Month: July 2017

Loan of Irk

Joan
How confident am I of this title pun? So confident I’m including the image of the thing I’m referencing just to make it clearer. Oh, yeah.

Like most of the disappointments in my life, unemployment in college was painful, long-lasting and ultimately irrelevant because of a bunch of random stuff that happened concurrently.

You see, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned about myself. Despite being an otherwise intelligent person, I have the unusual habit of making enormous mathematical errors, almost exclusively when it comes to estimating my financial health. I don’t know how or why this keeps happening, though I defend that while I have no better explanation, it (somehow) has nothing to do with just being very, very bad at math.

The gist being that I consistently underestimate how much money I have by hundreds or thousands of dollars, on a nearly weekly basis. As to the details, well, I’ll let the following example do the heavy lifting of explaining what I mean.

It was after my fruitless attempts to find work that things got just a bit worse.

Still reeling from my recent failures, I marched angrily into the Bursar’s Office, slapped my bill on the counter and demanded, “I already paid my bill in full before I even set foot on campus. Why do I still have a $1600 balance!?”

“There are a lot of factors that go into bills and fund availability,” the person – who I can only assume was an expert at “bursing” and had discussed these matters many times – said. “In any case, we can only apply the money we’ve received.”

“But I already paid all at once,” I argued, trying to make the issue clearer.

“Maybe the check bounced,” they said, and folded their hands atop the bill. “It happens when you have insufficient funds.”

“I have…” I smoothly corrected, “I had sufficient funds. More importantly, how can half a check bounce?”

“Well, it depends on…” They stopped suddenly, perhaps realizing that “bouncing half a check” was not a real thing. They then began studying the bill, which, despite leading to them making me look like an idiot in about half a second, was probably what they should have done from the start. They tapped the number on the bottom line. “Oh, I see. Do you know what parentheses mean?”

“Of course I do,” I answered, and made the shape in the air. “They’re like little ‘aside’ parts of writing.”

“No. In math.”

I like to think they didn’t see me mouthing, “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sue,” but I won’t pretend I was doing it very sneakily. “Um…you multiply the things inside by the things outside?” I ventured aloud.

The person at the counter (a “burse” or “bursarer,” I assume?) gave me a level look. “It means the amount is negative. A negative balance in other words, or a refund.”

I cleared my throat and stood up straighter, swallowing down several gallons of embarrassment. Despite the familiar taste I’d never quite gotten used to it. “Very good then. May I have my $1600, then?”

“You’ll receive a paper check by mail,” they answered. “I can look it up in the system if you’d care to give me your name.”

“I would not care to,” I said, snatching away the tuition statement that also contained that information. “I’ve taken up enough of your time,” I explained, though my real reasoning had more to do with not wanting a member of the school’s administration who knew I’d made such a boneheaded mistake to know my actual name.

It’s been quite a few years since then, and I can’t once remember leaving a room $1600 richer and feeling more horrible about it.

Now, I’m sure a few of you are more than a little confused at what’s going on here. After all, colleges aren’t renowned for handing over large checks to their students. If the rest of the college-going world had similar experiences to me, the flow of money is largely one-way, and often swift enough to create an undertow.

And yet refunds weren’t uncommon during my college years. One of the things people had neglected to explain to me was that some of the overflow from loans, grants and scholarships was intended to cover books, the things I’d practically bankrupted myself doing with my own funds. It wouldn’t be the last time someone neglected to tell me something so important, though it would be the single time the oversight involved me receiving an unexpected check.

Strictly speaking, I could have returned that money. And that was something I started doing in following years to keep my loans low(er)(ish). But at the time, I was young, stupid and too poor to afford even strip mall quality “Italian” takeout.

So that, in a nutshell, is how I went from an unemployed college student to…well, pretty much the same. Except by the end I had money again. Well, technically, the check didn’t arrive for another three days, so by the end I was alternating using the computer lab as the one place I could actually write anything and bothering the desk staff to see if mail had arrived for me at random points of the day.

My character arc really went full circle there, huh?

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Apply Everywhere as Necessary

Empty Pockets

It’s bound to happen someday. If you keep spending your money like there’s no bottom to your pockets then one day you’re bound to find that bottom.

Sadly, this isn’t a commentary on out of control government spending but instead the obvious outcome of coming to college with only $736 to my name.

