Tag: multi-part column

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.

 

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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…

Snap, Crackle, Pop.

explosion

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

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

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

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

Allow me to set the scene…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better safe than sorry.

We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This

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

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

I sighed.

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

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

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

“It was my computer.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why say it did?”

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

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

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

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

“Shut it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which was?”

“My computer exploded.”

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

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

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

“Shut it.”

Fortune Favors the Old

credit

I mostly take it for granted now that I’m a bitter, bitter old man, but being younger wasn’t easy. For those of you who’ve never been young, in fact, I can tell you that it made almost everything harder. And…wait. What?

How is that even possible? How were some of you not young? I feel like this is a far more interesting story than the one I’m about to tell.

Anyway…

All that aside, it’s only in hindsight that I sort of see the benefits of going to college later on in life. Of course, it wouldn’t be all that useful since it wouldn’t help you get a good job. And if you go late enough you’re the old person in class that people whisper about finishing a degree as part of your bucket list. Not to mention that waiting fifty years to go to college probably means paying about four to five thousand percent of what you would have right out of high school…

You know what? I take it back. College isn’t easy for anyone of any age.

But I’ve never been an old person at college. (Though I was starting to get close by the time my fifth year rolled around.) So let’s focus on what I’m familiar with – how hard it was for young people to do almost anything.

Everything from setting up a back account to getting a first job to avoiding credit card scams is a learning process. Luckily, I’m sure you learned all about that in hypothetical fantasy senior year in high school. You know, the one where you actually learned how to find work or do taxes instead of learning the math where they ran out of numbers and letters so they just started using made-up symbols.

“Couldn’t you just look online?” you ask, about ten years too late to be helpful. “Wasn’t there a YouTube video on it or something? Maybe a Facebook discussion group to ask for advice?”

It would be about there that I’d cut you off in the middle of your list of things that didn’t exist in 2002 by saying that, well, those things didn’t exist in 2002. The Internet in general wasn’t nearly as helpful as it is today. (Though there were a lot fewer advertisements.) For the most part it was just random blogs and personal pages where people complained about not having a unified social media platform where their complaints could reach all their family and friends at once.

But, as I do so often it may as well be the title of this story, I digress…

I at least had the foresight to have a bank account set up in advance. Unfortunately, the bank I’d been using since I was a teenager was located about a mile and a half off campus. Since walking that far even to be handed money was out of the question, this meant finding one on the main street where – and I wish there were more context to this story – a man in a clown costume ushered me into a PNC Bank.

Say what you will about their pitch, but that account had no fees and no minimum balance. Plus it came with a free savings account. I’m still using that account to this day. And in the case of the savings account, I even have money to put in it now.

A lot of other students weren’t so lucky.

I want to give people a little more credit. I really do. But far too many conversations began by someone pointing out they’d just gotten a free shirt. This was generally followed by a sly grin and a comment along the lines of, “All I had to do was sign up for a credit card for three years!”

Yeah. Score.

The talk would generally trend downhill from there when they explained the terms of the agreement. “Well, all I have to do is make purchases with it once a month. The rate is 11.97%. APB? APR? I think they said something about APR. Is that bad?”

I didn’t fall for the college credit card scam. In fact, I’ve never had one. Why? Because they somehow prey on the assumption that your poverty is a situation temporary enough that it’ll probably end in the next 30 days so you can pay off the balance interest-free. But not so temporary that you shouldn’t just wait to make the purchase with real, actual money that belongs to you.

I only learned sometime later that, yes, “APR” is bad. APR is the financial equivalent of writing “jk” after a text. “Your interest rate is 0%! Just kidding. It’s actually 17.99%.”

Or, in the case of “variable APR,” “Jk and sometimes I’m jk-ing more than others.”

And sure, it’s easy to judge those students. (I certainly did.) But how were they to know any better? Like your older relative who just can’t grasp that they need to stop opening e-mails from senders they don’t know to avoid viruses, this was entirely new information to them.

