Junk drawer…

In every house I’ve ever lived in from the time I was old enough to have memories until now, there has been one drawer in the kitchen that was simply “the junk drawer.” It’s one of those facts of life that is so certain, I’ve never questioned it and, in fact, assumed it was a universal feature of all kitchens everywhere. 

Need a needle and thread? Junk drawer. A pen and note pad? Junk drawer. Any type of battery every devised by the mind of man? Junk drawer. Playing cards? Junk drawer. I just go with the assumption that the junk drawer is simply some kind of quantum space that exists outside the boundaries of the natural laws of the universe. How much junk can fit in the drawer has no relationship to the apparent physical space the drawer itself occupies. 

After more than seven years here, I finally grew impatient with the process of digging through every object I’ve ever owned in order to find an AA battery. The resulting clean out revealed, among many other things, a total of 10 pairs of eyeglasses, five flashlights, four decks of playing cards, and literal handfuls of bits and pieces whose original source or function I couldn’t identify.

The net result was a third of a trash bag to throw away, a few items that someone, somewhere might possibly use tossed in my “to donate” box, and a drawer that still seemed mostly full after I’d returned the array of things that live there permanently. Keeping a firm grip on the amount of accumulated stuff was fairly easy when I moved house every two or three years. Now that I’ve more or less homesteaded, it doesn’t just accumulate, it multiplies.

Reaching the bottom of the junk drawer feels like an accomplishment, but that’s only because I studiously avert my eyes every time I walk through the garage. For now, I’ll just keep telling myself that’s a “cool weather” project better suited for the fall. Once the weather turns, I’ll let you know the next lie I’ll tell myself to keep putting it off. 

The catalog…

I’ve been going through a period this last year or two where I’m acquiring books far more quickly than I can reasonably expect to read them. Most aren’t anything special – well preserved reading copies, hardbacks that will look good shelved as display items once I’ve read through them. More than a few are “modern firsts,” very clean, semi-collector’s items. A bare handful are legitimate rarities – perhaps signed by the author, or the first printing of a series that would go on to be wildly popular. My little collection doesn’t discriminate, except that I expect to be able to hold, fondle, and read every single item in it rather that treating it like archival material.

The most significant problem, aside from storage of the books I’m waiting to read, is honestly keeping track of of the growing collection – a particularly troublesome issue when it comes to books that are part of a series I’m trying to round out. The nice people at Goodreads give me a solid baseline, but I’m kicking around the idea of using it to create something that gives me a little more granularity and control over fine tuning – a true library catalog that I can use to manage the collection… since keeping massive stacks of books around doesn’t feel like a habit I’m going to break at any time in the foreseeable future.

I’m even toying with the idea of taking it all the way back to basics – a simple spreadsheet. One book, one line with key details. Rackable, stackable, and searchable based on whatever criteria I eventually settle in on needing to know for every single title in the stacks.

It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes my geeky little analyst’s heart happy.

Truth is, the idea of building out that kind of information is a little bit daunting, even with Goodreads doing a lot of the heavy lifting to get things started… although the idea of building out the definitive catalog – stored on my own system – of what I have in hand, what I want to acquire is probably less fear-inducing than the idea that at some point in the near future I’m going to have to clear the shelves and reorganize everything so the whole works has just a little bit of coherence.

Sigh. These are the ideas that plague me on Tuesday evenings.

Across eight versions and two weeks…

I’ll let you in on a secret: 95% of what I do on a daily basis isn’t particularly difficult, challenging, or hard to do. Mostly it involves reading for understanding and synthasizing separate ideas into a coherent thread so that someone slightly further up the food chain can use and/or ignore at his or her convenience. Just about everything else is really a supporting requirement.

In a world that operates on basic logic, it should all be mind numbingly easy to do. Of course no one has ever accused Uncle of running his universe based on any kind of rational system. As often as not it’s living in a state of just barely organized chaos in which that slim thread of organization is threatening to split apart without warning at any time.

Nothing I do should be particularly hard to do. And yet somehow it is. Today for instances I revised a bit of written work so that version eight bears a striking resemblance to version one – that I put together more than two weeks and six versions ago.

Now if I were doing something like drafting whole sections of the State of the Union Address I could almost understand the fine tuning of happy to glad. In this instance, you’ll just have to imagine that what I’m working on is more than several rungs lower on the scale of importance than that. Many, many, many rungs lower.

This shouldn’t be so goddamned hard to do. And yet you’ll have to excuse me because I’m off to punch up version nine with a few more “recommended changes.”

