Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Story of University ( Details Never Before Told!)

I've lived online for more than thirty of my almost fifty years.

When I left the booming metropolis of Ingersoll for Waterloo back in 1990, I felt more than a little like Tom Wolfe's creation Charlotte Simmons. I remember, in that vivid way the brain reserves for memories like this one, riffling through my "welcome to Mac 2 West" package and discovering a condom. I had no idea what it was, so I asked my mother, who blanched noticeably and stammered out that it was a "prophylactic". Seeing her face, I knew better than to ask for clarification. 

I've told the story before, but it's worth sharing why she was already on edge: King's College students had plastered several of the overpasses on the 401 outside town with signs like 'THANK YOU FATHERS FOR YOUR VIRGIN DAUGHTERS'. This was the first year that my university, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (the University of Waterloo's kid brother, and UW students made sure you remembered that)-- this was the first year they "regrettably" outlawed  panty raids. Pretty sure the women in Clara Conrad didn't regret that one bit. 

The atmosphere in Macdonald House was alien to the likes of me. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as on random Days Of Debauchery such as St Patty's and, oh, yes, never forget Oktoberfest, that atmosphere was only suitable for alcohol-breathing lifeforms. Sex was everywhere. One guy a couple doors down from me made a point of parading the entire dorm through his room so we could all check out the semen stain he had given birth to on his mattress. (It was suitably impressive, I suppose, if you're in to that sort of thing. It certainly did look more like six or seven guys had a circlejerk.) On a balmy night in mid-October, I was awakened at 3am by a melee of people on the common, chanting "fuck her good, fuck her hard". There was indeed a couple in a tree, engaged in congress of a sexual na--in fucking. At three in the morning, in a tree that can NOT have been comfortable, with a substantial audience. Pssst: come (heh-heh) inside, there's this nice bed two doors down from me..

And then there was the Greek.

His name was Jimmy something, I think, but we all just called him the Greek. I think he called himself the Greek. Like many of my dorm-mates, he liked to bed women. I'm pretty sure sex and drinking are the only reasons many of these people came to Laurier: one guy at the end of the hallway (Mike? I think? It's been thirty years) dropped out after Christmas. I wish I had followed him. I was not suited for this kind of life at all. 

My roommate, Jason, wasn't either. But unlike me, he knew what he had signed up for going in. He purposely arranged all his classes so as to have Friday-Saturday-Sunday off, and he went home to Ingersoll on all but one or two weekends. I wish I had followed him. University life was barely tolerable Mondays through Wednesdays. It was beyond awful every other night. Especially if you liked sleep. 

Jay was therefore absent on this Saturday night. The Greek was doing decidedly un-Greek things to his latest conquest, and she was enjoying his ministrations. Loudly and in a very distinct rhythm. When the headboard started supplying syncopation, I scurried over to Jay's side of the room, grabbed Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, slid it in and fast-forwarded it to the cannonade. Then I turned the speaker around against the wall and cranked it.

It worked perfectly. The Greek high-fived me the next morning.

I got a job working nights at McDonald's, reasoning that if I was going to be awake anyway, I may as well get paid for it. That was the beginning of the end of my university career: The end of the end just took a while in coming. 

There was a room -- I can barely recall it except it had a computer in it. The computer I remember, because I spent a lot of time at it. Not online, not yet: "online" was barely a word, and I wouldn't discover USENET for another year. No, I used WordPerfect on that computer to write out my miseries. I'd often stay in that room on my nights off, all night long, revelling in one of the quietest places on campus. 

One day somebody told me about telnet.

So help me dog, I was actually confused: why would you want access to another computer when everything you could ever need was already on the machine in front of you? Oh, Ken, you sweet, sweet summer child. 

The first place I discovered was something called ISCABBS: the University of Iowa's Student Computer Association's bulletin board system. It functioned a lot like how Reddit does today, obviously on a much smaller scale: a collection of rooms where you could discuss whatever the room's topic was, and a private messaging system that lookd like a pure text version of Messenger.  It was on ISCA where I first learned how to chat with five people at once (and the unique horror of sending one of those people, the WRONG one of those people, a sexually explicit message). It was on ISCA where I met "Belamour", whose real name was Kate. Kate somehow managed to contact my mother to tell her that she, Kate, was going to buy me a plane ticket to come see her and once I did that I was likely not coming back. This was all news to me. Of course I cut all contact as soon as I found out.

I had an actual, live, flesh-and-blood girlfriend not long after. Like everything else in that environment, she was all wrong for me. But I did find a use for that "prophylactic" in January 1991, three weeks before my 19th birthday. That was one of the more nonplussing experiences of my life. I had been culturally conditioned to regard "losing my virginity" as "becoming a man". I didn't feel like a man. I felt like a boy who had just had sex. 

McD's had cut my hours down to three a week. In response, I did something I'm still not proud of. I went on welfare.

