The End

August 11, 2008

            It will be ten weeks tomorrow. Ten weeks of attempting to coherently explain the VISTA program to strangers, ten weeks of people getting the CCIA acronym on my badge confused with the CIA,         ten weeks on the payroll of the federal government. It all ends tomorrow.

            Tomorrow Melissa, Kristen, Jennifer, Alice, Thelma, Angela, and I will be the first VISTAs to complete our term of service. It has been a long ten weeks, a hard ten weeks, an unpredictable ten weeks.

            First there was a natural disaster. Then there were job changes, reassigned responsibilities, new coworkers, endless miscommunications, a gun threat, keys locked in vehicles, supply issues, angry homeowners, worksite accidents, and a natural gas explosion. The work was messy, convoluted, and unclear. The office joke became that if your information was older than five minutes it was outdated.

The only thing that did not change after the flood was the needs; even today individuals continue to call in for assistance. Facilitating that assistance is what redeemed the summer. Without making everything perfect, pretty, or poetic, it made it worthwhile.

Tomorrow I will walk away with the knowledge that I did something this summer, albeit with the knowledge that I should have done more. There is too much left to do. Dear readers, if I have managed to command your attention to this point, my final request is that you do not forget. Do not forget about the people whose lives have been irrevocably changed, who so tragically are often the most vulnerable of our society. As a city let us not needlessly reach the point of desperation. Everyday for the last seven weeks you volunteers have demonstrated to me the power of choosing to acknowledge a need, of giving without expectation of thanks, of living life for someone else.

I leave tomorrow humbled by this ten week lesson of how much I have left to learn – about compassion, about gratitude, about sacrifice. May your lives continue to provide me that quiet example of compassionate, sacrificial living. And may you be blessed. 


In Beijing

August 8, 2008

While studying in Beijing in May 2007, I was greatly amused by the Olympic preparation campaign that was already being waged. The campaign was more substantial than ensuring that everyone was familiar with the “Olympic babies” – the five cartoon characters which each represent an Olympic ring. The campaign provided instruction about the more important points of international etiquette, such as the impropriety of spitting in public and the importance of forming lines.

Although I did not understand the necessity of teaching line formation when I first heard about the endeavor, after about twenty minutes in Beijing the need became apparent. It is not that Beijing residents are impatient as much as the ubiquitous crush of people impedes the formation of orderly, single-person lines. In Beijing you do not wait in lines as much as you wait in an undulating throng of people, in which throwing elbows and cutting are entirely acceptable.

As I may not be the most patient person I know, I was delighted to discover that in Beijing I could escape the strictures of single-person lines (and throw a few elbows). I will admit it: I do not like to wait.

Last night I realized how un-Iowan that is of me. While addressing a small gathering, one of the highest compliments an Iowa Congressman paid to Cedar Rapidians was their willingness to wait to receive assistance when a neighbor, friend, or coworker needed it more. In essence he called them good neighbors, good friends, good coworkers. Good because, in the face of substantial material loss, they demonstrated a greater concern for the people affected by the flood than for the possessions. Good because, in the relocation of the flood, they strove to retain their community. Good because, in the chaos of the moment, they refused to act entitled to any assistance.

Those affected by the flood in Cedar Rapids remembered what I forgot in the crowds in Beijing: life requires priorities and it is always better to choose people. Better for you, for them, for everyone watching. People like the ones I was elbowing in Beijing.

Camping, No Thanks

August 4, 2008

           Camping. Three things instantly come to mind: dirt, heat, and outhouses. Forget the serenity of nature or the tranquility of escaping a multi-tasked, modern life. I lost the poetic beauty of camping at the age of thirteen in a rental RV somewhere between the Corn Palace, Mt. Rushmore, and Devil’s Tower.

           Apparently not everyone shares my aversion to staying in the Great Outdoors, though. I hear that people actually go camping for fun, and the out-of-state VISTA summer associates do not seem to mind staying at the Boy Scout Camp.

          The key must be that in both instance, whether spending the family vacation in a tent or accepting a job with rustic accommodations, you chose to be there, to live off the land, to commune with nature, for some reason I will never understand.

          Camping in a tent in the front yard of your flooded house cannot be anywhere near the same experience.

