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.