Month: May 2017

The Devil’s in the Resales

hamburglar
Note: The burger in this picture represents your money and me being too tired to Photoshop this picture. The Hamburglar represents the Hamburglar. But for some reason he’s a hipster now? Yeah. I don’t really get it either…

“Well,” I hear you say with a weary sigh, “at least you can sell your books back for money when you’re all done with them.”

Then, apparently not understanding how cliches work, you add, “I mean, at least it can’t get any worse, right?”

At which point, it starts raining.

But to answer your question: Yes, selling your books back is something you have the option of doing, in the same way that you could spend the day before a trip looking for loose change on the ground at the airport to pay for your ticket. You certainly could. It just wouldn’t be all that helpful.

The entire book-buying experience concludes at the end of each semester in something called “buyback.” Or as it’s more properly known, “Would you rather cling to the last shred of a moral victory, or have $6?”

So how does it work? Let me walk you through the process.

Buyback begins by handing a textbook to a salesperson who then tries to come up with the smallest number they can think of. They will then look at the book from various angles and, regardless of its condition, cut the number they were thinking of in half. While all this is going on they continually shake their head and “tsk” as your plans for your refund devolve from “dinner, movie and drinks” to “dinner and a movie” to “a movie” before finally settling on “reading movie summaries on Wikipedia.”

This concludes with one of two monetary outcomes that are, for all intents and purposes, identical.

In the first, you either bought a used copy of the book or some oil from your fingers touched the cover – either rendering it worthless at a tool for future education. The salesperson will reveal the number they thought up. And before you get halfway through your well-reasoned argument that you paid several hundred dollars more just two months ago, they say, “Take it or leave. There’s a line of sad people forming behind you.”

If you take the pittance, you’ll enjoy the realization that the book you bought for $100 used and sold for just $6 will likely be on the shelf against next semester with the same $100 price tag. Alternatively, you could walk out with your head held high(ish) and a bag full of books no human would ever want to read.

And for the record, no, even after going through that about a dozen times I’m still not sure which of those is the moral victory.

In the second scenario, the salesperson will look at a master list, sigh and say, “Looks like there’s a new edition coming out.” They then may or may not mutter something about having thought up a really good low number for nothing.

They’ll then point to the line of sad people forming behind you without offering you either a choice or pittance.

Why? Because as a I hinted at earlier, slightly different editions are effectively worthless to students. Although student bookstores can – and as I’ve seen, will – sell outdated editions, they won’t buy them back from you.

At which point you’re essentially left with a choice of tossing the books in the nearest garbage or giving it to the salesperson to do it for you.

The bad news, though, is that neither option is the moral victory in this case. If you hand over the book for “disposal,” there’s an above average chance it will still end up for sale next semester. And that’s why I probably never went this route. Giving the school the book I bought for $100 just so they could sell it again feels oddly like handing someone back their knife after they stabbed you.

Even if you think you’re sticking it to the bookstore by throwing your book in the trash outside, I’ve seen their employees root through the garbage for sellable books after closing. Seeing this didn’t make me very happy about the entire process. Though it did go a long way toward explaining why my used astronomy book smelled like an odd mixture of shame, human tears and pasta sauce when I bought it.

At least two of those three odors, I can only assume, were directly related to the buyback process in the first place.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this? What’s the moral of this story? What can future students do to make things better? Honestly, I’ve got no clue. Lord knows I was in college long enough that if there was a solution I would have figured it out and tried it myself.

For the most part I was just picking used copies based on the smells I liked most.

(May as Well) Burn After Reading

burning

Even with all our wars and bickering, I like to think there are certain commonalities with all of us that link us to the rest of mankind on a very fundamental level. I like to think that any two people – no matter their religion, creed, race or class – share something that makes us all innately and inescapably human.

Though, before this starts sounding too flowery and poetic, I should clarify that I’m talking about our shared dislike of how much college textbooks cost.

No two students are exactly the same, meaning that everyone is bound to have their own unique journey through their college years. Some join clubs. Some prefer the solitude. Some like early classes. Some like late ones. And some prefer not to attend at all, because it’s not their money. But one of the first experiences all students will universally hate is buying books.

For those who’ve never been to college, I’ll try my best to explain. First, imagine you’re going through a TSA screening at the airport. Then imagine you’re randomly selected for a cavity search. And lastly, imagine that before you can waddle off to find a bag of ice, the TSA agent holds out a hand that was very recently inside you, clears their throat and nods to a large sign that reads, “Tipping is mandatory.”

