Personally…

I think it’s adorable when someone calls me sounding apologetic and forlorn because they need to make a major change to one of the events managed by Tharp Parties and Events Ltd. (A division of Big Bureaucracy Productions).

Look, chief, we all work for someone. You answer to your bosses. I answer to mine. If yours and mine provide conflicting guidance and we can’t sort it out together, I have absolutely no problem pushing it up the chain for resolution somewhere at echelons higher than reality. Your bosses and mine are allegedly professional adults who should be more than capable of decision making when their staff can’t come to agreement.

Believe me when I tell you that if you come to me saying “I know this is going to blow a hole in the schedule, but my bosses don’t want to do A, B, or C,” I’m just going to shrug, pass the word to the next level up, and move on with the day. The chance of my taking it personally is precisely zero-point-zero.

You see, there are a limited number of hours in the day and I’ve only got so much energy to apply to whatever batshit crazy things happen during any given 24-hour period. I do my level best to wast as little of that time and energy on anything that is absolutely beyond my ability to control or even to exert influence upon.

So, you see, if you ever find yourself in a position of delivering me “bad news,” and I take it with what might generously be called ambivalence, know that it’s not exactly because I don’t care, but rather because even as you were speaking, I assessed the situation as being something well outside my scope and I’ve already made the decision to refer it to higher for further evaluation and action.

I’m nothing if not a man who recognizes his own professional limitations.

Non-answer answers…

The language of bureaucracy is full of many ways to admit that you have no idea what’s going on in interesting and completely non-committal ways. This afternoon I was in a meeting where I’m pretty sure I used all of them. It’s an awkward feeling, though not in any way surprising or unusual. 

You see, I find myself in the not unfamiliar position of being told that I’m “in charge” of something without being given the corresponding authority to make any actual decisions. This means I’ll spend more time running back to higher echelons and asking “mother may I” and waiting for mother’s response than I will doing anything that might accidentally resemble planning.  

Sure, I’ll perch out on a limb from time to time and make a decision that’s time sensitive. There’s a cost associated with doing that – a limited pool of good will that occasionally lets you execute an end run around the powers that be. It usually ends up with either being required to beg forgiveness or listening to one of the Olympians opine on how it had been their idea all along. 

Mercifully the last thing on earth I want is credit. All I really want is to do a job quietly, professionally, and then head myself towards the barn at the first available opportunity. Frankly I’d prefer than my name stay out of the record as much as possible – because public recognition has a funny way of only serving to attracting more work and I’m not looking to expand into new markets here.

Today was the first of many meetings where most of my responses will inevitably be some variation of “I don’t know.” This is the time of year when I approach peak bureaucrat-ing. It’s a close run contest to decide whether I’ll respond “don’t know” or “that depends” more often over the the next few months.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Surprises. I will never in my life understand why anyone likes being surprised. In my experience being caught off guard, having a bombshell dropped in your lap, getting a wake-up call, or enduring a rude awakening are all fundamentally bad things. It is, sadly, impossible for any one person to know all the things and to be prepared for all the eventualities. Even so, that doesn’t mean we have to like getting blindsided even in the exceedingly rare case where it’s a “good” surprise.

2. Decisions. Look, if you’re not going to “empower” me to be a decision maker, the very least I should be able to expect is that someone up the line will actually be making decisions in something approaching a timely manner. Sure, some questions are difficult and need great thought and discussion, but mostly are run of the mill and answerable as part of a simple yes/no or this/that dyad. Getting the answer shouldn’t take weeks and slow every project down to the point where forward progress can only be measured in a lab environment by high-precision lasers.

3. Training. My employer has made a few stuttering baby steps towards eliminating some of the onerous annual training requirements that eat up time and net very little in the way of return on investment. However, they still insist of gaggling everyone up for far too many of these “valuable opportunities to learn.” After fifteen years on the job if I haven’t learned not to be a rapist or walk around making sexually suggestive comments to my coworkers, I’m not sure the 16th time around is going to generate that magical “aha moment” they seem to want. At least the box is checked for another year… and that’s what really matters.

