Saturday, February 27, 2010

Census Training

You know how they say "write what you know?" I think that's the instruction that my trainer was given in regard to leading this census-taking class. He went really light on "census taking" and pretty heavy on "my upcoming trip to Germany to see the passion play," and "staring down bears," and "my time spent busting drug cartels in Columbia," and "my love for hunting, poker, guns, the army, and my wife." I could write an award-winning biography on Lee "I'm a Veteran" Whatever-His-Last-Name-Is, but all my classmates and I are going to be the shame of the Census Bureau. His first name is really Lee Roy because his dad spent time in France during World War I and liked the French version "Leroi," by the way.
Being a history major I enjoyed listening to all his war stories and I would love to talk with him for hours sometime when I'm not trying to scavenge rare morsels of census-taking requirements from between stories about the time he spent in Germany and him actually speaking in German. We're all totally lost and I consider it job security because it will take me at least a month of just trying to figure out how exactly I'm supposed to do my job.
We are called Update/Leave Enumerators. On day three of training I finally understood that Update/Leave means that we're to "update" maps (which are totally wrong, and GPS is no help whatsoever on these back roads) and then "leave" a census packet at the addresses that we finally find and map. We went out for about two hours yesterday and left three packets on a block that was only about four miles around and that was impressive. I think we should have Google do it, they see to be on top of all that stuff.
Here are a few things from my enumerators manual that I did learn, the rest either went right over my head or couldn't find their way through the stories about the road conditions in Virginia and the proper way to get yourself out of the woods without a compass (this is straight from the manual):
"In 1889 Herman Hollerith, one of the Special Agents hired in 1881 to tally census figures found a solution to improve the tabulation process by designing a mechanical tabulator. Hollerith's system was a success and he later founded a company to market his invention. In 1924 the company was renamed International Business Machines (IBM)." This was just interesting and I spent my time during the next of Lee's diatribes ruminating on this, so I thought I'd share it. The following are pieces of practical advice for keeping yourself safe in the field, you could learn something too:
"Always wear comfortable easy-walking shoes. These shoes should may come in handy should there be a need to run."
And: "Upon entering a building allow your eyes to adjust to the indoor lighting before proceeding."
Some of your lives may also be saved using the information that follows:
"As you walk towards you vehicle, scan beneath the vehicle for persons waiting to charge out at your ankles. Check the backseat and floor for hidden persons before entering you vehicle."
And if you're confronted by a vicious dog, do this:
"Put something between you and the dog (in the visual our trainer held his government-issued thin canvas Census Bureau bag up to demonstrate) such as a bag. If the dog does bite you, do not pull away - it will cause a tear and a worse wound; instead try to make the dog release its hold." (It did not, however, give instructions for how you're to make the dog release it's hold, pulling away would have been my first idea and I've got nothing in second).
Also, if you're scared of dogs as I am, I learned that you're not to run past a dog as it's "natural instinct is to chase and catch prey." If it does catch you (if?) "the animal might try to knock you to the ground and you could be seriously hurt." I'm not so worried about the GROUND hurting me.
So, that's been my training and now I'm being sent forth with my illegible, decidedly wrong maps, my free state map from the local gas station, a borrowed GPS system (which is utterly useless), lots of information about the life and times of old Lee the Trainer, and my wits to canvass the back woods of Arkansas updating maps and leaving surveys. I assume that this starts nationwide at the same time, so on Monday when you are all getting ready for work think of millions of excited underachievers with new hope for their lives (at least temporarily) because of their great new high-paying jobs crawling out across the country, driving down every drivable road in the nation updating and leaving and checking under their cars for persons waiting to charge out at their ankles. It should give you a good laugh. And, for the love of God, if they knock on your door, be nice to them, they have no idea what they're doing.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