Of course, this wasn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. For one, careful spending was a financial lesson my younger self needed to learn – and sooner rather than later. Perhaps more importantly, I discovered this in line at a Sbarro. As places to not be able to afford an intended purchase go, it was probably one of the best.

I politely apologized to the cashier and went on my way, suddenly relieved the line had been too long at Panda Express, saving me the trouble of being embarrassed somewhere that served actual food.

Luckily, I still had a meal plan in the dining halls, so I was in no immediate danger of wasting away to nothing. Or at least, I was in no greater danger of wasting away than I previously had been due to my excessive metabolism. I feel it paints a fairly accurate picture both of what was at stake and the poor spending habits (including eating out when I could eat for free in the dining halls) that led me to that low point in my life.

I knew I had to do something. And short of some rich widow paying me to do work around her house while shirtless, the only way I knew to make money was to get a job. Having neither the knowledge nor the physique to pursue a fulfilling career as eye candy, I decided to buckle down, roll up my sleeves and…ultimately, reconsider and roll my sleeves back up, as even that was more of my upper body than anyone wanted to see.

It was then, in that sobering moment, that I realized I knew roughly the same amount about finding work as I did about seducing lonely older woman.

So how could I be so unprepared for the one thing I’d eventually be expected to do as an adult? Well, for that, we have to jump back a bit. Because if there’s one thing this story needs, it’s a fourth time period to keep track of.

Aside from the aforementioned failure of high school to prepare me in any way to join the workforce one day, I worked only a single job in high school, and it wasn’t pretty.

I want to be 100% clear here in explaining that I know how the game works. I’ve yet to meet anyone whose first job was much better than terrible. It’s for that reason, furthermore, that I’m not trying to make this a contest. I have no doubts that six or seven people in the world worked in worse places than I did. I mean, I’ve seen those crab fishing shows. Some of those people look like that might be their first job, right?

I spent a summer volunteering at an animal shelter. I cut the grass. I painted. I bathed and watered the dogs. I even once played with the cats, which was a lot less “play” and a lot more “horribly abused animals lashing out at me in terror.” The hours were long. The days were unbearably hot. The work was thankless. And, as it turned out, those would end up being my very best memories of working there.

What I never knew (and refuse to learn now) was that the owner ended up having a small (large) problem with animal cruelty. So far as bad qualities in owners of animal shelters go, that’s probably one of the worst. A jury later agreed.

Aside from that entire mess, applying to work as a volunteer is fundamentally different from applying to work a real job. I’d gotten the shelter position by walking in and saying I’d like to do whatever they told me in exchange for no pay. I was hired on the spot – no need for applications or interviews. Heck. I barely remember eye contact.

As a college student the system broke down a bit, not least of all because a number of those students competing for jobs were more than happy to work for nothing.

Allow me to explain. In a system with high competition, a job applicant has one of two options. They can either distinguish themselves from the pack or they can lower their standards so far the rest of the pack looks like greedy monsters for daring to ask for minimum wage.

As a pack consisting almost entirely of those who had worked only one job (or less) in their lives, it was far easier to do the latter than the former.

I still remember walking into a store that needed a cashier position filled. I was one of two college students applying and, as the job needed filling that day, we were told to expect to be put to work immediately. The first student went in to be interviewed. Five minutes passed. And when the student walked out again I was curtly told that the position had been filled. I wasn’t upset. But I did have some questions.

Assuming (incorrectly) that I’d simply been outshone by a person with at least one job as a cashier, thus dwarfing my own experience, I stopped to talk to them before I left.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said to the store’s newest member of the team, “how bad did you have me beat on experience behind the register?”

They gave me a blank stare before a look of realization dawned on their face. “Oh, it’s not like that. I just told them I’d work under the table for $3 an hour.”

I suddenly felt like I dodged a bullet. “I can’t believe they asked you to do that.”

“No, no, no,” they explained, the pride in their voice not matching the stupidity of what they were about to tell me. “It was my idea.”

“Why in the world would you do that?” I asked, dumbfounded.

They just shrugged. “Hey. Can’t argue the results, right?”

Afraid I might catch their bad judgment if I kept talking to them much longer, I asked just one more question. “Isn’t $3 way too little to get by on? You’d have to work two or three hours just to make as much as anyone flipping burgers.”

