Friday, August 31, 2012

It's Here, It's Gone, It Wasn't Bad at All

Isaac has come and gone and Americorps is still here!

Yeah, there wasn't ever much doubt--the storm wasn't very strong and we only caught the edges, but it was still my first real hurricane*. After sustained rain that lasted throughout Thursday night and knocked out power to the campus, Isaac passed over pretty quietly. 

There isn't much bad news to speak of. The storm took down plenty of foliage and a few bigger tree branches, but nobody got hurt in the process. Water lines remained up throughout the hurricane and immediately after, so the 252+ cases of water purchased before the storm remain mostly unused. Food supplies held up and we were able to make a Wal-Mart run earlier tonight, so there's plenty of food to last us through the weekend. 

Really, the only major effect for us was the power outage, which continues up to this moment--I'm writing this post from the waiting room of a local laundromat. Apparently Vicksburg has old-fashioned aboveground power lines that are rather vulnerable to storms. Repair crews are working now, but we're a rather low priority and there are no firm predictions for when power will return to the campus. For now, that means cold showers, food out of cans and hellishly humid rooms, but hey, we signed up for worse conditions. If nothing else, we're going on a four-day road trip to Ole Miss from Tuesday through Friday, so one would expect that the power would get itself fixed in our absence. 

Other business: I've got my permanent team and my FEMA Specialist position! I'm on Summit V, a Community Relations Specialist team, headed by the fabulous Chelsea Steck. That was my first choice as a specialist position and I couldn't be more excited--the night we found out, I literally could not stop jumping around, dancing and singing for joy. I'll do a post in a few days that outlines a little more about the position. I've actually got a pretty sizeable backlog of material (the storm may have knocked out power, but I made sure to charge my laptop beforehand and I've kept busy!), but instead of splurging and posting it all now, I'll try to find Internet service at local restaurants and whatnot and post it day-by-day. 

*Wooster folk will remember Hurricane Ike, by then no longer a hurricane, sweeping through small-town Ohio and knocking out power to our college campus. It took down so many trees that students had an impromptu filling of the Arch with them the next night, much to the displeasure of campus staff. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Waiting for Isaac

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you some moderately interesting information about Hurricane Isaac, which is apparently on its way towards our general area. According to this Google map on the Huffington Post, Vicksburg is in the predicted path of the hurricane. We're not going to get hit full force unless the storm completely changes direction, but we're definitely going to get heavy rainfall. The reports are that Isaac will be a Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane when it makes landfall in a few hours; it is, however, moving very slowly--FOX News says 10 MPH. So it'll likely have some time to dissipate before it reaches us.

This is going to be my first-ever hurricane, Wisconsinite that I am. I was in Wooster, OH when the remains of Hurricane Ike came through in '08; it knocked out power to the campus and toppled a few trees, but Ike had long since been downgraded to a meaner-than-average storm by then. This is going to be my first real Gulf Coast (ish; we're pretty far inland) hurricane experience.

The good news is that we're prepared. The TLs went out today and stocked up on bottled water and foodstuffs for the next few days, just in case. During our lunch break, we Corps members formed a human chain and moved hundreds of cases of water into a storage room in Green Hall. According to a note on one pile, we have 84 twenty-four-packs of water for Bayou unit alone (roughly 1/3 of the Corps). Extrapolating for Summit and Ocean units, at that rate, that's 6048 individual bottles of water... plus several dozen gallon jugs of water that we've also stockpiled... plus whatever provisions we've made for the staff members... PLUS whatever water we can get and stockpile in water bottles before the storm arrives. What I'm trying to say is that we're pretty well fixed for water. Food, too. Everyone has supplies for at least two more days, and the TLs just went and bought even more this afternoon.

So that's where we stand. Isaac is supposed to make landfall sometime tonight, and we should feel its wrath at some point in the next couple of days. I'm going to get in my outside time while I can with Frisbee and friends, and then we'll ride out the edges of the storm.

Monday, August 27, 2012

True Lies in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Is it possible for something to be simultaneously true and false?

We’re used to the theme that lies can be better than the truth, or can bring hope to the downtrodden when the truth would destroy them. It’s a major Christopher Nolan theme, appearing in The Dark Knight, Inception and Memento, to name just a few. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, however, Philip K. Dick takes that theme the next level. Spoilers abound because that's how this works. Beware! Beware!

Electric Sheep is what people talk about when they talk about postmodern fiction. There are no certainties or clear definitions, and outward appearance is laughably inadequate in determining the true nature of an object, animal or human. Early on in the novel, we learn that perfectly normal-looking humans can be androids, that the animals citizens are required to have as pets—sheep, goats, cats, whatever—are frequently replaced with inexpensive electric versions, and that the Voigt-Kampff test used to root uncover escaped androids is not necessarily reliable. Emotions are manufactured and Mercerism, the emotion-based religion of a post-apocalyptic Earth, is the only truth to be found.

The novel's slow, dreamlike turns tend to blur the boundary between simulation and simulated even further, most notably in the case of the false police station. Upon apprehending an android, bounty hunter Rick Deckard enters a nightmare reversal of the real world: nobody recognizes him or his job, a policeman takes him in for questioning because he is an unknown person and he is told that his entire life did not actually happen. Deckard is arrested by a false cop, taken to a false station—they tell him that the one he knows has been closed down for years--and just wrapped in this fog of lies and deception that leaves Deckard, and the reader, genuinely unsure of what's happening to the hunter.The fog is eventually cleared and the falsehoods exposed, but the message remains: everything is uncertain. 

