1. The perceived speed of time. An entire Saturday runs its course in approximately 1 hour and 37 minutes. By contrast a typical Tuesday afternoon drags on for something like 14 days. Yes, I know it’s largely just a function of the way the conscious mind processes routine experiences and memory building, but damn. I wish I could find a way to bottle that 6am Saturday morning just after I’ve had my first cub of coffee and the whole weekend is still spread out before me feeling. I could use a strong shot of that at least three times a day on any given Monday-Friday.
2. Moving with purpose. Wherever you go, no matter the time of day, you will find yourself surrounded on all sides by people who seem to be loose roaming out in the world with no particular place to go and no particular time when they need to be there. They walk slow, they drive slow, the veer left or right without warning and for no obvious reason. It’s like these poor misbegotten souls are in need of some basic purpose in life. Any semblance of purpose would be a wild improvement from the norm. Day in and day out it’s these absolute shitbirds that are the most constantly infuriating aspects of any activity that requires leaving the house and interacting with people.
3. Ask for what you want (but first know what you’re looking for). I’ve been at this kind of work almost 16 years now. I generally know the back story. I know where the bodies are buried. I know why some projects succeeded and why others failed. I’ve been around long enough now to remember the last time someone had your “brilliant new idea.” If you want my help, all you really need to do is ask for it… but when you do, it’s best to ask for what you actually want. Don’t ask me for a brief history of Process X and then tell me that wasn’t what you wanted once I gin up the information for you. If you don’t know the name of the thing you want me to talk to you about, try describing it. Give me some detail. Don’t just keep saying Project X repeatedly and thinking that we are in any way communicating. If it’s obvious by the information I’ve provided that my attempt at deciphering your meaning has failed, you should probably come at it from a different angle of attack. I don’t generally want to stonewall anyone. My goal is to get the information you want processed and off my desk as quickly as possible – because that’s the most direct path to reach my overall objective of getting you to stop bothering me. I’ve developed many skills over the first half of my career – but reading entrails and divination remain, sadly, beyond my grasp.
This time of year my social media posts are usually well represented by comments about an upcoming office nondenominational winter holiday party. In recent memory these events have mainly consisted of an office pot luck lunch or if the power that be were feeling more expansive, heading out to one of the nearby food service vendors. These activities weren’t so much festive as falling into the broad category of just being better than being in the office. Their highlight, as often as not, was that after lunch and the requisite amount of socializing with coworkers, we were able to punch out a few hours early.
I didn’t always participate in these functions. Some years meetings interfered and during others I just didn’t have the mental energy to devote to small talk or other mandatory niceties. What I did enjoy, though, was having the option of “buying” a few hours of time off for the low, low price of going out to lunch.
This year, it seems we’ve decided that it’s not worth the effort to even pretend to be interested in morale and dispensed with the holiday lunch altogether. I’m not here to shed any tears over the demise of forced employee social functions, but I do hate to see the fine and noble tradition of those couple of extra hours off fall by the wayside. Some traditions are, after all, worth preserving.
1. The time of the year. There’s a popular perception that people’s moods tend to improve has we head into the Christmas season. Maybe that’s the case for some, but not so much for me. By this time of year I’m just about worn down to the nub from relentless repeats of leaving home in the dark and returning there many hours later again in the dark. I loath and despise this time of year for the simple reason that for all practical purposes it means living like a mole for two months. If I manage to leave work on time and if it’s not cloudy, I do manage to catch the last few rays of watery sunshine on an occasional weekday. On a good day at mid-winter that lasts for somewhere between 5-15 minutes. So while everyone else is preparing their celebration of the birth of the Christian’s nailed God, I’ll be over here quietly awaiting the solstice and celebrating Sol Invictus.
2. Thirty minutes. That’s how long it takes my work computer to boot up from a cold start on the average day in the office. Look, I can dick around for the first 30 minutes of the day with the best of them, but it doesn’t feel like a particularly great use of time. But hey, whatever. I can only use the tools and resources I’ve been assigned… Which is why I keep a stack of magazines on my desk.
3. Bulldogs. I love my bulldog. He’s almost eleven now. He’s got a permanent limp, only hears when he wants to hear, and seems happy enough to pass the time between feeding and being let outside lounging comfortably in one of his beds. He’s an old man and I don’t begrudge him any of that. For the last two months, though, we’ve been trying to get on top of what’s become a particularly aggressive skin issue. After two month of antibiotics and medicated baths we don’t seem to be any closer to a solution than we were at the back in late October. The condition itself isn’t something unusual – we’ve been working with bad skin for years – but the amount of time it’s taking to knock this one back is far more than history suggests should be necessary… and don’t get me started on $80 bottles of pills that don’t seem to do a damned thing. I love my bulldog, but if you find yourself ever thinking you want to fall in love with their wrinkly little faces, my advice for you is to take a hard pass. I’d never deny this one anything, but get yourself a dog instead of an eating, breathing, ongoing medical disaster… unless you have a sick desire to take lots of time off for vet visits and would rather not have to worry about disposable income. Then, by all means, bring home that adorable, smushed faced little pup.
1. Second Monday. Look, I’m 100% thankful for the unscheduled Federal holiday on Wednesday. The unintended consequence of this Executive Branch largess, though, was that this week had what is effectively a “second Monday.” Going back the the work after a bureaucracy-free and relaxing weekend is a regular, recurring minor trauma that fills Sunday evenings with angst and dread. Once the week gets going though, the follow-on weekdays are each slightly less traumatic than the day before. Plopping an unexpected day off down in the middle of the week created an unnatural imbalance in the normal flow – and in doing so made Second Monday feel even worse than regular Monday. It’s hard to believe that such a thing is possible, but there it is.
