Tag: Batman

(May as Well) Burn After Reading

burning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at my copy. “Seventh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“$100? I thought it was $110.”

My eye twitched.

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

“Tell me the thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.)

Where You Go, I Cannot Follow…

Game Dice

I don’t want to get into the whole argument as to whether one is born a nerd or it’s a choice they actively make.

I lean towards the former, if only because as far as my memories go back, I was doing something I would have probably hidden from my wife (if she hadn’t also been a nerd). There was the obvious stuff, like being a little too into video games. Or anime. But there were earlier signs, like channeling my early writing energies into so, so much Sonic the Hedgehog fan-fiction. (I might still hide that one from my wife, actually.)

Or possibly teaching myself how to read just to spite the teachers who said I couldn’t be taught by reading every book in our house. And consequently reading the first Wheel of Time book at the age of eight because it had the coolest cover.

People would assume, then, that I like anything and everything that’s even remotely nerdy. And for the most part that’s true. But even I have my limits.

I’ll start with probably the nerdiest thing I’m involved in and then move on from there.

Subtitled anime. I’ve actually never understood why some people just couldn’t watch anime in the original Japanese. I sort of get the argument some people make about not wanting to read while they watch a movie, but only if that’s how they feel about everything.

If you refuse to watch “KonoSuba” (arguably one of the funniest anime series ever made) and then turn around to watch “Les Miserables” (not arguably just really, really boring) in the original French then you, sir (or madame) are a filthy liar.

Japanese Pop Nightcore music. Okay. I realize I was supposed to start the list of things too nerdy for even me here, but I just remembered this one, and it’s probably a bit worse than subtitled anime.

In my defense…well, I don’t need a defense. Nightcore music is awesome. And some English song lyrics are cringe-worthy, at best. (That’s a whole other column, though. Stay tuned.)  Musical lyrics attained perfection in the Queen era and, to a slightly lesser degree, during William Shatner’s on-again, off-again interest in spoken word albums. In short, I’d much rather have no idea what anyone was saying than hear them say something really, really stupid.

Okay. Seriously. Now we’re starting the list…

Tabletop games. Let me preface this by saying that I really want to enjoy these. I should also explain that a good part of why I never got into them was because I’ve been perpetually isolated from other nerds that might even play them with me. I’ve had exactly one real experience playing Dungeons & Dragons, and it didn’t go well.

I was playing as the typical rogue/thief character and exploring the depths of one ancient ruin or another when I found a door that was locked and couldn’t be opened. I later learned that this was “flavor text” by the dungeon master just meant to flesh out the scenery. I took it as a challenge. And, after a streak of rather uncanny luck in my dice rolls (three 20’s in a row), I’d managed to pick the lock and wedge the door open so it didn’t fall again. The dungeon master promptly conjured up some chest to be in that room and told me to just loot the thing and stop derailing his story.

I then proceeded to bash my skull open on the door because I didn’t crouch low enough and died due to a rather uncannily bad streak of dice rolls.

It’s certainly not something I’d mind trying again. But for the moment, it’s not something that’s really feasible for me. And it’s probably the one item on this list I honestly regret not getting into.

Live Action Role-Playing (or LARPing). Basically, you take tabletop gaming, remove the tabletop and then go outside instead.

Sometimes you dress up in cosplay first.

I have nothing against it, strictly-speaking. My only real issue is that its one of those things that requires all the individual gears to be moving in the same direction. All you need is one person who decides they’d rather never be hit and it turns into a bad day playing pretend at recess. “I throw fireball! It hit you and…” “Nope. You missed.” “Um…I throw a lightning bolt! It paralyzed you.” “Nuh-uh. It made me stronger!”

My problem with this is, I had too many friends at recess who were “that kid.” If we were playing superheroes, they were Superman. Oh, and kryptonite couldn’t hurt him. Also, he had a gun for some reason? It made my Batman infected with the Venom symbiote look downright reasonable in comparison.

Latching onto some scrap of nerdy territory and then judging everyone who wanders by. When I grew up, being a nerd wasn’t socially acceptable like it is today. You had to do that sort of thing on the down-low.

So I understand why some people who have defended comics, anime, etc., for decades being a little annoyed that now everyone and their kid dressed as a stormtrooper is getting involved. These people put a lot of hard work into being part of a counter-culture that everyone hated them for. It’s like driving in the slow lane for miles and then having someone cut over at the last moment to skip all the waiting – except replace “miles” with “thirty-six years.”

And “waiting” with “having goat blood poured on you at prom.”

I don’t believe in judging people as being “true fans” or “real gamers” or the like, because I want these things to be welcoming and hospitable to newcomers. Because as much as some people might hate people not as devoted as they are getting involved in their interests, they should just be happy that this is something they can openly enjoy now without being stuffed into a locker. That or, you know, the goat blood thing.

Not to mention, there’s always someone nerdier out there. So before you go judging someone for only watching Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, remember there are people out there who could just as easily put you to shame. Only they won’t, because they’re too busy actually enjoying their lives.