Nipple Ring

A couple of years into college, I got a big itch that I just couldn’t scratch — I desperately wanted to travel and see the world.

It seemed that everyone around me was spreading their wings. My friends Terrell and “Grandma” had just completed a roadtrip that took them throughout United States and Canada. My ex-girlfriend Megan was somewhere in the Alps, playing her violin deep in the land of Mozart & Strauss. And Katie, the girl I was seeing at the time, disappeared at the height of our relationship in order to enjoy a European holiday, leaving me to pass the days wondering what things she was seeing that I wasn’t.

It took Katie many years to save for her trip. She would put away a paycheck here, a Christmas gift there, until it added up to the notable sum that allowed her to travel in comfort for well over a month. Every so often, she would send me postcards. One from Italy, with its sun-drenched image, seemed otherworldly and would make my heart ache in ways I never knew it could. The trip changed the way she looked at the world. It also changed the way she looked at me, as she broke up with me immediately after her return.

Although my soul yearned to travel, financial means to do so were themselves wanting. My parents were putting me through college at the time, but paying for my books and classes were all they could muster. It was left up to me to cover food and boarding, and when my mom & dad went through a financial crisis I soon found myself struggling to stay in school. I went from fifteen hours a semester down to nine, from working part-time to full-time, and my dream took a backseat to just getting by.

Every postcard I received from a friend overseas kicked up my wanderlust until I felt like I would die. Although I earned very little, I supressed the urge to spend that meager amount, and instead vowed to save ten percent of everything that came my way. Working extra hours, specifying cash as gifts, moving up to better jobs, selling CDs, and donating plasma — everything I could spare went into a savings account whose purpose was to help me achieve my destiny. It would be four long years before I was able to step foot outside my country and live my dream of seeing Europe.

Man, I wanted a tattoo something fierce!

Everyone else in art school had one except for me. Perpetual indecisiveness, coupled with a fear of making a wrong decision that I couldn’t erase, kept me from settling on a design. I would visit tattoo parlors across the state, browse around books of amazing art, then walk away. I attempted to use my own artistic talents, but my creativity dried up like an empty ink well. Nothing but 100% assurance that I was making the right choice would ever make my tattoo a reality.

Some of my inked neighbors at Bruce Hall offered some advice: Find some black-and-white drawings that I like, tape them up around my bathroom mirror, then look at them each day, morning and night. Then, if several weeks passed and I was still fascinated by what I saw, signs were favorable that I wouldn’t be disappointed with having one of the images as a permanent tattoo.

Their advice was great, but many months passed without any results. Weeks of seeing the drawings around my mirror began to annoy me, and soon they were all in the trash. My skin remained tabula rasa.

It was around this time I met Wade. Wade was a “dude”, a skinny stick topped with a shaggy mop of blonde hair. He had a habit of walking around in various states of nudity — most days, it meant only being shirtless, although there were times when his exposed bits brushed up against a misdemeanor.

Upstairs, Wade was a couple cans short of a six-pack. Catching him in any complicated loop of thought or questioning would cause him to pause and stare into space, a sign that his mind was in the middle of performing a reboot. He was that unique blend of personality whose silliness could make you enjoy your job as his resident assistant, but who kept reminding you of that job as he constantly broke the rules.

One day, in my room two doors down, I could hear amazingly powerful music coming from Wade’s room. I grabbing my resident assistant badge and clipboard then headed down the hall to do my duty. Wade opened up the door and performed the routine actions of turning down the stereo, apologizing for the noise, and handing me his ID, all without me having to ask.

From the waist up, Wade was his usual naked self except for one accessory. On his left nipple hung a gleaming ring of surgical steel. I had written him up just the week before and it wasn’t there. “Dude, where did that come from?”, I said.

In his surfer drawl, he said, “Man, it’s brand-new! Got it at a party last night! Doesn’t it kick ass?!”

I had to admit, yes. Yes, it did.

I had spent the past year working as a student assistant, a step above my old position of resident assistant, being groomed for continued advancement within the profession of student administration. That same year had seen me slave away in an art studio, building up my portfolio during the final stretch before the senior review, a tense and grueling process where my professors gave the thumbs-up that was prerequiste to graduation. Such activity took its toll on my immune system, taking me down in mid-Spring with a mild case of pneumonia. I recovered, passed the review, and graduated college. Now was time to enjoy the culmination for such an amazing year — it was time to take the trip to Europe which had obsessed me for so long.

