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26 April 2011

I’m stuck in Wilmington for the next few days. It’s…less than enjoyable. I love my family and I very much want to see them, but when you know no one and you have nothing constructive to do, time drags. I had hoped to combat this with some kayaking, but alas I wasn’t able to bring one down. Boo.

But I think this may be good practice for the doldrums of the Peace Corps. Once I get over the excitement of being in a new country and the challenge of living in a new culture, once the full days of training are over and it’s just me in my site, the days will probably get very long. It will be up to me to get out, get involved with my community, and make the most of the opportunities that are given to me. Otherwise, it will be a very long two years.

So how to do it? Here in Wilmington, I can use the internet, play disc golf, go to the beach, and go to the gym. In Africa, I’ll be able to…go talk to people? It might help if I had some idea of what folks over there do in their free time. Maybe I should bring lots of books? Maybe I should think about writing a novel? I have a couple of good ideas that I’ve been wanting to explore…


Aches and pains


21 April 2011

Today I learned an important pointer for the future: no matter how fun it may sound, and no matter how much of a good idea that it may seem like at the time, you should never, ever, play disc golf before weight lifting. Because if you do, when you strain your right shoulder driving, the resulting soreness will make squats, bench presses and deadlifts more fun that I can currently describe. Ow.

Which brings me to the first Peace Corps-related questions that I haven’t been able to readily answer via online research:

  • Will I have access to a “gym” or weights in Burkina Faso (I don’t really care what I lift, as long as I have a reasonable idea of what it weighs)? I know it’s hot, and I know it’s not the world’s wealthiest place, but surely basic weights have got to be the easiest of all exercise equipment to manufacture or procure. I mean, how much technology or money do you need for a steel bar and 200 – 400 kg of steel or concrete plates?
  • What are our exercise options, other than the ubiquitous bike riding, walking, running and calisthenics?

I’m not an exercise fiend, but I do lift regularly 3 days a week, and it would be nice if I could have some idea of what sort of exercise options were available to me. I’ve had a couple of awesome Peace Corps volunteers contact me already, and I plan on emailing these same questions to them, but anyone who knows the answer feel free to chime in.

That’s all for now. Time for some ibuprofen and a shower.


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20 April 2011

Last night, I had the amazing opportunity to have dinner with Ariadne and Persephone, two of the loveliest, most beautiful, and most charming young ladies I’ve ever met[1]. Over our hibachi, they asked me about the story of my brain tumor, which in turn led inevitably to the question of why I had joined the Peace Corps. Being entirely unable to resist their feminine charms, I answered their questions at length, they responded positively, and in general a good time was had by all.

But then I got to thinking: what about you folks out there in internet land, who don’t have the advantages of being young, female, beautiful, and sufficiently proximate so to be able to sit down over dinner? What about you? Should you be deprived of the same knowledge that they have? I think not!

Worry not, fair netizan! For I have heard your pleas for knowledge and backstory, and will respond as only a contumaciously verbose, sesquipedalian amateur pansophist like myself can do. Look for full length treatments of my backstory to be posted in the coming days.

In the meantime, I’ll get things started with the story behind this blog’s title.

Obviously, if you’re going to have a blog, it needs to have a title. And it helps if it’s insightful, interesting, witty, intriguing, and just a touch ironic. And if it’s a Peace Corps blog, it’s all but de rigeur that it incorporate your name, where you’re going, and some clever on the words that makes it all amusing: Burt-in Faso, what have you.

The problem is, I hate names like that. Fortunately, I love Calvin and Hobbes. So I decided to be all literary and make my title a quote:

…and there you have it.

More to come.

(Note: I believe that my use of the above comic constitutes fair use. Of course, I’m not a lawyer, and fair use is hideously complex grey area even for lawyers who specialize in it, so it’s entirely possible someone could tell me to take it down. So if you’re reading this at some point in the future and you only see a link to a ucomics page and not the actual comic, that’s what happened.)

[1] We don’t “do” real names here at OTIEOMS – sorry, crazy stalkers of the world, but you’ll just have to find the targets of your obsessions elsewhere.

Death and taxes

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19 April 2011

Yesterday was tax day, but I didn’t get my taxes filed on time. I *thought* I had done it about a month and a half ago via TurboTax, but they waited until Saturday to send me an email saying:


Or words to that effect. Apparently, clicking “file” doesn’t actually file your taxes, and there are a couple more steps. And for some mysterious reason, the TurboTax servers were so annihilated yesterday that I was unable to get my filing through. I can’t imagine why that happened, but it was seriously annoying.

So…long story short, I get to file one day late, and this will probably be my last post, since I’m sure to have been dragged away to debtors’ prison by this time tomorrow. It was nice knowing all of you.

