The Note Who Wouldn't Float

I have an ingrained fear of the month of June.

It flows down over my head and along my spine.  It started years ago when I signed on as assistant deputy communications chief in the Department of Oceans, Big Tuna and Bitumen Development.

Every year, on those dark dates, just before the Minister and other Members of Parliament sail off for the summer, the department is awash with demands for “something to announce.”

“He’s going to be out roaming for months, and he needs something to announce every place he calls on,” the Minister’s Chief of Staff would foam. “And make it good!”

These requests always caused panic down in the communications room.  We felt helpless in the face of tempestuous policies and appointments - the flotsam of Ministerial announcements - and we were never sure what to do.  Fortunately, our branch director, Jacques Le Capitaine, was an old hand and helped us navigate around the foggy reefs of political priorities.  

He kept his own antidote for stress in a bottle below desk. When travelling with the Minister over the summer announcement season, Jacques would drink even more, but he always made sure to buy one for “the Old Man” before indulging himself.

“It’s a good thing to be on friendly terms with the Old Man,” Jacques once slurred. “Remember, when it comes to politics, we’re just taggin’ along for a ride over the rough, grey waters that are his domain.”

Jacques had the heart of a political hack. During the ’84 election campaign, he worked at the party headquarters and still liked to imagine himself as having command over a crew on a valiant mission. He talked wistfully of his days on a course well charted and true as the dreaded summer season approached.

“I have a plan on how to handle the month of June this year,” Jacques whispered over the wall of my cubicle one day in early spring. “Meet me at the Happy Adventure for a drink at lunch, and I’ll tell you about it.”

All morning my mind raced.

“Jacques must have a bunch of ideas for announcements,” I imagined, “We can start working on them now and have things ship shape by summer.”

Jacques smiled broadly when I joined him at the bar.

“My plan is to take my vacation starting June 1st - I qualify for eight weeks this year, so I’m going on a cruise - I’ll see you after the August long weekend,” he said. “You’ll be in charge while I’m gone.”

“That’s your freakin’ plan,” I said.

He nodded and ordered another round. Later as I staggered westward back to the office with the sun sinking below the horizon, my heart slipped below the churning waves in my stomach.

The next day, I scanned the department’s sea of newspaper clippings for summer announcement ideas.  One theme streamed through all stories; the fisher people on the far coast were losing affection for the Government of Castoria. For decades, the government had encouraged them to expand the fishing fleet. Then, when the fish disappeared, the government provided assistance to reduce the size of the fishing fleet. Now, the fishers and would-be fishers had no boats and fishing licenses left to sell back and no other means to make a living.

The answer leaped out of the clippings and sailed past my eyes.  I called a branch meeting and got all hands working on a briefing note for the Minister’s staff.  Harrowing and discouraging at times, the project caused some to abandon ship, but I pushed on.  We typed, and we typed, and we reviewed, and we reviewed, and we printed and shredded. But mostly, we talked.

Then, less than a week after Jacques shipped off for his vacation, I was summoned to a departmental management meeting and implored to “come up with some announceables.” I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

“Well, sir, as you know, dark clouds loom off the far coast,” I said gripping my little briefing note. “We believe that it would be well received if the minister could announce the reinstatement of the fishing vessel building assistance program to help people acquire boats and equipment once again.”

“But why would people want that - there are no fish left to catch,” said the Department’s annoying Senior Scientist-Librarian with bone-chilling tones.

“Well, if they do acquire boats and outfit them in a menacing way," I said standing firmly and keeping my balance. "They could in turn qualify for assistance to retire the boats under the current, fully funded, but not fully exploited fishing vessel purchase program.”

An eerie quietness drifted over the room, and the mood grew dark.

“This will never float,” stormed the Minister’s Chief of Staff.  “There are so many holes in this thing - I can’t send the boss out with this piece of junk - it’s too dangerous.”

I expected a rough ride for our note, but this blast was worse than feared. Then, he explained.

“Love the idea – it’s great, but we need exhaustive communications strategies, a specially designed masthead, and a bigger note,” the Chief of Staff added as other heads around the table bobbed up and down. “Something about 150 to 200 pages in length rigged up with long media lines and charts  - that's what we need.”

