On the illusion of business as usual…

There are always a few days each year when Uncle Sam would be better served to close up shop and send everyone home rather than attempt to maintain the illusion that offices are open and it’s business as usual. The Friday after Thanksgiving is, predictably, one of those days year in and year out. Most offices I’ve worked in over the years have had to assign someone the short straw that day to come in, turn the lights on, and then watch the clock for eight hours. Sure, technically it’s a work day, but virtually no business is transacted. Calling it a work day is fiction at best, farce at worst.

In any given years there are other days that result in the same basic effect. You can count on it happening any time a federal holiday falls on Tuesday or Thursday through the year. People are going to want to maximize their leave by turning a one day holiday into a 4-day weekend. Thinking that won’t be the case is just swimming against the tide of human nature – and that makes it an extremely foolish activity. The bureaucracy, of course, is no stranger to foolish activity, so we press on as if these periodic days of bare bones staffing will somehow result in actual productive work.

Although the mid-week holiday effect can take place any time of year, it’s most pronounced here at the tail end of the calendar, when so many of the old hands have leave that needs to be used or lost before the end of the year. The day before Thanksgiving or the day before Christmas are almost as useless, though not quite. Today there were four people in my office, well less than half of what it would have been on any other day, even given the reduced staffing due to plague.

I’m sure a few odds and ends that could be considered actual work transpired today, but when balanced against the cost of turning on the lights and heating every federal building across the country, I have to wonder if anyone has every paused to consider if the return on investment even comes close to making sense. If they have, they’ve obviously put far more stock in the value of maintaining the illusion of being open for business than I do.

Of elections and lessons learned…

On this day back in 2004, I was attending a week-long “training event” in Portsmouth, Virginia. I remember it clearly because it was the early morning the followed a long night huddled around the television in the hotel’s bar following the results of presidential election pitting George W. Bush against John Kerry.

Every time the instructors called a pause, a small gang of eight or ten of us would skitter across the hall from the meeting room to see the latest changes. As that particular morning dragged on and no winner was declared, we were later and later getting back from breaks. Hey, we were engaged citizens and it was a moment in history.

Eventually, after a particularly lengthy break – maybe after lunch – one of the instructors wandered in and offered the words I like to imagine he lived to regret. To a dozen young-ish bureaucrats he foolishly said, “Well, if you think the election is more important that what we’re doing in class, you should go ahead and stay over here and do that.” Now I’m not a fancy big city lawyer, but even then I was enough of a bureaucrat to recognize a great big, beautiful open door to waltz through when I saw one.

I’m sure he was trying to shame us into compliantly filing back into the meeting room. A few of our little clutch did wither under the instructor’s stink eye and drift back to training, but as far as I, and a few like-minded souls were concerned, we’d just been handed a get out of jail free card. I was sure then, as I’m sure now, that the outcome of the election and the mechanics of how it was decided, were far more important than analyzing our Myers-Briggs type, learning fun facts about our “leadership color,” or any of the other tidbits that could have been gleaned in their entirety from reading the course handouts.

Half a dozen of us opted to stay put that day. Maybe we didn’t learn much out of the official leadership curriculum, but we did learn a bloody fearful lesson about being careful what options you lay out when you have no idea how people will react. In all my long career from then to now, when there was only one “right” direction, I never presented it as an optional activity.

Most of the “leadership training” I’ve been sent to has been laughable in one way or another, but just this once, I feel like there was a solid lesson learned.

A nine hour mistake…

I spent the first nine hours of today mistakenly under the impression that it was Thursday. 

It turns out, it is not… and that has been a tremendous disappointment throughout the remainder of the day.

It’s mostly a disappointment because it injects an additional day between me and my next scheduled long weekend. In the panoply of possible sins, that feels like a mortal one, as there’s not much I take more seriously than time spent not spent fiddling with spreadsheets and briefing slides.

Since I had originally planned to fire off the week’s edition of What Annoys Jeff this Week tonight, I don’t have all that much to say. I was woefully unprepared to need what now feels like an extra post this week.

What I will say, without additional comment or commentary, is that almost eight months into doing business under the black flag of the plague, you’d think we’d have sorted out most of the day to day issues. You’d think that, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The deeper we forge into the plague lands, the more people seem to forget about things I thought we’d sorted out months ago. 

