We don’t really do consistency here…

One of the great joys of working for my employer is that we’re absolutely comfortable delivering mixed messages. It’s such a regular part of business that I doubt most people even notice. I notice, of course, because it’s exactly the kind of random foible that I enjoy writing about. 

I present the following by way of example:

On one hand, the message from the very top is that COVID-19 remains an existential threat to our ability to contest and not lose the nation’s wars. In light of that, every one and all of us must stay masked, be vaccinated, maintain social distance, and keep working from home because it’s dangerous out there.

On the other hand, the same organization is holding its last frenzied meetings about piling people from around the country into a large convention center for three days next week. I’m sure it will be a glittering affair with everyone fully following all published best practices and risk reduction strategies. You just can’t beat the synergistic effects of breathing all over each other to enhance lethality and multi-domain readiness… because it’s not so dangerous out there.

One of the great lessons I’ve learned during my career is that we are very serious about following rules and procedures, unless, of course, those rules and procedures are in any way inconvenient or interfere with what the gods on Olympus want to do. Then, it helps if you just think of them as suggestions and don’t take them seriously in any way. If you came looking for consistency, boy did you come to the wrong place. 

Shutdown prep…

Years ago, the federal government was touted as stable employment, promising a career that wouldn’t make you rich, but ensured that you wouldn’t die poor. It was a guarantee of a solidly middle class lifestyle during your working years and a comfortable retirement when the time came. The trade off, for such stability was forgoing the big salaries that could sometimes be had for similar work in the private sector. Those salaries, of course, came with risk that the contract that paid so well could disappear overnight.

Stable is a relative term, of course. Over the last fifteen years I’ve worked through hiring freezes, furloughs, and more government shut downs than I can really remember. That’s not the hallmark of a particularly stable employer. Then again, when I look at the elected officials who the people, in their questionable wisdom, have sent to Washington to represent them, “stable” isn’t a world I’d choose to use for many of them – both the politicians and the electorate.

So here I am, with the next government shut down hovering in the wings, once again preparing to defer or stop payments and dramatically reduce the scope and scale of operations at Fortress Jeff.

I’ve got enough years on me now to ride out a run of the mill government shutdown if I must. Still, planning for a few weeks or months without pay does make you question going with the “stable” choice all those years ago. If you’re going to be planning how to cut spending down to the bone every couple of years anyway, maybe some of those contract jobs would have been better in the end.

Our elected representatives are increasingly incapable of acting like grown adults, but then again, the same is true of the people who elect them. The curse of democracy is we continue to get exactly the kind of politicians, government, and society that we deserve.

Irreplicable…

Over the weekend I saw three separate posts on Facebook saying some derivation of “They’ll replace you at work before your obituary is published, but you’re irreplicable at home.”

Based on my decidedly unscientific observation of human behavior, this has to be one of the greatest lies we tell ourselves. Not the part about being utterly replicable to your employer, of course. That bit is gospel truth. But being indispensable at home? Please. 

Looking around at the number of people who are regularly being cheated on, cheating on their significant other, getting divorced, meeting the 3rd “love of their life” in the last year, having kids they don’t see or support, barely functioning due to chemical dependency, or otherwise contributing nothing to their family or society at large, it seems to me that a fair number of us are every bit as dispensable at home we are to an employer. I suppose that’s the kind of thing we’re not supposed to say in polite company, though.

Look, I guess you’ve got to tell yourself whatever it takes to get through the night or to give some semblance of meaning in the face of a universe that truly does not give one shit… but realistically, we’re mostly just impressively complex electrochemical bio-machines designed to propagate our genes. Maybe it’s not as comforting, but it has the stench of honesty that I’ve increasingly come to appreciate.

My 16th year…

Yesterday marked the 16th anniversary of my life in sworn service to our mad uncle. People say that time flies when you’re having fun, but in my experience having fun is entirely optional. Time just flies. Well, more specifically, the years seem to fly. Individual days feel like they might well last for weeks on end. It’s when they get rolled up into their individual 365-count bundles that they race away from you.

