On Adventure and Job Security

He had spent years in search of boredom, but had never achieved it. Just when he thought he had it in his grasp his life would suddenly become full of near-terminal interest. The thought that someone could voluntarily give up the prospect of being bored for fifty years made him feel quite weak. With fifty years ahead of him, he thought, he could elevate tedium to the status of an art form. There would be no end to the things he wouldn’t do.

– On Rincewind from Sourcery

“Matt, would you walk me to my next class?” Erin asked me breathlessly, her eyes wide with fear behind her slightly oval-shaped glasses. We had sat next to each other most of my freshman year of high school in geometry, but hadn’t begun speaking to each other until relatively recently. To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed her until last week.

Despite having been in close proximity to this girl for over a semester and a half, she always avoided notice by wearing big flannel shirts, keeping her hair over her face, and never saying a word. But when she walked into the dance the previous Friday night, it was like beholding an angel. I swear she shone with a pure white light, and her laughter swept me from my feet. She was enchanting, and when she told me that we had a class together, I was flabbergasted.

Today she was hiding again, though. Boots instead of high heels and flannel rather than lace, the only distinguishing mark about her the fear that was plain on her face. Of course, I agreed to walk her, and gently cajoled the story from her as we crossed the campus.

A band of pagans (not true satan worshippers, nor actually powerful witches) had forced her to a shrine they had built with the intent of harming her. Whether it would have come to rape or murder is hard to say, but Erin was terrified (she had escaped by kicking one in the groin and bull rushing past the one with the knife), and being the gallant witch I was, I vowed to protect her. For the next several days, I ditched out of classes early so I could walk her from place to place, and cast guardian wards wherever and whenever I could to keep her from harm.

I served as Erin’s bodyguard for only a week before she disappeared. Finally tracking her to Texas, I learned that she had fled the state out of fear, but was thankful for my help. Helluva reward.

***

Over the last couple of days, I have had a somewhat sobering and comforting realization. Despite my frustration at being unable to write due to the muddled nature of my mind on pain medication and the constant throbbing of my jaw, I have found myself uniquely blessed. It has occurred to me how truly wonderful it is to have a real job.

Not that writing isn’t a real job, for those who make an income from it, but in this moment, I’m kind of glad it isn’t my real job. I have a secure position at a major university which provides me with sick leave, vacation time, retirement benefits, and a steady paycheck based on the work, services, and knowledge I provide.

Writing is, to my mind, kind of like adventuring. You put yourself out there, go out on a limb, and pour yourself into something. You do it out of love and excitement and perhaps a certain amount of naivete. Sometimes this pans out and you make a paycheck here and there, but it’s not steady or secure.

Being unable to write for the last few days, I’ve felt a bit like a failure. I haven’t been producing, and subsequently my self-worth has faltered. But now it occurs to me that, at least at this stage in my life, that’s OK. My job isn’t writing; writing is a hobby I enjoy, but it’s not what pays for our house or our food. I have no obligation to a muse or a mission, I’m just (supposedly) doing this for fun.

***

I met a lot of people when I started college who wanted to go on a big adventure. They wanted to get out and see the world, to “start their life,” and to see what it all had to offer. I thought they were fools.

Adventure always found me whether I wanted it to or not, and it was never truly pleasant. Rather, I sought boredom, because boredom meant nobody was trying to kill me or mine.

I didn’t find boredom until I became Christian, and even then, not until after my first year or so of college. Once I placed myself under Jesus’s banner, I found that I no longer had to fight everything on my own. God takes care of me.

This was kind of a depressing realization at first. Part of me still thirsts for adventure, for the thrill of cheating death, for striding where so few go and daring everything for the next great leap. There was no point in keeping myself in good physical shape anymore, in pushing myself in certain academic pursuits, or in preparing for the great battles. There were no more great battles, and there was no more adventure of the sort I knew.

But there is certainly joy, and the last few days has highlighted that most dramatically. April has been truly wonderful, taking care of everything for me with love and gentleness. She has done the dishes and cleaned, cooked for me, catered to my every need, and somehow not resented my listless and constant napping.

All-in-all, I’m fine to be rid of the adventures of my youth. I could fill a book someday with them, and I probably will, but I’m not anxious to repeat them. I’d rather have this comfortable bed and our kittens, my beautiful wife and our home, and a secure job where I am valued and sheltered in the warm bosom of the university’s bureaucracy. I know from experience that there’s simply no end to the things I wouldn’t do.

Processing the day’s memories

I had a pretty good week, all-in-all. Compared to the last month, it was downright relaxing, and I got caught up on a lot of work. However, we’ve had a couple of emails from our university’s president about the economy, and drastic measures are being taken to address the issue before it becomes terribly negative for us. They’re preparing potential budgets in case our state allocation is slashed, and most travel, non-necessary maintenance, and other general expenses have been halted.

I guess this all culminates for me in fear of losing my job, because that was the nightmare I had last night. It’s a reasonable fear in today’s economic climate, especially since I know two people who were recently laid off, but during the day I feel pretty confident in my place at the university. My annual evaluation scores are high, my work is valuable to the institution, and I’ve been placed in some pretty instrumental roles. I feel like I do good work there, so I should be secure.

But you never know. They could always decide that it’s cheaper to do away with the computer labs and outsource computer support (which it is). That’s why I try to do a lot of things that aren’t traditional computer support, because if that’s all we did (the traditional turning-of-screw-drivers and replacing-of-hardware), we wouldn’t be worth what they pay us. I’m told that people up above recognize this, like us a great deal, and value what we do. And I know that the students want to keep the labs going and strong, because we put them first and make sure they get the best service we can provide. But despite knowing all that, I’m apparently still afraid of losing my job.

