Sunday, August 22, 2010

Well, well, well...

Many a day has passed, the night has gone by, but still I find the time to post an update on my life. After breaking my foot, enduring the blistering New Orleans heat in June, feeling useless, fighting my way off of crutches, getting my confidence back, landing a dream Round 3 project in Maine, and fretting about my post-AmeriCorps future, I'm here with a quick reflection on this whole Maine experience.

My team has been working with the Town of Sanford to develop trails, work with area youth, and get dirty in general. Below is something I wrote for our team's portfolio as we prepare to move on to the fourth and final round of the AmeriCorps year.

Sorry for the prolonged radio silence. I find it hard to explain why these things happen, so I'm not going to try.


Recently, I discovered a new level of personal filth.

It’s a feeling of perpetual sliminess, a sense that every crease of your flesh is coated in dirt and other nasty particles. For this sensation, I have only the Mousam River to thank.

Once the natural engine that drove the textile mills of Sanford, Maine, the river has fallen into dilapidation. Litter, motor vehicle runoff and other contaminants run wild in its waters. So in we came, Badger 6, gung-ho NCCC team, to save the day.

We floated downstream in canoes, two people to a vessel. The mission for the day was to hoist litter out of the river and into our canoes. Our armada dodged groping branches, hopped over beaver dams and basically just tried to keep afloat. I got scraped up, flooded out, bruised, battered, leeched, burnt, coated in vile secretions, threw out my back three times... and had a tremendously fun time.

It’s a pretty good summation of third round for me. Oh sure, it was romantic at first, but pretty soon things got real. The work has been pretty brutal at times, and more often than not I come home drained and mud-splattered. Some of our other duties here in Sanford have included ripping out entire tree stumps from the ground, digging fence holes and compacting gravel. To take a short-sighted view of things, it’s been a lot of sweat for little gain.

But then I step back and take a broader look at things. Damn... we made an entire trail ourselves, from pure wilderness to a paved walkway. We tamed a wild, town-owned lot over the course of one day. And we pulled out more than 70 tires from the Mousam River, enough to fit at least 17 whole motor vehicles. In the end, that’s a tangible level of accomplishment that many of our other projects have not presented us.

We’re hitting that point in the year when other concerns are beginning to dominate. Life after AmeriCorps looms large. We’re tired. The grind of BS that gets thrown at us from up the chain of command takes its toll. But with all that considered, we still got a fantastic amount of work done out here. That’s something to celebrate.

I’ve certainly got the stained clothes to prove it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Thoughts on Camden

For every project round, NCCC teams must complete a project portfolio, which includes reflections from each member on what the team achieved and how he or she grew individually. Below is what I wrote about Badger 6's time spent in Camden. Our last day of work at the Camden Children's Garden is Tuesday.

Read more about the Garden and its mission here.


Before my team even heard about our project assignment to Camden, I was talking with one of my fellow Corps members about potential first round destinations. As a New Jersey native, he said he’d welcome an assignment to anywhere but Camden.

“You don’t want to go there,” he warned, with an air of menace hanging about his words.

After the news came that Badger 6 was Camden-bound, the grim stories and innuendos kept coming. Some of the teams who previously served in the area openly compared it to a Third World country. Our project sponsor implied that the city was not necessarily a “walkable community.” My imagination filled in the rest, painting visions of a post-apocalyptic moonscape, with bulletholes and emptied syringes decorating every street corner.

Camden, in many ways, has earned its brutal reputation. Its crime and poverty rates routinely top the national rankings. During our month-long project at the Camden Children’s Garden, we saw hints of these problems lurking the shadows. But I believe that we were fortunate enough to see the best of what Camden has to offer: the pride and spirit of its citizens.

That starts with the employees at the Children’s Garden, who were incredible as educators, supervisors and work partners. They’ve worked with several AmeriCorps teams in the past, and were quick to adopt us into their little family. Every day we worked with them, their passion for their work was on display.

The same goes for the community gardeners who work to grow oases of green amidst the asphalt and concrete of Camden’s streets. It was extremely rewarding to help these folks along, bringing a small touch of beauty to what can be an ugly place to live.

I’m not going to sit here and say that our month of weeding, planting, harvesting, painting and teaching has Camden on the road to immediate recovery. There’s a long and perilous road to travel, still. But we worked our tails off for a city that was crying out for assistance. That alone made the project worth any of the strain we might have felt along the way.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Badger 6 is going to New Orleans for the second round of our AmeriCorps service year. We'll spend six weeks working at the Habitat for Humanity warehouse and ReStore. Haven't heard many concrete details about the project or housing yet, but, come on.

New Orleans.

It's on.

The team is apoplectic with joy right now.

More to come, friends.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Doin' The AmeriCorps Squat

One of the deepest, most painful shocks that accompanied my transition into AmeriCorps life was experiencing the program's first physical training session. Sure, I'd been exercising at my own pace throughout the month of January, and I fancied myself ready for any physical challenge.

Then I got introduced to the workout world of Badger unit leader Sean Kuether, and pain was my only reward for weeks on end. A word of introduction on Mr. Kuether: he's bouncy, jovial, personable, well-spoken... and ex-military. The director of the NCCC Perry Point campus? Also ex-military. And the assistant director, to boot.

So it's no surprise that the Perry Point training regimen blatantly mirrors the brutal grind of infantry maneuvers. Here's a rundown of how we trained for our first month at Perry Point:

  • Roll out of bed at 5:20 a.m. in a blind, belligerent haze.
  • Meet in the main lobby of the Perry Point dorms with similarly disoriented Corps members by 5:45. Blaring through iPod speakers is a "motivational" play list, including inspirational tunes from the likes of Hanson, the Spice Girls and other wads of used '90s bubblegum.
  • Shuffle down to a chilly corridor and wait there for 10 minutes for no discernible reason.
  • Enter gym, mill about.
  • At 6 a.m., Sean gives the order to assemble. Corps members bellow at the top of their lungs, and groups up into a compressed rectangle of bodies.
  • More orders, dutifully repeated by the corps, as the group efficiently spreads out into neat little rows and columns.
  • Rotations and stretching begins, with all 70-plus people in the room barking out the counts in unison.
  • Next, three rounds of rough calisthenics: bushels of push-ups, sit-ups, squats, contortions, lunges and hops. All exercises are conducted "IN CA-DENCE!," which means counting reps together in rhythm. If the group doesn't display the proper motivation, we're liable to repeat an exercise.
  • Dismissal arrives at 7, and by then, I feel like an overheated tub of animal lard. My first instinct is to melt into an unconscious heap, but on most days I've got to eat breakfast, squeeze in a 10-minute shower and then hop in a van with my team.
So, yes. It was very, very easy to whine about this sort of treatment, which occurred three times a week. And whine I did. I dreaded every early wakeup call, and every week the exercises seemed to grow more fiendish and punishing in their construction. Suddenly we were doing three different varieties of push-ups, tackling the horrendously misnamed "simple sit-up," and taking long early morning jogs that flattened my lungs into pancakes.

Worst of all, I got the sense that all of my preparations in St. Louis had been for naught. Everyone else seemed to be in such incredible shape, while I lay sucking wind. It was high school all over again.

But loathe as I was to admit, I was getting better. Faster. Stronger. Slowly but surely, evolving into an AmeriCorps Super Soldier. In its own, hardheaded way, the Perry Point Plan was dragging me kicking and screaming toward fitness.

