Tag: stories

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.

Story Time – The Long and the Short of It

insides

Disclaimer: About a decade of having Crohn’s Disease has given me an issue of “terminal oversharing” when it comes to my insides (or the contents therein). When doctors are asking you on a daily basis how often you’re going to the bathroom, how long you’re spending each time and vivid descriptions of anything that comes out of you, you either get over your embarrassment or people start misdiagnosing you.

I realize that this is understandably unpleasant for most people to read about. But I should make clear that my chronic illness is more of a framing device for this story. I don’t plan to get into the messy particulars. I only mention it because otherwise you’d have no clue why your handsome protagonist was in the hospital and why he was so indifferent to what would be a fairly worrisome procedure otherwise.

End Disclaimer.

It’d been about two years and some change since my surgery. The upside of having your intestine removed for Crohn’s Disease is that it’s actually a decent “nuclear option” – very effective but with some unintended consequences. The only trouble is that, like a lingering zombie threat, it can often regrow if even the slightest bit is left. Did I mention we were fighting zombies in that analogy? In hindsight, mentioning that seems sort of important.

My specialist at the time of surgery had been letting me handle my recovery mostly on my own. Probably because he retired. I assume, if stereotypes are to be believed, to somewhere warm with plentiful golf courses.

(Though, since he confided to me in our last office visit that he stayed on an extra three months just to see my treatment through to the end, I can’t help but say he deserves a nice retirement by virtue of being such a decent human being alone.)

His replacement didn’t last long. She was, and I’m trying to be kind here, fixated on my anus. “Do you know what an anal fistula is?” “Did you ever have an anal fistula?” “Have you ever been checked for an anal fistula?” “Do you mind if I check your anus right now?”

“Hello,” I said, reaching out my hand to shake hers. “My name is Matt. What’s yours, person who literally started asking about my anus before she introduced herself?”

Luckily, she turned out to be a doctor, but still.

Thing went predictably downhill from there. She seemed fairly disinterested in the wealth of paperwork available on problems and surgeries I actually did have. She ordered a bevy of tests aimed at finding some mythical anal fistula that never was. I don’t know why she wanted to find that thing so much. Perhaps, like some even more horrible Captain Ahab, this was her brown whale.

Long story short (or at least medium), I requested another doctor.

“Bad news on that,” I was told by my General Practitioner. “The doctor you’re leaving and our other gastroenterologist are sort of…an item. They’re…involved. Romantically. They sort of met here and hit it off…”

“I get it,” I said, stopping him before I heard something I probably wouldn’t want to know about two people who considered gastroenterology a perfect backdrop for romance. “What’s that got to do with anything? They’re doctors, right? Can’t they keep their personal and professional stuff separate?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. No?” At least he was honest. So I got sent to a different practice in a weird part of town. You know, the part where your Main Street goes all the way from North to South Main and suddenly you’re driving on East Main Street.

(To say nothing of my confusion when I turned onto East South Street. What the hell, city planners?)

My new specialist was competent enough – a good mix of action and knowing when inaction was the better option. He told me that doctors tend to just throw Humira at people with Crohn’s Disease nowadays. (I assume he meant metaphorically.) But studies showed it only helped bringing the disease into remission. It wouldn’t do anything to make remission last longer. So, instead, he poisoned me.

Okay. Sorry. Jumping ahead in the story a bit. Let me ease us into that part.

He prescribed a medicine that was effective in keeping my disease at bay. The downside was that not everyone tolerated it well. And those who didn’t, well, they tended not to tolerate it spectacularly.

Still, I gave it a try. And three weeks later, as I projectile vomited the instant I swallowed it for the third night in the row, my pattern recognition made note of it. In short, I tried it one more time, just to be sure. More projectile vomiting.

“Ugh. I’m not doing that again.” I talked to my doctor. He said to try it again. The outcome was more or less as projectile vomit-y as before, though by that point I was at least used to it enough that I tried to mix in some “Exorcist” quotes to make it funnier.

(For the record, I’ve now been poisoned, stabbed, hung and disemboweled. I’m just three steps away from completing the “Vigo the Carpathian Challenge” from “Ghostbusters II.”)

From there, my specialist nodded his head sagely and said, “Well, why don’t we do some tests? Have you ever drank barium?” I had – oftentimes even for medical reasons. “Good. And how do you feel about undergoing a medical test that is, in some ways, less pleasant than projectile vomiting but has the benefit of taking much, much longer?” he asked. Okay. He didn’t ask that. But he should have.

Alas, this is getting too long and I haven’t even got to the story yet, so that, dear friends, will have to be a tale for another day. Or later today? Tomorrow? Stay tuned.

Story Time – Grocery Forensics

0105172308.jpg
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.

0105172308
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.

gwyneth-paltrow-food-stamps
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.

2017…

calendar

In a new year full of new possibilities, a quote comes to mind.

“Just write what you want…”

-My wife (repeatedly), 2012-2017

In all fairness, and as you might guess by the ellipses, that quote was taken out of context. I don’t want to portray my wife as saying something she didn’t, so I’ll include the full quote for your benefit.

“Just write what you want and get me a soda.”

-My wife (repeatedly), 2012-2017

The point of the quote, aside from asking me to get her a drink, was that I should focus more on writing fun articles rather than ones that will get views or what-have-you. More importantly, it’s about me writing what I enjoy writing. Because in the end that’s what’s going to keep me actually writing things on a daily, near-daily or even regular basis. Or, if it got very bad, ever again.

As much as I realize new years are arbitrary when it comes to making changes, I feel like 2017 is a good place to put the plan into action. That way, when people come to me and say, “What happened to all those well-formatted review articles?” I can just roll my eyes and say, “Well-formatted review articles? That is so 2016.”

An answer which, ironically, is so 1993.

So…what do I enjoy writing? Mostly, stories – short or long – that randomly come to mind. These usually involve things that made me say, “I can’t believe that just happened.” And then I notice I’m in Wal-Mart and I rescind my previous statement.

I also like reviews, but not with beginnings, middles, ends and categories to evaluate things on. How are the new vanilla latte Pop-Tarts? Delicious. Except there’s an additive that actually makes your pee smell like coffee afterward. Do I want to turn that sort of thing into a 2,000 word review? Probably not.

I’m fond of watching children’s shows and then doing a reality check. I like mentioning random absurdities that cross my mind. I support the free exchange of recipes with very little backstory. Want to know how to make really good holiday leftover sandwiches? How about when I tell a four-hour story about how I came up with them? Well, good news. The story of how I came up with anything is either “I was hungry so…” or “I was lazy so…” I’m not sure when recipes became books but that’s not my thing.

With all that in mind, hopefully you have a good year, very intelligent and attractive reader of my blog.