That realization seems somehow fitting for the day, really.

Don’t worry, someone else will do it…

I’ve realized this week, though hardly for the first time, that a disturbing amount of my workload exists purely because people can’t be trusted to do what they’ve been told to do. 

Let me give you an example. There’s a report that’s been due every Friday for months. Instead of doing something like sending out a message that says “Hey, you need to turn this information in every Friday until we tell you to stop,” and then expect that grown adults will be able to do that, every Friday morning we prep and send out an Official Reminder that the exact same information is going to be due again next week. Instead of doing a thing once time, we do it 52 times… because expecting alleged professionals to do their job is a problematic course of action.

Another example? Sure. We have a system that keeps track of all the official things people are supposed to be working on. Every office has access to this system and can see what’s assigned, what’s in progress, what’s due, and what’s late with the click of a few buttons. We send out a weekly reminder on those things too… actually, now we send out that reminder twice a week since, again, alleged professionals can’t be troubled to keep track of what they’re supposedly doing.

If you’re thinking that failing to do your damned job would lead to some kind of adverse action, you get partial credit. Nothing bad happens to the people who are days or weeks late getting the job done, but my little part of the Great Green Machine finds itself with more work to poke, prod, cajole, and plead with people to do whatever it is they were assigned to finish.

Those at echelons higher than reality seems to think that the problem is in not passing out enough reminders. I tend to think the problem lies in people being irresponsible and not getting a well-deserved ass chewing as a result.

Eleven too many…

It took well under fifteen minutes of being back at work for the restorative effects of nine days of rest and relaxation to be completely worn away.

Even in a plague year, even doing nothing of any significance, not having to dick around with “work stuff” was absolutely lovely. I’ve often heard people say they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they didn’t work. I literally have no idea what they’re talking about. Get a damned hobby or something. I’ve been accused often enough of not knowing how to “properly” have fun, but sitting quietly in an empty room, staring at a blank wall is better than the endless trickle of emails and questions that could have been resolved if someone had bothered to read the God forsaken memo.

I didn’t so much as give a though to needing to be off-site support for fluorescent lit cubicle hell until about 3:00 Sunday afternoon. Within 40 minutes of being at it, though, the only thing on my mind is how many days are between me and the next long weekend. In case you’re wondering, the answer is 11… and that’s awfully close to 11 too many. 

I’ll always be glad of having a job that allows be to take care of the animals in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed… but there’s no power in heaven or on earth that can make the think it’s a good time.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Look, it’s increasingly easy to find three things a week in this tired old world that annoy me to no end. Turn on the news, pick the first three stories they cover, and I’m probably annoyed about each and every one of them.

This week, though, is an oddity. Being in the midst of burning off a tranche of vacation time, most of the noise has faded into the deep background. I’m getting up, drinking my coffee, spending quality time with the critters, reading a bit, cooking, and fiddling around with a few minor projects around the house. 

At least for the last few days, I’ve created a happy little bubble here and thoroughly enjoyed staying in it while whatever is going on “out there” stays out there. For these few moments, I’m not annoyed by a single damned thing in the world… except the certain knowledge that this particular idyll will soon enough come to a tragic finish.

And that’s far worse than the combination than any other three things I can imagine.

There’s a first time for everything…

I’ve made something of a hobby out of ranting and raving about the job, poking fun at the nature of the bureaucracy, and generally saying out loud what I suspect a lot of us have thought at one point or another. The truth is, I’ve had a remarkable career – well beyond what any kid born down the crick in the late 1970s had any right to expect.

With one or two notable exceptions I’ve been blessed with bosses who existed somewhere in the good to exceptional range. Again, with occasional exceptions, I’ve mostly had colleagues who I both liked and respected.

In a few months, I’m coming up on 19 years on the job. Through all of that time, I always felt capable of informally working through any problematic issues that came up. At worst, there would be an awkward conversation and things could be nudged back on track. For the first time in almost two decades of service, I’ve encountered an issue that couldn’t, by its nature, be resolved informally, off the books.

