Of Fiends and Fountain Drinks

conquer3In these times of financial difficulties (i.e. “Hey! Where’d all my money go?”), lifestyle changes are expected.  Many of my cousins upon graduating high school have shied away from out-of-state education, investing in used cars, gas stations and morning commutes from home; others have ignored the traditional college altogether, seeking apprenticeships in trade schools, community colleges, or donning their suits or aprons in the work force.  In the Murphey house, with several of the siblings already in college, expenses have been tight: fewer meals outside the house, more carpooling, and no unauthorized visits to the bookstore . . . unless somehow linked to another far-more-necessary errand such as picking up the kids from practice or restocking our dwindling supply of breath mints.  You know . . . essential stuff.

Yet even my weekly rations of manga and short-story anthologies must be curbed.  Barnes and Nobel employees find me staring longingly at the latest Bestsellers like a twelve-year old at a pet store.  No one seems to mind me petting the spines, but when I start chatting up the authors many of whom have been dead for centuries, someone typically comes and asks me to leave.  This never halts my conversations but out in the parking lot, people seem to mind less.

As with most problems, money is the issue.  Therefore, in order to satisfy my bibliomania I’ve curtailed other less-necessary addictions like eating (half-portions), gaming (goodbye WoW), and education (graduated . . . finally).  One final expense remains: raspberry iced tea.

No force on earth, save its total destruction (thus rendering this whole argument moot), can sate my hourly need for half-way decent tea.  Other men have their Starbucks and Bud Light; I have my Lipton.  I cannot change this.  What I can do is try to cut down on the cost of my caffeine, thus saving capital for more pressing addictions: books and comics.

Thus I put my college math to work for me.  Borders like many cafés offers refills on a few of their beverages for a discounted price (50 cents or so, not including tax). Therefore my $2.40 iced tea with a refill actually decreases to about a buck and half.  As the number of refills gradually increases – assuming of course the serendipitous occasion of finding myself at the bookstore all day – the average cost per cup will decrease to about fifty cents.  My costly obsession with caffeinated beverages might actually provide a useful everyday application to my high school calculus and save me money in the process.  A rare treat indeed!

After all, apart from simple arithmetic and remembering how to spell ‘cat,’ how often can we honestly admit using those high school factoids oh so necessary for our mid-terms and pre-lunch pop quizzes?  Without the aid of Wikipedia, the name of the 30th president, conversion of meters to inches, and forty or so state capitals are long forgotten, buried under years of academic trivia, for use only during reruns of Jeopardy or boring parties.  Thus, it’s a real pleasure when I can apply these archaic mental-nuggets for use in my daily life.

Back to the calculus.  Stopping at a red light I formulated the following equation:

(2.40 + x(.50)) / (1+x)                                      x = being the # of refills consumed

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Naturally the more I drink, the less spent per cup, offering more capital to invest in novels, Japanese comics, and the like.

Last Tuesday gave me the chance to test my theory.  The boys’ graduation practice ran a little longer and so I found myself with another hour at Borders to snoop through the shelves and tempt myself to some new fiction.  I managed to refill my cup three times, and as you can see from the graph, decreased the cost of my drink to nearly a buck.  With each delicious sip, I managed to steal the wealth of corporate America through some legal loophole.  I felt empowered, heroic like that weary young man, who upon returning from war and torture abroad built his keep among the trees, thieving spoils from the wealthy and distributing it to the destitute.  The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Yet all great ideas have their flaws.  Mine revealed itself half-way through my third cup while gazing at a polar bear peeking from the cover of a travel anthology.  My body twitched.  My breathing faltered.  I tried desperately not to think of flowing water, but row after row displayed rushing rapids, majestic waterfalls, and winding Amazonian rivers.  Instinctively my feet rushed me to the bathroom until my brain kicked in, reminding me of my half-filled cup, my sole source for more tea and economic superiority.

