Every now and then you find yourself sitting inexplicably in a mile long line of traffic on your way home from the office. As you’re sitting there building up a good head of steam wondering what slack jawed yokel is standing between you and the sweet, nurturing balm of home, you sometimes get a gift. I know this because I got one of these gifts this afternoon. It was a gift in the form of my phone serving up a song I probably haven’t heard for more than a decade; one that I first heard when it was already playing on “classic rock” stations; one that takes me right back.
Instead of sweating my ass off in a Jeep with the windows open hoping to catch a breeze, I was behind the wheel of a ’91 Chevy Cavalier, its paint peeling, and seat frames welded something close to upright. I was beating the hell out of that old car on 4×4 trails, and running it flat out across railroad crossings to see if we could get all four tires off the ground, and planting it high center on a snow bank when I though I could pass a coal truck on snow covered roads. I was riding shotgun in an ’81 Camaro – you know, the kind with the side pipes and blue light in the dash.
For those almost nine minutes, Joe Walsh blazed forth one of the definitive songs of my youth misspent in pool halls and arcades and at backyard bonfires and some of the tamest house parties you could possibly imagine. For a couple of minutes rolling at dead slow along Route 40 in Havre de Grace this afternoon, we got the whole band back together and we were young and brilliant and brave and foolish again with a whole wide world stretching out ahead. Those were some times, man.
The universe couldn’t have picked a better time for a reminder that it really has been good (so far).
1. The confidence of youth. I’m not saying that I don’t still have a ragingly high level of confidence in my own abilities, but that confidence has been tempered with the experience of so many things that should be simple to do becoming a giant triple-stacked shit sandwich right in my hands. Occasionally it’s because of something I either did or failed to do, but more often it’s because of outside influences over which I have little or no control. Occasionally now I see a young project leader, eyes bright with possibilities, charge through a meeting as if nothing could possibly go wrong. I chuckle to myself, but I also feel a little bit sorry for him because I already know what the next act looks like. Experience is a harsh teacher and while those occasional flops have made me better over time, every now and then I miss the swaggering confidence of youth and a time when I was slightly less cynical about everything.
2. Things beyond my control. Believe it or not, I don’t think of myself as being much of a control freak. Most of life is pure reaction to those things we don’t foresee or exert any control over. While willing to accept that I can’t possibly control for and plan against every conceivable circumstance, I do like to imagine that I can bring some semblance of order to my little section of a chaotic world. I’m also enough of a realist to know that order begins to break down just as soon as it’s established and keeping a veneer of control in life takes all manner of effort on a pretty consistent basis. Knowing that there are a multitude of things beyond my control and being willing to accept those things just now is feeling like more of a tall order than usual. Maybe I need to sign up for some kind of master class in Zen and the fine art of acceptance.
3. Not being surprised. I’m a bit befuddled that anyone is somehow surprised that there’s a set of rules for the wealthy and powerful and another for the rest of us. It hardly seems like news that a long time politician “somehow” managed to get away with actions that would cause the average employee to lose their job, be barred from future employment, and possibly go to prison. While I’m certainly as outraged as anyone at the lies, deceit, and in my opinion outright criminal behavior foisted upon the public by a high profile politician, I can’t for a moment say that I’m surprised that the official consequence of those behaviors is absolutely nothing. If this is the kind of thing that surprises you, there’s a fair chance you’re just not paying close enough attention to the world.
Sometime next year you’re going to be able to walk in to local quick stop and pick up a copy of Playboy magazine and not have to worry about your eyeballs being offended by what most would consider some of the most tasteful and understated nudity in the business. The skin-is-in revolution that Hef started in the early 50s has finally overwhelmed his old fashioned publishing company.
That makes me a little sad. I can still very distinctly remember my first look between those storied pages – of tattered magazines wrapped in plastic, stashed in the woods, and passed between half the neighborhood. Within a few days of my 18th birthday, there may or may not have been a fundraiser among some of us to pay the rental for a post office box in the next town over so we could have the latest edition delivered with some semblance of discretion. If I remember correctly, Jenny McCarthy was Playmate of the Month way back when. All these years later I’ll probably still catch three kinds of hell for admitting that out loud.
That was right at the beginning of the internet – that diabolical, always available peep show that blasted a wide swath of destruction through the “dirty magazine” business. No matter what you’re feelings about the industry, venerable Playboy going the way of all the other men’s magazines is a milestone. It’s another reminder of why I seem to hate the 21st century just a little bit more every day.
I was raised in a world where “be a man,” wasn’t considered a derogatory or inappropriate thing to tell a boy. It was a world where problems were solved with fists just as often as words, but no one ever really seemed to take it personally. We were the last who saw our formative years in a world where being a man didn’t have to mean touching your feminine side. I can’t help but think I’m so uncomfortable about the future because it’s going to bear so little resemblance to the world in which I grew up and for which I still have such fond memories.
