Sunday, July 14, 2013

Last Thoughts From FEMA Corps

I feel like there’s not a lot left to say, in terms of having a final FEMA Corps sum-up catch-all blog post. Most of the things I could say have either been said already in this space, or else they’d just feel redundant being expressed here. So let’s throw out a final list, say, of a few things that I’ve learned in the past ten months.

-Horrible puns are a never-dying form of entertainment. (my team may disagree with this.)
-The South is green and full of funny bugs.
-There’s nothing so pathetic as a team that has lost its cohesion.
-People, specifically Americorps people, are capable of astounding acts of friendliness and generosity, made all the more amazing by their apparent and complete lack of seeming put-upon.
-Communication may just be the most important thing there is. If you can’t talk about the important things with your family, friends or team members, you might as well not be talking about anything at all.
-There’s a ridiculous amount of talent in the Corps, stuff we only see occasionally. Artists, painters, writers, musicians, football players, Frisbee players, swimmers, martial artists, EMTs, jugglers, the list is almost endless. They’re everywhere. Americorps got a good group together, here.
-Building off that, it turns out that people who want to spend a year doing community service are generally pretty awesome individuals. Sean, Rii, Jimbob, Ashvin, Michella, Badger, Tommy, Michael, John, Malinda, Katrina, Chelsea, Shaun, John Joyce, Joey, Christina, ‘Bama and everyone else… thanks for being wonderful, and thanks for being my friends.
-There’s nothing more important than leadership when you’re talking about an Americorps team, and there’s nothing more painfully evident then when it fails.
-If you can’t fit it into a red bag or your backpack, it’s probably not necessary for you to live, at least in the lifestyle we take pride in.
-Your van is your home. Treat it accordingly.
-If you don’t make an effort to understand or interact with the people around you, you’ll have a shitty, lonely experience. That’s just how it works. You’re responsible for your own social outreach.
-Bloodless language beats you down. By the end of the year, I was speaking in a ‘initiative’ and ‘moving forward’ and ‘not as good as we would’ve liked’ FEMA/NCCC/generic-corporate timid linguistic jambalaya like everybody else. It’s so hard to say anything straight out in this culture.
-Sometimes, when you join Americorps, you meet the president. Sometimes, when you meet the president, you look like an utter goon. Sometimes, when you look like an utter goon in your most-publicized photo with said president, it gets promulgated all over FEMA Corps, and NCCC, and FEMA too, and you have to explain every time someone sees it that that’s just the way your mouth works when you smile and you simply are not good at pictures. So it goes.
-There’s nothing cuter than Amerelationships. Dalton and Katrina, Joe and Tiffy, Malinda and Chris, I’m looking at you.
-A lot of things you’d never consider eating, or at least would have quite a bit of distaste for, become your dietary staples and even enjoyable because that’s what’s on the damn table tonight, eat it or don’t.
-I can’t wait to be cooking and buying everything I eat. Seriously.
-Getting an account with a local Mississippi bank in the early days of the program was a really dumb idea. Get a national bank, for crap’s sake.
-There is always time to throw the Frisbee around.
-My housing wasn’t my housing until the Battlestar Galactica flag was up on the wall.
-I used to think that FEMA Corps was secretly an indirect subsidy for Wal-Mart, since that’s generally where our groceries come from (or someplace else really cheap). Now I know better. The federal government is really using us to prop up Extended Stay Motels.
-Oatmeal’s a pretty awesome breakfast food if you do it right, and also if that’s the only thing the motel provides in the morning, so like it (see above).
-I read, at some point during the year, this funny and instructive little catechism: when liberals think of government, they think of Social Security and Medicaid. When conservatives think of government, they think of the IRS and the DMV. After working with FEMA for eight months, well, let’s just say I can see both sides of the argument pretty well now.
-I’ve said this before on here, but here it is again: Never, ever, ever will I buy a house or live in an apartment that would be flooded if anything less than a tsunami came through my municipality. Put me on a hill, I’ll risk the lightning strikes. At least you don’t have to muck and gut the home and make sure every last particle of mold and every granule of damp plasterboard and wood is removed from your empty shell of a basement before you can even think about rebuilding after one of those.
-There’s nothing that just slowly sucks the life and the energy out of you like having nothing… whatsoever… to do at work.
-The Upper End is a shitty bar, but it’s the only game in Vicksburg, so sometimes you just have to go anyway. Unless, that is, you want to go to a casino and leave in the morning owning nothing but your pants.
-If you want something done right, bloody well do it yourself or give it to one of the competent people around you to do. Anything else is a waste of a task.
-You could not pay me to live in New York City. Seriously, if I was offered a good job on condition of moving there, I would turn it down in a minute unless I could a) work from another state or b) there is no b. Nearly five months was far, far more than enough to convince me of this.
-Personal space is a finite and negotiable commodity.
-Leadership is communication. If you’re not communicating, and well, you’re not leading.
-There’s nothing more nightmarish than driving through Manhattan, after a hurricane, with no power in the city, lit only by reddish flares, when you have no earthly idea where to go because you’ve never been here before and your housing is in New Jersey.
-Atlanta is an awesome city, New York is horrible, Frederick (MD) is pretty nice, Vicksburg (MS) is charming, Anniston (AL) seemed cool, Emmitsburg (MD) was alright and Hartford (CT) would probably have been nice if we had been there for more than a day.
-There’s no geek-out moment quite like the one where you notice you’ve been driving from Frederick to Winchester, VA daily… and that you cross Antietam Creek and the Potomac River in the process… as you go down the Shenandoah Valley… past Harper’s Ferry and just a hair away from Sharpsburg and Gettysburg… yeaaaaaaaah. All the Civil War history you could possibly ever want, well, you’re driving through it.