Though my plan was not really rejected, it had been delayed until more word-filled paper could be assembled.  That was three years ago, the proposal remains tied up. Jacques came back to take early retirement, the department brought in a new director from the accounting office, and we have a new minister.

I am assigned to the “Boat Build and Buyback Program” communications plan team and am charged with keeping the proposal afloat until the conditions are just right. I am not completely insulated from the squalls and strains of the month of June.  But I have hired a cubicle boy to help out, got a chair with arm rests, and now have a bottle hidden under my desk. 

Bandy Bureaucrat goes to War

“The worst bloody day in a century, they say,” the Colonel harrumphed as we marched toward the barracks. “Better bundle up chaps, we don’t want you freezing up on first day of instruction.”

Thus read the opening lines of my grandfather's diary.

My role model and inspiration, Grandpa, not only served for over forty years in government administration, but also fought in the foggy air high above the blood and mud during the War that promised to end all Wars. 

The following is a diary excerpt that links the two experiences.

22 November 1917

"The rainy, windy morning that I presented myself at the Royal Flying Corps No. 3 School for Aeronautics and Gentlemanly Conduct was one of the coldest on record in Oxfordshire. 

As a cold-weather Castorian, I was not distressed and naturally took the “bundle-up” command to mean that I could wear my hockey toque and mitts - although I also resolved to stay in my shorts and T-Shirt. Later, the colonel gave me a dressing down so to speak and forced me to explain my attire in front of the entire company.

“Do you Castorucks call this dressing sharply and respecting a uniform ?” the colonel asked looking at me with disdain. “Listen, Swallow, I will tolerate quite a deal from officer-level fighting men, but not slackness in the wearing of His Majesty’s uniforms.”

“Yes, I understand, sir,” I said softly. “But I fear the scourge of chafing.”

This reply induced considerable merriment among the other trainees, many of whom leaned on the desks for support while giggling and laughing until the colonel set his riding crop down on the table, put his hand on my shoulder, and sympathetically asked a follow-up question.

“Been in trenches on the frontlines, son ?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “For many, many months without relief.”

The room grew quiet, and we began the day’s instruction on navigation theory, map reading, and tea drinking in flight. My Castorian clothing style was never mentioned again.

It was not until years later that I learned that the colonel and my new comrades had assumed that my irrational rash fears had been brought about by months in the trenches at Flanders and the Somme. The truth, however, was that it was tied to my years as a frontline administrator in the Dominion Government, sitting long hours in cramped, poorly ventilated spaces with heat pouring up between my legs and an air stream blowing over my head.

As a former bureaucrat, now Sopwith Camel pilot, I was, therefore, in my element, and I excelled. Not only did the hot-cold, cramped cockpit resemble my office workspace back in the National Capital, but I was also completely at ease with the overall operating environment. Other pilots who came from the British upper classes and positions of respect and influence endured great frustration and were often distracted from their training and their duties.

“I can’t stand this,” one of my colleagues sobbed. “The insanity of the war and the futility of it all; we know nothing about what is going on, it is so confusing, I can’t understand what our company as a whole is trying to achieve, what the Allies are accomplishing, how the battle is going, all we ever know is that one of the majors overheard a general talking to some politician who said that things are going ‘splendidly’ and an end will come ‘in due course’ - how can we live like this ?”

Listening to him, I recalled my government work on a special project to provide input on a background paper for a submission to support high-level discussion of plans for consultations on a national economic policy white paper proposal in the context of a restructuring around new activity structures, wondered what the problem was, and told my colleague to “buck up.”

Over the following year, I scored many, many kills. Too many to recall. My bureaucrat ability to focus on undefined objectives, to kick into work when needed after days of nothing, to endure endless, mind-numbing repetition, to respond to ambiguous requests, and to make ever-refining adjustments served me well, and I ended my stint in the Great Conflict as a hero and a celebrated “Flying Ace - Colonial Commoner Class.”

As the King pinned a medal on my chest today, he said “Jolly good show, old man, they tell me your precision and skill came from experience in editing, reformatting, and rewriting thousands of memos and government briefing notes.”