          Unfortunately, it is a ubiquitous experience in Cedar Rapids this summer. Drive around at night, I was told this morning, and you will see quite a few people camping in their front yards. If not in tents, then in trailers, campers, and RVs parked in their driveways.

         What saddens me so is not the fact that people are camping (I could deal with that if forced), but the inexpressible longing for home conveyed in the idea of camping on the lawn outside your own front door. Ask any homesick college student and they will tell you that homesickness is not a desire for a certain physical place inasmuch as it is for the security, the familiarity, the possession the house provides. To be so close to what was once your home and yet forced to live outside it seems like it would be a terrible thing.

           Of course I would think that, I who was once so attached to the barf stains on my bedroom floor that I forbid my mom to ever get new carpet. The point was not that they were barf stains, but that they were my barf stains. They meant something to me, they told me a story, a story about me and that one time I drank too much chocolate milk.

            To compare getting new carpet and losing your home would be an insult to those who have lost so much. The truth is I do not know, nor do I want to know, what it is like to pitch a tent in your own front yard. It sounds terrible, and I do not mean camping.

The Cakewalk

August 1, 2008

           I have often wondered what it feels like to win the lottery. Since the desire to know has never been strong enough to induce any action on my part, I can only imagine it is somewhat related to the feeling of winning the cakewalk. Part elation, part surprise, part relief that it was you and not your kid sister who gets to gloat over the cupcakes on the way home.

            I wonder if homeowners experience a similar reaction when we at the Volunteer Reception Center call them to say that we have a volunteer group available to work on their home. Only I can imagine that is more relief than surprise and that there is little gloating involved.

            The relief has been audible, to me at least, in the homeowners’ voices over the phone. Also audible at times has been angry which surprised me at first. However, knowing the amount of miscommunication that occurs over the phones and the predilection for people to listen selectively, the occasional angry reaction should not have been that surprising.

            The problem that precipitates the angry reactions occurs when we attempt to explain to homeowners the process by which we match them with volunteers. During the initial phone call we fill out a Needs Intake sheet capturing the description of the work to be done on the house. Later we call the homeowner back to schedule an assessment, a time where we can send one of our VISTAs to the house to meet the homeowner and get a better understanding of the scope of the project and number of volunteers needed. The third phone call to the homeowner is what I like to think of as the lottery phone call: “Congratulations! You won! We have volunteers available to come to your house tomorrow.” (We leave off the exclamations.)

            Three phone conversations equals three opportunities to miscommunicate and confuse someone as to whether an assessor or group of volunteers will be showing up at the house tomorrow. It is those two – assessors and volunteers – are confused that people can get angry when you call to tell them.

            Those calls, the lottery calls, are like a game of change, a cakewalk of sorts in which you never know if, rather than winning cupcakes or brownies when the music shuts off, you will get a happy or irate homeowner when the phone picks up. Not particularly fond of anger, I am fine with letting Leslie, Angela, and Thelma handle those phone calls. I would prefer my game of chance to involve actual cake.

A Strange New World

July 30, 2008

           I entered a strange new world today, the world of the muckers. Usually our worlds do not collide; they stay in their own little world, and I, in the Volunteer Reception Center, stay in my own one-room microcosm. Even though the VISTA summer associates that work in the field are deployed out of the Volunteer Reception Center and we handle all their scheduling and supplies, I still struggle putting names to faces and ascertaining what, exactly, they do.

            What I do know is this: every morning around 8 the muckers, as we call them, come wandering into the VRC bleary eyed and looking for food. I have decided that this condition is induced by the 45 minute early morning commute from the Boy Scout camp, where most of the out-of-town muckers have, quite literally, pitched their tents.

            Then, coffee cups and cookies in hand, they all wander out of the VRC, from whence I now longer hear of them or see them until they wander in at lunch time, bleary eyed and looking for food. I have decided that this condition is induced by the heavy, dirty physical labor they have been doing all morning, the oppressive humidity, and the fact that we have probably conditioned them to associate the VRC with food.

            After lunch the muckers wander out of the VRC. They reappear again at the end of the day when they wander in bleary eyed and, yes, usually looking for food before disappearing for the night.

            As of yesterday, that was my general impression of the muckers’ world: they come, they eat, they leave. Having only watched them lay on the grass in the sun or linger over lunch in the gym, I was beginning to harbor suspicions. Suspicions that were quickly debunked today as I stood in the parking lot and watched them diligently and efficiently load their trucks with supplies (without offering to help, come to think of it.) What struck me was that no one complained, as mundane a task it is to daily reload and unload the supplies into and out of the sauna of a trailer.

