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.”

That Darn Map

Happy traveling tourists sightseeing

You’ll never feel more like a tourist than your first few days in college.

You’re walking around with maps out. You’re trying to find the best places to eat. There were even people stopping to take pictures of everything with a Penn State logo on it. Which, in our case, was pretty much everything, because Penn State is like Disney if Disney was more aggressive about in-your-face branding.

I wouldn’t say I was proud to be stopping at random corners to consult with my massive 200-building map, but as you might guess from the phrase “200-building,” it was entirely necessary for me.

“Why didn’t you just use address numbers?” you ask, clearly not understanding how college campuses work. You then add, “And why not use a flat tax? If I buy all the lottery tickets, won’t I win every time?”

As to your first question, no. For whatever reason, it was agreed upon by ancient college elders that buildings wouldn’t be given the normal street addresses students had been using to navigate the past decade or so of their lives. My first guess as to why is that this way they can name the buildings after people who donated a lot of money. I don’t think I need a second guess.

Your other questions are bad for an assortment of reasons and I won’t be addressing them for the sake of staying on topic.

“Okay,” you agree, not sure when you asked the second two questions. “In that case, can’t you at least use streets to help you find your way?”

At other colleges, possibly. At Penn State, no. Penn State really only had two streets – Pollock and Curtin. All the other roads went around the outside like a big, useless picture frame. The buildings themselves were clustered into tight groups for reasons I can’t quite fathom, though my default guess is that it made them more money. Somehow.

What this effectively meant is that a hundred or so very similar buildings were placed onto an enormous campus with no real grid system. And due to the clustering, you could walk to the general area and still spend five to ten minutes finding a new building for the first time. All while never being more than a few dozen steps from the front door.

“So…after you found it once it was okay?” you ask uncertainly.

Pretty much, sure.

“Okay. So it was smooth sailing once you got inside?”

The author shook his head slowly.

There are two major issues there. The first of these is layout. Many buildings, for example, were set up with clear, intuitive floor plans that let you find any room you wanted. Others had a single hallway on the first floor that led to hidden elevator, a second floor that was a museum and then a few more floors of laboratories with prohibited access interspersed with offices. And while a random museum is a nice way to break up a long walk, well, it’s not so great for getting to class on time.

That’s probably the reason so few world-record Olympic runs went through museums on the way to the finish line.

The second probably is a more specific one – limited, so far as I recall, to only a single building. Or rather…two buildings? And a room that existed in some weird fold of space-time that allowed it to be in both  at once. Or possibly neither? It’s complicated…

I still remember trying to find room 26 in the Hosler building. Given that the building was located right off the main path, this wasn’t hard. For my first trip there, things were going almost surprisingly well, in fact, until I reach my third dead end inside. No matter where I went, there was no room 26. I checked the room numbers a few more times and followed groups of students to see if they were headed to some unknown nook or cranny I’d missed. Alas, room 26 simply didn’t exist.

After I asked around a bit and got some strange looks and the idiotic advice to check the Hosler building, I found the problem. 26 Hosler does indeed exist. It just happens to be in an entirely different building.

Why? I have no clue whatsoever. Asking around over the years got me a lot of contradicting answers that I nonetheless assume were simultaneously true.

Hosler was connected to Deike. Hosler split into two buildings but the rooms split awkwardly. Deike annexed the room because it was being used more often by that building. 26 Hosler was actually 26 Deike (which I think was also a separate room, just to make things more confusing) except for a computer error. Despite being in a different building, that room was still a piece of the Hosler building. Room 26 was a room whose doorway only appeared when a student who needed to take intermediate geology labs walked by three times.

In short, I had no idea. I still don’t. But I’ll admit that there were enough bigger mysteries to sort of drown that one out after a while.

“A Sense of Belonging (Elsewhere)”

basketball
Note: I promise there’s eventually context for this picture.

The years have dulled many memories of college, but I still feel the sting of rejection as though it happened only yesterday.

That’s not a joke. I realize there’s supposed to be some sort of joke there. And yet, even seeing that I’ve moved on to bigger and better things all this time later, I still struggle to put any sort of positive spin on that first weekend in college. So, if it helps, imagine me wearing a funny t-shirt or something.

It’s hard to say exactly where things started to go wrong. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that it was a very fundamental misunderstanding of what college was. I mean, sure, I knew that it was a bunch of buildings with teachers and classes and what-have-you. But I’d made rather lofty assumptions about fresh starts after high school. What I didn’t realize nearly soon enough was that, for almost everyone I met that first semester, high school had never really ended.

