Clawed back from nature…

This won’t mean much to you, but since I’ve been working on it almost since I bought the house it’s one of those things that means a hell of a lot to me. You see, I’ve been trying to claw back about 500 square feet of back yard the pervious owner let go to the woods. Although 400 square feet is hardly worth a mention in man’s great efforts at deforestation, I’m taking it as a great achievement and point of personal pride.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time clearing brush and then deciding which trees and saplings to take to make that corner feel like part of the yard without clear cutting it. Although the heavy lifting was finished early this spring there were a few stray stumps that deviled my ability to bring in the heavy lawn care equipment.

Yesterday morning’s temperate conditions proved beautiful weather to hammer down the stumps with a maul and an ax – and marked the first time I could get the riding mower into that section to keep things cut down to a more yard-like style. It’s still filled with weeds and some of the native mountain laurel looks like it could develop into promising pieces. Considering where it started, I’m well pleased with where we stand now. After beating nature into submission with both blunt and sharpened steel, yesterday was the first time a cut and trim started to fall inside the realm of regular weekly lawn care instead of being a “special project.” Give it another two years of carefully tended growth and it should be a fine little plot of land.

Because virtually none of what takes place outside of my fence line ever feels like it’s ever completed work, I feel good about this small win.

This (not particularly) old house…

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an open call for readers to “Ask Me Anything.” One reader asked what projects I’d tackled around the house since moving in. This post is my best effort at describing what was, what’s been done, and where we’re going in the future.

Anyone who has ever owned a house knows that home ownership isn’t so much a state of being as a state of doing. Over and above the normal cleaning tasks, there is, literally, always something that needs some kind of attention – a leaking toilet, an overflowing gutter, filters to clean, driveway cracks to patch, trim to touch up, brush to haul away, or mulch to lay down… and that’s just the basic upkeep work that goes in to keeping a house from falling down around your ears. Sure, I know that people can go months or even years without doing any of that stuff but in addition to a place to live, home is an investment and it’s one I’d like to make sure pays off when it’s time to hang up the for sale sign.

I’ve been in this new house of mine for a little over two years now, which means I’ve lived with it long enough to have found a number of its personality quirks. Some of those quirks are tolerable – like the section of kitchen floor that’s just enough out of level that it will try to trip you if you are tempted to shuffle your feet instead of picking them up when you step. The basement window that let in a small flood every time it rained for more than 15 minutes was one of those that was less quirky and more demanding of an immediate fix. Mercifully that hole in the ground is now relatively dry and my paranoia about returning home after a rainstorm to find an indoor swimming pool has begun to recede. In the garage, I’ve removed the wheelchair ramp that occupied an entire bay when I moved in. That space is now occupied with set of steps cannibalized from parts of the ramp, a proper work bench, a bit of shelving, and a Jeep.

The work that never ends continues outside, where so far I’ve pulled out or cut down two score trees and shrubs of varying sizes, stabilized a muddy mess of a hillside that washed across the driveway in the slightest fall of rain, and filled in a badly designed flower bed with sod. As far as I can tell, most of this work is in compensation for 5-7 years of maintenance deferred by the previous homeowner. Adding a permanent generator sized to meet all possible power needs of the homestead was a personal priority of mine that felt like an extravagance… right up until the point where the power was out for the better part of 24 hours this past winter. After that, being assured that life can continue uninterrupted by weather or falling trees has come to feel like something essential. The last (I hope) significant outdoor project was adding a “rustic” fire ring in the back yard… since “burning brush” is frowned upon by the local home owners association, but having a fire pit is not. Two birds with one stone, that.

I’m sure there will be more to do, because there always is. I can’t even blame the honey do list on anyone else since mine is entirely self-generated. I want to move a few light switches and add a few electrical outlets, which (probably) I can do on my own. Unfortunately I’m also reaching the point where many of the things I want to do are beyond my level of technical skill and expertise. The master bath is badly in need of a walls-in renovation. Four rooms and a hallway need new carpet. I despise the laminate counter top in the kitchen. Seriously. That was a crap place to cheap out on the original build back in 2000. There’s also a 10×8 foot alcove in the living room that’s crying out to be floor-ceiling book shelves.

So the list of things to do never really gets any shorter with me adding one or two new things for every one that gets ticked off. I figure that at the rate I’m going, by the time I’m ready to sell the place off in eighteen years I’ll just have finished up everything I wanted to do with it.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Superfluous email. I’ve been keeping a rough track of emails I receive – specifically those in my inbox at the start of the day or after I’ve been away from my desk for a few hours. Though not purely scientific, I’ve found that only one out of every four emails is something I actually need to see. One in six are messages resulting in my needing to actually do something. Might I recommend not cc-ing everyone who you’ve ever tangentially met on your email messages? If feels like it would save us all hours every year of time we currently spend reading and then deleting email that has absolutely nothing to do with us.

2. Being a watched pot. I’ve got the assignment. I’ve told you when I’ll have it finished. I’ve gotten awfully good at estimating things like this over the last fourteen years. What I don’t need you to do is call and email me every 7 minutes asking if it’s finished. All that serves to do is 1) annoy me and 2) slow down the process making final delivery later than it would be otherwise. I do good work and good work takes time. Believe me when I tell you know one wants a project off my desk more than I do.

3. Syria. Two or three years ago, I actively advocated for putting American troops in harm’s way to try to bring order to that chaos. The Syrian war in 2017 is a far cry from what it was in 2015, though. Back then there was still a fighting chance for the sides opposing Assad to win the day without the direct assistance of an overwhelming number of American and allied personnel. Back then a nudge – in the form of material support and “advisory” personnel – could have made the difference and toppled a tyrant who was busy killing his own populace. The battlespace has changed and it increasingly looking like Syrian government forces will be the “last man standing” after a long and bloody fight. Landing American troops, on a mission with no clear objective and even less prospect of an exit strategy, would be a mistake – and those calling loudest for it today would be among the very first to denounce it as “Mr. Trump’s War” and a “foreign policy disaster” when the butcher’s bill came due.

