Tag: story

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, it’s 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 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.

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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.

Friends in Average Places

shady

(Note: No, I didn’t turn to drugs due to how sad the last part of the story was. But…well, you’ll see how it all fits in.)

Luckily, things almost immediately got better for me friend-wise, though it had very little to do with me.

I’ve never been all that good at making friends. Which is to say, I’ve never understood the process. I couldn’t tell you good places to meet people or effective techniques for finding shared interests or anything like that. I am, however, surprisingly good at going about my life randomly and then having friends when I go home.

Which would be great, if I weren’t also surprisingly bad at overthinking things.

I spent a lot of my first two or three weeks of college “trying” to make friends. I approached random people before class to have awkward conversations. I spent time in places that reflected my hobbies and waited for friends to arrive, like some sort of horrible friendship trapdoor spider. And as you might guess from the words “horrible friendship trapdoor spider,” it didn’t go all that well.

When nothing came of it, I sort of gave up. This wasn’t because I’d suddenly become aware that you can’t force friendship. The truth was, I had more than enough to keep me busy attending classes and trying to kick start a fledgling writing career.

(It’d be hard to argue, in fact, that a key reason I was able to succeed in either school or writing was because I had plenty of free time.)

And that was about the time my RA stopped me in front of my building, reached into his pants and showed me something that would change my life.

“Um, good for you,” I said, looking down at the six cans of beer he’d expertly crammed into the elastic lining of his pants. It didn’t look like the first time he’d done it, and that made it all the sadder somehow.

“You want one?” he asked, glancing about conspiratorially. “Don’t worry. I won’t rat you out to anybody.”

I briefly reviewed my policy on drinking any liquids that had been warming in another man’s pants to make sure and then offered an excuse at random. “I have a policy against drinking liquids that have been warming in another man’s pants.” Okay. In hindsight, it wasn’t that random.

He gave a chuckle and nodded. “That’s cool. That’s cool. You probably shouldn’t be drinking anyway. It’s not good for kids to get into stuff like this too young.”

I thought about defending myself and then remembered I was only seventeen. He wasn’t technically wrong. “Is there a reason those are in your pants?” I hesitantly asked, seeing that information wasn’t going to come about on its own.

“It’s against the rules, man,” he said, explaining that alcohol was strictly prohibited in dorms – even if the student was of drinking age. “But every now and then I do the guys on my floor a solid and smuggle some in.”

Considering I despised my RA with the white-hot heat of a thousand dying suns, I briefly thought of turning him in. Unfortunately, he was my only point of contact. And something told me he wasn’t likely to escalate the matter. Still, identifying the situation as one I wanted to be nowhere near when it blew up in someone’s face (or in their pants), I promptly returned to my room and locked my door to the maximum extent it could be locked.

Then, I waited.

(I vaguely recall also playing “Metal Gear Solid 2.” I can do two things at once.)

It didn’t take long for the police to arrive. By which I mean, they took an almost suspiciously short amount of time to arrive after the RA had returned with his spoils and shared them. (All told, it was about seven minutes.) And that’s when it hit me. My RA hadn’t just smuggled beer into the dorms in the lamest way humanly possible. Instead, he’d just pulled off the lamest sting operation of all time.

I breathed a sigh of relief at having not chosen that particular moment to violate my own policies regarding reaching into another man’s pants and pulling something out for any reason.

The rest, as they say, is history. I stood in the hallway with the rest of my floormates as we watched the police escort Hitler’s Youths – the only two people stupid enough to fall for (or be enticed by) that sort of slapdash operation – out of the building. Both were weeping openly, though I choose to remember them as they once were. I like to imagine them walking away proudly, arrogantly and shirtless, each dribbling a basketball as the elevator doors closed and they vanished into legend.

“Wow,” a voice said to one side as the onlookers began to disperse. “I can’t think of a more deserving pair of assholes.”

The voice, as voices often do, belonged to a person. I turned to see one of the floormates I’d very briefly interacted with on my initial tour of my surroundings. He extended his hand to me to shake. “Sorry. We didn’t actually get to talk when you stopped by. My name is Matt.”

“Huh,” I said, biting my lip pensively. “If I ever write about this experience later, all these people with the same name are going to start to get confusing.”

“Wouldn’t you just refer to yourself in the first person?”

He actually had a point there.

I won’t oversell Matt as being some friend that changed my life forever. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to claim we were incredibly close friends. But he was the first friend I made in college, and as it turned out, the single decent human being on my floor.

Just because the others hadn’t been arrested didn’t mean they weren’t terrible people for a variety of other misogynistic and/or racist reasons.

Probably the only thing I remember about him with any real clarity was that Matt was absurdly, astoundingly and relentlessly lazy. I won’t pretend to be any sort of paragon of hard work myself, but Matt had attained what I can only assume was a Buddha-like level of enlightenment in a religion of pure inactivity. Without spoiling future events too much, he once commented – perhaps prophetically – that he was glad we were only three doors from one another because he didn’t think our friendship would survive a flight of stairs between us.

From there, I went about my life and went about making friends in very average ways. It wasn’t a rite of passage or a step on my way toward adulthood. In fact, if not for the beer story it wasn’t even all that interesting. (Though that portion alone is largely worth the price of admission.) But it was an event and it happened.

When you see all the stuff I eventually don’t leave out, you’ll probably see that it happening was almost all it needed to be included.

The War at/with Home

halcyon

“Wow,” any reader would say after getting this far in the story. “Looks like you had a rough go of it early on in college.”