In a sense, throughout the book, Rick is searching for something true, something concrete and real for him to latch onto. There does not seem to be a capital-T Truth in Electric Sheep, however, so Rick attempts to content himself with lies. He sleeps with Rachael, an android, and finds relief with her in a way he does not with his shrewish wife. He finds a supposedly extinct toad in the wreckage of Oregon and rejoices, thinking it real; when the toad turns out to be electric after all, though, he is still able to sleep the sleep of deep inner contentment. While Deckard is crestfallen about the toad, there’s meaning to be found within it that defies falsehood. This is a familiar theme inNolan’s work and in The Matrix, a world of simulations and false promises. Postmodern worlds often feature lies giving hope to the lied to, even when the lied-to person knows that they are false.

But Wilbur Mercer, the founder of Mercerism is both truth and lie. We learn during the novel that the person of Mercer may never have existed, that the image that the population of Earth shares in through empathy-boxes—a sort of collective hallucination where they all fuse into one person—was filmed on a sound stage somewhere and was never objectively real. And yet Mercer appears, saintlike, to Deckard and warns him of danger; they even have a brief conversation. He is unmistakably still there even after he’s been exposed as an actor playing a part. Is it possible that the collective belief of the people made him real, or is Mercer part of some higher Truth or Reality that transcends his origins or behaviour? The book doesn’t say, and Deckard may never find out. All he knows is that Mercer, false or real, or both, symbolizes peace and tranquility. That’s enough.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Diversity Training at NCCC: Breaking Down and Building Up

Disclaimer: This post is all about a kind of training that is best experienced without foreknowledge. On the Vicksburg campus, where our three units got the training over three days, earlier units were forbidden from describing it to people who had yet to go through it. If you're a future Corps Member and about to undergo a similar training at another campus, be warned: you may be better off not knowing what's coming, i.e. not reading this post. Continue at your own risk.

Strings falling from hand to hand, pulled one by one and fluttering gently to the ground, a pile of soft blue punches to the gut. “If you have been ever denied an employment opportunity because of your race, sex, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, give up a string.” Strands of yarn drop all around the room. “If you grew up in a house with more than fifty books, take a string.” I pick up one from the pile resting on my leg and look around the room, amazed at how few people do this with me. “Take a string if your parents ever told you you were smart, beautiful and could accomplish anything.” The girl sitting to my left, tears sliding down her coffee-brown cheeks, does not pick up a string.

This was the final act of Americorps NCCC’s diversity program, a day-long mélange of laughter and tears and profoundly moving moments. Shepherded by diversity experts Bear and Shoshanna, Summit Unit completed a half-dozen activities designed to help us understand how different and how similar we were. It sounds tacky and banal in the abstract, but I assure you that that’s the only place where it does. Diversity training was where I began to fully understand that the NCCC meant what it said in its four-word mission statement. “Strengthening communities, developing leaders” is more than just lip service around here. They truly mean to develop us as leaders, and to do that, they’ll break us down and remake us on levels we never expected.

Diversity training is one of those levels, and it’s all about the unspoken truths around you. It makes you confront inequality, hypocrisy and sadness all around you—and it does that not in a judgmental way, but in a comforting way. Here’s one example. We were given a sheet with a list of conversational irritants—insincerity, constant apologizing, being unduly repetitive, that kind of thing—and asked to mark down the ones that really irritated us. With a partner, we spent two minutes each talking about the things that drove us nuts, then switched partners and did it again—with a twist. This time, we were asked to mark down our own conversational sins, then own up to them with our partners. Most of the time, the things that drove us bananas—of course—were the things we ourselves were guilty of.

 It’s the kind of thing that likely wouldn’t work with a normal group of 18-24 year-olds, that would be laughed off or wouldn’t have the desired impact. But the reason it works, as I’ve been reminding myself since I came here, is that—as a Corps—we are decidedly not a normal sampling of our age group. With very few exceptions, we all came ready to listen, learn and understand. That’s one reason why diversity training worked as well as it did with just about everybody.

The other reason is Bear and Shoshanna themselves and the activities they designed for us. In a training update on Friday, one of the NCCC staff mentioned that they were on a “very short list” for trainings across the government. They have the experience: if I heard correctly, both of them have their graduate degrees in diversity-related fields. Bear is Native American; Shoshanna is Jewish and bisexual. For every low of discrimination and disadvantage, they have been there. They have lived there. And they are very, very good at getting you to understand what that means.

That was the strings game at its best, the culmination of the whole day. After a lot of time in the “shallow end” of the diversity pool, the time had come to dig deep and dive in. We had just finished an activity, sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply frustrating, where everyone comes from a different planet with its own social quirk (can’t look anyone in the eyes, speaks only in whispers, etc). My planet was Ephedra, where you can’t stand closer than five feet to anyone else; I was trying vainly to converse with someone from Zoltron, who could only speak when she was physically touching somebody. You can imagine how that went—I was crashing into tables trying to get away, she was cracking up, I was cracking up, we were both trying to make ourselves understood somehow and no doubt making a stupendous racket. It was cartoony, but it made sense: you have to respect peoples’ cultural values, and you’ll never know how frustrating that can be until you’re on the wrong side of well-intentioned disrespect.

