It’s dog and pony season…

I spent most of my productive time today working on details of two separate events. I use the word “events” here purposefully instead of “projects.” It’s intentional, because these two items are absolutely events – occasions if you will. So, break out the floral arrangements and reserve your best rented tux, because it’s dog and pony season.

The first, a three-day series of informational briefings to contractors about how we plan on spending our cut of the defense budget over the next two years, is, as ever, the bane of my existence. This will be my 9th year though this particular wicket. For a while I had a series of supervisors who’d always promise that “next year we’ll get someone else on this.” Nine years on, my various supervisors don’t even bother saying the words. Death, resignation, or retirement seem to be the only path away from this particular bit of fuckery.

The other, decidedly less labor intensive event, is what amounts to an overgrown trade show hosted in northern Alabama every spring. Laying out who should attend, if we want to nominate some special bit of equipment or process for a demonstration, and reminding everyone to get their hotel rooms booked early or they’ll be staying in 50 miles away from the conference center is the regular drumbeat of my life in January and February.

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating, that none of this is especially hard work. Like most of my projects, I’m more a facilitator than a doer. I try to make sure the right people have the right conversations and nudge them back into alignment when they wander too far afield. None of it is hard, but every bit of it is a time consuming pain in the ass.

Almost every day, I ponder what one must be thinking to decide that I am the one who should be draped in the glory of planning conferences, events, and all manner of dog and pony related activities. My well-noted misanthropic opinions alone should make me uniquely unsuited for any assignment in which the goal is to engage and entertain large groups of people. But here we are. Again.

I’ll do it. Everything will exceed the baseline standard of “good enough.” If, however, you think I won’t bitch and complain about the process, the attendees, the inability of our own bosses to get documentation approved on time, and my general disdain for in person boondoggles and the utterly unnecessary logistics tail that accompanies them, you must not know me at all.

Expecting the unexpected…

About once every six weeks or so I start thinking that hey, maybe it’s time I add another dog to the menagerie. Two always felt like the right number of dogs in my mind, though I’m not sure if that was a function or Winston and Maggie being so well paired, or if there’s any actual data to back up my wild assertions. 

It doesn’t take long between having that thought and finding myself scouring Petfinder, local Facebook groups, and checking in on some reputable breeder’s pages. Before you know it, I’m hours down a rabbit hole looking at available dogs 300 miles away.

After a bit of that, though, I remember the times when there were puppies in the house. Young Winston gnawed through the rails of my kitchen chairs like a psychotic beaver. I’d arrive home from a day’s work to find young Maggie covered from tip to tail in poo that she seemed to take great pleasure in rolling in. Jorah, though not really a pup when he came along, relegated us all to six months of living in the easy-to-bleach confines of the kitchen because of his determined inability to grasp the basics of going outside to pee.

The fact is, life is significantly easier (and less expensive) with one dog instead of two. Even if it weren’t easier, I’m not in any way sure Jorah will be particularly welcoming to a new canine friend. His track record with meeting and interacting with unfamiliar animals isn’t great. When confronted with a new dog, he swings between attempting to hide under the nearest piece of furniture or growling like he’s been training to go to the fighting pits.

Every time the idea of bringing home another one takes hold, I seem to come up with a bunch of perfectly valid reasons why that’s a perfectly dumb idea. I haven’t ruled anything out, of course. Over the years I seem to have come by most of my animals some kind of accidentally, so at this point I’m just letting nature take its course and expecting the next fuzzball to show up more or less unexpectedly.

Four days…

The two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Years are usually the only time during the year I burn off a really big chunk of vacation time all in one sitting. Planning around the other various federal holidays, I’ll manage to sneak in a few week-long blocks, too, but Christmas is always the big one.

Some of my favorite bits of time off, though, are the stretched long weekends. Either extend a 3-day weekend or slip a day of leave in between a Tuesday or Thursday holiday and its corresponding weekend and hey presto you have yourself a nice mini vacation on the books with very little loss of leave involved. Spread enough of those around through the year and you can almost maintain what few scraps of sanity you’ve got. 

The Thanksgiving 4-day is probably the king of the bunch as far as I’m concerned. Unlike Christmas and its multi-day road stand and immense logistics tail, Thanksgiving politely contains itself to a single day for visiting, enjoying an oversized meal, and getting back home at a reasonable hour to sleep in my own bed. It’s a holiday distilled to its essence.