2. Cubicle Hell. For all of the wonderful management literature written extolling the virtues of “open concept” workplaces, none of them bother to take into account how the average employee may actually require some time to analyze, read, or complete a work product that requires some level of concentration. I only bring it up because of the increased frequency of people holding entire goddamned meetings with groups of 4-5 others spilling out into walkways or shouted over the top of adjacent walls. Multiply that by as many as 5 of these impromptu “meetings” fired up all at the same time, well, you might as well sit back and start counting ceiling tiles because even pretending to look productive under the circumstances is a lost cause.
3. The human tailbone. I’m not a fancy big city doctor, so I don’t know exactly what a tailbone is supposed to do for a person. I reckon it’s mostly like an appendix – except that when something goes wrong with it it doesn’t burst and kill you so much as it stays right where it is and hurts like a sonofabitch whenever you sit down. In any case, it seems to me that there should be some kind of corrective option beyond, well, just don’t sit so much. That’s fine advice, I suppose, when your day isn’t spent tethered to a desk and reading volumes of fine print for the minutia that someone is trying to bury in the fine print. And yes, before someone points it out, I know that Churchill worked at a standing desk. He also worked in the bathtub and I am, clearly, no Winston Churchill.
As much as the government likes to claim that we’ve gone or are going “paperless,” such claims are fabrications if not an outright lies. There as much if not more volume of paper flowing around the office now as there was when I showed up almost 16 years ago. One of the only other consistencies in all that time is that I’ve been on an eternal quest to find just the right pen.
I’ve used roller balls, gel inks, ball points, felt tips, fines, and ultra-fines. I even picked up – and very quickly put down – a couple of fountain pens along the path. The truth is, I have the perfect pen sitting on the desk in my home office already. The Cross Century pen that my dad handed to me the night I graduated high school fills the bill as a “good pen” nicely. Given its sentimental value there’s no way I’m willing to risk losing it somewhere in the vast bureaucracy. Adding another Cross is cost prohibitive. What I’ve always searched for is a good, serviceable everyday pen.
The fact is, I probably found the right pen for the job long before my search really began. All I had to be willing to accept was the learned judgement of a bunch of bureaucrats way back in 1968 when the General Services Administration adopted the 16 pages of requirements that ultimately resulted in the production of the definitive Pen, Ball-Point, Black, NSN 7520-00-935-7135. The venerable Skilcraft pen is harder to find in government offices than it used to be, but it’s still there if you know where to look.
It’s not the best pen I’ve ever used. Sometimes the ink is a bit clumpy and it feels a little small in hand, but by way of trade off, I’ve never actually run one out of ink. That’s a claim I can’t make about a run of the mill Bic or modern gel ink wonders. I suspect this little wonder has more of a cult following than many will admit to, as plenty of them have been swiped from my desk over the years. It’s one of those rare moments when design and function are pretty much ideal even 50+ years later.
That’s all a long way to say that I think my search for the perfect pen is probably over. I’ll keep my fancy Cross at home, but for the office I’ll be keeping a supply of archaic black ball-points on hand to meet my writing needs. It feels like one of the few designs that we, probably by pure dumb luck, managed to get right the first time… if I ever catch wind of anyone threatening to improve the design I’ll just have to requisition a dozen boxes to see me safely through the back half of my career. One box would probably be enough, but the inevitable reallocation through theft must be considered when determining supply requirements. Same as it ever was.
If you ever want to see what a monumental waste of resources looks like, I’d consider the average office on any given Friday between Thanksgiving and New Years to be the perfect place to begin your case study. Sure, there are a few things going on and there may even be an occasional fire that needs dousing, but for the most part, inter-holiday Fridays are more dead air than anything else.
Some of the problem is structural. The end of the calendar year has three major holidays stacked within six weeks of one another – that jumps to 4 holidays in eight week’s if you include Veterans Day. Still more of the issue traces back to basic personnel practices – specifically to and especially for some offices being staffed by senior people with years of experience whose compensation package includes a maxed out weekly allotment of annual leave. That leads to a lot of people all needing to burn off a large number of vacation days the closer it gets to December 31st. Fridays are a perfect target of opportunity for burning off those accumulated hours.
Even knowing there is a laundry list of reasons why Fridays this time of year are near useless doesn’t contribute much to making them go by any faster when you are one of the unlucky few who isn’t burning off vacation time in eight hours incriments. At worst, these days can be moments of understaffed panic, at best, slow death by boredom. I really have no idea which of the two is worse.
Some days you feel like you may have actually contributed something – made a difference to someone, somewhere. More often, in my experience, the average work day is more a haze of answered emails, unavoidable phone conversations, and shuffling papers from one side of the desk to another. At best, maybe you manage to shuffle some of the papers from your desk to someone else’s. As often as not, that’s as good as it gets.
Maybe there will come a time when I look back on these 35-ish years of professional “life” fondly, though sitting in the middle of it, I current can’t imagine why. I accept it, grudgingly, as a means to a desired end. I’m lucky to be good enough at the work that I don’t get hectored too much by the bosses and the pay is reasonably good. It’s got that much going for it – but ginning up spectacular PowerPoints, enduring meetings that never quite seem to end, and the inevitable zero-sum bureaucratic infighting isn’t the kind of thing I can imagine anyone getting passionate about. I’ve met a few who find it their true calling, though. That’s something that convinces me more than ever that we can never really hope to know what evil lurks in the hearts of man.
There’s not really a point to all this beyond saying that today I felt like a particularly ineffective cog in a uniquely inefficient machine creating marginal products for an apathetic audience. At least such feelings only occupy 40/168ths of an average week so that’s a bit of a mercy.
Look, I’m glad I’m not out there passing around resumes and all… but lord almighty am I glad I have other other interests that round out the “personally fulfilling” side of life’s ledger.