But back to the story. String theory came right after that, if I recall correctly. The premise was simple: everyone sat in absolute silence, broken only by two of the team leaders reading sentences off a sheet. Everyone began the game with half of their forty strands of yarn held in one hand; if you were subject to any given privilege (as read by the TL), you picked up one string. If you were disadvantaged by something, you dropped one. And it was just brutal. Things that were pretty much universal in the suburb where I grew up—your parents’ love and kindness, access to culture and the arts, never having gone hungry as a child—are apparently anything but. String theory took all the unspoken privileges in the room—white privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, you name it privilege—and made them concrete, tangible, visually overpowering.

By the time it was all over, several people were in tears. Some held almost all of their strings in one hand, while others were down to a few measly threads. I haven’t seen a group of people that crushed since the Israeli Holocaust Museum. But that was when Bear spoke up and started putting everyone back together. He told us that it didn’t matter which end of the spectrum we’d ended up on. He told us that it was the responsibility of the privileged to work towards the betterment of all, and he pointed to the profoundly unprivileged as people who had gone above and beyond where society said they should. “If I did this exercise,” he said with tears of his own, “I would have none. No strings.” But for all our disadvantages, there are still things that all of us share. And the thing that unites us—all of us—is that we’re here, part of the Corps, ready to work together for the betterment of all. We’re here to help, to put peoples’ lives back together, to bring whole communities back from disaster. Because regardless of our backgrounds, we had all made it here. That’s a rock upon which we can build our service.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Equally Big and Important Americorps NCCC Specialties Dump

Following up on last night's post about FEMA specialist positions, here's a bunch of stuff about Americorps NCCC's similar-sounding but completely different specialty positions. Every Corps Member (CM) is going to have at least one of each for the year, and maybe an extra specialty role if they feel like overachieving. 

Service Learning Initiator (SLI)
NCCC is very, very big on "service learning". This, as I understand it, is the process of putting your experience working a disaster in a larger context. One of the Team Leaders (TL) told a story about how she was sent to... a hurricane, I think, and how her team was really jazzed to start clearing debris and helping people and providing medical care and all that good stuff. Well, when they got there, the first thing they did was break out the chainsaws and spend four hours clearing fallen trees out of a muddy field. Not a survivor was even around the place. And understandably, everyone was feeling a bit depressed and irritated about this, because who cares about some stupid trees when there's a whole town that needs help?
Well, it turned out that the stupid broken field was where the town held its annual spring festival (I think--details fuzzy), which was in the next couple of days. And by clearing the trees away, the team had made it possible for the town to put on its festival anyway, hurricane be damned, and temporarily forget about the sodden filthy hell that their lives had become. It was about keeping everyone's spirits up, and once the team understood that, they felt a lot better about what they were doing and how meaningful their work had actually been. It's the SLI's job to facilitate those kinds of experiences, to help the team understand why they're doing this job and why it matters in the process of putting a community back together. How to do that is up to the individual SLI, but it's a job for the creative ones; one imaginative SLI apparently commandeered some Coast Guard helicopters and took their team on an aerial tour of a hurricane-hit coast.

Corps Ambassador/Program Representative (CAPPer)
This one was described to me as being an "Americorps cheerleader". These are the recruiters, the guys who go around to schools and set up tables and give speeches about the glory of the Corps. It involves public speaking, going to job fairs, tabling on college campuses, basically reaching out to 18-24-year-olds who might be interested in doing a year of service. I'm not really sure how well this will work in practice with FEMA Corps, particularly visiting communities right after a disaster, but it's worth a shot I suppose. (It's also true that we won't necessarily be visiting right after disasters; the long-term recovery process for a community, which we might also be helping with, can take a decade or longer.)

Media Rep
This one is my baby. The Media Rep is responsible for generating publicity. They send out press releases, wangle interviews with local TV and radio and intercept the media members who show up at work sites. They're the NCCC's point of contact with the chattering classes. This one also involves some creativity; you can take pictures of NCCC work and post them on a special Flickr account, write articles for the local newspaper, keep a team blog, whatever. (They even give you a special camera!) The only catch is that while NCCC wants to get its name and brand out there as much as possible, FEMA is more secretive than Gringotts, being a part of Homeland Security and all that. I think there'll be more specific guidance on what we can and can't say later, but they went so far as to give everyone a special phrasebook describing how to turn conversations away from sensitive topics.

Peer Helper
This is the job that overachievers can take on in addition to their Specialist and other Specialty roles. It basically entails being there for CMs in crisis, listening to their concerns and letting them get things out. Some of the buzzwords for this one included "self-starter", "good listener" and "non-judgmental". 

Project Outreach Liason (POL)
This one needs some background. There are such things as National Days of Service which fall on federally recognized days, like 9/11 or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On such days, instead of loafing, the Corps goes to do special projects in their communities. It's the POL's job to set these things up. They're also a resource for CMs to set up Individual Service Projects (ISPs); although it's the CM's job to actually set those up, the POL can give them ideas or get them in touch with people who need volunteers. 

Vehicle, Safety and Tools Officer (VST). This is the one I'm least interested in (with "most" being the Media Rep and, I suppose, the SLI and CAPPer). NCCC travels everywhere in fifteen-person government vans. Traditional NCCC units also use who knows what incredible kinds of chainsaws, tools, whatever. It's the VST's job to inspect the vans and make sure they're working properly, keep track of all the tools and keep everyone cognizant of safety procedures. Like the Reports Specialist, definitely important work, but not something I would enjoy doing as a year-long role.