For close to four years, I had been dutifully forwarding any extra money I stumbled upon to my childhood savings account in Minnesota. Far away from temptation and spending urges, the money waited for the day it would be withdrawn, convert it into colorful European banknotes, and like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed spread it amongst the Old World and sow some memories.

The trip would begin almost immediately after graduation and span nearly a month. I wasn’t going alone — my best friend Jim and mutual friend Monica would be making the journey. Flying first to England, we were to wander about, stumbling into odd corners of the countryside between Edinburgh, Salisbury, London, and the cliffs of Dover. After several days, we would travel to Paris and spend the final two weeks of our vacation cheering on the United States Men’s National Soccer Team in their valiant struggle against the rest of the planet during that year’s World Cup.

The timing worked well, except for one problem — at the same time as my vacation were several weeks of hall director interviews, which didn’t commence until after I was overseas. Being a hall director was the next step in my career path, a position where I would be given the responsibility to guide a community of nearly 500 students and employees. I had been lucky to serve under a great role model of a hall director — Jim. I admired not only his care for students, but also his resilience in the face of departmental politics. If I could be half the professional he was, I felt I had the chance to be a good hall director. Many people I worked with felt the same and were excited to know I was interviewing.

The selection committee hoped to complete their work and hire candidates before I returned. Knowing my circumstances, they were flexible enough to conduct my interview before I left. Although the hiring deadline occurred halfway through my trip, Kathy, the head of the selection committee, took down my overseas email, phone, and address and promised to tell me the results directly. I did my interview, and immediate feedback was that I did quite well. Everyone said the job was mine to lose.

Bookended by college graduation before and my future job afterwards, this trip would likely be my last time to relax before I was to grow up and join the world of professionals. Now, it was time to go see the world…finally!

It was the final week of our European trip. The British isles were far behind us, and Paris surrounded us with all its romantic glory. Soon I would be home then, if all went well, working as a hall director.

For the entire past month, we basked in the calming side-effect of being completely inaccessible using modern means. While in England, we stayed at tiny bed-and-breakfast establishments where one considered themselves lucky just to have a bathroom, let alone an internet connection. Our accommodations were slightly more stable in France, where we stayed at the same hotel for two straight weeks, giving us access to at least had a telephone. Sure, there was the pesky little matter of a language barrier between us and the locals, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be cured by some reciprocal rudeness on our part.

Besides simplicity, there was also mystery to our situation. Noone back home knew exactly where I was on this planet except for Kathy, the head of the hall director selection committee. Before I left Denton, I had explained the above-mentioned positional chaos I would be swimming in and provided her with my hotel’s telephone number. Since her committee planned to make their decisions during the time I was to be in Paris, the timing of this portion of our trip would work out quite well.

My interview rarely came to mind while in England, but arriving in Paris heralded the final stage of my vacation and made it seem very real. Like a kid who had saved up box tops and mailed them off for a skeleton key advertised in a comic book, I eagerly returned to the hotel each night hoping there would be a message from Kathy containing my expected congratulations. But the days passed, and eventually there were just two more days before it was time to return home. Kathy hadn’t called yet, and I began to fret. Did I give her the wrong phone number? Had something gone wrong back home?

Monica, a member of the “younger generation”, was squirming from lack of connection to the outside world. She had an itch that could only be scratched by plugging back into the internet, even if just for a little while. I thought it would be a good idea to check my email to see if Kathy tried to reach me there. So we flipped through our well-worn travel guide, found a cyber-cafe, and hopped in a cab.

By the time we reached our destination, it was nighttime and the famed lights of Paris were glowing all about us, giving everything a creamy cast and dramatic contrast. Like most of the city, the cafe was a mixture of old and new — dark mahoghany tables and incandescent lights mingled with the sleek computers and glowing monitors, all of which was blanketed in a murmur of various accents. Luckily, the manager-on-duty spoke a little English and we were soon able to secure a single computer for the two of us.

Being the gracious southern gentleman my momma raised me to be, I let Monica check her email first. When it was my turn, I sat at the computer then had to remember how to log in, it had been so long! Once I connected and opened up my email client, my inbox was clogged with messages. In the sea of subject lines, one quickly caught my attention — it was titled “Please welcome our new Hall Directors”. Just seeing those words made my heart skip in excitement.

Then it stopped cold when I read email itself.

The email was from Kathy. It began with flourishes of speech on behalf of the committee, about how hard it was to choose from so many qualified candidates, etc. I scrolled down past all of this to the heart of the matter. There it was, the list of new hires, and my name was not on it.