Sigh. I hope you’re imagining a really funny t-shirt, is what I’m trying to say.

In what was probably meant to help people get to know one another, our RA had instituted a few rules for welcome weekend. First off, we were to have our doors open at all times in case someone wandered by. Talking would ensue. Friendships would be forged. No doubt, BFF bracelets would follow and we’d braid each other’s hair.

A second – more puzzling – rule was that we were forbidden from leaving our floor without someone else from the floor or special permission from the RA. I’m not sure exactly what he’d hoped to accomplish there. My only guess was that it had something to do with being in co-ed dorms – boys and girls being split into dorms every other floor. Most likely, it had been meant to keep us out of trouble in the form of ending up in an entirely different form of alternating boy-girl stack. (Hi-yo!)

And third, we had to eat all our meals at the same time and at the same table as the rest of our floor mates. This rule seemed to make the least sense to me, since friends would already be eating meals together anyway.

Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about eating with friends, mostly because it only took me about four hours to hate every last one of my floor mates with every fiber of my being.

It began, as most stories do, with two shirtless teenagers dribbling balls loudly in front of my open door. The two had actually been doing laps of the floor when I mistakenly waved to them as they passed. Without saying a word to me, they exchanged an irritated look and proceeded to stand there dribbling louder and louder over the next five minutes. “Can I help you two with something?” I eventually asked, a bit exasperated.

“What’s wrong, frosh?” one of the interchangeable Aryans with a crew cut asked. “Is this annoying you?”

“A little, actually,” I admitted.

“Well, that’s too bad, frosh,” one said with a sneer. “There’s no rule says we can’t dribble out here.”

I was actually pretty sure there was a rule that said exactly that, but I hadn’t read up on the literature yet. So I changed tack. “Okay. And…what’s a ‘frosh’ now, exactly?”

The two exchanged another look, clearly delighted by the simple pleasure of being assholes. “It means ‘freshman,’ frosh.” I’d honestly lost track of who was talking at this point. But whichever of them it was, they delivered it with an emphasis that suggested they thought it was an insult rather than a completely accurate description of a first-year student. And one, I considered noting, that applied to all of us equally.

I blinked back. “Oh.” Their sneers faltered a bit when I failed to burst into flame from the white-hottest of all the sick burns. “Anyway, why are dribbling there, exactly?”

Delight returned to their faces. “Oh, look how pissed he’s getting.” The two kept from high-fiving, but only just. “Poor frosh. It’s annoying him.” He mimed crying. I started looking for hidden cameras, because I honestly had no idea what was going on.

“Yes. I think we covered that earlier.” The conversation went on a little longer, with the pair sharing looks and laughing at insults that were neither funny nor particularly insulting. At no point in the conversation did they come close to hurting my feelings, though on two occasions they actually insulted their own mothers. In the end, I closed the door and went back to watching television.

The dribbling outside intensified over the course of the next two minutes. Then it became the telltale rattling of balls being thrown at my door over and over. I spent most of the time trying to figure out what I’d done that had made the two so upset, aside from my deeply insulting wave hello. I didn’t have long to think, however, since the RA arrived soon after. Much to my surprise, he chided me for having my door closed while the two shirtless boys openly laughed and repeated “busted!” behind him.

Realizing whatever I watched on television was going to sound a lot like loud dribbling, I went about and tried to meet new people. And that’s when I made an even more unpleasant discovery. In addition to being the only one without a roommate, I was also the only one not in a room with a friend from high school.

Not surprisingly, no one was all that interested in making new friends when they came to college with someone they’d known for the past decade or so. And in the few moments I came close to starting a decent conversation, Hitler’s youths would arrive to lob ever-weaker insults or otherwise make the situation too awkward for pleasant company. After doing my rounds of the floor and enduring an awkward meal consisting of nothing but in-jokes and high school anecdotes, I’d pretty much realized it was a lost cause.

It didn’t take long. I am, after all, a quick learner. Sigh.

The final nail in the coffin came late in the evening when, as I did some writing, a group of girls called up to my window. We talked back and forth until they finally asked me to come down. Exhilarated, I threw on my second-least-embarrassing shirt and rushed for the elevator. Where I was promptly stopped by the RA.

“I was talking with some people down on the quad. They seem cool. I’m going to go hang out with them for a bit,” I explained to his increasingly displeased face.

“Honestly, I think you need to focus less on them until you make more of an effort with your floor mates. You don’t seem to be hitting it off with them,” he explained. “Since you don’t have a roommate, I worry you’re not going to have any friends.”