Alone without a Wingman, my options were limited.  Cutting my losses did not seem feasible; I had at least two more cups of tea left in me and another half-hour before I needed to don my chauffeur’s cap again. Carrying the cup inside the restroom likewise proved unsavory.  Most bathrooms – public or otherwise – possess an unsanitary aura, a gastronomic No Man’s Land, at least for items which you might like to stick into your mouth minutes afterwards.  Crossing the lavatory threshold drink in hand to me is akin to washing the cup with toilet water.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Few other choices remained.  Relinquishing my plastic chalice on the small table set aside for unpaid merchandise, I went about my business quickly, aware that some conscientious employee might toss my cup. Or worse, defilement.  Literary souls inevitably breed oddity; it’s what makes us so interesting . . .  and dangerous. Immediately I checked the remaining dredges of iced tea for tampering: any unnoticed fingerprint marks, lipstick, or powdery residue – I imagine passing out among the audiobooks only to wake hours later in tub of ice with only one kidney.  Finding no traces, I returned to my browsing and another refill.

An hour and a half later, my cup full once again with tea, three books in hand, I strode to the counter for check out, confident that I had saved myself ten dollars at least of valuable income.  In celebration I added another ten-dollar manga volume to my arm.

Arriving at the counter, I smiled at the cashier, dropping my pile before her, half-wondering if she would be interested in the results of my little science project.

“Hey Miss, did you know that I reduced the cost of six iced teas to nearly fifty-cents per glass.  Whatcha think about that?”  Her eyes glisten.  Her cheeks blush.  Her hands grab hold of my shirt.  As our bodies disappear beneath the counter, the remaining customers shout in unison, “Get a room!”

Or not.

I set the books too close to the sub-counter magnet, which triggered several loud beeps somewhere near the register; the cashier stepped on something near the floor silencing the alarm. Several armed guards and German shepherds shuffle away, disappointed.  Meanwhile she stared at my pile and counted.

“You know,” she said, “if you pick up one more book you can get one of these free.”

“Huh?  What?”

“Buy four get the fifth free,” she said pointing to the various cardboard signs stapled to the shelves around the store.

“Really?!”

I affected some surprise at this, having spent nearly two hours at the bookstore without noticing the words ‘free’ and ‘books’ together.  Then with a quick look at the clock, I took off again towards the children’s lit.  Ten minutes.  If I grab another eight dollar book (the price of my less-expensive purchase), I’ll have essentially just robbed the store.  When people think of me, the word ‘badass’ rarely comes to mind.  Nonetheless, I felt like buying a belt-chain and not recycling my old Snapple bottles.  That’s right, tossing ‘em in with the plastic bags and used iTunes gift cards.  Hardcore . . .   Desperate times, they can bring out the worst in all of us.

Tea-ed Off

dd_teaDunkin’ Donuts’ iced tea is the worst, foulest muck that I have ever tasted.  Granted having never actually tasted authentic outdoorsy muck, grime, or slime before, I suppose my digust is a bit of an exaggeration.  Nonetheless even the dysentery-drenched swill that circulates through the wells of many a Mexican pueblo refreshes the body more than the rust-tinted (-flavored) pint sitting atop my desk.  Ugh . . .

Most iced tea in truth is an acquired taste, particularly when you choose to abscond on the sweeteners.  Sugar (much like salt on anything else) can overpower the taste of tea, much in the same way that the letters N-E-S-T-E-A does.   To DD’s credit though, I’m told that their coffee greatly surpasses even Starbucks in terms of taste.  Ryan and Sean stand by their Coolata’s, especially as their exams roll around.

Sincerely, I wonder how our students and professors would manage without their caffeine-fix.  Most of the academic community — not to ignore the rest of the world — runs on coffee, alcohol, and late-night adrenaline bursts.   Learning necessitates chemical stimulation, like soldiers tripping-out on LSD in Vietnam.  An unjust comparison perhaps, but I like to consider our addictions now and then, that which drives us forward (or backwards) each and every day.  After all each of us has our own personal demons with which to contend, addictions and obsessions of every shape, size, and political party.  Some, like the swill melting before me,  are worse than others . . .