Despite my reputation as a grenade thrower, let me say that I absolutely hate having been put in this position. I hate that I needed to be the one to say something in a universe that values going along to get along. I hate that it puts more trouble on my boss’ plate when it’s already piled high with shit sandwiches. I hate that I have colleagues who could be put into a worse position than they were before I opened my mouth.

Mostly I hate the fact that decisions made by those at echelons higher than reality made any of it necessary in the first place. 

A next week problem…

After going through this past Friday like a scalded dog, I didn’t have high hopes for today. I mean Monday is bad by its very nature. Non-telework Mondays pile badness upon badness. I expected today to be an unmitigated shitshow – just a continuation of Friday by other means.

A perk of my generally pessimistic view of the world is that every now and then things don’t go as abysmally as I anticipate. That’s not to say they go altogether well, but from time to time, the universe momentarily forgets to conspire against you and all your works.

That was today. It wasn’t great – cubicle seating and fluorescent lighting made sure of that – but the day had a reasonable ebb and flow that last week lacked in its entirety. The day had breathing room instead of presenting eight solid hours of things that needed to be reacted to immediately. That’s not to say that all the things with immediacy issues were important. My experience in the belly of the bureaucracy is that the really important stuff almost never requires an immediate, off the cuff reaction.

I fully expect there’s a price to pay for avoiding ridiculousness today. The universe will have to balance the scales… but just now I’m hoping to skate through two more days and get to my long weekend. Then balancing the scales can be a next week problem.

On the virtue of hoarding…


I’ve been hoarding vacation days. I’ve mentioned it before. I’ve been hoarding them in hopes that someone at echelons higher than reality may have a change of heart and let us carry over more leave than usual into next year. With those hopes extinguished, it seems I’m about to reap the benefits of my months-long refusal to use leave a little at a time when I was already staying home anyway.

The rest of the year looks a little something like this: Next week features am impromptu four day weekend. Then I’m working three weeks followed by a week off. Three more weeks of work and then another week off. Then I work a week and pull in another four-day weekend. Finally, it’s work three more weeks and then take two weeks of vacation time to cap off the year.

Sure, there’s still a pretty significant chance I’ll be spending most of those days at home, but weighed against the prospect of losing the time completely, it’s hardly a sacrifice.

At some point during our long march through the plague year the bosses are going to expect us back in the office on a regular basis. On the off chance that happens between now and January 4th, at least I’ve build myself a nice cushion of down time so I can kind of ease back into the routine that we’ve spent the last seven months proving to be antiquated and unnecessary.

Sure, our political overlords are shit, the bureaucracy is ridiculous by its very nature, and the work can be grindingly routine, but that big bucket of leave you get after spending 15 years on the job absolutely does not suck.

TEOTWAWKI (and I feel fine)…

On it’s best day, the conglomeration of office buildings where I work looks like a blend of minimum security prison and post-modern community college arranged around a central courtyard. The bosses would probably want me to call it a “campus,” but the best I can usually manage is naming it a “complex.” Campus has too many connotations of good times spent smoking and joking on the lower quad for me to sully that particular happy memory through such an inapt comparison.

Regardless of the naming convention, I was schlepping through the courtyard today in search of lunch (read: Going to Subway and hoping my key card still worked in that building). People have been mostly gone from the complex now since mid-March. I couldn’t help but notice that the lack of people is starting to show – mostly in the form of the number of weeds that are now growing in sidewalk joints, trash cans with their doors hanging open, and the general disarray of the outdoor furniture that’s supposed to make the place a hub of outside-the-office activity.

The space looks, in a word, abandoned. It’s a feeling reinforced by the disembodied Spotify playlist that’s still being piped through to the wide open space now utterly devoid of people.

The whole scene put me in mind of a series that ran on the History Channel back before they decided there was more profitability in Ancient Aliens. Life After People showed short vignettes of what various landmarks might look like in a world where people simply vanished – ending each episode by showing what that particular place could be once nature reclaimed it in total. We don’t appear to be in any immediate threat of reverting to wetland or deciduous forest… but it looks for all the world like the opening few minutes of an episode when humans have been gone for a few weeks or months.

It had a decidedly post-apocalypse feel, as if it really were the end of the world as we know it… and I’m really kind of fine with that.