First off, let me say thank you to everyone who took a few minutes over the weekend to text, email, or post birthday wishes. I’m happy to report that the day arrived and passed quietly. As you might expect, fanfare, parties, and being the center of real world attention aren’t really my style.
I don’t think I’ve really “celebrated” a birthday since I turned 21. I’ve noted them, of course, and measured my progress against their passing. I use to hate birthdays, now I just kind of nod in acknowledgment as they pass. Simple. Dignified. And above all quiet.
I’ll admit that 41 lacked the gulping existential horror with which I faced 40. That one was hard to get my mind wrapped around. This latest iteration of the day, not so much. This one was (hopefully) just another waypoint en route to further destinations that are still over the horizon.
Looking not all that far down the line, fifty feels like it could be a real gut punch – though part of me thinks if you’re fortunate enough to hit that milestone maybe your outlook on birthdays starts improving. The “big one” after that is 57 – a long range goal way out in 2035 to be sure, but one that feels a lot closer than it use to. If all the Junes between now and that far off date are waypoints, I’m hoping all of them after that are gravy.
Maybe it sounds odd to spend time thinking about the 50th or 57th so soon after the 41st, but to me it feels like the perfect chance to do a little reflection on what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and where we’d like to be headed in the future… and now that it’s out of my system for another year, we can get back to observing the passing world with boundless snark and cynicism.
I hadn’t really planned the long winter break to also be a break from writing, but as it turns out being away from the office reduces the amount of things I have to bitch and complain about to unnaturally low levels. Being away has been a great thing for my blood pressure, but a horrible thing for blogging. It’s a sacrifice I’d be perfectly willing to make if it wasn’t for the need to actually produce an income.
The break is all but over now, so I fully expect that we’ll have ginned up a full head of steam before long. Just knowing that the end is near is more than enough to set off an occasional eye twitch. It turns out quiet time with the books and animals and an occasional trip out for fresh produce really is a lifestyle choice I could sustain indefinitely.
The real pity is that there’s still so much time on the clock before I can put that ideal into practice. At least I have something to look forward to.
Let me start by saying I roll out of bed every morning with a rough plan in my head of how I expect the day to go. Plans are wonderful things, even if they are so often driven completely off the rails by outside influences.
It doesn’t happen very often but every now and then the perfect image how how a weekend might go lives up to all the hype in planning. You see, in my deepest dreams, weekends are long unbroken stretches of quiet time – time to be alone with my thoughts, time to tinker in the house or yard, time spent companionably silent with the resident critters, or neck deep in a stack of books.
Every now and then I manage to hit one right in the sweet spot. If I’ve remembered everything on the grocery list and tended to all the other errands than need tending, when the garage door slides down on Saturday morning it need not open again until Tuesday. It’s like living inside my very one dreamscape.
I got to walk the property and note down trees and limbs ready to feed fall’s backyard fires. I got to spend a long time just standing in the yard playing out different plantings for next spring and what arrangement they may take. I got to distract a chocolate lab long enough for one of a friendly rink-necked snakes living in the back yard to make a get away. And I got to enjoy an inordinate amount of time spent watching five hummingbirds dive bomb each other for getting too close to the feeders.
Sigh, yeah, if money were no object… but of course it is an object so these plans are but a dream to be observed through a glass darkly. At least I know I’ve got a solid grip on what I want to do when I don’t have to do anything. It might not be the hole plan, but it feels like a solid first step.
After some thought today it occurs to me that I spend upwards of 60 hours a week doing things that by definition I don’t want to do. How do I know I don’t want to do them? Well, because someone has to pay me reasonably well to convince me that it’s how I should spend my time.
That thought leads to the corollary that I’m so completely resistant to doing things that I don’t want to do in the 44 or so waking hours that I haven’t sold off because I spend so much time doing shit that I really don’t want to do in the first place.
When you spend 60 hours a week doing that which you do not naturally want to do, the calls of “you should go to the gym,” or “you should stop eating red meat,” or “do you really need that second whiskey sour” tend to fall on deaf ears. Honest to God, I don’t even hear “you’re cutting years off your life” anymore because I just assuming a good portion of what I’m cutting off are the years at the end when you sit around a nursing home shitting yourself. That’s way up there on the list of things that I don’t want to do.
The 40 or so hours that I’m awake and not being paid, are for the things that I want to do. It’s a freedom that certain life decisions have afforded me and I intend to take advantage. I’m going to drink the good whiskey. I’m going to eat the steak. I’m going to sit in the comfy chair with a book. I’m not going to spend what is currently my most limited resource on the damned stair master or learning how to make tofu “taste good.”
I just don’t want to… and that’s not a statement I get to use nearly often enough.
Six months ago as part of the annual mandatory evaluation process that pretty much everyone who has ever had a job goes through, I got asked a variation of the most common question ever put to an employee – What do you want out of your career / What are your goals? When faced with that question most people give the stock answer about gaining more experience, growing their position, and taking on more responsibility. That’s the answer everyone expects to hear when they ask that question. The call and response of that question are so ingrained in the professional world that they’re practically boilerplate.