The big payoff for all my grunts and sweat didn't arrive until Friday, when my team underwent its second physical assessment for the year. The assessment requires three tests: one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups, and a timed mile run. The first test came toward the tail end of our first month of training in AmeriCorps, and I posted some pretty mediocre results: 27 sit-ups before my gut imploded, 21 push-ups before my arms began trembling all over and I could no longer lift my body, and 8 minutes, 50 seconds on the mile.

When assessment number two arrived this week, I had no idea how I would fare. We had continued the calisthenics and running routines throughout our first spike as a team, but I wasn't sure how much I had honed my muscles over that time. Then I started the timed sit-ups. Determined to improve my total from the last test, I lit off at a fiery pace, one I surely wouldn't be able to sustain. By the 15th sit-up, I expected that familiar burning sensation to arrive in my abs. Only it didn't come. 20 sit-ups. 25. 30. 35. 40.

I finished the minute at 44 sit-ups, an unheard of total for me, and one of the best results for Badger 6. Then my push-ups came, and I again bested myself by a wide margin: 36 in a minute. If you gave me all day, I couldn't have done that even a few months ago.

My mile time basically stayed the same (8:51), but that small disappointment was compensated by the fact that we ran the distance atop the Benjamin Franklin bridge, which connects Camden to Philadelphia. Honorary Badger 6 member David, who works with us at the Camden Children's Garden, accompanied us for all of the workouts, and certainly held his own.

I'm feeling pretty spiffy right now, and it should only get more awesome from here. Not only did I demolish my previous accomplishments, but so did the rest of the team. We're entering our final week in Camden, having an extremely rewarding and eye-opening experience at the garden, and should (finally) learn about our second-round project within the next week.

Physically and emotionally, I'm feeling on top of my game.


Coming up on the blog, I hope to write a lot more about the Camden project before we leave, and to somehow describe the absurd and wonderful team dynamic of Badger 6. I've just been so busy and focused on work lately, the blog has taken a backseat. I think that, overall, that's a good thing. Thanks for continuing to read, and for sending good vibes my way.

6 > 5,


Thursday, April 15, 2010


No great journey can be completed alone.

Badger 6 may be a rough-and-ready fellowship of adventurers, but we can’t surmount every challenge thrown our way without some backup. This post concerns the unsung heroes of our service year, who keep the team aloft when adversity threatens to sink our ship.

Jerry “The Superfreak” (the team van)

At some point or another, every NCCC team names its 15-passenger van. It’s a natural response, on some level. These beasts of burden carry us from place to place without complaint, so it’s only fair that we show some affection in return.

The pet name that a team chooses, however, has a remarkably powerful effect on the van’s personality. Go with something cutesy, or creepy (“The Baby Napper,” for example), and that’s what you’re stuck with for the duration of the year.

The origin story behind Jerry’s name is pretty long, convoluted, and lacks any obvious punch line or payoff, but “Jerry” seems to fit the big lug very nicely. He’s earthy, somewhat cantankerous, quick to punish but quicker to forgive, and pretty much the life of the party. We love the fellow, and treat him like one of the family.

As for the “Superfreak” nickname, well, he picked that one up after I burned a copy of “Pure Funk” for use in his CD tray. After bumping some Rick James throughout the sleepy wilderness of Conowingo, we more or less decided that our van had found his theme song.

We probably talk a lot more about Jerry than we do about each other. Just one of those delirious inside jokes that comes from being cooped up together for months on end, I guess.

Evelyn Jr.

We had to replace our teammate Evelyn somehow. She’s gone for the entire first round, off fighting fires or something stupid like that, while the rest of us have toiled in Conowingo and Camden.

We were at a loss for how to properly recapture her unique and utterly irreplaceable personality... until we found a discarded paper bag puppet in a Conowingo cabin that sort of looked like her. Then we were pretty much good.

Evelyn Jr. has become a fixture at team meetings, contributing her adorable catchphrase “Whaaaaaat?” whenever we address her. She contributes such spark and life to our discussions.

Naturally, a sort of filial bound has developed between us and this beautiful bag, leading to the prickly question of what to do when Evelyn Sr. returns to the group in May. The only equitable solution, we’ve decided, is a fight to the death.

Badger 5

Every team of do-gooders needs a nemesis. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had the Foot Clan. G.I. Joe had Cobra, the Autobots the Decepticons.

For Badger 6, there is Badger 5.

No one can say exactly when our rivalry with these sniveling, self-righteous, smelly simpletons* began. But it probably had something to do with them strutting around the Perry Point dorms, proclaiming themselves “The Dream Team” and braying out “BADGER 5!” at every opportunity.

We decided to take them down a peg.

So, during our last week together at Perry Point, the members of Badger 6 were each given a target from Badger 5. Our mission: to double heel-click said target and remind them which team reigned supreme. For the uninitiated, a “double heel-click” is an acrobatic maneuver that requires leaping into the air, rotating 180 degrees and smacking both of your heels against a vertical surface. It’s usually done against walls, flagpoles, or (if you’re really adventurous) fireplaces. The “DHC” is a Badger 6 specialty, sort of like a Mortal Kombat finishing move.

One by one, each of us took the heels to our target. Our team leader Chloe took out their team leader, Beth. Then the rest of us followed suit, each of us texting Chloe once we had completed the deed: “target eliminated.” To complete the humiliation, Chloe left a copy of the Badger 5 team roster in Beth’s backpack. The face of every member had been crossed out in red ink.

Oh, but it didn’t end there. We have already sent Badger 5 a postcard with a helpful little mathematical reminder written on it: 6 > 5. That phrase is our team’s rallying cry for the year.

Ironically enough, there was once a time of great peace between our two warring factions. When Chloe and Beth were NCCC members last year, Badger 6 and Badger 5 were inseparable friends. The teams worked together on several projects, and became so attached to one another that they took to collectively calling themselves “Badger 11.”

But clearly, those old alliances are long dead. Badger 5’s members have been bragging that they’re going to get us back for the double-heel clicking stunt. We’ll see what they’ve got.

Why list Badger 5 in this sidekicks post? Because imagining new ways to torment them is one of my team’s favorite bonding activities. And... um... maybe because we actually think that they’re pretty cool people, and this little rivalry of ours is little more than a friendly joke? ... Nah.

* Badger 5 member Grace is excepted from all negative remarks made about her team. You go, Grace.


"Kiss From A Rose" is Badger 6's theme song for the year. So underrated. So triumphant. All the pathos and glory of the human condition encapsulated in less than four minutes. Behold:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Photo Dump: Badger 6 vs. Everything

(Above: Some of Badger 6 making the requisite "goofy" pose outside of Bell Manor in Conowingo. We swept up the place like crazy and later toured it at midnight.)

(Alicia, Katherine, Tyler and I at the Flyers-Red Wings game Sunday. Our seats were literally at the very top of the Wachovia Center, but thanks to some incredible fortune, we all got in for free. Thanks to Tim from Badger 3 for inviting me and giving me my ticket, even if he is a Red Wings fan.)

(The view from the cheap seats.)

(Tim demolishes the Wachovia Center ceiling after the Flyers hang on to beat the Wings, 4-3. As a St. Louis Blues fan, his rage made me smile inside.)

(Downtown Philly: art, architecture and beached whales)

(The building where we're staying for our next project in Camden. It doubles as the offices for a local maritime museum, hence the anchors on the front porch.)

