Mid-Life Crisis Trip

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Entry 22: Blowing the taxpayers dough

Tues, Aug 22, 2006

7:30 am

My what a lovely surprise, fresh fragrant watermel—oops! Did we mention that the smell of watermelon makes Robert puke (literally)? Usually, he can just hold his breath around it and move away, but this is a very large pile of watermelon and is so aromatic that it drops him at 10 paces and he has to backpedal to the other end of the room and stick his head between his legs.

We used to think that this was just some sort of Idiotsyncracy of Robert's, but over the years we've run into other folks with same problem. So please—if you must eat watermelon, climb into a small airtight container and stay there until you're finished, okay?

8:00 am

We watch a "video" about the AmeriCorps*VISTA group. It's really a slide show with music and narration (there is one video clip about 10 seconds long, but the rest of it is static photos).

But it tells us a couple of things:


VISTA has been around 40 years.

bullet Ray Magliazzi (one of the Car Talk guys) was a VISTA (and they can't pronounce his name correctly).

8:30 am

A group of 30 folks from Oregon are assigned together into one too-small meeting room, which is extra awkward because most of the stuff we're doing today involves lots of walking around.

We do the first of our "team-building" exercises: we have to write our names and a favorite quote on a piece of paper and stick them in front of ourselves.

Then we go around the room and introduce ourselves, because—hey, everybody can remember 30 names, right? Then we do more stuff along the same lines, which, we would like to remind you, taxpayers such as yourself have paid for.

There is some instructional content, but it's mostly at the 80,000 foot level of overview ("Here's the US! VISTA works inside the US!").

At least the meals are free (to us).

1:00 pm

After lunch, all 200 people gather in the lunch room for a slide show about VISTA benefits. Unfortunately, they can't get the computer to work, so they have everybody work on word problems (Question: "If Stacy works 6 months, but then quits to take a job at IBM, how much of her end-of-service benefit can she take with her?").

Finally, the slide show is ready (and we'd like to point out that every single slide in the slide show is reproduced in our binders, so they could have just given us a page number and we could have headed to the bar to read it). But now there's not really enough time to go through it properly, so they flash the slides past us, tell us to hold our questions, and give us a page number in our binders where we can go to read it.

(Answer: None.)

4:00 pm

Okay, we feel like we should say something positive here, before you get the impression that this entire experience totally sucks.

Laura points out that they do consistently follow good adult learning principles in the small groups. They don't lecture at us all the time, but instead we regularly break into smaller groups to exchange information each of us already has about the topic.

Robert points out that the information transfer rate is about 1 byte every five minutes and he could learn more if they used semaphore flags.

This afternoon we've talked about what poverty is and why it's not good. We didn't get any real facts about poverty—we based our discussion on our own experiences (picture a room full of 99% college-educated people discussing their poverty experiences).

Laura points out that the poverty statistics are presented in our binders. Robert points out that he could have sat in our apartment in Salem and read them.

6:00 pm

But, hey, the taxpayers cooked us up a meal, so we head down and eat it. Then retire back to our room/private club for a few stiff drinks.

Wed, Aug 23, 2006

Oh yeah, about those fingerprint things...

Turns out that they don't need them in the sense that they're legally required to take them. But Congress might pass a law soon where they have to take them and they wanted to be ready.

Tater Salad is seriously bummed out, as he was looking forward to gumming up the database. Of course, his alias probably would have been goofed up by a data-entry clerk and he'd end up being "Taper Saled."

9:00 am

After breakfast, we again head off to our Oregon group. Today, we are in a bigger room, with windows.

But there's not much change in the curriculum. We get a few facts, and then break into small groups to self-generate some information that then gets propagated to the rest of the group. Presumably, the instructor is making sure that we're not getting anything too wrong.

2:30 pm

Oh yeah, we forgot to mention that we're supposed to do a "closing ceremony" assignment. Two or three minutes, and it can be a skit or a song or whatever.

We, of course, put together a brilliant skit. One of the other young women writes a poem. We present our skit to the group and she reads her poem. The group votes. All the young women vote for the poem. All the young men and older women vote for our skit. Alas, the poem wins.

We take comfort in the fact that a steady stream of people sidle up to us during the rest of the afternoon saying things like "That was comic genius, man."

And because we went to all the trouble to write it, we'll now inflict it on you!

Begin Skit

ZED: And this is Zed Nebulon, with the news for August 24, 2347 where our lead story is the new implantable iPodNeuron announced today by Steve Jobs XIV and-wait (hand to eyeball). We take you now to our reporter in the field, Brendiflatum Zapulus, on a breaking situation. Brenda?

BRENDA: Thank you, Zed. I'm here at outer Whatsicon, with an update on a breaking situation. There's been a sudden outbreak of poverty here, as you can see behind me!

POOR PEOPLE: Help us! We're poor! Help us!

BRENDA: As you know, Zed, poverty has long been eradicated and the authorities have no idea what they can do about it.

CHORUS: Oh, woe is us! What is going on? Can you help us, Authorities?

AUTHORITIES: We don't know what to do! We are government officials!

CHORUS (singing): "Help! We need somebody, help!"

BRENDA: Wait, Zed, we're hearing something from Professor Ken Ishikawa in his laboratory in Tokyo! Professor?