“Yes, your Majesty, in a way, but more specifically by focusing my thoughts on those who request such edits, format changes, and rewriting.”

Ban on the Word "Strategy"

One of the most unsettling times of my government policy writing career came during the Fourth Gulf War.

The Castorian Parliament passed the “Somewhat Patriotic Act” to ensure our nation’s security in a time of war.  The legislation lifted restrictions on the gathering of intelligence, gave law enforcement agencies greater discretion, and expanded the definition of classified  information.

This latter directive on information led to regulations that gave the military full and exclusive control over the words “strategy,” “strategic,” and even extremist variations such as “strategically” and “strategize” during the promotion and outreach phase of the conflict.

Officials in non-military government organizations could no longer use these words in any official communications.  We could talk about our (deleted)  issues and use the terms in informal conversation as long as we did not type out the restricted words, scribble them on a permanent surface, or mention them in voice mail messages.  

These regs were drafted because our enemies had cracked Castoria’s access to information system and the process of submitting the requisite $5 fee to get at our (deleted) documents.  These now-banned words formed the cornerstone of the branch's policy focus and even part of our name.  The meant that those of us in the (deleted) and Operational Planning Branch were ruthlessly constrained. 

We could not write about our group’s work nor make references to our own existence. 

“Why not change our name of the group and adopt alternate language for the (deleted) stuff ?” I suggested.

“You really haven’t thought that one out – have you, Swallow,” my Director said. “In order to get a branch name change approved, we would have to submit a proposal citing the old, not-to-be-officially-mentioned name - and we couldn’t tell people what the new words mean without a glossary of prohibited terms.”

Chastened, I returned to my keyboard and what now seemed like the impossible task of reporting on the corporate level achievements of the past year and the plans for the coming year.  

"How can I do this without access to the vital tools and essential terminology of my policy and planning trade," I asked.

"You'll just have to come up with some compensating ... compensating ... uh .... approaches ... or ... ah ... tactics," my colleague Arthur said. "I think 'tactics' is still allowed."

As a consequence of all this, we found ourselves increasing relying on stories and plans form the  “Operational” side of our organization and the branch's planning mandate. Instead of presenting programs, services, and operations as pathetic foils to the lofty and noble (deleted) stuff (which could no longer be mentioned officially),  I and my colleagues now focused on operations,program delivery, and the actual doing of things as the centerpiece of our reports and plans.

This had a dramatic impact. 

Employees working in the operational groups of the organization were buoyed and motivated by all the attention they were getting in corporate reports and plans. This reinvigorated their commitment to serving clients and the greater Castorian public.  They developed more ambitious plans, worked harder, and took great pride in reporting on their results. 

The term “Operational” assumed new meaning not only within our organization but throughout the whole of the Castorian public service.  My branch felt proud of our association with the performance of real work and activities that meant something. We breathed new air after so many years absorbed with (deleted) policy and those other (deleted) things.

The value and impact of our approach became absolute and clear this spring when the government introduced legislation to transfer exclusive control over the words “Operations” and “Operational” to the Department of the Treasury.  

This is great.  But it meant that I had to rush to my desk and write this before the bill gets passed.

Top 5 Ways to boost Creativity in the Public Service

This week my team took training at the Castoria School for Government Workers on how to implement the new public service value of "creativity." None of us knew what this term meant, and we had no idea how to apply it to our work.  The training left us still a little confused. But as we left the session, our instructor, a retired visual artist and Assistant Deputy Minister in the program evaluation management agency, gave us a handy reference tool in the form of a Top five list to post on our cubicle walls. 

Top Five Ways to Boost your Creativity 

1)   Ignore Top 5 Lists

If someone really has significant insights to share on the subject of creativity, he will not, I repeat, will not be communicating them to you via tiresome formulaic techniques like the "Top 5" list method.  The truly creative will also avoid worn-out emphasizers like “I repeat” and confusing satirical devices to make their points.  Do not read anything these toxic transmitters of the trite have to offer even if they seduce you with the use of compelling metaphors and alliterations.