“Yes…but that’s why I’m going to go try and make some now,” I reasoned. I went over my gut feelings about the people on the floor already having existing friendships and that I’d be better off trying elsewhere. “Besides,” I pointed out, “everyone else left to go have fun already. Even if I stayed up here, there’s no one to make friends with.”

The conversation went on for the next ten minutes, with the RA becoming increasingly agitated, as though my decision to find my own friends was an affront to him somehow. In the end, though, he stepped aside. “Fine. Whatever. I’m just an RA. I can’t force you to do anything anyway.”

That is tremendously good information to have,” I said, and brushed past him.

Of course, cliches were all the rage back then. So I doubt I have to tell you that the RA’s long talk had lasted just long enough that the group of girls were long gone by the time I walked out the side door. I could have approached one of the random groups laughing and talking, but I didn’t feel all that lucky at that point. Honestly, I didn’t even feel all that sociable anymore.

I walked back to my room and, in my single victory of the night, closed and locked my door since, as my RA said, he couldn’t force me not to.

I want to say that the story has a happy ending or silver lining. At the very least, I’d like to say that it ended there without getting worse. But that’s not what happened.

I remember being jarred awake at 3am by the sound of loud dribbling directly outside my door. The Aryans had returned and, apparently fueled by whatever motivated idiots, decided to cap their night by dribbling in place for the next half hour. They talked about girls and parties and what fraternities they planned to rush in the fall. And, much to my irritation, they were joined by the RA, who seemed to have much laxer rules regarding noise violations than whether or not doors were arbitrarily left open.

“So…you guys like basketball, huh?” the RA asked. I put in my headphones.

Listening to music on full blast, I returned to my writing. I poured all my loneliness and angst and disdain by bouncing balls into it. And I haven’t stopped since.

Both the late-night dribblers, on the other hand, did eventually stop dribbling. At least long enough to be sent packing two weeks later when the RA carried out a one-man sting operation that resulted in an underage drinking charge for both. It was a dirty trick, but suffice to say, I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

Well, look at that. I guess there was a happy ending to the story, after all.

“A Matt Made in Heaven”

clone

After being accepted to college I was surprised to find myself in a weird sort of limbo between two very different worlds. Like, you know in “Stargate,” when they step into the portal and they’re half on Earth and halfway across the galaxy? Yeah, I saw that scene a ton of times, because I had a lot of free time to watch “Stargate.”

I was repeatedly told (very halfheartedly) that the last half of my senior year mattered. But it seemed more like a way to keep students in line rather than a genuine threat. In reality (and this is exactly the sort of bragging I wanted to spare you by keeping details vague), my SAT score and GPA thus far were so high that I could have slept through half the school year without endangering my acceptance to college.

The hardest part of my senior year, I quickly discovered, was finding places to sleep where people wouldn’t bother me.

As far as preparing for college, there was surprisingly little to do. I had to visit the campus on all of two occasions. The first was for an orientation that was useful for the moment they handed me a campus map and then never again in the next six hours.

The second was for course selection. Though, since the order students chose courses was based on the number of credits they had already, it had more of an air of desperation than I expected. Aides went from terrified student to terrified student asking if you’d like to take classes less and less related to their intended major and find that those, too, were already full. It was like being on a nature documentary of the African food chain and arriving after the lions, hyenas, birds, confused zebras and cameramen had already lost interest in the carcass.

In the end, I chose introductory archaeology, philosophy and astronomy. Philosophy, I and the aide agreed, was at least related to an archaeology major. Astronomy, on the other hand, was the only subject left with class space that I found even remotely interesting. I can’t pretend it was related to my intended major (though the aide tried) since, as a rule, there are very few excavations of the night sky.

As irritating as the long drives and visits were, though, the three months without hearing a word from Penn State were far more unnerving.

It wasn’t until the March prior to leaving for college that I received word again in the form of my roommate assignment. Despite all the horror stories I’d heard, I was eager to find out who I’d be spending the semester with. Any number of sitcoms had filled me with equal parts excitement and dread as I tore open the envelope and discovered…my own contact information.

At the bottom of several paragraphs and bullet points on how to cultivate a relationship with my future roommate was my own address, phone number and e-mail. I turned it over to find the back was blank. I shook the empty envelope. But several cliches later, I was out of ideas.

The rest of the letter outlined common roommate issues. It gave a list of necessary room items and suggested coordinating to avoid doubling up on televisions and window fans. It offered ideas for how to find common interests and mediate disagreements. “Wow,” I thought, admiring its thoroughness. “If they’d actually told me who my roommate was, this would have been really helpful.”