I reread the email to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I looked through the rest of my inbox to see if there were any other messages from Kathy, which there weren’t. This couldn’t be possible, I thought. People told me that I was a sure thing. What went wrong? What did I miss? And why didn’t Kathy call to tell me the results directly, like she promised?

Drowning in a sea of jumbled thoughts, my brain began to swim inside of my skull. I felt hot and clammy, and the stuffiness of the cafe seemed to increase like an preheating oven. I got up to head outside and get some fresh air, but my knees decided to rebel and buckle beneath me. I was beginning to faint. Monica popped up to grab me before something happened. She had read over my shoulder and was an eyewitness to the shattering of my life. She eased me back down into the chair and tried to calm me down.

And there I was — an American in Paris, flat broke and jobless.

After I came back to the states in mid-June, not much time passed before my now-former coworkers started treating me like a social pariah. Much work was needed to prepare for the upcoming fall semester, and they didn’t have time to feel sorry that I wasn’t part of their staff. Once jovial buddies were now walking on eggshells around me, afraid to bring up the sore subject of my rejection, and I began to feel I didn’t belong. While Jim did his best to not be a part of that group, he had a new assistant hall director to bring up to speed. Besides, it was in his best interest to not show too much favoritism towards his best friend’s plight.

Thanks to my month-long European adventure, my financial situation was dire. I had blown much of my money overseas because of an assumption that a job was waiting for me upon my return.

During the 13 hour flight home, I passed time practicing some math. I kept performing the following equation over and over in my mind, hoping that its outcome would somehow change by the hundredth time: what is the result when you add “Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting” with “only fifty bucks to my name” and “no qualifications for any job in the real world”? At the ripe old age of 25, I was facing what all artists brush up against at least once during their lifetime: total destruction. If something didn’t change, that same fifty dollars was the only thing preventing me from sinking into depression and fear.

Word had gotten around to Kathy that I was back in Denton, and she wanted to meet with me to personally explain the hall director selection committee’s reasons for passing on my candidacy. While I agreed to meet with her the next day, I wasn’t expecting much.

The night before the meeting, I was sharing a drink with my friends Natalie and Annabelle. Natalie was a quallty buddy during that rough time, with one foot in the Department of Housing and the other firmly grounded in the “outside world”. This meant that I could trust her to listen and understand my plight. Also, she was buying that night, so all the better.

Beer lubricated my logic enough that I came up with a crazy idea. What difference did make whether I had $50 or nothing to my name, so why not go ahead and blow it all? Then I’d truly be an artist: dead broke and on the path to destitution. Somehow I thought of Wade, my old resident years ago, and that the idea of having a nipple ring never left my mind. I also knew that Natalie and Annabelle had been thinking of getting their belly buttons pierced. “All of us should get something pierced right now!” I said.

So down we immediately went to Oak Lawn, to the piercing pagoda known as Obscurities. While browsing the display cabinets for an appropriate bauble, a heavily-tattooed employee asked if I needed any help. To this dude I bared my soul and told him the whole story of the past few weeks, including how I was down to my last few bucks and wanted to blow it here tonight. Fair enough, he said as he agreed to make whatever I had left the price for that evening’s work.

All four of us went into a back room. I took off my shirt and laid down on the table. The slight draft took care of massaging my nipples into glass-cutters. With a Sharpie, the dude drew little black dots on opposite sides of my left-side nipple. Then he produced a thin needle, which had a 14-gauge ring of surgical steel threaded onto it. He lightly placed its sharp end against a dot. With a calmness befitting a true surgeon, he quietly and swiftly shoved the needle through one side of my nipple and out the other.

There wasn’t any pain. In its place was my breath literally being taken away, as I felt my flesh collapse to the sensation of being stabbed. Like a crusty French bread, my nipple initially resisted the needle’s pressure. But like a Dutch dike, it gave up and allowed passage, the power of the thrust being like a hot knife through butter. It was over almost as quickly as it began, and the dude was cleaning up his tools before my brain even began to register it.

While I was still soaking in adrenaline, he asked me to hop up and check myself out. I walked over to the mirror, took in the sight before me, and found that I couldn’t stop grinning. If only Wade could see me now. Natalie stepped up, with shock and awe etched into her face. “Holy shit, dude!” she said. “You got a ring through your nipple!”

I had to admit, yes. Yes, I did.

When I awoke the next day, euphoria and adrenaline had been replaced by equal measures of pain and puss.

