Stories from my past, along with whatever random musings I feel compelled to write. Updates Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In Which I Learn the Importance of Planning Ahead

    It was a dark and stormy morning. The year was 1993. Because it rains so infrequently in San Diego, a lot of things aren’t really made to handle much water. 

    My family’s backyard was one of these things. Sure, there were drains installed in the lawn to keep it from flooding, but to this day I suspect that they didn’t lead anywhere before we replaced them.

This meant that whenever it did rain, our backyard turned into a miniature sea. This particular morning, the storm had already submerged our lawn. While making me breakfast, my dad had grumbled something about having to go out and unclog the drains. I sat at the table watching him cook, and then Iooked outside. The morning would go downhill from this point on for my parents.

Now, before I continue, I feel like some additional information is needed. At the time we had two dogs, both of whom were strictly “outside dogs”. One of them, Opus (named after the penguin from Bloom County for reasons nobody but my father will ever understand or find funny), was... high strung, to put it nicely. To put it less nicely, he was both an incredibly neurotic specimen and kind of stupid. My mom once affectionately described him as “part Puli, part English Sheepdog, and part fencepost.”

I loved him to pieces, but when he got scared, which happened all the time, it was like his brain panicked and decided that living in a world with whatever had scared him wasn’t worth the effort. I think he was kind of a canine idiot savant; he could never figure out that we didn’t disappear when he lost sight of us through the glass doors leading from the kitchen to the backdoor, but god damn could he escape from things.

Every year on the Fourth of July, the sound of fireworks exploding so far away you couldn’t even see them would set him off, and he’d find some new way out of the safe haven that was our yard, running out into the drunk driver-filled streets in an attempt to escape the noise. Every year we’d track him down, take him home, figure out how he’d gotten out and fix the problem, and every year he found a new way out. Really, it’s a miracle he never got hit by a car or lemminged his way off a cliff.

Our other dog was Spats. She’d been given that name (again, by my dad) because the had these little white patches on the tops of her paws that looked like the things people in the days of The Great Gatsby would wear over their shoes. We’d gotten her as a puppy when I was still basically a baby myself, and she was my best friend in the entire world. She was a big dog, half black lab and half dalmatian, and she was the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. She used to kind of act as the brain for both herself and Opus; I can only imagine how much more trouble he would have gotten himself into without her being there.

Anyway, on this particular morning, both dogs were standing out on the patio, having shunned the relative shelter of their doghouses to look in through the doors and garner pity. Opus was particularly effective at this; when he got wet, he went from looking fluffy to... I feel like bedraggled is the most appropriate word, but it doesn’t really seem to show the magnitude of his appearance.

Opus was right up against the glass, his soaked fur hanging off of his body, and whining. His whine was unlike any other noise I have ever heard. It sounded a bit like a regular dog whine, if the dog were on helium, and dragging one paw claws-out down a blackboard while scraping the other across a window. It was both painful and pity-generating, and it could not be tuned out. How was three-year-old me supposed to just ignore that?

Add to that Spats, who was just sitting innocently outside the window. Well, sitting and staring at me with a look that seemed to say I trusted you, I keep this dumbass safe for you, I even let you put that ridiculous bandana on me a few weeks ago, and this is how you repay me? I felt as though she were Julius Caesar and I was Brutus, mid-stab. I had to make this right somehow. I owed her that much.

“Dad?” I said, putting on my most convincing little kid “gimme” whine.

“Yeah?” He said, the sighing undertone he always seems to have when he deals with me present in full force.

“We should let the dogs in.” My grasp of diplomacy was not the best, and I was still in the phase where I was convinced that my parents would do whatever I told them to. “They’re wet and sad. They want to be inside.”

My father looked at the two soaked canines, one of whom (Opus, of course) had just decided to take a break from whining to run out into the massive puddle that was our yard and jump around for a minute. He then looked at where the kitchen’s linoleum met the carpet, which he’d had professionally cleaned less than a week prior. “No, Drew. They’ll track mud all over the house.”