Back seat planner…

You all have probably heard of back seat drivers. You know, those pain in the ass people who ride along with you and critique everything from your speed to your turn management to the placement of your mirrors. The same thing happens when you plan a big event. You end up with a few (probably) well intentioned know-it-alls who want to understand every irrelevant detail of why things are happening the way they are. Back seat planners are the absolute worst… mostly because the answer to their endless litany of questions is either a) Provided in meetings they didn’t attend; b) Was a decision made at echelons higher than reality at an equal and opposite organization; c) An unplanned expedient measure executed on the fly with little or no prior coordination; d) Caused by someone who failed to follow guidance that everyone else clearly received; or e) A complete and total cockup caused by any number of both preventable and yet unforeseen circumstances.

It’s fun that anyone thinks I might exercise the all-knowing prerogatives of the Great and Powerful Oz… but the reality is that on a good day, I’m just keeping most of it together through the exercise of personal will and determination, decent relationships with a few of the other planners, and a complete willingness to call audibles on the fly and hope for the best.

No plan, you see, survives first contact. It’s a notion which you’d think people in this line of work would have a passing familiarity.

Too late…

Well, you can tell by the vacant look on my face, raging headache, and random moments of blood pouring from my nose that we’re in the shit now. The curtain goes up in a little over twelve hours. It’s officially the time that no matter the eagles, stars, horseshoes, or clovers on your collar, there is virtually nothing you can do to adjust the trajectory or outcome of that which you have set in motion lo these many months ago. It’s simply too late. You have run out of time.

It’s going to roll forward as if it has assumed a life of its own. Some of it will be good, some of it will be bad, and (not) soon enough it will be over. In a week, the whole thing will barely be a whisper of a memory.

It’s probably a good time for all involved to take a breath and be reminded, however gently that, “Remember Caesar thou art mortal.”

Literally can’t even…

We’ve reached the fun part of the “planning” process that I fondly like to think of as the day I stop doing any critical analysis of requirements and just start reacting to inputs based on a vast reserve of institutional knowledge, gut feelings, and guesswork. It means being a decision maker when you have no formal authority but a metric shit ton of implied responsibility. It means hanging your ass way out in the wind in hopes that someone from echelons higher than reality doesn’t notice what you’re up to and ends up chewing it off.

It’s a state of affairs that I can only assure them that I don’t like any better than they do… but one that is absolutely necessary in a universe where getting an official decision could take a week when you need it made in minutes.

In the absence of permission, I’ll just be over here mentally preparing myself to beg forgiveness. I’ve reached, it seems, the point where I literally can’t even.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Panhandlers. Need gas? Need beer? Whatever you need I’m sure you have a fine reason for not tending to those things through the fruit of your own labor. But you see I have bills too. Lots of them. My first duty is to provide for me and mine in our daily needs and then lay some back for the future. So no, I’m not interested in your sad story. We all have our troubles and I already subsidize enough bad decision making through state and federal taxes that I’m not interested in taking on any additional dependents at this time.

2. Blast email from Maryland’s US Senator. I regularly opine to my Senators and Member of Congress. I’ll continue to do so at any time I feel the need. Receiving their occasional email blast “report from Washington” though, always reminds me that while they may indeed be my duly elected and seated representatives in Congress, I agree with them on almost none of the issues that matter. I love my home state from the beach to the bay to the mountains, but ultimately its politics and its taxes virtually ensure that my time here in my home state has a definite expiration date.​

3. 3:30 AM. I only have so much tolerance for laying wide awake in bed. Which is to say I have no tolerance for it at all. Once awake I want to be up and doing stuff. It’s fine on a weekend when I can get up and start knocking things off my list. It’s a bloody nuisance when it means just another 90 minutes to kill before heading to work. At least it set the tone nicely for the rest of the day so that’s something.

