That First Strep is a Doozy

Hornets
Pictured: My throat (interior).

There are few things more disappointing than waking up sick.

I’m the sort of person that considers sleep a gift that I give my body, largely against my better judgment. Sleeping means I can’t get anything done. It’s more boring than almost anything I could be doing while awake. If the alternative wasn’t literally dying, I probably wouldn’t grudgingly sigh and part with six hours of my free time every night for my body to do routine maintenance.

Given that I’d actually slept twelve hours the night before, it seemed particularly unfair that I’d woken up feeling like I somehow swallowed six angry hornets.

“I sleep and you keep all my stuff working, body. We had a deal,” I said, or tried to say, anyway. My throat was so swollen that it was more a croak than complaint.

I sat in bed for a while longer then, not sure what to do. It was clear by that point that I was sick, so that was one less problem than I’d had the night before. But of my two problems – the other being decidedly more hornet and throat related – it was probably the one I minded least.

Then, acknowledging this moment as a milestone in my new responsibilities as an adult, I did the only thing I could. I called my mommy.

“You sound sick,” she said, almost the moment I’d said hello.

“I have a sore throat,” I rasped with great difficulty. “It’s hard to talk.”

“You could always e-mail me.”

“Can’t. Computer exploded.”

“What!?”

“That’s not important,” I said, trying to get us back on topic. (Though, as I hadn’t yet told her about the fiery demise of my desktop, I can understand why it was a topic that might interest her.) “I feel awful. Should I stay home from class?”

There was a pause. “I don’t know. If you feel sick enough to stay home, then you should stay home.”

“How sick is sick enough?” I wondered. Remember that sickness was always something other people had decided about me. I was happier letting my mother, doctor, mercury encased in glass or even a campus store cashier make the determination than I was to decide myself.

“I don’t know. Do you have a fever?” she asked.

“How would I know?” I explained, in as few words as possible, that I had no way to measure my temperature.

“Put the back of your hand on your forehead. If it feels hot, then you probably have a fever,” she offered.

Still a little skeptical, I did so. I waited. And to perhaps no one’s surprise, it felt almost exactly the same as my hand. It was only then that I considered that using my own body to test my body’s temperature might be an inherently flawed endeavor. “I don’t think it works on my own forehead.”

“Can you have someone else feel it for you?” she suggested.

“I’m…not entirely comfortable with that.” I wasn’t sure what seemed worse to me – the idea of asking a random stranger to touch my face, or a random stranger actually touching my face.

“Okay…” my mom said. “What if you put your hand on someone else’s forehead? If it feels cold then that means you’re hot. I think…?”

“I’m even less comfortable with that,” I said. I then explained, going forward, that she could probably skip any advice that involved other human beings – especially if it involved us awkwardly touching one another to detect our respective temperature variations.

It was at this point that my mother started to sound a bit exasperated. She sighed loudly. “I don’t know what to tell you then. If you feel sick, stay home. If you feel okay, then go to class.” There was a momentary pause before she added, “You’re on your own now. So whatever you decide is fine.”

We exchanged some small talk. This mostly consisted of her talking while I made as little response as humanly possible. She tried to bring up the computer several more times, but that wasn’t a topic I was ready to discuss even while healthy.

And then, as my mother had said, I was on my own.

There were two sobering pieces of this realization to painfully swallow. The first was that being an adult meant I was in full control of my life. And as excited as I was to take ownership of my successes, it was far less pleasant to consider that I was the only one responsible for my mistakes and failures. I mean, I could (and would) blame my upbringing for things here and there, but overall, the buck stopped with me.

The second, and more personal, realization was that so many of my life decisions had been made with my childhood in mind. On some level, I realized I wasn’t fighting to go to class because it was the right thing to do. I was fighting to avoid my mother’s disapproving gaze on the back of my neck as I watched Bob Barker make small talk with contestants on “The Price is Right.”

But my mother wasn’t there. She didn’t decide when I went to school anymore. And even if she judged me from afar for missing class, it wasn’t something I had to live with.

With those revelations in mind, I laced up my sandals, pulled up my short sleeves and pulled myself up by my…sandle straps? Sorry. I just realized that all the metaphors about working hard don’t really work when you’re wearing jaunty summer clothing. But you get my point.