(Story time. Actually, the team is watching a video of someone getting tased.)

(Packing up some complimentary plants from the Camden Children's Garden Saturday.)

(Alisa and Alicia work to settle said plants in the little garden behind our house. And yes, we have three girls named Alisa, Alicia and Alexa on our team. It's pretty ridiculous.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Good News, Everyone!

(Above: A photographic approximation of what it feels like to ride the miniature choo-choo train at the Camden Children's Garden. And also to get Internet access again.)

Hey folks,

Badger 6 has arrived in Camden, and the Internet is here with us. That means NCCC'd just got a shot of adrenaline after a long dry spell. Get excited!

We're about to begin our second project at the Camden Children's Garden, and you can expect fairly frequent updates on our progress, plus all sorts of fun little features that I've been wanting to do but couldn't pull off without regular Internet time.

So to kick things off on a vaguely inappropriate note, here's some weird stuff I wrote last night while we were in transit between Conowingo and here.

Hooray for navel-gazing!


I’m lying here in my dorm room, alone.

In AmeriCorps, this is the rarest of sensations: total isolation. To function in this program, you spend almost every waking and non-waking hour in the company of fellow Corps members. Working, eating, shopping, playing, talking, exercising, fretting, hoping, joking, living.

But tonight, my team is spending the night at the Perry Point dorms, as we transition from our now-completed project at Conowingo to Camden. We’re all spread out through the two-story building, tucked away in our different rooms. No one else is in the building. The feeling is one of camping out in a sprawling, abandoned ghost town.

I’m living in what they call “the Ameri-bubble.” No sense of the outside world... just the project, the team, the hours required to graduate. For one night, though, I’ve penetrated it, stumbling back out into something resembling my past life. I’m half-blinded, weary, confused. What happens when I’m spat out from this strange little world, permanently?

It’s a question I’ve studiously avoided ever since the new year began, as I threw myself headlong into what’s been an absorbing NCCC adventure so far. My first stab at scaling the journalism industry ended at a frustrating impasse, and I found myself aghast by all the things I had sacrificed in the name of chasing what they call “a career.” Lost out on the Wyoming plains... what a perfect metaphor for where that path leads!

AmeriCorps has me already reconsidering what I’m capable of and what I want to do with myself. But the next step is hardly any more apparent today than it was when I rocketed out of Wyoming on January 1. Thankfully, there is a “Life After AmeriCorps” program that I can explore for hints and clues.

I can only transition to the next section of this blog with a hastily scribbled “ON A LIGHTER NOTE...”

The final night at Camp Conowingo was fairly absurd, exciting and beautiful all at once... in the typical Badger 6 style of things. To celebrate completing our first project, we began the night huddled around a campfire, swapping s’mores and ghost stories. A blanket of stars swam overhead, and the only sounds beneath our voices were the crackle of firewood and the imagined footsteps of boogeymen in the dark.

Sounds romantic, I know, but it was just an appetizer. Once we were sufficiently amped up by all of the ghoulish tales, six of us decided to tour the Bell Manor just before the stroke of midnight. A quick word of explanation: the Bell Manor is a complete oddity on the Camp Conowingo grounds, a stately, white, three-story monster mansion thrust into the middle of the wilderness. My knowledge of the building’s actual history is muddled beyond coherence, but from what I understand it was a family’s summer home, and judging from the architecture its construction dates back a good many decades.

Oh yeah, and the mansion is supposedly haunted.

So into the abyss we six ghost hunters stumble, with one pocket flashlight, a headlamp, two cameras and a cell phone between us. We maintain a policy of not turning on any of the house lights, and more importantly, of not splitting up. You can imagine what followed: a gaggle of gigglers bumbling through the shadows and twitching at the tiniest creak of the floorboards. No spirits, malevolent or otherwise, made any guest appearances, but I would chalk up our late night tour as a legitimate adventure.

To close out the celebration, five of us spent the night in tents that we had erected several weeks before as a part of our project duties. They’re impressive beasts, built on raised wooden platforms in the middle of the woods, and able to hold about five cots apiece. The labor of fitting those things together and pulling them up was probably the most immediate and viscerally satisfying tasks of our project. So to actually sleep under one of them felt immensely gratifying.

Snuggled up against the cold in my sleeping bag, listening to the chorus of forest bugs outside, feeling 8 years old again. You can’t recreate that, or do it justice in words. It’s just a powerful, warm memory that you try to preserve in amber and hold onto as long as you can.

On a night like this, I’m gripping it tightly.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

All Together Now

So about half of my team and I are currently watching “Mrs. Doubtfire”... on VHS.

Yes, Camp Conowingo is truly the land that the 21st Century forgot. No cell phone service, DVD players or Internet. Normally, these sorts of deprivations would force me to place a call to the “WAAAAmbulance,” But these days? I’m feeling pretty good.

A trial separation from the Internet has had a strange, rejuvenating effect on my mind. No more checking for incremental updates on hockey games. No more endless hours spent exploring the dregs of YouTube. No more obsessing over the latest blog buzz band that’s farting out arty little tape loops from the heart of Williamsburg.

It’s freeing. Instead, I’ve trained my focus on work and getting to know my teammates a bit better. We’re all lashed to this AmeriCorps raft together, so it’s important that we learn each other’s quirks, peeves and bizarre eating habits early on in the process.

For starters, we’ve had to deal with a shifting team roster. Badger 6 stalwarts Alicia and Evelyn both made it onto a special NCCC team of firefighters, which means they just went through a week of training away from the rest of us. Alicia has returned to us since, but Evelyn will stay on the firefighting team fulltime for the first project round. Minus one.

Then there’s Jayme, my fellow St. Louisan and “Thriller” dance instrustor, who applied for and landed a gig on a composite team working out of New Orleans. She’ll be in the Big Easy for the next few weeks, leading volunteers in working on houses. Minus two.

Evelyn and Jayme both brought some unique color to our mix, so the chemistry has been somewhat askew without them. But we’re all friendly, here. No catfights, blowups, snits or blood grudges at the moment.

As for our first project, it’s been a large swath of grunt work intermixed with the occasional inspired moment. Camp Conowingo is 600-plus acres of forested obscurity, normally tended by two handymen: Dennis and Jeff, our project sponsors. As you might expect, they’re a tad eccentric, but very cool dudes nonetheless. Working alongside them, we’ve done a lot of sweeping, raking, wood chipping, and also constructed a mammoth set of Girl Scout tents.

We’ve had some team discussions about trying to keep our focus and remember why we’re working out here amidst the seclusion. Dennis and Jeff are certainly grateful. By their estimation, we’ve saved them a month of work within a week-and-a-half. And some bona fide Girl Scouts might be visiting the camp this weekend.

Will they bring those delicious, destructively addictive cookies of theirs? Probably not. But you’ll read it here first if they do.

After our time at Conowingo ends next week, we’re set to shift gears and head to Camden, N.J., to work at the local Children’s Garden. It’s a huge 180 from where we’re staying now: urban, poverty- and crime-stricken, and our mostly Caucasian team will be in the minority. It’ll be a challenge for any number of reasons, but I think everyone’s set for a change of pace.

What’s more, I’ll get to see some family of mine during our spring break in early April. I’m obviously looking forward to that, especially because it will get me out of the AmeriCorps bubble for a few days. "AmeriLife" gets a little weird sometimes. Where else, after all, could you have an impromptu, a capella rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody," start to finish, with nine people around a campfire?

