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Fear and Loathing of the Dreaded PTO (Reprised)

Gonna have a fine vacation. I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations…—Eddie Cochran, Summertime Blues

It’s been more than a couple of years since I introduced the “vacation blues” to these pages. There’s a reason for that. Since the summer of 2020, travel has been discouraged, and so the expectation that estimators take a formal R&R break had faded along with that curious waning of security about having enough toilet paper in the house. Now, bolstered by the gradual passage of time, fear of travel has subsided, and the practice of taking trips seems to be coming back into full swing. As a consequence, I was anticipating that my boss would resume his annual harangue for me to take some time off and get out of town for a spell. Then too, my fiancée had been pushing for a trip to an unnamed tropical nation to take one of those safari-like tours for viewing exotic birds in their natural habitat. Confronted with an inevitable attack from dual fronts, I applied for a passport in the spring—or at least, I initiated the agonizingly slow process.

It took a month just to get an appointment to submit my application. The processing phase, I was told, would take even longer. In the meantime, my boss called me on the carpet, as expected: “I’ve been checking the records, Vince, and as I suspected, you haven’t had a real out-of-town vacation for a couple of years.”

I pointed out that we had just recovered from an extended pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide, hoping to explain away my heretofore reticent attitude toward travel and thereby vacations in general. I then inserted the passport delay into the discussion.

“I figured you’d come up with some kind of stall,” he retorted. His tone had lowered to a growl—the same growl that my pit bull emits when you try to move his food dish. “No more excuses,” he continued. “Get your name on the PTO calendar by this time next week. End of conversation.”

I quickly dismissed a reflexive urge to share my limited knowledge regarding the seasonal habitation behaviors of macaws, toucans and cockatoos. My boss is as resolute as he is well-intended. Having been an estimator himself, he knows firsthand of the constant stress that a commercial bidmeister endures. He understands how easy it is for a quantifier to burn out from the daily assaults on his rationality.

But what he does not understand is the dread that any diligent estimator feels over the mere suggestion of a vacation. He assumes that a week-long retreat is an opportunity for some badly needed fun. For me, the respite is usually about as much fun as a game of tavern darts with a blind person.

Why is it, you may ask, that bidmeisters seem to fear a little time away from the office? First, and probably foremost, vacations don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to provide rest and relaxation. Actually, the opposite is often true. For the estimator, the ordeal that others call a vacation plays out in three distinct phases. First is the panic of the preparation. This usually accompanies a sudden surge or dramatic change in office activity just before departure.

Next comes the extended anxiety that attends the silent absence. This is the phase in which the seasoned quantifier senses work-related developments—unknown events that will require his immediate intervention. Yet he is powerless to intercede, having been relieved of his means of communicating with the office. What type of catastrophe has occurred during his absence is left unknown to the vacationing estimator until his dreaded return in phase three, when he is expected to manage the predictable disasters.

I avoided the shared calendar for a day, but a well-aimed scowl from my boss the next morning was all it took. I folded like a cheap tent and signed out for the third week in July. Of course, this was no better than a blind guess at when the long-awaited receipt of my passport would converge with the annual nesting habits of blue-crowned motmots.

By the first week in July I still had not received my passport. Apparently there was a surge in applicants and the State Department was understaffed. Such was the excuse. I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Unable to endure the pending anxiety, I surreptitiously moved my PTO date on the shared calendar to the first week in August, as this would be the final opportunity to view the motmots in the wild. My fiancée would be devastated if she had to miss the motmots.

I was still rattled when my boss darkened my doorway that afternoon with the news that we were about to adopt a new estimating program, and that the program designers would be visiting to put on a seminar in-house during—you guessed it—the first week in August. He would not expect me to change my plans. He would personally tutor me when I got back. I thanked him for the motmots. This vacation was going to be for the birds.

Next month: more of the vacation blues.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager in the Phoenix area.

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