Confessions of a Failed Eco-Warrior

When I reminisce about my childhood, it comes as a surprise to even myself that much of it was spent outdoors. It may not seem likely now, given my antisocial tendencies, aversion to sunlight, and glasses that make me look like I haven’t left the house for a decade, but that’s beside the point. When my sisters and I were younger, we loved to play outside. And not in a casual sense- in that completely manic, unhinged fashion that kids who go out of their way to roll around in unidentified puddles and decorate themselves in decaying foliage for the questionable aesthetic love it.
To be fair, this passion for being outside wasn’t so much a conscious decision, rather than the only alternative to our dad’s slew of well-intended attempts to broaden our intellectual horizons. This was something he did often, with various projects including, but not limited to: learning binary code, memorizing at least one poem a week from a heinous little maroon book I still have nightmares about, and repeatedly reciting all of the names and dates of the U.S. presidents.
(To this day, I’m disappointed that someone hasn’t yet run up to me in the street and shouted, “If you can’t tell me who the 14th president of the United States was and when he served, I’m going to attack this farmer’s market,” or something like that. If you were wondering, the answer is Franklin Pierce, 1853-1857. There. Now you, too, have information that could potentially be crucial- or not.)
The newest addition to this cycle of learning was having my sisters and I study the French language. In addition to suffering through the completion of various workbooks, our dad thought it would be a great idea to have the three of us repeatedly watch movies in French.
An indistinguishable period of time went by where I’m pretty sure I did not watch a single film at home in my native language. Maybe it was a month, maybe a year. Either way, it was excruciating. Apparently, this was supposed to “expose us to the language early,” but instead of learning French, eight-year-old-me just learned how to read lips. While at the time, this was a devious circumvention of my dad’s cunning plan, today; my current French major self is now paying the price for my ignorance.
In response to this latest parenting kick, my sisters and I gleefully resisted by playing outside every chance we got. There weren’t any French speakers in the real world! And when we left our house, the whole universe was at our fingertips. Being outdoors was thrilling, full of adventure, and allowed us to get away with things we never could have dreamed of while being inside.
There were puddles to jump in! Dead animals to poke! And bushes behind which we could kick the crap out of each other without our parents knowing! It was like heaven.

Now, right behind our little white suburban house, there was a field. Naturally, my sister Miranda and I, the self-proclaimed “creative ones,” named it- The Field. Catchy, right? This was before the days of completely fenced-in yards, and we could walk straight out of the backyard past the failing garden that our dad was eternally convinced would be successful “next season” into the seemingly endless expanse of nature beyond.
In retrospect, I can look back and admit that The Field was honestly less of a field, and more of a scrubby wasteland where that one neighbor kept losing his golf balls, and where I would “forget” to return the recovered balls back to him, instead adding them to a ever-growing pile I had hidden in my garage.
Approximately eighty percent of this field was just mud, barely anything grew there, and there were towering mountains of litter from teenagers who snuck in to get wasted surrounded by a picturesque atmosphere (Beer bottles: bad for the environment, great for us clueless suburban kids who needed props to play “Little House on the Prairie” with).
Despite the rusty trampoline that almost definitely could’ve given any one of us tetanus, and the constant faint aroma of a gently rotting mole carcass, my sisters and I adored that hellhole. It served as the canvas for some of our most inspired adventures: Dinosaur Hunters: Extreme! Medieval Space Jousting, and something kind of like live action Barbie Dreamhouse, except with more explosions and yelling. The Field was our home, and we loved it more than anywhere else in the world.
Sometime around the end of my uninspiring elementary school career, there arose a challenge to our unquestioned sovereignty over The Field: Corporate America. Some loser had finally decided to buy the expanse of land behind our neighborhood and convert it into a place to sell RV’s.
Now, I didn’t know what an RV was, but I was pretty sure that unless it stood for “Rad Velociraptors,” then it was probably some major bad news. Miranda and I asked our parents to explain what was going on, and they did so in what I assume was a calm and informed manner. The specifics of the memory remain hazy, but the emotions I felt are just as clear now as they were then.
Despite my parents’ levelheaded assessment of the situation, all I was hearing were the Kill Bill sirens. We were going to lose our clubhouse! All the years of avoiding academic enrichment by escaping to the local marsh were behind us! And what was going to happen to that dead rabbit I had been observing? -For science, of course…
I broke out of my anguished internal monologue to pay attention to what was happening in real time. Happily noting that Miranda seemed to be as upset as I was, I began to slip back into my own comfortable suit of self-righteousness and pity when I heard where Miranda’s true concerns lay. Two simple words: The Environment.
I blinked. What the hell? This was an issue far removed from my own thoughts. And it wasn’t even my dad talking about this dull, grown-up issue. It was my nine-year-old sister, with tears in her eyes, asking a rather adult question about “industrialization” and “the negative effects of air pollution caused by RV’s.”
Jeez, I had only just learned what an RV was two minutes ago, and there my little sister was, actually caring about an important issue… And totally showing me up. Needless to say, I was pissed.
Being the kind of bossy, borderline asshole kid that I was, I decided to try and regain control of the situation. Miranda wasn’t going to outshine my concern for The Field! I was older than she was! I was braver than she was! I was… not taller than she was! But still!
I considered myself the de facto leader of the ragged band of neighborhood kids who tended to hang out in The Field. After all, I decided what we were playing on most of the days, and I constantly drew inspiration from courageous characters such as Harry Potter and Mulan in order to fill out my own (somewhat lacking) personality! And, most importantly, I had just seen a specific movie that was relevant to the situation at hand (this one not in French): Hoot.
For those of you who have no clue of what I’m talking about, Hoot was that one book-slash-movie about suburban kids who band together in order to stop an evil corporation from building on a plot of land that contains some sort of species of endangered owl… or something. I don’t remember the specifics- I watched it a decade ago, and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia for the sake of a few more of my bad jokes.