The dude who pierced my nipple had explained the maintenance required to promote swift healing. Every morning, I must massage a fragrance-free antibacterial soap around my piercing, then turn the ring both clockwise and counter-clockwise to work sudsy goodness throughout the inside. On top of that, four times a day I must marinate my nipple in a painful solution of warm water and sea salt, which was most easily accomplished by lying on the bed and holding a plastic cup firm enough against my chest to prevent drips. Lots of details, yes, but all I could think about that morning was the throbbing in my chest and conclude, “I suppose there’s no easy way to take a self-inflicted stab wound.”

Salinating my vestigal organs would need to take a back seat, as that morning I was scheduled to meet with Kathy and learn why I was passed over by the hall director selection committee. I wasn’t looking forward to it. In fact, I expected the meeting to be nothing more than a kick in the crotch. Sure, I would learn why I wasn’t hired, and perhaps the lessons I learned would help me before the next time I interview for a job. But anything Kathy said couldn’t change the fact that I was now officially broke, a state of being which can only be measured by my recent venture to Sack-n-Save and balking at the thought of paying a buck for only 6 bricks of ramen! Nevertheless, I got cleaned up and went to meet my destiny.

I walked over to Crumley Hall, where Kathy lived and worked as hall director. She was a person of boundless energy, so much so that it crackled out of her every gesture, smile, and word. So much jittery intensity radiated from her that we often joked that she was a “crack baby”. Before I had left for Europe, Kathy and I had a cordial relationship. Now I was angry and wanted answers to how my professional life had become so derailed.

Kathy had wanted to meet with me more than I did with her. As head of the selection committee, she was privy to the discussions on each candidate, and depending on the outcome she had the pleasure or burden of being the messenger. It was her email that floored me in that Parisian café. Kathy started our meeting with an unprompted apology for the way things were handled. She had tried to reach me in Paris yet couldn’t. The committee couldn’t wait for me to return, as other candidates, their future staff, and the entire campus community needed to know who was hired. She had to send out the email that almost knocked me to the floor. But Kathy didn’t want to send a separate email to me explaining what happened — she (rightly) felt that I deserved to hear such answers face-to-face.

I learned why I wasn’t selected, and the news was hard to swallow. Despite my creativity, energy, people-skills, and record of hard work, the committee felt I was lacking in maturity. In their eyes, I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of leading a building of 400 residents and two dozen staff members. In other words, I needed to grow up. The whole time Kathy spoke, I winced as my shirt brushed against the raw nipple.

Kathy then surprised me by informing me of her transfer to West Hall. Located on the far west side of UNT and barely a part of campus, West Hall was a traditional discipline problem because of its all-male freshman population. Kathy had volunteered to transfer there and take up the challenge of turning around the hall’s culture. To do this, she needed two strong assistant hall directors, which were already in place. One of them would be Norman, a former resident assistant at that same building. The other would be Don, an outside hire from Pennsylvania whom I hadn’t met yet. To round out her team, Kathy needed a competent person to serve as front desk clerk and whip the administrative operations into shape.

It was then that she offered me the job.

I was speechless, so Kathy explained her reasoning. In her eyes, I was on the cusp of being ready for the hall director position. Being her desk clerk would allow me to stay connected to the Department of Housing. If I took this job and applied the lessons I just learned, she felt the next time I was interviewed by the selection committee they would be foolish not to hire me. So despite a committee of my peers feeling I wasn’t up to snuff, this one person had faith in my potential and wanted to makes others see it.

I was so happy that I felt like crying. I accepted the position. That evening, I drove down to Southlake to have dinner with my parents. And thanks to Kathy, I had some good news to bring home.

After the meal, we did our customary hanging out at the dining room table, my parents enjoying post-dinner smokes and drinks while I downed a beer. We were talking about all sorts of subjects when the topic drifted to the youth of today. And out of the blue, my dad pontificated to me, “Better not get your ear pierced. I don’t want any of that faggot shit around the house.”

My heart was racing! Surely he was making a random comment, right? Dad had no idea of what I had done the previous evening. And he never would.

My secrecy on that topic was an interesting analogy to the way I changed because of the last month’s events. Somewhere between my graduation and now, I lost some measure of my trust in others. Before I left the States, I trusted those who told me that interviews were a formality and that I was assured of the job. I trusted co-workers until they treated me like an outsider upon my return. And although I wanted to trust Kathy, I felt that I was best served by keeping my cards close to my vest for the rest of my life. Sure, I’d take her job, work hard, and improve myself. And the next time hall director interviews came around, I would show them what they missed out on first time. And maybe, if they’re lucky, I’ll take that job, too. Any every time I looked at my nipple ring, I thought that I wasn’t about to fail ever again in my life.