Lost count…

In my 13+ years of service I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been reorganized. Half a dozen is the “for sure” number and if I were guessing there are probably two or three more occasions that I’ve mentally blocked out. Technically, reorganizations don’t have to be a bad thing. Theoretically they should be employed to achieve some long term goal like improving the efficiency of operations or to refocus an office on areas that historically are part of their core mission set. Good ideas, those. Unfortunately, what a reorg usually means, though, is that someone, somewhere has no other idea what to do so changing the lines on the wire diagram is the logical place to start. If things aren’t broken already, you can always count on a reorg to bend them till they are cracked and bleeding…   It’s got to be the oldest make work project in government.

So it seems we’ll be at the old games again. New desk, new boss, new mission, new projects, but the same old faces and ever aging technology. But then the pay’s the same and it’s the same eight hour day that it’s always been. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter if it matters… as long as the checks don’t bounce on every alternate Thursday.

The last half of the week…

48 hours is how long it took me to coordinate, fix, spindle, mutilate, and otherwise jump through my ass to accommodate an out-of-nowhere demand to move an event that’s been on the calendar for months. Upon getting that finished and then getting back to doing actual productive work towards making this event a reality, I hope I’ll be forgiven if I seem less than thankful when told minds have been changed and to go ahead and plan for the original dates. There’s no morale building activity quite like being directed to spend the last half of your week undoing what you were directed to do at the week’s beginning. It’s absolutely stupefying that this is how any organization actually tries to operate.

Want to know why I feel like it’s a job instead of a career or a calling, well this would be a prime example. For an organization that prides itself on being committed to “decisive action,” I have very serious doubts that we could decide to leave the room if someone set the damned thing on fire. I’m just a cog in the machine. I’m a tool – and a particularly blunt and ineffectual one – under circumstances where planning and logic find no purchase. I’ve recovered the same ground so often that I couldn’t tell you definitively the last time I made something that might accidentally be considered progress. While I might catch hell for it, my planning isn’t to blame. If you’re interested in finding fault took to the great and the good at echelons higher than reality who for some unknown reason have been allowed to imagine, unchallenged, that the sun both rises and sets directly into their 4th point of contact.

I’m a simple guy and I’ll do my best with whatever ash and trash I’ve been told to work with. Know this, though: Even though you can technically polish a turd, all you’ve got at the end of the experience is a shiny turd and really dirty hands. If the gods on Olympus can’t figure out what in the hell they want, I have no idea why they think we mere mortals will be able to divine the secret meaning behind their endless grunts and fluttering eyebrows.

You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers…

Because I’m perfectly comfortable being lazy and letting blog-worthy ideas come to me instead of chasing them down, I’m opting to respond to a question posted on my Facebook page in response to last night’s blog post. I’ll apologize in advance for the 24 hours delay in getting back to you, Jess, but I hope the fully formed response makes up for its less than timely delivery.

The question: What tools do you use to keep this list and how often do you go to it? And is that just the blog list? What about ideas for books and such? How do you keep track of everything when there is limited time to address any of it? Inquiring minds want to know.

The answer: Starting from the last part of your question, let me go on the record as saying dealing with limited time is the bane of my existence. I’m going to assume for purposes of discussion that I’m not alone in that sentiment. Between a day job, the blog, a couple of longer-term writing projects, and the other mandatory ephemera of life demanding attention, there is always more to do than there is time to do it. I try to keep this in check by an occasional ruthless culling of priorities. Every few months I physically make a list of everything I do as part of my day-to-day routine, rank order them, and then cut away as may at the bottom of the list as I can get away with eliminating.

This method has the unfortunate side effect of having sliced away most of what you might consider hobbies, unfortunately. It’s also led to a greater than reasonable volume of dog hair residing under furniture and in the photocarpets than I’m entirely comfortable with. Having, as I do, a fairly wide OCD streak, learning to accept that dust is unsightly but probably isn’t going to kill you has been a particularly difficult lesson to digest. I’m sure there are very good writers who find some other way of managing their time and getting it all done, but this is a method that works for me. Mostly. If you’re out there with kids or husbands or wives demanding attention, yeah, I’m not sure how you’ll make all that fit. Mercifully the only living creatures I’m responsible for are basically satisfied sleeping under the kitchen table while I do my thing.

Now when it comes to the meat of keeping track of ideas I try to keep it as simple as possible. I know there are a metric crapload of apps specifically designed for list making, but I tend to rely on something simple and understated – the Notes app that came installed on my phone. I chunk out the big ideas into either blog ideas or book ideas with one extra category left over specifically for issues I want to feature on Thursdays as part of What Annoys Jeff this Week. Since I usually have one or two other works in progress on hand at any given time, those generally have their own “note” as well so I can keep them segregated and avoid having a list so long as to make it functionally useless.