2)   Rein in Your Imagination

The root of the word and the concept – creativity – is “create,” meaning to bring something into existence.  You cannot do that unless you have some toehold in the real – existing – world.  Too much time daydreaming, thinking and living in the realm of the imaginary will keep your ideas in the domain of things uncreated forever.

3)   Do NOT Write a Book about your career 

When you write a book of any kind, you have, fundamentally, three uncreative options.  First, you can recycle the successful or semi-successful ideas and approaches of others to massage our lowest-common-denominator natures and make millions of dollars.   At the other edge of the scale, you can engage in thoughtful and thorough research, strive for the greatest levels of artistic mastery, and submit yourself to the soul-crushing and creativity-killing process of editing, rewriting, and revising the equivalent of a thousand and one writing-class exercises.  Or finally, you can float along on the vast sea of pablum that churns between the two extremities.

4)  Be Cowardly

Creating something – anything – new requires some level of commitment and persistence.  You cannot expect to muster any kind of resolute determination and to follow through on your quest if you pick fights with people and make enemies who will chip away at your ideas and emotional vigor with criticism and often legitimate disparagement. Best to limit your creative works to things that do not offend and have been approved beforehand by senior management.

5)   Do What Others Tell You to do

You clearly have a problem taking direction from authoritative, said-to-be-expert strangers – otherwise you would have stopped reading this list the first point, as instructed.  It was a test.  You should work on this.  I am telling you this for your own good. Believe me. If you want to be truly creative, you must never, ever stop and reflect upon your own experiences, understandings, and knowledge to synthesize new ways of looking at the world and to see coherence in different disciplines and spheres of human endeavour because you never know where that will lead.  Whereas, if someone tells you to do something and you do it, there you go – you have created something that someone else wanted or, at least, you have created a sense of authority in that other person - and the world is, at least for that someone, likely your direct supervisor or a higher level official,a better place.

Diversity and My Secret Transgender Life

The Transgender Act
Inspired by our department’s new, long overdue policy on diversity and LGBT rights, I have been overtaken by a sudden urge to announce something that I have never been able to bring myself to air in public before.

While I can count on the support of my extended family, I am still a little nervous as I am not really sure how other people will react to my confession. I suspect many will be startled, and some will laugh at me.

For many, many years, I have, in fact, tried to hide this aspect of my personal life and gone to great lengths to stifle my basic urges at work and in public. It is hard to explain, awkward and odd. It takes me across the boundaries that define what is feminine and what is masculine, and I don’t know how to stop.

When alone ... away from others ... and not feeling self-conscious or uptight ... I sneeze like a little girl.

Not a cute little girl “achoo” kind of sneeze. But a high-pitched squeak. The sound you might make stepping on an Ewok or squeezing a really small rubber duckie.

I am what is often called a transgender nasal noisemaker, and I am admit it - although I and others like me prefer the term “cross-sneezer.”

Yes. I considered the extreme step of rhinoplasty. But realized in reflecting upon the option of surgery that I did not want to change myself - just to sneeze as myself.

My always supportive and understanding mother says for her that effeminate sound is offset by my very macho habit of biting my tongue when I sneeze.

Still, until now, I had hoped to live my life keeping the feature of my life private. 
I even avoided coming out this flu season when I was stuffed up and runny for over ten weeks straight. 

But now emboldened by the framework of the department's new Policy on Diversity, LGBT rights, and Plumbing, I am going to confess my girl sneezing to my colleagues at the next branch staff meeting.  Maybe, I will announce it to my thousands of potential Twitter followers the day after.

I have never before little-girl sneezed in public nor have I any immediate plans to girl-sneeze at my place of work. But just the thought of confessing has opened the door to such possibilities.

I am embracing them and the freedom to be myself. I feel ready to sneeze the day.

Head Smashed in Briefing Note Jump

“We’re shipping you to the farm.”

“Please, please don’t,” I said. “I’ll do anything; I can be better, please just give me a chance.”

My prayers sank under the reproaching sounds of “forget it,” “don’t fight this,” and “too late.”  He slapped down the transfer papers and barked that authorities were already coming for me.

There was no place hide, no place to go, and no way to avoid assignment to the cubicle farm in the basement of C-27A.