Right before Halloween, my shift at the West Hall front desk was just about to end when the telephone rang.

It was Tara, an old friend and head of the current hall director selection committee. Earlier in the month, I had once again gone before that group and bared my soul through another round of interviews. Unlike my previous experience applying for that job, I didn’t go into–or come out of–that process with anywhere near the same level of confidence. Tara promptly got down to business and asked, “How would you like to be a hall director?”

I had been waiting for most of the year to be asked that question. Thankfully, she couldn’t see the goofy grin that was breaking out on my face. I responded yes, that would be great. As she talked, I could hear in her voice the pride of being the one to share such news with me. Tara went on to tell me that I would start in December, and that I would be staffed at Bruce Hall, working under its hall director Jim. The latter news was surprising. Although Jim was having issues with his current assistant, a recently-hired co-worker whose performance had been underwhelming, for me to be staffed there meant they were being reassigned or let go.

Although I had to wander a professional purgatory for the past semester, it was worth it. I had grown in many ways, learned new perspectives, and met many new friends. And I would reap multiple rewards: confirmation from my co-workers that I was good enough to be one of them, a return to my favorite dormitory, and working once again with my best friend.

We were getting the band back together!

It was hard for me not to smile.

Eighth Times the Charm

On a scorching day in August 1992, I was sitting with my mother on a stout concrete wall outside of Bruce Hall, waiting for the building to open and move into my home away from home for the first time.

I wasn’t alone outside, as quite a number of other students loitered about the front entrance. I passed the time by observing some of my fellow freshman. Sitting across from me was one of the loudest country bumpkins I’d ever heard — a beanpole of a boy crowned with a Gilligan hat, his face decorated with freckles and a goofy grin that seemed permanently etched on his face. He spoke with the thickest country accent this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I remember thinking that I’d feel sorry for whoever is stuck with him as a roommate.

Around this time, the front door was unlocked and the staff welcomed us inside. Mother and I went through a gauntlet of paperwork required to get my key, then we went upstairs to inspect my new new room — and call dibs on the bottom bunk. While inspecting the room and completing paperwork, I heard that familiar loud twang once again. But instead of being across from me, it was now directly behind me. “Well, you must’a be my roomie!”

I turned to look, and there was that freckle-faced kid that I made fun of — my first college roommate Greg.

Greg was from Lewisville and was majoring in jazz performance. He played saxophone and led a life of 24-7 music. His dream was to hook up with a band and become successful as soon as possible. Down the hall were another pair of newly-paired roommates, Mark and James. After a few weeks, Greg and Mark were fast buddies, James and I had discovered some common interests, and eventually we swapped roommates. Greg moved out, James moved in, and I was now on my second roommate. Almost immediately, Greg dropped out of school to take up with a travelling country band. Mark was now in a private room and James was my second roommate.

As a roommate, James was interesting (insert understatement here). He was older than me yet still only a freshman. He was also a very public drug user — oftentimes I would return to the room while he was in the middle of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out during one of his routine acid trips.

During the semester, James met a Maple Street Hall freshman named Karen. As he got to know her, he discovered that she and her roommate were not getting along. So James invited Karen to move into our single-sex dorm room without asking me first. Then again, I wouldn’t have objected — after all, what horny 18-year-freshman wouldn’t want a cute freshman chickee sharing his living space? So in less than a semester, I was now on Roommate #3.

Despite such behavior, James and I got along well. I learned that he was a philosophy major with minors in psychology and Japanese. I also found out that his ultimate plan was to get a job in Hawaii as a therapist to Japanese tourists as a cover for perscribing drugs to himself.

To satisfy his minor, James utlized me as an unknowning subject for his psychological experiments. Many people confirmed that while I was out cold sleeping, James would pull a chair up to my bedside, lean close to my ear, and whisper over and over, “Matthew, you’re a cucumber. You’re a cucumber.” His primary goal was to convince me I was indeed a cucumber — once that mission was accomplished, he would start whispering, “Matthew, you hate cucumbers!” until I started to hate myself.

I never saw James read a textbook, but he was a prodigious reader. His private library consisted of such anti-establishment authors as Timothy Leary, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Robert Anton Wilson, and J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. He both worshipped and feared the Illuminati, living in a constant state of paranoia.

James was convinced that the CIA was reading his email, so he would send them encrypted — and never tell the receipients how to decrypt such messages. Because of that, my inbox would fill with gibberish.