It’s pretty much like that, except without the fun trip afterward.

Because that’s the thing people always need to understand about buying books for classes. It’s not as bad as you think. It’s generally much, much worse.

I still remember my first experience at the student bookstore. I’d been reaching for a copy of my astronomy book when I spotted the $110 price tag and cringed. With money a bit tight, I opted for one of the used copies lower on the shelf. That’s when, still not finished with my first cringe, I cringed again at the $99 used price tag.

I made several decisions at once then. For one, I made a mental note to copyright a movie where people do things inside other things and have whoever directed the next Batman movie do it. For another, I decided to find a more used copy at a lower price. I moved lower. And lower. And before long I’d reached the floor. Despite several of the used copies looking like they’d recently been used as second-rate attic insulation, none were more than 10% discounted from the shiny new ones that prompted my first cringe.

Seeing no other option, I chose the least-destroyed used copy I could find and trudged up to the counter. There, I mentally calculated how many meals I’d need to skip to keep a positive checking account balance while I waited for a line of similarly broken students to finish their own purchases. Within about thirty seconds, we were even sighing in unison.

“Well,” you say, butting in, “at least that’s the last of it.” You then brush your hands together to emphasize your point.

Except, no. Because like some horrible, horrible onion, there are many distinct layers of awful to the experience.

Not long after, I noticed an “error” on my syllabus. “Are these pages for the assigned reading right?” I asked the professor after class. “It just sort of starts midway through a random chapter and ends on the first page of another. It doesn’t cover any of the topics you mentioned in class today.”

“What edition of the book do you have?” the professor asked with a sigh, sounding distinctly like it was a conversation he had at least hourly.

I looked at my copy. “Seventh?”

“Right. We’re using a new edition,” he explained, before adding, “There’s actually a newer one coming out in the Fall, now that I think of it.”

I blinked at the useless collection of pages and failure I’d mistakenly purchased in place of the book I’d actually needed. “So…I can’t use it, then?”

“Not necessarily. I mean, it’s still pretty much the same book as it was in the third edition. You’ll just have to search around a bit to match up your pages to the ones I assign.” He shrugged. “The chapter titles are even the same so it shouldn’t be a big deal, except…”

“I take it you’re about to tell me some really good news.”

Swing and a miss. “I mean, the good news is, finding the pages isn’t a huge deal. There are only three reading assignments from the book anyway, and I mostly cover it in class anyway.”

“I’m highly concerned that you consider that part the good news,” I said grimly. He’d effectively just revealed that I’d spent a hundred dollars on a book he’d only expected me to open three times in the course of his class. It made me more than a little worried at what he considered bad news.

“Well, the trouble is, you’ll need a new copy to connect to the online coursework. It has a CD and password that can only be used once.” Having apparently brushed against some memory of what it had been like to be a decent human, he muttered, “Sorry.”

“The online coursework is 15% of the grade…so…” I trailed off into my own misery. “Is there any way I could get a CD and password?” Seeing his lips begin to move, I clarified, “Without buying a new book and wasting a second $100.”

“$100? I thought it was $110.”

My eye twitched.

He hesitated before finally answering, “There is one thing.”

“Tell me the thing.”

“I’ve heard you can purchase it direct from the publisher and cut out the school as the middle man,” he answered. “The good news is that one of my students last year said it was only $60. And I think it only went up $5 in the new edition.”

“You have an interesting view of what constitutes good news.”

This, naturally, led to a lecture on how he wasn’t setting the prices. He was, in fact, on my side. The best I could do, he reasoned, was to make the best of a bad situation by succeeding despite the difficulty. Then again, it was hard to see him as any sort of fellow victim when he’d been the one to make the questionable reading list in the first place. And I’ll admit that his position was more than a little undercut by the fact that he’d actually written the book and was collecting royalties from my purchase.

Now, as luck would have it – and trust me, miraculously so – the CD and password in my used copy hadn’t been used before the book was sold back. Since books are totally non-refundable or exchangeable (until buyback, which I’ll get to), it literally meant that if I’d picked any of the other used copies at random, I’d have been buying a $100 paperweight.

And one that required (at least) a $65 replacement, no less.

