A few days ago, I was requested and required to provide an update on the current status of the annual spring event that I find both loathsome and obnoxious. Historically these sessions have always been fraught with danger. Gotcha questions, deep diving irrelevant details, adding requirements to no real advantage, and generally just busting my balls was the order of the day.
Not so this time around. We passed on the relevant information. Provided a broad overview of progress, the expected way ahead, and our proposed timeline and milestones. There were several clarifying questions and then approval to proceed as planned.
I walked into the room planning on needing every bit of bureaucratic arms and armor I could carry along. Not a bit of it was called for. In fact, the whole thing felt so unnatural that I’ve spent the last 48 hours expecting the other shoe to come hurtling out of the sky and land directly on my head.
This dog and pony show is still the bane of my existence, but it’s nice to be dealing with someone who doesn’t seem determined to make the slog harder than it needs to be “just because.” Is it possible that I’ve encountered a rare supporter in trying to stave off unnecessary chaos?
I was not expecting that to happen right square in the middle of the week, but here we are. It’s a brave new world.
1. Virtually in person. Monday was one of those days where I was in the office fulfilling the (in my opinion) questionable requirement that our little team must always have a warm body in the building. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, the whole enterprise would collapse should we all simultaneously be doing the work from anywhere other than our assigned badly lit, gray-toned workstations. The only meeting I had that day involved seven or eight people… half of whom were also physically in the office. It’s awfully telling that despite so many people being on site, the whole meeting was held over Teams with everyone participating from their desk. If we’re all going to be meeting virtually from our own section of cubicle hell, I’d really love a non-corporate speak explanation of why there’s even a push to have more and more people in the office? You’ll never convince me it doesn’t defy logic and plain common sense.
2. Pulling rank. This week, as I may have mentioned, was the yearly spectacle where I attempt to stage manage / executive produce a three-day series of presentations. This year there were 9 organizations and 21 separate presentations across three days. This event rated permanent support from me, three guys who managed the IT infrastructure from soup to nuts, and a handful of rotating support personnel from each of the participating organizations that fell in for their portion of the event and then buggered off. By way of contrast, there was another event on Tuesday morning. This one lasted 90 minutes. It rated support from a staff director, six subject matter experts, three guys to manage IT, and another half dozen aides, support staff, and various strap hangers. If it sounds like I’m in any way angry and a little bitter, I like to think it’s justified hostility and just one of the many reasons why I hate the last week of April.
3. Choices. At the princely cost of $4.25 per gallon, I filled up the truck this morning from about a quarter tank and spent $77.60. I didn’t jump online to “Thank Brandon” or scream “Orange Man Bad” because I know the American president has next to no direct control over setting global commodity prices. I paid my bill without much comment, because paying his way in this endlessly beshitted world is a man’s job. Well, that and because no one twisted my arm 12 years ago in west Tennessee when I bought a big V8 powered pickup truck knowing full well that on its best day, I might get a little more than 16 miles per gallon. Brandon didn’t do that. I did… and so did everyone else who opted for size and power over efficiency. Want to find someone to blame? Take a hard look in the mirror.
1. Schedule. I’m deep in the weeds of designing a schedule for a three-day event where, at best, there’s one day of real content. The inevitable result will be a proposal that nobody likes – but that everyone will eventually go along with because no one else wants to come up with a better alternative. It’s just another week in the belly of the bureaucracy as an event planner, I suppose. Thank God there’s no real-world events taking place globally that would be a better place to allocate limited time and effort.
2. Joe Biden. I get it, he’s not Don Trump. At some point, though, that has to stop being enough reason to give the guy a pass. I never had particularly high expectations for a Biden Administration, but setting aside our policy disagreements on the proper role and function of the federal government, the first year has been less successful than even I expected. From the bungled evacuation of Afghanistan to rampaging inflation to failure to ramp up testing for COVID, most of what’s come out of the White House in the last 365 days has felt botched in many greater or lesser ways. Maybe it’s just me, but I expected more polish and poise from an administration who are largely old hands inside the beltway.
