What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Repetitive question syndrome. In my particular area of effort, questions are unavoidable. That’s fine. Nothing I’m tinkering with is overly complex, so the answers generally come easy. The real kick in the junk is when the same question comes from three people who all work in the same office. Maybe sort some shit out among yourselves before blasting away on the email… because, honestly, anyone after the first person from your organization is going to get a verbatim copy/paste response, regardless of what subtle differences they inject into the question. I don’t mind doing the work, but I absolutely mind doing it three times with vaguely different shading.

2. Entitlement. I know this is going to be a hard pill to swallow, but no one owes you anything just because you happen to exist. The level of entitlement I see, particularly on Twitter, is almost breathtaking. I have no idea where people find the nerve to think they’re somehow entitled to the exact job (or societal permission to not work) they want, in the city where they want to live, in a home they shouldn’t have to pay for, with food and healthcare all provided on demand at someone else’s expense. Being a guy who left home at 22, schlepped all over the country to work where the opportunities presented themselves, and made shit tons of sacrifices to build the life I wanted to live, I truly don’t know from where they get the nerve. 

3. Junk email. The longer the Great Plague rages, the more junk email I get from any company with which I’ve ever even thought about doing business. Look, I know everyone is jumping through their ass trying to stay in business, but I don’t need 10 emails a week from the company I bought a watch from five years ago. It’s not going to make me want to buy another watch or really any widget I’m not already thinking about buying. I like the companies I use on a regular basis, but honest to God being regularly spammed makes me want to look at other options… which sadly would just lead to even more pointless email which would fill me with even more hostility. There are about 50 businesses that are one or two more emails way from earning a “send directly to trash” rule. 

Western regrets…

Back in the summer of 2003, I spent the better part of three months living in a motel in the high desert of Oregon. The Dalles sits in the shadow of Mount Hood, along the Columbia River, about 90 miles east of Portland on I-84. It was like this east coast native, at the ripe old age of 25 had been dumped not just in a foreign country, but on a different planet. Everyone spoke English, but my brain refused to comprehend the mountains, the big river, and the gorge itself. Looking at those landscapes was a lot like how it feels looking at the graphics generated by a virtual reality headset for the first time – simultaneously real and surreal. 

I recalled enough from my American history classes to know driving back and forth to the dam that I was following along a small portion of the route covered by Lewis and Clark. That was about as far as my academic curiosity reached on that point. Even when I was studying, I wasn’t much of a student of the American west. What I, at the time, considered my temporary exile to Oregon, was an utterly wasted opportunity to follow the steps of what I know now to be one of the greatest overland explorations in recorded history.

I spent four days a week working at a mind-bendingly enormous hydro-electric dam that our rich uncle had thrown across the Columbia in the 1950s. The other three days, I spent mostly just dicking around – driving up to Seattle, over to Mount Saint Helens, or sampling as many of the micro- breweries between Hood River and Portland as my paltry GS-7 pay checks would support. 

In those three months, I could have been all over the western end of the trail Lewis and Clark blazed through the wilderness. It’s an opportunity I pissed away because at the time, being “out west” was just the thing standing between me and starting my real job back in DC… where my life as a cube-dweller really began.

If you’ve ever wondered what I regret most from the last twenty years, I just told you about it. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. Days I have to schlep over to the actual office to do things I’ve been successfully doing from my living room for a year are annoying. And not just for the usual reasons surrounding spending a day locked in cubicle hell. A not minor part of the annoyance package on those days is the fact that right out of the gate it means I’m losing 80-90 minutes of quality reading time just to get over there. It just adds insult to injury.

2. Emotional responses. It seems that Ted Cruz flew to Cancun while the power was out in Texas. Sure, the optics aren’t ideal, but if Ted stayed in Texas, do you really think he’d be sitting in the dark just waiting for the lights to come back on? Unless your senator moonlights as a power plant operator, electric lineman, oil well repairman, or LP gas tanker captain, there’s very little role for him beyond making phone calls and prodding the people who run the grid to get their act together, which could be done from Houston, Washington, Cancun, or the International Space Station. Honestly the last thing anyone needs in a disaster situation is one more politician wandering around getting in the way of emergency responders. Having worked a fair amount of my early career in emergency management, I can’t remember a single thing that was improved when the politicians showed up in the room for their photo op. 