Was that a bad experience? Absolutely. But not nearly as bad as the time I bought the most recent edition and couldn’t use it because the professor was still using the third edition workbook CD. I had, in fact, bought a too-new edition to use in his class.

Or the time a professor said they requested the library remove all copies of a book. In his words, “If there were copies at the library, people would just check them out for the reading assignments instead of buying them, to save money.”

“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said. “That was pretty much my argument for why a copy should be in the library.” I then let him get back to baking children into pies in his house made of candy.

But that, much like the used book I once found missing every page from Chapter 14 to the back cover, is only half the story.

Friends in Average Places

shady

(Note: No, I didn’t turn to drugs due to how sad the last part of the story was. But…well, you’ll see how it all fits in.)

Luckily, things almost immediately got better for me friend-wise, though it had very little to do with me.

I’ve never been all that good at making friends. Which is to say, I’ve never understood the process. I couldn’t tell you good places to meet people or effective techniques for finding shared interests or anything like that. I am, however, surprisingly good at going about my life randomly and then having friends when I go home.

Which would be great, if I weren’t also surprisingly bad at overthinking things.

I spent a lot of my first two or three weeks of college “trying” to make friends. I approached random people before class to have awkward conversations. I spent time in places that reflected my hobbies and waited for friends to arrive, like some sort of horrible friendship trapdoor spider. And as you might guess from the words “horrible friendship trapdoor spider,” it didn’t go all that well.

When nothing came of it, I sort of gave up. This wasn’t because I’d suddenly become aware that you can’t force friendship. The truth was, I had more than enough to keep me busy attending classes and trying to kick start a fledgling writing career.

(It’d be hard to argue, in fact, that a key reason I was able to succeed in either school or writing was because I had plenty of free time.)

And that was about the time my RA stopped me in front of my building, reached into his pants and showed me something that would change my life.

“Um, good for you,” I said, looking down at the six cans of beer he’d expertly crammed into the elastic lining of his pants. It didn’t look like the first time he’d done it, and that made it all the sadder somehow.

“You want one?” he asked, glancing about conspiratorially. “Don’t worry. I won’t rat you out to anybody.”

I briefly reviewed my policy on drinking any liquids that had been warming in another man’s pants to make sure and then offered an excuse at random. “I have a policy against drinking liquids that have been warming in another man’s pants.” Okay. In hindsight, it wasn’t that random.

He gave a chuckle and nodded. “That’s cool. That’s cool. You probably shouldn’t be drinking anyway. It’s not good for kids to get into stuff like this too young.”

I thought about defending myself and then remembered I was only seventeen. He wasn’t technically wrong. “Is there a reason those are in your pants?” I hesitantly asked, seeing that information wasn’t going to come about on its own.

“It’s against the rules, man,” he said, explaining that alcohol was strictly prohibited in dorms – even if the student was of drinking age. “But every now and then I do the guys on my floor a solid and smuggle some in.”

Considering I despised my RA with the white-hot heat of a thousand dying suns, I briefly thought of turning him in. Unfortunately, he was my only point of contact. And something told me he wasn’t likely to escalate the matter. Still, identifying the situation as one I wanted to be nowhere near when it blew up in someone’s face (or in their pants), I promptly returned to my room and locked my door to the maximum extent it could be locked.

Then, I waited.

(I vaguely recall also playing “Metal Gear Solid 2.” I can do two things at once.)

It didn’t take long for the police to arrive. By which I mean, they took an almost suspiciously short amount of time to arrive after the RA had returned with his spoils and shared them. (All told, it was about seven minutes.) And that’s when it hit me. My RA hadn’t just smuggled beer into the dorms in the lamest way humanly possible. Instead, he’d just pulled off the lamest sting operation of all time.

I breathed a sigh of relief at having not chosen that particular moment to violate my own policies regarding reaching into another man’s pants and pulling something out for any reason.

The rest, as they say, is history. I stood in the hallway with the rest of my floormates as we watched the police escort Hitler’s Youths – the only two people stupid enough to fall for (or be enticed by) that sort of slapdash operation – out of the building. Both were weeping openly, though I choose to remember them as they once were. I like to imagine them walking away proudly, arrogantly and shirtless, each dribbling a basketball as the elevator doors closed and they vanished into legend.

“Wow,” a voice said to one side as the onlookers began to disperse. “I can’t think of a more deserving pair of assholes.”