The point is, I had watched this movie about two weeks prior to the newest development in my life, and decided that I would use it as the inspiration for my newest harebrained scheme. Like the protagonist in the film, I would rally together a group of neighborhood misfits, employ a mixture of low-key vandalism and campaigning for local environmental awareness, and ultimately save the day! Maybe I would even score a lukewarm heterosexual romantic subplot in the process! Although I was pretty sure that the kids in the movie never actually managed to stop the developers, that small detail didn’t matter! It would work for me.
Although this was Baby’s First Day as an Environmentalist, I didn’t let that dissuade me from acting like I knew way more about the situation than I actually did, as was my M.O. I told Miranda about my plan, with the same self-assured voice in which I had once informed her that it was a certainty that if we sat on our bunk beds for long enough, and hoped hard enough, we would definitely be able to wish ourselves into the storylines of our favorite books. Even though my sister was definitely aware that I was pretty much a professional bullshit artist, and that at least ninety percent of what I said at any given moment was verifiably false, she cared enough about the environment to play along with my terrible idea. And thus was born the legendary campaign of Stupid Suburban Kids versus Capitalism.
We began our plans that same night, me as a really lame version of Alexander the Great dragging my troops (well, siblings) into The Field to find anything we could try to screw up for the developers. Turns out, there honestly wasn’t much to do. We unearthed a few posts marking out different zones for buildings, attempted to pull away some plastic-y red banners attached to fences, and kicked around a few significant-looking rocks. All this did was probably scare a couple of local rabbits, and potentially confuse an underpaid laborer who was assigned to the hideous task of taking exact measurements in a field that only the very youngest and dumbest people in our neighborhood dared to enter. But I was convinced that we were Making Strides, and headed home feeling very proud of our less-than-mediocre work.
That night, I lay awake thinking of all of the different possibilities our protection of nature could lead to. At the very least, I would achieve bragging rights the next school year when my class went around in a circle to share One Interesting Thing We Did Last Summer. Maybe we would even get in the newspaper, which was A Very Big Deal to me, as my best friend had once made the news for raising money to help build a school for girls in Africa, and this was totally cooler than that, right? Of course it was.

Unfortunately, when I was formulating my plan, I had failed to take one crucial detail into account: Nobody actually cared. The Field was important to me and my two sisters, and potentially a couple of other kids in the neighborhood who we would occasionally annoy into playing with us. The adults just saw it as a hazard, and the development of the area was probably a big relief to parents who didn’t want their kids constantly wandering into uncharted territory and coming back with feet they had cut on what they thought was an eggshell, but was actually shards of glass (True story). At least there would now be a giant fence cutting children off from dangerous adventures, and I guess it was a bonus to any families in the area who were looking into investing in a camper (Traitors). But the point was, contrary to what I had hoped, there was no nationwide outcry against the construction. We were simply the only ones who gave a shit.