An old warehouse at the edge of the complex, C-27A sat empty for almost decade after the simultaneous discovery of asbestos and gophers in its walls.   When union officials went public with these details, media commentators and animal rights groups joined in the fray thinking that the building was a venue for cruel experimentation.

Last year, the department opened it with a pledge to seal off the toxic fibers, relocate the animals, and install a warren of gopher-free cubicles.  

The unions hailed the decision, and animal rights groups moved on to the plight of pigeons on the hot, sticky roof of C-29B.

“In effort to minimize cost, the Government will limit investments in lighting, air conditioning, and washroom facilities,” said the memo to all staff. “We will transfer employee groups to the 2.0 cubicle farm through a process tied to efficiency, collaborative workspace priorities, and reverse order of hierarchical importance.”

I knew some of the first transferees and heard reports of widespread depression, sick leaves, and a spike in wrist-related papercuts.

“Personalize your cubicle if you want just as long as you stick to the grey, white, and beiges,” said the agent from building management. “No music and no yelling or screaming unless it’s for your work.”

I learned that we could sign out the branch helmet if we had special requirements to temporarily drown out the noise, to focus, and to write something coherent.  Today is my day to have it. I picked it up this morning, headed to my cubicle, and wrote this note.

The Case for Policy-based Evidence

“There is no such thing.”

“But sir, it’s one of the Minister’s number one priorities.”

“It’s a priority to say it’s a priority, kid, doesn’t make it so.”

My assigned mentor, Dr. Stazkan, did not believe in the possibility of evidence-based policy.

“There’s only three kinds of policy, kid,” he explained. “Policy that happily aligns with the science at the time of an announcement, policy that cherry picks the science, and policy that mocks the science with anecdotal drivel.”

I wanted to be respectful and could not challenge our department’s esteemed Counter Emeritus directly.   But I thought he might be suffering from an extreme case of statistical cynicism, a common form of workplace-induced impairment in our field.

I cited what I considered to be exemplary government policies duly supported by scientific fact and analysis. Every time, Stazkan picked them apart showing how political and bureaucratic bias came first and the consequential collation of suitable scientific fact came later.  He told me that it didn't matter what the political party or reigning agenda for the environment, food, and energy; all governments did the same.

“Just think about it, kid,” he said. “Think what it takes to make scientific fact interesting to today’s muddled media, then how long it takes for that to seep into the Tweet-filled minds of the average voter, then it has to coalesce and float up into the foggy clouds around the politicians, and then finally, you have to have all this coincide magically with the simultaneous breaching of the dogmatism of the public policy bureaucracy.”

He wiped the spit from the corner of his mouth and took a breath.

“Now, how long have you been in this department ?”

“Ah, about a month, sir.”

“So, think about that process and then think about what would happen if the Minister asked us for whatever we’ve got to support his last brain fart idea – how long would it take to put something together?”

“Well, uhm, I’m not sure if that’s something that could be measured, sir?”

“Frickin’ right, nanoseconds,” he laughed. “Anyway, you don’t have to take my word on this, look at this thing.”

He pulled a dust-covered binder off the shelf and opened it near the end.

“It’s a report on departmental policy development over the past forty years - mappin’ out timelines and showing at what point scientific evidence was fed into the process,” he said. “You wanna guess what percentage of the policies saw science first, political decisions second?”

“I see one of these columns ends in a zero,” I said.

“So, what do you think that tells us?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I shrugged. “What does the Minister say it tells us?”

Malpractice Insurance for Government Scientists

I never before lusted for a career as an insurance salesman.

Compared to public administration, it seemed like a pretty stressful profession. You have to get up and hit the road running early every day just to engage others who don’t want your wares. You are never sure what your next pay day will be like. You interface between clients with need and companies with greed, and you have to outrun aggressive, multi-pronged competition.

You even struggle to enjoy social time as the “Insurance Salesman” and the always-to-be-avoided pariah by the punch bowl.

But I started to change my opinion a few years ago.

I see a real opportunity opening up in the insurance industry to not only make a lot of money, but to serve the greater good with a new service that will help people around the world.

I’m going to sell malpractice insurance to government scientists.