The voice, as voices often do, belonged to a person. I turned to see one of the floormates I’d very briefly interacted with on my initial tour of my surroundings. He extended his hand to me to shake. “Sorry. We didn’t actually get to talk when you stopped by. My name is Matt.”

“Huh,” I said, biting my lip pensively. “If I ever write about this experience later, all these people with the same name are going to start to get confusing.”

“Wouldn’t you just refer to yourself in the first person?”

He actually had a point there.

I won’t oversell Matt as being some friend that changed my life forever. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to claim we were incredibly close friends. But he was the first friend I made in college, and as it turned out, the single decent human being on my floor.

Just because the others hadn’t been arrested didn’t mean they weren’t terrible people for a variety of other misogynistic and/or racist reasons.

Probably the only thing I remember about him with any real clarity was that Matt was absurdly, astoundingly and relentlessly lazy. I won’t pretend to be any sort of paragon of hard work myself, but Matt had attained what I can only assume was a Buddha-like level of enlightenment in a religion of pure inactivity. Without spoiling future events too much, he once commented – perhaps prophetically – that he was glad we were only three doors from one another because he didn’t think our friendship would survive a flight of stairs between us.

From there, I went about my life and went about making friends in very average ways. It wasn’t a rite of passage or a step on my way toward adulthood. In fact, if not for the beer story it wasn’t even all that interesting. (Though that portion alone is largely worth the price of admission.) But it was an event and it happened.

When you see all the stuff I eventually don’t leave out, you’ll probably see that it happening was almost all it needed to be included.

The War at/with Home

halcyon

“Wow,” any reader would say after getting this far in the story. “Looks like you had a rough go of it early on in college.”

I would agree. But I would do so in such a way that I would sort of wave it off, as though that wasn’t the point I was trying to make for sympathy’s sake. I would then cough into my hand and say, “Some might call me a hero but whatever…”

“What?” those same readers would ask.

“Hm. Nothing. I just have a little tickle and…” I’d clear my throat again. “What were you saying before?”

This inevitably leads to the same question though: “If things were so rough at college, why not look for some support from your friends and family?” It would then lead to an equally inevitable and more embarrassing question: “I mean…you actually had friends in high school, right?”

The answer to those questions is complicated. Or rather, it’s fairly simple but not really a super-pleasant topic.

So let’s talk about that now. At length.

I wasn’t so much “popular” in high school as I was “very broadly tolerated.” And while this always gave me people to talk to, sit with, etc., I was only close with about three (or four) of them. Within three (or four) “situations” of arriving in college, this number dropped to zero – which, despite being much lower, was much easier to remember than the three (or possibly four) I had previously.

The majority of these fell under the category of “general drifting.” Out of high school, it suddenly strikes you how little you have in common with some of your friends. And you ask yourself, “Huh. If I weren’t forced to sit in a tiny room with this person five times a day and eat lunch together, would we have anything to talk about?”

As it turned out, the answer was, “No.” Or, “Yes, but we’d probably just talk about high school. For every conversation. Forever.”

The moment this really struck me came almost a year into college. (Sorry for skipping ahead slightly.) I was in a random clothing store when someone I didn’t in any way recognize came up to me and said it was good to see me. As it turned out, this was a classmate who left my school in the seventh grade. “Wow,” he said. “You’ve lost a lot of weight. I almost didn’t recognize you!”

I cut him off before he asked about my non-existent exercise routine. And it took everything I had not to say, “You’ve lost a lot of relevance. I didn’t recognize you.”

We exchanged very strained small talk about the two or three things we both remembered from nearly a decade before. There were nearly ten awkward silences in only three minutes of conversation. And then, shockingly, he said we should hang out sometime.

I politely declined with some made-up excuse that was far different than what I was really thinking. But strangely enough, it made me wonder. Did I really have that much more in common with friends from high school after a year apart?

Well, yes, actually. The shared experiences from twelve plus years of recent friendship are more than a six-year friendship that ended ages ago. I like hyperbole but let’s not get crazy.

The real trouble was that these were now static relationships. They would never grow and never evolve. They would have the same talking points, the same in-jokes and the same general dynamic in a month, a year or a century. Like some predictable AIM chat bot, they’d be fun for a conversation or three before you never spoke to them again. Years later, you’d wonder why you talked to what was essentially a parrot made of ones and zeroes.

The chat bots, I mean. Not (I assume) your old friends.