If I did get terminated, I’m not quite sure what I would do. Ryan has quickly shifted gears into freelance web design/development, and for the moment at least, that seems to be going well for him. I suppose I could set myself up as a computer technician and go to people’s houses to fix their computer problems. I’d also try and get a part-time job temporarily, and really step up my writing so I could get some things out for publishing and selling. I’ll be the first to admit that giving my work away for free is pretty easy when I have a good salary, a home I can pay for, plenty of food, etc. But when it comes right down to it, a guy’s got to get paid.

Hopefully, though, it’ll never come to that. I really like my job and the University, and I want to work and serve there for a very long time. I’m behind on my Reflections on Blogging series, but some of the things I’ll be writing about with that are academia and my committment to it. It’s something I really believe in, and want to continue supporting.

I think I’m good, but it does make me nervous.

Appraisal and Development Plan (ADP) – 2008

Last year, a new evaluation system was instituted at the University to help both managers and employees with the evaluation process. Some of the goals included:

  1. Creating a system that was more objective.
  2. Creating a system that rewarded people based on the work they did and its quality.
  3. Creating a system that helped both workers and managers agree on clearly defined objectives.

Now in its second year, the ADP is becoming a bit more refined, and thankfully we didn’t have to do a full self-evaluation like we did last year. We do, however, need to provide supporting documentation for our ADP. The goal of this is to let our evaluators know what we did this year; they might have a general idea, but they might also have forgotten some things. We all want to avoid a situation where our evaluation score is low and we are told that, “If only you had done X, you would have gotten a higher score!” This might happen in a situation where you didn’t know you needed to do X, but it might also be that you actually did do X, only your evaluator didn’t know… and now it’s too late to change the evaluation because it has moved up through the great bureaucracy and been dutifully stamped and filed.

So, we file supporting documentation regarding what we have done this year. Not everything we have done, by any means, but the notable high points that we want remembered and considered in our evaluation.

When I describe what I do for a living, I first have to say that I work in the Computer Services Help Desk at Missouri State University. Within the context of IT, a Help Desk is generally just a call center, or a repair shop: help people with software, answer questions, replace broken computers, etc. That’s certainly a part of what we do, but my job rarely involves that kind of work. My second statement is always something along the lines of:

I don’t do much of the repair work anymore. Instead, I spend a lot of time researching and writing, trying to find new solutions to help people work more efficiently (specializing in open source solutions) and I also do a lot of web development. I maintain our unit’s web servers, our wiki, and I do a lot of speaking at conferences or just sessions at our University about different topics.

Since I put the time in to outline my year’s activities, I thought I’d post them here to further clarify on this. It’s nothing special, and most of it probably won’t make sense to someone who doesn’t work here, but if you’ve ever wondered what I do, this is it. It’s over-simplified and doesn’t go into any detail, so a project that consumed more than three months of this year is condensed into “Experts wiki went live in June,” but you get the idea.

Our three objectives for Centralized User Support Specialist this year are:

  1. Participate and contribute to the successful implementation of the ERP system.
    (PDF)
  2. Maintain competency and currency through professional development. (PDF)
  3. Provide accurate and appropriate training and documentation. (PDF)

At this time last year, I thought that 2008 was going to be a breeze. I’d had a really busy year, and I was looking forward to a nice, easy coast downhill to 2009. Instead, I ended up doing about twice the amount of work I did last year, and I did it more efficiently in less time.

Looking forward, I can’t begin to imagine what next year will hold. The training labs have been built and in use for some time. The wiki is up and stable. The Luminis portal went live last Wednesday. There’s obviously still work to do, but it’s maintenance, not new projects. What can they throw at me next year that could top this year’s challenges?

And yet, I was wrong before. I have a feeling that 2009 is going to be very interesting indeed.

Daily Routine

When I worked at the hospital (Cox North Food Service), my day had a very set routine. There were about seven different positions one could have, but you began with the position they thought you were best suited for (though, of course, it depended as well on what they needed most at the time) and you were trained on successive positions as you mastered those that came before. I began on one of the more complicated positions, but it was all routine.

Arrive at 4 p.m., place sliced bread into plastic baggies and seal shut with a heat stamper thing (to keep everything sterilized and clean), put bread into fridge, prepare metal palletes and trays and plates, set out condiments and butter and get eating utensils in place. Put trays together for the meals, then break down the meal line and put everything back away. Light cleaning, then go up to the floors and retrieve the meal carts, bring them back down, deliver to the people washing the dishes. Take clean stuff from the dishwashing machine and put it away. Squeegee and mop floor, go home around 8:30 p.m.

Every day, the exact same thing. You knew what you were getting into, and generally there were no surprises. Your mind could wander while your body did its job, and I enjoyed it.

Now, every day is a surprise, and as I contemplate the upcoming week, I feel harried. I feel like I have a ton of stuff to do, a dozen different tasks to complete before next Friday. This is the last week I have without a preponderance of meetings for the next month and a half, so I really have to get as much done as I can because this is my last chance for dedicated work-time.

And on top of that, I have a two hour presentation looming in October that I haven’t really begun preparing for. And I hate PowerPoint, but I know that for a two-hour gig, I really should have some sort of visual component.

I know I’d be bored if I went back to such a routine, but sometimes it’s really attractive. I like my job, but the constant inability to schedule out a day and know what I’m going to be doing is a little stressful. Still, the sort of stress and the flexibility and adaptiveness my job demands is why it pays more than the hospital did when I was preparing meals. I guess it’s a decent trade-off, but I can’t help but think back to our days in trigonometry when we all decided that it would be easier to just become garbage collectors.