And in my case sugar-coating only makes it taste much much worse.

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism. — Carl Jung

Lightning Crashes

Internet deprivation has once again driven me to people-gaze at Panera Bread. Last night with the sound of thunder and a few rogue sparks, our modem fried: circuit boards blackened, wires caramelized. The sequence of events that followed our bandwidth’s demise is akin to the first radio broadcast of Wells’ “War of the Worlds:”

FLASH!  BOOM!

FLASH! BOOM!

FLASH!

BOOM!

Zap!

Pop!

Fzzzzzz . . .

Screaming . . .

“Murph, the internet died!”

“No Internet? Son of a &%$@! What about my &#%$ exam tomorrow?!”

“Wait, that means Xbox Live is down too . . .”

“What no Call of Duty? No COD?!”

More screaming ensues. Fire, flames, flood . . . The dead rising from their graves . . . Dogs and cats living together . . .

You get the point. Needless to say the fam is quite indisposed at the moment. Shut off as we are from the digital world, it’s like we’ve gone back in time to the early 80s or worse, the 70s. Shudder. My job as the house’s IT specialist (Ha!) is to carry out any necessary or immediate digital transactions in their stead. I scribe a list or two, much like a digital grocery list, and venture off into the world to search for potential WiFi hotspots . . . hopefully one with food too.

This morning as storms slide silently across the sky, butting up against one another with the grace and violence of rival hockey teams, I shuffled out into the rain, seeking potential hotspots like early man sought the warmth of campfires. Nowadays even the supermarket offers WiFi access beckoning laptop owners with Starbucks coffee and a buy-one-get-one-free deal on eggs. After some deliberation (having skipped breakfast, an omelet sounded good), I drove to Panera, deciding against the much preferred local booksellers in exchange for Panera Bread’s above-average iced tea and a WiFi connection without the fifteen dollar access fee.

Luckily they were still serving breakfast.

One egg sandwich (Wahoo!) and a half-a-gallon of unsweetened tea later, I settled in my chair and examined my fellow customers while my laptop blinks and buzzes to life. The bakery was veritably empty (the din of my laptop’s start menu sounded like a foghorn), only a dozen or so old women and men spending their retirement munching on Asiago-baked bagels and reading the latest Patricia Cornwell.

tread_ellipticalsStretching my legs toward the fire I noticed . . . did I mention there was a fire? No? Ah well, much like those found in a ski lodge (or at least those ski lodges I’ve seen on television), the fireplace sat in the middle of the room, encased in iron and mesh and formed the lower portion of one of the bakery’s supporting pillars. Three soccer moms had also cuddled up beside the gas-powered furnace, warming water-soaked feet and discussing the benefits of various exercise equipment:

Woman in Sneakers: “Look, you don’t understand. Everyone says the Elliptical feels better on the knees, but you have to work twice as hard to even feel tired.”

Woman with Floral Purse: “But a treadmill is just running. You can do that anywhere.”

Sneakers: “Not in thirty-degree weather you can’t.”

Woman with One Eyebrow: “Martha’s husband, Bill, nearly died on a treadmill just last year. Alice, you remember.”

Sneakers: “He was close to eighty though.”

Eyebrow: “Six children, nine grandchildren . . . shame.”

Pause.

Purse: “Alice, how much did you pay for your Elliptical again?”

I tuned out the eavesdropped conversation as the women discussed prices, department sales, and their children’s third quarter grades. My attention returned to my email. One of my classmates had written to me, eagerly asking if I passed my Comprehensive Exams. Over the past semester after a poor showing during the first round of exams (I got a little too creative with my essays and failed – I promise to write more on that debacle later; professors despite popular opinions do not appreciate thematic subtlety.), my professor worked with me to help shape my writing into something more straightforward, indifferent, and blunt like a fill-in-the-blank quiz. Another fail and I’d be forced to shell out more tuition for another round of classes. No one wanted that – least of all me.