But until that happens, I think I’m going to ponder an interesting question: the Peace Corps and taxes. Obviously, I will owe taxes on whatever I have made thus far in the year, but will I owe taxes on my living stipend, etc. from the Peace Corps? Technically, I receive no salary. Also, whatever income I receive will surely be paid while I am out of the country. But a working knowledge of the eternal greed of governments makes me think that NC and Federal government will both still want their cut of my nothing. Quick, Batman! To the Researchmobile!

*insert montage of exhaustive research*
*preferably amusing, and frequently interrupted with shots of me dressed in a period outfit and running in and out of various library stacks whilst being chased by cartoonish villains in improbable attire*
*with some yackety sax playing*

So…after all of that research, here’s what I found out:

  • You do in fact owe both state and federal taxes
  • You will get a W-2 on the taxable portions of your stipends, etc, just like any other job
  • Because most of your stipend money falls under “other income”, you have to fill out a 1040, and not a 1040EZ

BUT there’s some good news, too:

  • Peace Corps have lots of experience helping volunteers navigate this minor hassle
  • You don’t actually report that much, so you should get most or all of it back in a helpful return

So, as long as I don’t forget to do it or file late, I should be fine. I can’t imagine undergoing a massive audit whilst languishing in the depths of Burkina Faso would be fun, nor would returning home to find myself being hit with an obnoxious fine.

Here’s to next year, and doing my taxes on time!

Moving Day, OR bad boys, bad boys, Ouagadougou, Ouagadougou when they come for you…


16 April 2011[1]

Before I get to my main post, I suppose I should comment on the recent news. For those of you who don’t know, there was a mutiny in Burkina Faso the other day. I’m sure it’s more complicated than what is being reported in the press, but essentially the Presidential Guard went wild and looted some areas, followed by political fallout in the form of the President firing his Cabinet. That appears to be it. I don’t know enough about Burkinabe politics to comment in greater depth, nor do I think it would appropriate for me to do so given the trust that I am about to assume. Suffice to say I am keeping an eye on it. It’s a concern, but I’m not terribly worried about it at the moment, and I wish nothing but the best for the people of Burkina Faso.  More to come if and when the story develops. In the meantime, get your news from the real pros. I personally recommend the BBC, but to each his/her own.

I’m writing this during a break from packing. It’s nothing major, but I’m moving out of the place I’ve been renting to another place. Basically, I’m switching my base of operations from a rented room in Cary to a rented room in Chapel Hill. It will save me money, grant me precious sleep before and after my two jobs, and generally make my life a little easier.

Which raises an interesting point for potential Peace Corps applicants: because the application process is so long and opaque, it’s hard to give third parties any definite information. At first glance this may not sound like much of a problem, but I assure you: when exactly you will be leaving is one of those things that you need to be able to share with a potential landlord. Leases tend to run for 12 months, and that’s a long time to wait in addition to the already lengthy wait for the Peace Corps application. And unlike cell phone contracts, gym memberships and the like, you can’t easily get out of them. So if you have a lease that lasts some months after your posting date, you’re faced with trying to sublease (if you’re allowed), paying a burdensome financial penalty to get out of the lease, or waiting it out and potentially losing your posting. No matter what, it’s a hassle.

My personal solution has been to rent rooms from Craigslist, and it’s has worked pretty well so far. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s always been smooth sailing, and I’m definitely not going to pretend that it isn’t a huge relief to know when exactly it is that I will be leaving. That has made my housing situation much less stressful.

Which brings me back to today. I’m currently packing away my winter clothes, and it occurs to me: I won’t need a single piece of this clothing for 3 more years. And by that time, it will all probably be massively out of style. So I may never wear these clothes again.

It’s a sobering thought.

[1] I shamelessly stole the punny title from the Politics tab at It’s perfect.

Aspiration statement, part 1

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April 15 2011

Caveat: I knew before I applied to the Peace Corps that my service would inevitably entail copious amounts of paperwork. It may come in unorthodox packaging, but it’s government work nonetheless, and if there’s one universal truth of government work it’s that the employees come and the politicians go but the paperwork abideth forever, amen. So please don’t interpret the post below as complaining; it’s not. It’s just momentary frustration at having to condense 3 – 5 pages worth of thoughts into a paragraph.

Today, I’m sitting at Bean & Barrel across the street from my job at PharPoint, working on my aspiration statement during my lunch break. I’m doing this because:

  1. It’s due by Monday, and I haven’t started yet
  2. Thanks to having two jobs, I don’t have very much free time
  3. I have been getting absolutely nowhere with it during said free time; maybe the structure of a work day will help

I don’t really like this essay. I’ve done about 15 like it since I joined the Peace Corps, but this one in particular annoys me. Your aspiration statement goes in your permanent file and will be the document which is used to introduce yourself to people who haven’t met you yet. It is, in a very real sense, your first (and perhaps only) chance to explain yourself to all sorts of people.