From my vantage point here as a solidly mid-career bureaucrat, I won’t pretend there haven’t been some good times. A few of them are probably only good in retrospect and with the benefit of distance from the facts, but that’s probably to be expected. Over the last 16 years I’ve been privileged to meet some of the smartest human beings I’ve ever known. I’ve also met more than a few sniveling, conniving, climbers who I’d happily shank in a dark alley if I ever got the chance – and thought I could get away clean. Not one of that bunch is worth going to prison over, though I hope I’m still around when they inevitably overreach.

About once a year someone on the outside asks if I’d recommend government work. A decade ago I’d have said yes. Government work isn’t going to make you rich, but the pay doesn’t suck, the health and retirement plans are good, and you never have to worry about your employer going out of business. It was a haven for those who value stability – a place of low risk and correspondingly modest rewards. After a decade of living through multiple hiring freezes, multiple pay freezes, and multiple government shutdowns, though, I couldn’t recommend it with a clear conscience these days.

Uncle is no longer a stable employer – pay and benefits are just another political football at risk every year. If you’re going to live with that much uncertainty, you might as well go work in the private sector where you might have a chance at making some real money for assuming the risk that your company or contract won’t be there a year from now. I won’t go so far as saying that both options are equal – but the assessment of whether public service or the private sector is a better place to have a career feels like more of a dice roll now that it has in the last 16 years.

In a few months I’ll climb over the halfway point on the long road to whatever retirement might look like in or about 2035. That feels like a far more important milestone than yesterday’s just passing another year on the job. Who knows, maybe my mood will even improve. Probably not, but it would be a neat trick if it did.

When Days Off Aren’t…

Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, but one of the things that makes me absolutely apoplectic is getting calls from the office on vacation days. Ninety-nine times out of 100, I’ve planned these days in advance, have put a lid on whatever projects I happen to be working on and handed off key pieces of information to the guy who’s backstopping me for the day. The fact is there’s nothing I’m working on that’s so important that it can’t wait less than 24 hours until I’m back at my desk. I know this because A) I’m not highly graded enough to start or end a war by myself and B) My distinguished institution survived two and a quarter centuries before I started showing up at the office.

As a rule, I don’t ask much of my employer. All I’m really looking for is a regular pay check and health insurance, a reasonably predictable schedule, and a few days off here and there. Other than that, anything else that comes down the pike is pretty much just a perk. I appreciate those too, but I certainly don’t expect them. Does “not calling me for trivial and routine issues when I’m off” qualify as an unreasonable expectation? I mean had I happened to be gone on a two-week cruise they wouldn’t have called, why is taking a random day off though the week given any less consideration? Spending two hours on the phone going over things with the office pretty much defeats the point of taking the day off. I wonder how telling them I’m only taking six hours of vacation for the day since I was working the other two would go over.

I know it’s a recession out and making waves for your employer isn’t a great idea. That’s why I’m here ranting instead of in the boss’ office ranting, right? But still, if that little bit of consideration is a bridge too far, just let me know.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Tweaked…

On the surface the range of issues I deal with in this new job is deceptively similar to the position I ejected from in Tennessee. To be sure, there’s plenty of org chart shuffling, PowerPoints to update, and a metric ton of reports of one stripe or another that need to be completed. The difference, though, is that even when it’s minute, you can still see progressing being made on these projects. There’s plenty of infighting and office politics, but on the whole, projects are handed off between offices more or less seamlessly. There’s even collaboration between different departments… and it’s actually encouraged. It’s like someone has taken reality and tweaked it just a bit. Or maybe more like they’ve smacked it in the side of the head with a 2×4.

My perception is obviously shaded a bit by the recent past, but I can legitimately say that this has been the first time in a long stretch when I didn’t wake up in the morning looking for a reason to take a sick day. That long stretch of early morning parking lot pep talks is, for now, a thing of the past. Does that mean things couldn’t turn into a poop sandwich tomorrow? Not so much. For now, I’ll just appreciate it for what it is.