I’m not sure why I went to class that day, even after I’d decided I was far too sick to make the trip. Maybe it was a long overdue attempt to try and live up to my own standards. Maybe it was a stupid decision, and someone with more experience should have made it for me.

In my defense, I’d tried to go that route.

The important thing, though, was that it was my decision. And as an adult, it would be the first of many. I felt a lot of pride in my choice…though, in all fairness, pride could have just been another symptom of whatever was killing me at the time.

I had literally ever other symptom, so why not pride, too?

“Jesus Christ,” a voice said as I set my books down. I looked up to see my professor doing a passable imitation of my mother’s disapproving glare. “You look like death.”

I croaked in the affirmative, then added, “But I made it here.”

“Awesome. Get out.”

I blinked at him, confused.

“You damn kids have gotten me sick five times in four weeks, because you don’t have the sense to stay home when you’re dying,” he said, muttering something about our parents needing to teach us these things. “No more. Go home. Sleep. Drink fluids. Rub yourself with Echinacea or whatever they’re saying to do now. Just leave me and my immune system out of it.”

“Oh,” I said. I waited a beat to make sure he wasn’t joking, and then picked up my books. “I guess I’ll just…go then?”

“Go breathe your death air in the hallway,” he said, pointing.

I left, a little stunned. I was joined, not half a minute later, by six other students displaying a variety of other symptoms. It made me feel a little better. Emotionally, I mean. I was still so sick I could barely stand.

There might have been another life lesson or two to learn from all that. Maybe something about making decisions but accepting the unpredictability of life. Maybe something about accepting limitations. And I may have even tried to learn them, if my vision wasn’t slowly fading to black. So I went home.

Though I did note, as I stumbled back outside, one of my fellow exiles worriedly looking at her phone as she said, “My mom is going to kill me.”

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From a Certain Point of Flu

Medicine

There are few childhood memories I remember quite so vividly as the familiar routine of a sick day.

Illness was held to rigid standards in my family. Being sick the night before school, for example, wasn’t medically relevant. Even symptoms themselves were largely ignored in favor of jamming an old mercury thermometer in my mouth. Sore throats were subjective. Coughing could be faked. But the thermometer was infallible. Its word, law. Its decisions, final.

Reaching the coveted 100 degree mark (as even 99.9 was only “something to keep an eye on”) was a bittersweet victory. My mother never made her displeasure at having company during the day a secret. She would sigh and moan and wonder how someone with literally several things to do during the day could find time to take care of a sick child, as well.

There was a lot of strategy involved in being sick in my household, insofar as there was any strategy required at all. Most of it involved avoiding my mother. The rest largely revolved around finding watchable television before and after “The Price is Right.”

And, between bouts of real dreams during days spent mostly sleeping, I daydreamed of how much simpler it would be when I had no one to answer to.

As with more or less everything I thought during my childhood, I turned out to be wrong, of course. Being sick as an adult wasn’t nearly as fun as being sick as a child. And that even before Bob Barker retired as host of “The Price is Right.”

One of the more inevitable truths of human biology is that cramming students from all over the state into a small area is the recipe for disaster. In fact, it’s the recipe for more than one distinct flavor of disaster. But in this particular case, the disaster in question was the epidemic level of exposure to every illness in the the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – a traveler’s guide to the very worst bacteria, viruses and fungi the Keystone State had to offer.

Truth be told, I did better than most. I’ve always had a fairly strong immune system. So I spent the first three weeks of college just being surrounded by sick people. It was only the Sunday of my fourth week that I finally succumbed to one of the dozens of sicknesses I’d been assaulted by since I got there.

I realized, almost from the moment when I was forced to use toilet paper to blow my nose because I had no tissues, that I was completely out of my depth.

Things didn’t get any better from there, not least of all because I had no real sense of how to tell if I was sick at all. When I was growing up, sickness was something determined by either the back of my mother’s hand, a thermometer or, in dire straits, an actual doctor. Deciding for myself whether or not I was sick seemed to be an awkward proposition rife with potential bias.

My mother was a five hour drive away. I could only assume the back of her hand was with her. Both were equally out of my reach.

Of course, even if I had been home, I couldn’t have used the old mercury thermometer. It had been destroyed in fairly spectacular fashion years before when my brother tried to test the temperature of water that, despite refusing to boil, was apparently hot enough to burst a thermometer. There’s an old saying about not watching a pot boil (which, for the record, we followed). If someone had made a similar saying about not putting glass thermometers in them, we might have avoided the mess entirely.