“Well, yeah,” they agreed. “But once I’ve worked here a few months they’re bound to bump me up to $4 or $5. I could be making minimum wage by junior year.”

I didn’t argue that they, as one of two people applying for a job, had a fifty percent chance of making that same amount immediately had they simply not offered to work for half that. I wished them well, being keenly aware that wishing was likely their only path to any level of “wellness.” And then, I went on to the next store window with a “Help Wanted” sign.

It was a sobering moment for me, but I’m not sorry it happened. In fact, I’m very happy it happened with the first three jobs I applied for. Otherwise I might have wondered at why I kept being called in for interviews only to be sent home as soon as I arrived. Often with strange explanations like, “After we interviewed the first candidate we realized they were a better fit for the job (than you, person we never spoke to and know literally nothing about).”

“But Matt,” you might suggest, “it sounds like these people were offering something you weren’t willing. It’s no different than someone willing to work extra hours under the table and not be paid for overtime.”

And I would absolutely agree, because both those things are illegal and stupid.

Honestly, I didn’t much care that students were offering their services for next to nothing. Or, in the one case I can confirm, literally nothing. Whatever misguided notions someone held about ingratiating themselves to an employer by engaging in actual slavery, it wasn’t my problem. Where it became my problem was the point it became so commonplace that a few of my potential employers had expressed open disappointment in my request for “minimum wage” on my application.

I won’t claim this was responsible for every job I didn’t get. And to some degree I was even happy to be turned down for more traditional reasons. But the outcome was largely the same in terms of my aforementioned empty pockets.

Even knowing what I did, I kept up the search for a full week, stopping only when I’d been up and down the town’s main streets three times with nothing to show for it. In some ways, I’m proud of myself for trying so hard for so long. In other, more accurate ways, I’m disappointed my younger self had wasted so much time on something so obviously pointless.

And so, I walked home utterly defeated, while my peers were making literally dozens of dollars all around me.

Snap, Crackle, Pop.

explosion

The story of how I ended up with my very own college computer after years of sharing one at home is a long one that begins with my brother winning an athletic prize and buying a computer. It then immediately ends with him joining the Air Force. Exactly one twist and turn later, it passed on to me.

Hey. I didn’t say it was a very interesting story.

The story of how that same computer ended up exploding, if nothing else, is more interesting by virtue of it having at least one more explosion than the one just before it.

I’d like to begin that story by saying that the events that transpired were in large part not due to my actions and ineptitude. Any rational person who was very impatient and not all that aware of how to fix computers would have very likely probably made similar decisions to the one I had. I really can’t stress that enough, especially given that this is a super weak defense in the first place.

Allow me to set the scene…

The first thing you have to know, aside from the fact that this definitely wasn’t my fault, is that this was back in a time when people used to turn their computers off when they weren’t using them. The current system of just leaving them on indefinitely so we could hop on and off the Internet hadn’t yet been invented, mostly due to neither Facebook nor YouTube having existed yet.

I came home from a day of classes eager to peruse one of the seven or eight decent websites that existed at the time. So, as I had hundreds of times before, I pressed the big green button on the front of the computer. And like exactly zero times before, literally nothing happened.

(Note: I realize you were probably expecting an explosion there, but trust me. As much as you think you see it coming now, you’ll know when it’s coming later.)

I was flabbergasted. In fact, my state of mind was so intense that I was forced to run downstairs, find a computer in the library and look up a word that summed up how I felt. The word, if it wasn’t entirely clear, was flabbergasted.

(Though “flummoxed” came in a close second.)

From there, I went through my mental checklist of potential solutions. I don’t claim that it’s a great list, but it’s probably more than 90% of people would have done before calling the IT help desk. Then again, it loses some points for being the same checklist I use for cars that won’t start, printers that won’t print and boring conversations.

  1. Try turning it off and on again, on the off chance that you missed the button with your first attempt.
  2. Try turning the power strip off and on again.
  3. Plug something else into the power strip and turn it off and on again after forgetting which way is the “off” position.
  4. Remove all cords from your computer. Reattach all cords. Try turning the computer off and on again.
  5. Remove all cords from your computer again. This time, take each cord aside and offer it immunity from prosecution if it reveals the identity of the faulty connection.
  6. Give the computer a hard smack. Repeat several times. Begin saying, “Whatsamatteryou!?” every time you smack it. Lament that casual racism has become a part of your everyday life.
  7. Try turning it off and on again, seeing as this is the last possible thing you can do that won’t involve talking to a human being about how inept you are with technology.