This was Bob Rae's Ontario, when welfare paid better than work. Lynne and I were suddenly rich. Rich and guilty. Other people's sweat doesn't taste very sweet. I started at 7-Eleven less than three months later, again on nights. And that job destroyed me.

So did the classroom. First year was...okay, mostly. I was more than a little miffed to discover that I had paid sixteen hundred bucks in tuition to have professors read textbooks to me -- verbatim -- in more than one class. Textbooks that averaged eighty plus bucks apiece themselves. I zipped through the Pysch textbook in a few hours, then spent the rest of the term poring over material I had already learned. I was convinced, and remain firmly convinced, that liberal arts degrees (and more than a few others) are a colossal scam. There is nothing in university courses you can't get off Khan Academy for the cost of the Internet connection you already have. Except, of course, Khan Academy doesn't grant you the fabled credential. I can at least understand the cynicism of degree as product.

I never got the product. I only paid three of the four instalments.

This will likely not make sense to you. I had already been through three years of declining but still acceptable grades. (A- average in first year; B in second; the third year was when it really went to shit.) Why wouldn't I just stick it out one more year and get that credential and go live a respectable life?

Why didn't Jack spend a few hours separated from Rose in order to have the rest of a long life with her? 

These are mysteries. Basically, what I can tell you is that I couldn't take another minute. Another minute of being talked down to, another minute of being less than human because I had never published anything, another minute of the whole environment. I lived off campus in second year (technically): it was a thirty second run to get to campus and that house, like five others I have either lived in or loved in, has since been torn down to make room for skyscrapers. Some of the people followed me from first year. Remi, who was The Greek's room-mate, was one of them. It was a good house, but one of my housemates reminded me all too unpleasantly of the people in Mac 2 West majoring in Alcoholism, with a concentration in Projectile Vomiting). And of course I would have to venture into the boozy, testosterone-y haze that was campus on the daily. I 

Lynne and I exploded in second year, by far the worst breakup I have experienced.

I was still spending hours a day on ISCABBS, but another, much larger time-sink showed up: USENET.

USENET (which still exists, by the way) was even more like Reddit than ISCA was. A huge collection of "newsgroups" on basically every topic under the sun. There was no DM component but people would often converse in threads, and if they didn't do that, there was email. 

This place was bottomless, and I hit rock bottom looking for its bottom. If I told you how much time I spent on there you probably wouldn't believe me. Okay, here goes: at my worst, I averaged more than sixteen hours a day.

Scary, eh? Cocaine might have been less damaging. 

Some good did come out of it, before it got overwhelming. I was maybe "only" spending eight hours a day online on average when I "met" a woman named Cathy in the USENET group "soc.penpals". She was looking for friends: she found one. 

As our relationship deepened, the rest of my life was still a slow motion dumpster fire. At the time, I was living on the second floor of a large house in Uptown Waterloo. I began spending more and more time in the Lutheran Student House where Cathy lived. I'm still friends with one of her housemates -- a woman who met her partner on ISCABBS after I introduced her to it! 

More and more time, yes. I stopped paying the rent on the Allen St shithole and was living in LSH full time and rent free...for about six months. Then one night I went back to Allen St to retrieve something or other. Unlocked the door and was staring down the barrel of a gun.

I had keys to a house that was no longer my house in any way. All of my stuff had been disposed of when the house sold. Whatever I didn't have at Cathy's -- which, to be fair, was a pretty full wardrobe and hell, everything I REALLY needed -- everything else was gone forever.

I had completely ditched the whole idea of classes by this point. I think I went to four lectures in all of third year, and I didn't bother writing any of the final exams. The only reason I went on campus at all was to get in that computer room and log on, using Cathy's account because I no longer had one. I wrote a Korn shell program that ran to hundreds of lines, creating a whole text interface for both of us. Probably should have majored in computer science and not H.E.L.L. (Honours English Language and Literature). 

I lied through my teeth to everyone. I was just taking a year off, that was all, I needed a break. (I was already broken.) Of course I would go back and get my degree. These were all fictions I told just to keep the world away from me as I self-destructed.

I would never go back. The Laurier rent-a-cops were dead certain I was plotting to murder a professor (I'm not making this up! Story here) and while I wasn't, at all, I might if I ever had to see his phiz again. I would never have people trying to force booze down my throat.  I would never hear professors say "undergrad" like it was a sexually transmitted infection. And I would never live whatever life it was my parents imagined for me. Bereft of the credential, I simply exist. 

I could blame my parents: their zeal to get me out of the house was a bit unnerving, and I CLEARLY left home far too early. I could blame the residence environment for making it impossible to sleep at night. I do blame the professors and the whole "you sit, The Learned One Is About To Expound" model of university education. And of course I could blame the internet, which hooked me but good.

But ultimately? I blame myself, or I did. I've stopped in recent years: no point in it. I'm convinced everyone fucks up their twenties. I just did it better and more thoroughly than most.

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