The three following days of no specified activities are just the sauce on top and I’m 100% here for it.

Long live the 4-day weekend.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. COLA. Retirees are getting an 8.7% cost of living adjustment for 2023. In contrast, active employees are on track for a 4.6% general pay increase. In my head it feels vaguely like those two figures should be reversed, or perhaps they should be on par. I mean a raise of 8.7% for managing to simultaneously be retired and stay alive is good work if you can get it, but it sends a bit of an odd message to the people who are still schlepping to the office and actually doing the work.

2. Planning. I spent a good portion of the last month working with my advisor to make plans and tweak accounts to make sure I didn’t run afoul of the IRS in 2023. I see yesterday that the IRS has now updated their income brackets for next year due to this year’s inflationary pressure. Those updated brackets imply there are probably a few other changes coming in the next few weeks that could very well have made the last month’s work mostly or wholly unnecessary. Sure, it would be nice to have a little more cap space for IRAs and 401ks next year, but it also means I could have kicked my own planning down the road for a year or two before needing to make changes in how we do things.

3. The union. We’re three weeks past returning to the office under a pre-plague telework agreement that allows for working from home no more than two days a week. It’s also been three weeks since personnel not covered under the union contract were rolled up under their new agreement that allows them to work from home three days each week. In these last three weeks, there has been absolutely no communication from AFGE Local 1904 about why they’re continuing to hold up this benefit for the rest of us. I have no idea what they’re thinking, but they’re making management look downright reasonable, accommodating, and open handed. We’re rapidly approaching a point where I’m going to be willing to pay some dues so I can show up and be an antagonistic bastard at every single meeting they have.

Darkness, both figurative and literal…

Today was an office day. I like to think it’s also the day when we reached peak in-office fuckery. In order to understand why that’s the case, I should probably provide a little bit of background information.

When you have a billion dollar office complex, there’s always things that need fixing. It’s an issue probably multiplied because the whole thing was slapped together by the low bidder. Keeping up with general repairs and preventative maintenance given the perennial lack of money and personnel for those things is often more something done with a lick and a promise rather than really getting after the problems and making permanent fixes.

Today was supposed to be an exception to the rule. In order to make this particular fix, though, the whole damned building allegedly had to fall off the local power grid. Those of us serviced by the emergency generator would still have some limited power to run laptops and a few other odds and ends, but we’d be sitting in the dark while doing it since the overhead lights don’t rate having backup power. That’s not necessarily an issue elsewhere, but since the room we’re in is a windowless box anyway, how much natural light streams into the rest of the building from outside doesn’t really matter.

This “planned power outage” was scheduled to start at 7:30 and last four hours. By 1:00 this afternoon, the whole thing seemed decidedly suspect. A half an hour later or so, it was revealed that although it had been publicized as a planned outage, it turns out there wasn’t going to be one in order to do whatever work they were supposed to do. It was a big overture for a little show. You might think that planning, scheduling, and communication would be an integral part of life in the bureaucracy… but in most cases you’d be wrong. It’s more like a never ending game of the blind leading the blind.

Even though the lights didn’t go out this time, I had to wonder if all this wasn’t an allegory for the whole damned organization. Sitting in the dark waiting for stuff to happen is pretty much the definitive experience of being a cog in Uncle’s great machine… even on those days when the dark is only figurative rather than literal.

Half a sick day…

I took some sick leave this morning largely because I had a doctor’s appointment. In my head, though, that was just an invitation to “maximize” my use of sick time. As the only variety of leave that accumulates forever and can then be used to add time to your years of service at the end of your career, the stuff is precious. I try to dole it out as infrequently as possible. 

Since I was already going to be at the medical center, it only made sense to head across the street to get my blood drawn for a different appointment I have scheduled at the end of the month. And hey, since there’s a pharmacy at the opposite end of the shopping plaza, I might as well walk down there to see if they’ll dose me with a flu shot and the new and improved COVID booster. 

I had the very best of intentions here. I mean, from a time management perspective, knocking out all those things within 500 yards of each other makes eminent sense. What I failed to account for, however, was the net effect overall of two vaccinations, losing 7 or 8 vials of blood, having fasted for 16 hours, and there being absolutely no caffeine in my system. Let’s just say I spent a good part of the rest of the day feeling vaguely “muddled.”