As for seeing the doctor, well, I usually thought of seeing someone with a medical degree as the step you’d take after you figured out if you were sick or not.

Within the next hour or so, though, my symptoms escalated from sniffles to sneezes to runny nose before finally reaching monsoon levels, with a sore throat added for a little variety. It was only when I rummaged through my trusty medical bag for a cough drop that I realized I hadn’t had the foresight to pack either cough drops or tissues. Or, for that matter, a medical bag of any level of trustworthiness.

And so, rather than ruin the sleeves of every shirt I owned, I trudged down to the campus store to buy anything I assumed would be helpful, at prices that weren’t.

“Are you sick?” the cashier said as I dropped a random assortment of medicine on the counter in front of her. She looked at the pile and then at me. “You look sick.”

“Thank you?” I said, not certain of how else to answer.

Although I wasn’t happy that she had judged my health by my shoddy appearance rather than the six pounds of medicine I was buying, I let it slide. Aside from wanting to consume the aforementioned medicine as quickly as possible, it was actually nice to get any sort of outside confirmation that I was sick.

“Well, get some rest. Those are some nasty dark circles under your eyes,” she said, handing me the bag. I didn’t bother explaining that those were a standard feature of my face rather than a recent addition.

I wisely left before she pointed out anything else that was merely a symptom of being me.

Back in my room, I picked through my Trick or Treat-esque haul and more or less put a random handful into my mouth. I realize that sounds either dangerous or idiotic, or more likely, both. But keep in mind that no one is born with instinctual knowledge of proper pharmaceutical consumption. And my parents certainly never tried to instill any in me. The fact that I ate only oral medication and not the box of tissues was, frankly, a small wonder in itself.

And then, far more exhausted than one ought to be from a short walk and a small amount of swallowing, I collapsed into bed.

Then again, this probably worked in my favor. The only real advice I knew about being sick was that sleeping helped. I wasn’t sure of the science or magic behind it, but it was all I had. “I’ll watch Adult Swim twice tomorrow night,” I reassured myself, and slowly drifted off.

You can only imagine my surprise when, the following morning, I somehow woke up feeling even sicker than before I’d gone to sleep.

 

A (Bath)Room with a View

Showers
You never realize how hard it is to find an image of a shower stall without two people hooking up in it until you need one…

I’ve always had an issue with open-door policies – at least insofar as they related to communal shower stalls.

It was shortly after I’d arrived at college that I realized I could no longer pretend I was “still clean from the long shower I took at home” and used the shared showers for the first time. I was immediately troubled by the sight of four stalls completely open, with only a fifth stall offering any sort of privacy from passersby. You can probably imagine my reaction when, upon entering the bathroom three weeks later, I found the door missing on the fifth stall.

It had been replaced, much to my surprise, by a wet, naked man who looked very unhappy that I was staring at him.

This may or may not be how most shared bathrooms are in college dorms. I don’t know. I’ve only ever lived on two different campuses, so I don’t have a huge frame of reference. Nor have I ever thought to ask random people about their showering experiences, for reasons I probably shouldn’t have to explain.

But this was a problem for me. As to why, well, that’s a bit of a long story.

 

*                    *                     *

 

Back in the hospital waiting room, the radiologist started. “What? Why in the world would that be a long story?”

I blinked. “Why are we back in the narrative framing device?”

“It’s really important you answer the question,” the technician said, folding his arms over his clipboard. “It’s reasonable to not want to shower in front of everyone. It’s so reasonable, in fact, that having a long story behind behind why you don’t like it fills me with dread and horror.”

“I don’t know. I think the audience needs the backstory from my childhood to fully understand where I’m coming from.”

The radiologist seemed to look right through me. Given his line of work, it was either ironic or just him being really, really good at his job. “What sort of story from your childhood? Is it something you’d be better off sharing with a therapist? A trusted member of the clergy?”

“That…might be awkward. It was sort of an incident from my church’s summer camp,” I said, realizing how it must have sounded once I said it aloud.

The man’s eyes widened in terror. “Oh, dear God…”

I sighed. “Just…hear me out, okay? It’s not what you think.”