I kept trying, but I made no further progress with him. After he made me breakfast, he headed out; he had a meeting at church, and would be gone for several hours. My mom walked in from her office, sitting down at the table with me. I looked back at the window. Spats was still gazing forlornly in my direction. I couldn’t let her down. I wouldn’t let her down. My best friend was counting on me, and I had to prove myself worthy of her trust.

“Mom?” The “gimme” voice was getting a workout today.


I looked out at the window, checking to be sure Opus wasn’t going to weaken my efforts. Seeing that he had returned to his vigil next to Spats, I turned back to my mom. “We should let the dogs in so they can dry off.”

My mother protested, pointing out that they lived outside and they might track mud in. I was undaunted. I would not fail again. Eventually, she caved.

“Fine. They can come in, but I’m blocking them in the kitchen with chairs so they can’t track mud all over the place.” This was fine by me. While I didn’t realize this at the time, history teaches that appeasement is seldom a good strategy when someone makes a grab for power, a lesson my mom would soon learn.

Soon enough, a barrier was erected, and the door opened. With a cacophonous scrabbling of paws on linoleum and jingling dog tags, the two ran into the kitchen, grateful for the shelter. The phone rang, and my mother got up, returning to her office to take the call.

All my life, I’ve had a really short attention span, and it began to take its toll at this point. Now that I’d finished my breakfast, the kitchen held no appeal for me. I wanted to go watch TV in my parents room, but I couldn’t very well leave my four-legged comrades behind, could I?

No, I decided. We’d been through too much together for me to abandon them now. Instead, I simply moved one of the chairs out of the way, planning to sneak past mom’s office door and down to my parents’ bed to see what cartoons I could find. Then, of course, I could-

Before my plan had even had time to take shape, the dogs had taken action, becoming black-and-white blurs as they sprinted down the hallway, leaping easily onto my parents’ bed and proceeding to wrestle and make a great deal more noise. I ran down the hall after them, hoping I could quiet them down before my mom found out, but I was too late.

As I ran past her office, I could hear her telling whoever she was talking to that she’d need to call them back. She then sprinted into her bedroom, breaking up the brawl and grabbing both dogs roughly by the collars as she took them back into the kitchen. Once she’d set the barrier back into place, she turned her attention to me. I’m sure she only actually yelled at me for a few seconds, but apparently even that was enough to cross a line with my toddler-aged self.

In the moment, I simply nodded, crying and apologizing very convincingly. Beneath my penitent, sorrowful exterior, however, I was already trying to figure out how best to end her in what had just become a vendetta. A short while later, I got my chance.

As I’ve mentioned, our backyard tended to overflow when it rained. In an attempt to fix this problem, my mom went out into the backyard to remove any leaves that might have been blocking the drains. She left the door open, just in case the dogs needed to come back outside. Expecting to only be out there for a minute or two, she had neglected to bring an umbrella or her house keys. Everything was falling into place.

I walked back into the kitchen nonchalantly, pretending to be interested in something near our hideous harvest-gold-colored stove. As I got closer to the door, I put my plan into motion. She didn’t seem to hear as I slid the door shut, but the loud click of the lock certainly got her attention.

She walked over to the door, yelling for me to open it, but by that point I was already in motion, enacting Phase 2 of my plan. I ran to the front door, knowing that I was probably racing her there. The dogs took off through the gap I left in the chair-wall, heading right back to my parents’ waterbed.

No sooner had I slid the deadbolt into place than I heard my mother try the knob before sighing and knocking. Now I had her right where I wanted her, and it was time to twist the knife. After she finished hammering on the door,  I moved right up next to it and, in the most polite, even, and innocent tone I could manage, cheerily asked “who is it?”