It was the last of these three (and possibly up to five, now that I think about it) old friends, however, that left the most lasting impression in their parting. Since I’d gone to college in the summer, a number of people going in the fall wrote to ask about the college experience. And having spent literally hours there, I was happy to oblige.

For the most part, I described college as a lot like high school. Since I was taking mostly introductory courses it wasn’t much harder. But I did stress that there was a lot more personal accountability when it came to waking up and going to class. First impressions, I added, were very important to making new friends. I had made quite sure not to say anything like, “Your family is ugly,” or “I moved on your sister like a bitch.” I even double-checked the e-mails to make sure before I sent them out.

Most people replied with thanks. My last close friend, however, seemed to take deep offense at some part of my advice. He wrote only, “(expletive) you man. i’m so sick of you saying stuff like this (expletive).”

I don’t know which part of that advice upset him so. And when I asked in a series of e-mails, he never wrote back. So I shrugged it off by assuming his sister had been killed by personal accountability or a first impression and I’d touched a nerve. We never spoke again. And though we’d been good friends since kindergarten, something about our parting convinced me I was better off.

Now, as far as why I didn’t turn to family, well…

I won’t belabor the point of how I feel about my parents. The short version is that we never quite saw eye to eye on much of anything. They drifted closer to fundamentalist Christianity as they grew older, while my experience with their church had all but pushed me into the indifferent but non-judgmental bosom of atheism. They were Republican while I was sliding more liberal. They thought tomatoes were vegetables at a time I was starting to think they were fruit. You know. Irreconcilable differences.

There were also less pleasant, more specific incidents that drove us apart that I don’t care to get into. I realize that sounds a lot like, “It’s private and I don’t want to talk about it.” But I assure you it’s not as sinister as you might guess. It’s really just very tedious and not terribly good comedy.

Except for my mom beginning to replace her children with dogs. That was, at least in hindsight, pretty funny.

My brothers were sort of the opposite problem, honestly.

While I would eventually come to have a very good and healthy friendship with my brothers, it didn’t start out that way. I think age ironed out a lot of our differences. But it wouldn’t come soon enough for me to be seeking advice from them when I hit rough spots in college. I’d drifted too far from my friends and parents to relate. My brothers and I, meanwhile, hadn’t yet drifted back together.

As opposed to what I said earlier, I honestly don’t think the experience was all that unique or deserving of sympathy. I was, unfortunately, just observant enough to notice almost immediately that my old friendships were ending. It didn’t keep me from plastering an entire wall in my room (above my not-as-yet-arrived roommate’s bed) with pictures from those halcyon days. But it did keep me from wasting the one or two years non-athletes and athletes, respectively, sometimes spent living in the past.

But halcyon days don’t last forever. And for better or worse, they were never quite what you remember anyway. I mean that literally. Go look up “halcyon days.” Apparently it’s a period of seven days were there are no storms every year. Or maybe when some bird is laying eggs or something. Seriously?

I don’t remember any of it that way.

 

Food for Thought

abandoned

I was told when I went to college I’d immediately put on fifteen pounds. I was told my metabolism would fall apart and my young, thin body would slowly give rise to the misshapen horrors of adulthood. And I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I’d meet a white-haired man under a blood moon who would trade rose-tinted memories for dark, best-forgotten secrets.

In short, my friends were totally wrong about the first two. That fortune teller, however, is currently batting 1.000.

But this isn’t a story about the time I wandered into that abandoned amusement park and found an old crone who beckoned me to a cracked, murky crystal ball. I mean, I’d be lying if I said that isn’t a way better story. It’s just not the one I’m telling right now.

In hindsight, that lead-in kind of makes the eventual story about my college eating habits sound pretty underwhelming. But, well…here we are.

The problem began around the age of 13. After spending most of my adolescence as a wad of pancake batter, my growth spurt hit me like a freight train. From there on out I was seeing an annual 4-inch growth that sent me from “just above average” tall all the way to “can you get me that box on that high shelf? no, the high high shelf” tall.

If you’re having trouble picturing it, just imagine what happened to Tom Hanks in “Big.” Just, you know, without that “sex with minors” thing.

Coming into college just south of six and a half feet and 162 pounds, I was probably the last person who would worry about “the freshman fifteen.” In fact, I honestly didn’t have an alternate strategy to put on pounds if I didn’t stress-eat my way to a healthier figure freshman year. Keep in mind that I was only 17 and hadn’t officially stopped growing by that point. At the rate I was going, I worried my waistline would just blink out of existence somewhere around the age of 24.

