Thursday, August 26, 2004

Second Thoughts

... No, not about the Peace Corps. I'm having second thoughts about agreeing to teach this fall. I'm an adjunct English instructor at Tallahassee Community College, a job which pays me about $1600 dollars per class. Normal course load is two or three classes. Keep in mind that these semesters run approximately four months long, so that works out to about $800 a month, or $200 a week, for two classes. There aren't many places in America where two hundred a week will get you by. Thank goodness I live under cheap (read: "poverty") conditions, where my share of rent is only $250 a month. (Wow -- I never thought I'd utter the words "thank goodness I live in poverty!)

Last spring I had the fortune to teach two classes at a local private high school; I say fortune because the kids who go there are really good students and very disciplined, bright, and eager, so teaching them is a pleasure. It's a Christian school, and anyone who knows me might think that would cause some antagonism, but I'm actually fine there and I don't make waves. I was told at the outset that there are "certain things" not to discuss, such as anything too sexual in content or -- especially -- anything that might cast doubt or dispersion on Christianity. The sex stuff I understand, because these are still high school kids (I teach a college composition course so they are technically dual-enrolled and get both high school and college credit for the class) and they are all between about 16 and 18, so getting too explicit about racy stuff isn't something I'd do anyway. Now, about Christianity, I taught a composition class last spring that focused on Argumentation so I made it clear at the beginning that arguments that rely on religion or the Bible have built-in credibility issues -- mainly, that they place the burden of their arguments on evidence that itself can't be proven. They seemed to take that okay.

I'm rambling a bit, but my point was to illustrate what my job environment is like. Now, knowing I'll be leaving in November for the Pacific (*knock on wood*), it doesn't make much sense for me to dive into a four-month teaching gig. That is so much more true when you consider the money I make at it, which is barely enough to keep my head above water. My mom offered to let me stay with her until I go, rent-free, but she lives in West Texas, a place I despise with every fiber of my being. Why? Because it is so deep-country, cattle and stetsons, pickup trucks and Garth Brooks out there. I simply have nothing in common with the people who live out there; in fact, I have diametrically opposed viewpoints. I'm a socialist, they're capitalists. I'm progressive, they're conservative. I opposed the war, and they beat up people who don't like Bush.

But I wouldn't have to consort with the natives, per se. I would live in my family's ultra-isolated ranch house and have the place to myself 5 days a week (my mom works in San Angelo and commutes on the weekends). RENT-FREE. At first I dismissed the idea because I couldn't bear the thought of living in Texas any more than I had to, but lately the reality of it has hit me. I'm destined to head that way anyway, because that's the most economically feasible place to store my stuff while I'm in the PC, and since Melonie is leaving there is nothing for me here in Tallahassee. If I had the money, I'd go on "walkabout," perhaps going down to Miami and living on South Beach until I go, but I don't have that money so I'm fooked. Besides, I'm about a third the way through a new novel and find it very hard to write here, and that would give me ample time to write. There wouldn't be anything else to do -- cable t.v. doesn't extend out that far.

This leaves me with the problem of my teaching gig. I shouldn't have agreed to do it, because they're going to have to replace me anyway come November. Why not find someone now while the semester is new and the students haven't had time to get accustomed to me being their teacher? It's last-minute -- I should have seriously considered this a couple of weeks ago! -- but I talked to my boss today and she seemed okay with it. Maybe that's because they will have a couple months or so to find a replacement... there's no urgent rush.

But -- hey -- my medical/dental packet went out yesterday!!! So now, assuming I don't hit any unforseen snags, it's now all out of my hands. Now begins the waiting. More waiting, that is. I'm encouraged by a timeline I found on someone else's blog, and she had a quick turnaround with her medical, being cleared in like 2 - 3 weeks and getting an invitation soon after that. So maybe it can still happen, even this close to the bone.

Of course I'll keep you all posted. Thanks for reading!


Monday, August 23, 2004

The Way We Were

This blog entry is, in a way, a message to myself a few months from now. I guess they all are, when you really think about it, but this one particularly. I'm at a juncture in my life that is very painful and difficult. As I write this, I am sitting on the couch at my girlfriend's apartment (because she is very private, I won't use her hame in my posts, referring to her instead as M). M is beside me, sleeping on the couch, her feet on my right leg. She looks very serene and beautiful. And in one week she'll be gone.

