Your first real day of Census taking feels exactly like the first day of kindergarten. Safe and warm in your fashion Snuggie, your mother shakes you awake at 7 a.m. You shout, "Please, Mom! I don't wanna go door-to-door!" But she makes you get up anyway. She promises, "it'll be fun!" and that "you're going to make so many new friends!" Except now, you know she's lying. No one makes friends with their Census taker.
You get up and piece together an all-weather outfit. It will get torn and dirty by recess. You wear sturdy shoes in case you have to outrun a pit bull or a colony of fire ants. Before you leave, your mother kisses you goodbye, hands you a bottle of quick-release pepper spray and tells you to be safe.
Just like the good ol' days.
Except now, you're more annoying than a four year-old with a runny nose. You're the teacher's pet. The tattletale that goes around the neighborhood telling on the cool kids who break the rules. They didn't do what the Constitution told them to do, and you're going to bother them until they do. And if you're successful, you'll get a gold star from your Census Team Leader.
Sounds a bit childish, doesn't it? It didn't have to be this way.
By day one of door-to-door enumerating, the excitement you first felt when you flashed your badge and proclaimed "I'm with the U.S. Census Bureau" begins to wane. You start wondering who works above you, in air conditioning. Instead of "fill this out and we'll give you ten bucks," you long to know who decided to turn the Census into a giant neighborhood block party without food, where you "get to know your neighbors" if they ever show up. No one anticipated the reasons why we don't already know our neighbors.
You've heard the Census critics, so I'm not going to reiterate their views. Since I'm now a paid employee, I feel it's my duty to do damage control. I'll venture to guess that the marketing of this census is the brainchild of an anonymous staffer at the Commerce Department. If this thing fails, I've found the perfect scapegoat that we Americans of every diverse Census box can agree to pin it on:
That's right, DOC interns. You're taking the fall this time.
Rewind to a Friday a few months ago. John and Sally Intern sit in their Constitution Avenue cubicles in overcoats and mittens because the Federal Government keeps office buildings at a brisk 48 degrees. John spent his Thursday night in Dupont Circle. Sally was in Georgetown. Despite their obvious political differences, they're both ridiculously hung over.
John and Sally Intern are assigned to come up with a slogan for the Census, because no one should actually get paid to come up with a Census slogan.
John: This is totally lame.
Sally: Yeah, the Census is really lame.
John: If we think of something fast we can go to lunch at Potbelly's for three hours.
Sally: Good idea. When I did my last unpaid internship at Planned Parenthood, one of the slogans we used was "Helping You Make Informed Decisions."
John: That's cool. Let's suggest that.
Sally: We should probably have another suggestion, just in case someone at Planned Parenthood freaks out.
John: Yeah. How about "Yes We Can."
Sally: We can't use that. That's so overdone.
John: How about something similar like "It's In Our Hands?"
Sally: That's dumb. It's in our hands? What's in our hands?
John: The Census form. It'll literally be in your hands when you fill it out.
Sally: Whatever. They're not going to use this anyway.
(Note to Hollywood producers: That's an excerpt from a screenplay I'm writing titled "Census Day." It's about an ensemble cast that the audience doesn't realize is interconnected until everyone falls in love on Census Day, which also happens to be April Fools Day, which throws everything into flux because no one knows if the Census numbers are real! It ends with Bradley Cooper falling in love with the guy from Grey's Anatomy and everything turns out fine.)
Okay, so I don't have any proof that the unpaid interns botched this Census. But I'd like to think that's the best-case scenario. If "It's In Our Hands" was the sophisticated marketing strategy of highly paid executive branch officials, then America is in a bit of trouble. (Especially since we're now asking school children to figure out the meaning of our Census slogan.)
Washington, I'm pleading with you. Americans are better than this. We're the people who marketed and mass-produced Bumpits. We invented shoes that light up and put them on every continent. We produced The Hills and Miley Cyrus and sold these concepts to unsuspecting countries where blondes and televisions don't exist. We are experts at selling the mundane, yet we're underperforming on one of the few tasks the Constitution requires us to do.
Why, then, can't we figure out a way to market this Census to the very people who will benefit from it? Since when are we Americans too busy to talk about ourselves?
America, let's get this Census thing together. Let's not pretend like a 71 percent return rate on the Census is groundbreaking when we're spending more than the gross national product of Macedonia to conduct it. Let's get people excited about another one of life's mundane little forms. Then maybe the enumerators, the interns, and the critics will be excited to wake up and count Americans, too.
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