Furlough Time

Here I sit on a rainy July morning, with the day off and time to reflect on how I got here. I’m legally prohibited from going to work, and I won’t get paid for 10 more Fridays over the next couple of months.

If only this is how it would be. Source: doctormacro.com

This is the plight of the federal worker today. From the outside, from the average American’s point of view, it seems as though we’re seen as part of the problem with the government. We’re the people who carry out all that wasteful federal spending, after all. Or we’re the people who collect a nice steady paycheck with good benefits while sitting on our behinds doing nothing all day. Or, worse still, we’re the people who throw lavish conferences on the taxpayers’ dime, solicit prostitutes while on official travel, shill contractors for millions that go in our pockets, or use our federal powers to unfairly target groups whose politics we don’t agree with. And sure, those things have all happened. But the government is an incredibly large employer, and the fact is from my experience most federal workers are like me: we work hard, we play by the rules set out for us, and all we ask for in return is to be fairly compensated for our time and effort. There are always going to be idiots in any organization. Some are employed for life once they get hired. Some are elected every four years, some every two or six. I can’t help that. I didn’t write the rule book or the Constitution. (I guess those are the same thing in this case, but work with me here.)

It’s just a shame that it’s gotten to the point where we’re another set of pawns in a political chess match, and despite our pay being frozen for three years and retirement benefits being cut for new hires, while a person in my equivalent job in the private sector makes more than me, we’re still viewed by many as overpaid and useless. How many potshots can a workforce take before the best people bail out to the private sector and the public opinion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, assuming private industry could even absorb that many people? Or are we all doomed to devolve into Milton from Office Space? To make matters worse, the country won’t even come to a grinding halt thanks to the sequestration and furloughs, so to the average person this probably seems like a good move. The only problem is measures like this barely start to scratch the surface of the national debt, are no way to balance a checkbook, and do little to solve the root causes and Congressional dysfunction.

(Furlough busting product idea: sell little blue sugar tablets to D.C. tourists that promise to treat Congressional dysfunction.)

I don’t want to drag my own personal political beliefs into this, but unfortunately politics are the reason why so many of us are in this situation. Neither side is blameless. Our elected leaders could not agree on a budget. This is despite agreeing in principle that the budget should somehow be lower to reduce spending – although it seems the agreement was conditional to the other party giving up everything they stand for, or being made to look the villain in the public eye. Another great fact is that Congress has to do all the same budget “decision making” next year and every year after this until the end of time, so who knows, the furlough funhouse could pop up again before we know it. There’s no room for compromise or understanding here, people – this is America! Sheesh.

So, here I am, the furloughed federal worker who’s not allowed to work today. Moving forward, all I can do is try to financially manage the pay cut and make the most of my forced time off. I certainly plan on enjoying it!

Source: lifeasmom.com
Looks like they’ve got it all worked out.

Cheaply.

The Chicken Dance

This past Thursday, Chick-fil-A opened a new location in Crystal City. If the near-constant line spilling out the doors of the restaurant on its first two days of business was any indication, this was the biggest event that’s happened in the workplace neighborhood since District Taco showed up with their cart.  For me and a few co-workers, the opening was the culmination of months of rumors, intel from secondhand sources about construction delays and denied permits, dashed hopes, and ever-dwindling patience. Ever since my co-worker Michael and I participated in a market research survey a couple of years ago asking which restaurants we’d want to see brought to the area, and he brilliantly answered “Chick-fil-A” while I drew blanks and probably answered “Chinese Food” or something equally lame and generic, we’d been daring that the dream would become a reality.

It’s clear that Chick-fil-A knows how to do a grand opening. In the three days leading up to the opening, the restaurant handed out free sandwiches and biscuits, sending the local chicken addicts into a frenzy. Everyone in line also received a couple of coupons for even more free entrees, virtually ensuring that opening day would be a non-stop chicken fest. I have it on good authority that some people were in line at least two of the three days for free stuff and then went back for free breakfast and lunch on the opening day. There were over 100 people camping out in tents across the street 24 hours before opening, hoping to win a raffle for a year’s worth of free sandwiches. As for me, I was content with one free sandwich and dinner on Thursday.

There are also, of course, people on the other side of the spectrum who just don’t get it and go so far as to dismiss the chain as gross. I certainly ran into a few of those while standing in line or while walking up and down the street, like the guy who scoffed that people would wait ten to twenty minutes in line to save three dollars on a chicken sandwich, turning up his nose as he walked by us. It actually seemed rarer to find people who were squarely in the middle: not fanatics, but not opposed to some fried chicken goodness either.

All of this hoopla got me thinking: what the heck is it about Chick-fil-A that commands such a devoted following? I can’t quite explain it, myself. Growing up, the only location near us was in the Huntington Mall, and we didn’t frequent it – I much preferred McDonald’s at the time, not knowing any better. I think my love affair with the chicken began at Virginia Tech, with the Hokie Grill and its non-stop supply of nuggets and sandwiches. Ironically, it only truly intensified once I graduated and moved to Northern Virginia, where Chick-fil-A’s are much harder to come by.

So is it a sentimental attachment that keeps me coming back? Maybe, to some degree. But the food is definitely of a much higher quality than most fast food chains, as well. You can tell what you’re eating is actually from a chicken breast, which is a plus. Is it the family-friendly atmosphere infused with Southern hospitality? Well sure, that never hurts either, and it reminds me of home that much more. Is it the fact that, as fast food goes, you could do a lot worse? That helps. Men’s Health’s “Eat This, Not That” series gives the ‘fil-A a solid A-. How about the company sticking to its founder, S. Truett Cathy’s principles and not opening on Sunday even in the 24/7 nature of the 21st century? All of these factors combine to make a pretty convincing argument to me, but somehow they still don’t capture everything. I guess while I try to figure it out I’ll have to be content with being able to walk to get my chicken sandwich fix from now on.