(Making me just seven pounds too heavy to be a runway model. Hiyo!)

I won’t keep you in suspense. It didn’t go well. In fact, due to the fact that I handle stress in exactly the opposite way as most people, I left my first semester down eight pounds from where I started.

“Well,” you might ask, “why didn’t you just try eating more?”

First off, stellar question. Thank you for that deep, insightful solution to my weight issue. It’s about on par with asking people with depression why they don’t just try being happier, or people with bipolar disorder to try being happier, then less, then more, etc. I assure you, perhaps not surprisingly, that it was the very first thing I tried when I saw I was shedding pounds.

The answer to that question is fairly simple, though. I couldn’t. And when I say I couldn’t eat more, I don’t mean I had a tiny bird stomach or something. The dining halls were set up as all-you-could-eat buffets three times a day and located within a hundred steps of my door.  I literally mean I couldn’t have possibly eaten more than I already was.

And yet, like the victim of a horrible gypsy curse, I continued to waste away no matter how much I ate. I mean, in all fairness, that gypsy had cursed me in the abandoned amusement park. But that was a different curse where….well, like I said. That’s a whole other, far more interesting story.

Anyway…

Probably the strangest thing, though, was seeing so many others pack on more and more pounds as I slowly disappeared up my own digestive tract. My floormates would see me and nod appreciatively at my runner’s physique. “What’s your exercise routine, man? You’re looking good.” They’d then quickly mutter, “No homo,” because it was 2002 and that was a still a necessary addendum to complimenting a guy.

Having no exercise routine, I was never sure what to say. So I’d always come up with something like, “It’s a lot more poutine than routine.”

They’d laugh as though I was making some sort of joke. So I’d laugh with them to avoid making it awkward. And all the while my stomach would slowly slide ever deeper into the growing pocket dimension inside me.

Of course, in hindsight it all made sense. Most of my symptoms were simple enough to explain away if I’d known I had early stage Crohn’s Disease at the time. It might have come in handy for the people (and there were several throughout my years in college) who were openly hostile about my weight loss, as though I was gradually evaporating just to spite them.

“Well,” more than a few people would say, rolling their eyes, “I’m sure I’d be thin as a rail, too, if I ate like a hummingbird like you.”

It was then that I’d put down the entire rotisserie chicken I’d been eating and frown. “This seems like a bad time to explain that hummingbirds actually need to drink a huge amount of nectar compared to their own body weight just to survive each day,” I’d answer sheepishly. Their eyes would narrow, suggesting that it was indeed a bad time to explain that. “I mean, you’re already in way worse shape than me. It’s probably just salting the wound to show how much more I know about birds.”

The exchange would usually conclude with my being tackled to the ground and ferociously pummeled. I’d blurt out apologies between blows – usually saying that all my talk of “salting” was probably just making them hungry.

Then again, seeing how people treated me even after the diagnosis, I doubt it would have mattered much. “I wish I had a disease that let me eat whatever I wanted and never gain a pound,” more recent hypothetical people would say. The conversations changed, but the eye rolls stayed the same.

I bring this up as a way to explain that, in its way, the story of my college years was also the story of my tumultuous relationship with my own broken innards. Even if I wouldn’t know about it for many years until finally, under a blood red sky, I entered the burned-out remains of what had once been a hospital and met a man with hair as white as the driven snow.

But that, too, is another far more interesting story  for another day.

I mean, if there’s time. There’s a lot of other stuff to cover first before we cover my odd habit of wandering into abandoned carnivals, warehouses, mines, insane asylums and hospitals.

So…you know, we’ll see.

The First Day of the Rest of Your Class

facepalm

“This is your syllabus,” the professor said, holding up his own identical copy of the sheet. Then, as if the class hadn’t believed him, he pointed to the word “syllabus” at the top in bold lettering. I still remember the odd silence in that room as sixteen students wondered if the remainder of the class was just going to be a tenured professor reading aloud from handouts.

While the seventeenth, to my immediate left, wrote the word “syllabus” phonetically next to the page heading on her sheet. I promptly edged my seat a few inches away from hers and then died inside.

“Are there any questions so far?” the professor said, stopping his whirlwind lecture to let our young minds digest all the facts he’d been throwing at us.

“What is dead may never die,” I muttered, feeling my insides trying in vain to die a second time.