The final straw came after a week or so of us inflicting relatively innocuous vandalism against the building site, with the addition of a small, harmless looking chalk X drawn on part of our backyard’s fence.  Miranda, after seeing it, became enraged, and hopped the fence in order to try and scrape it off. I remember cheering her on as she vigorously wiped at it, fired up by all of the action that was occurring. We were like superheroes! Nothing could stop us from protecting our neighborhood! We were the Avengers, which meant I was basically Captain America, and-
The arrival of our confused looking father halted the ongoing ruckus in its tracks, and he swiftly pulled Miranda away from her task. He asked us what the hell was going on (in politer terms, probably), and as I got ready to boast about our noble crusade against big business and the evils of capitalism, Miranda suddenly burst into tears, stopping me right in my tracks.
I didn’t know how to deal with crying when it wasn’t a calculated act perpetrated by myself in order to get something I wanted, and the action of viewing genuine emotion made me feel intensely uncomfortable. My dad, quickly understanding that this was probably My Fault (as per usual), sent me away while he tried to calm Miranda down. So, naturally, I went to sulk on the swing set while pretending not to eavesdrop on their conversation.
What I heard, however, caused the queasy feeling in my stomach to turn into full-fledged guilt as I listened to Miranda sob to my dad about how unfair it all was. Some faceless company was destroying a whole patch of nature in order to make room for something that would damage the surrounding environment in the long run. None of it made sense to her, and she didn’t understand how everyone around us didn’t care as deeply as she did.
That night, she learned a tough lesson- Caring doesn’t necessarily equate to concrete results. As a kid, it’s a heavy thing to realize, and it hit Miranda full force with the weight of the loss of a childhood safe space. There are a few moments that I recognize as being crucial to our shared adolescence, and this was definitely one of them- but it impacted us in different ways.
While Miranda was learning that caring deeply about an issue doesn’t always solve it, I was struck by how genuinely she did care- and how little I did in comparison. This entire time, she had been passionate about a major issue, and actively sought out ways to solve the problem, while I just looked for ways to be the center of attention. It was a sobering thought- my little sister had approached the matter in a far more mature and compassionate way than I could have ever hoped to. This behavior was representative of many other events in our childhood, and I felt like a tool for only just realizing it.
Unfortunately, I probably only pondered this epiphany for thirty seconds, before deciding to just repress it and move on. We didn’t need a fort outside- there were bugs there, and we wouldn’t be able to be outside very much in the winter anyway. Instead, I would just get my sisters to help me build a fort in the basement! It was better real estate, and we would have an easier time decorating it- The Field was a nightmare to attempt any sort of interior design in. Yeah, that was a good solution. Problem solved.

Today, I can look back on this memory and realize that it was at least a major catalyst for Miranda, who now studies environmental science and has been passionate about conservation ever since. It’s nice to know that some people are able to learn from a formative experience and create a better future for others because of it. Even if the other half of us probably learned nothing from the same event, other than how to smuggle their cool rock collection from under a bush to a corner of their basement. But that’s neither here nor there.
If anything else, my brief stint on the front lines of environmentalism taught me that it’s probably best to leave the facts to people who actually know what they’re talking about, and to not wedge myself into the forefront of an issue of which I am completely ignorant. Instead, I’ll sit back and lend my support while letting those who are truly sincere lead the troops. And, if anyone needs me-

I’ll be in my blanket fort in the basement.


Zen and the Art of Laptop Protection

I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk yesterday, but luckily my face broke the fall. Better my nose get smashed than the thousand dollar computer in my bag- as a college student, looks are trivial, and such an insignificant thing as a facial deformity can be overcome, but this MacBook Air with a fourteen inch screen is basically worth more than my own soul.

The strange double standard that surrounds the cult of materialism on campuses like UB comes glaring through clearly in this moment, kind of like a particularly bright ray of sunshine, if that ray were weighed down by the depressing reality of capitalism and my bleeding nose.