Final Five, the important ones:

-Living on a ship is awesome.
-Sometimes, you meet the most wonderful and important people in your life by total random chance.
-If you want something done right, bloody well do it yourself or give it to one of the competent people around you. Giving it to an incompetent person only wastes time.
-Having said that, you can only do so much.

-I’ll never forget this year, this place and these people.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Voyage is the Most Astonishingly Sexist Thing in the World

When I first read Fantastic Voyage, I instinctively blamed it on the 1950s. While researching the book for this post, I learned that it came out in 1966, and was appalled. The lone female character, Cora Peterson, is as helpless a put-upon sex object as I have ever seen in any medium. The book isn't even eligible for the Bechdel Test because there's no other female character she can converse with. Her activities consist of the following: puppy-like adoration for her boss, iciness towards the male protagonist, screaming, being an assistant, screaming, being useless in emergencies, screaming some more, and finally warming up to the protagonist after he saves her life a few times.

This is Cora Peterson. She is the assistant of one Dr. Duval, and is described as such. She is twenty-four years old, has a master's degree and is an experienced medical technician. And yet, when Grant first sees her in person... this happens.
[An Army superior] was talking in a low voice, carefully controlled. "And aside from that, doctor, what is she doing here?"
"Miss Cora Peterson," said Duval [the doctor], icily, "is my assistant. Where I go professionally, she accompanies me professionally."
"This is a dangerous mission..."
"And Miss Peterson has volunteered, understanding full well its dangers."
"A number of men, entirely qualified to help, have also volunteered. Matters would be far less complicated if one of those men accompanied you. I will assign you one."
[Duval launches into long description of how Peterson is "a third and fourth arm" to him, and a very capable technician and he needs her]
Grant's eye moved to Cora Peterson again. She looked acutely embarrassed, yet stared at Duval with the expression Grant had once seen in a beagle's eye when its little boy owner returned from school. Grant found that intensely annoying. (35)
To review: a superior officer tries to keep Peterson from coming along for no reason other than her gender. Instead of defending herself, she stands meekly by and lets Duval speak for her. Later on, when the officer is speaking to a colleague alone, he tosses off this exchange:
"What's wrong with the girl, Cora Peterson?"
"Nothing, why?"
"Your voice was loud enough... Do you know of any reason why she shouldn't be on board?"
"She's a woman. She may not be reliable in emergencies. Besides... [the doctor is an ass, and I objected at him because reasons]." (44)
Please note "the girl". There's no reason on earth why Peterson is a "girl" instead of a woman, to pick out the least disturbing thing about that passage, and yet that's what male characters call her throughout the book. Oh, and on page 54, she thanks Duval for "arranging to have me come", and apologizes to him for being "the cause of unpleasantness between yourself and Dr. Reid". Sigh.

