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.