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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