Do any of you have any other insight into Chick-fil-A fandom?

SpeedZone Follies

The last time I was in Dallas for work, I wanted to do something a little different than the standard work-all-day, hang-out-at-the-hotel-until-dinner, eat-out-then-go-to-sleep formula. If I’m traveling so much for work, I asked myself, shouldn’t I get as much enjoyment out of it as I can?

Enter SpeedZone. Think Dave & Buster’s or Top Golf, but with go-karts and go-dragsters and four different tracks. With an arcade and mini-golf thrown into the mix.

Among some groups in my office, SpeedZone has become something of a tradition, but every time a large group got together to go there on my previous trips, I had to miss out for some reason (like being exhausted, or trying to take a final exam online after a four-hour flight and a ten-hour workday). I decided not to miss out on the fun this time around, so I convinced my co-workers Ryan and Jessica to join me.  What’s more, my co-worker Lyle left me a card loaded with enough money for a few races on the house, so even if I couldn’t find my racing mojo, I wouldn’t be set back any money. I was feeling pretty good to go.

As I mentioned earlier, the basic layout of SpeedZone is very reminiscent of a Dave & Buster’s. You load however much money you want onto a plastic game card, which you get to keep as a souvenir and re-load as often as you’d like. To enter each racetrack, you just swipe the card and it debits the pre-determined amount for that race. The four tracks range in difficulty and speed, from Simple to Insane.

Thunder Road was our first track, since it was billed as a beginner’s course (and good for parents with kids, apparently). While I mentally wondered who in SpeedZone management was a Springsteen fan,  I quickly renewed my confidence in my kart driving ability. Our group of three made up the only racers on the track, and I made short work of my competitors using my secret “no brake,  just gas” driving style. It had been years since I’d been on a real go-kart track, but the fumes and the rubber brought my inner racing animal to the forefront.

After some laughing and swapping stories on what happened on the track, Ryan sat out while Jessica and I decided to go to the aptly-named Turbo Track, where the cars were faster, point values were doubled, and the stakes were infinitely higher. Two teenage boys joined us for the race, but I had the first pole position and still felt good about my chances…

…until about the second turn, when my brilliant “no brake, just gas” strategy blew up in my face and caused the entire kart to violently rock left and right on its chassis until I came to a near-dead stop. When I regained consciousness and thought it was safe to accelerate again, I quickly noticed that my steering wheel, for all intents and purposes, would only turn to the right. That wouldn’t be a huge deal on a strictly oval, clockwise loop, but of course this was not the case on the old Turbo Track. As an added bonus, every third turn or so, no matter what combination of brakes and gas I tried, my ramshackle kart would give up and go into another seizure until I let it come to a wheezing, pathetic stop.

At the end of the five-minute race, I gratefully hobbled to the pit area, thanking God for letting me survive while at least not being lapped by those teenage punks with their shiny new karts. When Jessica and I climbed out, we mutually agreed we should just go to the arcade and blow the rest of our money there. After watching a couple of the drag races going on over at the Eliminator course, we did just that.

So there you have it. Despite the travesty at the Turbo Track, I’m still hungry for more SpeedZone, and I highly recommend it for a good evening of fun in Dallas.

Train Lineage

There’s always something new on the Metro. Today, I decided to keep my iPod turned down relatively low so as to catch fleeting clips of the train operator. Sometimes I do this even though it’s usually in vain as the mumble of the operator is drowned out by the train itself. Today, I’m glad I did, for the man behind the curtain promptly said as we pulled into Rosslyn that “this Orange Line train is now a Blue Line train.”
Just like that. Who knew that the Metro operators had the power to change the sex of my train with just a few words and a flick of a wrist?
The funniest thing to me, though, was watching the shocked and appalled reactions of some of the riders. A few stormed off the train in disgust to wait for the next Orange Line to come along.
But, wait a minute, Angry Metro Rider… after Rosslyn, it DOESN’T MATTER which line you’re on, unless you’re going all the freaking way to New Carrollton! You didn’t have to get angry! You didn’t have to leave! You could have just sat right back and let it roll, secure in the knowledge that you rode two different Metro lines without ever having to move a muscle.

A Story From An Avoid-The-Beltway Bandit

I tried a new commuting route today, just to shake things up. I was operating under the advice of a co-worker, but the advice was mainly for the portion of the trip going across the river and into D.C. That left me trying out an alternative to I-66 for getting into the district. Today, I traversed Route 50, which runs through Fairfax, Falls Church, and Arlington – and has a ton of traffic lights. Since it’s your typical four-lane highway-through-town, everybody wants to use it, so from here on out it is not my first choice of road to take. The two good things about taking this route are: first, it runs basically to my apartment (all I have to do is get as far as 123 and go up a few lights – the trick is getting that far), and second, the total trip time using 50 was about the same as if I’d taken the Metro. This is a good thing only in that it could have easily taken me longer than a Metro ride, at which point I would have broken down into fits of hysterical laughter and finished my commute a broken man.
The advice of my co-worker, however, which took me down Independence Avenue and helped me to largely avoid 395 and all the main congested routes, worked beautifully. So, the hunt begins for the best possible way to get over to D.C. I will say that I left a little later than I wanted to this morning, so I might still try 50 once more, this time a bit earlier in the morning. We’ll see. As of now, making the drive made me appreciate the Metro even more. This evening alone, I saw more examples of rampant Northern Virginia bad driving than I care to repeat in a family setting.