            Although they may take issue with my apotheosis of their work, the muckers work hard doing jobs I would not do in homes I would not want to enter. I have begun to see that our two worlds are not as distinct as I once thought. As much as my job makes their work possible, their work makes my job possible. Without someone to do the physical work in the homes or work with volunteers to do it, there would be no need for us in the VRC to coordinate volunteers and needs.

            So, for accuracy’s sake, I did not enter a strange new world today as much as I visited an unknown part of my own world, leaving me with only one question. Does this mean I should get out more?

            There are many things I know, many things I do not know, and an even greater number things of which I am uncertain. It is that which is uncertain that troubles the most; the relentless desire to acquire an answer in the face of the maybe that leaves one effete and overwhelmed.

            Where once it was water, now it is the uncertainty that is overwhelming. For those affected by the flood, it is the uncertainty of what properties will be demolished, of whom will be bought out when and for what amount, of when building permits can be attained that frustrates and forestalls action. For those mobilized by the flood, it is the uncertainty of the scope of the needs, the number of houses left to be done.

            The problem with uncertainty is that it leads so quickly to speculation specious and deplete of value. A best guess can be a pernicious thing. What is oft repeated is apt to be believed to be true, and a rumor of unknown origin can feel especially convincing. In this way the uncertain becomes the unknown becomes the known, and when something known is proven to be fallacious unmet expectations are met with anger and disappointment and uncertainty is met with despair.

            With the decisions whose outcomes are uncertain remaining with a coterie of city officials and higher authorities, I have found the best that can be done for those living in an atmosphere of uncertainty is to simply say only that which I know to be true. Although there is much I do not know and even more of which I am uncertain, this I know: rumors and fallacies not as innocuous as they first appear and people deserve better than half-truths and empty words, especially in the face of uncertainty.



July 25, 2008

          Confession: I have a guilty pleasure at the Volunteer Reception Center. No, it is not a secret stash of chocolate or the fact that the wonderful woman who brings two dozen freshly baked cookies every morning actually brings three dozen. My guilty pleasure is a job – a special, secret job that I do not let anyone else do, a job of which I am possessive, territorial, and probably covetous.

            Oh, the mystery, the intrigue. My secret? I get to make the follow-up calls with homeowners after volunteer groups have worked on their homes.

            Although this may not be as jazzy as it sounds, let me assure you that it is a pretty sweet gig. You see, the only problem with volunteers is that they are hard to thank. After volunteers have worked on a home, packed up and left, it seems that some homeowners, at least, still have wonderful things left to say. So they tell me. In a work environment that can be stressful, chaotic and feel like perpetual problem solving, calling homeowners has become my drug of choice, my guilty pleasure that helps get me through the day.

            I love to listen as the suspicion with which the homeowner answers the phone melts away into a sharp intake of air and excited rebuttal, interrupting me to tell me that there are not “enough good things to say” about the volunteers. Not only was the youth group from West Des Moines hard working, they were delightful young people to be around. Not only were there no problems with the group of business associates, they were efficient workers. Not only did that group of friends clean up the basement, they helped muck out the garage, too.

            Dear volunteers, I wish you could hear what I get to hear. People are singing your praises, even if it is a song you do not wish to be sung. The paean is not simply for your time, your effort, your energy – as important as those are. It is for caring for people not in the abstract but demonstrating, to all of us, that concern in a tangible way. It is for giving of yourself enough to care for someone you have never met, will never know, and may never meet again. It is not what you have given, but whom and to whom. From all those to whom you have given, and from all of us who have been inspired by your gift, thank-you.


July 23, 2008

            Four weeks ago at an Emergency Operations Committee meeting, I was sent down the hall to make copies. Knowing I had no claim to the office’s supply of paper or ink, I braced myself for a confrontation with the receptionist over the 50 copies my VISTA coworkers had sent me to make.

            Walking back down the hall with a stack of 50 warm, freshly copied forms in my hand, I complemented myself on inspiring such an affable response from the receptionist.

            It struck me approximately three feet past the women’s restroom and five feet before I rounded the corner to the conference room. Her response had little whatsoever to do with me. At that moment my egocentricity and pride were equally appalling.