Sure, I’ve been a curmudgeon for as long as I can remember, but the flood of pictures this weekend of many, many of my friend’s kids heading off to homecoming left me feeling a bit like I’d stepped through the looking glass. I mean weren’t we the ones going to those dances just a year or two ago? It’s inconceivable that anyone I grew up with could be old enough to comment about their offspring’s high school milestones.
Despite my 9PM bed time, constant state of near exhaustion, and the nagging aches and pains that seem to accompany me everywhere now, I don’t feel like all that much time has passed. I don’t feel that far separated from our younger selves. Maybe I’m better informed, a little more cynical, and a lot more medicated, but I still feel a strong connection to that dopy, awkward version of me.
Seeing so many of the next generation on the cusp of adulthood themselves is absolutely inconceivable. So if anyone needs me, I’ll be busy rejecting reality… and possibly checking to see if we can get a group discount if we all order our Life Alert systems at the same time.
I haven’t lived in Western Maryland since the summer I graduated from college… Almost eight years ago now. For the first time in those eight years when it was time to leave, I found myself searching for a reason to stay. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, really. Intellectually, I know there is no practical reason for me to live there. I certainly can’t work and since no work means no money, that’s an obvious non-starter. Yet somehow, the home of my youth calls me. I know it was just a passing fancy, but still, something that caught me by surprise simply because it was so unusual.
One of the people I work with loves her job. I’m making that assumption anyway because most days she seems to always stick around until 6:00 or 7:00 when end-of-tour is closer to 4:30. According to her, there’s always something “hot” that comes up after the rest of us pull up stakes for the day that needs done and just can’t wait for the next morning. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that this is true, but based on my own observation of daily workload around here, I’m somewhat skeptical.
I guess someone might look at her and think the late hours were a sign of dedication. The fact is, though, we’re not a life-or-death operation. It’s probably not politic to say in a world of 9.2% unemployment and a collapsing stock market, but sometimes a job is just a job. As much as an escort sells her body for cold hard cash, I whore out my big beautiful brain for the same consideration. Maybe some people do it for the love, but me, I do it for money. I do it so I can afford to pay the bills, eat nice meals, and occasionally travel to new and interesting places. I don’t do it out of a misplaced sense of loyalty as I’m quite certain the powers that be would have no qualms about throwing me over the gunwale during a reduction in force.
Sure, there was a time when I was young and idealistic and my sense of self derived directly from my position title and placement on the org chart. I got a little older and a little more jaded and discovered that no matter how cushy, the job is pretty much just a set of handcuffs keeping you from doing the things you really want to do because you’ve got bills to pay. And we should have bills to pay. We should have to work for our supper. But we shouldn’t be working instead of eating our supper.
I’m too old to be naïve about how the world works. Maybe sticking to the ol’ eight-and-out is committing slow career suicide. Missing the next rung on the career ladder still sounds like a better option than missing out on everything that isn’t work. The only shame is it took me so long to figure that out.
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
One of the most shocking moments of my early career was realizing the level of discomfort most of my fellow employees felt when dealing with issues of technology. On the outside, I made the (unfortunate) assumption that government was full of code breakers, supercomputers sending men to the moon, and software that could track anyone, anywhere. I suppose those tasty bits of tech may exist somewhere, but the most advanced piece of hardware that anyone in my agency has is their Blackberry (already two or three generations out of date). It’s fair to say I was shocked and appalled at the number of people in government who just don’t get the role technology is going to play over the coming decades.
We’re in the leading edge of that future now. Utilities like Facebook and Twitter may have a toy-like simplicity – I’ve heard my own leaders dismiss them as “for the kids” and nothing more than a drain on productivity – but as more traffic is driven to the web, as electronic communication in its many forms continues its rise, the fact is that this is going to largely be the way people communicate in the future. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you received an actual letter from someone under 40?
The age of instant communication and access to the sum total of all human knowledge is going to level the bureaucracy, whether the bureaucracy accepts it or not. It’s happening already – those with a little bit of savvy are using basic tools like Dropbox, Google Chat, or SharePoint to circumvent the cumbersome “authorized” communications channels that stovepipe information to “collaborate in a matrixed environment.” Instead of sending a request for information up the chain-of-command and waiting for the answer to come back down from on high, we’re reaching out directly to the person with the information we need. That person may sit a few desks away or not even be on the same continent. The beauty of the age is that location doesn’t matter. The future is going to look like the cloud, not like a hierarchical org chart.
There’s more information stored electronically than we could ever hope to archive in the biggest file room. Electrons and knowing how to use them are what’s going to be left when we as an organization realize that the old forms are no longer viable. Information has always been power. Managing and controlling the flow of electronic information is going to be the “institutional knowledge” of our time. I don’t think command-and-control model of management will ever go away, this is government after all, but we few, we happy few who know how to make the electrons hum are going to be the voices of power behind that throne… if only because the king doesn’t know how to turn on his computer.
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.