“You know DAMN WELL who it is! Open this door NOW.” It was at this point that my emotions shifted from the triumph of victory to the realization that not only was she eventually going to get back into the house, she was going to be pissed off when she did so. I immediately abandoned my mutinous revolution, running back down to her room and hurriedly shepherding the dogs back into the kitchen. Then, I was faced with a quandary. On the one hand, the longer I left her out there, the angrier my mother would get. On the other, she’d still be plenty angry if I let her in now.

The realization that my dad’s meeting would probably be over soon was what forced me to make a decision. My heart heavy in anticipation of my imminent punishment, I slid the deadbolt back out of the way, opening the door to let her back in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Packing Up

I wrote this a few years ago, at the end of my freshman year. Reflecting on it now, I don't like how preachy it gets in several places; that's a quality I think I'm glad is less prominent in later things I write. I also think I'm getting a little less pretentious in my word choices, but I can't be as confident on that point. Furthermore, parts of this kind of make me seem like I'm a crazy person. This is true, but I like to think my crazy has changed form with time. Anyway, here you go:

In all of my life's experience (which, I admit, is rather limited), I have only rarely felt as melancholy and nostalgic as I do now that I'm packing up and preparing to leave my freshman dorm room. Even as I decide what to store, what to throw into the almost inevitably overstuffed suitcases I'm bringing home for the summer, and what to dispose of, it seems that almost everything I've kept over this year reminds me of something significant to me, good or bad.

To start, the textbooks (mostly being sold or donated). Some, like the hulking behemoths of biology and calculus textbooks, remind me of a first academic semester that drove me almost to my breaking point. I spent God only knows how many hours poring over those books in an attempt to gain understanding, and it did me no good. I made it out of that term by the skin of my teeth.

Yet, even as I think back to the repeated disappointments that were my midterm grades, I am also reminded of the positive aspects of that harrowing time. Had I not realized just how ill-suited I was to the requisite courses expected of anyone majoring in Bio, I would never have broken from my pattern of unflinchingly sticking to my own plans, even as they became more and more obviously ill-suited to the situation as it was evolving. I don't have to declare a major until the end of the next academic year, and I doubt I'll be fully set on one even then.

I doubt I'll find it very difficult to get rid of those books; they were of immeasurable value to me as the catalysts responsible for starting my transition into being a more flexible person, but they've served their purpose with regards to me. Hopefully, they'll help some other freshman either reaffirm their confidence or shake their faith enough to inspire a needed self-examination.

I next turned my attention to my small set of "first-aid" supplies: A box of band-aids (one of which was used over the course of the entire year), a bottle of nasal decongestant (never used), and two small bottles of ibuprofen for headaches (each of which has been emptied and refilled several times). This again hearkens back to the way I was before this year: I tried to plan out every possible contingency and work out how to get the result I thought I wanted in spite of them. I'm still like this to some extent; Every decision I make, and most of what I say, is carefully thought out and designed to get me what I want with the minimal amount of negative fallout. But in the past, these plans all fit into one overreaching strategy: I was going to end up working at a zoo, living in a nice apartment, and in a committed, long-term relationship, all on my own terms.

Now, realizing how little of my future I can control in the present, I try to take things on a more case by case basis. I still put way too much thought behind most of my life, but I'm just trying to make the next few minutes, hours, or days better, instead of trying to make my entire life fit into a very demanding frame. Sure, I'm likely to add to my first-aid collection when I come back (some basic cold and flu meds are certainly called for), but it's not because I'm afraid of being thrown off-course by injury or illness; I acknowledge that these problems are inevitable, but I also realize that, whatever shape my life is in when I get sick or hurt, it'll definitely help for me to be able to minimize the degree to which such conditions hamper me.

Having condemned my medicines to their cardboard prison, my gaze falls upon my modest collection of DVDs and computer games. Again, these are symptomatic of my condition as it has evolved; almost all of them were purchased in my first semester, when I had no better way to spend my lesiure time. It was hard adjusting to being one of only a handful of people I'd ever met before here, especially because I wasn't particularly close with any of the people I knew here.