What a delightful madhouse I'm living in.

As usual, updates here will be sporadic for the foreseeable future, but you never know...



(Team Leader Chloe resting beside a Conowingo stream)

(Me being a doofus)

("Unique color," indeed. Jayme really gets into it for St. Patrick's Day. Also, our house is a bit messy.)

(Badger 6 Twister gets kind of intense)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda...

Ah, how time flies. For awhile there, I thought Corps training would never end.

Now, I suddenly find myself living in a charming little clubhouse in the middle of the Maryland wilderness, set to begin my first official spike project tomorrow. For the record, I feel quite legit at the moment.

My team and I will be working at Camp Conowingo, a sleep away camp for Girl Scouts, between now and early April. Our tasks will include fixing up trails, repairing buildings, and sprucing up the joint in general before the Scouts arrive for the summer.

I'm blogging at the local McDonald's tonight, so there's not much time to compose my thoughts. Updates will be few and far between, most likely, given how secluded our first project is.

But, hey, I've got some photos for ya:

Learning the "Thriller" dance from my teammate and dance expert Jayme. A couple of dozen Corps members from the unbeatable Badger unit performed the dance in full zombie makeup for the NCCC talent show. I held my own as an undead person.

My three roommates from the AmeriCorps dorms: Peyton (on the top bunk), Josh (also my Badger 6 teammate, seated on the lower bunk) and Aaron (lying down and giggling). This was the day we were all officially inducted as AmeriCorps members. These guys are hilarious.

Me in my "AmeriTux" on Induction Day. In case you couldn't tell from previous photos, we have to wear gray AmeriCorps uniforms with khaki-colored cargo pants while on duty. But for special occasions, Corps members get to rock the white polo and black pants. Classy.

Our accommodations at Camp Conowingo. This is the "staff house," equipped with a kitchen, washer and dryer, bathroom with shower, and several mats for sleeping. Not the Ritz, but it'll do.

A little taste of the picturesque wilderness surrounding the camp. It's quite beautiful out here, although torrential rains have rendered the grounds a little sullen-looking.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

With A Vengeance

(Above: Meet my team for the rest of NCCC! Standing [L-R]: Josh, Team Leader Chloe, Rob, Alicia, Some Guy, Tyler and Alexa. Kneeling [L-R]: Jayme, Alisa, Evelyn and Katherine.)

Dear readers,

I return to you, somewhat weathered and somewhat humbled, after a few weeks of exile. My faithful old companion, my Apple PowerBook G4 laptop, suffered an acute infection of its AC adapter power cord, and nearly expired as a result.

Thankfully, it is returned to life, and so am I, although I’m feeling a bit wary about blogging these days. More on that later. But first... fun things.

Here’s what happened while I was away:

“Sloppy Joe of the Century”

As a rule, I do not attempt to cook things. When I prepare my own meal from scratch, lives get lost. Black smoke fills the kitchen, choking off all sightlines. Boiling cooking oil sprays through the air, maiming limbs and faces alike. Those who survive the initial onslaught never make it past choking down the entrée itself.

But once I was assigned to my new, permanent project team (big shout out to Badger 6!), it was expected that I chip in a dish every now and again for our group dinners. So, I did the honorable thing... and hid every time someone asked, “Who wants to cook?”

Of course, I couldn’t hide forever.

So after preparing a half-decent dish of chocolate pudding for dessert one night, my culinary confidence spiked high enough for me to volunteer for dinner duty. It was Sloppy Joe night. No sweat, right? Just cook up a bunch of meat and slather it on a hamburger bun.

But oh the terror that seized me! I’d never prepared ground beef before, and approached every step of the process with quivering timidity. How hot to set the stove? How to chop the giant slabs of beef? How to stir in the seasonings? And what about those baked beans I’d promised as a side dish?

I’d ask my teammate and cooking assistant Katherine for clues at nearly every turn. Most of the time when I asked her something, she’d just blink and respond with an answer that was so obvious and clear that I felt like smacking my forehead with a spatula. I was letting the pressure get to me.

Somehow, leaping from dish to dish, I got the meal done: crazy amounts of Sloppy Joe, perfectly cooked baked beans, and Katherine’s absurdly delicious potato side dish. Comfort food of the highest order. I haven’t cooked since, of course, but the next time the team calls on me, I’m leaping to the stove with confidence. We’re determined to survive this year of service, and my cooking isn’t going to stand in the way.

“Baby Spike”

Before a NCCC team goes on its first official service road trip (a.k.a. “spike”), it gets a little taste of what it’s like to live and work abroad for an extended time.

This sampling lasts three days, and goes by the affectionate name “baby spike.” For Badger 6’s mini trip, we got to work in a series of Delaware state parks. After all those interminable sessions spent chewing on my pen in classroom lectures, getting outdoors and down to business was a gust of reinvigorating air. Chopping up thorny vines, hefting branches, painting buildings, moving boxes... as mundane as all that might sound, these were the things I signed up to AmeriCorps to do. Not bureaucratic paperwork. Not reliving my collegiate doldrums. Work. Labor. Sweat.

And when the toils of the day were through, our team retired to our spectacular lodgings for an evening of hijinks. Our sponsors had posted us up at an eccentric old manor house in the woods near the University of Delaware. Known as the Krapf House (the “f” is not silent, I have learned), the place was a sprawling maze of rooms and funky architecture. A grand window in the kitchen gave us a prime view of a forest creek outside. Ornate wallpaper and carpeted bathrooms suggested a house that had enjoyed a past life as an aristocratic retreat.

But the highlight of the journey was getting to know my teammates. I’m not going to lie: our first week together had been awkward. We were all still attached to our original groups, which we had come to love during our first week in NCCC. After all the team rosters got scrambled, there were a lot of guarded looks and stifled laughter. But, man, three days working together goes a long way.

I discovered that it’s a goofy, loose group of kids that I’m a part of. We sang rounds of “Frere Jacques” in the van and during physical training, slammed the heels of our steel-toed boots against walls and trees, beatboxed circles around each other, discovered our spirit animals, and laughed until we were out of breath. It’s going to be a good year, I can already tell. Definitely not a normal one.

“This Blog Has Been Compromised”

I suppose it was naïve to assume that only my friends and family would read this blog. This is the Internet, after all. Any information that you are foolhardy enough to post here becomes public knowledge the moment you click “send.” Hell, I tried to hide this blog from my dad, but all he had to do was search Yahoo for my name plus the word “blog,” and... voila.

So on some deeper level, I was not shocked when the AmeriCorps NCCC Atlantic Region director called me into her office to talk to me about my blog. But in that primal, “fight or flight” part of my brain? Sheer panic. SHE KNOWS! BURN THE EVIDENCE, JEREMY!

But, too late. She prefaced all of our talk by saying that she wasn’t angry with me. Still... someone at AmeriCorps HQ had discovered the bizarro world of NCCC’d via Google Alerts. This person made good note of choice words such as “dysfunctional,” “apeshit,” and others before passing on a memo to our regional director.

I think it would be somewhat disingenuous of me to repeat any substantial amount of our conversation, or the second talk I had afterward with my unit leader. But, yes... those conversations happened, and yes, they upset me.

