Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 Was Brought to Me By...

...the dates 01-10 and 02-01, DATCP, chocolate milk, and smart phones.

As I look back on the year that is about to slide away, I feel as though I have scaled Mount Everest. Or, to make a pop culture reference, launched my own Unexpected Journey. It was an unanticipatedly long and trying year, full of surprise challenges that pushed me far outside my comfort zone, many perceived potential traps and pitfalls, long, hard and seemingly endless climbs, fellow trekkers who alternately leaned on me or carried me along the way, numerous encounters and acquaintances along the road, lots of dark, misty clouds obscuring the view, and the occasional parting of the mists to reveal breath-taking vistas of future destinations and summits. Views that push one keep going, despite the blisters and chafing and aches.

This journey began with the dates of 01-10, the day my boss walked into my office to tell me he, already once retired, was changing careers yet again, and 02-01, my two year anniversary date and the day I officially took the reins as the new department head of Oneida County University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. Many people congratulated me on my promotion and new position, for which I was appreciative. But while it was something of a promotion, it wasn’t exactly a “new” position - I still retained all of the same job duties and responsibilities I had as an Extension faculty in the Department of Family Development and Family Living Educator, but acquired a new administrative hat to wear on top of that one. And it proved to be a heavier hat than I could have ever anticipated.

Which brings us to the letters DATCP, which defined the next quarter of 2012 for me. I had a very steep learning curve that began with learning that DATCP stands for the Department for Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, and that it is the funder for the Land & Water Conservation Departments in Wisconsin counties. Because of a local county budget change that effectively combined the UW-Extension and Land & Water Conservation departments in Oneida County, I was left the de facto department head of another county department, one that I was completely unprepared to manage. So, in very short order, I learned all about DATCP funding policies for Land & Water Conservation departments, developed the funding request that was due by April 15, and then got the ball rolling to un-make me the department head for both departments. Some 13 committee and county board meetings and countless consultations with interested parties later, the process to separate the departments was finally fully approved, and as of December 31, 2012, will be complete. The two departments will remain perfunctorily joined at the hip through our joint supervisory committee and support staff, but each will have separate department heads for management.

In the midst of all this, I dropped everything mid-climb to detour up a far more pleasant peak: the celebration of my sister’s wedding. For a week in June, our family combined forces with her new in-laws, the Reillys and thought of nothing but what it would take to get the two of them hitched. It would take quite a lot, apparently, as the whole wedding was built from scratch in our back yard. But the combined forces of family and love for the bride-and-groom-to-be were more than a match for the task list and for the unexpected rain. After all that, the DATCP mountain seemed no more than a foothill.

But, by late August, I had moved on to my next life sponsor - chocolate milk.

Right at the time I moved away from the DATCP cliff, I encountered my next ascent, beginning with the departure of the second leg of our department’s three-legged stool (originally made of my former boss, 4-H/Youth Development educator, and myself). Our 4-H/Youth Development educator retired, leaving me as the lone peg leg left standing. Other than the nutrition education program, which has its own coordinator and is fully grant-funded as the education arm of the federal food stamps program (and needs little support from department heads), and our loyal support staff, I was left alone in the office. Some congratulated me on stepping up. I said I was the only one not smart enough to get out while the gettin’ was still good.

So we launched into a season of recruitment to fill vacant positions (with 6 month mandatory vacancy review periods on all positions at the county), county budget hearings, and - ta-da - a suddenly fast-tracked plan to move our offices from their three-decade home in the lower level of the airport to the courthouse.

I turned to chocolate milk for survival.

I won’t bore you with the stressful details, other than to say I clung feebly to the edges of the rocks, staring down precipices as budget cuts, internal friction caused by needing to quickly plan for a move, rounds of interviews and a nearly failed search, and my uncle passing away after a 3-year courageous battle with cancer, threatened to push me over the edge. Chocolate milk, a drink I abhorred in my youth, suddenly became my elixir of life. I contemplated dangerous things the Monday morning the milk truck was late in delivering milk to all the gas stations on my route to work.

Then, just as suddenly as it all hit, in November the clouds parted and it all went away. The move planning was determined to need further review put on hold until 2013, the budget cuts were restored in full, one of the vacant stool-leg positions was filled, and our family slowly began to adjust to a new-normal with our first Thanksgiving without my uncle.

So, I decided that the last quarter of this year required a new challenge and I went out and got myself my first smartphone. I hardly ever used my old dumbphone, and still hardly ever use this as an actual telephone, but I have entered the new millennium and am desperately playing catch-up in all things mobile.

In the last few months the climbing has gotten a bit easier, but the clouds are thickening again, so it’s hard to know whether that’s because we’ve reached a plateau at the top of this mountain, or just a gentler slope along the same tough climb. The move will be a hot topic again in 2013, though hopefully not as time-pressured. We still need to replace the third leg of the stool, but that is at least on track to happen now. I have from now until August to not have to worry about the 2014 budget. There will be plenty more challenges with adapting our day-to-day management of the office to new structures, and I still have another family wedding to attend this year - but I don’t have to help plan this one! Perhaps in 2013 I will move forward with my hopes of purchasing a house. There will be many more mountains to climb, but the fleeting views of the road ahead are promising. Everything in 2012 has brought me to an amazing new point along the journey - I look forward to turning around an looking back on the clear view behind me as I move ahead.

And I wonder who or what will be sponsoring me in the coming year...