One Year Later

Look at me! Two blog posts in a week, must be some sort of record. According to Facebook, today was the 1-year anniversary of my return to Fish & Game. I wasn’t gone terribly long, and I had been with the department for years before that, yet this feels like a big personal milestone to me. I’ve been thinking about it for days, and with that milestone under my belt, there are a lot of things I want to say about the job, but I don’t really know where to start. I didn’t realize until last year sometime just how damn important this job is to me. Part of it is the people, yes, and part is the work, but any place you go can be like that, can’t it? I don’t know, maybe not.

I started at Fish and Game back in early July of 2004 as an Analyst/Programmer. It was something of a lucky break at the time, but not because it was Fish and Game. In my time, I’ve interviewed a lot of people to work for the department who want to work for the agency because of what it is and not because they have any of the knowledge, skills, or abilities to do the job. I, however, wanted to work for the department because it meant a promotion and it wasn’t the DMV.

Within the first few weeks of starting, I’d struck up a pretty friendly relationship with most of the folks I worked closely with, especially the other Dave at the time. One day he brought in his guitar to go pick with some of the other IT folks in the back parking lot at lunch. Somehow, we came around to the fact that I was trying to learn and he invited me along, so I went. That whole summer I’d join some of the other guys out back and pick bluegrass tunes. I loved coming to work, and not just because of that, it was also because I understood the work. It made sense to me. Sure, some parts were totally foreign and my training in SPSS was 100% on the job, but it made sense. There is a lot more to it than that, especially in the fact that there’s room to expand professionally if you’ve a mind to do it.

Fast forward to last September, at least I think it was September may have been October. I was still at the last job and even fairly recently gotten a promotion, but undeniably unhappy, though I was trying. In any case, I’d gone out to attend a going away get-together for a former fish and game colleague. It was a great event. The place was packed with so many people I’d worked with, including more than a few who had already moved on themselves. As I stood up to head out of the event with a friend (former coworker/team member), I looked around, shook a few more hands and thought: “Why the hell did I ever leave this place? These people are my family.”

I went home that night feeling profoundly nostalgic. The feeling kept up for days, maybe weeks. Every day, I’d go into work, feel sick to my stomach about how things were going, fail to be as successful as I wanted to, then go home. Then, I got a sign. Most people, when making difficult life decisions, look to the sky and ask for a sign, as if lightening is going to write the answer across the clouds. Well. I didn’t get struck by lightening, but I did get a text. It was short and basically said that my job was opening back up. But it wasn’t just the text, it was the timing. It came in the middle of a meeting that had been called to update the CTO on project progress. I was also attempting to lay out a case for more resources, I just didn’t see how I was going to be successful without more bodies. My case not only failed, but the CTO explained how my project management game was in bad shape and I needed to focus more on change management. All things that were, in fact, true but could not be achieved without more bodies. In retrospect, if I’d had to stay, I probably could have made a partial save, but I wouldn’t be satisfied with my lot just now.

I know, deep down, that while this place has been good for me, it could become something else as fast as anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that I walked back in those doors, and even to a lot of new faces, and thought: “I’m home.”

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A year ago I was in a bad place

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, and to be honest, I haven’t been writing much at all lately, this is largely to do with the day job being incredibly busy, but also an experience at the Alaska Writer’s Guild annual conference which put me into a seriously weird place as a writer. I’m still digesting that and giving myself time to think about the writing endgame (read: Publishing etc…) In any case, I’ll blog about that sometime in the future, for now, something else is on my mind.

This morning, as with most mornings, I crawled out of bed and picked up my phone to check Twitter and Facebook. As Facebook sometimes does, I got a notification about memories from previous years. One of those memories was a blog post titled “Can’t I just disappear for a while?” I’ve been thinking about this post a lot lately. Not because I feel that way, because I don’t, but because it was about a year ago. Arguably, I’m as busy right now as I was then. This past weekend was the first weekend that I really took in its entirety since about mid-September. The post from last year was a long and ranty about how I wasn’t having a super-great time. What I remember most about the post was standing in the parking lot at work and staring at the building and wondering what the bloody hell I’d gotten myself into and was it worth it? There was also a keen feeling of self-loathing and failure. At the time, I was doing a lot, but didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. In fact, every step forward felt like two steps back. I’m a pretty driven individual, usually, and this wasn’t a good place for me to be.

Not three weeks after that post, I’d gotten a promotion and a shiny new office. I blogged about that too. There was some hope and optimism in it, but in my heart I didn’t actually feel it. When I moved into that big new office, it put me in mind of what I used to do at Fish and Game, and those feelings grounded me, a little. However, by the end of November last year, I had left that job and gone back to the old one.

In looking back at those posts, it feels so far away it may as well have been someone else’s life. In hindsight, leaving that job was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, but so was taking it.