He didn’t maintain a P.O. Box at the student union — instead, he used “The Dumpster Behind Sack n’ Save, Denton, TX 76201” as the return address on his mail. In the city phone book, his number was listed under the pseudonym “Frodo Baggins.”

As the school year ended, Karen moved out and back to her parent’s house. As for Mr. Government-Is-Out-To-Get-Me, James did the only sensible thing: he enlisted with the Air Force. I never saw him again. As for what he’s up to now, my guess is that he was discharged from the military, signed up with the CIA, and is now spying on himself for the rest of his life.

Photo credit: Reaper the Simpsons

Professor Edward J. Coomes (1929-2004)

Professor Ed Coomes Reclining in a ChairThe other day, I received my university’s alumni magazine. And as is my normal routine, I flipped to the obituary section in the back and scanned for recognizable names. And there it was–a name that I had expected to show up for quite awhile, ever since I bore witness to his frail yet vibrant academic wizardry five years earlier. Professor Ed Coomes had passed away.

It’s hard to describe the impact that he had on me. In brief, he changed my life and probably didn’t even know it. And in full, I don’t think I could ever stop writing about the times he amused and challenged me.

When I first went off to college, I decided to major in my greatest talent, which was art. Junior and senior high school were nothing but an extended studio class, and I produced a rich portfolio of comic-book art. My dream was to work for Marvel Comics, drawing brawny superheroes and their buxom female cohorts.

As time went on, I found out that I did not have “The Right Stuff” in terms of passion and talent, and that a living in art would be hard and ultimately frustrating. Unfortunately for me, the timing of my epiphany was proving lousy, since I was near the sunset of my undergraduate career. But I will never regret my art education, for it exposed me to large amounts of art history and criticism, and in turn this awakened the passion I’d had for history since my childhood.

As a kid, I devoured all sorts of history and fact books–at one time, I even read the World Book Encyclopedia cover-to-cover. And throughout high school, I was a persistent presence in the local library, reading whatever I could find about medieval England and the ancient Mediterranean world. And since all majors require a minor, soon enough I was pursing history as one of my many minors, and in the fall 1997 semester I was enrolled in a Greek civilization class.

Day one came, and I took my customary place in the back of the classroom where I could get away with the murder of doodling in the margins of my 5-subject notebook should the discussion prove boring. Around me were a dozen quiet, well-tanned students, fresh from the summer and perhaps too relaxed for their own good. I laugh knowing now about the hurricane that would soon sweep over them!

The calm was abruptly halted, as the classroom door smashed open and a gruff, deep voice boomed, “Good morning, scholars!” Marching into the room was one of the oldest, shortest men I’ve ever encountered. His arms bore a stack of overstuffed manila folders–it was my guess that this stack was as tall as the man himself. It was hard to judge this for sure, because the second he walked into the door, before he ever reached the podium, he was already beginning his lecture. Pencils scratched furiously, papers flipped violently, as we struggled to keep up with the crazy old man. And this continued well beyond the allotted class time–the suffering ended only when an exasperated student was successful in penetrating the lecturer’s oratory and bringing to his attention that class ended five minutes earlier.

This, ladies and gentleman, was Mr. Coomes.

By the end of that first day, I was tired and frustrated, feeling that the old man was spewing voluminous detail only to serve his ego. I would drown in useless minutiae instead of learning useful facts. I remember talking to Jim about my first week of class. I explained in detail the insanity that greeted me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:00am, and how I feared that my teacher could keel over any second from a heart attack. And when I dropped his name, Jim’s eyes widened. “Coomes? Ed Coomes?! He’s still alive?!” I came to find out that Jim had Mr. Coomes for a teacher nearly a decade earlier, and back then he had made the same observations I had.

By the end of the second day, I thought he was eccentric. When in need of a piece of caulk, he’d often fumble instead with a pack of cigarettes, and each of his spoken words would count down the seconds until class would end, he could rush outside, then inhale that sweet, mild Chesterfield flavor. And then there was the in-class debate I had with him that involved Celtic civilization, the island of Atlantis, the element phosphorous, exploding glass tubes, nuclear Armageddon, Wooten Hall, and alien cockroach visitors from Alpha Centauri. I shit you not.

But by the third, I was hooked. The epic amount of notes became common-place, and afterwards I could focus on the minutiae of his lectures. I learned to write Greek and to think of my own reasons for the Peloponnesian Wars and not just what Hammond says. And when I took his history of Nazi Germany course, I was in awe of the scope of history and how events far beyond our lifetime influence the events of today–the class began with Tacitus in 70 A.D. and culminated with the fall of Berlin only a day before dead week that semester.