Snap. It was on this, the ninth or tenth time I’d tried pressing the power button that I heard the telltale sound of rigid plastic breaking. Naturally curious, I went to work removing the front face of my computer using the saddest collection of tools any human being has ever assembled for the purpose of computer repair.

I made surprisingly quick work of the front face, exposing it – likely permanently, as I’d broken quite a few more pieces of plastic in the process – for a better look at the inner workings of the power button.

I can’t adequately describe what I saw there in any sort of useful detail. It wasn’t complicated, but I should be clear that my knowledge of computers at the time was leaps and bounds beyond my understanding of electrical circuits. And that wasn’t a good thing.

The short version, however, is that the power button used a tiny sliver of metal to connect two other pieces of metal together. Unfortunately, the power button had broken in such a way that it could no longer achieve said function. And, with the day quickly passing me by and nothing even resembling foresight entering my mind, I pressed a metal coin against both bits.

Crackle. I was, to the surprise of no electrical engineer anywhere, given quite a nasty shock for my efforts. This is probably why circuits are rarely connected with a coin clutched between one’s bare fingers. In fact, I’m sure this is exactly why circuits are never connected with a coin clutched between one’s bare fingers.

On the other hand (the one I hadn’t used to complete a live electrical circuit), my computer had actually started.

I went about my business for some time after this rather blissfully unaware of the small doom cloud hovering just slightly above my computer from then on. The second worst thing that can happen to someone is for their bad idea to actually work, since it gives them ample incentive to try it again. The first is the constant wave of movie reboots. That’s not related to this story. I’m just sayin’…

That said, my life went on surprisingly normally for the next seven days or so.

Sure, my computer had been running a week straight without rest. Sure, its front panel was so broken that it was impossible to reattach. And sure, it’s private parts were on display for the whole world to see, like some two-bit hussy.

(Or thirty-two-bit hussy. I’ll…see myself out.)

But, aside from the fact that I’d been completely unwilling to risk shutting down my system, things were going smoothly. Of course, even I was aware that leaving the computer on indefinitely was a problem that was going to need to be addressed at some point. Then again, I figured that by the time it became a real issue, I’d need to buy a new computer anyway.

I mean, in my defense, I was technically right about needing to buy a new one.

For whatever reason, my computer had gone off while I was at class. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it was part of the existing problem. Maybe it had just gotten overworked and overheated. For whatever reason, though, I found myself once again clutching a coin in a questionable attempt to “hot-wire” my personal computer.

“This is a really good idea,” I noted, mere inches from duplicating my previous electrocution. “When I turn on the computer I’m going to write a list of all the things I don’t regret about doing this.”

The computer hummed to life. And, in a moment of surprise that would almost immediately be topped, the coin wedged into place. As a stream of sparks discouraged me from pulling it out of place (which was a brief moment of intelligent thought in a veritable stormy sea of stupidity), I absentmindedly noticed the hum grow louder and louder until it closely resembled a circular saw. To the surprise of absolutely no one, this turned out not to be a good sign.

Then…

Pop. To this day, I have no better word to describe it. There was a sound like stepping on a full bag of cooked microwave popcorn. Then my computer case deformed into a piece of outsider art.

I watched a cloud of dense black smoke rise lazily to the ceiling where it (mercifully) never found a smoke detector. Small mercies, I suppose.

After the initial shock wore off, I surveyed the damage without much optimism. As it turned out, I’d managed to turn my computer’s power supply into a small bomb. The only saving grace was that I was as good at accidentally making bombs as I was at fixing computers, meaning that there was surprisingly minimal damage to the area immediately surrounding the computer. It was, for lack of a better description, a 100% unintended precision strike.

The computer itself, of course, had been reduced to a paperweight. Its outer casing had stretched into odd shapes while its innards became a mixture of blackened confetti. It was more or less the computer equivalent of eating at Arby’s.

I still remember spending the rest of that day gaping at the destruction. I’d never seen a piece of technology fail so badly. And it brought back the bitter taste of every time I’d insulted an older relative for not being able to find the proper input on their television or set the clock on their microwave. At least they hadn’t turned their television or microwave into something that might land them on a government watch list.