My views started to change about while ago when an Italian court sentenced a group of scientists to six years in prison and charged them over $10 million (Castorian dollars) in damages after convicting them of manslaughter for not predicting the earthquake that hit the a small mountain town.  The court and many politicians considered this akin to criminal negligence. 

Prestigious journals and experts around the world pointed out that the Italian court “fundamentally misunderstands how geophysics and seismology work” and parts of the ruling were eventually overturned, but the precedent led other politicians in other places to demonize science and feed mistrust, paranoia, and fear in the scientific community. All key ingredients to market growth and insurance product design.

My Scientist Malpractice Insurance Plan will not protect researchers from imprisonment, but it will cover them financially in the event they are sued for not figuring things out as fast as senior bureaucrats or politicians would like or for not inventing things that the government did not know it needed until it was too late.

I have discussed this concept with friends, and even those with absolutely no scientific training, understanding, or interests are quick to recognize the limitless business potential and need for a new kind of insurance coverage.

They also note that there are many, many ways that we suffer and experience hardship because negligent and lax government scientists have not discovered something or otherwise done their jobs in a competent manner. The need for someone to invent beer cans that open themselves and toilet paper rolls that never run out were just two of the expense-inducing examples that came quickly to mind in the informal focus group meeting on my new insurance business idea.

Many people and governments are sure to benefit from this new scheme.  It will allow us to criminally charge and sue scientists, collect fines, and still put them back to work quickly. I believe that my Scientist Malpractice Insurance plan will also be of some benefit to the scientists themselves.

Purchasing my insurance products will allow government scientists to do something that gives them a sense of comfort and the illusion that they can protect themselves from a phenomenon which is capricious, frightening, and ultimately unpredictable.

Kind of like the forces behind the Italian court decision.

A Hard Lesson in Budget Management

March 2013 

Security stood by the entrance awaiting my arrival at work.

Without explanation, stone-faced men escorted me up to the DG’s office where my boss sat staring at Excel sheets and gnawing on a pencil.  He looked up and muttered.

“More disappointed than angry,” he said, quivering his voice and the pencil.

“What’s the matter?”

“I think you know,” he said. “We could wait for the final audit and maybe an investigation, but why don’t you just save us a lot of grief – and just confess now.”

Certain of my innocence, but wary, I tried to  craft an appropriate response.

“I honestly don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” I said.

“OK, I’ll play your game,” the DG said, shifting from sadness to sarcasm. “Let’s pretend you don’t know our department’s Financial Management policies and the requirement to close the year within 1 per cent of budget.”

“Yeah, I know that,” I said. “So, what’s the problem?’

“What’s the problem ??  What’s the problem ??” he said. “You’re over 10 per cent off your target and there are only two days left in the year – I’d say that was a bit of a problem.”

It took another five minutes of testy and sometimes teary exchanges to sort things out. 

I had never thought much about the policy because any expenditure approved by managers at my level had to be double and triple approved by the Department’s Bookkeeping, Underwriting, and Treasury (BUT) Branch.  The BUT Branch officials had to attest to the availability of funds, and this created the impossibility of material overruns anyway.  

In short, I thought it was their problem not mine.

But, on this sad morning, I was informed that the Department’s “within-1-per-cent policy” was meant as a requirement not only to limit budget overruns, but also to ensure that every penny of taxpayers’ money assigned to us got spent.  That 1 per cent thing, as I learned, worked both ways: don't overspend by more, and don't save any more than that either.

Evidently, we had to do this to make sure the government could not scoop up excess funds for the general good at year end.  Worse still, the government through the financial-management layers beneath it would punish the non-spending agencies with reduced budgets going forward,  rationalizing cuts on the evidence of limited profligate capacities.

“I’m sorry, Boss,” I said begging forgiveness. “But my staff have been really working hard to cut costs this year, paying for stuff out of their own pockets – and doing work on weekends for free when we cancelled a big consulting contract that wasn’t working out.”

“This is a poor excuse and won’t wash with the execs,” my boss said, still frustrated, but showing signs of compassion. “You really should have been able to spend more money this year with a little creativity.”

With this challenge, I proposed a path out of our predicament.

“All is not lost, or wasted, yet Boss, like you said, we still have two days left,” I whispered with a smile. “And you know what we do in the last two days of the fiscal year ?”