At the book's beginning, Peterson is cool towards Grant and attracted to Duval, the main male authority figure in her life. At its end, she is warm towards Grant and they leave hand in hand. What happens in between?

Grant hits on her mercilessly and unprofessionally throughout the first half of the whole novel. There's some odd male gender issue here where Grant plays himself up to her as a masculine lug instead of an intelligent human, and that shows up in this exchange:
"If you have any footballs you want strung, you let me know. Us physical types are good at that kind of unskilled work."
Cora put down a small screwdriver, brushed her rubber-gloved fingers together and said "Mr. Grant?"
"Yes, ma'am?"
"Are you going to make this entire voyage hideous with your notion of fun?"
"No, I won't, but... Well, how do I talk to you?"
"Like a fellow member of the crew."
"You're also a young woman."
"I know that, Mr. Grant, but what concern is that of yours? It's not necessary to assure me with every remark and gesture that you're aware of my sex. It's wearisome and unnecessary. After this is all over, if you still feel called upon to go through whatever rituals you are accustomed to performing before young women, I will deal with you in whatever fashion seems advisable but for now..."
"All right. It's a date, for afterward." (51)
So that happens. One would think Grant would have learned his lesson, but on the next page...
"Oh, if you could only frivol," he breathed, and fortunately she didn't hear him, or, at least, showed no signs of having done so.
Without warning, she placed his hand on his... [and moves it out of the way of a laser].
Grant said, "You might have warned me."
Cora said, "There is no reason for you to be standing here, is there?"
She lifted the laser, ignoring his offered help and turned toward the storeroom.
"Yes, miss," said Grant, humbly. "When near you henceforward I shall be careful where I place my hand."
Cora looked back as though startled and rather uncertain. Then, for a moment, she smiled.
Grant said "Careful. The cheeks may crack."
Her smile vanished at once. "You promised," she said, icily, and moved into the workroom. (52)
So a few takeaways here:
-'Seriously, shut up, I'm a member of the crew like you are.' 'Okay, pardon me while I flirt with you some more.'
-Note the language in Cora's long speech. It's part of her icy (continually described as icy, cold or, on page 93, "the ice-queen of some polar region lit by a blue-green aurora") demeanor. Read: professionalism.
-This isn't the last time Cora randomly touches Grant. She leans over him to plug in his seatbelt, and later clings to him desperately when Grant saves her during turbulence in the sub.
-Also, Cora is called by her first name throughout the novel, including by the narrator, after Grant asks her if he can. Nobody else is. Everyone else ('everyone else' is all males) goes by their last name.
-Grant is also constantly watching her and making "appreciative inner comment[s] about her beauty" (107) throughout the first third of their journey, whenever he has a chance.