Here, I jotted down those words in my own notebook, thinking it might make a good line for a book character who you like, then dislike, then is mutilated until you sort of feel bad for him. The girl to my left saw what I’d written down, shuddered, and moved her chair slightly away from mine, as well.

A hand went up. “What’s the attendance policy?” someone – clearly a winner – asked.

I had a brief moment of surprise that someone would choose that as their first impression in college. The professor, meanwhile, dashed my hopes of hearing something I couldn’t read myself by reading the paragraph on attendance, word for word. And as annoyed as I was at wasting an increasing portion of a gorgeous summer day indoors doing the activity I think awaits most sinners in Hell, the question had made it clear that students could not, in fact, just read the syllabus themselves.

The farce went on for several more minutes as my spirit tried to escape its cage of misery when there was a knock at the door. And in walked a man that would have looked more at home in an 80’s metal band than academia. “I can take it from here, Dean. Unless you want to keep boring my class to death.”

(Note: It’s worth noting that the man I mistook for the course instructor wasn’t a Dean. His name was Dean. Though he was also the head of the department – which in other schools would have given him the title of Dean. Thus allowing everyone to call him “Dean Dean, PhD.”)

The two exchanged some pleasantries, exchanged some friendly insults and then the department head left. The newcomer introduced himself as a recent graduate student (who I’ll nonetheless be calling “professor” for the sake of simplicity). And while I didn’t know it at the time, I would come to deeply respect him over the course of the next five years. Whereas he would gradually lose all respect and patience for people who, in his view, had no place in higher education.

In short, I’m not sharing his name until he’s got tenure someplace.

“I’ll assume you can all read,” he said, dismissing the remainder of the syllabus. “But are they any other questions?”

A familiar hand went up. “What’s the policy on attendance?” the same student repeated. It was only when an entire classroom of heads swiveled in his direction that he clarified, “I mean, I know missing is bad, but will we lose points? How much can we miss without losing points? That sort of thing.”

He apparently hadn’t liked the previous answer he’d gotten from the syllabus and hoped to hear something different from the man who wrote it.

The professor, for his part, only frowned when a hundred other reactions might have been more fitting. “It’s pretty cut and dry. You miss three classes, you drop by a letter grade. No penalty past that, though my experience has been that people who miss all the lectures do badly on the tests…which are based on the lectures, so…”

The student nodded in understanding. He then immediately disproved that understanding by asking, “Is there any way to get an exemption?”

“To the attendance policy? Or attending in general?”

“The policy…or either. Both, I guess?”

The professor’s face went through a series of emotions at this answer, settling at least twice on complete confusion. He shook it off. “Well, I’m not forcing you to take the course. You could stop taking it and take something else instead.”

“It’s just…this isn’t even my major. This was one of the only courses left…” The younger man trailed off. “Honestly, I’m just looking to pass. I don’t want to waste effort in my non-major courses. So…what’s the least I could do and still pull off a C?”

“I really don’t know,” the professor said. He seemed to be in disbelief that he was actually having that conversation. He wasn’t alone. “I’ve never been solicited for advice on how to be mediocre before.”

The instructor changed tack. “May I ask what your major is?”

“Oh.” The student was taken back. “I…well, I haven’t actually decided on one yet. But definitely not this.”

“Do you even know what ‘this’ is?”

“Anthropology.”

“Bravo. And what do think anthropology is, exactly?”

The younger man considered. “It’s sort of like…philosophy?” he offered uncertainly. When two separate classmates buried their faces in their hands, he quickly sputtered, “But, not exactly. I mean, it’s like philosophy…for people, though.”

The professor blinked back at him. “As opposed to…non-people philosophy?”

“Right. Like…not stuff.” A pause. “And not animals.”

The exchange went on for some time thereafter, slowly destroying any shred of dignity the student had when he’d arrived at college. He never once seemed to notice. In fact, he looked downright pleased with himself when the professor agreed to let him miss as many classes as he wanted without losing points, in exchange for him never speaking in class again. This, the instructor explained, was an effort to avoid “wasting either of our valuable times.”

“Well,” the professor said after their deal was struck, shaking his head, “I didn’t really have any plans beyond handing out the syllabus today. So I’ll be cutting this one short.” His tone suggested he’d liked to have cut it far shorter.

He half-heartedly asked if there were any more questions. Thankfully, no one volunteered. And with that, we were on our way.