After a couple of meals and a bottomless mug of tea, I’m feeling well enough for my troubles now. This evening, I’m mostly wondering if I’ll have the same reaction to Pfizer’s bivalent dose as I had to the two boosters from Moderna. If I do, sometime around 10 AM tomorrow morning my body will throw the switch from “feeling fine” to “feeling like hot microwaved trash” and that situation will persist for about 12 hours. 

That’s all a very wordy way of saying that I think I over scheduled the day today. Some things make perfect sense in terms of efficiency, but it pays to not forget checking in with other factors, too. It would have been nice to have that in mind this morning, but here we are.

The Bathroom Report: Day 47

It’s been a busy week. Some of that urgency is probably driven by the fact that the guy leading the crew here is due to leave for vacation this time next week. Part of it, I’m sure, is that with the tile done, the pace with which things fall into place naturally increases. Maybe it’s not a sprint to the finish, but it’s better than the last few weeks which have felt like limping towards an ending with one leg mangled in a bear trap.

The progress summary for this week includes all tile being in and grouted, the vanity, top, and sinks are in place, mirrors have been dropped off for framing, and there’s been some minor prep done for painting. The long poles that remain look like setting the toilet, adding in fixtures, paint, putting shelving back in the closet, and setting the shower glass. That last bit will surely drive this project well past day 60 even if all the rest does happen to be finished by the end of next week… though I obviously have my doubts about hitting that mark.

No week is complete without a snag, of course. This week’s issue is the vanity. The finish that leaned towards brown in samples has a decidedly reddish hue in person. I selected it and the top originally because it looked like they would pick up the brown tones in the shower tile. As it turns out, the tile sample we looked at may have had loads of brown in sample size, but it leans decidedly gray in bulk, so I’ve got this very nice vanity that doesn’t really blend with anything. I’m at a complete loss to figure out how the samples looked so good together only to end up this off base. And yes, I even double-checked invoices and labels against the samples to make sure it was even the right product. 

As it sits, it looks like the vanity and top were picked in seclusion from the shower and floor tiles. It’s an unsettling look. So now I’m launching deep discussions with the designer and probably the painting subcontractor on what’s the best way to fix it. Some of it can probably be mitigated by whatever paint eventually ends up on the walls. There’s also the option of re-staining or painting the cabinets to bring them more in line. The nuclear option, and one that’s still very much on the table, is just living with it until something in a new and more harmonious finish can be ordered, built, and shipped in. I know what direction I’m leaning, but it’s probably not a decision I’ll want to finalize until the rest of the bits and pieces are laid in. It seems like every time a new element gets introduced all the others look vaguely different. I’d like to avoid, if possible, creating a do loop of calling for new cabinetry, tops, and paint that carries on infinitely into the future. I’d also prefer not to spend any additional big tranches of cash until I know with more precision what exactly needs changed to make it all hang together. 

As we close the week, the wheels feel like they’ve come a bit off. It’s not an ideal note on which to end the week, but it’s exactly why I built in a 15% slush fund into the budget. Spending the money honestly doesn’t feel like the worst of it. That dubious distinction belongs to the knowledge that getting it sorted will add more time to a project I desperately hoped was drawing towards an end.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Failure to plan. I’ve rented you the hall. I’ve provided the stage. I’ve laid on the cameras and the furniture. I’ve blocked off all the time in the world for people to rehearse, dry run, and generally get to feel comfortable with their part. What I can’t make people do, of course, is actually show up and do any of those things. Mostly I put in the effort because I want people to be successful – or at least I want to set the conditions for their success. What I’ll be intensely intolerant of, however, is when those same people who have displayed conspicuous indifference in planning find themselves in a panic five minutes before things go live next week… Because that’s almost inevitable while also being nearly 100% avoidable.

2. Work clothes. Having spent the majority of the last two years working from home, it hasn’t been necessary to keep much in the way of a “work” wardrobe. I mean mine almost exclusively consists of khakis and polos, anyway, but that’s all stuff I’d wear day-to-day in my real life. After two years of little exposure to the general public some, perhaps most of it, is starting to look a little tatty around the edges. That’s an issue I hadn’t noticed until I realized I needed something more or less presentable for five days this week instead of my normal one or two. If you think the idea of needing to buy clothes specifically so I can drive 40 minutes to sit in a cubicle isn’t grinding my gears, you must be new here.

