Two hours or: The break even point…

When serving the staff there’s something that you need to remember always. Everyone is always going to think that whatever they happen to have you working on is the most important thing that anyone is working on. They will have a tendency to want their project to take up all available oxygen in the room, every moment of discussion time, and every bit of available manpower. That leads to the typical day being a maelstrom of competing priorities and people who want something done right-the-hell-now.

The reality is, good as I may be, I am but one man with one keyboard and a finite amount of time to allocate in pursuit of whatever harebrained scheme has priority at the moment. As often as not, I determine the priority of effort among the universe of possible projects that need action with minimal outside input. I like it better that way, really.

From time to time, though, something comes along that someone wants and yet it still never bubbles to the top of the list of things to do. Eventually, though, someone high enough in the food chain gets it in their teeth and starts gently nudging you towards whatever this favored need may be. When they nudge hard enough, no matter what else is churning, it gets some attention.

That’s all my long way of saying that it’s remarkable what can get done in two hours when you lock yourself in a room, turn off Outlook, don’t answer the phone and just start writing. It’s remarkable and might even get you off the naughty list of the person who’s been asking for that bit of information for three or four weeks… but of course it lands you squarely in hot water with the 37 other people who think their projects also deserve special attention.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this place is marginally easier to contend with once you realize that falling behind is the norm and the best possible day is one where you manage to break even because with the time and resources authorized there is literally no way to ever get ahead of the volume of things that need doing. Trying to have a little bit of perspective is awfully important.

Heroes and villains…

Last week a friend of mine asked if I thought the Devil was a hero or a villain. Now having been raised by a good Methodist mother, my response should have been automatic, immediate, and emphatic. Nothing with me is quite that simple, though, so the question became something of a thought exercise – and one that I’ve spent more time pondering over the last few days than I expected.

First, if we accept the Bible as the literal word of God, the answer is obvious. The devil is the bad guy. He’s the super villain’s super villain. However,I’m all too aware that edition of the Bible I grew up with was one commissioned by England’s King James I and completed by his team of translators, all members of the Church of England, between 1604 and 1611. The fact that it is a translation based on previously translated works based on events first described not closer than several centuries after they would have originally take place has always felt to me a bit problematic. For purposes of this particular argument, though, that’s not my point.

When I look at the Old Testament story of Lucifer’s fall, I’m often tempted to give it some of the context it’s lacking. Context that perhaps paints an image at an Almighty who is unelected and wholly unaccountable in His actions. If we apply a bit of literary license, we can see God, certainly the God of the Old Testament, as the purest incarnation of absolute monarchy – quite literally king by divine right. Within that broader context, Lucifer raising a reported one third of the angelic population in open rebellion against the throne could be construed as an act of defiance against a totalitarian regime. I’m thinking here now about the images of Romanians rising against Ceaușescu and East Germans overtopping the Berlin Wall in 1989.

From the seat of an all knowing and all powerful deity, Lucifer’s actions can only appear ungrateful, immoral, and a blatant violation of the established order. If one were to be devil’s advocate it certainly seems possible to argue that as a leading light among the heavenly host, he had a duty and an obligation to rise up and cast off the shackles of oppression and lead his people towards a more democratic future. At least that’s how I’d make the case if I were devil’s advocate, but maybe I’m flavoring it with a little too much of my own ideas about how oppressed peoples are supposed to respond.

Perspective is everything. Especially when it comes time to label the winners and losers of the story. So, is the Devil a hero or a villain? Yes, I suppose he is.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Accusations of negativity. I don’t think of myself as a person who dwells on the negative. I certainly recognize that negativity abounds, but I don’t dwell on it. I feel like there may be some that have the impression that I walk around in a black cloud, but I find that to be far from the truth. Just because I find the world to largely be a shitshow, I still manage to take my pleasures where I find them. Cold beer and a dozen steamed crabs on a Friday night? Bliss. The 6AM sun cracking through the leaves and the forest sounds of early morning? Heaven. Quiet night with a good book and two snoring beasts at my feet? Nirvana. The vast majority of my troubles begin and end with people… or rather because I have expectations of people. You might think that my expectations would be low, but the opposite is the case. I have no higher expectations of the man in the street than I have of myself – that the work I perform is mostly right the first time, that when I say something will happen at a given date and time it will happen, or that as a grown adult I know how to behave and speak while indoors or in a public forum. It’s setting the bar higher than “capable of walking slowly while chewing gum” that seems to get me in trouble, because despite relentless disappointment at the hands of the public at large, I still have my expectations and my standard. And those are not up for debate or compromise. So fear not, for what you perceive as negativity is simply a day’s worth of disappointment seeping out of my brain and back out into the universe.

2. When in charge, take charge. The number of people wandering around in the wild incapable or unwilling to make even the simplest of decisions is, quite frankly disturbing on almost every level. Anything from “where do you want to eat tonight” to “what should we do in Syria” seems to be out of the grasp of so very many. I will never promise that I’m going to make all the right decisions all the time, but I will, by God, make a decision based on the best information I have at hand and move out smartly in what I think is the right direction. I’m not the least bit bothered by having to change course when more or better information becomes available… and I’m damned well not going to sit quietly and wait for perfect enlightenment when there are things that need doing.