From this point on, the dominant subplot of the book is Cora screaming and Grant saving her from things, and continuing to flirt with her. (Cora yanks Grant's seatbelt. "I was checking to see if you were being tightly held." "Only by the harness, but thanks." (65))

Here are a few:
The approach of the next [whirlpool] made Cora scream in shrill terror. (85)

[Grant saves her from sliding across the floor into a wall, or something, as she] clutched at his shoulder and seized the material of his uniform with viselike desperation. (86)

The laser over the working counter was swinging loose on one hook, its plastic cover off.
"Didn't you bother securing it?" demanded Grant.
Cora nodded wildly, "I did! I did secure it! I swear it. Heavens..."
"Then how could it..."
"I don't know. How can I answer that?"
Duval was behind her, his eyes narrowed and his face hard. He said, "What has happened to the laser, Miss Peterson?"
Cora turned to meet the new questioner. "I don't know. Why do you all turn on me?" [more brouhaha]
[Owens comes in] "My God, the laser!"
"Don't you start," screamed Cora, eyes now swimming in tears. (107-8)

And at that moment, the lifeline twitched and snaked upward, its end flashing past, and out through the opening.
Cora screamed, and kicked herself desperately towards the opening.
Michaels pursued. "You can't do anything," he panted. "Don't be foolish..." (117)

[After getting thrown across the lymphatic system] She was managing to breathe now and heard her own name. Someone was calling. Carefully, she made a pleading sound. Encouraged by the sound of her voice, she screamed as shrilly as she could: "Help! Everybody! Help!" (149) (This is at least sensible, but she doesn't try to free herself when she gets stuck or anything, just waits for Grant.)

[When saved from that predicament and back in the ship after nearly getting squashed by antibodies] Cora was breathing in deep, shuddering gasps. Gently, Duval removed her headpiece, but it was to Grant's arm she clung as she suddenly burst into tears.
"I was so scared," she sobbed. (154)
This is what happens. And it's not like she's performing feats of heroism in the meantime, either. Every heroic deed-doing surgery, piloting the ship, rescuing people, resupplying with oxygen, etc.-is done by Grant or Owens or Duval. And Grant just keeps hitting on her and hitting on her, eventually with her consent. Eventually she 'warms up', that is, she begins to respond to his advances.
[She's lying on a cot] "I'm all right now. I'm just malingering, lying here."
"Why not? You're the most beautiful malingerer I've ever seen. Let's malinger together for a minute, if you don't think that sounds too improper."
She smiled in her turn. "It would be difficult for me to complain that you were too forward. After all, you seem to make a career of saving my life."
"All part of a shrewd and extraordinarily subtle campaign to place you under an obligation to me."
"I am! Most decidedly!"
"I'll remind you of that at the proper time."
"Please do. --But Grant, really, thank you." (157-8)
 Does that sound massively creepy to anyone else, bantering or no? But by the end of the book, Grant and Cora are leaving the military base "hand in warm hand" (186). She's no longer an "ice-queen", and she's no longer excessively formal with Grant. She also displays no traces of her previous attachment to Duval. In short, the hour (or few hours) they spend together changes her entire personality with regards to Grant. She falls for him because of his relentless flirting and because he saves her life several times; she's a bag of useless female-ness at every critical moment in the book; she is continually belittled and disrespected by her colleagues and superiors and seems to accept it as normal (except for one irritated speech to Grant), and she ends up with Grant like a good love-interest should. As Clay Davis might put it, sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.

Monday, July 1, 2013


What do I want to be when I grow up?

If you are currently shoveling your way through the muck of high school, or bursting into college to find new discoveries in every shining day, or making your way for the first time in the cutting, formal, salaried world of professional employment, then I daresay it is not too much presumption to say that like me, this question has perhaps crossed your mind once or twice. If you are like me in more specific ways, this question has bothered you ever since it became clear that school would not last forever, and no matter how drawn-out and full of painful self-discovery it was, that it was an incubator you were loath to leave. You asked yourself that question and then shrank from it, burying your unease in your studies and in the endless minutiae of social interaction. Only when you were forced to take notice, by the oncoming wall of college applications or the flat barrier of college graduation or the end of an Americorps term, did you seriously consider the most childishly simple question of them all as the stunningly life-defining choice that it actually was. And if you're like me, you've made it this far without ever quite articulating an answer, be it in your head or by your actions or to your relatives or to the world. 