“Management bonuses !!” he pounded the desk with glee. “Damn it, I'll give you the maximum allowed - Yessss! that'll do it !”

I nodded and commended him on his shrewdness and understanding of government financial management process.

“It won’t be enough to wipe out the entire surplus, but when I explain the situation to the ADM, I’m sure he’ll top up my bonus too,” he said calling for the security guards.

This time, they acted as a kind of honour guard escorting me down to my cubicle and the important work that awaited.

Nailing the Interview

“In the end, I had to smash him on the head with a hammer, twice,” said the tall woman sitting at the middle of a long table on a padded chair. “It split open like an egg, blood and brains all over the floor.”

“Well, it was the right thing to do,” said the young man to her left.

“Yeah, it was,” an older woman nodded.

I got to the National Fiscal Evaluation Regulatory Agency offices a little early and stuck my head into the boardroom to let the interview panel know of my arrival. I had obviously interrupted some serious conversation.  

“Come on in,” said tall, now-scary-to-me, middle-table woman upon seeing my head peer through the open door. “Sit down.”

I did. Quickly.

“So, we’ve all seen your resume and have the results of your office skills test,” she said. “Obviously, you made the cut, and we just want to hear a bit about your work habits and get a feel for what motivates you.”

The young guy seemed disengaged, looked down, and started muttering.

“I don’t think I could have done it,” he said in semi-whisper.

“You never know what you will do until you have to,” tall, scary one said turning to him. “Anyway, drop it; we’re supposed to be doing an interview.”

I tried to focus and mentally rehearsed government-job vocabulary.

“Now, tell us a bit about yourself,” said the chair.

I hate this non-question question.  It’s supposed to be a big chance to differentiate yourself from other candidates. But there are so many stupid ways to differentiate yourself; so few good ones.  I hesitated, and that created an opening for older lady to chime in on the not yet dead conversation about hammers and brains.

“If I couldn’t do it myself, I would have gotten Eddie to do it,” she said. “He’s good at that stuff, anything to do with blood or tools.”

I told them about my mandolin lessons, my interest in foreign language music, and some of the things I put on the walls of my apartment. This was to be my warm up to information more directly aligned with the position of Assistant Audit Engagement Leader.

“Well, that’s great, Mr. Swallow,” said the scary panel chair. “But I guess what we’d really like to know is where do you see yourself in five years?”

“How many years do you think he would have lived if you hadn’t killed him?” asked the older woman. 

“I don’t know,” said the panel chair.  “Why do you care?  He was miserable – that was obvious. Now, focus on what the bloody candidate has to say.”

I cleared my throat.

“Um, five years, well let’s see, I will be over fifty,” I said. “I guess the odds of being in a doctor’s office or a pharmacy would be greater.”

“We were thinking more about where you saw yourself in our organization,” said young guy. “You know maybe a supervisor or even the Engagement Leader position itself.”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” I backtracked. “I meant that I’ll probably be in some really high pressure, miserable, stressful job and that will mean I will need to go to the doctor and get some prescription drugs.”

“I guess it would have been ridiculous to try to give him drugs to the ease the pain,” said young guy, returning to the other subject, picking up on my last words, and ignoring the rest.

“Will you just drop it,” said the panel chair. “Now focus, and let’s get this over with, that bright one with the private sector experience is going to be here in five minutes.”

Looking back at my face, recognizing a confused, awkward kind of ignorance, and noticing a black electronic device in the closed palm of my hand, she grimaced, sighed, and elucidated.

“We’re talking about a mouse,” she said. “It was caught in a trap, but didn’t die, crawled with its front feet across the goddamn basement floor leaving a streak of blood behind it and squealing in pain.”

“Yes, that’s what I thought,” I lied. 

“Then, why did you keep turning on that tape recorder when we were talkin’ about it ?”

“Ah, ah, oh, I see my time is up.”

“Oh yeah, right, so that’s the interview, but we could schedule a follow-up to talk about why you were fired from your last job -  or maybe we should just end it now as we always do by asking  if you have any questions you would like to ask us ?”

“Yeah, do you still have that hammer ?”