3. Social media. Social media gives us all a platform to rail against whatever issue is hottest on our minds on any given moment of any given day. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that gives even the lone voice in the wilderness the ability to reach out to the planet in simulcast. Beyond the cat memes and spam bots, it really is a remarkable feat of engineering. That being said, when you take to social media to rant about how other people are using social media I’m not entirely sure you get the point of it being a tool for all of us to express opinions and ideas when they are unpopular – maybe even especially when they are unpopular. From time to time I find it helpful to step back and remind myself that social media is entirely optional. No one is forcing me (or any of us) to use it. When I read something with which I violently disagree I don’t have to engage. In fact, sometimes the most powerful thing I can do is get up, walk away, and terminate the discussion before I give it the power to annoy me further.

The most wonderful time of the year…

The week of Thanksgiving heralds the arrival of that most magical and wondrous time of year… and I’m not talking about Christmas with its faux joy, peace and goodwill towards people you otherwise can’t stand. I’m talking about the four weeks between the holidays when nothing gets done and everyone is busy burning off what’s left of their annual leave. In short: Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the long march towards the end of the year when there are fewer colleagues around asking reports, wanting to see slides, and generally pretending to be productive. It’s the time of year when the pretense of being productive falls away. Sure, that’s only because there are barely enough people around to keep the lights on, but beggars shouldn’t be choosers.

There are going to be plenty of people running around for the next month trying to put together pick up meetings or cram on one more “special project” before 2014 rolls in, but mostly even they know they’re putting on a show for the sake of appearances. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who really thinks they’re going to be able to get anything significant accomplished at this time of year. That makes for a low key environment… and low key makes me exceptionally happy.

If I haven’t learned anything else from being a drone these last 11 years it’s that this time is fleeting. Before you know it, and well before you’re ready for it, we’ll be back to the full-on grind. So the advice from your kindly Uncle Jeff? Take some time. Slow your roll and remember that no one ever saved the universe with their PowerPoint slides. Even when you think what you’re doing is important, there are well over seven billion people on the plant who don’t care if you live or die.

Perspective, my friends, is everything.

Winter in the archives…

We’re well into winter in the archives. This Sunday’s update comes to you from January and February 2008. Grad school was wrapping up, home improvements were happening, it was before things went off the rails for me in Memphis. It’s so strange to read these old posts and relive the experience, especially when I’m looking at it through hindsight’s lens and knowing that a few years later the neighbor’s questionable approach to lawn care would drop precipitously down the list of things I cared about. Early 2008 was still good times in the Mid-South. And if this little blast of nostalgia is any indication, apparently I’ve added enough distance now to start looking back on some of that time a little fondly.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Like so many others in recent memory, this week could be a laundry list of annoyances from the great to the petty. As always, I tried to drill into the beating heart of the three that annoyed me most this week… but ask me again in five minutes and the list could have easily changed again.

1) Hiring freeze. One of the fun aspects about a hiring freeze is that although people go away and are not replaced, the things that they were doing while they were working never go away. They just get shifted around until they find someone who can do a half-assed job of getting them done. It’s the old standard philosophy of “doing more with less.” It’s a perfectly find concept when applied as a stopgap measure lasting for a relatively short duration. As a permanent part of the business model, it’s somewhat more problematic. At some point the system comes collapsing down under the weight of its own absurdity and the lords of creation have to accept one of four options: 1) Call in reinforcements; 2) Accept that sometimes they’ll just have to do fewer things with the reduced number of resources; 3) Fire everyone and hope a new crew can do it better; or 4) Continue to do everything as usual with a consequently lower level of quality. What you can’t do over the long term is keep taking on additional work while keeping up with business as usual.

2) 216 miles. Having driven or flown across most of the country at some point over the last ten years, I’ve never given much thought at to distance. It’s always just been ground to cover. Lately, though, I’ve been thoroughly, thoroughly annoyed by 216 miles. I guess perspective, and motivation, change everything.

3) The Pinterest-ing of Facebook. I like Facebook. Or I like the concept of Facebook. I’m not sure I’m a fan of how it’s evolving, but that’s another post. I like Facebook as a tool for delivering pithy updates, comic pictures of cats, and generally keeping up with friends and family. What I‘m not so much a fan of is how recently my newsfeed has been taken over by recipes, chain posts, and all manner of corporate ads. I can’t do anything about the ads and I’m not going to de-friend anyone, but you can bet your sweet ass I’m exerting extreme editorial control over the “Change What Updates You Get” function.

Perspective… It’s a bitch

One of the best parts of working for Uncle is the people you get to meet. I almost physically bumped into President Bush while I was coming out of the john at FEMA headquarters and have met Members of Congress, department secretaries, and other official worthies at equally odd times and places. Today, I got to sit in on a talk given by Sal Giunta. It’s a name some of you might recognize. In 2010, he became the first living Congressional Medal of Honor recipient since the end of the Vietnam War. Though he disputes the appellation, he is the operative definition of what it means to be an American hero.

The trouble with meeting legitimate heroes, of course, is it tends to force you to reevaluate all of your own griping and complaining. Aww. Poor baby. You don’t like going to meetings? You hate updating all these damned PowerPoint slides? Should we get you a Medal of Honor too? Touché.

So if you’re wondering why nothing annoys Jeff this week, it’s because after listening to a Medal of Honor recipient, nothing that annoys me is even worth a second thought.

Perspective… It is a bitch.