Which would be all well and good if it weren’t so damn bland. I listed the prompts in a previous post, but here’s the one I’m working on today:

Please tell us about the professional attributes that you plan to use, and what aspirations you hope to fulfill, during your Peace Corps service.

Ugh. How…generic.

Whenever I’m faced with something like this, I always have to fight the urge to dismiss it as the BS it is, and to produce an answer that is more meaningful than the Hallmark-card sentiments it obviously deserves. I also have to resist tendencies towards sarcasm and irritation:

Since “professional” necessarily implies a “profession”, which in turn implies paid work in a trained field of expertise, I cannot say that I will be bringing any“professional” attributes to Africa with me; after all, if you were planning on actually paying me, you would do a bit more than give me 2 months of language training before setting me loose in the bush.

Now, it should be obvious that that wouldn’t fly. Nor is it fair to the Peace Corps: it costs the taxpayer something like $50,000 USD per volunteer per year, so while there’s no formal salary as such, it certainly isn’t unpaid. Also, they give you world class training, and the work is real, important, and *does* require a professional mindset. That isn’t the answer I want to give, it’s just the answer my irritated backbrain spits out while I sit here staring at the screen coming up with nothing of note.

Perhaps I could start with a definition?

A nifty bonus

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14 April 2011

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know two things about me:

1. I have an extremely good memory.

2. Except when it comes to day to day things. Then, I’m incredibly absentminded.

In short, I can tell you all of the US Presidents in order or explain the more minute details of the German order of battle at First Marne, but I’m simultaneously forever forgetting my wallet, losing my sunglasses, and not remembering birthdays.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “But I do the same thing. Everyone does.” Trust me…you may do it, but I take it to the next level. You forget to take the movie back until tomorrow. I can’t use Redbox anymore because I own about 35 of their movies that I’ve forgotten to take back. You pay a $.35 late fee to the library. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars of overdue fines to various libraries in my day. I don’t know if it’s some side effect of the brain tumor, God’s sense of humor, or what, but I simply cannot keep track of certain mundane things, try though I may and exasperating to others though it may be.

Case in point: I have probably locked my keys in my car well over 100 times, no exaggeration. In fact, I’ve done it so much that I’m actually pretty accomplished at breaking into my own car: all I need is a wooden door wedge and a coat hanger, and in 30 seconds I’m golden. So I suppose if the Peace Corps doesn’t pan out for me, I can always look forward to a lucrative career in automotive theft.

But the problem with breaking into your own car is it only works in some situations: you have to be able to scrounge the tools, and it really helps if it’s not raining, dark, freezing, or otherwise miserable. You also run the risk of damaging your car or of being mistaken for an actual car thief by some concerned citizen or overzealous police officer (don’t laugh…it has happened). So if your memory sucks and breaking into your car is unreliable, what’s a fellow to do?

Enter AAA.

For those of you who don’t know, AAA is about the best thing ever. For something like $50 a year, you get 8 free roadside service calls, whether it’s to change a flat, bring you gas, tow you to the nearest station, jumpstart your battery, or – you guessed it – let you into your own car. I’ve had them for years now, and I’m yet to use them for anything other than locksmith services.  But I use those services 6 or 8 times a year. It’s embarrassing. They also get you discounts on airfare, hotels, etc. But to be honest, I’ve always just thought of them as my locksmith service.

Which is why I was delighted last night to discover a little known fringe benefit of membership: they give you free passport photos! I wouldn’t normally think of this as a big deal, but it just so happens that I need photos for my No-Fee Passport and my visa for Burkina Faso, and probably having a few extras wouldn’t hurt if I want to travel to another country in Africa at some point in the future. So instead of going to Walgreens and giving them $20 for two of the worst photos ever taken by man, I can jaunt down to my local AAA office and get 8 or 10 of the worst photos ever taken by man for free instead.

So any prospective Peace Corps Volunteers reading this take note: FREE PASSPORT PHOTOS AT AAA (if you’re a member…but they’re still cheap even if you aren’t).

One last note: since I wrote this, Kristine K. the world’s coolest photographer, has offered to provide me with 8 or 10 of the bestest photos ever taken by man for a mere $10, so I’m actually doing that instead. But my point still stands for everyone else. Oh, and this arrangement gave rise to the best line ever sent to a man by a woman:

“7pm tuesday. my place. bring a sheet. you wear whatever you feel is necessary.”

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