Despite his eccentric nature, the tendency to deviate from history lecture to social commentary, and the stress of reading and writing in ways that I had never experienced before, by the last days of our teacher-student relationship I was addicted to scholarship and completely sold on this gentleman into academia. Someday, I hope to complete a doctoral degree and have a teaching style akin to that of Mr. Coomes: articulate, detailed, full of concern for the whole story, and aware of perspectives besides those of the victors. Mr. Coomes might not have remembered me in the way that I recall him, for I was likely one of the many semi-anonymous students to have revolved through his world–to him, I was probably one of the many people that he knew only as “scholar” but respectively just as equally. I’ll miss the crazy man!

Photo credit: North Texan

Chocolate Éclair

Back in the day, before the dark times, before the Empire, I was a troglodyte working to support my university’s residence life system. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I was a resident assistant, living a life of butcher paper signs, happy markers, and 7-day meal plans. It was actually a great job, largely because of the bounty of wealthy personalities which surrounded me. But back in those days, I tended to get easily frustrated and was more prone to anger — often this would cause me problems, but every now and then led to an interesting story like this one.

Every semester, all RAs were mandated to return weeks earlier than the residents so that we might undergo residence life training (or RLT). The training itself wasn’t bad — from time to time we would learn something new. Unfortunately, when it came to training, the wheel was reinvented each semester — the training schedule and presentation were a joint production between the full-time housing staff and the RAs, where the administrators would allow the RAs to help design the training — this was done with the hope that the ownership they take in it will also produce attention and retention. Not a bad plan, but if a particular schedule or presentation method worked well one year, it was scrapped the next. Things would change because they could change, not because they should, if that makes sense. And because of this, I was fried each semester in terms of knowing where to be when.

One morning in training, I was just getting started with the day and heading off for the scheduled 8am breakfast across campus. I’m accompanied by a fellow RA named Rob, who is the kind of guy that when he smiles his eyes disappear amongst great protruding happy cheeks. This was one of the many reasons he was known by the moniker Casper.

As we were heading out, we pass a gaggle of coworkers walking away from the cafeteria to which we were heading! We stop to talk and find out we had misunderstood the schedule: breakfast was actually an hour earlier, and 8am was when training started. Our stomachs were fucked. Rob and I were pissed and hungry, but we went with our fellow RAs for it would be bad to miss training (in other words, our salary would dip from $50 every two weeks to zilch).

My friends and family know that Matthew is an early-rising, grumpy piece of shit when he hasn’t had his first cup o’ morning joe. So before we entered remedial hell, Rob and I decided to make a quick pit stop along the way at the local Mecca, 7-Eleven.

Inside, I grabbed the standard coffee, stuffed an exquisite chocolate éclair into a plastic bag and hopped in line. I found myself mentally aware of just how much time was passing in direct proportion to the lack of speed in the queue leading up to the cash register. And while standing there, I bore witness to a remarkable change in the fabric of the universe. The laws of physics suddenly ceased to exist — either the molecular bonds of my bag cast away any positive-negative attraction to one another, and the mass of my frosted delicacy took a serendipitous climb. In other words, the bag was a piece of crap, had a defect or hole in the bottom, and out came tumbling my once-and-future breakfast.

We were late for training. This made me on edge enough as it is without watching my nourishment tumble away. Tense and in a rush, in frustration I muttered, “Damn it!”

And it was then that I met something of a guardian angel, albeit one clad in a red-and-green polyester vest instead of the traditional white robe. The 7-Eleven checkout lady was an older woman with a pleasant demeanor who heard my cursing. She quickly jumped in to ease the situation by saying, “Oh honey! Don’t you worry about that! In fact, you go get a new one. Everything will be OK — as long as you promise not to swear.”

I was stunned — never once had I married the concepts of “24-hour convenience store” and “social manners” (nowadays, that is probably in the top 100 Google searches). I stared, blinked like a cartoon character, and then silently went back to the pantry to fetch another pastry.

Soon, things would get worse in Ms. Emily Post’s ecosystem, thanks to me. I had another éclair, nested in one hand while I willed the other paw to fish out a new plastic bag from the nearby dispenser. It was a clumsy affair, as the bags were packed quite tight in the box and would not easily come out. I wiggled to and fro, back and forth, with scant success. So I figured that if I gave my bag a swift yank, it would become free quite cleanly.

Yank! Next thing you know, bags are flying throughout the air all over the aisle. At this point, I am now later for training. Later = tenser. Frustration mounted as I grabbed the edge of the counter, and in a textbook moment of angst I boom out my favorite exclamation of frustration at the time, “Fuck me up the ass!”