The institution known as our Scholastic Administration (all hail) encourages college students to obtain the kind of Zen known only to Buddhist monks- as the highly anticipated Next Generation, we should be striving to Improve Society and move beyond such petty things as worldly goods. A college that bleeds us dry for over twenty grand a year smilingly tells us to embrace this poverty, as apparently, it will better us as people or something. So, we rise to this challenge- just like those Buddhist monks, we are educated, we are trying to achieve inner peace, and we can’t scrape together the cash to buy a new pair of shoes.

And, in order to achieve the education that apparently will make us Adult enough to function in the Real World (Wherever that is- I haven’t taken Geography yet) your typical college student forks over a terrifying amount of money for additional materials such as a five hundred dollar textbook written by the professor they’re already taking that same class with (Shameless self plugging meets the consumer economy? Neat!), or as already mentioned, a computer worth several months in rent.

But fear not! This machine, in fact, is essential for Very Important collegiate activities like typing up papers, sending urgent e-mails, and playing online Solitaire in that one class we all hate and think that the professor doesn’t notice what we’re doing. (Spoiler alert: they totally notice. They just care even less than we do.)

Besides, that game of Solitaire will prove an excellent distraction for those lonely nights on which I’m all alone, my appearance rivaling the Phantom of the Opera’s, no person brave enough to face my hideousness due to the rescue of my computer from an icy doom. (Although, to be honest, my missing nose still probably won’t stop a hypothetical sexual assault… Go figure. There is no upside to this situation.)

But, as it is, students end up placing much more stock in the materials required to achieve our mythical educations than the actual act of learning itself- In order to earn the money to buy the objects to get the degree (this is starting to sound a lot like a line from Into the Woods), students often work ridiculous hours and jobs to scrape together the cash to buy everything that they need.

I, myself, once upon a hideous semester, in order to afford the many textbooks I needed, took the three AM opening shift at a classically depressing Tim Horton’s for five months straight.

“I’ll be fine,” I remember myself confidently proclaiming. “Remember how I stayed up until five AM binge-watching Criminal Minds that one time? It’ll be just like that- who needs sleep? Sleep is for the weak. This’ll be great!”

It was not “great.” I was working at a time when the denizens of the freak-o-verse were all out and about, lurking under flickering streetlights, reminiscent of zombies from the garbage horror films that I refuse to watch on principle. The lights from the 7-11 across the street pulsated with an ominous glow, highlighting numerous shadows that approximated the shapes of Lovecraftian monsters. I was way out of my depth.

As I nervously hoped that the weirdos who even came to a Tim Horton’s before dawn weren’t violent psychopaths, I began imagining myself as a victim on the slab in a scene of the television show I had once so avidly watched. Matthew Gray Gubler’s character stared dispassionately down at my mangled corpse, and cracked a witty one liner. I wanted to say “Nice one,” but I was very dead, and unable to reply. And since I was dead, I couldn’t even get his number to give to my sister. Bummer.

I realized that imagining this fictional scenario was just making me even more nervous, so I paused and attempted to take the situation a bit more seriously. Wasn’t this how people like me, oblivious and barely five feet tall (well, five two in my tallest boots) died? I briefly wondered if my dog would miss me.

Even as I was assaulted by the imagined scenarios and eldritch horrors my anxiety-ridden brain kept coming up with, the fact remained that I was just incredibly bored. The lack of real conversation at the job was really getting to me- I’d gladly die at the hands of a Hannibal Lecter as long as it meant that I could hear anything intelligent at all.

Seriously. If I heard the word “bagel” pronounced “bag-uhl” (you heathens know who you are) one more time, I was going to actually jump into the back room’s gigantic double boiler and embrace my death with open arms. At least if I was dead, I’d get some rest- because the real kicker in this situation was the lack of sleep I was getting.

Funnily enough, when you don’t sleep, you become something society likes to call “Pretty Tired.” Or, as I like to call it, “I-haven’t-slept-in-like-three-days-and-this-is-the-fifth-cup-of-coffee-I’ve-had-in-an-hour-wow-I’m-pretty-sure-I’ve-transcended-into-another-plane-of-existence-at-this-point-I’m-entirely-fueled-by-espresso-and-rage-holy-shit-was-that-a-ghost-I-just-saw Tired.”