So yeah. Media Rep is my choice--I have plenty of experience as a journalist and would probably know what buttons to push with regular journalists. After that, SLI would be fun and rewarding work and CAPPer just plain fun. Any of the others would be the booby prize. That's all I've got for now--more stuff coming tomorrow or possibly later tonight.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Big Important FEMA Corps Information Dump

So remember when I said I was moving to Mississippi, but followed it up with “and I’m going to be moving around the South for most of the rest of the time at random”? That part is truer than I thought. Basically,  I’m going to be in Mississippi until September 13th or immediately thereafter. That’s when we pack up and move to Anniston, Alabama, for 15 days of intense training at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. After that, we’ll be out on spike anywhere in our 11-state area, wherever we’re needed. (NCCC jargon—“on spike” = “on a project site for an extended period of time”.) Our spikes can be anywhere in Louisiana, the Virginias, the Carolinas, the Gulf Coast (inc. Florida), Kentucky or Tennessee.

Right now, I have no idea where we’ll be going. That’s up to the whims of powerful storms and, no less importantly, our FEMA overlords. By the way, this is still a topic of debate around here, but according to my team leader (TL) we are not FEMA employees, exactly. We are members of Americorps NCCC who happen to be working exclusively for FEMA. But our food money, living stipend, education award, clothes, training, housing, etc. are arranged through NCCC (although we’ll be housed through nonprofits when on spike). In other words, “FEMA Corps” is members of NCCC working for FEMA, not a new entity unto itself. Once we hit dirt, though, we’re FEMA minions through and through.

As FEMA employees, we’re going to be assigned to one of several specialist roles on this coming Wednesday. Us members can state our preferences to a certain extent, but it’s up to the TLs and their evaluations to put you in what they think is your ideal place. Also, all of these positions have acronyms attached to them, because a) the government in general loves acronyms, and b) apparently most of the high-level FEMA officials are ex-military, and DOD is particularly obsessed with ‘em. Beware and prepare.

I've got my eye on a few specialist roles, starting with the Community Relations Specialist (CRS). These guys are the “scouts”, the “boots on the ground” after a disaster; they are the first to visit a recently disastered area and report on the damage to the town and the needs of the disaster-stricken residents. The Voluntary Agency Liason (VAL) works with volunteer and nonprofit organizations, getting them all to work together after disasters (which I would also enjoy). The Individual Assistance Application Services Specialist (IAASS; can you say unfortunate?) is responsible for processing survivors’ legal and personal claims and needs and getting them aid. They’re also involved in responding to Congressional inquiries (there are worse things, and apparently those happen often). Those are the ones I’m really interested in.

Probably next on my personal preference list is the Public Assistance Project Specialist. PAPSes assess infrastructure; is this bridge damaged too badly to be used, can this power plant produce power, etc. They’re also the ones who have to know the law and know what culture- or environment-related laws have to be accounted for during the rescue efforts; nobody wants to run spotted owls over with a forklift if it can be avoided. It’s interesting stuff, and I’d probably be more excited about it if I had any kind of a suitable background (they’re looking for construction, architecture, public administration and so forth). A lot of people here want to be Mass Care Specialists (MCS) because they do the most hands-on work with disaster survivors; this includes medical aid, getting them food and water and reuniting split families, which has to be the most rewarding thing there is. Unfortunately, there’s only one team of those (more on that in a sec) so a lot of people are going to be sad in a few days. Logistics Specialists (LS) set up FEMA offices in disaster areas and are responsible for getting things to the right place and on time; it’s supremely important but doesn’t excite me. Ditto for Logistics Systems Specialists (LSS), which is like the LS but with more time spent punching numbers into computers. Finally, the Reports Specialist is a full-time office job, which sounds profoundly unrewarding.

The catch is that not all these positions are created equal. According to the info I have, we’ll have five teams of CRSes (teams have 8-12 members), five teams of IAASSes, seven PAPSes and one team each of MCS, VAL, LS and LSS. Reports Specialists get only four individuals, so there’s little danger of that assignment (knock on wood). Those 21 teams will be made up of the pieces of our temporary teams, which we’ve been in since getting here. 

There also exist a bunch of NCCC Specialty Roles, not to be confused with FEMA Specialist Roles, because that was the least confusing thing to call both of them. I’ll do a post on those sometime tomorrow. Every FEMA Corps-er will have a minimum of one Specialty and one Specialist role for the duration of the year.

Friends and family—thanks for reading, I’m trying to keep you updated as best I can, but it’s been a crazy week on a number of fronts. If you’ve got comments or questions, leave ‘em below or send me an email or a Facebook comment or something and I’ll address them soon’s I’m able. And in the area of shameless plugs, if you know people who might enjoy the sort of stuff I’m posting or benefit from knowledge of FEMA Corps, please do pass it along. Pageviews boost my ego. *is half kidding*

Until next time!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Unsurprisingly, Mississippi is Different. Here's a few ways.

This is a partial list, put together in limited time since I'm on my lunch break. Hopefully I'll get to do another post later tonight that'll have some more information about my travel plans. For now, enjoy!

-Weird thing #1: Rain. Yeah, Wisconsin gets its fair share, but we're in the middle of a drought right now and have been for months. When it rains in WI these days it is a big honking deal. When it rains in Mississippi it's the fourth time in a week. The rain here will sidle up to you and casually drizzle, it'll fall steadily for hours, it'll dump a cloudburst on your head like your hair was on fire. It's insane. It's like this state has never heard of what we so quaintly call 'droughts'.