3. Google. About a decade ago, I set up a “Gmail for Your Domain” account to support jeffreytharp.com. It gave me up to 50 “branded” email address overlayed on the gmail.com platform and some other nice integration features. At the basic tier, that was a “free” service provided by Google (presumably for giving them the right to data mine your various inboxes). For a long time, it’s been a totally painless experience. They’ve just announced the end of this as a free service and now I have to decide if $6 a month is enough of an annoyance and pain point to motivate me to find an alternative and migrate to it between now and May 1st. Otherwise it’s a matter of abandoning tens of thousands of emails and other records in place and starting fresh with a new provider. Stupid Sophie’s choice.
1. Parity. Part of my job this week was calling around and talking to people from other organizations who are saddled with their own version of my favorite dog and pony show. It’s no surprise that everyone I spoke to runs theirs a little differently. I didn’t uncover anything unexpected or particularly helpful, but I did discover that everywhere else, the person these other offices put in charge of their annual spectacular is at least graded out as a deputy director. Put another way they are all, a minimum of one good pay grade or two notches on the org chart higher than me. Yeah, that was a feel-good moment right there.
2. Inflation alarm. The federal government poured vast amounts of money into the economy over the last eighteen months in the form of direct payments via enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus payments and the Paycheck Protection Program. People, as they tend to do when they have money in their pockets, went on a buying binge. Stocks, houses, and consumer goods were all in the crosshairs of people with cash to spend. We spent so hard we overwhelmed the supply side’s ability to keep up with demand. And now, the headlines are screaming that we’re supposed to be shocked that inflation has taken hold and the price of good and services is increasing. Beyond the few classes I had to take as part of a social science major, I’m not a student of economics… even so, the results of increasing demand, limited supply, and boatloads of money in circulation is almost entirely predictable, no?
3. The waiting. Here I sit. About seven hours after getting the COVID-19 booster jammed into my arm. I feel fine, with barely even a sore arm to show for my trouble. What I do have, though, is the uncomfortable period of waiting. My first COVID shot was a non event. After getting my second Moderna shot way back in March, I had a bit of an aching arm, but went to bed and woke up the next morning feeling fine. Exactly twenty-four hours after the jab, though, I got to experience the unpleasant hit-by-a-bus feeling advertised as a potential side effect – chills, aches, lethargy – pretty much the full list with the merciful exception of nausea. That one skipped me, somehow. In any case, I’m sitting here, waiting to see what things look like around lunchtime tomorrow. Prevention is worth a pound of cure and all that, but I’m trying to mentally prepare for another lost day.
1. Maxine Waters. I called out Donald Trump when he used his official position as an elected official to incite violence, so it only feels fair that Maxine Waters gets the same treatment. Using threats of violence to score political points with her base is precisely the activity that she scorned Trump and Republicans for doing over the last four years shows clearly that she’s a politician in precisely the same mold. Her calls to “get more confrontational,” should be as roundly condemned as were Trump’s words… but they won’t be in the prevailing media environment. In my books, though, a demagogue is a demagogue regardless of having an (R) or (D) after their name.
2. Excess savings. A CNN article this week blazed a headline that globally, “Consumers have $5.4 Trillion in Excess Savings” and positing that we’re about to see a boom in consumer spending. I only mention it because CNN also likes to run articles highlighting how bad we Americans are at saving for retirement or even just saving in general. The American portion of this “excess savings” is estimated (again by CNN) to be $2.6 Trillion. It feels like a perfect (and passed up) opportunity to encourage our countrymen to do something radical like open a retirement account, hold that cash as an emergency fund, or otherwise think beyond going on a buying binge as soon as the plague is over. I suppose soon enough we’ll be back to the inevitable stories about how no one is saving for retirement or can’t afford a $37 dollar emergency.
3. Reading for comprehension. I’ve responded to approximately 200 emails from people who “can’t find the schedule” for this week’s event. Look, numbnuts. You literally had to scroll past the schedule to find the group email address that lands stupid questions in my inbox. If reading for comprehension is a measure of how qualified companies or individuals are to provide services under contract, I’ve got an impressive list of them that should be rejected out of hand as not meeting minimum quality standards.
I spent the bulk of today tinkering around the pre-start up necessities for a project that not even the second year of the Great Plague has managed to kill off. It will be my 7th time attempting to herd the cats towards this effort. It’s entirely beloved by the powers high atop Olympus, but has been, is, and apparently ever will be the absolute bane of my professional existence.