I guess sticking to a script was never one of my strong points. When an idea pops into my head, there’s always a good chance it’s going to come flying out of my mouth in the form of words. The ones that came hurtling out of my face in response to what should have been an no-brainer kind of question still make me smile six months later. That’s probably because they formed the most honest answer I’ve ever given to that kind of question. The look on my interlocutor’s face made veering wildly off the party line all the more worthwhile.
So if you’re asking yourself by this point what is it I want out of my career or what my goals are, the answer is surprisingly simple. As best I remember, it went a little something like this:
I want to stash enough cash away to buy up 20 or 30 acres of West Virginia; a little property, maybe with a stream running through it, with lots of trees, seclusion, and a strong gate at the end of the driveway. A little cabin, a wood stove, solar panels, and not much reason to come down out of my own personal Walden. I want to spend the days writing and the long summer evenings sitting with the dogs on the porch with my feet up watching the sun drop behind the mountains. When it snows I want to not care how long it takes to melt or how long it will be until I can leave. I want to not be driven by a relentless morning alarm, six meetings a day, and an inbox that never empties. I want to balance the scale a lot more towards life and way less towards work. Those are my goals, since you asked.
Trust me, that’s not the kind of answer your boss is looking for when they ask the question. It’s not the answer I should have given and it’s certainly not the one I’d recommend anyone else giving. It does however, have the virtue of being the first time in almost two decades of work that I answered that question honestly. I still feel kind of good about that.
The week to date has been all about variations on a theme. Unfortunately, the theme of the week has been “everything is going to turn to a giant steaming pile of shit in your hands.” Today’s example comes in the form of a not inconsequential event in the life of a typical big government organization. It’s not uncommon to start planning for something like this many months in advance. By the time you get down to the few days before the thing actually kicks off, you should mostly be down to making sure the details are covered.
What you shouldn’t be doing three days before the big show is deciding that while the plan to do everything indoors has been well and good for the last two months, what we really should do is throw most of those plans over the side and instead plan on doing it outside, open to the weather, and subject to whatever nature decides to throw at you that day. That’s a fine enough approach if you’ve had months to do all the extra planning that goes into having an outdoor event, but it rarely leads to good things when it’s sprung on you with way, way less than a week to go. What you end up with under those circumstances is a Frankenstein’s monster tossed together with whatever parts and pieces you’re able to get your hands on without prior notice. Those pieces are generally not ideal.
So, we spent most of the day today inventing Plan B as we implemented it, making up details up as we went along, and having a vague hope that it all might hold together just long enough to get through the next few days. If history is any guide, the wheels will come flying off sometime late Friday afternoon, so there’s that on the horizon. It would certainly be in keeping with the week’s theme.
The only up side that I can see is that by this time next week it’s all going to be over no matter how badly we botch the implementation. Many years ago, one of my fellow teachers was fond of saying “the important part is setting your goals low and achieving them.” If his advice doesn’t apply here, it doesn’t apply anywhere.
1. Big Brother Knows Best. His distinguished honor the Mayor of New York City said earlier this week that “…our obligation first and foremost is to keep our kids safe in the schools; first and foremost, to keep you safe if you go to a sporting event; first and foremost is to keep you safe if you walk down the streets or go into our parks.” He went on to say “We cannot let the terrorists put us in a situation where we can’t do those things. And the ways to do that is to provide what we think is an appropriate level of protection.” Public safety is a key critical function of government, I agree, but we shouldn’t buy it at the expense of our other liberties. Whether they’re lost to a terrorist’s bomb to to the government trying to stop the terrorists, once those rights are gone, they’re never, ever coming back. If we let cowards change the way we live or lives, if we let government tell us how much privacy we should have or how much of other essential freedoms we need to have or how much we should be willing to surrender, well, I’m not sure I know what we’re fighting for anyway.
2. Moving the Goal Posts. I’m a tiny cog in a vast machine. As such, I’m cognizant that I have almost no control over my own schedule and even less influence over setting the agenda… but honest to God, I’ve had the same meeting scheduled and cancelled three times over the course of two days. Priorities shift, sometimes on short notice. That’s fine. I’m all for improvising, adapting, and overcoming. The hurry up and wait mentality is as old as the institution I serve – far older really. I have a suspicion that the Greek and Roman bureaucracies were not strangers to WTF moments. Expecting a schedule that everyone can agree to and stick with is a pipe dream… but that doesn’t make the constant moving goal posts any less obnoxious.
3. Thursday. Screw you, Thursday. You use to be cool. You use to be thirsty. You use to have dime drafts. Now you’re just as much a crank as any of the other weekdays – just another work-a-day trudging towards the weekend. Not even your neighbor Friday is good for much of anything these days. He’s in a pissy mood until the middle of the afternoon, so I don’t really have much use for him either. The only thing that makes either one of your tolerable is that the path to Saturday runs right through you. That’s the only reason you’re not dead to me.