Saying “I don’t know” with a smile

“I don’t know.” I find myself saying this phrase an awful lot when responding to the many questions that friends and family ask regarding my upcoming Peace Corps experience. And while uncertainty usually brings feelings of discomfort and concern, I find myself saying “I don’t know” with a smile on my face – as if in anticipation of opening a wonderful present or gift.

Wanting to spend as much time with their soon-to-be-distant son, my parents flew in to Indianapolis this past Easter weekend to visit. We entertained ourselves with a few plays, a Pacer’s game, and several museums. But in-between these distractions came countless questions about my upcoming Peace Corps experience. Questions for which I have no answer. Here are a few examples:

Q: Where will you live?
A: I don’t know. I do know that the Peace Corps will determine my placement within Guyana near the end of my three-month training period. That way they can match a volunteer’s skills with the needs of a local community. Other than that, I don’t know where I’ll be living. I could have an apartment all to my self. Or I could live in someone’s home with a family of eight. I don’t even know if my home will have running water or electricity.

Q: What will you be doing?
A: I don’t know. I know that I’ll be serving as an Information Technology consultant. I might be spending much of my time in air-conditioned rooms setting up servers and local area networks. Or I might be teaching students or professors how to build websites or simply use a mouse. The Peace Corps has some very broad objectives for me, but other than that, I suspect that I’ll be working on projects that I create.

Q: How will you keep in touch? Will you have Internet access?
A: I don’t know. I hope that I’ll have at least weekly Internet access, for it’s going to be hard to this high-bandwidth Internet junkie to go offline. But we’ll have to see. If I am stationed in an urban environment in or around Georgetown, I might have frequent access. Otherwise, I’ll likely have to make trips to the city to get my fix.

These and many more questions all have similar unknowns. And while many people might have hesitation or fear in making a change with so many unknowns, I find myself answering these questions with excitement and anticipation.

There will be much about my Peace Corps experience that will be hard and difficult work, for this I’m certain. But it will be the answers to these many unknown questions that will make my experience exciting and rewarding.

Thirty sounds so old

Today I turned 30. Thirty sounds so old. And yet, I still don’t feel like a grown up. Perhaps that’s because I’m getting ready to pack up and move to Guyana.

The decision and announcement that I’m going to be joining the Peace Corps really has been a nice distraction from me turning middle aged. But that’s about it for the distractions or reminders.

For I don’t have gray hair, I’m still tall and thin – much like I was in college, and I occasionally get carded when I order beer or drinks. And when I’m with my younger brother, many strangers have a difficult time guessing who is older.

So I suppose I’m lucky to still feel and look young. Although that all seems to change when I blurt out that I’m now 30.

I might also add that my Mom gave me a nice surprise today. When I booted up my computer this morning, I started receiving a lot of “Happy Birthday” emails from friends that I have not heard from in a long while. Many were friends from my parents’ church. It was a nice surprise. Thanks mom.

And thanks to all who wished me happy birthday. It was great to hear from you.

CFEA surprise lunch

Everyone likes surprises. Today I had mine, for 20 of my interfraternal friends gathered for lunch to help me celebrate my thirtieth birthday and my nearing departure for the Peace Corps.

I have long known many of the people who gathered for lunch today through the College Fraternity Editors Association. When I became editor of Lambda Chi Alpha’s alumni magazine in 1995, I lacked many of the skills and resources that were needed to do my job well. But thanks to CFEA and its members, I was able to quickly learn from my peers, who were each challenged with similar tasks and responsibilities at their fraternal headquarters. In time, I ended up chairing several CFEA committees and eventually served on its board for three years.

I have been very fortunate to make many interfraternal friends through my career with Lambda Chi Alpha and as a vendor in the fraternal market as a WeAlumni.com and Carden Jennings Publishing employee. But many of my most cherished friends are those who I have had the privilege of meeting through CFEA.

Thanks to all who came today; it was a great surprise. And for those who couldn’t come but wanted to, thanks for sending your greetings and best wishes as I prepare for my next adventure.

On a side note, I might add that all of the recent focus and attention that has gone toward my Peace Corps assignment has been a great distraction from the fact that I’m going to turn 30 tomorrow. I can’t believe that I’m going to be 30. It sounds so old.

No-fee passport

Yesterday I applied for my “no-fee” passport. Not knowing the difference between a no-fee passport and the passport I already have, I decided to do some research. Here’s what I found.

The Special Issuance Agency issues no-fee passports to citizens traveling abroad for the U.S. Government. The type of no-fee passport issued (diplomatic, official, or regular no-fee) depends upon the purpose of travel.

No-fee passports are used by Peace Corps volunteers for all travel during their service. We are required to have a no-fee passport even if we already have a personal passport.