I refer to my lists fairly often, though some see more action than others. I try to add ideas as they come to me during the day or especially at night if I wake up with something that feels particularly important. As an aside, no matter what idea comes to you in the middle of the night, write it down so you can give it another look in the light of day. 3AM is a terrible time to make decisions about the virtue of half formed thoughts. Likewise, whipping out your phone in the middle of a deadly dull meeting to jot down the most unintentionally funny thought of the day is frowned upon. When I find myself in those circumstances, painfully separated from the electronic world, there’s no substitute for ye olde pen and paper (provided you transcribe the important parts over to your electronic filing system before your great ideas are lost to the shredder). I’ve lost more “good ideas” than I can imagine by simply assuring myself that I’m sure I’ll remember it later. The hard truth is there isn’t one chance in a hundred that you’re going to remember anything more than the fact that you had an idea that you neglected to write down.

The best and only advice I can give on any of this is to find a system that works for you and apply it mercilessly all day, every day. If you’re going to write five, six, seven times a week, it’s the only way I’ve come up with to even attempt to keep the pipeline full of new and semi-interesting ideas.


When Pope Gregory “invented” the calendar, he was working under the belief that having a single universal standard that today was really “today” and not some time in the middle of February would be a good idea for the Christian kingdom’s of Europe. At the very least, it would allow everyone to hold their major celebrations and feast days at the same time. Good stuff if you were a Pope in the 16th century. Most people today keep a calendar for the same basic reason. It’s a hellofa good way to keep major events organized and make sure everyone shows up to them at the same time.

The rub comes, of course, when no one can agree what is supposed to be on a “major event” calendar. Senior staff meetings make the cut, but not inter-staff meetings. The Uberboss’ days off are on there, but not the senior staff. Multi-jurisdictional exercises show up, but sometimes not local exercises impacting people in the building. Some events are listed three times because whoever put them on there can’t figure out how to change the date and/or time of the original reservation. And keeping track of the hot mess that is our calendar falls to junior staff who a) Don’t know what the schedule is supposed to look like; b) Aren’t told when things change; c) Have never been given clear direction about what events “make the cut”; and d) Have no authority to demand information from other senior staff offices. Sure, that’s a guarantee of getting a good product.

The way I learned it back in the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth was that if you are given responsibility to do a thing, you should also be given the corresponding authority to make that thing happen. Having one without the other, well, is about as productive as trying to put a high gloss of a pile of feces. This little endeavor isn’t something that should be hard to do… but the players involved almost guarantee that it will be an exercise in futility… But the again, that’s never stopped us from wasting inordinate amounts of time before.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Chaos Theory?

I can tell by the gently worded reminder from WordPress that it’s time to renew my domain mapping fee, that this little endeavor is slipping towards its one year anniversary. It’s been said that time flies when you’re having fun. Apparently it also flies when you spend most of you free time plotting ways to extract yourself from situations less than good. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a good year overall. Me and mine all remain on the correct side of the dirt, so really, everything else is just gravy. Still, though, it doesn’t feel like a year since I started poking around at this thing. I’ve been toying around with the idea of a facelift for the site. Maybe revamping the tags, lists, and sidebars. I wish I had spent a little more time learning the controls before diving right into with a new host. There are alot of the layout that I’m not quite pleased with, but just haven’t taken the time to make right.

One of the biggest issues I’m currently having with blogging is what feels like a lack of focus. Sure, I’m writing whatever happens to be on my mind at the time, but aside from “work sucks, trying to change it” and “people suck, trying to avoid them” there isn’t much of a thread that unifies the whole. Categories and tags are haphazardly applied (when I remember to list them at all) and it feels a bit like every post is adding that much more chaos to the mix. Was that a long way of saying I’d like my place in the internet to be as well-ordered as my place in the real world? Probably. OCD clearly doesn’t make a distinction between the real world and the electronic one. In a perfect world, I’d have my message calendar all mapped out months in advance and know exactly when I wanted to write about which topics. Not a chance of that happening any time in the near future, so I’ll content myself with coming up with a way to make it all a little more coherent.

You may see some changes in the next couple of days/weeks or you might not. It mostly depends on whether the dust building up on every flat surface of the house or the disorganized musings of my curmudgeonly mind win the prize as most in need of a good going after. Of course it also depends on how much time Maggie gives me before trying to climb up on the desk… Like she’s doing now.