It was, however, very nearly what he thought. I won’t belabor a very traumatizing childhood memory, but the short version is that I was punished by my counselors for not wanting to shower in front of other kids by being forced to shower in front of them. You know, totally sensible, non-perverted, non-scarring stuff.

(Writer’s Note: I wisely withheld the details of the full version of the story on account of it being unimaginably, inescapably depressing.)

“That’s…very nearly what I thought,” the technician agreed, shuddering. “I mean, it was a little less molest-y than I thought it might be…” As silver linings went, you really had to squint to see it.

 

*                   *                    *

 

That small adventure, combined with the general uncomfortably homoerotic nature of showering after gym in high school never endeared me to the idea of being naked in public. In fact, I wasn’t particularly fond of being naked in private. Or clothed in public.

My life is a vibrant tapestry.

In that moment in the bathroom, I wasn’t sure what to do. Skipping showers for the next five weeks didn’t seem to be a viable solution. And my experience in summer camp had taught me that there were inevitably worse outcomes to just such a situation.

Luckily, by this point, I’d taken the step of looking off in a random direction, at least mitigating the risk of being pummeled by an angry naked man. But it didn’t do much to help my problem of not wanting to show off my bits – naughty, regular and those somewhere in between – to any person wandering through the bathroom at the time. And sometimes the hallway, since they kept those doors open, too.

“I guess somebody scratched something offensive into the door, so they threw it out,” my RA explained to me when I asked him about it later. I hadn’t seen the marks, though if there were anything like the rest of the graffiti in the bathroom, they likely featured our RA and his viewpoint on penises very prominently.

“Wouldn’t a door with a few scratches in it still function better as a door than…nothing?” I argued. “When are we getting a replacement?”

He gave me a confused look. “Replacement? Why would they replace it?”

“Because…I don’t like people staring at me while I’m naked.”

“Oh, nobody’s going to stare at you while you’re naked,” he dismissed, in a passable imitation of my gym teachers in high school, though to his credit, he didn’t add, “Frankly, you’re not much to look at,” as they had.

“That’s great. But I’d rather they just not be able to,” I answered. When it comes to people walking behind me while I’m naked, defenseless and washing soap out of my eyes, I’d rather it not be on the honor system.

Not for the first time, my RA shrugged and admitted he was utterly useless to me.

I sighed. “I guess I could always use the showers on the other floors.”

“Actually, I don’t really want the guys from my floor wandering into random showers,” he said, not for the first time complicating a very simple problem.

“Then, as far as you know, I won’t be doing that,” I said, without putting much effort into lying convincingly.

His eyes narrowed, as though he suspected something, but I quickly saw I’d misread what he was suspicious about. “Do you know who keeps writing horrible stuff about me on the bathroom stalls? And walls?” He went through a short list of other surfaces. Only three weeks into the semester, comments alleging his insatiable appetite for dicks had appeared on more forms of media than the Hebrew Bible, and were considerably filthier than even the weird parts where people tricked people into having sex.

“To be totally honest, there’s a long list of suspects who would write something horrible about you,” I admitted.

He smiled, apparently thinking some sort of joke was happening. “Nah. They’re just messing with me. It’s tough love. I mean, you like me, right?”

I hesitated, not sure how to answer when, in reality, it would probably be the best thing for him to get some honesty on the subject as soon as possible. I aimed to soften the blow. “My dad used to say that if he didn’t have anything nice to say, he shouldn’t say anything at all.”

“See?” he said, as if he’d heard literally the opposite of what I’d said. “What’s not to like?”

Gazing out at his question like a hole with no bottom, I decided not to clarify. I hadn’t been speaking generally. I’d literally meant that when my dad had been dropping me off, he’d heavily implied that he specifically hadn’t liked my RA.

But the moment passed and he only shrugged it off. “Well, even if they don’t like me, I’ll just have to try harder,” he said, and slapped me on the shoulder again.

“That…is certainly an action you could take that would have…some result,” I noted. If anything, he probably could have stood trying a little less hard. Failing that, he could have stopped creating situations to entrap his fellow students in criminal acts in hopes of endearing himself to school administrators. But I had enough problems without having to be my RA’s life coach. “And please stop touching my arm. It sickens me,” I added.

“You got it, buddy,” he said, and raised his hand to slap my shoulder again.

“They’d never find your body,” I cautioned him. He lowered his hands and opted to go gun fingers instead.

These left me only mildly nauseated, so I allowed it.