I've been dating M for a year now, almost exactly, and it has been a fabulous time. One of the best years of my life, I suspect -- that's the kind of thing one usually realizes in hindsight, but I have this suspicion I'll look back on this year very fondly for the rest of my life. M is from Jamaica and has taught me so much about the Caribbean way of life. She is also incredibly smart and capable and rational and low-maintenence. She's everything a guy could hope for in a woman. The problem with our relationship, though, has been that she is a Christian and I'm an atheist, and M has pretty much concluded we aren't compatible on the long term for that reason. Forget the fact that I want to move to and live in Hawai`i for the rest of my life, and she wants to move to and live in Washington D.C., or that I can't have children and she would like one or two. Those problems could theoretically be overcome, especially since we both love (and like!) each other very much. But when it comes to religious issues, it ain't a match.

A month ago or so she got a job offer she couldn't refuse in Washington D.C. to work for the CDC. It's where she's wanted to live, and it's a job she's wanted to do for a long time, now. Before that she was planning to remain in Tallahassee and work with a local non-profit that studies demography (her field). But even if she did, we knew it was going to end soon and she had offered "until the end of the summer" to see if there was a way we could reach a compromise. I had agreed to this knowing even at the time that it only postponed the inevitable. We were doomed. It broke my heart. I wanted to stay together just to have as much time with her as I could possibly wring out of this relationship. That's how wonderful she is.

But now she's moving to D.C. in a few days (Sunday the 31st or so) and this will all come to an end. I hate feeling the clock ticking down like this -- it's funny, but when there's some kind of major end or transition looming on the short-term horizon, those hours start to become palpable. It's like I can sense some kind of cosmic hourglass draining all around me. Even that metaphor doesn't quite capture what I feel right now... maybe it's more like how movie heroes must feel watching the last few seconds on a time bomb ticking off as they frantically look for the green wire. Except with me there's no green wire. I'm watching a countdown and there's nothing I can do to stop it.

There are many reasons why this is for the best, and I try to remind myself of them. For one, we were going to break up anyway, so if she stayed in town this fall the end would arrive but she'd be right here to remind me of what I once had. The temptation on both of our parts to let it continue on would be very strong. Also, and this is the best reason of all, if we didn't break up, I'd head off to the Peace Corps in November or whenever and I'd miss her so much I'd be right back where I was last time and that would not be good. It's hard enough for Volunteers to adjust to life in-country without pining for a girlfriend back home. That very thing screwed me up before. I know the danger of it, and I know it's not something I want to go into service hanging over my head. Nevertheless, it's hard to handle the end of an era -- especially a really good one.

Once she's gone, the ghosts will begin. You know -- the ghosts of people and events that one ties with locations. After she moves, I'll never be able to come to this side of town again because I'll feel haunted by the past. It will be too painful to drive past this apartment, because the memories are just too strong. I'm sure I'm not the only person to feel this way; it's the feeling songwriters refer to when they sing about feeling someone's presence in the park where they used to walk, etc. If I drove past her apartment two weeks from now, I would be able to feel her in it, as if all I had to do was park the car, walk in, and things would be the same as they ever were. But they're not; so, driving by would be like picking open a healing wound.

I think this is a common experience, although I think I'm unusual in my proclivity for it: for example, when I was simply driving past a rest stop on my way back from Orlando a while back, I realized it was the place where my mother and I bought some souvenirs this spring when she came to visit me. Suddenly it was as if I could sense her down there -- like all I had to to was take that off-ramp and I'd find my mom still there, browsing the knick-knack isles. This struck me as very odd -- my mom's not dead, and we only spent like 20 minutes there, so why should I feel so strongly and sentimentally about that place?!?

So anyway, this blog post is really a message for my future self. Somewhere down the road, a few months from now, I'll be at my site, growing more disconnected from this stage of my life and more drawn into life in wherever-it-is, and I'll stumble upon this message in my archives. So, hello, future self. I hope life in the Peace Corps is great and everything we want it to be. I'm jealous of you, by the way -- even though the medical packet it almost done, it's sheer drudgery. You remember, don't you? M is here, beside me, and I'm trying to live in this moment. I love this woman, and she's leaving in just a few days. You have probably dealt with the pain and moved on, but I'm still here trying to deal with it. It's hard. I almost wish I didn't know how much time was left. I'm trying to memorize some of these sights, smells, and these moments, so you'll be able to remember them better. The apartment is a little messy, like always, but it has come to feel like home. The cats are sleeping in the dining room chairs and everything is very quiet. I don't know if you miss this from where you are. It sure feels like I will.