3. Prediction. Let me start by saying that I recognize that “the weather” is a ludicrously complicated system. Predicting how it’s going to behave at one particular spot on the globe at any given time involves huge assumptions and massive amounts of computing power. With that said, three weeks ago the experts were calling for 4-6 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Last week the experts called for 4-8 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Today, the experts called for another 4-8 inches of snow. Thus far, the results have been less than an inch of sleet, freezing rain, and snow. I’m not saying the daily weather forecast is absolute hokum, but maybe instead of trying to project exact details, we focus more on whether the storm will produce liquid or frozen precipitation and leave it at that since nailing the details seems awfully problematic.

Getting Shot…

I was one of the designated red shirts in the office today (and before you ask, yes, I really do wear red shirts on the days I have to schlep over to the office). It’s the Friday before a holiday weekend, so the day is one of those that could easily have gone either way. Aside from a couple of systems I needed to use not working for half the day (which is fairly normal), the day broke towards the better than expected side. Occasionally I’m pleasantly surprised like that.

The big news of the day, though, was the handful of us who got tagged to be “early adopters” of the COVID-19 vaccine. Mostly it went to some of the people who have been here day in and day out since last March. I don’t begrudge them getting to the front of the line in any way. The more of that bunch who roll up their sleeves, the better protected I am on the periodic days I’ve got to spend taking my turn in cubicle hell.

The more subtle undercurrent of the day was the more quiet voices adamantly asserting “No way I’m taking that,” or “it’s unproven,” or “the damned government has injected me with enough stuff already.” I’ve been told we’re not supposed to mock “those with vaccine hesitancy,” so I won’t… not publically, at least. I’m thankful for their hesitancy, too, in a way… because every one of them who turns it down puts me just a little higher on the list.

I threw myself on the waiting list a week or two ago, not really expecting much to come of it. Turns out, either we accidentally ended up with way too much product or way too little interest, because by the end of the day I, too, had some of Moderna’s finest rapidly developed and tested, emergency use approved vaccine racing through my system. Maybe I’ll grow a tail or drop dead from god knows what side effect 30-years from now… but I’m a step closer to getting back to trolling through shops that smell of old paper, and that makes this possibly the best Friday I’ve ever spent in the office.

And to think they say getting shot is a bad thing.

My kind of motivation…

I took a bit of time this morning to engage in one of my favorite work activities – gazing at the calendar for the next 11 months and starting to plug days I know I want to take leave into Outlook. It’s a delicate balancing act between maximizing where vacation days adjoin various federal holidays and holding enough time in reserve to scatter around the rest of the year on days when I just don’t have the mental energy for bureaucrating. 

It’s probably more art than science, but it’s one of the more personally vital things I do every year. I’ve long known myself well enough to understand I do better when I have well-marked targets. I can plow through almost any governmental foolishness when I know there’s a long (or very long) weekend somewhere out on the horizon at a date certain. I do better when I’m working towards something – and there’s not one thing in Uncle Sam’s gift that I value more than time off. Cash awards get taxed to hell and back, medals gather dust in a drawer, and certificates won’t even get you a cup of coffee… but time off, time not spent updating spreadsheets or sitting though meetings that could be emails, that’s the good stuff.

Like 2020 before it, we’re still in the belly of a plague year with 2021. Days off in the back half of the year, after we’ve all been shot, and are presumably back in cubicle hell, will be more valuable than days off here on the front end when I’m still mainly at home. My plan of attack is weighted heavily in favor of days in June and onwards, with a balance of seven days in reserve to take “just because.” 

No plan survives first contact with the enemy. Some of these dates will slide about a little. It’s a mark on the wall, though – something to work towards beyond hours of mashing at the keyboard on behalf of our wealthy uncle and that’s exactly the kind of motivation I need. 

Vestigial snow day…

The home office over in Aberdeen was closed today to all but “essential” business. What essential means, of course, has never been described the same way twice in the nine years I’ve been working there. Every winter they try out two or three new definitions that never quite seem to stick.

Technically today was a “snow day,” one of those random, unexpected, weather related holidays that are scattered about the yearly calendar like birdshot. Snow days in the plague era ain’t what they use to be. Honestly, if it weren’t for the occasional pitter patter of sleet falling on the skylights, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between today and any other Monday over the last ten months. 

Losing the traditional snow day has always been the bitter catch of having a telework agreement. It’s still a trade I’ve always considered well worth making, but sitting looking at the snow-covered woods, I have to admit that I miss the old ways just a little bit on days like this. 