-Dampness. Related to that (and concurrently to humidity), nothing wet ever gets dry, nothing. Towels, swimsuits, washcloths, shoes, shirts, I don't care. You can hang them up for as long as you feel like it, but they will never actually be dry. They'll just linger indefinitely in a state of perpetual clamminess. Putting on one of those swimsuits or towels is like getting a big hug from a kelp forest. This applies somewhat to paper, too; when it's particularly humid in your room, regular paper will feel thick, rough and slightly damp to the touch. It's not my hand, as far as I can tell, but the paper collecting moisture. Unless there's a heater going in your room, that's what you're stuck with (and what kind of nut would have that?)

-Vines. Speaking of forests, Mississippi has climbing vines absolutely EVERYWHERE. Our campus is in the neighborhood of forty acres, around 1/3 to 1/2 of which is forest by my unscientific speculations, and I have yet to see a tree that is completely free of vines. They go up a hundred feet and look like they've been there for years. And this isn't just ivy, either; these bastids have woody stems. I guess a lot of it is kudzu, which is apparently a huge problem down here. According to one of the staff members, some idiot introduced it to get rid of rats, because there's some chemical that kudzu produces that drives away rats. Well, now the South is short on rats but long on kudzu. Good job. (EDIT UPDATE: There are a few kudzu-free trees; well, more than a few. The kudzu-ridden ones tend to be the bigger, older trees; younger ones, especially ones that stand on their own and aren't near a grove or forest, generally escape. Ditto foreign-looking trees. But it's still extremely pervasive.)

-The casinos are a huge letdown. I mean, yes, they are incredibly impressive; the Ameristar casino downtown (no relation to Americorps) has an enormous complex on-shore and off, its own hotel across the road and its own miniature town that people can wander through and spend bucketloads of money in. There are three other casinos that I've seen so far with similar layouts, although none of them are quite as impressive. It's just that I was kind of expecting the Romantic image of the casino-boat actually sailing up and down the river and having a grand party every weekend. The Ameristar looks like it hasn't moved from the dock in years, and most of the others look more like buildings than boats.

-The bugs. We have truckloads of weird bugs that I've never seen before; the campus is infested with fire ants, for example, so none but a fool or madman goes with bare feet into the grass. (Said grass is also sharp and looks like crabgrass across most of the fields, so there's another reason.) We have these big black beetles, maybe 1 1/2 inches long, that are actually pretty friendly; one of them put up with being lifted up by a stick and examined before being returned to its home. We have roaches, of course, and there are plenty of ticks and chiggers in the woods. (Who named those things, anyway?) For the capper, I have no idea what species it is or even a clear image of what it looks like, but there's some sort of giant red wasp that's buzzed me a couple times. I would love to know who that is, what it's about and how we can come to some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement where I don't get murdered in my bed.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Week Two, 6 AM: The (Deferred) Baseline Test

Today's morning routine, running through a park for a mile and a half, surrounded by fellow Americorps members. One minute's worth of push-ups, one of sit-ups, counted by a partner and timed by a Unit Leader. There are no goals except what you set for yourself, no limits except to surpass last time. Go.

This is Baseline, the NCCC's physical fitness exam. We were supposed to do it Friday morning at 6 AM (which means waking up at 5 AM), but as we were piling into the vans, a Vicksburg thunderstorm dumped on us and the exercise was cancelled. Today, we did it for real.

There's just something so unbelievably righteous about exercising early in the morning. For the entire rest of the day you have this glow, this knowledge that "I am virtuous, I exercised [albeit under duress], I am a go-getter, I am physically fit". Walking back to the vans after everyone had finished the run, I was practically jumping with glee.

Of course, the exercise itself was an adventure. I managed 42 push-ups (maybe closer to 45, I think the count was off), 34 sit-ups and finished the 1.5 miles in 10:23. I think I'm proudest of the fact that my second .75 miles was faster than my first; I got to the halfway point in 5:30 and made it back in 4:53. (The fact that most of the return journey included a sizable downhill had NOTHING to do with it.) And I'm proud to say I gave it my everything, using my last energies to sprint into the finish line and then promptly attempting to send my breakfast into orbit. I did have the presence of mind, when I actually threw up, to make it over to the bushes. I believe that's the first time that ever happened after a run. It's hard to put that feeling into words without resorting to a sports equipment company line, but I really did Leave Nothing (TM).

After cleaning up, I told the Team Leader my time, jogged over to the finish line and commenced cheering on everybody I saw coming. (Apparently I would make a terrible drill sergeant. I yelled really loud but just managed to crack people up. Adam blames me for killing his sit-up numbers; I was holding his feet, and just before he started, I told him at high volume "Every time you come up here I want you to HIT me in the FACE!" Needless to say, he was paralyzed with laughter.) After ten minutes of cheering people on, I lost the connection between 'things I say' and 'things that motivate' and just started yelling "CON FUOCO! CON FUEGO!" When my fellow cheerers looked askance at me, I followed it up with "TWO ROADS DIVERGED IN A WOOD! AND I, I TOOK THE ONE LESS TRAVELED BY, AND THAT HAS MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE!"

After the last person crossed the finish line, cheered on by a convoy of previous finishers, we heard a short speech from my Unit Leader and then hit the road. Goals for next time: 50 push-ups, under 10:00 running time, 40 sit-ups or better, even more amusing quips. More to follow shortly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

First Days in Vicksburg

Green, rolling hills, vast canopies of trees, huge white columns in front of an old red-brick building, winding country lanes and signs commemorating an important Civil War battlefield? From my Yankee perspective, you can hardly get more classically Southern than that.

