I’ve spent more of the last three months engaged in the pursuit of one single line of effort than is strictly healthy for someone. That’s fine. Someone has to be the institutional memory – even if only to remind you of why something sounds good on paper but goes to hell in a handbasket in practice.
The bigger trouble comes when people who haven’t been paying meticulously close attention realize a Big Thing is about to happen. Then they want to get focused on it. They want to deep dive it and know all that there is to know. That, too, is fine… as long as one remembers that the more often you have to tell the backstory and provide months worth of details, the more limited the time remaining to actually do the work becomes. It’s a corollary to Tharp’s Maxim #1 – I can either go to meetings about the work or I can do the work. I cannot, however, do both simultaneously.
In any case, we’re racing from fire to fire, from crisis to crisis, in hopes that somehow we manage to deliver a final product that isn’t ridiculous in the eyes of gods and men. It’s a tall order – especially when we keep inflicting wounds on ourselves.
I console myself with knowing that good, bad, or otherwise, in short order a Big Thing is going to happen no matter how hard we try to fuck it up in the closing hours. One way or another we limp across the finish line a week from tomorrow.
I’ve disagreed with politicians of every stripe over the years. Town, county, state, and federal officials have all heard from me by phone, email, and good old fashioned letter. I’ve expressed, in language as plain as possible, my opinion as their constituent.
What never occurred to me to do is show up at their home marching and chanting at all hours of the day and night. It never occur to me to show up where they’re eating a meal to harass them. It never occurred to me that I should find a microphone and instigate my followers to threaten them, because I disagreed with administration policy. It It never occurred to me that their wives, husbands, and children going about their lives were fair game because I as a grown ass adults can’t somehow manage to behave like adults and not a tantrum throwing toddler.
It seems that there’s very little we can do to keep out political “leaders” from acting like so many fools and miscreants. We have all the choice in the world, however, about how we choose to behave regardless of the example they set.
1. Staff requirements. I’ve always been slightly put off by the idea of needing “personal staff” to run a household. After a few more weeks like this one, I’m going to need to seriously reconsider the need to hire out both the cooking specialty and the cleaning specialty to qualified subject matter experts. We’re very quickly reaching the point where I not only want to stay home during every available moment of down time, but where I don’t want to spend that down time doing anything that requires actual thought. The next 40 or so days promise to be an epic battle between my internal demand for order and expending every drop of mental energy focused on other things.
2. Lunch. I miss regularly eating lunch. I did manage to stuff food into my face during the middle part of two out of four work days this week… so if lunch were a professional sport I’d be averaging .500 and headed for the Hall of Fame. Still, it seems I’m going to have to come up with better options for physically breaking away for 30 minutes because even the wild hope of managing to snag a meal at my desk has proven to me a pipe dream.
3. The elephant in the room. I suspect I’ll never not be perplexed when a room full of adults sits around asking questions to which everyone knows the answer, but in which not one of them wants to be the one to say it out loud. I mean are we all pretending that we don’t know the answer? The reason some things are the way they are is because someone made the decision. It might not sound like a good enough reason when you say it out loud, but that doesn’t make it any less the reason something is the way it is. It would be convenient if we collectively had the internal fortitude to say it out loud, but that’s the kind of brave decision that needs to take place at pay grades well above mine so I’ll just sit quietly and wait for someone to call for the next slide.
1. Write down your grocery list
2. Brainstorm last minute Christmas gift ideas
3. Make notes about actual productive things you could be doing at your desk
4. Practice your advanced eye rolling skills
5. Contemplate your bad career/life decisions
6. Look thoughtfully into the distance and nod at appropriate intervals
7. Spend 15 seconds of this 90-minute hell actually talking about the one issue relevant to your job
8. Resist the temptation to live tweet the stupid people say in meetings
9. Play buzzword/gov-speak bingo
10. Remember to update the “Days Until Retirement” sign hanging in your cube
I had every intention to write tonight about the history of controversial White House staff appointments in the last few administrations, but largely due to not wanting to do the research to validate my memory, I’ve decided against it. The truth is, almost as soon as your party finds itself out of power the memory of anything they did that stirred the least bit of controversy flees from memory. Except in a few rare circumstances, we tend to remember presidential administrations for all of their virtues and none of their vices. For the time being just take my word for it that every incoming president appoints staffers that the opposition believes is the devil incarnate. It goes with the territory.
During these transitions of power we all tend to forget that the presidency is bigger than any one man. It’s bigger than any single administration. Given our seemingly insurmountable differences we rarely stop to marvel at the unbroken succession of peaceful transfers of power stretching back to George Washington. Given the number of young democracies that fall into chaos when a chief executive departs, it really is something quite remarkable that we manage to get it done with little more than yelling at each other.
That’s not to say that the process is pretty or that it’s in any way satisfying for anyone involved. No matter the results of a presidential election, no one ever gets the whole loaf. Even with one party ascendant over the executive and legislative branches, there are plenty of opportunities for policy goals to be held immobile. One of the wonders of the American system is just how difficult the Founding Fathers made it to get anything done. That wasn’t done by accident.
Anyway, everyone take a breath. In 1933 Republicans screamed that FDR was going to turn us all into socialists. He didn’t. In 2016 Democrats are screaming that Trump will turn us all into Nazis. He won’t. Relax and remember that campaigning for the next presidential primary is only about two years away.
Two days into the week, it looks like it’s going to be another exercise in triage – in trying to figure out which high priority item is going to bleed to death if I don’t tend to it immediately and which I can put off to let bleed a little longer. It’s a hell of a way to try to get things done and nearly impossible if any of what you’re trying to accomplish requires deep thought and analysis. Thank God nothing I deal with ever needs any of that. You can’t see it, but I’m rolling my eyes while I wrote that last bit.
Due in part to to what feels like the never ending variations on a hiring freeze, our preternatural ability to reorganize ourselves every six months, decisions (or lack thereof) made by high management, and people moving on to better opportunities, we’re at least three hands shy of where we should be. That doesn’t sound like a lot except it roughly translates to 1/4 of the total number of people who should be working in my office. Add into that mix the normal and customary sick days, vacation days, and alternative work schedule days off, it means as often as not we’re operating half staffed or less. Some days it’s much, much less.
Whether echelons higher than reality want to accept or admit it, it creates an environment where even if good work were encouraged, it would be nearly impossible to achieve. I won’t speak for anyone other than myself, but just now it feels like any day that doesn’t end in taking water over the transom was a good one. Running flat out just to avoid sliding backwards is a lot of things, but it’s not a recipe for encouraging or enabling anyone to do their best work. It’s a recipe for struggling to stave off disaster just enough to get through the day. When that’s what passes for a win, we’re all in trouble.
We have the same meeting every two weeks. I don’t mean just a regularly occurring staff meeting or anything, but rather a meeting where we all get together and discuss the exact same issue, come to the exact same conclusions, and then part company knowing full well that we’re going to do it again in 14 days just like clockwork. Nobody, myself included, has the intestinal fortitude to recommend that we stop having this meeting so it seems possible that it will continue on indefinitely into the future, just as it has been held for as long as any of the current participants can remember.
As far as I can tell, meetings are the great enemy of government work – probably work in any large organization. I’m not saying if we cancelled this meeting that my productivity would suddenly jump by 200%, but it would free up an hour or two every week to do something, anything that might be even marginally productive. After all, when what you’re currently doing is complete dead time, even a fractional improvement in how you spend your day is a huge improvement in productivity. That’s not even counting the morale bump that would come from permanently cancelling time sucks like this one. Of course the likelihood of any of that coming to pass is somewhere between slim and none, so if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting to go to.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.