Just remember the good times, I guess. I'll try to make a few more good memories for you in the hours I have left.


Sunday, August 15, 2004


Okay, I've been getting a little nervous lately about whether or not I'll make my "Sometime-in-Early-November" departure date or not. As I mentioned before, I was nominated on the 3rd but, in typical bureaucracy fashion, I didn't receive my medical packet until last Friday (the 13th). That's like 10 days, and they Fed-Exed it! Anyway, so Friday I made some phone calls and discovered that A) all the dentists in Tallahassee have Friday off (except one), and B) the one who was open wouldn't have a spot open until September. Fortunately, I talked to the receptionist and told her my situation, and she thought I was so cool for doing something like the Peace Corps that she told me she can put me at the top of the list for people to call if there's a cancellation. That was nice of her, but come Monday morning I'm still going to make some phone calls and see if I can get anything more reliable.

As for the doctor, I actually jumped the gun a couple weeks ago and got a physical before I received my packet, so I'll have to now go back there and hope they won't charge me to fill out some paperwork. I hope there's nothing in there that wasn't already covered in the physical, because that might mean I'll get charged twice for a physical exam. Also, the damn walk-in clinic I went to hasn't called me back on my thyroid blood test, which means that's two things I have to bug them about on Monday.

Anyway, I'm getting nervous because time is running low. Sure, I still have until "Sometime-in-Early-November," but consider the amount of time it takes to get medical clearance and how long it takes the Placement desk to secure you a spot, I'm pushing the border if not beyond. Hopefully I'll be able to get the medical packet complete and Fed-Exed back to the PC by the end of this week.

I'm also getting nervous because I know what's coming. Sure, I don't know all of what's coming -- I only made it 2/3rds of the way through Training last time -- but I remember the cultural and language and diet and climate struggles and there's a little part of me that is afraid of that. It's like a tiny little voice that tries to argue against the Peace Corps because it's going to be difficult. Obviously not the best of voices to listen to... otherwise I would never take risks and never accomplish anything. Not like I do that enough anyway. But I was thinking: I don't remember this voice last time, and I think that's because A) I was so very, very excited that I didn't have time to get nervous, and B) I had no earthly idea what the Peace Corps would be like so I didn't know what to dread. I kinda miss that old naïvete, I have to admit. In some weird way, it was nice stumbling into an adventure the details of which I couldn't conceive. It was quite a rush, being young and energetic and standing on the edge of an unguessable cliff. Now I know the dimensions of the cliff, or at least some of those dimensions, so it's not as scary and it doesn't hold the same gripping thrill. Some people might read into this to say my heart isn't in this, but I think they'd be wrong. My heart is in this. It's just that it's more familiar, which brings its own set of fears (fear of the known instead of fear of the unknown -- and we all know which is worse).

Want one more metaphor? It's like the second time you ride a roller coaster. The first time was terrifying and mind-blowing. And no part of it was more frightening than that build-up as you stood in line, inching ever closer, and then the fear got ratcheted up a little more as you got strapped into the car, and then it reached a fever pitch as you clanked up the reeeeeally long hill. In this metaphor, I left the Peace Corps 2/3rds of the way up that first hill. So the line and the strapping and the clanking are no longer the unknowns they once were -- I have quantified them. The only remaining unknown is the actual roller coaster ride itself.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Margaritaville, October 2002

At Margaritaville
Originally uploaded by hawaiianbrian.
Here is a pretty good picture of me. It was taken in front of the Margaritaville restaurant at Orlando's Universal Studios Citywalk when I was there for Halloween Horror Nights, October 2002. Enjoy!

Monday, August 09, 2004

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

So sang Tom Petty, about twenty years ago or so. Man, was he right. It has only been a few days since my last blog entry, and I can report that absolutely NOTHING has happened in the meantime. Sadly, this is once instance when something was supposed to be happening: I am supposed to get my medical/dental packet in the mail *any day now* so I can dash over to the various and sundry specialists I need to see. But... nothing. That's the Peace Corps for you. They're a government bureaucracy, so everything moves at a snail's pace. I believe I made quite clear in my last blog why getting this packet ASAP is so crucial, so I won't belabor the point here.