I can feel my brain turning to jelly just a little bit more every day. We’re squarely in the middle of what can generously be described as my “busy season.” It’s roughly analogous to trying to hold a diagram of 1,745,381 moving parts in your head and knowing exactly what they’re all doing and without getting any of them confused at any given time. Some of it you can write down, but much of the rest relies on (occasionally) faulty memory and the natural sense of how things *should* go together which may or may not bear any resemblance to reality.

There’s an ebb and flow to things here. Spring and on into summer is usually peak demand. November through the new year slows down. The periods between are somewhere splitting the difference. It varies from day to day. In some ways this cycle is just the nature of the business. In other ways it’s entirely self-inflicted – with people stacking up requirements however they best fit one or another particular schedule.

For me, the only option to stave of madness is in realizing three things: 1) Accept there is only so much you can do with the time and resources allocated; 2) Understand that some (read all) decisions are actually above my pay grade; and 3) Trudge through while trying to avoid blood pressure spikes and heart attacks due to actions or inactions that are outside of my decidedly limited span of control.

Some days I’m more successful than others at keeping all that in mind. This week, however, has been made up completely of days that fall distinctly towards the “unsuccessful” side of the ledger.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Loaded Thursdays. A few weeks ago I thought it would be a good idea if I loaded Thursday from top to bottom with meetings. Getting them out of the way, having the bulk of the week to prep for them, and generally ruining as few days of the week as possible running hither and yon to these sessions really felt like I was on to a winner. Compressing meetings onto one date should free up time and be efficient. Maybe it is, but in my planning I forgot the First Rule of the Bureaucracy: The Bureaucracy must expand to consume all available time and resources. I now have more meetings and less prep time than I did before arranging this new wonder schedule. If someone could step in and hit me in the face with a shovel the next time I have a good idea it would be incredibly helpful.

2. Common sense. If you log on to social media and call for common sense legislation on any topic, but then call anyone who disagrees with you on any point an idiot, a terrorist, or worse, you’re pretty much the reason we can’t have an effective dialog in this country about anything. On issues of social policy, thinking people can have wildly differing opinions about the whole array of ends, ways, and means. Refusing to so much as discuss any idea that differs from your own forecloses any possible avenue for progress. In a republic of free people, what may be “common sense” to you, may well be nonsense to another. There’s no hope of finding a scrap of common ground without the conversation, though.

3. I’m not the decider. Look, I gave up an dreams I ever had of being a professional decision maker a long time ago. I can advise, I can recommend, I can object strenuously, and I can present information in any format and order it needs to form a coherent platform from which to base decisions. What I can’t do is fight city hall. I won’t be the guy who’s tilting at windmills. Let someone else take on the burden of making a decision based on the best data and analysis I can provide them. I don’t want it. But for the love of Pete, once that decision is made can we all agree to shut up and move out smartly? No? Fine. Let’s all just sit around and piss and moan that we think it should be different. That’ll do the trick.

Unexpected turn of events…

My current boss has been “acting” in his position for the last year or so. Although he was one of three interviewed for the position, if I had been taking bets, he would have been the dark horse candidate, with the odds of him being selected being very long. While he has been “acting,” he’s been formally occupying the job that I really wanted… effectively meaning the only way I get promoted is if he gets promoted.

As of about 20 minutes ago, the word is officially on the street. The “old man” is getting officially kicked upstairs to the big office, freeing up “my” new position. There are still plenty of wickets to get through, but assuming that there are no serious hang-ups, a significant assumption when talking about a federal job, my promotion could come through sometime after the middle of next month.

I’ll still be playing with hurricanes, charging across the country at a moment’s notice, and probably having even less free time than I do now, but in the end, it’s the job that feels right. It’s the one that I’ve sacrificed for and the one that I’ve driven myself into the ground chasing. It’s here now, just flitting into reach. It’s here now and God help me, I want it. I know I’ve sure as hell earned it.