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The Thinker by Rodin

About a year ago, I wrote about wearing a suit and tie to work again. This happened because I attended an event in downtown Washington D.C. It was my first foray into the city on business after more than a year. I used to have to play dress up every day when I worked in DC. Fortunately, in my latest job, I get to wear jeans, a polo shirt and sneakers every day, despite being a senior mid level manager in the civil service. It was like going to heaven.

Today I was at another meeting offsite, only it was not downtown. It was in Arlington, a few miles from downtown, in a building near the Virginia Square Metro Station. Because I was meeting with thirty or so people from a variety of federal agencies, many of them making more than I do, I knew it was time to dust off the fancy duds again. So it was back into the pressed pants, the permanent press shirt, the matching tie, the shiny shoes and the sports coat. Dave, one of my employees, was attending with me. I felt the need to warn him to do the dress up thing. It does not come naturally to either of us anymore.

So there I was at 8 a.m. in Arlington munching on the continental breakfast and trying to be good by drinking bottled water instead of bottled juices. From our sixth floor “Executive Conference Center”, we had a lovely view, not of the National Mall, but of Wilson Boulevard. It is hard to distinguish the City of Washington from its suburbs anymore; they all blend. It was not long after having had my fill of the compulsory highly caloric carbohydrates that we settled in for our executive conference in, er, the executive conference room I guess. Anyhow, the table was big and there was a large projector mounted into the ceiling with a Powerpoint slide show queued.

This is what executives do, I guess: sit in conference rooms, feel a bit hot in their suits, try to sound interested and most important of all, and refrain from falling asleep. I should not be here. I could have been in San Jose, California in a convention hall doing “outreach”, i.e. showing the system I manage to a bunch of strangers who wander by. That would not be particularly interesting either, but at least it would be 2500 miles away, and was a much more interesting way to get out of the office for a few days. It is nice to press the flesh with real users of our system and hear what is on their mind. I am supposed to do some of that anyhow. The devil is in finding the time. If my booth attracted little interest, thanks to the wired internet connection we paid for, I could at least read email. But alas, two others who would normally attend this Arlington meeting bowed out. One had the audacity to retire. I do not know what the other person’s reason was. Maybe he had to take his daughter on a field trip. Anyhow, I was left holding the bag. So there I was in Arlington, Virginia learning far more than I ever wanted to know about metadata issues relating to ocean observing systems.

I assumed I could not bring my laptop with me, so I left it at home. My last trip on business in that direction was at National Science Foundation. There the laptops were quarantined until the security folks ran it through a comprehensive virus scan, which could take hours. Today’s meeting was in rented space though, and the conference facilitators had an unsecured wireless network available for our use. Not that I was allowed to use their wireless network. Heavens, no! Our official agency policy, put out by our always well meaning and hyper-vigilant IT security folks, is you cannot connect your government laptop computer to any wireless network without an explicit waiver granted in advance. The effort required to actually acquire a waiver is much larger than any benefit it would provide. Yet I still I know many an executive who routinely use the wireless connections on their government furnished laptops anyhow. It may be against policy, but an executive has to get his work done. Even federal employees are expected to multitask. Anyhow, everyone else at the meeting had brought their laptops and were dutifully doing things like taking notes, answering email or surfing the internet when they weren’t passionately engaged in the exciting topic of metadata standards. I was sitting there taking sporadic notes and occasionally kicking myself in the shin to stay awake. Must not fall asleep, especially in front of my own employee!

So as I sat there doing my level best to stay interested in the dry topic of the moment, my subconscious was busy. It was asking me why I felt so uncomfortable being in a suit and tie again. This is how I spent every workday for about twenty years. It should be second nature to me. Yet it was not. I have joined the comfortable side of the workforce. Give me my blue jeans every day to work, please! Just being in a suit and tie makes put on my manager mask. I cannot seem to be just Mark when I am in a suit and tie.

The chairs were nice and cushy but still I was not comfortable. I squirmed. I was hot. Then I was cold. (Their heating and cooling system apparently needed some work.) My neck felt constrained. My underarms perspired. My dress socks had a death grip on my legs. In addition, my bladder was telling me I needed to make a discreet exit from the conference room. The discussion had been going on for two and a half hours with no end in sight. I needed relief.

Nature won. I slipped out of the conference room. And I felt … liberated. The adjoining hallways were empty. The blood moved in my legs again. I took the first full breath of air in a couple hours. After I did my business, I walked outside on the sixth floor balcony … just for a minute. I felt the sun on my face. I felt a gentle breeze drift through my hair. I heard the muffled sound of humanity, buses rounding the corner and the occasional rhythmic chant of a bird. I felt alive. Then guilt recalled me to my duty. I slipped back into the conference room and back into my chair. I squirmed. I tried to take more notes. I succeeded in not nodding off. I was grateful that the topic has shifted from metadata recommendations to transport protocol guidelines. At least it was a different topic

And I thought, only two more days of this.

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