I've been thinking lately about the Peace Corps' attrition rate. I got to thinking about it when I was driving and doing some preliminary plans in my head. Very preliminary -- at this stage in the game, everyone who is destined for an assignment later in the year has a ton of things to figure out, like what to do with their car or many boxes of books for two years. But at this stage of the game, all that planning is just filler, something to occupy your mind while you wait for some information to trickle down from Washington, not anything you can actually act upon. Like I couldn't just go out and sell my car next week because I still have 3 months to go -- and that's assuming everything goes as planned. Like everyone else who is entering the Peace Corps or, I daresay, people who are still muddling their way through Training, information is rare and vague when it exists at all, and you spend a good deal of time with nothing but your fertile imagination running off possibilities and fantasy scenarios. So between fantasizing and planning and waiting, this period is very slow and *very* internal.

Where was I? I was doing some planning while I was driving, and part of me hesitated to sell my car. What if I get there and hate it and decide to leave early? Or my position is dropped and they can't find a replacement so I have to return early (it happens)? Or I get sick and have to return early? I would certainly want my car when I got back to the States. That line of thinking suddenly seemed very dangerous to me... I realized that, unless I was careful, I would be building the possibility of bailing on my assignment into my plans. And to do so, it seemed, would be like allowing a very quiet but very dangerous part of my psyche an easy avenue of escape. I know already from experience that volunteering for the PC involves several different mental stages. Once you actually arrive at your host country for training, the excitement switches from anticipatory to sensory -- you are immersed in a sensual and envigorating (and terrifying at times) experience that keeps your mind occupied day and night. But then, after a few weeks of training (anywhere from, I dunno, two to eight?) the newness starts to wear off a little and you start realizing that soon, very soon, you and these wonderful friends you made in training will be sent off in different directions to carve out lives of your own in remote corners of wherever-you-are. That means you'll be alone. Not "alone" as in nobody around, but "alone" as in nobody you can easily relate to around. The only American for dozens of miles, perhaps. This realization is paralyzing, and that's when I suspect most people who ET first get the germ of a thought that they could leave. A germ, yes -- just a little thought that begins in the back of your mind, so small you don't notice it at first as anything but a little discomfort and maybe homesickness. But soon it jumps the gap from subconscious notion to conscious one, and you find yourself entertaining the notion. At first you reject it and call yourself a wimp or that it's just homesickness talking or something, but soon that tiny single voice becomes a chorus in your head that sings anew every moment you are hot or busy or dirty or annoyed or exhausted, and that's nearly all the time at this point in Training, and all that shame you felt at first seems to melt away. How nice it would be to get away from these people you have to spend every damn waking hour with, to drive on the right side of the road, to eat something that isn't starch and starch and more starch, or to wash your clothes in a machine instead of a river. And then, next thing you know, you are wandering away from the others one night during what should be a fun time of celebration and you are staring at the moon and thinking, Yeah, maybe I should go.

So I was driving and planning and I realized that, unless I was careful, I would be building the tiny little voice of doubt into my plans from the start. Leaving myself the option of returning if things get too bad could very well lead to me doing just that. By saying "I can leave if things get too bad," I leave open for interpretation what constitutes "bad" and that negative, pessimistic, lazy, pampered part of me will grab hold of that loophole like a lawyer and begin the work of getting back to America and my comfort zone before I've even had a chance to really get to know the place I'm sent. However, I also realize that not allowing myself the option to leave "if things get really bad" isn't a good thing either -- if things really do get bad I need to give myself permission to leave. It's all about striking a balance.

So I wonder, then, how many people applying for the Peace Corps do exactly what I've described and build into their plans the germ of doubt that will one day grow into a full-fledged desire to ET?

I hate to sound this do-or-die about it, but I honestly think of this "second chance" as a pretty important litmus test, if you will, of my maturity. Last time I was there, I bailed because I missed my girlfriend, a relationship that wasn't even healthy to begin with, and if I hadn't been so quick to jump out of there the distance might have really helped me realign my priorities and help me see that relationship for what it was. And as I drove, this got me to wondering if I might have gotten my reasons for leaving the Peace Corps backwards last time. At the time, I told myself that 90% of why I wanted to go home was because I realized I could either have the Peace Corps or my marriage, but not both. Part of that statement was true. I told myself that the remaining 10% was from fear that I wouldn't be able to do the job they switched me into (elementary education, when I had NO experience in teaching or with children at that point in my life), displeasure at my post (I was going to be living in one of the poorest areas of all the Eastern Caribbean, with no water and spotty power, while others on Dominica would be living in town with air conditioners and cable t.v.), and the dread of having to do two more weeks of a homestay (I always feel like I'm imposing). I wonder, though, if it might be that those other reasons were what was behind my desire to ET, and I allowed my heartbreak at missing Michelle to become the convenient excuse I needed.