2010 Census

I'm a federal employee now working for the 2010 census, which requires me, all by myself, to drive down every road I see in my designated area (the backcountry north of Dover) and knock on every door that "is or could be a residence." I think my attitude about carrying guns might be changing. Between the dogs, the bears, the cougars which do live in these mountains despite what the Game and Fish Commission says, and the mountain men just waiting for someone from the federal government to come knock on their door I'm not sure how smart this is, but for $11.25/hour I might be willing to take the chance of getting mauled by a bear or being shot at by a crazy militia member. I've got nothing good right now, and I know it's been a while since I've posted anything or had the energy to, but I anticipate some pretty good stories-if I make it out alive. If you don't hear anything from me in the next couple of weeks send out a search party. This is so exciting!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Recently I've been working at the office of my father-in-law. For some reason he keeps a radio going at all times; he has ever since I've known him and it's become one of those things that, like clocks or antique fans or his love of making you feel stupid with all these crazy trivia questions he knows, make me kind of chuckle about knowing him. The radios play in the office, in his warehouse, in the tack room for the horses. He always keeps them on some sort of quiet, droning, comforting type station, something that plays old bluegrass music or talks about things that only get talked about in the background of other conversations. Except on weekdays during the lunch hour, when dial-a-trade is on and I have to suspect that more people are listening to this show than are admitting to it. It's great.
It's a whole show, and I have no idea how long it goes, a couple of hours at least, of people just calling in saying "I've got a box of refrigerator magnets for sale for $5, my number is..." Then on to the next caller. It's like a radio version of a flea market or the classifieds or, I don't know, the internet. There are sometimes some really good things, depending on the types of things you like to buy (like if you like guns and four-wheelers I'd say there are lots of great things). There's always something weird and desperate-seeming that makes you think "how did I end up here, at 27, eating cold leftovers for lunch listening to some guy try to sell his broken down Pontiac GrandAm for $300?" Sometimes people call in looking for things, or they say they saw someone drop a set of keys in a parking lot at Wal Mart and if they're listening they can call 968-5555 to get the keys back. It's a whole networking opprotunity for people who don't read Craigs List.
Are there other places that have dial-a-trade? I'd never heard of such a thing but it seems like such a good idea. If they got some good hosts, some guys like Click and Clack or something this could be a nationally syndicated show, really. It's hilarious what people call in with and always leaves you wondering what these people do when they hang up the phone. Are they calling on their lunch hour or is dial-a-trade part of how they make a living? Why are they selling their Granfather's pocket watch that doesn't run? Do they listen to dial-a-trade all the time? How long did they wait to get on the air?
It's entertaining to listen to and even makes you think about all the things you could be selling through dial-a-trade, if you weren't selling them on eBay, or, in my case, through an auction. It makes you want to buy stuff you would never otherwise think about buying just because you like a person's voice or they really sound like they need the money. It makes you proud to be an Arkansan.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Icy Trees and Electricity

One of the prettiest things in the world is trees covered with ice in the sunshine. One of the scariest things in the world is seeing one of those trees collapse under the weight of that ice. One of the most depressing things in the world is seeing that tree covered in ice fall across a power line in your back yard. This didn't happen to me, not yet. With all the wet weather we had this fall, and all the felling of trees that was done in my yard this fall, one of the pines got a little over-anxious and decided to try to save Justin the hassle of cutting him down and is now leaning, propped up by two other trees, towards the power lines, and I'm waiting, breath bated every time the wind blows for the lights to go out and the TV to go off and the refrigerator to quit refrigerating, allowing all of our condiments that fill it to go bad and force me to start a new condiment collection (who wants to spend four dollars on new salad dressing that you may hate?).
I've never in my life lived in a place where, when the electricity goes out, there is the possibility of it not coming on again for days. In my experience we just soldier through an hour or two of balancing a flashlight on end to give you enough light to search for more batteries to replace the dying ones and looking for all those half-burnt candles that you may or may not have thrown away, then the lights are back on. Here the hours drag into days and you finally go out and buy batteries and candles and board games and books. At first you wonder how anyone ever survived without light and artificial heat. By the end of the first day you think it might be kind of romantic to read a book in the candlelight. A fire seems like the only way to truly get warm. Your interest in the classics you always knew you should read but never did is awakened. By the end of day two you're a 19th century intellectual. You're an 18th century settler, thinking of creative ways to cook potatoes in the fireplace and wondering how to make cornmeal mush (isn't that what they ate?). By the end of day three you're making deals with God about how you're never going to take electricity for granted again and you're pretty much convinced that it went out in the first place just to teach you a lesson about thankfulness. You promise to read more, to turn out lights when you leave a room, to take showers instead of baths to save the hot water, and to not buy different salad dressing every time you go to the store, it's too risky and why do you have to have so much salad dressing anyway? Who in this house eats salad?
Then the electricity comes back on and you can't wait to see what's happening on American Idol. Ayn Rand gets placed right back on the bedside table where she started, and a hot bath sounds so nice who cares about saving water? Well, I'm writing this to say, preemptively, that I'm so thankful for electricity. I'd love to be the kind of person who never watches TV, who could live in a house where the thermostat stays on 68 degrees, who can cook in actual fire, and who reads by candlelight every night before going to bed, but I'm just not. I do love the way winter looks from inside my warm house, and I do love driving to work in the early morning looking at the trees covered in ice shining in the sun, but I also love leaving a hall light on at night so I don't stub my toes getting something cold to drink in the middle of the night. So, thanks, God for icy trees in sunshine, and the gravity defiance going on in the back yard that is allowing my electricity to stay on.