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Vacation Blues Revisited

I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain … .—“Wichita Lineman,” by Jim Webb

Well, it’s that time of year again, and some things never change. My conspicuous failure to post an entry on the “paid time off” calendar has drawn my boss’s attention. Once again, he calls me into his office for the annual inquisition. It’s like déjà vu all over again.  


“So, Vince, what are your vacation plans this year?”


“Funny you should ask. You see, we were planning a trip to Iran—you know my wife is really into Persian rugs—but with all this kerfuffle there, we thought it best to put the entire idea on hold.”


“You’re gonna have to come up with a better one than that.”


“OK, so when the Iran trip fell apart we thought we might visit New Orleans again. But then, it is hurricane season, you know, so ….”


“No more excuses. Get your name on the PTO calendar by this time next week. End of conversation.”


I dutifully backpedal to the doorway, bowing slightly in my obedient exit. My boss is well-intended. He knows firsthand of the stress that an estimator endures. He understands how easy it is for a bidmeister to burn out from the daily grind. But what he does not understand is the dread an estimator feels over the mere suggestion of a vacation. He assumes a week-long retreat is a chance to experience some badly needed fun. For me, the respite is usually about as much fun as a barefoot sprint through a goathead patch.


Why is it that bidmeisters seem to fear a little time away from the office? The reasons, dear reader, are several. Not the least of which is the undeniable fact that they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, i.e., provide rest and relaxation. Instead, the opposite is true. An estimator’s vacation unfolds in three distinct phases. First is the panic of the preparation. This usually entails a sudden surge in activity just before departure. Next comes the extended anxiety that attends the silent absence. This is the phase in which the proverbial excrement generally makes contact with the twirling blades. 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 right the capsized ship.


Do I speak for all or even most bidmeisters in my disdain for coerced vacations? Of course there are no scientific polls available on the topic, but from years of casual conversations with my colleagues, I’d say my contention is widely shared. Still, I must confess that the ardor with which I hold my contempt of vacations is not approached by many. I attribute the intensity of my own scorn to a string of personal events that I now revisit.


I was in my mid-20s when I completed a six-month stint as general superintendent for a small but up-and-coming commercial drywall outfit. It was my first supervisory position, and all my jobs were coming in on time and under budget. As a bonus for my successes, my boss offered to give me a week off with pay. With plenty of signed backlog up ahead, I didn’t hesitate to blow my meager savings on a well-deserved trip to San Francisco. I should have been suspicious when my phone calls to the shop went unanswered in the interim, but I was pleasantly distracted. Can you imagine the shock upon my return the following Monday to find the gates to the yard padlocked and a sign that read “No admittance by order of the U.S. Department of Internal Revenue!” Not only was I suddenly out of a job, I couldn’t even collect my last paycheck!


Hence, the embryonic source of a disdain for time off was established. Oh, and just incidentally, a healthy and lifelong contempt for the IRS was born as well.


Another instant karma event associated with vacations occurred several years back when, as project manager, I had just successfully completed a unique lath and plaster project that included a Venetian plaster finish. Something didn’t seem right, however, when the specs changed and called for the plaster to be painted. Who paints Venetian plaster? As always, when the job was for all intents and purposes complete (only lacking the paint), my boss then suggested I take a vacation. I complied. After all, what could go wrong at this point? Apparently plenty could. I discovered upon return that the epoxy paint had shrunk and destroyed approximately 32,000 square feet of Venetian plaster. A project that should have won awards had turned into a train wreck while I was drinking vodka tonics and dancing polkas with my wife at the Wisconsin Dells Polish Festival.


Then there was the year that my boss decided to switch everyone’s office location while I was on vacation. I gaped in horror upon my return at the disconnected, disjointed, hodgepodge pile of hardware dumped on top of my new desk. What might be a frustrating setback for some was, for me (one who must have help inserting a three-prong plug into a wall receptacle), nothing less than catastrophic. It took me a full week and much assistance to reconfigure.


And I have at least a dozen more similar vacation anecdotes, but let these suffice.


Oh, I realize intellectually that these unfortunate events have only a correlational relationship with vacations, and the elements for a causal relationship are all missing. But hey, when a stranger in a red shirt walks up to you on random occasions and whacks you in the head with a board, you tend to shy away from people wearing red, don’t you? Some things just don’t require logic.

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

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