Well, whatever might have been the case, that part of my life is over. I want to use that experience as a way of armoring myself against all the difficulties I know I can expect this time. I know that at some point I'll feel homesick, tired, hot, hungry, etc. and I don't want to allow the nagging doubt to even enter my mind. I want to be strong this time.

I'll sell my car.


Friday, August 06, 2004


It has been a long time since my last blog entry -- that does not bode all that well for the future. Of course, during the application process things don't change all that fast, so for a good long while there has been nothing to report. Now, however, I can officially say I am a Peace Corps nominee. I was nominated on August 3rd. My Recruiter, from the Atlanta office, got hold of me last week with some bad news. She cleared all my secondary application information and went into the system to nominate me for the teacher-trainer position in the Pacific, only to discover the position was filled. Awe! So she called me up and told me the good-slash-bad news. Together we went over what positions were left -- a whole lot of them were in "Asia." I don't think I could do Asia, for the same reasons I couldn't do Eastern Europe: because anything too far north would mess me up (I have Seasonal Affective Disorder). After spending a few minutes going through a bunch of dead leads, or live leads that didn't leave until next year, she got an idea: she would call the Pacific Desk (the department that is in charge of Peace Corps positions in the Pacific) and ask them to open up a new, identical assignment for me.

A few days went by. Then, she called me to say they had AGREED and that I was now officially nominated into the job we were originally looking at: teacher-trainer in the Pacific. I still don't know where in the Pacific, exactly, but that knowledge would't do my much good right now anyway, because A) they might switch it on me at any time, and B) because if I don't get the medical/dental/eye package back to them soon, I'll miss it anyway.

A little explanation on how that works: After you get officially nominated, the Peace Corps medical desk in Washington, DC, sends you a thick-ass packet that contains forms to be filled out by a doctor, who must perform a physical on you. It also contains similar forms for a dentist and an opthomologist. This packet comes via snail-mail (the U.S. Post), and once you get it you need to arrange doctor visits, etc., fill out the forms, then send them back. In my case, my departure date is "early November," which is about 3 months from now (!). According to Peace Corps literature, it can take the Medical desk up to eight weeks to clear you, and they cannot send an invitation less than six weeks before the departure date. Do the math: that means about a week to receive the packet, six weeks for them to review my medical information, then receive and accept an invitation more than six weeks before the departure date. I have 3 months until "early November," so considering two of those stages take a month and a half each, I will have ONE OR TWO DAYS to get all the medical/dental/eye information finished and sent back. That's cutting it damn close. If the medical people want to follow up on anything in my physical, that will basically mean I miss my departure date.

Anyway, enough of that. I'm very excited and hope hidden snags do not lie between me and my desired assignment. I love the Pacific, and would be more than happy to be assigned there.

Secretly, I do have a couple of preferences, though: I hope my assignment is in Samoa or Tonga, maybe Fiji, and islands like Yap or Chuk or Palau would be lower down that list. The Phillipines, while having some of the world's hottest women, would be acceptable but not desirable. Frankly, depending on the assignment, I would rather just be sent back to the Eastern Caribbean -- I mean, I would MUCH rather have an urban assignment over a rural one. I've read some blogs out there in cyberspace-land about people assigned to remote, rural settings in the Pacific, and it doesn't sound pleasant. Scratch that -- it sounds pleasant in some ways, but no power, spotty water from a well, and an unbalanced diet would be a killer for me. I mean, I'm going to bring a laptop and digital camera, so I would want power at least a few hours a day. Fortunately, if I get the job I'm gunning for, I'll probably be in an urban setting, because that's where the greatest concentration of teachers to train would be.

This blog entry is now starting to run a wee long, so I'll end it here. Iin the future, I'll try to fill in some of the missing information. One of my goals with this blog is to give prospective Peace Corps applicants an idea of what to expect, step by step -- something that might have helped a lot when I was first applying years ago.