I would agree. But I would do so in such a way that I would sort of wave it off, as though that wasn’t the point I was trying to make for sympathy’s sake. I would then cough into my hand and say, “Some might call me a hero but whatever…”

“What?” those same readers would ask.

“Hm. Nothing. I just have a little tickle and…” I’d clear my throat again. “What were you saying before?”

This inevitably leads to the same question though: “If things were so rough at college, why not look for some support from your friends and family?” It would then lead to an equally inevitable and more embarrassing question: “I mean…you actually had friends in high school, right?”

The answer to those questions is complicated. Or rather, it’s fairly simple but not really a super-pleasant topic.

So let’s talk about that now. At length.

I wasn’t so much “popular” in high school as I was “very broadly tolerated.” And while this always gave me people to talk to, sit with, etc., I was only close with about three (or four) of them. Within three (or four) “situations” of arriving in college, this number dropped to zero – which, despite being much lower, was much easier to remember than the three (or possibly four) I had previously.

The majority of these fell under the category of “general drifting.” Out of high school, it suddenly strikes you how little you have in common with some of your friends. And you ask yourself, “Huh. If I weren’t forced to sit in a tiny room with this person five times a day and eat lunch together, would we have anything to talk about?”

As it turned out, the answer was, “No.” Or, “Yes, but we’d probably just talk about high school. For every conversation. Forever.”

The moment this really struck me came almost a year into college. (Sorry for skipping ahead slightly.) I was in a random clothing store when someone I didn’t in any way recognize came up to me and said it was good to see me. As it turned out, this was a classmate who left my school in the seventh grade. “Wow,” he said. “You’ve lost a lot of weight. I almost didn’t recognize you!”

I cut him off before he asked about my non-existent exercise routine. And it took everything I had not to say, “You’ve lost a lot of relevance. I didn’t recognize you.”

We exchanged very strained small talk about the two or three things we both remembered from nearly a decade before. There were nearly ten awkward silences in only three minutes of conversation. And then, shockingly, he said we should hang out sometime.

I politely declined with some made-up excuse that was far different than what I was really thinking. But strangely enough, it made me wonder. Did I really have that much more in common with friends from high school after a year apart?

Well, yes, actually. The shared experiences from twelve plus years of recent friendship are more than a six-year friendship that ended ages ago. I like hyperbole but let’s not get crazy.

The real trouble was that these were now static relationships. They would never grow and never evolve. They would have the same talking points, the same in-jokes and the same general dynamic in a month, a year or a century. Like some predictable AIM chat bot, they’d be fun for a conversation or three before you never spoke to them again. Years later, you’d wonder why you talked to what was essentially a parrot made of ones and zeroes.

The chat bots, I mean. Not (I assume) your old friends.

It was the last of these three (and possibly up to five, now that I think about it) old friends, however, that left the most lasting impression in their parting. Since I’d gone to college in the summer, a number of people going in the fall wrote to ask about the college experience. And having spent literally hours there, I was happy to oblige.

For the most part, I described college as a lot like high school. Since I was taking mostly introductory courses it wasn’t much harder. But I did stress that there was a lot more personal accountability when it came to waking up and going to class. First impressions, I added, were very important to making new friends. I had made quite sure not to say anything like, “Your family is ugly,” or “I moved on your sister like a bitch.” I even double-checked the e-mails to make sure before I sent them out.

Most people replied with thanks. My last close friend, however, seemed to take deep offense at some part of my advice. He wrote only, “(expletive) you man. i’m so sick of you saying stuff like this (expletive).”

I don’t know which part of that advice upset him so. And when I asked in a series of e-mails, he never wrote back. So I shrugged it off by assuming his sister had been killed by personal accountability or a first impression and I’d touched a nerve. We never spoke again. And though we’d been good friends since kindergarten, something about our parting convinced me I was better off.

Now, as far as why I didn’t turn to family, well…

I won’t belabor the point of how I feel about my parents. The short version is that we never quite saw eye to eye on much of anything. They drifted closer to fundamentalist Christianity as they grew older, while my experience with their church had all but pushed me into the indifferent but non-judgmental bosom of atheism. They were Republican while I was sliding more liberal. They thought tomatoes were vegetables at a time I was starting to think they were fruit. You know. Irreconcilable differences.

There were also less pleasant, more specific incidents that drove us apart that I don’t care to get into. I realize that sounds a lot like, “It’s private and I don’t want to talk about it.” But I assure you it’s not as sinister as you might guess. It’s really just very tedious and not terribly good comedy.

Except for my mom beginning to replace her children with dogs. That was, at least in hindsight, pretty funny.

My brothers were sort of the opposite problem, honestly.

While I would eventually come to have a very good and healthy friendship with my brothers, it didn’t start out that way. I think age ironed out a lot of our differences. But it wouldn’t come soon enough for me to be seeking advice from them when I hit rough spots in college. I’d drifted too far from my friends and parents to relate. My brothers and I, meanwhile, hadn’t yet drifted back together.

As opposed to what I said earlier, I honestly don’t think the experience was all that unique or deserving of sympathy. I was, unfortunately, just observant enough to notice almost immediately that my old friendships were ending. It didn’t keep me from plastering an entire wall in my room (above my not-as-yet-arrived roommate’s bed) with pictures from those halcyon days. But it did keep me from wasting the one or two years non-athletes and athletes, respectively, sometimes spent living in the past.

But halcyon days don’t last forever. And for better or worse, they were never quite what you remember anyway. I mean that literally. Go look up “halcyon days.” Apparently it’s a period of seven days were there are no storms every year. Or maybe when some bird is laying eggs or something. Seriously?

I don’t remember any of it that way.