When it was all said and done, I simply replaced the front plate as best as I could, sighed and turned off the power button.

Better safe than sorry.

We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This

crooked
See? Because the framing device is crooked. That’s the joke.

“You’re back in the story’s framing device,” the radiologist said, poking his head out from behind the monitor. “What happened this time?”

I sighed.

“And stop sighing,” he chided. “It messes with the image.”

I waited until I heard the telltale whir and several almost eerie moaning sounds from the large radioactive camera above me to indicate the technician had a picture of my insides he was happy with. As he approached the table I explained, “It’s not my fault this time.” I hedged slightly. “It’s not entirely my fault this time.”

The other man helped me sit up on the scanning table. “So who else was at fault?”

“It was my computer.”

He blinked at me. “I’m…not sure I follow.” Then, considering, he nodded. “Actually, I’m entirely sure I don’t follow. What does your computer have to do with the long gap between you telling the whole college story thing?”

After rearranging my hospital gown to about half of my satisfaction – in that it only showed about half of my rear end to anyone standing behind me – I faced him. “My computer sort of…exploded.”

The radiologist went through a series of expressions that, despite their nuanced differences, all seem confused to one degree or another. “Let me be entirely clear here. You’re literally writing my character’s responses right now, and I have no idea what that’s got to do with any of this,” he admitted.

For that matter, I realized, anyone who just started reading right here would have no idea why this college story has a portion happening in the hospital a decade in the future. I cleared my throat again to cover the sound of me breaking the fourth wall.

“Okay,” I said. “It didn’t actually explode.”

“Then why say it did?”

“It sounds a lot more interesting than saying my operating system disappeared and all I could do was stare at a black screen,” I offered. I was well aware of what a computer looked like when it actually exploded, given what was about to happen in the main story. “Suffice to say, it stopped working as anything other than a very large, very hot paperweight.”

Despite my explanation, the technician looked just as confused. “So…what’s that got to do with telling me a story? And how do you know your computer at home…exploded?”

“No, no, no,” I waved it away. “I mean, my computer exploded in the future, preventing me from typing new segments of the story and publishing them.” It was only after I’d said the words that I realized how ridiculous they sounded.

“I think what I like most about your story is how easy it is to follow,” the other man said, mockingly sincere.

“Shut it.”

“Okay. So let me try to summarize here,” the radiologist said, tapping his fingers on his clipboard thoughtfully. “You’re here now, telling me a story. The story is about your college days ten years or so ago. And it’s being written down as a blog sometime…after this doctor’s visit?”

I nodded slowly. “Actually, that’s a pretty good summary.”

The man gave me a weighing look, as if he wanted to say something more, but he just nodded as well. “Well, in that case, in that very oversimplified form, it’s not as complicated as I thought it was.”

I hopped off the table. “For a story with multiple timelines running in unison at different rates of speed with only one character in common, it’s actually fairly straightforward…” I hesitated. Then, being a realist, I added, “Straightforward…ish.”

“In any case,” the technician said, looking at the chart disinterestedly, “Something something doctor babble. You can go sit in the waiting room for another fifteen minutes.” His brow suddenly furrowed. “Did you actually write ‘something something doctor babble’ as my dialogue?”

“Sorry. I wasn’t really listening to what you were saying when it happened. So I’m losing some details as I’m writing it down later,” I admitted sheepishly. “I probably could have taken a more dignified guess than that, though.”

“Probably,” the man said, and led me back to the tiny third world country just outside the radiology department that had been very generously labeled as a “waiting room.” He watched me sit down and readjust my nudity to my liking before asking, “So refresh my memory. Where were you in the college story?”

I opened my mouth and then snapped it shut. “Honestly, I think it was my first job hunt, but I don’t really remember. But then I remembered something else happened before I went out looking for work anyway.”

“Which was?”

“My computer exploded.”

The radiologist gave me an uneven look. “I feel like we’ve covered that bit.”

“No,” I said with a sigh. “In the past. That computer exploded.”

He gave the television a wary look. “That wasn’t working when you came in, right? Because if you somehow destroy technology just by being around it there are actually some expensive imaging machines you should stay away from…”

“Shut it.”