Saturday, January 29, 2011

Left For Dead

Sarah is finally home from her trip to Canada, so now I can put her to work! We've got a long list of stuff to do today, most importantly getting our special Peace Corps passports. Hopefully it goes more smoothly today than our attempt yesterday....

She's had a long, hard trip so she crashed early last night. My buddy Ted pinged me and wanted to play a little Left For Dead 2, a cooperative zombie video game and that sounded like an awesome way to blow off a little steam. Now, keep in mind that Ted was at his house and I was at mine. We also weren't playing with audio chat turned on because everyone else at our respective houses are sleeping.

We've been stuck on this particular section where we're trying to hold out until a helicopter arrives. We've probably played this particular scenario a half dozen times and I've never even seen the helicopter. Finally, I see it landing and one of the special zombies grabs me with his super long tongue and pulls me far far away from the group. Just as I'm being rescued, I hear someone screaming, but this time in real life.

As I pull off my headphones and look around I realized that Sarah's out of bed yelling "I'm trying to &#*!& sleep!!!!" And only then did I realize that the someone screaming was me....

From Sarah's perspective, she was woken from a dead sleep by me yelling "HELP ME!!!!" at the top of my lungs. This was followed quickly by a string of curse words as long as your arm, peppered with some more desperate pleas for help. When she discovered that I was playing a video game, she wasn't amused, but Ted and I were.

That time everyone died, but the next time we made it onto the chopper, living to fight zombies another day.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Now that I've got a blog again, I might as well say a little something about my passion for film, especially considering that the Oscar nominations were just released. Here are my picks for the big categories. These are the films I'd like to win, not the ones I think will.

  • Best Picture: Black Swan. It's so cool to see this magnificent film here in the top 10. It's my favorite film of 2010 (that I've seen so far) and definitely the top of these 10. Of the rest I wouldn't mind The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Story 3 or True Grit taking home the prize.
  • Best Actor: While I haven't seen Biutiful yet, I find it hard to imagine anyone outshining James Franco this year. 127 Hours was a one man show and he made it great.
  • Supporting Actor: Hands down, this should go to Christian Bale for The Fighter. I knew this was going to be a great performance the second I saw the haunted look in his eyes in the opening scene. He's had a great career and this is his best performance yet. Mark Ruffalo is definitely a worthy runner up with a subtle and beautiful performance in The Kids Are All Right. I am disappointed not to see Justin Timberlake here for The Social Network. Is it just because of his *NSYNC past? Whatever the reason, it's shameful to dis him like that. It's a very strong group of men, though, and I'm not sure who I'd drop out to find a spot for JT.
  • Best Actress: I haven't yet seen Rabbit Hole or Blue Valentine, but I haven't seen a better actress this year than Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right. She is pitch perfect as a mother trying so hard, too hard, to hold her family together all the while knowing that her desperation is part of what is pulling them apart. On top of that, I didn't even notice her "glasses behavior", but I might have to watch it again just to check that out.
  • Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld should win for True Grit. She's the heart of the film. Man, the Coens can cast. I'm seriously pissed that she didn't get a nod for Best Actress, though; she was in the film more than Jeff Bridges who got the Best Actor nomination. WTF Academy?!? I have to say I wasn't terribly impressed with Amy Adams or Melissa Leo in The Fighter, both excellent actors who just didn't have enough material to work with. I liked Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech, but frankly the character didn't have much to do except be supportive of Bertie. Overall I'm impressed with the caliber of nominations, but this category seems underwhelming overall. But I haven't seen Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom yet. I've heard great things and I really hope to see it before the big night.
  • Animated Feature: I enjoyed both Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, and of the two I have a very soft spot for Toy Story. But I'm dying to see The Illusionist, as I love both the director, Sylvain Chomet, for his wonderful film The Triplets of Belleville and the late Jacques Tati who wrote the original screenplay and is the basis for the main character. Just based on the previews The Illusionist looks like it could be one of my favorite films of the year. I'm going to reserve judgement on this category for the time being.
  • Cinematography: Matthew Libatique should win just for the opening scene of Black Swan; simultaneously lovely and deeply disturbing.
  • Directing: This is Aronofsky's moment for Black Swan. It's a film that I just can't shake.
  • Documentary Feature: Restrepo is a riveting look at the Afghanistan war from the front lines. Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger spent an entire tour of duty with the troops. There were other good documentaries this year, but I've never seen anything like Restrepo before. It is a must see. (I hadn't even heard of Gasland or Waste Land. Hopefully I can find them somehow.)
  • Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network worked for me all because of the screenplay. Just listen to the words being used like weapons in this film. It reminded me of one of those classics from the '40s like His Girl Friday where everyone in the movie is smarter and can think more quickly on their feet than anyone in the audience. By the time you get one joke, you've missed two in the meantime.
  • Original Screenplay: I haven't seen Another Year yet, and I hear it's one of Mike Leigh's best. But for my money, The Kids Are All Right is the choice. It's the best screenplay I've seen all year. It went from great to transcendent right in the middle of Jules' (Julianne Moore's) apologetic speech to the family when she starts talking about reading Russian novels. It made no sense and made perfect sense. If I knew how to write like that, well, I guess I'd be Lisa Cholodenko or Stuart Blumberg.
All in all, it was a great year for film.