            It has been a moment I have been reminded of frequently in the last month. Daily I have hung up the phone wondering what I said to offend, irritate, anger, upset, humor, or please the caller. At first I thought that it was a function of the caller’s age: I did best with the elderly and worse with the middle aged. Then I thought it was a function of the caller’s sex: I did better with men than I did women. Then I thought it was a function of the inflection of my voice, pace of speech, or phase of the moon, which is to say that none of my theories held explanatory power because I seemed incapable of grasping the fact that other peoples’ reactions had more to do with themselves than with me.

            If people sound stressed or worried when they call, they are probably more stressed by the fact that they cannot get their possessions out of a moldy house than by the tone in which I answer the phone. If people seem pleased after talking to me on the phone, their decision to express gratitude is a better explanation for their happiness than my ability to communicate clearly with a certain age group.

            By forging a causal linkage between peoples’ responses to our telephone conversations and myself, instead of a correlation between the two, I had been placing myself at the center of my theories. It was the realization that I had been trying to explain the world in terms of myself that struck me so suddenly walking back to the conference room. My shame of my egocentricity was equal only to my horror that, for once, my little sister was right – it appears that everything is not all about me.


July 21, 2008

Last year my college roommates loved the fact that when I feel stressed, I clean. (That is, they loved it until I started to take their personal belongings out of our apartment living room and throw them into their bedroom, where the law of entropy was on magnificent display.)

            When life feels intractable, there is something about bringing order to the little I can control, if only the apartment living room, that I find mollifying. Perhaps that is why this past week I have compulsively cleaned the Volunteer Reception Center, emailed my boss that we were being smothered by six red wheelbarrows left in our work space, and could usually be found straightening stacks of papers or creating new filing systems.

            Until I realized that the Volunteer Reception Center is too big of an operation for a single person to control, and that no one expected me to be that person anyways, the Volunteer Reception Center felt out of control.

            So I cleaned. In retrospect, it may seem a little ridiculous that after my coworkers and I found out on Friday afternoon that we had been tasked with setting up an operational Volunteer Reception Center by Tuesday morning the first thing I do is to find the glass cleaner and clean the windows. Or that when no one could find the trailer keys I was rearranging the cream and sugar packets.

            Learning to trust my coworkers over the week has liberated me from much impulse cleaning, straightening and sorting, and has attenuated my illusion of control. I have come to revel in the fact that I do not have to know all the dirty details of the Volunteer Reception Center, and to revel in the concomitant mess while I’m at it.

I can think of little that sounds more fascinating than interning at a veterinarian’s office where they have treated an alligator for shotgun wounds. So I tell my college roommate Emily, who just happens to be interning at a veterinarian’s office this summer in Louisiana where they have treated an alligator for shotgun wounds, and who disagrees with me. She told me a month ago that any, and every, job has moments when it is simply out-of-your-mind boring, even if there is a potential for alligators to be involved. This has been her biggest lesson of the summer so far – that there is no one ‘perfect’ job.

            Jobs are a novel idea that my classmates and I, as college seniors, occasionally decide to spend a few minutes thinking about, to the chagrin of the Career Services personnel at our school who seem to expect absurd things from us like resumes and post-collegiate planning. My classmates and I would much rather cling to the ivory tower of academia and the hope that our liberal arts education will actually have made us well-round individuals and prepared us for any job we should set our soon-to-be-alumni hearts on.

            I must confess that, as a child and grandchild of college professors, this is particularly convincing idea to me. It was more convincing before this summer.

            On the first day of VISTA orientation I expected my coworkers to be other twenty-something college students out to save the world for the summer. While there were a few of those, for the most part my coworkers crossed a wide range of ages, vocations, and places in life whether they were going back to school, switching careers, retired, in law school, moms, or newly minted college graduates.

            I quickly realized that just because my coworkers may not know what the GRE is or have never heard of social capital did not mean that they were not equipped to do this job, and do it better than an upstart college senior. Successful VISTAs get the job done, which requires dedication and passion and communication, lessons not solely learned in a college classroom. What I had misunderstood about a collegiate education was the fact that college prepares you for life not by teaching you everything you need to know but by teaching you how to learn it. In that way college does equip you to be a well-rounded individual and to be ready for a wide variety of jobs. Too bad mine will probably not include alligators.