I may use my no-fee passport only when going overseas with the Peace Corps. I’m not permitted to use the no-fee passport when I leave the U.S. for personal travel. For personal travel, I need to use a regular fee (tourist/business) passport. Furthermore, the no-fee passport does not confer diplomatic status, which would have been cool to have.

The only thing that I can find that makes the no-fee passport different than my personal passport is that I didn’t have to pay the $45 application fee. Other than that, there is no added benefit.

Is Guyana located in Africa?

I admit, I didn’t know very much about Guyana before my involvement with the Peace Corps. But it has been funny to see what others know about this country when I tell them that I’ll be moving there in a few months.

Many people think that Guyana is located in Africa, not South America. I suppose it’s easy to get confused, for of the 58 African countries, five start with the letter G and two are pronounced similarly: Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau.

But if they don’t think of Africa, they inevitably think of the “Jonestown Massacre”; the 1978 mass suicide by members of the People’s Temple, an agricultural commune in Jonestown, Guyana. On the orders of their leader, Jim Jones, more than 900 followers of the cult, mostly Americans, took poison and died.

I didn’t know much about this story, so I went to look it up and found this article from CNN.com.

Jonestown massacre + 20: Questions linger

Jonestown mass murder-suicide scene in 1978
November 18, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) — Twenty years after the world was shocked by the mass murder-suicide in the supposedly utopian community known as Jonestown, the questions linger: How and why did 913 people die? Some believe answers may lie in more than 5,000 pages of information the U.S. government has kept secret.

“Twenty years later, it would be nice to know what went down,” said J. Gordon Melton, founder and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion.

Time to declassify?
Over the years, there have been rumors of CIA involvement. Some people believe CIA agents were posing as members of the Peoples Temple cult to gather information; others suggest the agency was conducting a mind-control experiment.

In 1980, the House Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the CIA had no advance knowledge of the mass murder-suicide. The year before, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had concluded that cult leader Jim Jones “suffered extreme paranoia.”

The committee — now known as international relations — released a 782-page report, but kept more than 5,000 other pages secret.

Without those documents, it’s hard to confirm or refute the speculations that have sprung up around Jonestown, said Melton, who planned to be in Washington Wednesday to ask for the documents’ release.

George Berdes, chief consultant to the committee at the time of the investigation, told the San Francisco Chronicle the papers were classified to assure sources’ confidentiality, but he thinks it is time to declassify them.

Paradise becomes a prison
What is known about the end of Jonestown is that on November 18, 1978, Jones ordered more than 900 of his followers to drink cyanide-poisoned punch. He told guards to shoot anyone who refused or tried to escape. Among the dead: more than 270 children.

Only two years before, Jones — the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple, an interracial organization that helped the desperate — was the toast of San Francisco’s political circles.

But after an August 1977 magazine article detailed ex-members’ stories of beatings and forced donations, Jones abruptly moved his flock to Jonestown, a settlement in the jungle of Guyana, an Idaho-sized country on South America’s northern coast.

The plan was to create an egalitarian agricultural community. But Peoples Temple members who worked the fields and subsisted mostly on rice soon learned it was more like a prison, recalls Jonestown defector Deborah Layton.

Dissent was unthinkable, she says. Offenders sweltered in “The Box,” a 6-by-4-foot (1.8-by-1.2-meter) underground enclosure. Misbehaving children were dangled head-first into the well late at night. Loudspeakers broadcast Jones’ voice at all hours.

‘Time for us to meet in another place’
In May 1978, Layton, a trusted financial lieutenant for Jones, slipped out of Guyana. She went to the U.S. consulate and later to newspapers with a warning: Jones was conducting drills for a mass murder-suicide.

But there was little official government action until November 1978, when U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, who had been contacted by a number of people worried about their relatives in the Peoples Temple, decided to lead a delegation of reporters and relatives to Jonestown.

Ryan’s group arrived on November 17. Their visit began happily enough, but the mood soured after some Jonestown residents indicated they wanted to defect. The group was ambushed the next day as they tried to leave at a nearby airstrip. Ryan and four others were killed.

Later that night, Jones told his followers “the time has come for us to meet in another place,” as the mass suicide began. He was found shot through the head.

‘Jim had deep hatred in his heart’
Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 relatives in Jonestown, questions whether Jones was ever motivated by benevolence.

“Everybody wants to paint these pretty stories about how it started off OK. I personally believe that Jim had deep hatred in his heart from Day One.”

Californian Fred Lewis lost his wife and seven children at Jonestown.

“I blame myself. I blame my wife,” he told CNN. He also blames Jim Jones. “He was a con artist all the way.”

But don’t blame the victims, said one speaker at a memorial service held Tuesday at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.

“Remember the people of Jonestown, not for their horrible deaths, but for who they were — people in search of a better world.”

Correspondent Don Knapp and The Associated Press contributed to this report.