It even included a list of good topics to discuss to build friendships. These included hobbies, favorite shows and the sort. Then again, I found the list of things to not discuss much more amusing. It included politics, controversial topics and, wisely, “talking too much about high school memories.”

I remember being very anxious about not knowing anything about the person I’d be sleeping next to all semester. It could be someone I had nothing in common with. It could be a crazy person. Or, worst of all, it might even be someone so incredibly normal that I seemed like the crazy one in comparison.

I called. I wrote. I e-mailed.

Try as I might, though, I never got to the bottom of it. And before I knew it, it was move-in day with onlookers staring at the kid bringing every single thing from the list of necessary large appliances up the stairs.

I walked past doors with name tags. “Dave” and “Tory.” “Raleigh” and “Slocum.” (What?) “Ernst” and “Keith.” And finally, on my room, 106, “Matt” and…”Matt”?

Suddenly, it all made sense. Since I’d been paired with a roommate with my first name, someone had mixed up our roommate assignment letters. It was, I supposed, an honest mistake. I opened the door, ready to chuckle about it with a new friend. Instead, I found two empty beds, each with a welcome letter and free college swag. Both letters, as it turned out, were addressed to identical Matts who had the same major, went to the same high school and even grew up in the same house.

“Same house? How in the world have I not met this guy before?” I wondered.

It was then that the Resident Assistant arrived and, as would quickly discover was the norm, provide no help whatsoever. “You’re…Matt?” he asked, looking down at a small clipboard. I told him I was. His look became puzzled. “Oh. Which one?”

“Boor,” I clarified. Already being a bit ahead of the mystery at this point, I added, “I’m actually both the people in this room.”

“Right…but…hm.” He clearly hadn’t been trained for this over the lunchtime seminar he later revealed was his entire training to be an RA. “It’s going to be hard to tell the two of you apart. Same name. Same last name…wow. Same address?”

I looked at my parents and rubbed my arm nervously. “If you were joking, that would actually be funny.” I suspected he wasn’t, though.

He shook his head. “I mean…wow. Do you two know each other?”

I considered touching on the philosophical debates over whether one can ever truly know oneself. Instead, I explained the situation as best I could. “I think it was all a mistake somewhere in the process. It made me my own roommate,” I concluded.

“I’ll have to let Housing know,” he said, marking something on his clipboard. Then, in the moment before a small amount of respect could trickle into the opening, he continued. “If you’re going to live here alone, it’s going to cost more.” His tone suggested I’d somehow tried to game the system by having a name that could be written twice.

“But…it was Penn State’s mistake. Why should I pay more?” I asked, prior to spending five years doing exactly that. “Couldn’t you just assign me a new roommate?”

This, too, apparently hadn’t been covered in his lunchtime seminar. “I’m not sure. They spend a lot of time putting compatible people together.” It was news to me. From my end, “a lot” seemed like an exaggeration. As did having spent “time” in general.

And if I’m being entirely honest, my roommate seemed like a bit of a dick anyway.

After a little more discussion – eventually bringing someone who actually had the authority to make decisions into the mix – we decided that I’d live alone until they found me a new roommate. “Given the popularity of the school and long waiting list, you’ll probably be hearing from us within the day. And I apologize, but since classes start in two days, they could show up at any time of day or night, without notice.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Since I’m already terrified of starting a new chapter of my life that will decide my entire future and I have trouble sleeping in new places, not knowing when a complete stranger will barge in would be a dream for me.”

With that out of the way, though, everyone slowly dispersed. I hugged my parents and watched as other students tried to hug theirs in private to not seem “uncool.” This, at least, made me feel better. I realized, all at once, that I was surrounded by people who were just as worried and human as I was. Though, I’m only assuming that last part. Seriously. I saw the name “Run” on one of the doors on the way back up. Are humans giving their children these names?

I closed my door and sighed, confronting my newfound isolation and freedom. And sitting on my bed, I turned to the empty space and asked, “So…want to watch Stargate?”

He didn’t object.

“In that case, I’m also taking your swag bag.”

“A Schoolhouse Built of Lies”

burning-money

There are many places one might begin the story of my time in college, but I suppose the best would be the beginning.

It began with debt. Hmmm. Or perhaps not. That was a beginning, but not the beginning.

No, it began at University. I went to learn of ancient civilizations and untold truths. And then I found out I was just supposed to get a piece of paper that told employers I’d learned something. If I wanted to I could learn, but it wasn’t necessary. If I wanted, I could also pay an extra thirty-five dollars and have the piece of paper placed in a wooden frame.