The regional and unit directors said all the right things: they weren’t angry about anything I wrote. There would be no censorship, no deletion of blog posts, no black smudge on my AmeriCorps record, no “A Clockwork Orange”-style reeducation sessions. As they put it, they just wanted to make sure I was informed of what was going on at the top end of the food chain. The unit director warmly encouraged me to keep writing, saying he had enjoyed the bulk of what I'd posted.

Still, my emotional reactions to getting pulled aside from the group for these talks got pretty extreme. First, I beat up on myself with brass knuckles. I think we’ve all had that moment where we have “stupidstupidstupidstupidstupid...” running through our heads. This was my moment.

But in the following days, frustration curdled to anger. I seriously considered closing up this blog, or turning it into an invitation-only newsletter. Perhaps it was a good thing that my laptop was incapacitated during this time, as I might have posted something I would later have regretted. Hopefully, those raging coals have now cooled off and given me a clear-eyed view of the situation.

So I want to make one thing clear, for the record: I left a good job in journalism for the sole reason of joining AmeriCorps. I absolutely believe the work we do here is of the utmost importance and value. Anything I write or have written is a product of my belief that AmeriCorps is a great program, and should be a great program, now and in the future.

But I have no intention of turning this blog into a fuzzy, public relations arm for the organization. When something stinks, I’m going to write about it. I have the assurances of leadership here that I am fully free to express my opinion on this little Web outpost (as it should be!). So I’m taking them up on that promise. If the content of this blog is ever infringed upon via a threat, a heavy-handed suggestion, supplemental discipline, supervised editing, addition or deletion, you will all be made aware of that.

None of the above has happened so far, and I expect that nothing of the sort will happen in the future.

This is also the last mention I will make of this incident on NCCC’d. I’ve wasted enough emotional energy on it already. I intend to have an amazing year, to discover new things and to “get things done for America,” as our organization’s motto so boldly states.

I’m not about to let a speed bump derail a bullet train.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Short Cuts

(Above: marching to shovel snow in Perryville. The NCCC dorms loom in the background.)

Thus far, NCCC training has required little more than for corps members to show up, plunk our butts in seats, and listen to a guest lecturer lead an all-day seminar.

This sort of “activity” does not make for the trademark brand of scintillating, nerve-jangling updates that this blog has built its name on. So instead: a collection of short stories on life in Perry Point, Md., the bayside AmeriCorps campus, and how it feels as one’s mind gradually dissolves.

“The Food Panic of 2010”

Cursed hubris! False lighthouse, shipwrecker of humanity! When I wrote earlier that my team was eating like “minor royalty,” I had not anticipated how dire our pantry situation would become by the end of last week.

As supplies ran short on the eve of our next collaborative shopping expedition, my teammates and I had to get creative. There were makeshift peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on hot dog buns. Random pita bread atrocities prepared by yours truly. Oatmeal, of all things, became an in-demand breakfast dish. One of the other teams ate a dinner with an entrée of collared greens.

We were scrambling like it was the Irish Potato Famine.

When the food came rolling back in, the kitchen exploded in euphoria. BAGELS! GRANOLA BARS! MILK!

And so we began to pillage again, short-sightedly setting ourselves up for another crippling shortage this week.

“The Legend of the White Deer”

In addition to warring factions of seagulls and slovenly geese, deer are the major breed of wildlife on the AmeriCorps campus. But one, in particular, has drawn out our obsessive fascination.

It has been glimpsed only in fleeting, half-blurred moments of twilit transcendence: the albino deer of Perry Point.

I saw it only once as I rode past in a van, standing amidst a copse of trees with its brown-coated brethren. It was a powerful moment. Other corps members swear this deer possesses mystical powers of healing, teleportation, and spiritual insight. I cannot corroborate any of these spectacular reports, but will endeavor to provide photographic evidence of the beast’s existence.

“The Congressional Visit”

How’s this for a sitcom plot: earlier this week, word leaked out that a “congressional delegation” would make an inspection of the AmeriCorps campus. The organizational brass went understandably apeshit about the distinguished delegation that would arrive to judge our facilities. Everything had to be spotless.

That meant mass cleanings of the building in morning and evening. Sweeping, mopping, polishing, disinfecting, bleaching, refurbishing, sweating in anticipation of the big moment. A great mass of grumbling rose up from us poor corps members who had to handle the grunt work, but hey, it was a congressman visiting, right?

Not so fast. Turns out, it was only a congressional aide. Grumbles gave way to hysterical laughter. The plot twist was too absurd not to enjoy.

My roommates and I began to speculate as to the true identity of our great visitor. Was it Timmy, the congressional intern? Gus, the congressional janitor? Peepers, the congressional kitty cat? I never got to meet the delegation (only a handful of clean-cut and respectable Corps members were hand-picked for the honor).

But the experience, for all of its desperate stupidity, bonded me and my roomies all the closer in bemused outrage. Many running jokes sprung from the experience. AmeriCorps continues to resemble a ramshackle, half-improvised road show, but I still have the feeling that things will continue to work out here.

Prove me wrong.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Gang and I

(Author's note: Due to a pervasive lack of Internet access in the AmeriCorps dorms, most entries will be written a couple of days in advance before posting here. Like this one.)


So who volunteers to sacrifice ten months of life, a sizable chunk of personal comfort and any illusions of privacy in the name of national service?

Having met and mingled with several dozen of the 200+ NCCC members on the Perry Point campus this week, I’m struck by the fact that everyone seems like a bit of an odd duck.

Post-collegiate soul searchers. Precocious teenaged adventurers. Bearded troubadors. Trained mixed martial arts fighters. Bookworms, movie lovers, chess junkies. Since we’ve been snowed in most of our first week, this mismatched assortment of characters has had little to do but play off of each other.

We test each other’s adlibbing skills and pop culture knowledge in the kitchen. We collide in random discussions about the paths that brought us here... our motivations, dreams and hungers. We mutter about the complete lack of Internet in our dorms, as well as the dysfunctional, haphazard way in which the AmeriCorps program (sometimes) operates.

The Blizzard of the Century certainly played a role in screwing things up. But it’s no coincidence that AmeriCorps prizes “flexibility” as its top value. Scheduled times for activities change with whiplash regularity. Utilities in our living space (a converted nursing home on the VA Medical campus) are constantly on the fritz. Our team leaders (wonderful people, by the way) all seem to receive contradictory information from the top brass, creating an ever-present mist of confusion.

And we haven’t even left for our first service project yet.

But, hey, better to have the kinks worked out now, rather than in the midst of a five-hour jaunt to upstate New York... or something.

Thankfully, all of us Corps members are banding together to conquer the minor adversities we’ve encountered so far. During the first week, everyone gets assigned to a temporary “pod” of 10 people. My group (official title: “Badger 3”) has proved an excellent unit. There’s a nice mix of Type A and Type B personalities, a loose group atmosphere and plenty of youthful abandon.

You can see several of my temporary teammates enjoying breakfast in the picture above. From left to right: Stephanie, Colin, Rob (standing), Ethan, Autumn, Tim and Kelly. Also, a note to amateur photographers: never shoot an indoor photo with a window somewhere in the background. It sucks out all the light.

As the photo suggests, these cats can cook. Which is good, because each pod has to shop and cook meals for itself. We AmeriCorps members live on what seems like a pitiful food allowance: $4.50 per day per member. But when you roll that all together with a team of 10, you can afford a veritable smorgasbord of cheap and easy dishes. Recent entrees have included English muffin pizzas, grilled chicken breast with bowtie pasta, mac and cheese with hot dog slices, and tacos. In short, we are living like minor royalty.