That lovely building is Green Hall, FEMA Corps's administrative center and one of our dorms. (It doubles as a computer lab, which is where I am now--wi-fi is supposedly here someplace, but I'm beginning to think it's just a myth.) It's also the centerpiece of the entire campus on which we'll reside for the next month, which is absolutely beautiful. It has huge, steep, grassy hills that you can run up and down on, and flatlands that are perfect for Ultimate Frisbee. There are all kinds of attractions on-campus, including a pool that I sampled earlier today, a gym, basketball courts and a great musty chapel with fantastic stained-glass windows (labeled on our map as "Auditorium"). There are also fire ants and at least one enormous red wasp, which buzzed me on my way back from assembly this morning, but you gotta take the bad with the good.

I do mean morning, by the way. Wakeup yesterday was 6:20; I drew the short straw. Right now we're in twenty-one temporary teams, organized into three master units: Summit, Ocean and Bayou. (Bayou has a sort of modified Gator Chomp as its distinctive hand signal, while we Summiters make a pyramid above our heads. Ocean has yet to come up with a hand gesture.) I'm in Summit III, which I've dubbed "Crater Lake", and we eat at 7 AM with the rest of the Summiters. (At least according to me, Summit I is "Pike's Peak", II is "Mt. Ranier", IV "Mt. St. Helens" and then I ran out of American mountains I know offhand. Maybe "Yellowstone"; it counts.) It's surprisingly not horrendous, because we go to bed so early. Weekday curfew is 11 PM, which means being in your rooms, lights out. It's certainly something to be surrounded by people with a work ethic--my roommate Dustin was up and running, literally, at six A.M. sharp.

Today was a day of tests. I got a drug test, a shot for tetanus, a TB test, various paperwork-related indignities and played every game in the team-building handbook. If anyone divines the secret of "You can bring apples, but not oranges" and "watermelons, but not carrots" and "not strawberries", let me know. I still haven't figured the bastard out. Speaking of cussing, you're not allowed to; it is verboten when you're in uniform, so the team leaders have cracked down on it now. Various creative outlets for indignation have resulted, including "Curses!" "Dash it all!" "Son of a!" and the use of 'Americorps', 'Corps' and 'FEMA' in place of your regularly scheduled expletives. So that's happening.

What else can I tell you? Physical Training (PT) starts on Friday at 6 AM, so there's that. We'll do as many push-ups and sit-ups as we can in a minute, then run 1.5 miles. You can't fail the test because there's no objective baseline; the point is more to establish a personal baseline so that you can improve over time. I'm already in pretty decent shape body-wise, my jeans feel loose and I've been doing nightly push-ups, but there's no getting around my lack of cardiovascular fitness. I can only hope that sporadic biking will be enough; at least the test will be early tomorrow, before the Vicksburg heat and mugginess hits.

Other tidbits: we're moving to Anniston, Alabama in a month for ten straight days of intensive FEMA training... we'll get a personal computer and a Blackberry for on-the-job use, because it's the federal government and Blackberries are mandatory... when getting uniforms today, the equipment guy didn't believe I wore a "Small-Small" (waist, length) pant size and made me try on the "Small, Regular", which went down to the balls of my feet. What kind of giants do they normally get, I'd like to know... also got a pair of steel-toed boots today, which I will get to keep after FEMA. Thanks to Mythbusters, I now know they won't sever my toes... the team-building game where everyone tries to fit on one increasingly small piece of tarpaulin is devilishly hard; my team made it down to about three square feet and then couldn't manage it for more than 12 seconds with eight people... a surprising number of people have tattoos. At least half of the people here are inked up in some way, it feels like... this week's food is catered, but starting Saturday we're fending for ourselves. I'm attaching myself to a chef and trading him my cooking duties in return for his cleanup duties, because I would probably poison everyone.

It being 10:24, I'm going to sign off here, read a little more of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and head to bed. 6:20 tomorrow, hello world!

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more stuff. I'll be posting every day or two while it's possible; the links will appear on Tisdel's Tirades' Facebook page, and you can also become a Google subscriber or try the RSS feed (if I set it up correctly, which odds are I did not.)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Both Presidential Campaigns are Lying to America, and I'm Sick of It

I’m tired, guys. I’m tired of the lying.

I’m tired of the negative ads, of the scare tactics, of the stupid labels, of the total falsehoods that both sides have been peddling throughout the 2012 presidential campaign.

Here’s the most recent case: Mitt Romney’s newest advertisement alleges that Barack Obama plans to “gut welfare reform” by bypassing legislation that requires welfare recipients to work for their government check. As Politifact said earlier in the week, this is flat-out false. It’s untrue. It got a “Pants on Fire!” rating because it is just wrong.

Obama fired back through press secretary Jay Carney, who retorted that Romney “supported policies that would have eliminated the time requirements in the welfare reform law”. This is also false. Both sides took a tiny ambiguity and leveraged it into a massive, sweeping attack on the opposition. What is that except telling blatant lies?

Where is the outrage over this? In November, we’re going to pick one of these men to lead our country. Through their surrogates, they have both lied to the public, or at the very least massively distorted the facts, in just the last week. What’s the matter with us? Don’t we care?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that Romney didn’t pay income taxes at any time in the last ten years, but refuses to provide any evidence for it. Romney took Obama’s “You didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” remarks out of context and used them as a talking point. A recent ad by Priorities USA Action, an Obama-aligned Super PAC, tried to smear Romney by blaming a woman’s death on him and Romney retaliated by attacking the Obama campaign for the Super PAC’s misdeeds. Romney has insinuated that recent leaks of classified information were masterminded by the White House for political gain, again without proof. Another Obama ad says that Romney backed a bill eliminating all abortions, including those in cases of rape and incest, when he just did not. Romney gave a speech saying that “sequestration” is Obama’s fault, when the truth is far more complex.