PROF. KEN ISHIKAWA: I am Professor Ishikawa! My time machine can reach back into the 21st century! We can bring forward in time a group of workers mentioned in our ancient texts: VISTA Workers!

POOR PEOPLE: A new hope! (humming Star Wars Theme)



CHORUS: Gasp! He has brought us VISTA workers!

VISTA CHORUS: We are VISTAs! We make minimum wage!

CHORUS: But they are government workers! Can they really help us?

(VISTA CHORUS hums "Taking Care of Business Throughout")

POOR PERSON 1: I have no money! Give me money!

VISTA 1: I'll do better than that! I'll teach you ways to earn money!

VISTA CHORUS: We build capacity!

POOR PERSON 2: I have no job! Give me a job!

VISTA 2: I'll do better than that! I'll teach you ways to make jobs!

VISTA CHORUS: Sustainability!

POOR PERSON 3: I have no child care! Give me child care!

VISTA 3: I'll do better than that! I'll teach you ways to organize a community day care center!

VISTA CHORUS: We help the community help itself!

POOR PEOPLE: Now we are empowered! You have shown us how to help ourselves!

CHORUS: Are you really government workers?

VISTA CHORUS: Our work here is done! Remember what we have taught you! Live long and prosper! (Vulcan hand sign)



CHORUS and POOR PEOPLE: (sung to the tune of Handel's Messiah) "Thank you VISTA! You have saved us! You have taught us!" (repeat three times)


6:00 pm

Apparently, the taxpayers are getting a little tired of our junkets. Last night, we had a lovely lasagna, which was pretty tasty and pecan pie for dessert.

Today is mystery meat in brown sauce and pudding pie.

8:00 pm

We find the perfect antidote to all this touchy-feely stuff and watch a cool NOVA program on how string theory is trying to unify the four forces into a Theory of Everything.

Sadly, it's only part one of two, and so we're left with five competing string theories and up to 22 dimensions. (We're rooting for 10 dimensions.) The graphics are especially cool, especially at the Quantum level.

Thursday, Aug 24, 2006

8:30 pm

Our last day here at training (half-day, really) and we're beat. We're getting headaches, which we think is because of the altitude (4,000 feet). Or maybe we're just allergic to Utah.

First order of the day is sexual harrassment and disabilities. Unfortunately, it's in the big breakfast room, full of watermelon fumes, so Robert has to sit out in the hallway. Of course, he spent a good deal of his academic career standing out in the hallway, so it's a familiar position.

Using PowerPoint and scenario discussions, they walk us through the equal opportunity and sexual harrassment rules. The information is useful, but dull.

10:00 am

Once again, we're in our small groups and we do a "check-in" (where you talk about how you feel before you start doing anything). Our check-in is supposed to be like a brief weather report (otherwise, it'd take half the day to get around the room).

We're not the only ones that are "cloudy chance of rain" or "morning fog." Even the irrepressibly sunny young folks are getting worn out.

Our topic this morning is Resource Mobilization, which is VISTA-speak for "getting money." We talk about various ways to get money, goods, or time out of different groups of people.

We do a role-playing where we pretend to approach the Washington State Patrol for donations for our pretend waffle breakfast. We ask for a police car or a gun to raffle off, but we finally settle for volunteers ("Waffles! They're just like donuts! We'd love to eat—er, cook up a bunch of them!").

11:45 am

Lunch today is a box lunch eaten on the sidewalk. We don't know why. Probably because it's fast. Or perhaps the taxpayer's patience is wearing a bit thin...

12:15 pm

Now we're learning about the lifecycle of the VISTA worker (because we're all sentenced to the same one-year term). It's about what you'd expect: you start out, get to the middle, and then you leave at the end.

1:00 pm

Our graduation—but first: everybody's closing ceremony thing. Most of them are fairly forgettable, but one group does the song "B-I-N-G-O" using "V-I-S-T-A ," and it's not half-bad.

Then we take our Oath of Office. We have now officially pledged (before God and everybody) to defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

So bad guys better not try hijacking the 19th amendment when we're around or we'll go all ninja on their butts! Hoo-ha!

3:00 pm

Oh boy, we're back at an airport. At airport screening specifically. Where Laura (for a change) is getting the close examination from the TSA folks, much to Robert's delight.

As it develops, she's carrying a deadly corkscrew that also has a HALF-INCH BLADE! Laura thinks this is pretty funny, because she's gone through airport security with this corkscrew about 50 times (she'd forgotten it was even in her carry-on bag).

But if Al Qaeda thinks they'll be opening any wine bottles at 30,000 feet today, they are sadly mistaken!

As always, the autoharp (which contains 30 three foot long lengths of piano wire) is passed right through the security process. Sure hope nobody tries to hijack a plane using a guitar, or we're in trouble.

8:30 pm

We stagger back through the front door of our apartment, after a very dull flight. (The flight was only two hours, but we spent three hours hanging around the gate waiting for the flight.)

We find a report from the cat sitter on the counter:

"Hi Mooch!! Surprise! Mooch was very happy to see me and let me pet him and rub his belly! VERY SWEET!! I left an extra food dish and water dish because all were completely empty!"

Don't let Mooch fool you. All three (!) food dishes were full when we got back, and even if they were empty, Mooch could probably get by for a month on his stored body fat.

So, we're home. We're tired. We start work on Monday.

And we're sworn to Defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Robert (aka Tater Salad) & Laura
Mid-Life Crisis Trip