You could argue that anyone should have the common sense to stay away from questionable people giving away free shirts in exchange for signing financial agreements. Then again, if I hadn’t taken financial advice from an actual clown – who I can only assume worked for the bank in some capacity – I’d have been walking a mile and a half every time I wanted to deposit a check.

Okay. I’m rereading it again now. And part of me thinks that maybe there is something more to that clown story.

But it’ll have to wait, since my last point segues nicely into the last hard part of being young. Well, not the last point. The last non-clown point…you know what I mean. I speak, of course, of getting your first job.

Which, now that I think about it, is a topic so large I couldn’t possibly cover it in a separate section about being young only tangentially related to it.

The Devil’s in the Resales

hamburglar
Note: The burger in this picture represents your money and me being too tired to Photoshop this picture. The Hamburglar represents the Hamburglar. But for some reason he’s a hipster now? Yeah. I don’t really get it either…

“Well,” I hear you say with a weary sigh, “at least you can sell your books back for money when you’re all done with them.”

Then, apparently not understanding how cliches work, you add, “I mean, at least it can’t get any worse, right?”

At which point, it starts raining.

But to answer your question: Yes, selling your books back is something you have the option of doing, in the same way that you could spend the day before a trip looking for loose change on the ground at the airport to pay for your ticket. You certainly could. It just wouldn’t be all that helpful.

The entire book-buying experience concludes at the end of each semester in something called “buyback.” Or as it’s more properly known, “Would you rather cling to the last shred of a moral victory, or have $6?”

So how does it work? Let me walk you through the process.

Buyback begins by handing a textbook to a salesperson who then tries to come up with the smallest number they can think of. They will then look at the book from various angles and, regardless of its condition, cut the number they were thinking of in half. While all this is going on they continually shake their head and “tsk” as your plans for your refund devolve from “dinner, movie and drinks” to “dinner and a movie” to “a movie” before finally settling on “reading movie summaries on Wikipedia.”

This concludes with one of two monetary outcomes that are, for all intents and purposes, identical.

In the first, you either bought a used copy of the book or some oil from your fingers touched the cover – either rendering it worthless at a tool for future education. The salesperson will reveal the number they thought up. And before you get halfway through your well-reasoned argument that you paid several hundred dollars more just two months ago, they say, “Take it or leave. There’s a line of sad people forming behind you.”

If you take the pittance, you’ll enjoy the realization that the book you bought for $100 used and sold for just $6 will likely be on the shelf against next semester with the same $100 price tag. Alternatively, you could walk out with your head held high(ish) and a bag full of books no human would ever want to read.

And for the record, no, even after going through that about a dozen times I’m still not sure which of those is the moral victory.

In the second scenario, the salesperson will look at a master list, sigh and say, “Looks like there’s a new edition coming out.” They then may or may not mutter something about having thought up a really good low number for nothing.

They’ll then point to the line of sad people forming behind you without offering you either a choice or pittance.

Why? Because as a I hinted at earlier, slightly different editions are effectively worthless to students. Although student bookstores can – and as I’ve seen, will – sell outdated editions, they won’t buy them back from you.

At which point you’re essentially left with a choice of tossing the books in the nearest garbage or giving it to the salesperson to do it for you.

The bad news, though, is that neither option is the moral victory in this case. If you hand over the book for “disposal,” there’s an above average chance it will still end up for sale next semester. And that’s why I probably never went this route. Giving the school the book I bought for $100 just so they could sell it again feels oddly like handing someone back their knife after they stabbed you.

Even if you think you’re sticking it to the bookstore by throwing your book in the trash outside, I’ve seen their employees root through the garbage for sellable books after closing. Seeing this didn’t make me very happy about the entire process. Though it did go a long way toward explaining why my used astronomy book smelled like an odd mixture of shame, human tears and pasta sauce when I bought it.

At least two of those three odors, I can only assume, were directly related to the buyback process in the first place.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this? What’s the moral of this story? What can future students do to make things better? Honestly, I’ve got no clue. Lord knows I was in college long enough that if there was a solution I would have figured it out and tried it myself.

For the most part I was just picking used copies based on the smells I liked most.

(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.