3. The end of April. The back half of April is my hardest two weeks of the year. The only thing holding my temper just barely in check is not wanting to be unemployed. Stress is up because I’m supposed to be delivering a product that no one else gives a shit about until the day it goes live. My blood pressure is through the roof. I can track it year over year and it consistently spikes during these two weeks. I’m eating like shit, tossing and turning through the night, and generally just not taking the time to do the normal things that more or less keep me on an even keel the rest of the year. All in all, it’s not a great time when your general outlook is often described in such glowing terms as “bleak” and “kind of dark” on the good days.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Return to work. I’m starting to see emails pinging around discussing the plan to “return to work.” What they’re really talking about is bringing people back to the office, which, if you’ve been paying attention for the last two years is not synonymous with “returning to work.” I won’t speak for anyone else out there, but for me, work has been work and the geographic area I’ve occupied while doing it has made effectively no difference in the end product I’ve churned out. Frankly, calling it “return to work” strikes me as wildly insulting. If you’ve got a shitbird who doesn’t do anything in the office, you’ll have a shitbird who won’t do anything while working from home. If you find you have a bunch of people sitting around not doing a damned thing, what you’ve got is a management and supervision problem, not a “working from home” problem. Of course that’s not the kind of answer that will satisfy those who are obsessed with seeing asses in cubicles. 

2. Failure to plan. So, here’s the thing… If some tells you that they need Thing A by the 6th in order for Thing B to happen by the 12th, you really don’t have any standing to act surprised when you send Thing A in on the 12thand Thing B cannot simultaneously happen on that day. That’s not how this works. It’s not how it should work. When there have been monthly and then weekly warnings of the dates involved over the last six months, you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I’m not overwhelmed by feeling like I need to jump through my own ass. I feel like there’s a very telling old saying about your failure to plan not being an emergency for other people that’s very pertinent here.

3. Situational awareness. It costs absolutely nothing to pay attention to what’s going on around you. It’s a freebie and I have no idea why so many people insist on not taking advantage of it. In the approximately 14.4-mile round trip from home to physical therapy today, I had to take evasive action three times to avoid being driven into by another driver. There’s the truck speeding out of the shopping center aisle into my travel lane without looking, the car who decided to drive in through a one-way exit, and the minivan who was fully in my lane coming around a turn on a winding country road. The only reason I avoided two T-bones and a head on today as because I happened to have just a touch of goddamned awareness of anything happening outside my own vehicle. 

My philosophy of meetings…

A big part of my philosophy of project management can be distilled down to one simple rule: Never have a meeting when an email will do. I conservatively estimate that on any given project that eliminates approximately 95% of meetings that otherwise would have taken place. 

There’s a catch, of course. Periodically, the Gods on Olympus sneak into their questions about the status of whatever project interests them in the moment an inquiry like “When was the last meeting on this?” I can tell you from experience that the answer they’re not looking for is, “Uh, I think we had a meeting about three months ago.” 

It won’t matter to them that you’ve got full command of all the pertinent information. It won’t matter that you’ve checked in weekly or even more often with all the people developing content and know that everything is on track. The only thing that will matter is that you haven’t had a meeting. You’ll never convince me that this minor obsession with meetings isn’t one of the big driving influences of why so many bosses are still hellbent on putting asses in cubes. Then, not only can they ask if meetings are happening, they can walk past and see people crowded into a conference room – pure management bliss.

Even though it’s not strictly necessary, I’ve been running a meeting once a month since before the new year. At least that way I can say with a straight face we’ve had meetings. Now that we’re closing in on the curtain going up, I’ve switched it to weekly meetings – because inside the 30-day window Olympian interest can become intense. At least I can tell them that, yes sir, of course we met on that just a few days ago and be 100% honest.

What I won’t mention, of course, is that these weekly meetings never take more than 20 minutes. In fact, today’s lasted a grand total of 21 minutes and conveyed exactly three new bits of information that I’d already sent out this morning by email. We’d have put up a better time but there were one or two technical snags that cost precious seconds.

But, by God, now we’ve had a meeting about it and nothing makes officialdom happier than knowing there was a meeting. I’ll shoot to get next week’s down to sub-15 minutes times. I feel like that level of success is really within my reach.