I still remember that as something of a crossroads for my life in college. It was the moment I met the professor who would eventually become my Dr. Cox-esque role model. It was the day my naivete regarding college being a “sacred place of higher learning” died.

And, most of all, it was the day a student strolled into a class he was paying for, demanded permission not to return and then tried to bully each of his classmates to take notes for him as we filtered out.

I’m happy to report that not a single one of us volunteered. Not even when he begged. Not even when it came to to pronouncing “syllabus” phonetically.

An Intermission in Edgewise

derail

“Are you okay?” the radiologist asked, hovering near the door.

“What?” I said, shaking off the lapse in my concentration. “Do I…not look okay?” For that matter, why would anyone in a hospital ever be asking if I was okay rather than just using some sort of science machine to check?

“You were telling a story and then you just sort of….” He made an inarticulate move with his shoulders and neck. “It was like you were talking for a really long time and then just stopped for about four months.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Wait. So you were listening to the story? I thought you had stuff to do?”

“As a framing device to tell your entire college story, I think it works better to have someone actually hearing it and occasionally asking questions,” the strangely narrative-minded radiologist offered. More quietly he muttered, “Otherwise, you’re literally babbling to yourself in an empty waiting room.”

“Oh. Well…what did you think of the story?”

The man considered for a moment. “It’s interesting enough. Though I’m not sure anyone would get a ‘That Darn Cat’ pun.”

“Wait. You can know the titles, too? How does that work in the framing device? Am I actually prefacing all these segments with a title?” I demanded. “For that matter, why are you doing this to the fourth wall? Are you angry at it? Did it wrong you somehow?”

He managed a weak shrug. “I’m just a heavily embellished character. You’re the writer. You figure it out.”

I grumbled to myself. “I should’ve written a character less aware of narrative structure and literary devices,” I lamented.

“Nooooo,” he corrected, dragging out the word accusingly. “You should’ve kept telling the story – one you touted as literally never-ending – rather than losing focus before your first class even started in the story. If it’d kept going then you wouldn’t need to return to this initial segment of the story to explain the lapse.” He sighed. “Now you’ll have to keep revisiting it throughout the story to make it look like that’s what you intended to do from the beginning.”

“I can’t believe I’m being chastised by my own creation.” Then again, my toddler had recently run into the bathroom while I was using it to tell me I was a bad dancer and that I needed to stop. This might just be part of the creative process.

Still, he was right.

The radiologist, I mean. My son is dead wrong.

“All right,” I agreed, feeling properly chastened. “I’ll have to keep up on this a little more. There’s not much sense in writing a story with no end if I just stop in the middle.”

“Technically, you stopped right at the beginning.”

Anyway,” I said, riding over his snark, “let’s see. Where was I?”

“You were using a map to find your classes the first day.” The radiologist paused. “I mean, I’m not sure if that was going anywhere or if you were going to jump to another random point or…”

“Actually, it’s supposed to be subtly mirroring the actual columns I wrote professionally while I was in college. It sort of seems random, and it is, I guess, but it all has a predetermined path if you use those columns as a road map,” I explained. Then, a bit more sheepishly, I admitted, “Though…due to an event that happens much later in the story, those original columns were all destroyed. So I’m kind of piecing it together from memory…”

The man nodded sagely. “It’s probably just as well. I don’t think enough people even remember you wrote those to get that reference.”

“I said it was subtle.” I slowly absorbed the insult. “Also, shut up.”

“Do you even remember what comes next?”

“Of course I do.” Of course I did. Mostly. “I just have to find my train of thought. From almost half a year ago.”

“That’s a long break in the train schedule.”

“Well, trains don’t come through often anymore.” I shrugged. “I don’t think the industry is doing well, honestly. I think it’s because…”

The radiologist gave me a long-suffering look.

“Right. Right. Anyway, let’s get this thing back on…track.” Trust me. All good story metaphors are about trains. I didn’t have much of an alternative. “Let’s rejoin our hero…”

“Ahem.”

Fine,” I said, almost in a growl. “Let’s rejoin our protagonist…” I waited to make sure there were no further objections. The other man made a “so-so” motion with one hand. “It was a warm, sunny day. Summer was in full swing. The birds were singing. The flowers were blooming. And I, for whatever reason, had decided that the best use of my time was to sit indoors having a man who’d spent most of his adult life earning his doctorate read a class schedule to me while I held it.”