Within the next day, we’ll all be assigned new groups, which will become our permanent teams for the rest of our 10 months of service. It’s going to be interesting to see how the wheel of fortune spins on that one. I’d prefer to land in another easygoing team. After all, there’s been enough dysfunction around here already...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Still Here

It was, on first glance, a descent into barbarism.

No Internet, for starters. No hot water in the shower. A dorm that resembled, if nothing else, a psychological ward from a slasher film.

But then I met the people, and everything suddenly became tolerable.

Yes, NCCC has begun, in earnest due to pummeling blizzards that have buried Maryland in several feet of snow. Today was our first day of official training after three days of ice breakers, trading jokes and board games to kill time.

I don't have time to add much else, though there is quite a bit more to tell.

Rumors of wireless Internet coming to the dorms have yet to be substantiated. I'll keep you all posted with the up-to-the-minute updates that I know you crave.


- Jeremy

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What I Learned

From a road trip that did not quite live up to its "EPIC!" billing, lessons on travel and survival:

1.) Complimentary breakfasts: they're worth forcing yourself out of bed and stumbling into the hotel lobby, unshaven and uncoordinated.

2.) If a car to your left begins swerving and sprays your windshield with chunks of ice, just slam on the breaks, frantically swipe the windshield wipers and shout "oh shit!" as many times as you can. You should emerge unscathed.

3.) If your butt hurts, stop driving.

4.) A single hippie can be amusing — even charming — but get stuck in a crowd of them and you're in for a private hell.

5.) Try to visit as many friends along the drive as possible. They make all the indignities of highway travel a bit more tolerable.

6.) Do not procrastinate on restroom stops. And yes, my jeans are fine.

7.) When the weather turns homicidal, drive like an old lady.

8.) Believe it or not, printed newspapers can relay useful information (I guess I should have known that already).

9.) The Tallulah Gorge is the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River.

10.) Never road trip in the winter. Seriously. It's a drag, and it might get you killed.


My AmeriCorps NCCC processing/brainwashing begins tomorrow. Something tells me I won't sleep well tonight. But there's a complimentary breakfast waiting for me in the morning...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Well, I'm Screwed

News flash:

I imagine that a lot of other AmeriCorps NCCC'ers are in tough with their travel arrangements amidst this hellish blizzard.

I'm in Asheville at the moment, and it's been only raining here. The further north I trek tomorrow, however, the more likely things are to get nasty. I'll take it slow and see how far I can make it.

Best of luck to everyone else trying to make it to Perry Point, by plane, train or unicycle.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mitigated Disaster

I am a worrier by nature. Maybe it runs in the family.

For every exciting new venture that presents itself, I always imagine a thousand potential calamities strapped to its underbelly, lying in wait to sabotage the whole thing.

As excited as I've been about The Road Trip, I've also envisioned a solid dozen different ways by which it could end in flaming disaster for me and my Toyota Corolla.

So when the ominous "check engine" light flashed on my dashboard and the motor began to hiccup, it was not so much a shock as a glum resignation that came over me. Of course this was happening. My overactive imagination had prophesied it already.

The kinks started in Mount Vernon, Ill., and the car (let's just call her Josephine) managed to limp to Paducah, Ky., where I had her inspected by the local Toyota dealer.

Three hours later, a prognosis: "I was able to save the headlights," said the mechanic, with the grim finality of an oncologist delivering word to a new widow.

Thankfully, he was kidding: just a misfiring coil. They didn't have the replacement part in Paducah, but the staff assured me that I could make it all the way to Nashville (my intended destination for the night) without Josephine combusting along the way.

So, hey, I made it to Music City, maybe a little later than planned, but still had chance to share dinner with a fellow NCCC'er who is bound for Perry Point. We had a nice talk over tacos, bound by our shared nervousness and excitement. But we'll do fine, right?

Josephine received her final replacement surgery this morning, at considerable but hardly crippling expense. She has recovered nicely, and this afternoon we blasted down to Atlanta, where hopefully we can both catch our breaths. I am staying at the home of one of the editors of Paste magazine, where I interned between September and December of 2007.

So I'm actually feeling better now that this whole car trouble ordeal is behind me. One of the worst things that could possibly happen on this trip happened, and I'm still in one piece. My schedule remains more or less intact.

For the one person who asked, my in-car play list so far:

The Staple Singers - The Very Best of the Staple Singers
Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary
Portishead - Dummy
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Bat For Lashes - Two Suns
The Wrens - The Meadowlands
Various Artists - Nuggets From Nuggets: Choice Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era
The Roots - Game Theory
The Rolling Stones - Aftermath
The Rolling Stones - Beggars Banquet

I'm quite fond of all these albums... check 'em out if you haven't heard of 'em.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye

So I'm sitting here in my parents' living room, having just completed a characteristically hasty and last-minute job of packing for NCCC. If this were the Oregon Trail that I was preparing for, a swift death from dysentery would be my due. As it is, though, I probably will survive.

But I'm not thinking about supplies or provisions at the moment. I'm thinking, in that maudlin and morose way of mine, about the people I'm leaving behind. Yes, I know... break out the tissues.

Ever since I left Gillette one month ago, it seems I've been walking through an endless parade of "so long's" "farewell's" and "'til we meet again's." Hell, even the automated goodbye message from Netflix after I canceled my subscription felt bittersweet.

I've had to explain NCCC a fair number of times to friends, family and acquaintances as I've made the rounds, chewing on those same words and hoping to find some new meaning behind them:

"Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it. I think it will be a good experience."

"I just wanted to do something different, get my hands dirty."

"Absolutely, I'll be sure to keep in touch."

"Follow my blog, or we aren't friends/relatives anymore."

You know, stuff like that. And with one week before NCCC begins, I don't think I'm any closer to coming to terms with the idea. I keep trying to envision the next year of my life, and yet there's nothing but a vague fog of mismatched images to fill my imagination.

So that makes leaving everyone I know (again) feel that much more troubling, even if it's just for a year. On Saturday, I visited my sister in Columbia, Mo., where she's attending college. It was an odd sort of compromise... one more day together as brother and sister before I ran off to complete the latest in a long line of questionable misadventures.

We wandered around the sprawling campus, trading inside jokes as the winter sun hovered lazily overhead. Rachel and I are pretty much on the same wavelength, and that's a rare thing for two odd ducks like us. After a day spent with her, I came away thinking... "Yeah, that is what's important to me. That is what I need to hold on to."

Sunday night, it was goodbye to my grandparents, with stiff hugs exchanged outside an overpriced restaurant. Then farewell to longtime friend/ex-roommate Bob, in the form of a basement jam session and a commiserating discussion on the state of the journalism industry.

Finally, I gave my parents their ceremonial last hugs tonight. That's when I know a stay in St. Louis is over: when Mom is staring at me longingly from a neighboring couch and Dad is engaging me in every random conversation he can conjure up.

Since it's been brought to my attention that my folks have become readers of the blog, I don't see the need to add much else. You guys know how I feel, of course.

Auf wiedersehen, shalom, sayonara, et cetera.

I hit the road tomorrow. I'll see ya when I see ya.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Back in the year 2000, I probably would have tried to tell you that Tom Green was a comedic genius. And no, I'm not ashamed to admit that.