All of these claims are from just the last few weeks. There are plenty of others there, and I encourage readers to look them up through Politifact or elsewhere. These are not fringe figures looking for attention or cable channels trying to boost their ratings. These are some of the most important and influential people in the country who are completely fine with being flat-out wrong. Who is holding them accountable?

The answer, truthfully, is no one. There are plenty of nonpartisan fact-checking organizations, like Politifact or the Washington Post or, and these claims certainly don’t go unnoticed. Every time there’s a new ad or a new intentional error by one of the candidates, the other side goes nuts with online ads and press releases and scathing quotes.

But then the wounded side tells the world they’re in sole possession of the high ground, and their credibility goes flying out the window like a flock of angry ducks. There’s plenty of awareness that our presidential candidates are lying all the time, but there’s no popular awareness that both sides are equally guilty! There are no consequences, political or otherwise, for lying! The other side is doing it, the campaigns say, so why shouldn’t we?

I find this disgusting. I cannot believe that American politics, as an entity, has sunk to this catcalling, mud-slinging, lie-peddling level. And what makes it even more frustrating is that we, the people, are letting them do it. There is no true accountability for either side because we’re apparently just fine with this flood of uncontrolled chicanery all around us.

There’s only one way to make them stop, and it’s the oldest one in the book. Just… say… no. When you’re asked to donate money, tell them you don’t want to support a candidate who plays fast and loose with the truth. When you’re asked to volunteer, tell them the same. When they send out fundraising emails, when your friends try to convince you that one of these guys isn’t as horribly bad at telling the truth as the other, just say no. Maybe if enough people tell Obama and Romney that this is unacceptable and has to stop, they’ll start to change their behavior. Tell them you want to see an honest man in the White House, and maybe—just maybe—we’ll get one.

Share, like, pass this along if you agree.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When Dreams and Life Collide

You know that feeling you get when you wake up from a dream in which you've suffered some terrible physical disfigurement--lost an arm, a chunk of your face, whatever--and you go about your day as usual, scarcely remembering the dream, but then you happen to look into a mirror or something and you are just stunned by the appearance of your normal, healthy face... and it all comes rushing back that it was just a dream, and there's this brief moment where the line between reality and dream gets all blurry as two incongruent life-pictures crash against one another, and then suddenly it's over and you're back to normal like it never happened? There ought to be a word for that moment. It's like déjà vu, but not quite; it doesn't feel like a memory of the present, but like you've just experienced a different timeline colliding with your own and then merging into one reality that you experience. 

I have no idea if this is a thing that other people do, or if it's just me being mildly deranged, so let me try to describe what I'm talking about in more concrete terms.

A couple of months ago, I dreamt that my right arm had been cut off. I was there when it happened. I felt my arm being tied up and held by somebody else, I watched the serrated knife begin to saw at my arm, I saw the glistening red muscle split neatly in two, and I saw the arm, holding on with just a little bit of meat remaining, straight out from the shoulder like a block of wood. It was just above the elbow.

It was one of the most realistic dreams I have ever had, and that’s probably why it stuck with me. It was vivid. I remember there was some reason why the arm had to be amputated, something valid that I agreed with—it had been smashed in a press, or was diseased, or something. But all the same I struggled as the knife went saw, saw, saw back and forth. I saw it from inside my body and from at a distance, a few feet away like a hovering magpie, watching the knife slice away.

Part of it, the greater part, was the details--it felt so accurate, so real! I remember walking around after the crude surgery—there was no blood fountaining out—and being aware of my balance changing because my left side was now heavier than my right. I remember the need to learn to write left-handed. I even recall touches on the face, where my Penfield neural map rearranged itself, corresponding to changes in my phantom arm. It was so viscerally compelling that when I woke up, I was genuinely surprised and disturbed to see my arm still usable and attached to my body. That's what made me think of it like two realities or timelines colliding. There was this moment of dissonance that we don't have a word for, that feeling of two fundamentally opposite realities--I have an arm, I don't have an arm--smashing together and being forced to reconcile themselves.

This dream I'm speaking of was a couple of months ago. I never got around to posting this, although I wrote it down right afterwards, and probably wouldn't have except that a similar thing happened last night. Somehow, in that dream, a chunk of my nose had been ripped or torn off (no pain or blood). When I padded to the bathroom in the morning and saw myself in the mirror over the sink, for a few seconds I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. I looked completely normal--unshaven, mussed hair, rings under the eyes and all--but in that picture of normality there was something profoundly wrong. It wasn't that I had been injured, but that I possessed the dream-memory of the injury but no corresponding physical damage. Those two realities were pushing against one another, fighting until the conflict resolved itself.