The answer is supposed to be found in the things you love to do, your passion. Now, there's a word that's been turned inside out. Passion is for lovers, for stolen kisses, for spicy-hot endearments whispered in the night, not for the bloodless prose of cover letters and résumés that reduce a person to a set of numbered accomplishments. Passion has no place in the antiseptic land of results and paychecks. Yet they say you're supposed to follow your passion, to take what you love and make it something you can live on. Follow your passions, they say, and do what you love. And my answer has always been the same. 'How can I? I have so many.'

I was always sort of jealous of people who knew, unequivocally, what they wanted. It didn't have to be employable, rational, or remotely accomplishable. I envied those people who had married their talents to their desires in such a way as to lay their chosen path out before their feet. Hell, I knew a guy in high school who wanted to be a professional bowler. Eighteen years old and he wanted to bowl for a living, because that's what he liked and it's what he was good at. I'll not sneer at bowlers, but theirs isn't exactly a life most of us envy. But I envied him, because right or wrong, he was walking a path. He was following a dream, the way you see people do in the movies. I have no idea if he made it or not. 

I never had that in high school. I just knew I was going to college, and presumably I'd figure out the rest of my life in the next four years, emerging from my chrysalis with a degree and a plan. Instead I chose English as a major, precisely because I figured it would enable me to hold off on the choice a little longer. Everyone loves a writer, said the liberal-arts angel on my shoulder, and that skill will let me get into any number of potential careers. (If all this sounds head-slappingly naïve, well, I was. I didn't hear the song "What Do You Do (With A B.A. in English)?" until it was far too late to switch.) 

All around me, people were getting their shit together, or at least seeming to. My best friends went to law school, one after another. People were picking something they liked, something they enjoyed and wanted to do. My problem is that I could never choose among the many, many subjects I enjoy. In my heart, I've always loved being a dabbler in many things, a master of none. Communication, there's something enjoy. Writing. Writing essays, blog posts, academic papers, haikus, six-word obituaries, fifty-page theses. There are very few things I don't like to write, let's put it that way. But that's not a realistic, steady, salaried life direction. Passion only gets you so far if you also want the stability that a real-person job can bring. 

That brings me up to the present day. I'm applying for things all over the country, things I really want to do, jobs I never imagined people having. (My current favorite is that of an anthromorphic cat-person that writes about science for children, even though it really is an unreachable dream job for someone with my just-out-of-college-and-not-really-applicable-anyway qualifications, even though I know I would be happier writing and researching for a living than just about anything else.) I'm looking for a passion, not because I don't have any of my own to go out and live with, but because I need a cause to throw myself behind. I don't much care what it is. I have these general ideas of wanting to make a difference, wanting to help people in some way, somewhere in the world of nonprofits or politics or (heaven forfend) salaried writing, but I don't know how to translate that into real life. And I know that nobody does, which just makes me more and more irritated that I can't figure it out and others are making it work somehow. That's the passion that I have, dissipated and undirected as yet, but indisputably there. Point me at a target and I'll give you all I have. I just need to know where to begin. Or, more accurately and honestly, I want someone to tell me where to begin.

I know what I'm supposed to be doing right now. I'm supposed to be figuring it out. And I'm doing my damndest, trust me. I'm trying to remember that this decision-of where to get my first real-world job, that is-is only one step in a long, long chain, and that the process and product of that long chain of decisions doesn't establish my identity or make me more or less of a person than any other facet of my life. But it's hard to think that way when all you want to do is go and live on your own like people in your age group are supposed to be doing, not staying at your parents' home for the twenty-third summer in a row while you figure your life out. It all starts with the job, for me, and that's what I'm trying to get to-and the job and the passion don't have to necessarily coincide. It's a first step, not a life-defining choice. One big part of this time in my life is remembering that.