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.