Looking tired…

It’s always a positive and self-affirming moment when someone comes by your desk, takes a long look at you, and announces, “Damn, Jeff. You look tired.”

The fact is, I am tired. It has nothing to do with how much sleep I got the night before (which was plenty) and everything in the world to do with the volume of information I’m trying to exert some semblance of control or influence over for the next 25 days. There are plenty of people who have a more demanding plate of responsibilities, of course. If my project slips off the rails no one is going to die a terrible flesh wasting death due to toxic chemical exposure. That, at least, I have going for me. Still, between project meetings, sub-team meetings, a never-empty inbox, and a phone that won’t stop ringing, I’m not so much processing information as I am sifting it from one pile to another while hoping I don’t miss something important. Unfortunately I’ve been doing this long enough to know I’m missing stuff.

It’s a piss poor way to operate. It means everything else that’s supposed to be important and on my plate is getting crowded out just because of the volume of material this one particular effort is kicking up. I’ve got some expected leadership beatings lined up later this week, so at least I have that to look forward to. Plus, if I’m this tired now, just imagine how chipper and rested I’ll be in another three and a half weeks. That should be good times for everyone.

Four little words…

There are four little words that have caused no end to the amount of grief in my life. Those words: Yes sir. Can do. Four words. Eleven letters. And almost every single pain in the ass soup sandwich starts off with them flying out of my mouth in response to some vague, but ridiculous request for something that has to happen on a vertical timeline.

Maybe the real problem here is making the mistake of showing too much – or any – competence. The minute anyone figures out that you have a knack for turning a big steaming pile into something more palatable, your fate is more or less sealed. You’re going to be a fixer for the rest of your career or until you jump to a different organization where you might win yourself the ability to play dumb for a few months before you accidentally do too much, too fast and out yourself again. Then the whole vicious cycle repeats itself.

If you happen to have a certain personality type, there’s no way to avoid it really. You’re going to be pulled in by the siren’s song of getting shit done and those four little words will jack you all sorts of up.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The problem with doing good work…

The problem with doing good work is largely that the reward is often finding yourself with even more of it that needs doing. In exceptional circumstances you’ll arrive in a position of having done so well that a well running portfolio will be taken away and given to someone else so that you can take on a whole laundry list of troubled efforts in order to get them turned around.  That’s really the ultimate punishment for a job well done… It tends to be a vicious cycle; spend a few years getting things right just in time to hand them off and spend the following few years getting other things right. Trouble is, you never get to really kick back and enjoy the tasty fruits of getting it right before a whole lot of wrong ends up falling on your lap.

The sorry truth is when it comes to work, I’m not a brilliant seer of the future. I’m really a rather simple sort who’s content enough to put my head down and bull through whatever’s in front of me. I’ve given up any ambitions of being a boss, so I fight where I’m told, and I win where I fight. It’s a simple if not particularly energy efficient approach to getting things done.

In the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind, though, I do sometimes wonder how many cycles of wash-rinse-and-repeat the designated fixer should reasonably be expected to contend with before losing his proverbial shit all over the executive suite.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Getting a new project. I don’t mind taking on different work, but there are few things more professionally frustrating that being on the receiving end of a data dump of information about a project you haven’t in any way been part off. Generally I tend to prefer the quick hit projects that run for a couple of months, have their big finish, and then are put to sleep. It’s the never ending, ill defined efforts that are always a constant source of aggravation and annoyance. I suspect that’s mostly because of not having the background of how and why certain decisions were made. Basically all you end up with is an enormous steaming pile of email ​without history or context. The best you can hope for is that the guy running the project before you didn’t leave things an unmitigated cluster fuck and that you’ll be able to sift through the mass quantity of electronic paper to find the few gems that you really need to know.

2. If you say you value your people as your highest organizational asset, but then hold them two or three hours after the end of their normal duty day because you want to have a meeting and can’t be bothered to be in the office more than one day during the week, well, you can pretty much forget about ever recovering your credibility. Time is arguably the most rare commodity we have and when you think your people don’t have anything better to do with their (alleged) personal time than wait around to play the fawning audience, you’ve stopped being a leader and started being just some guy with a really good parking spot. I’ll respect the office because it’s the right thing to do, but respecting the office leaves me plenty of room to consider you a pretty crummy human being.

3. People. A dear friend of mine pitched the idea of going to DC to wander amongst the cherry blossoms this weekend. It sounds like a fine idea in practice. It’s a rare enough thing for both the blossoms and the weather and a weekend to cooperate all at the same time. The fact is, as good as it sounded, all I could really think about was the vast sea of humanity who would be there doing the same thing. I like the idea of festivals, concerts, and events in general… but the people. Sigh. Thats another matter entirely. I’ve heard that we all have some kind of neurosis and this one seems to be mine. I’ve never mastered the fine art of being around large groups of people and hiding my disgust at how many of them are oblivious to everything and everyone outside whatever personal bubble their occupying. I can do it when I have to or with sufficient preparation, but a whole day spent elbow to elbow with the masses sounds more than slightly hellish. The mental energy it would take not to completely lose my shit would leave my exhausted for the better part of the next week. I’m told I can be quite engaging with individuals or even a group of people I know reasonably well, but I’d be well and truly hopeless schlepping around a Tidal Basin full of perfect strangers.