Twenty years ago today, at about 8:00 in the morning, I walked into Shoney’s in Petersburg, Virginia having no idea what to expect. Three weeks earlier, I had celebrated Christmas by walking away from my still poppin’ fresh teaching career in the middle of the school year. Between getting my old condo ready to rent, the U-Haul expense, and setting up housekeeping in a new apartment, I was lucky to scrape together enough spare change to be flush enough to order breakfast somewhere so fancy. It was a starving time – the flattest of flat broke I’ve been as an adult before or since.
With that career turning 20 today, it’s been hard not to linger on where it’s taken me – from Petersburg and Richmond, to the Columbia River gorge and The Dalles, Honolulu, DC, Memphis, and finally back home to Maryland and the shores of the Chesapeake. I’ve met some absolutely brilliant minds and more than a few complete and utter shits. A few of the former, I’m lucky to consider dear friends. The latter are unavoidable no matter how hard you try.
No matter where the geography took me, it’s always been a job – the thing I do to pay the bills and afford to do all the other stuff. That’s ruffled the feathers of the true believers whose paths I’ve crossed. It cost me a few points here and there and maybe made me more than one low key enemy… but I have very few regrets. I’ll bitch about Uncle’s batshit crazy, incredibly frustrating, and outmoded way of doing things until the day I die, but it’s been a good living and it’s given me the opportunity to build a good life with not too many compromises. That ain’t nothing.
I’m just a bit shy of 2/3 of the way through this unexpected career of mine. With 20 down and 12 to go, I do find my thoughts turning a lot more frequently to its end than I do to its beginning. It’s nice, though, this one time a year, to sit down and think about the truly bizarre series of events and decisions that led me from there to here.
The dread I’m feeling about tomorrow being the end of my 17-day Christmas weekend is palpable. Without any scientific evaluation, it’s precisely why I think most heart attacks happen at the beginning of the work week.
Despite none of the plans of the last two weeks playing out as expected, the time has been an absolute delight – seemingly endless hours stretching out surrounded by books, and animals, and range time, and generally doing whatever caught my fancy on any given day or hour. I imagine it’s a sample of how I’d spend my days if it wasn’t necessary to work in order to afford those things.
I’m jealous of those people who, it seems, find fulfillment in their jobs. More power to them. I don’t know that I’ll ever find it more than a rude, 8-10 hour interruption, keeping me from doing the things that are actually of interest. For good or bad, I’ve told every boss I’ve ever had that it’s just a job, not some kind of sacred calling – usually in response to their misguided questioning about my desire to move upwards through positions of “increasing responsibility.”
If I were going to embark on some uplifting holy quest, I promise you it wouldn’t be planning the best gosh darn conference ever, or writing the OPORD with the fewest spelling mistakes, or sending out the most taskers in a single day.
It’s job, not in any way to be confused with actual life. If you’re expecting me to be passionate about it, you’re looking in the wrong place and at the wrong guy. I’ll do it well because that’s why I’m getting paid. The minute I’m finished, though, it won’t even be a passing thought during the rest of my day.
I’ll schlep into the office tomorrow because it’s what keeps the lights on and the animals fed. I might even crack some jokes or make a few snarky comments while I’m there. I’ll create the necessary illusion of being interested and engaged. Uncle will get his money’s worth… but it’s never, ever going to be a place or activity I’ll run to with a smile on my face and song in my heart.
It’s new supervisor day at the office. I’d like to pretend raging indifference, but the fact remains that whoever signs your leave requests and timesheets has a tremendous influence on whether the eight hours you rent yourself out for on a daily basis go well or badly.
After almost twenty years in harness, I’ve accumulated a long list of former bosses. If I feel like being polite, I’ll say that some were better than others. If I’m not, I’d say that some were princes among men and others were oxygen thieving asshats I wouldn’t cross the street to piss on if they were on fire. Most were somewhere in between the extremes.
I don’t know the new guy, so I’m withholding judgement until there’s a reasonable basis for deciding where he falls on the spectrum. A lot of that is going to depend on just how “energetic” they decide to be in their new position. All new bosses will inevitably make changes, but the real determinative factor is whether they wants to change the things that need changing or whether they end up chasing wholesale changes just because they want to “leave a mark” or because he knows better than anyone ever before.
The dude has got big shoes to fill… and I’m not just saying that because the old boss is now my senior rater. It’s a hard, thankless job made all the more difficult because echelons higher than reality can never quite agree on what the job is actually supposed to entail. I’ve had two chances now to apply for what would be a respectable promotion and opted against doing so both times. I wouldn’t want the job at twice the pay. I’m happy enough letting others sit in the councils of the great and the good while I tend my widgets and get home at a reasonable hour.