First of all, I was a slightly spastic, socially inert 14-year-old... part of Mr. Green's ideal demographic. Secondly, with the YouTube-aided gift of hindsight, I must ask: was Tom Green as viciously unfunny as society labeled him?

Exhibit A:

Now seriously... could you not see Zach Galifianakis performing this exact role today to widespread critical acclaim? Green, in his own bug-eyed, pathetically exhibitionist way, paved the way for an oddball savant like Galifianakis to win America's heart 10 years later. Chew on that thought for awhile. (And, you know, try not to think about "Freddy Got Fingered" or "Stealing Harvard" while you do).

This revisitation of Tom Green's film career is an entirely unrelated lead-in to my own "road trip" plans for next week. The week-long journey will carry me from St. Louis to Perry Point, where the AmeriCorps experience officially begins. The unofficial schedule, below:

Feb. 2:
  • Motor from St. Louis to Nashville (311 miles)
  • Sightsee in Music City
  • Nashville Predators vs. Phoenix Coyotes... greatest NHL matchup ever?
Feb. 3-4:
  • Nashville to Atlanta (249 miles)
  • Revisit/annoy old colleagues at Paste Magazine
  • Local tour of museums, vintage clothing stores
Feb. 5:
  • Atlanta to Asheville, N.C. (198 miles)
  • See Of Montreal live in concert at the Orange Peel
Feb. 6:
  • First leg of Asheville to Washington, D.C. (470 miles)
  • Travel north through the Appalachian Mountain region, narrowly escaping from inbred, cannibalistic hillbillies while taking pictures of the pretty scenery
Feb. 7:
  • Finish drive to D.C.
  • Hang out with a.) an ex-college classmate/bandmate, b.) a second cousin, c.) one of my dad's old college buddies, d.) all of the above
  • Blend in with group of German tourists, tour through a gauntlet of asphalt monuments and memorials
Feb. 8:
  • Wake up early for Washington, D.C. to Perry Point, Md. (81 miles)
  • Check in with AmeriCorps at the VA Medical Center gym, prepare for 10 months of hardcore service

That's 1,309 miles (not including the extra rubber that I'll burn while fleeing from the Appalachian boogeymen). WILL I SURVIVE? I'll be broadcasting at intervals throughout the journey to let you know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Church of Exercise

I've visited the JCC gym enough times now that I'm starting to recognize faces. At least a couple of folks have given me a wave on occasion. I am becoming "a regular," if not a full-fledged gym rat just yet.

Despite that growing familiarity with the building, I don't feel as if I'm making much progress. I always begin my workouts by sprinting up the stairs to the weight room, two at a time. About 45 minutes later, I stumble down those same stairs, sweaty and gassed. Oh yes, I know, it's not supposed to be easy to get in shape, but... why can't it be?

The big problem here is that gyms have always made me uneasy. Chalk it up to lingering emotional residue from high school, when I endured the ritualistic PE humiliations that are a fat kid's lot in life. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm over it now. But there's a strong association in my mind between workout machines and feelings of inadequacy.

That, and the damn things bear a strong resemblance to medieval torture devices, don't you think? Have a seat, grunt out some reps, hyperextend your joints, strain your muscles and you'll walk away feeling better... supposedly. I'll tell you what, though: I've heard some sounds at the gym that could have come from suspected heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. Confess, sinner, or it's back to the vertical chest press with you!

Exercise-as-religion is an apt metaphor, though. The gym is where we do penance for the little sins of poor diet and laziness... each squat to atone for that unnecessary chocolate muffin, or that afternoon spent draped over the couch. Look at a workout room from a distance, and it's a host of devout believers committing acts of self-flagellation.

So I'm getting through my sessions by not getting too down on myself. Really, a trip to the gym is just a lesson in physics. Gravity is a constant. Weight values do not change. My muscles, atrophied as they are, can only exert a certain amount of force before they give out. So why bitch and moan about it when the mathematics come out against me? If I can't lift that 100-pound barbell, I just can't.

And really, the workout routine was not meant to whip me into a chiseled specimen by February. I only hope to get a head start, to get the ball rolling on improving my strength and endurance before my service begins. I'm not certain if I'm meeting even those modest goals, but that's not going to stop me from making the trip every other day.

I'm a believer.

Monday, January 18, 2010

AmeriCorps FAQ

So from reading the first two comments on the blog (thanks, Sarah and Andrew!), I realize that I might have jumped the gun on things a little bit. Already, I've blasted off into cross-eyed ramblings on cats, childhood memories and freaky dreams, but I haven't actually explained what this whole AmeriCorps thing is about.

Here, then, are some basics for you to gnaw on...

Q: What the hell is Jeremy doing with himself?

A: Jeremy, misguided dreamer that he is, will be serving in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). The program, for ages 18 to 24, places participants into small teams that complete a variety of service projects over a 10-month period.

All projects fall into five broad categories: natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation and urban and rural development. Each team completes about four to six projects during the year.

Q: Oh. Uh... my condolences. Where will he be doing all of this stuff?

A: Jeremy will be stationed on a campus in Perry Point, Md., which lies halfway between Baltimore and Philadelphia. That campus serves the "Atlantic Region," which includes Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont... and — what the hell? — Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

For service projects located farther than 60 miles from campus, Jeremy and his teammates will go out "on spike," staying at accommodations provided by the project's sponsor. These commitments can last several weeks at a time, meaning that members usually spend more time on spike than at the AmeriCorps campus.

Q: When does he start?

A: His term runs from Feb. 8 to Nov. 18, 2010.

Q: Does he have to pay his own way?

A: Not really. Jeremy will be living comfortably off of your hard-earned tax dollars, enjoying complimentary room and board, a biweekly living allowance and an education award of "more than $5,000," assuming he competes the required number of service hours.

Q: Is Jeremy going to come out of this thing brainwashed?

A: Possibly. Reprinted below is the AmeriCorps Pledge:

"I will get things done for America, to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps Member, and I will get things done."

So, yeah... he might be a bit insufferable and self-righteous the next time you see him. Just humor him, nod your head sympathetically as he sermonizes about "renewing our commitment to America," and back away slowly. SLOWLY.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Freudian Trip

I worked as a reporter at the Gillette News-Record from March 10, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2009. Not that I had a prison cell-style tally going on in my apartment, or anything.

Once I have a few years of hindsight under my belt, I believe my time in Gillette, Wyo. will go down as a very strange, frustrating and ultimately enlightening period of my life. But for now, I can't really talk about the one year, nine months and three weeks I spent there without foaming at the mouth. Sorry.

But I did have an odd dream last night that brought some of my feelings about Gillette and its newspaper to the fore.

In the dream, I've returned from St. Louis to the familiar News-Record office. A few things have changed since I left. Several new people sit at desks in the editorial department — interns, I later discover. One of my ex-colleagues has shaved off his trademark facial hair, and looks remarkably younger. Oh yeah, and there's a sprawling, well-stocked bar now occupying one side of the building.

If you know journalists, you'll realize that last detail isn't as bizarre as it seems.

Anyway, I sit at the bar. And the education reporter is apparently working as the bartender. I give him a familiar nod and a smile, but he looks the other way. That's odd.

Then I'm floating between desks, seeking out my fellow reporters and trying to say hello. But everyone's busy on deadline, and no one pays me any notice. Finally, I introduce myself to one of the newbies, and she acknowledges my presence. Excellent... this means I'm not dead or invisible.