And, obviously, this level of exhaustion was actually impeding my learning process, which I should have figured out in advance- along with the fact that I’m definitely not as indestructible as I like to think I am.

But I thought I was invulnerable, just like my fellow students, who fall into the same sort of tiger pit that this mindset is on a daily basis. And so, college kids keep on taking outrageous jobs to earn money to pay for school, even though it most likely will negatively impact their quality of education. Despite this reality, we keep running into that wall over and over again.

The vicious cycle is reminiscent of a never-ending cartoon chase, the overly cheerful soundtrack warbling along in the background of our lives as we pursue the ideals of Wealth and Education with the blind obsession of a dog running after the promise of a milk bone. I mean, at least that dog gets to sleep all day, for God’s sake.

And just like with that dog, it is probably unwise to try and rationally explain to college students lofty concepts like time management and moderation. We just won’t understand- we all think we’re invincible, and, of course, we still have to be able to afford those fifteen textbooks a semester.

So while I may be half-dead from lack of sleep, unable to pay for anything beyond the bare minimum of required materials, and currently lying on the sidewalk with a bruised face, at least my goddamn computer is safe.

The Procrastinator’s Tale

I stare at the white, blinking screen in front of me. The flashing cursor presents a problem with its never-ending, steadfast rhythm. (Sidebar: I’m a twenty-year-old English major. How the hell can I still not spell rhythm without autocorrect?) The cursor knows what its place in this world is; that smug pixelated line has everything figured out. All it has to do is flash in and out of existence consistently- one job, and all the time in the world to do it. Plus, it probably doesn’t have to pay taxes.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting here, unable to put two coherent words together without getting distracted by the incredibly ugly shirt of the guy walking past me. “Wicked lied to you,” I think. “Pink does not go good with green.” The student somehow does not pick up on the opinion I am trying to beam his way, and continues obliviously on. My computer screen remains, however, glowing at me accusingly. I sigh, and type one word. The.

“Okay. Good start,” I assure myself. “Every piece of writing has to begin with a single word, although I guess the is a bit boring. There are so many fantastic words in the English language, but you can’t really start a piece with a word as complicated as tintinnabulation…” (my personal favorite), “…Or could I…?”

Three taps, and my one scrap of progress has disappeared. My soul shrieks in existential despair, and my ancient computer’s definitely laughing at me- or maybe that’s just the Pop Rocks I’m pretty sure got in the fan a few weeks ago. Either way, it’s been an eternity (or maybe five minutes), and my page is once again completely blank.

“Is this how Sisyphus feels?” I wonder, and then immediately feel like a pretentious loser for thinking the word Sisyphus in conjunction with an internal rant on modern technology and my own inability to be disciplined while writing. I then briefly contemplate whether Sisyphus would mind trading spots with me for a while. I’d gladly take a few hours of fruitlessly pushing a rock up a hill if it meant I could turn off my brain and get away from this computer. Plus, sightseeing in the underworld? Hell to the yes.

Although personally entertaining, my easily sidetracked thoughts are what parents and teachers alike have consistently told me for many years are Not Conducive to a Productive Work Atmosphere. I squint at the blank page, trying to get my thought process back on track (wherever that is). I strongly suspect that my mind has not been on track for anything since the moment I was born.

Every torturous second I spend staring at the glow emanating from this screen seems to suck away any motivation I may have had to write in the first place. It’s like I’m slowly peeling off one of my precious Star Wars Band-Aids, my ideas and textual examples slipping away bit by bit with a similar amount of slight discomfort.

Okay. Wow. That was a really bad metaphor. What kind of an excuse for an English major am I, anyway? I should just stop, drop out of university, and travel the Southwest in a 70’s style hippie van. To be fair, it wouldn’t surprise a single one of the people I went to high school with. And the long hours coupled with not being able to shower for long stretches of time would definitely be an improvement over this essay that is shockingly not writing itself. (Rude.) And it doesn’t have to be the Southwest- I could run away to anywhere!

Fifteen minutes later, and with approximately seven different tabs opened to sites describing the potential lifestyle and living costs of becoming a hermit in the Himalayan Mountains, I decide to scrap this particular backup plan. Although born and raised in Buffalo, I’m absolute crap at dealing with cold weather, and, besides, goats seem to be weirdly expensive to raise. Also, apparently, there’s no HBO in the mountains. So. There you have it.