Paying extra, I would quickly learn, would become an integral part of this story.

But I digress. No, the true beginning was, as with most things, sometime before the beginning as most people saw it. And as with everything else, it was made better with a sweet Patrick Rothfuss reference.

My college adventures had their roots in my always being pretty smart.

I could go on and on about why this is true, beginning with being told I was slow in school and teaching myself to read out of pure spite. I could tell you about good grades and free food from local restaurants after report cards. I could not, however, tell you all this without bragging. So maybe just take my word for it.

Yes, I was pretty smart. And that would inevitably be my downfall.

I’d pretty much decided that I would go to college by the time I was ten, because that’s just what smart people did back then. My resolve was only hardened at the end of high school when I realized how rapidly I was approaching either a military stint or homelessness otherwise. To say nothing of the lifetime of being told by older relatives and almost hourly commercials, it would dramatically increase my earning potential by a million dollars. Or more! Why, passing up college would have been akin to putting a million dollars in a pile and setting it ablaze.

To prevent that, I put $140,000 in a pile and set it ablaze instead, then didn’t get the million dollars either.

People look back on decisions like that and scoff. “You should have known it was smarter to get right into the job market. That’s what I did.” They’ll then mockingly buy me a small newsboy cap just to toss some spare change into it and laugh drolly.

At which point I usually just wonder why they didn’t use their amazing prophetic abilities to tell the rest of us about the impending decade-long recession due to terror attacks and subprime mortgages.

That’s the thing, though. There’s no arguing it. In 2001, going to college was the only way to succeed in life according to literally everyone who was giving advice on the subject at the time. A solid four-fifths of my graduating class was going to one flavor of college or another, even though not all of them were what you’d call “college material.” Back then, you were forced to go to college at expectation-point. Which, in all fairness, isn’t quite as daunting as gunpoint, but still.

The very suggestion of doing something else was ridiculous. If you told someone that you wanted to drop out of college and marry your dog, they’d give you a worried look and say, “That’s insane! Do you realize what that would do to your earnings potential?”

Then, they’d circle back to dog marriage. If there was time.

Why mention this point at all? Well, I’m going to be poor pretty much the rest of the story. Being poor was the very essence of my college experience. If they turned the whole thing into some sort of sitcom (and given what I’ve seen on television lately, it’s not entirely unlikely), they’d probably work it into the title somehow.

It also saves me the trouble of touching on each and every avenue for making or saving money. Yes, I worked during college. Yes, I applied (and received) scholarships that stopped after my first semester for no reason despite earning a 4.0. Yes, I filled out the FAFSA but was dismayed to not see a checkbox for “Parents have good earnings but will not help me pay tuition in any way.” The end result? Please see my previous paragraph.

For the next five years (we’ll get to that little Van Wilder-esque wrinkle later), I would be poor and starving and desperate in a way you wouldn’t think possible in a first world country. And it was an amazing experience almost from start to finish.

I point out this second detail – it being amazing – because so much of comedic writing is based on complaining about life’s little trials rather than celebrating its joyous occasions. It’s why comedians rarely talk about their significant other giving them an unexpected back rub after a hard day of work. And why they’re always talking about traffic. Or taxes. Or the lines at the DMV. (Amirite?)

Or the unexpected back rub I once got in line at the DMV.

College was expensive and scary and embarrassing and on two separate occasions I found myself stranded in another state with no shoes. And it’s easy to focus on the poverty and fear and shoelessness. Even though I loved every moment of it.

Except for Statistics, which I contend is the mathematical version of diarrhea, and the single worst waste of my time all four times I had to take it to pass. (That isn’t the reason for the wrinkle I mentioned earlier, for the record. Though, it certainly didn’t help.)

And thirdly, I want it to be clear that for me there really was no alternative to college. So when I hit some inevitable low points in the story and people wonder why I didn’t just do something else, I hope this explains it. Trying to understand my actions in 2001 with a 2017 mindset would be like me trying to come up with an analogy on short notice – pointless and, I don’t know…handsome?

So, just keep all that in mind going forward. I may not always mention my poverty, but I was poor. I may not mention how worthwhile the experience was – for my growth as a person if not the promised earning potential – but it changed my life. And from beginning to end, I never had a choice in the matter. Looking back, though, I can only say that if I had the chance to do it again, I would…definitely consider it. Possibly.

And that, I think, is a good place to stop for now. Just before the beginning of the start of the story. Finally.

(Oh, and if it wasn’t clear, this is still a “Story Time” column – the same one from a week ago – just with that part of the title dropped. It saves me some space to use bigger and far worse puns that way.)