything, they fully intended to add a few degrees of separation between the government and the batshit crazy tendencies of “the people” as a whole. The fact that the results of the election are other than your desired outcome doesn’t mean that the system is broken so much as it means your side happened to lose the election based on the rules under which the election was held. It feels like a leap in logic to assume that if I don’t like the results it’s automatically a problem with the rules rather than with just not getting enough votes overall to keep the nitnoidy details of constitutional government from coming into play in the first place.
That title is a misnomer, actually. As it has been for the entirety of my career, what was held this afternoon was the official Non-Denominational Winter Holiday Luncheon (NDWHL). I didn’t attend and if the past is prologue all it meant giving up my chance to pay $18 for a mediocre lunch and the opportunity to participate in painfully awkward party games.
I don’t have any philosophical issues with the annual get together. Sure it’s awfully lame compared to some that I’ve seen put on by private sector creatures, but that’s not really the problem either. Hanging around with Uncle, you get used to settling for the PG, family friendly, version of everything. For me it comes down to the simple discomfort of spending three to four hours boxed into a room full of perfect strangers. Being surrounded by people I don’t know and being required to make polite conversation with them for hours is basically one version of my own personal hell.
There is simply no amount of cajoling, peer pressure, or guilt that would convince me attending the NDWHL is a good idea. Telling me who to work with is well and good, but I always reserve the final say when it comes to who I do and don’t socialize with… and when I know something is simply going to be awkward and uncomfortable, why on earth would I pay for the privilege of enduring it when I have any other option?
I wish I’d have had the wherewith all to jot down a few notes today. I think it might be instructive in describing exactly why there is currently so much dissatisfaction with the state of things. To illustrate my point, here is my best recollection of an actual conversation that took place just after I got back from lunch:
Other Person: “Uhhh… he’s adamant that we get that random tidbit of information from that guy who doesn’t want to give it to us.”
Jeff: “Yeah. Well, this report has to be sent in by 1:00, I need to finish that thing that was due Monday but no one told us about until this morning, and that other thing that needs approved four levels above me before I can send it out at noon tomorrow needs finished by the end of the day. Oh, and I haven’t had time yet to prep for the meeting I’m nominally supposed to be in charge of tomorrow, so there’s that… but I’ll add the random tidbit to my list and see what I can find out after I managed to carve out some time to hector the Air Force into doing something they’re probably not going to want to do.”
Other Person: “So… Do you want me to look at the slides for tomorrow?”
As far as I can tell, today was mostly about learning to put the right coversheet on the TPS report. Again. And Again. And Again. And again. I’m fairly sure this is real life, but it feels so close to fiction that it’s almost frightening.
1. Using your outdoor voice. There’s a time and a place for the outdoor voice. When you’re sitting at your desk, in an office, with 8 other people in earshot is not the time to decide to communicate with one another by having a 20 minute conversation from one side of the room to the others. Life in cubicle hell is bad enough without trying to block out three simultaneous cross-room conversations. I realize it’s terribly inconvenient, but maybe get up, walk the dozen or so steps, and have your chat face to face instead of favoring us all with every detail at 103 decibels. As a rule, your colleagues shouldn’t be able to hear your conversation when they’ve got their ear buds turned up to ten with Van Halen’s classic guitar riffs beaming directly into their brain.
2. Illegal immigration. I’m all for having some kind of sensible immigration reform in this country. However, while Congress flails around with that issue, I’m more interested in seeing if we can stem the flow of people illegally crossing the border from Mexico into the US. Call me crazy, but I think the first step to reforming the immigration process in this country is to make it a hell of a lot harder to just wander across the border and a hell of a lot easier to send people back from whence they came if they do show up here illegally. I have no earthly idea why we’ve collectively decided that enforcing the laws on the books falls into the too hard to do category, but until we figure out a way to actually enforce the laws on the books, I have no idea why we’d bother passing any new ones that are just as likely to be ignored.
3. Iraq. The allies poured out a decade of blood and treasure to liberate, defend, equip, train, and support a government that looks like it will collapse at any moment. I dearly wish I could wake up in the morning to find a Patton or a MacArthur or a LeMay had risen from the dead to take command of CENTCOM. Instead, I fear I’ll wake up in the morning to find the mission failed while we were all busy wringing our hands.
Anyone who has worked in a cubicle farm for any length of time knows that the “open” work concept is basically one step removed from hell. You can’t have a private conversation, unless you take you cell phone to the hallway or parking lot. Everything on your desk is considered community property. And worse yet are the people who think you need to talk to them or interact in some way simply because you happen to be in their line of site most of the day. The fact is that no, I don’t want to see the hilarious e-card some random person sent you because a) it’s not going to be actually funny; b) I don’t really care; c) I only tolerate you because I don’t want to get sued for saying something inappropriate.
It’s nothing personal, though. That’s how I feel about most things and people. What I’d really like you to do is bugger off so I can at least make a vain attempt at getting some of my work done. Baring that, I’d at least like to be able to sit quietly and try to identify the exact moment where my career plummeted off the rails.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.