But as soon as I move back to the Dreaded Empty Word Document (a name that sounds like it could have been cut from the Lord of The Rings screenplay for being too heavy-handed), another roadblock slams into place. This time, it’s music related, as many of my favorite methods of distraction are.

The Looney Tunes theme starts going through my mind. To be clear, I have never seen Looney Tunes, and I have no idea what the theme really sounds like. But whatever the actual song is, it almost definitely sounds like the distracted, off-key marching band music my piece-of-junk brain is making up at this moment. It just seems like something a bunch of poorly animated chickens would dance along to, which, in my opinion, is the basis for what cartoon theme music usually sounds like.

Right around this particular stage of my rapidly devolving mental state, I realize that my paper just isn’t going to get done right now. I quickly flip through the five stages of grief in my head, the way in which I usually come to and justify my myriad of poorly made decisions.

First, I fall headlong into the comforting embrace of Denial. “Let’s think about this rationally,” I hear. “If you drive home right now and start, you can get this done. You’ve got some five-hour energy stored under your bed. Then, you can just inject espresso straight into your veins to make up for any lost time! If you write X amount of words per minute, with a five minute break built in for safety every time you write a page, you’ll have the assignment done by four AM! Wait, what’s this about sleep? Who’s Sleep? I’ve never met her!” These thoughts blur together with a high-pitched sound that I’ve only ever heard on my family’s decrepit VHS player, and my vision goes a little fuzzy.

Right on Denial’s heels, the always-productive Anger chooses this moment to make a dramatic entrance. “Are you kidding me? If you start drinking coffee now, you’ll just end up lying on your stomach in the kitchen at three in the morning, listening to the soundtrack from Pride and Prejudice, crying about Keira Knightley, and inexplicably surrounded by a dozen empty packs of fruit snacks. We’ve looked into that particular abyss, and I have no desire to ever be back there. Not a chance!” Well. They’ve got a point.

Bargaining attempts to soothe the divide between Denial and Anger. Since when did my brain become a deleted scene from Pixar’s Inside Out? “Stop being so extreme,” it says. This particular voice kind of sounds like my best friend, constantly worrying over my extreme emotional swings, and definitely the Mom Friend of the group. (In case you were wondering, Anger’s voice sounds like Danny DeVito.) “Just do half of the paper tonight at home, and then wake up at five tomorrow to finish it before class! It’s as simple and painless as that!” Everyone rolls their eyes at this.

Depression butts in. “Yeah, right. Once you go to sleep, that’s final. You’re not crawling from your fuzzy Deadpool blankets until the alarm that means you’re going to be at least fifteen minutes late to school rings. Just give up now, you human disaster.” I wince. Although accurate, I find this description of my morning routine a bit hurtful. Sometimes I make it to school only ten minutes late!

Finally, Acceptance gives a long-suffering sigh and ends the argument that my brain is having with itself. “Look. Just go home, clear your head, and write as much as you can before midnight. After that, anything you write is going to be crap. You have two hours in between your first class tomorrow and the period that it’s due. Finish it then- it may not be your best work, but at this point, just getting it done would be a blessing.” Everyone grumbles a bit, but they eventually retreat in anticipation of my next Academic Crisis of the Week. They probably won’t have to wait long.

Muttering a little to myself, I stand up and collect my things. A group of students looks at me warily as they pass, and I resist the overwhelming urge to snarl at them like Gollum. My weekly scheduled Public Breakdown isn’t until Friday, goddammit!

Finally, I stare right at the (still) blank screen of my computer. Right now, the blinking cursor looks less like it’s mocking me, and more like a challenge. “So,” it seems to say, “Are you gonna finish this?” I glare at it pointedly, come to a decision, and smile. I shut the computer and slide it into my bag. “Of course I am,” I think as I walk outside. “I’m pretty much the patron saint of procrastination. All this dramatic build-up wouldn’t be worth it if I never actually got my assignments done.” And although it may take a bit of time and a lot of increasingly strange and insipid distractions, I will finish it.

But first, I’ve got to go home and pet my dog…

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