The Stress Mounts

It's been almost two weeks since we found out about our invitation and just over a week since we accepted. It's hard to believe that the time is going by so quickly already. We haven't even gotten our act together to send a mass e-mail to our friends and extended family to let them know what's happening. Getting the blog up was our first step in that process, but Sarah's been out of town for work and we just haven't taken the next step.

I've been pretty zen over the past two years as we waited (waded?) through the process of getting into the Peace Corps. Sarah's been just a bit more on edge and less patient. That's OK, though. It's just a fact of our personalities. That's how we are in life in general.

This week, though, I'm starting to feel the pressure. When that happens, things can turn a little ugly. It's not terrible yet, but I need to take a deep breath. This is just the beginning, after all. We're trying to be proactive and plan as much as we can for the process of packing up our lives. We started a Basecamp so that we can keep track of everything we need to do. It's been a bit tough since Sarah's away in Canada right now. Not only is the majority of preparation for getting the house on the market left to me this week, but Sarah's Internet connectivity has been really spotty.

To put it in perspective, we've got to get the house on the market, get the rest of our stuff sold or packed, figure out what to buy to take with us to Romania, get a start on learning Romanian and hold down our full time jobs, and we've got more paperwork (like an updated resume and aspiration statement) to complete for the Peace Corps. In some ways that last has been more stressful than anything, since it really requires communication between Sarah and me which has been really tough from a distance.

So, it's really time to refocus and remind myself that this is all part of the experience. With every bag of books I sell at the used bookstore and every box I pack with crap to give away to family or friends, my life is getting simultaneously more simple and more complicated. A friend of mine is going through a cleanse right now by only eating rice and red lentils. It's not much fun while she's doing it, but she says she feels like a million dollars when she's done. I've got my own cleanse going on right now. In the long run it will feel great.

I've also been very exited to find other volunteers in our group (known as PC Romania 28, since we'll be the 28th group to go to the country). Sarah found a young woman's blog who will be serving with us: Jo in Ro. From there I discovered a Facebook group specifically for our little clan, and today I took part in a massive group chat and the a couple people from 27 gave us all some tips. All of a sudden this feels seriously real.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Two Years in the Making

Sarah and I got our Peace Corps invitation in the mail today. We're going to Romania on April 19 to teach English. This is almost two years to the day since we started the process on President Barack Obama's inauguration day (January 20, 2009). We've decided to sleep on our acceptance decision, but we're so excited that we can hardly contain ourselves. The plan is to e-mail our acceptance on the two year anniversary of the start of this process.

Back in August 2008, Sarah and I started volunteering on Obama's presidential campaign. It was an exciting and inspiring time and I felt a part of something world changing. The hope for a better world was palpable. Once he was elected, there was so much joy at a job well done, but I remember his acceptance speech as a call to continued service and work. In essence, the work was just beginning if we wanted to change the world.

As the emotions of election night cooled over the next few weeks, Sarah and I started to wonder what we could do to play our part. I discovered a Peace Corps info session at the REI store here in Boulder on inauguration night. While much of the country celebrated, Sarah and I decided to investigate the Peace Corps as the way to fill our desire to serve the world's needs. This could be our chance to make a change, not only for the world, but for ourselves. It seemed fitting, symbolic and just... right. Let the rest of world celebrate the start of change, as though it had already come. We wanted to celebrate by doing.

Little did we know that the process would take two years for us to even really begin, but here we are!

We got a phone call from our placement office, Susan, on Monday while we were at my brother, Mike's, house down in Melrose, FL. Since we were so hopeful that we'd be invited soon, we decided to make a point to visit my mom and all of my brothers and sisters this holiday season.