But still... no one from my time before recognizes me. I'm upset and unsettled. Finally, I end up outside the office, tracking down one of the paper's photographers. He's out shooting on the side of the interstate, but I interrupt his work.

"Hey! Do you remember me? Jeremy?"

"No." He doesn't hesitate in responding, but he looks doubtful, as if he's considering whether or not he's done a story on me before.

I try to explain that I worked at the paper, but he's not buying it.

"This is so 'Twilight Zone,'" I say... before I snap my fingers with a sudden realization. "And that's because this is all a dream! Ha!" I glance to the photographer with a smile. "Now you can do whatever you've always wanted to do."

Shortly thereafter, just as I'm preparing to fly away into the sky, lucid dream-style, the photographer stabs me in the side with an X-Acto knife.

So I'm not sure what that last part is all about, but this dream seems like your typical exercise in narcissistic self-doubt. Did I make a difference during my time in Gillette? Will anyone remember my contributions? Tough to say, but I don't think it's quite as grim as the dream portrays.

But that also brings up a big point of why I opted to join AmeriCorps. For me, working as a reporter was both empowering and paralyzing. It came with a sense of being out in the community, of making a difference for the lives of locals, but the journalist's professional creed still held me back. Look, don't touch. You can observe the people, even empathize with them, but you're not quite one of their number. You are the narrator, looking down on everyone from a cloud.

There were times... particularly during meetings of the incompetent, corrupt and viciously unpleasant Campbell County Cemetery District... when I wanted to stand up, express my opinion and take some decisive action. Perhaps it's a good thing that I had my journalist's hat to restrain me in those situations. Without it, I would have slapped a cemetery trustee, in all likelihood.

But joining AmeriCorps is a pretty obvious attempt at wish fulfillment: to toss myself into life headlong without regard for "objectivity" or professional distance. To leave the realm of words for the realm of action. To build things that will last, not articles that will be discarded and forgotten tomorrow.

Will it meet those high-flown standards? Well, I'm trying not to be too idealistic about it. AmeriCorps will be hard work. There probably are going to be days when I wake up cursing about something... the service projects, the training, the regulations. But even that thought excites me.

Even if the AmeriCorps experience proves as bipolar as my hitch at the News-Record, I'd argue that it would still be worth the time and effort. It's something new, challenging, and very, very unknown. I can't wait for the ride to start.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Death of Nostalgia

Every time I've visited St. Louis over the past two years, I've felt irresistibly drawn to revisit scenes from my youth.

I've gone back to the Science Center, to see the same animatronic dinosaurs that used to terrify me as a child repeat the same five-second loop of movement unto eternity. I've retraced the steps of my solitary walks in Malcolm Terrace Park, where I'd retreat to the woods during my high school days, lost in high-flung thoughts.

So as I was trying to find a place to exercise for the next few weeks, magnetic currents of memory predictably pulled me back to the Jewish Community Center in Creve Couer.

That's the place where my Grandpa Bernie would take me weekday afternoons in a noble but futile attempt to mold his pudgy grandson into something passably fit. We'd go swimming in the Olympic-sized pools, jog along the donut-shaped indoor track, and he'd watch as I romped over some of the center's padded gymnastics equipment.

He was a respected doctor around town, and he always seemed to run into ex-patients or synagogue comrades at "The J." He'd present me as a sort of personal mascot: "My grandson, Jeremy." And I'd bashfully nod before shaking the hand of Bernie's old friend.

In the end, my inherent laziness won out. I never became the spindly young athlete that my grandfather had been, before arthritis of the spine stiffened his entire figure from the waist up. But over those years, I developed a great fondness for the man, and the quirky old facility that he'd drag me to every week.

To this day, even 10 years after I stopped visiting, I could walk you through a detailed mental map of the J as it once was. But it wouldn't matter. That version of the Jewish Community Center is no more.

I discovered this unsettling truth yesterday, when I visited the J to rejoin as a member. Trying to walk in through the old main entrance, I found the former lobby refurbished beyond recognition. Fresh walls and new furniture had boxed in the space. A coating of displaced paint chips seemed to cover everything. "Under construction."

So I walked along the sidewalk, down a hill to the hulking new addition that had sprung up at some point during my decade-long absence. I had hoped to ignore the shiny expansion area (the "Staenberg Family Complex"), but it looked like I had no choice.

Once inside, I saw the new face of the J. Where there were once hospital-ward linoleum floors, there was now splashy carpeting to distract the eye. Claustrophobically low ceilings were replaced with a towering, two-story atrium. No more dust, no more creaky hinges. Everything slick, powerful, new.

As I filled out my membership paperwork, I described it to one of the J's staff members as feeling like Rip Van Winkle. The quaint old world that my grandfather and I knew had been swept away in the name of something terrifyingly modern and convenient.

A kindly young staffer named Anna led me on a tour, humoring my disbelief as she showed off the workout equipment and pool. The new building had come to life over the past two years, she said, paid for by an ongoing $40 million fundraising drive. The old campus, the seat of all my cherished childhood memories, will reemerge as a "cultural arts center" later this year to compliment the new athletics complex.

At least they aren't tearing it down.

For the last stop on our tour, Anna insisted that I check out the men's locker room. Inside there were wood-paneled lockers with electronic locks, personal hygiene stations that dispensed complimentary aftershave and a built-in sauna. There was also a sizable herd of hairy, half-naked old men lumbering about the room.

And would you believe it: that was a comforting sight for me. One thing about the J, at least, conformed to my old memories. Maybe one of those guys even knew Bernie from way back when.

So I exited the building on a gust of fresh confidence. Things change. Time to let go of the safety blanket of nostalgia. Time to get to work.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Destroyer of Worlds

Pictured above (circa summer 2007) is my family's cat, Lucky. As you can see from this photo, she does not suffer fools lightly. Also, she can blot out the sun simply by sitting her fat, furry self down in front of you.

Damn her eyes.

Initially, Lucky was intended as a birthday gift for my younger sister, who had always pined for something small and squeezable to call her own. But once Rachel moved off to college, it fast became apparent that Lucky was my mother's pet project.

Taking ownership of Lucky released all of the maternal affection that had she had dammed up for years as Rachel and I aged into cynical teenagers. With the human children now grown and fled from the nest, Lucky became the surrogate third Goldmeier child. Mom showered her in affectionate coos, head rubs and food. So much food.

At a certain point, probably around when Lucky began to develop a turkey-esque form and waddle, we all realized that something had to be done to whip the spoiled feline into shape. But alas, we were too late. Even after scattering Lucky's food allotments throughout the house, even after feebly encouraging her to play with her toys, even after viciously mocking her in an attempt to shame her into weight loss, she remains a fat cat.

Why do I mention all of this back story? Well, with my parents both working crazy hours and my sister now semi-nocturnal, Lucky will be my main companion for the next month. And it is imperative that I avoid the corrosive, nihilistic influence of this terrible cat in my attempt to get into shape for AmeriCorps.

So, step one: stop grazing at that massive vat of Puppy Chow that now sits on the kitchen counter. It's hard to imagine a less healthy snack than those scrumptious little cereal bits, gently flavored with peanut butter, coated in a tender milk chocolate envelope and smothereeeeeeeeddddddddddd...


Oh... sorry. I blacked out there for a second. Where was I? Oh yes, as I was saying... uh... oh... oh God... my clothes are covered in powdered sugar...

I'm... going to leave it at that. More to come!