It’s safe to say that whatever restive effects of taking the last half of December off are well and truly used up now. I’m shocked they lasted into the second day, really. That’s almost twice as long as I usually manage to not be completely agitated by the unique joys of the bureaucracy.
The only perk of having done the same thing for seven years in a row is I have an awfully deep bench of templates to draw from. It’s virtual acres of ground filled with slide decks, Excel files, and narrative documents that help limit the amount of original thought that needs to be applied. The biggest hurdle is sorting through it all to craft a package that looks new and interesting enough that the great overlords won’t realize that it’s a great batch of recycled ideas.
The fact that this year, once again, will be in the format of a “virtual meeting” helps out a lot there. There are only so many ways to doctor up a Zoom meeting to make it look new and original. There will be allowances for that. Probably.
Still, today has been like meeting an old friend. The kind of friend who wrecked your car, slept with your girl, stole your wallet, and kicked your dog.
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.
Now it’s important to remember that when it comes to event planning at the very best I am nothing more than a marginally talented amateur. I’m reasonably good at establishing requirements and subcontracting them out to people who can do that actual work. What I lack in any meaningful way is the patience requisite to answering the same five questions 437 times after providing that information in a read ahead packet that clearly no one bothered to read.
The real problem, though, isn’t necessarily who did or didn’t read what… it’s that although I’m tolerable good at identifying requirements, I really have no actual control over them. In the parlance of my employer, I’m not a “decision maker,” and frankly, as I’ve said loudly and often, I don’t want to be one of those. The most significant “wheels coming off” moments I find at an event of any size aren’t actually a result of poor planning or staff work so much as they’re the result of one of the deciders being visited by the Good Idea Fairy twelve hours or so before the damned thing starts.
The result is that plans are made, flyers are printed, and advertising is done… and the new thing that’s being injected starts looking a lot like an after-thought instead of something that was carefully considered and added because it created value in the week’s proceedings.
But since I’m just a guy sitting here, what the hell do I know?
I had three things all laid out for today. But all three of them combined don’t hold a candle to the one big thing that has been absolutely crazymaking this week… and that’s waiting until the last fucking minute to decide to pay attention to the onrushing train bearing down on you.
It’s not that I have a philosophical problem with needing to do things at the last minutes in and of itself. Sometimes a crisis really is a crisis, something that arrived by surprise and was otherwise unavoidable. However, what we here treat as a crisis is almost always something that we’ve seen coming for months, but have elected to ignore until it shows up on the front stoop like a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. That is to say that nearly all of the chaos brought on by suddenly engaging at the last minute is completely self inflicted.
If there’s nothing else I’ve learned in my 16+ years here in the heart of the Great American Bureaucracy it’s that no amount of planning I can do that will offset late-in-the-cycle visits from the Executive Good Idea Fairy. No amount of anticipating needs, or prep work, or casting entrails will ever get you ready for things that should have been mentioned three months ago but show up with less than three weeks to go.
I spent more of the day applying some academic rigor to food trucks, cake cuttings, and feel good opportunities that one might think was strictly reasonable under normal circumstances.
Personally, if I were making decisions on who should be involved in this kind of information gathering, I wouldn’t pick me. I’m not in any way sure what would make someone look at me, a guy who by nature loathes parties, events, or large gatherings of people, and decide that he’s the one who needs to play a significant role in party planning writ large. It’s a skill set to be sure, but I have to think that you’d be far better off giving the role to someone who has better instincts for what people might enjoy.
Believe me when I tell you that what sounds perfectly nice to me generally doesn’t come close to passing muster as being good enough for the gods of Olympus. It’s just a difference of tastes and perspective. To me, a good party mostly involves a fire pit, a half dozen or fewer people, and plenty of liquid refreshment. Once we cross into the realm of crab puffs, linen tablecloths, and mood lighting I’m 100% making shit up as I go along.
My best time imaginable is finding somewhere comfortable to sit, cracking open a book about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era, and enjoying a well-made whiskey drink. Trying to convert me into a producer of something that feels like it could give the Ice Capades a run for its money seems like square pegs and round holes territory, really.
On days like this it really is helpful to remind myself that no matter what happens, whether the final product is loved or loathed, the clock is ticking and this iteration of the greatest show on earth will be here and over sooner rather than later.