Before the plague, these working snow days were mostly alright. There were so few of us with agreements stipulating that we’d work through adverse weather that it mostly felt like a real snow day interrupted by an occasional email. It might have been an official work day on the books, but when the boss isn’t around to assign work and everyone you need to talk to in order to get anything done is “on holiday,” not much real work was happening anyway. 

Now that the vast majority of us are “telework ready” to cope with the plague, of course, it’s a brave new world. I like to think the ability to have the whole mass of us “work through the storm,” would be major points in favor of a greatly liberalized telework program… but I’m in no way expecting that to be the case. The opposite, reconsolidating central control and management, is always the more likely course of action. 

In any case, I’ve enjoyed my vestigial snow day and would happily welcome more of them.

The post holiday slump…

We’re back in that part of a year where hoarding vacation days is a thing. The next long weekend milepost is Washington’s Birthday. Then it’s the long slog through to Memorial Day before holidays start appearing regularly on the calendar again.

These are the days when I’m least likely to burn off annual leave. That’s doubly true as we prepare to enter Plague Year II. With the promise of a vaccine coming over the horizon, business as usual, and filling cubicles won’t be far behind. Vacation days then will be far more valuable than any vacation day taken while we’re still living under plague protocols and working mostly from home.

If it sounds like I’m more surly than usual in the next few weeks, it’s mostly because I am. Without even the hint of a week’s long weekend on the horizon for the foreseeable future, it’s fair to say I’m in a mood.

The inevitable result…

I’ve been back to work from Christmas vacation for two weeks, but between the time off and plague-encouraged telework, this was my first day back in the actual office in a month.

After ten months of this, can’t we all just agree that for most “office work,” cramming a metric shit ton of people into a physical office is a ridiculous holdover from the age of typewriters, carbon paper, and gray flannel suits?

There are two thoughts that really occur to me at this late stage: 1) If there are still people not pulling their weight while working from home, you probably should consider letting those people go find other opportunities since they’re, by definition, excess to requirement; and 2) If there are “core missions” that haven’t been getting done and it hasn’t caused a catastrophic failure of your office is supposed to be doing in the last ten months, that “core mission” is probably a waste of time.

This was an unprecedented moment to revolutionize the workplace… but it feels increasingly obvious that we’re collectively going to blow the chance and drive straight back to “business as usual” the moment some percentage of the population has gotten their shots.

It would almost be farce if the inevitable result wasn’t so damned predictable.

Like meeting an old friend…

I spent the bulk of today tinkering around the pre-start up necessities for a project that not even the second year of the Great Plague has managed to kill off. It will be my 7th time attempting to herd the cats towards this effort. It’s entirely beloved by the powers high atop Olympus, but has been, is, and apparently ever will be the absolute bane of my professional existence.

It’s safe to say that whatever restive effects of taking the last half of December off are well and truly used up now. I’m shocked they lasted into the second day, really. That’s almost twice as long as I usually manage to not be completely agitated by the unique joys of the bureaucracy.

The only perk of having done the same thing for seven years in a row is I have an awfully deep bench of templates to draw from. It’s virtual acres of ground filled with slide decks, Excel files, and narrative documents that help limit the amount of original thought that needs to be applied. The biggest hurdle is sorting through it all to craft a package that looks new and interesting enough that the great overlords won’t realize that it’s a great batch of recycled ideas. 

The fact that this year, once again, will be in the format of a “virtual meeting” helps out a lot there. There are only so many ways to doctor up a Zoom meeting to make it look new and original. There will be allowances for that. Probably.

Still, today has been like meeting an old friend. The kind of friend who wrecked your car, slept with your girl, stole your wallet, and kicked your dog.

Setting the tone…

Ah, so it’s New Year’s Day. There is a temptation for it to feel somewhat celebratory, but it’s got a darker undercurrent. The arrival of the new year means that this great ultra-long weekend has been whittled down now to no more than the length of a normal weekend. Just two days. Sigh. 

I’m not ready for this. Even constrained by the plague from doing those things I’d normally have spent the last two weeks doing, it was time much better spent than any normal week (even a week in a plague year) could offer. I’m in no way prepared to my time to stop being entirely my own. Knowing that moment is near has already launched a cloud over this new 

People make an effort this time of year talking about turning over a new leaf or having a better attitude going forward. Me? Yeah. That’s not going to happen. It’s a new year, but I’ll be trundling through it as aggrieved and surly as ever. The things that annoyed me a month ago are sure to keep annoying me well into the future.

From one year to the next, at least you can rely on my fundamental consistency… So I’ve got that going for me in 2021, which is nice.