Has anybody else had this experience? Do you know the feeling I'm trying to describe here? It's not limited to matters of the body, at least not for me; I've had this feeling in conversations, when I reference something that I did with a friend before realizing that it never happened. I've had it walking through my house, where I see that an object has moved or hasn't moved from where I think it was, and it takes awhile before I recognize that one of my memories of that object was actually a dream in disguise. Have you ever realized that something you thought was a memory, something you may not have even consciously classified as a memory, but that just unconsciously entered your picture of the world around you, actually originated in a dream and had no basis in this world? This is a serious question. If it's just me, I'd like to know it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The End of Society (Every Thirty Years)

I feel like every generation sees all the horrible things that people can do and thinks "This is it, society is crumbling. The crises that we're facing now are the Great Crises Of Our Time." Every presidential election is held in momentous, earth-shattering circumstances; every decision he makes has huge ramifications for the future of our country, because God forbid we screw up once in awhile. Everything anybody in power does is a massive disaster about to happen. A recession, a catastrophe, a job-killer, whatever. You know the lingo.
You know how long the phrase "going to hell in a handbasket" has been around? Like 'Our country is going to hell in a handbasket'? According to, it's at least since 1865. "Going to the dogs," 1775. "Going to pot," 1682. Going to "wrack and ruin", 1548. Every generation looks at its crises and thinks they're as bad as anything anybody's ever faced, and they look at this country and see everything good that they've helped to build being supplanted by new, frightening, morally questionable bullshit that the next generation is bringing in. Remember when black men marrying white women was terrifying? Remember when the moral fiber of our country was at stake when school prayer was banned?
But everybody's new and scary is the next generation's normal... and here's the critical thing to understand: it's not a moral failing when the shocking or weird becomes commonplace. Old ways aren't better than new ways just because they're old. And yeah, people game the system and do stupid shit or get addicted to drugs or commit terrible crimes, but there will always be idiots and assholes and criminals and killers. It's part of life in a modern, pluralistic, Western society, where you're free to be stupid and perverted and wrong... and where people are also free to be beautiful and creative and happy and sad and gloriously alive.
If you look only at the bad parts of modern society, as so many people love to do--and which is easy to do because the news, by nature, focuses on the tragedies and political battles and so-called culture wars instead of presenting a truly comprehensive picture of the society that we grew up in and are helping to remake every single day--you miss all the incredible good things that are happening out there. A horrible, unexpected shooting like what happened in Oak Creek earlier today isn't any less tragic because ten thousand people come together in its aftermath, but it brings out our society's strengths as well as its weaknesses. There's so much love and compassion and courage out there that's harder to see because it rarely makes the nine o'clock news. Don't worry about society. We'll keep on trucking like we always have.

For the tl;dr crowd: We're gonna be fine.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Note to Dianne Feinstein (D-CA): The Stuxnet Worm Was Not A Secret

Look, I'm not a reporter and I don't have a security clearance. All I do is read the newspaper and think about what I'm seeing. But even I can tell you--and could have told you, back in June 2010 when the first reports about the Stuxnet computer virus in Iran came out--that the U.S. had its finger in that particular pie. Either the worm was an American creation, or it was produced and distributed by the Israelis with U.S. help. You don't need to be a software expert to figure that out.

Time out for storytime. Around 22 months ago, when I was working on my research project on the state of American nuclear power, I ran across a few news stories about funny things happening to Iran's nuclear power project. They were more funny-weird than funny-haha, mostly because people were dying in unexplained ways; Iranian nuclear scientists were being killed by bombs, and something called the Stuxnet worm was wrecking Iranian nuclear centrifuges by making them spin out of control. Nobody knew who was doing it or why, but when they were asked about these operations, U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials acted suspiciously like the cat that ate the canary.

Fast-forward to June 1st, 2012, when a New York Times story outed the U.S. government as the producers of Stuxnet. Along with several other "security leaks" from around that time, this created a black eye for the Obama administration and spurred Congress into ponderous action. The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), has approved a (problematic) bill that's supposed to halt leaks like the origins of the worm. Why is this important? Because "National Security", capital N, capital S. Disclosing information like the origins of the worm hurts us, because... I don't know, because then everyone knows we did it.

Except that everyone who was paying attention, and probably everyone in the relevant intelligence agencies inside Iran and out, probably already knew about the worm. Even an uninformed layabout like myself knew. When I read those first stories, I thought "Hm. A concerted and sophisticated attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and scientists, with the apparent aim of halting or disabling their nuclear program, without an attack by conventional weapons. Who in the world could possibly have a motive to do such a thing? Oh, right, duh." Other than the U.S. and Israel, who else really has that much of a beef with Iran, an overpowering fear of an Iranian nuke, and the cyberweapons community to pull off a worm like Stuxnet? The U.S.'s involvement was an open secret from the day the worm hit the news.

And let's not forget, at least on a macropolitical level, Iran loathes the U.S. We've dropped economic sanctions on them, accused them of a hundred kinds of malfeasance, overthrew their government back in the '50s (giving them a brutal dictatorship instead for the next 25-ish years) and routinely conduct military exercises off their shores. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel and "the West" of being behind the assassinations. Given that the U.S. policy towards Iran since approximately forever has been trying to keep them from developing nuclear weapons, what are the odds that Iran did not suspect or conclude that the U.S. or Israel was behind the attack?

So what's the harm in this particular leak? The Iranians most likely knew, or at least suspected. There's no external mechanism to punish the U.S. for releasing the worm, and it primarily affected a country that the U.S. has no love for anyway, so the harm in the international community would likely be minimized. And as early as September 2010, outside, non-governmental speculation was moving towards the U.S. By the time the leak actually happened, it just confirmed what everyone else was thinking, especially since the bulk of the infected computers were in Iran. I don't think this particular leak deserves to be plugged on national security grounds, because revealing it is not a threat to U.S. national security. We are not any less safe because we now officially know where the Stuxnet virus came from; arguably, we're more safe because we know it was us! The only threat posed by the Stuxnet leak is to domestic politicians' images, and that--I think--is not worth flipping out about.