From there to here…

Twenty years ago today, at about 8:00 in the morning, I walked into Shoney’s in Petersburg, Virginia having no idea what to expect. Three weeks earlier, I had celebrated Christmas by walking away from my still poppin’ fresh teaching career in the middle of the school year. Between getting my old condo ready to rent, the U-Haul expense, and setting up housekeeping in a new apartment, I was lucky to scrape together enough spare change to be flush enough to order breakfast somewhere so fancy. It was a starving time – the flattest of flat broke I’ve been as an adult before or since.

With that career turning 20 today, it’s been hard not to linger on where it’s taken me – from Petersburg and Richmond, to the Columbia River gorge and The Dalles, Honolulu, DC, Memphis, and finally back home to Maryland and the shores of the Chesapeake. I’ve met some absolutely brilliant minds and more than a few complete and utter shits. A few of the former, I’m lucky to consider dear friends. The latter are unavoidable no matter how hard you try.

No matter where the geography took me, it’s always been a job – the thing I do to pay the bills and afford to do all the other stuff. That’s ruffled the feathers of the true believers whose paths I’ve crossed. It cost me a few points here and there and maybe made me more than one low key enemy… but I have very few regrets. I’ll bitch about Uncle’s batshit crazy, incredibly frustrating, and outmoded way of doing things until the day I die, but it’s been a good living and it’s given me the opportunity to build a good life with not too many compromises. That ain’t nothing.

I’m just a bit shy of 2/3 of the way through this unexpected career of mine. With 20 down and 12 to go, I do find my thoughts turning a lot more frequently to its end than I do to its beginning. It’s nice, though, this one time a year, to sit down and think about the truly bizarre series of events and decisions that led me from there to here.

Real independence…

Independence Day week is, in my opinion, second only to the week between Christmas and New Years in terms of how little actual productive work takes place inside Uncle’s vast machine. It’s true that not everyone takes the week (or four days) off, but for the most part the number of people on vacation approaches the point of critical mass where it becomes nearly impossible to get anything accomplished if it requires more than two people to be part of the decision-making or work flow. I’m sure there are plenty of old hands who might deny what I’m telling you, but experience tells me that this week is a dead zone for productivity. No matter how many memos you cram into the pipeline, if there’s no one there to read them on the other end, it’s just so many trees falling in the forest.

I’ve always felt like this week was the civilian equivalent to an operational pause – a breather before the long march through summer towards Labor Day and the close of the fiscal year. There are still plenty of people giving the illusion of getting something accomplished, but I suspect that if they were all honest at least half the emails they send are greeted with an out-of-office message. By early in the day Thursday, you’re going to find even the most dedicated of employees giving up the illusion and watching the clock with the rest of us poor dumb working stiffs.

That’s just part of the magic joy that is the trinity of three-day weekends in the summer. They feel different. They’re special. Maybe they hark back to being fourteen and having the whole summer stretched out in front of us like a never-ending weekend. Or maybe we just appreciate the reminder of the life we can look forward to in 20 year, 11 months, and 1 day… if we were so inclined to count the amount of time until we’re eligible for retirement.

Talk about celebrating a real independence day.

Half and half…

As part of the Magical Mystery Furlough of 2013, half the people stay home on Mondays and the other half stay home on Fridays. It’s one of those ideas that sound better in theory than it operates in practice. The logic was that inflicting the furlough on two separate days would mean that offices were open and “servicing the customer” during normal business hours. Like I said, it sounds fine in theory. I mean what customer doesn’t enjoy a good servicing, no?

What’s really happened, of course, is both Monday and Friday have become bureaucratic dead zones – the lights are on, there are a few people around, and we can officially say that Quadragonthe office is “open.” Just don’t try to get much done because odds are at least half of the people you need to talk to are scheduled out on the opposite Furlough Day. It’s hard to believe no one at echelons higher than reality saw that coming.

What we end up with is a functional work week that takes place only on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday because that’s the only time most people make it to the office nowadays. That’s not taking into account the people who are out in the normal course of using vacation days or sick time. Since no meetings were harmed in carrying out this furlough, anything that was usually scheduled on Monday or Friday now takes place on one of the other days too. That’s not even accounting for the meetings we now have to have to talk specifically about the impacts of sequestration and the furlough. Far be it for me to criticize, but let’s just say productive time is becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

The lights are on. We can say we’re still open five days a week. But what’s been lost in productivity is far greater than the sum of everyone’s collective 20% reduction of hours. Maybe this whole asinine exercise will save Uncle a penny or two on the dollar, but what he’s losing in the productivity, morale, dedication, and respect of his employees will cost him a shitload more than that in the long run.

A week with no Wednesday…

Since this is the first of 10 more furlough weeks to come, it should be noted that for purposes of record keeping I’ll be dividing the week as follows:

– Monday and Tuesday will be held as scheduled.

– Thursday replaces Wednesday and is immediately followed, as usual, by Friday, which will take over Thursday’s old time slot.

– Saturday Part I is allocated the space formerly occupied by Friday.

– Saturday Part II is takes the place of the traditional observance of Saturday.

– Sunday remains in its historic place as the day that keeps Saturday (Part II) and Monday from crashing together.

Please note that until further notice, Wednesday will no longer being observed by jeffreytharp.com. While posts will continue to appear as normal, official business will only be transacted on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday as outlined above. Saturday (Part I and II) and Sunday are considered non-working days and will be subject to lying about on the couch watching trashy daytime television, surfing the internet, perfecting a diabetic-friendly rum punch recipe, arguing with the evening news, and otherwise being an unproductive member of society.

We regret that Uncle Sam has made this drastic step necessary and hope that Wednesdays will be restored to service as soon as funding levels allow.

Plan? What plan?

I’ve seen some jacked up things in my time with Uncle Sam, but nothing in that time even comes close to the inability of senior departmental officials to communicate even the most basic of information to the workforce. The same workforce they’ll be asking in a few hours to execute a currently unknown plan to shut down a very large portion of the department. Surely at this stage there’s a plan, right? I mean it’s been in a file somewhere collecting dust since the early 1980s and occasionally trotted out and updated once or twice a decade since then under circumstances very similar to these. All I’m suggesting is that hows and whats of standing down the department shouldn’t really be a surprise to you at this point.

One of the things they beat into our heads at Army school way back in 2003 was that leadership is mostly about taking care of people. That and not losing too many things. Losing things is considered bad form in a leader and is frowned upon. From what I’ve observed from the belly of the beast over the last four days, not one member of Official Washington has shown anything passing for a shred of leadership ability… or really displayed any redeeming social value whatsoever.