While I do forget it occasionally, I generally try to be aware of how difficult to deal with I am. It can't really be helped; it's in my nature to be a sarcastic, unbearable jerk. When I first got here, though, that was only part of the problem. I have a relatively small comfort zone when it comes to picking friends. Generally speaking, I am most comfortable around people who are somewhat similar to me: intelligent, more likely to know some obscure sci-fi or fantasy reference than who's playing in the Super Bowl this year, and uncomfortable around strangers.

This made adjusting to a large collegiate student body incredibly difficult. My high school graduating class was less than 500 students, and the entire student population was under 2,000. Even there, having gone to the same middle school as many of my peers, I had never spoken more than a few words in passing to around half of the people I now consider to be my best friends until we were stuck in the same classes senior year. Suddenly, I was just one face in a sea of over 13,000 undergraduate students at Cornell, most of whom were (understandably) not of the sort I'm comfortable around.

Even when I met someone who potentially shared some of my interests, I had problems. For example, the boy in the room one door down and across the hall (I think his name was Caleb) just packed up the last of his things and checked out. He was one of a few people on my hall I really think I could have been friends with. Unfortunately for me, I overcompensated for my caustic personality, never pursuing friendships with my neighbors(one of whom was friends with my one of my best friends' roommate at another school), or most of the dozens of people I saw in passing and thought I could possibly be friends with. Whatever part of my mind was in charge of those decisions evidently decided it was better to remain distant instead of risking frightening them off for good. We could have been good friends, but now I'll never know because I was afraid.

Looking at my bed as I prepare to strip the bedding, I am reminded of the number of vulnerable moments I found myself in over the course of the year. From my near-breakdown first semester over academic pressure and having an impossible time making friends to hours of staring at the blank white ceiling and trying to figure out how I could alter my grand plan to still attain the same results, I usually found myself worrying up until the moment I lapsed into sleep.

There were periods in this year, even once I'd started getting things moving in a positive direction, where I couldn't talk to anyone from home without a tremor in my voice. I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, and an AP Psychology course I took last year taught me that all manner of fun mental disorders first manifested at around age 18. Every time I started to feel overwhelmed, I worried that it would be the start of a complete warping and stunting of my mental faculties, be it through an anxiety attack or schizophrenia. As far as I know, it hasn't happened yet, but it's something that's still present in the back of my mind.

Not everything brings back a negative memory, though; as I try to figure out how I'm going to fit my myriad hats into suitcases destined to be filled to the brim, I remember working on what turned out to be a nonsensical, confusing skit for Japanese class. The audience might not have understood what went one, but it didn't matter, because in the process of writing and memorizing that ludicrous script, I laughed more than I had for weeks beforehand. The overarching memories of this year may be of anxiety, confusion, and sorrow, but they are constantly interrupted by moments of joy and contentment.

There are certainly many things about this year that I'll treasure for a long time: absurd arguments about Jesus' viability as a presidential candidate, my first games of telephone pictionary and mafia (incidentally, both took place on the same day), studying for japanese tests, playing (and sucking) at DDR, running into a friend I hadn't seen in months at what passes for a mall in Ithaca, and countless other things.

A lot of these memories don't have material foci in my room, which I think illustrates the most important advice one can give a prospective college freshman: GET OUT OF YOUR DORM ROOM AND DO THINGS. It's advice I received before coming here, but I cast it aside and assumed that the fun times would come knocking on my door. Unfortunately, the fun times don't knock, because they're busy being fun for the people who aren't huddled over their computers in their rooms. You have to go to them, and while it may seem daunting, words can't even begin to express how worth it it is, even if you get shot down a couple of times.

All I ever got out of staying in my room was loneliness and the occasional bout of self-loathing. Sure, maybe you're self-sufficient enough to manage on your own, but that's what I thought, and nothing could have been further from the truth. You've got nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by branching out.