I realize that a clean narrative arc insists that I offer some sort of conclusion here. And yet, given these very specific circumstances, it feels almost more fitting that you not know the exact details of my adventures in shower privacy. Suffice it to say, I showered at some point between the end of this story and the moment I’m telling it, and that’s about all I’m willing to divulge on the subject.

I figure the chances of you actually being four camp counselors reading this at the same time are pretty slim, but you never know…

He’s a Light Gun Wizard

House of the Dead
Your low-resolution textures and Ninja Turtle fingers will do you no good, Magician. I’m packing heat.

I know what everyone is thinking. “I really like the stories lately. But I feel like the title puns aren’t as obscure as they could be. Don’t be afraid to throw in some references from British rock groups from a decade or two before you were born.”

You. Are. Welcome.

I imagine you’re also wondering, “How does one go about spending an unexpected $1600 in college?” For the most part, one doesn’t. At least if it was me, which is the perspective you’ll be locked into for most of this story.

This probably comes as a bit of surprise to people. After all, even those who didn’t have bad spending habits as a young adult at least knew a few friends who did. I was personally shocked to see the way some of my friends spent money in college, especially when it belonged to other people.

Alas, I grew up very poor. While some people view financial security like a dip in a warm pool – a comfortable, relaxing experience that lasts as long as you like – I didn’t have that luxury. (Pun mildly intended.) To me, financial security has always been more like wading into a warm spot in a pool – mysterious, fleeting and less and less pleasant the more you think about it.

But every night I did dig into the bag of loose change I’d been picking off the ground since I was five years old, grab four quarters and went to the local arcade.

Let me go back over that last sentence, because I understand there’s a lot to unpack there. An “arcade” is a place where they used to have a bunch of video games in a single building. They slowly lost their following over the late 20th century and were slowly replaced by every imaginable form of media ever. So far as I know, there’s only one left in Japan and a single hunting game from 1996 at every bowling alley in America.

As to why I only brought enough to play four games, well, that part’s easier. I am, in fact, amazingly good at arcade light gun games.

If you were waiting for the punchline to that joke, there’s not one coming.

I’m not sure where that all started. But it likely had to do something with my not having a decent video game system most of my childhood. Combined with my habit of picking coins off the ground since I was five and having plenty to spare, things just kind of worked out that way. It certainly didn’t help that my mother’s shopping trips tended to last several hours at a time. Very likely, it was on one such trip, just after I’d recited the final digit of pi, that I saw a video game cabinet in the store lobby, shrugged and decided to go for it.

Still, coins weren’t an infinite resource. And even if people had dropped an unlimited supply of them for me to pick up it was only a matter of time before I found the dirty coin that would make me patient zero for the plague that wiped out humanity. So I took advice that wouldn’t become commonplace in gaming for at least a decade: I got good.

Am I telling you this to brag? Yes. And I demand all the respect that one might earn for being able to beat “Area 51” or “The House of the Dead” with a single quarter.

But in another way, this is all just part of my comedic balancing act. People can only handle hearing about how poor or sad or friendless I was for so long before screaming out any confidential information they might know, just to make it stop. In small doses, self-deprecation is funny. In large doses, a form of torture.

This was my upswing. For the space of four quarters almost every night, I wasn’t worrying about grades or a rocky home life or where my next meal would come from. I was happy. No matter what else was going on in my life, I worked through it six imaginary bullets at a time, pointed offscreen and did it all over again.

I won’t lie and pretend that I was ever surrounded by crowds of chanting fans. In fact, I don’t think I ever spoke to anyone in the arcade I hadn’t arrived with. If not an official rule, there was always at least an understanding that people hadn’t paid their hard-earned money to stare at a screen in an attempt to talk to distracting random strangers. It’s essentially the same as putting on headphones and staring at your phone, except that people actually took the hint.

In any case, it was a thing in my life that happened and it made me happy. I remember each and every game I ever beat there with that odd sense of pride that would actually diminish by sharing it with another human being.

It was as close as I ever came to therapy in college. Unless you count the time I went to a few free session carried out by Pyschology Majors as part of their course requirements. And if I’m being fair, that was less like a therapy session than going to a session and speaking to someone who was, to some degree, aware of therapy.

To this day, I still think flashing lights on a screen and a plastic orange gun did a much better job.

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?

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.