Way back on June 1st, 2006 I published my first blog post… on MySpace. A lot has changed in the intervening 16 years. For instance, well, MySpace doesn’t seem to be much of a thing anymore. I’ve also managed to get 16 years older, which I suppose is nice give the binary alternative.
I’m not big on celebrating my own birthdays, but having something to say day in and day out for 16 years feels like an accomplishment worth noting.
With 3,660 posts under the bridge, being loud and obnoxious about having an opinion is still something I enjoy the hell out of doing (most of the time). It’s not without some irony that I recognize it’s the job I’ve enjoyed most all these years and it’s also the one that’s paid me virtually nothing. It hasn’t proven to be a money maker, but relieving all this bile on a regular basis is probably the thing that has kept me a reasonable approximation of sane.
So that’s it. That’s the post. If you want to see where it all started, you can check out that very first post here.
1. Flossing. I have a hate/hate relationship with flossing. I hate doing it and no matter how gentle I try to be or which kind of floss I use, it always ends up with blood.. and occasionally a crown falling off. In the interest of at least trying to comply with the spirit of my dentist’s request to floss regularly, I’ve worked a water pick into the daily routine. At least it’s never pulled a crown off one of my teeth and the bleeding happens far less often… Although Tuesday night the sink took on the appearance of a crime scene, so maybe it’s not an all that much better solution.
2. Computers. I got a new computer this week. Well, not me, exactly. Uncle got a new computer that he’s assigned to me. The jury is still out on whether it will be any better than the broken down old laptop from 2017 that it’s replacing. I suppose if it manages to consistently boot up from a cold start in anything less than two hours, it’s got to be considered progress. Still, that’s a long way off from being a snappy new machine. No matter how new, it’ll be crippled with whatever “basic load” of software our IT boffins think is necessary to protect us from the enemy and ourselves… and it’ll still be a wildly frustrating piece of equipment to use.
3. Limitations. It’s been an awfully long time since I sat in on ECON 101 or 102. They were requirements for a social science major. I did well enough in them, but God knows I’d never consider myself an economist. I’m pretty good at picking up on basic concepts, though, when conversations turn to commodities pricing, interest rates, and the state of S&P 500. If I put in a little effort, I can mostly follow along with the reasons why they rise and fall and even grasp a few of the implications that might follow on. I do, however, realize my limitations. Having an opinion is a fine thing. Sharing it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But it’s really a crying shame that more people on the internet don’t seem to have any sense of their own intellectual limits.
Sitting in the office all day gives you time to think.
It gives you time to think about smelling other people’s meals, and listening to their phone conversations, and their wandering around from cube to cube looking for an ear to bend, and the hour wasted traveling to and then another hour wasted going from that monument to early 20th century management philosophy.
Yes, sir, sitting in the office gives you an awful lot of time to think.
I’m quite sure there are people out there who are dying to get back to the office full time. God knows there will be plenty of senior leaders who can’t wait to get back to preening in front of town hall meetings and capacity crowds conferences – and seeing their toiling minions stacked elbow to asshole across whole floors filled with cubicles.
More than anything, though, sitting in the office is full of time to think about how utterly ridiculous it is to sit in an office when every single touch point of your day involves email, phone calls, and shuffling electronic information from one place to another. If you’re heart doesn’t seeth with just a little bit of rage knowing it could all be accomplished from any place on the globe with a reliable internet connection and a cell phone, well, I’m not entirely sure you’re thinking about work as a product and not as some kind of half-assed social activity.
As long as those running the show put as much or more premium on the quasi-social elements like maintaining a “corporate culture” and the farcical notion that “real” communication can only happen face to face, no amount of real world evidence seems likely to move the needle away from 1950s ideas of what working looks like.
There’s still no formal guidance on what the new and improved “return to work” plan will look like here in the belly of the bureaucracy. I’m told they’re working on an updated plan at echelons higher than reality. If precedent is prologue, I’ll expect this new plan to cleave as close as humanly possible to exactly how things were done in the Before Times and ignore as much as possible the last two years happened at all.
Even back in spring 2020, in the early days when the Great Plague raged unchecked, some of us were still coming to the office. Often it wasn’t many – and certainly some came more than others, but on the average day there may have been five or six people spread out in a room built out to hold around thirty. For good, bad, or otherwise, those who make decisions were determined that the place was going to have at least the loose appearance of conducting business as usual. They were determined to keep the lights on.