Susan could only tell us that Eastern Europe and Central Asia was our region, but she couldn't tell us the country. Sarah has been following the progress of invitations to all of the countries on the unofficial Peace Corps Wiki and thought that we'd be going to either Romania or Georgia, since we also knew we'd be leaving in April and that we'd be teaching English. Both of those countries had already had people invited for April. Shortly after, Sarah found that Turkmenistan had invitations for late March in 2010 and had not had any invitations for 2011 yet - another possibility.

As we started to do research, I realized that Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan. The country is basically all desert. It would have been an extremely difficult assignment emotionally, physically, culturally - you name it.

I began a massive 24 hour freak out session at the prospect of drinking mutton fat dissolved in green tea (do a search for churban churpa), having sand rashes in places you don't want to imagine, becoming best friends with my camel and living in a yurt through the desert winter. By Wednesday I decided to try to find pictures of the country. This calmed me considerably, as the people looked genuinely happy and there was even a glass skyscraper in the capital city (even if it is about 25 miles from the Iranian border: Ashgabat). Sarah got a sick pleasure from the fact that both of our families (and especially her parents) were so relieved that we weren't going to Africa and now we might be right next to one of the most unstable, war torn regions in the world.

For the record, the other countries that were possibilities are Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine. It's a very diverse list. In fact Albania is on the Adriatic Sea. It almost looks like you could swim to Italy from there. On the other side, the Kyrgyz Republic borders China.

There was a point where I was really not certain that we would accept the invitation. In some respects, we're not sure that teaching English will be a good fit. I've never taught anything in my life. I'm an engineer for crying out loud. I wanted something other than technology, so that's good, but this will be a bit of a stretch for me.

In addition, we question the sustainability of coming into a country for two years, teaching a bit of English and then disappearing. How does that really build anyone's capacity in the long run? Initially, Sarah was slotted to be a teacher trainer, but that's in question now.

On the other hand, the job of teaching English is a request from the country itself. What an opportunity for a student to learn English from a native speaker, as well. Even if I screw up the grammer sometimes or I'm not the most proficient teacher, at least I'm a native speaker.

So at some point, the needle flipped from "we're not going" to "screw it, let's just go for it!" even if we are living in a yurt and drinking churban churpa.

Who knows what would have actually happened if we'd opened up our packet tonight and found Turkmenistan. I will say that I was still frankly nervous, if not plain afraid of the prospect. I have no rational reason for that fear, but it's there all the same.

So I got home from work a little early today. It was my first day back after almost a month off for the holidays. I obsessively checked the mail and there's nothing. I was even super hopeful, because the big package mailbox had something in it. I could tell because the key was missing. But no. No invitation. I called Sarah and broke the disappointing news and headed inside.

Our house cleaner, Krista, must have found the packet at our front door, though, because there it was on our kitchen counter. So, I immediately called Sarah back and gave her the maddeningly exciting yet frustrating news. Both times I called I only got voice mail, so here I am at home, alone with this blue elephant on my kitchen counter.

Our friends, Ted and Linna heard about an experiment where they put a four year old in a room with a cookie for 15 minutes. If the kid lasts, he gets two cookies and if not, he only gets the satisfaction of eating the one cookie early. This supposedly has some correlation to success in later life, but it also might be creating a whole new generation of axe murderers because of the stress induced by staring at that cookie. But looking at videos of this you find that the kids that succeed usually have some awesomely hilarious coping mechanism like smelling or licking the cookie, but not actually eating it. Ted and Linna actually performed this cruelty on their son and he sang the CU fight song to himself to prevent going insane.

I'm not four, but I also didn't only have 15 minutes. It was three hours and it's the next two years of my life in that envelope. So, if you know me you can guess what I did. I went into the entertainment room, closed the door and put on a movie. (It was Splice, if you're interested and it was genuinely creepy - plenty distracting for my purposes).

Finally, Sarah's bus arrived and upon getting home we tore into the package. Before we did it, neither one of us was willing to voice our hope aloud that Romania would be our country. Once we saw our wish come true, we both confessed. Even before we called our family we called our friend Luminita, who is a Romanian and worked for the Peace Corps before she moved to the States. Too bad we only got her voice mail, but we can't wait to talk to her in person about it.

Neither Sarah nor I believe in fate, destiny, God's will or whatever you want to call it. But of all the countries in the world that the Peace Corps goes to, it sure is curious that our closest connection to any country is to Romania.

Let the adventure begin!