Just as quickly, I’m then tapped on the shoulder — I turn to see grandma checkout clerk, who then proceeds to slap me and dish out a stern, “If only you were 20 years younger I’d spank you into three days from now” look. I’m frozen in shock. Meanwhile, my silent witness Rob is literally on the floor of the opposite corner laughing his ass off. I assume that he was smiling enough that his eyes again disappeared.

We both go to checkout, and the clerk is giving us some life-is-a-box-of-chocolates crap in an attempt to make us see how insignificant chocolate éclairs are to the whole of life (apparently she isn’t aware of the butterfly effect). We stare, blinking often, soaking it up in silence. Rob and I then leave, and it wasn’t until we were halfway to our training location that we looked at one another and joked, “What the hell just happened'”

Later that day, Rob and I encountered another RA which set us off like you wouldn’t believe. And we became frustrated enough with him to walk out of training altogether that day. And when we were outside again, late for training again, we look at one another and silently agree that the solution to our anger is, “Let’s go talk to ‘mom’.”

We head back to the 7-Eleven — but the lady that helped us was no longer at work that morning. And to be honest, we would never see her again.

Could she have been a guardian angel, trying to curb my habit of over-swearing?

Shit, I hope not.

Photo credit: Bundy

Emily Wagner

Last night, I was watering my pitiful plants, most of which have been suffering slowly this winter from a wicked combination of cold drafts and terrible light. I started off my stint in east Dallas with over a dozen plants. I’m down to six now, with only half of that semi-dozen being worthy enough to be called “hardy”.

While soaking the soil, I thought about the days when my apartment looked like Stephen King in “Creepshow”. It seemed like every nook and cranny was bathed in sunlight or chlorophyll, and how helpful such warmth was to me at the time. I was still suffering from a terrible heartbreak, and it was around that time that I met a girl named Emily.

I have seen Emily only four times in my life. She was just a sophomore when we first met, during her interviews for a resident assistant position. During her first interview, it was one of just a handful of times where I saw time slow down enough for me to fully absorb the person I was encountering. Emily was young, beautiful, a swimmer on the college team–;and equally entranced by me.

I had the opportunity to interview her a second time and the magic continued. Lucky for both of us, she was offered a position at Kerr Hall.

The third time I saw her was the day I left Denton for Austin. I had Kilgore packed to the brim with the last of my Austin-bound load and was making final rounds to each building. Walking out of my last stop, Kerr Hall, with every intention of hitting the road and never looking back, I encounter a girl walking up to the building. Once again, it’s Emily and we get the opportunity to converse outside the stressful formalism that envelops job interviews. We talked, and then hugged, got each other’s email addresses, and away I went.

Inevitably, we struck up a conversation over the internet, being sucked into talks during the work day that kept us around the office well past 5 on a regular basis. Then one week, the hot water was cranked within our conversation as we confessed how we felt about each other. And how was that? Not love, not lust, just a longing to explore what made each other seem so great.

So a great idea was hatched –; Emily would come down to Austin to visit. And down she came. And it would be the last time I ever saw her.

Like a good guest, she brought gifts for her host. The most important of them was the weekend of wonderful friendship we shared. I don’t think the events needs to be recounted, but anyone who believes in their heart can imagine how sweet and right the weekend felt.

The other gift she brought was a symbol, the most- appropriate gift I have likely ever received. It was a houseplant to add to my collection. I never knew the scientific name for it, but the plant was a wonderfully lush specimen which was very hardy. And over the years I have done my best to keep the plant alive –; I saw the plant as a symbol of what I was fortunate enough to share with Emily, and I wanted to make the plant happy no matter what.

In Austin, the plant thrived. In North Dallas, it grew well. But in the area I live now, near downtown Dallas, it suffered terribly. The fatal blow came when Bob and I acquired two kittens, who proceeded to destroy the plant in the span of minutes. Now nothing is left of the plant except for memories, and it’s similar to how Emily disappeared out of my life.

I wish I had a picture of her — unfortunately when you search for her name on the internet, you get a whole bunch of stuff about art and film, mediums which cannot capture her brilliance. I can only hope she is as happy now as she made me then. I’m sorry the plant died, Emily. Believe me, I wouldn’t write a post like this about any other plant I have.

Update: …then suddenly out of the blue, in the textbook definition of coincidence, I find Emily on instant messenger today. And like I had hoped, she is happy. An amazing small world once again!