I only mention it, because I had a bit of a unique career experience today. For most of this day before Thanksgiving, I was the last man standing… or maybe the only one without the foresight to drop a leave request for today and Friday. In any case, I spent most of the day with the place entirely to myself. The only time I’ve had an even similar experience was a million years ago when I was a fresh, young GS-7 working in DC who wasn’t banking enough vacation time to be extravagant about taking the Friday after Thanksgiving. Even then, there were a few other people knocking around the far reaches of the GAO Building’s 3rd floor, so I wasn’t completely on my own there.
Today was a real Time Enough at Last moment, which is to say it was kind of ideal. As it turns out, just being stuck in a room full of cubicles and awful fluorescents for the day isn’t necessarily the problem with the modern office. It wasn’t quite as good as a day working from home, but without all the people, I mean it didn’t particularly suck.
It looks like I’ve learned my one new thing for today, so I’m feeling pretty good about that.
It’s that special time of year again when the gods on Olympus like to pretend that they are not in any way constrained by time, distance, or the laws of men. It’s a few days before Thanksgiving and those high and mighty gods have, right on schedule, realized that the minions on whom they depend to work their will will increasingly be unavailable thanks to end of the year leave taking.
Now what someone with a modicum of common sense might do, is prioritize whatever effort or efforts are legitimately “most important” and concentrate on getting those through the gate first. What we’ll actually be doing, of course, is piling on increasing levels of stuff to do and then watching as “leaders” gnash their teeth and rend their garments because it’s not getting done.
The pool of available people to keep up with whatever wild-ass new ideas the bosses dream up will get a little smaller every day between now and the end of the year. It would be comical if it weren’t absolutely predictable. I’ve watched this spectacle first hand since 2003 and can only assume this great green machine has been up to the same kind of pre-holiday fuckery since Washington was a Lieutenant.
Look, I really am sorry… but if you’re looking for a guy who’s going to jump through his own ass, moan, and wail, because your failure to plan has become an “emergency,” I’m just not your huckleberry. Never have been. Never will be. You have my word on it.
The number of people who call my phone thinking they can steamroll me with some variation of the phrase, “My boss said…” would honestly blow your mind. I’m sure whatever their boss said carries some relative weight… with them. Since their boss is almost never anywhere on the list of people who sign my yearly performance evaluation, what we generally have is them passing along information that could, in a certain light, be considered interesting to me, but that is also almost entirely irrelevant.
I promise, I’m not out here making shit up as I go along. If I’ve done something, it’s because someone who does figure into my rating chain has either told me to do it or will support my interpretation of whatever led me to take a specific action.
After nearly twenty years at this, I don’t get impressed or intimidated by titles or shrill voices. But feel free to call and raise your complaint. I may even smile and nod sympathetically right before I proceed with doing whatever I was about before you called.
Follow my advice. Don’t. Either way, it honestly makes absolutely no difference to me. But good luck when someone higher up the pecking order asks your boss why it didn’t get done.
I spent a lot of the summer of 2000 driving around the state of Maryland interviewing for teaching positions. I had interviews in every corner of the state from the Atlantic coast, to the upper reaches of the Bay, and back down the western shore to southern Maryland. The only place I didn’t have an interview was anywhere close to my home county. No amount of family connections in teaching there could overcome the surplus of fresh young grads wanting to stay close to home that Frostburg turned out every semester.
I signed on with St. Mary’s County for the princely sum of almost $30,000 a year. I could say that it felt like making big money after four years of full time school and part time minimum wage work, but it didn’t. Not after all the bills were paid and $25 out of each check went to a retirement account, untouchable until a day then so far into the future that it didn’t even seem like a real mark on the calendar. Maybe all time feels imaginary when you’re 22 and on your own for the first time. Being three hours away from everything and almost everyone I knew felt like it might as well have had me living on the other side of the moon
I’m not sure what got me thinking about those days in the pre-dawn hours this morning, but something pulled me back there – to thoughts of what passed as a “splurge” in those days. The most unreasonable was probably a set of marble drink coasters from Bed, Bath, and Beyond, purchased on a trip to the “upscale” shopping venues in Waldorf. They might have set me back about $20 at the time.
Now here I sit, plotting large scale home improvement projects – the bathroom renovation about to get underway, the roof that’ll be due for replacement soon, the HVAC system I could squeeze some more efficiency from, the huge oaks that needed to be tended to sooner rather than later, lest they drop thousand pound limbs on the house, and the first twinkling of an idea for a bit of renovation in the kitchen. The scope and scale of what passes for a splurge these days is absolutely staggering – well beyond anything 22 year old me would have even imagined back there and back then.
I guess my point is life really does come at you quick. But I still have those old coasters, so they might turn out to be the best investment of the bunch. They’ve certainly proven to be just about the only tangible proof that I did anything at all in a time so long ago and far away.