When I left Fish and Game, I had loads of reasons, I wanted more advancement opportunities, a more stable position, a place where I could get back to programming, and all sorts of other stuff. A lot of that really ended up being true, except for the position stability – turns out that doesn’t really exist for my generation. In any case, by going out to experience a completely new environment where being the new guy meant nobody had time for me was a tremendous growing experience. Of course, that’s a bit harsh, I did get along with folks well enough, and I did get help, when I asked, but a lot of times, especially when it came to the biggest most important parts of the job, it wound around to things like “I don’t know” and “I hope this project fails” or “This project is going to fail”.

I could easily rant all day about the things that made me feel bad or worked against me, or made the job intolerable, but nobody wants to hear that. What I can tell you is that not quite one year on, and I’m back where I started and I feel positive in ways I haven’t since I first started at Fish and Game back in 2004. A lot of that attitude adjustment has to do with the negative experience I had at the other place. I think it just goes to show that sometimes we all need to step back from our current problem or situation and look elsewhere for perspective. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think, or maybe turning your back is the right thing. In any case, it was a good experience for me, even if I really look back on it with a negative attitude.

Where the hell you been, mate?

Short answer? Bethel, AK for work. To be a lot more specific, I’ve worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) for about 12 out of the the past 13 years. For all practical purposes, this has been my entire professional career. Unlike the vast majority of other Fish and Gamers, I’ve haven’t spent any of my time working in the field or remote places in AK. I’m one of the few who has the honor of holding down a chair at a desk to make sure all of that great info we collect is analyzed for various uses. 

This past week, I finally made it to one of the more remote corners of the state. It’s not field work, but Bethel is probably as close as I’ll ever get. Bethel is an interesting place, it’s a town of about 6,400 people along the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. It’s some 500 miles off the highway system and accessible by plane and barge. If you’ve never been to rural Alaska, I can say that it’s very likely it’s like no place you’ve ever been. To put this in terms my lower-48 friends might understand, Bethel is a lot like a developing foreign country. You’re as likely to hear the word “Quyana” as you are “Thank You” and you are aware very quickly that while this is Alaska, it’s not Anchorage.

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The truth is that I want this post to be about a lot of things, the lack of internet access being notable, anyhow I thought a lot of things while I was there, but nobody wants to read a sixty page treatise on what Dave thought of Bethel, AK. So, instead, I’m going to give you a couple of anecdotes that sum up my experience.

To be clear, I went there to work, and work we did. The average day was something like 10 hours. That was good and productive, but not interesting to anyone not involved. Perhaps it’s odd, but after having gone and returned, I feel a hell of a lot more motivated than I did before leaving. Not sure how ten hour work days for a week without my family can accomplish that, but it did.

The first thing that happened actually started while I was getting on the plane headed out, and as I sat on the plane. I happened to be just behind a young woman, probably in her early twenties who fit the description of soy pumpkin-spice ‘basic’. She repeatedly, and loudly, announced to anyone who made eye-contact that she was from Oregon, was going to move to Bethel to be an accountant to be with her boyfriend who was a dentist. She repeated this so many times I think it may very well be burned into my permanent memory. After getting off the plane I found my colleague waiting to pick me up. We stood, as it happens, behind this young woman for about twenty minutes waiting for my bag. While we waited and chatted about writing, the survey project, and whatever, the young woman and her boyfriend were rapidly becoming entwined in a situation that was going to require a bedroom very, very soon. 

So, we got my things and hopped into the work truck. As soon as I closed the door, I let out a breath and unloaded with young lady’s story. In part because it cracked me up and in part because this is the sort of shit I like to write about. My colleague’s response amounted to a shake of the head and something between amusement and exasperation along with “Bethel is going to rock that girl’s world, and not in the best way.”

By all accounts, Bethel is a rough town, but it didn’t strike me as a bad place, just incredibly real with real problems, and about as NOT Oregon as you can get. You’re not going to find Starbucks out there. The best place for coffee was actually a little safety shop in the hospital administration building, and it was, indeed, a good cup of coffee. 

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The other little story was my trip to the tundra. On night two, my colleague took her dogs out to burn some energy and let me tag along (and also made sure I didn’t freeze to death out there – if you happen to read this, thank you, that hat made all the difference, even if a bit girly). We walked maybe a half mile out and back. It was amazing. You can see the bones of the land out there in a way you can’t elsewhere, except perhaps a desert. But unlike the open hostility of a desert, this place was slightly more conciliatory. While the wind roared icy threats at us, the ground cover included all types of berries in impressive quantities. It felt a bit like an apology for all the unpleasant weather. 

In any case, as we walked back to the truck, we got to talking about living and working in Alaska. I don’t quite recall the flow of that discussion but it landed more or less like this: “Here we are, taking an evening walk across an absolutely gorgeous landscape that some people would consider a once in a lifetime trip they might never get to take, and we’re being paid for it.” Not paid to be walking, of course, but we were paid to travel out there and work, and really, who gets to go to a place like this (picture below) and be paid to be there? Okay, we’re not unique, but holy moly…

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