Tag: archaeology

“A Matt Made in Heaven”


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.”


Story Time – Grocery Forensics

Pictured: Good decisions.

There’s something out there I like to call “grocery forensics.” It tries to make educated guesses regarding the activities, beliefs and attitudes of those in the past based on the material evidence they left behind – limited to their messes in grocery stores. And while it isn’t a traditional science in the same way as, say, archaeology, they share many similarities. At least for the purposes of writing this article.

For example, I wouldn’t recommend wasting $100,000 on a degree in either.

The picture above is the sort of thing I run across from time to time in my shopping adventures. Shopping isn’t all that mentally stimulating when you’re just walking down aisles and following a list. It’s like the lamest scavenger hunt ever, only without an actual reward at the end.

When I first started seeing this sort of thing, it was easy not to notice. The workers at Wal-Mart seem pretty good at it, after all. Though, I’ll admit leaving stuff in the wrong place on the shelf is probably a skill honed by years of being paid at near minimum wage. In the same position I doubt I’d expend a lot of effort going above and beyond for a company that determined employee pay by taking the level at which they’d be violating federal law and adding a dollar.

(Though, I hear it’s going up, so maybe my days of grocery forensics are numbered?)

Even once I started noticing misplaced items, they were easy to ignore. A box of taco shells in the soda aisle because someone was lazy. A generic item in front of a brand name because someone was careless. It wasn’t something that bothered me much. Except when someone leaves refrigerated meat in, say, electronics because seriously, why?

As time went on, however, I realized there were much sadder stories at play.

Look at the above picture, which I now realize should have been much lower, because I’ve barely referred to it before now. Or did I misplace it on purpose? Is this whole thing getting ridiculously meta?

No, so here it is again.

Pictured: Good decisions AND good blog layout decisions.

I’d forgive you for not seeing the issue right away. Your senses might not be as keenly honed from years of being bored out of your mind at the store. What we gather from this picture is that some individual eats canned pasta. Is that detail alone inherently sad? Yes. Yes, it is. Just because I do it doesn’t mean it isn’t.

But it’s worse than all that. As this individual was walking through the aisles, they noticed this display and realized, “Oooh. You know what’s even better than canned red slurry? Margaritas!”

Or even worse, “Oooh. You know what’s even better than canned red slurry? Margarita mix!”

“Sure,” you say, “but aren’t you being a bit hard on this theoretical shopper? I mean, don’t we all need an iced drink in the dead of a punishing Pennsylvania winter sometimes?”

No, but I see what you’re getting at.

This wasn’t just a person who wanted an off-season drink, though. This was a person who came to the store – from the discarded cans we can safely assume seeking something at least food-like – and picked up two cans of the thing ramen eaters usually buy when they want to be even more disgusted by their poor eating habits. And they left actual (almost) food behind to buy a drink. Mix.

Were they out of money? Did they realize they ate last week and were sick of it? Was someone taking the Food Stamp Challenge and wanted to fail worse than Gwyneth Paltrow when she bought a bunch of limes and herbs? I can’t think of any scenario where the context makes this any less weird.

Pictured: More good decisions.

This isn’t a bag of pretzels left in the cracker aisle because someone changed their mind on what snack they wanted. It’s like finding a bag of bread in the paint supplies. Because neither story makes any sense to me.

Still, these are the sorts of mysteries that keep me going. And it’s what keeps me coming back to the store again and again. To put food on the table. I mean, not in the sense that my grocery forensics work is making me any money. I literally mean, I go to the store to buy food and then, after cooking it, I put it on the table.

Sometimes people even eat it, though I do have a toddler. I’m a realist about it.

Seeing things like a full shopping cart left abandoned next to the seafood really do make you wonder what people were thinking. To me, it just reinforces the idea of “sonder” – the realization that the people around you are living a life as vivid and complex as your own. It also reinforces my hypothesis of “sonderp” – the realization that the people around you are bad at living and are generally making stupid, stupid decisions.

Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stare at my archaeology degree and shake my head for the next hour thinking about how smart I am.