Master's Degree . . . Wahoo!

Master's Degree . . . Wahoo!

I had anticipated the exam results in another week or so; thus, with beating heart, I filtered through the last day’s mail, avoiding several Victoria’s Secret ads and a 40% off Borders coupon – save those for later. A quick scan of my inbox found the desired email. Praise be . . . I passed my Comprehensive Exam. Masters Degree! Another letter or so behind my name. Another piece of paper . . . Wahoo!

In celebration I consumed a tomato and mozzarella Panini and another large iced tea – ‘cause that’s how I roll. Immediately I signed onto Gmail and told Dasad, who after happily congratulated me, waited a few seconds before popping the dreaded question:

“So now what?”

The question seemed to hover in the air for several precious minutes, while I attempted futilely to understand what he meant. No dice. Instead I watched an old lady in pink sweats and matching headband refill her coffee before responding.

“Wait . . . Huh?”

“Job-wise, what’s the plan now? Library? Some office somewhere? That government job you talked about? What?”

“I-I don’t know,” I typed, including the stammer for effect. Don’t get me wrong. The question presented itself each and every day for the past twenty-years or so, but finding myself with little to no resources to adequately answer it, I proceeded to procrastinate my response, putting any serious thought until school ended, until I graduated college, until I finished my research, until I got my Masters. Now I began to wonder if I could push the decision back until I got married, but realized the wait would be too long even by my standards.

Still the books don’t buy themselves. Writers are more numerous than PhDs; the market is saturated as any blogger can admit. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeking an ideal job, and instead find something stable . . .

Still stability was never my thing; I approach jobs like a nomad considers borders. One comes to relish the absence of routines, tomorrow’s unexpected creation or journey. As Weezer sings (da da da . . . sucking up to Bob, growing old and hoping there’s a God) too many of us live merely to extend existence, cradle to the grave with my hand on the snooze alarm.  And that doesn’t sound very appealing either . . .

Still one must grow up sometime – in theory. I suppose that I’m still looking for that perfect middle ground . . .

“Well,” Dasad writes. “Personally I think you’ll get bored at a library. Too much repetition, you know? Not enough reading or at least discussion about reading.”

“Yeah . . . You wouldn’t happen to have any positions like that at your place, eh? Storytime leader for the IT consultants?”

“Would there be nap time and snacks?”

“Sure.” After all everyone loves cookies and sleep.

“Will look into it,” Dasad writes following up with a smiley face. “Just nothing too fantasy-based. If I can’t stomach Tolkien, any lesser master will send me retching . . .”

“You kiddin’? Nothing but O’Henry for this soon-to-be-unemployed student.”

“Ha,” Dasad laughs. “Tales of hobos and tramps, eh?”

“We all have our heroes. Poets, writers, and academia-addicts like me need to extract inspiration from somewhere. Why not the wandering minstrel or out-of-work vagabond? As long as it gives me story-fodder and time to write, right? Maybe I’ll consider teaching for a while too. At least then I’ll have my summers off . . .”

“Bum, why not just work for the government?”

“And eschew my last ounce of dignity?” I laughed taking my last sip of iced tea. “Even gypsies have their pride . . .”

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else. — James Barrie

Diluted Sins

img_2377“What did you give up for Lent?”  An honest response to this question typically requires a fair bit of chagrin, a prolonged sigh, and an explanatory tale that often begins with “Well, it’s like this . . . ”  Regardless of their beginnings, no two stories are the same even though — more often than not — we all wind up innocent in the end.

Once again, this year Dasad and I have not managed to free ourselves from this fate.  However, unlike everyone else, it’s not our fault this time.   Truly.  Seriously.  Look, if you can spare me a moment or two, I can explain . . .

Lent for us Catholics is typically a time of sacrifice, fasting, and forgiveness, a decidedly textbook definition for what amounts to using God to enforce those pesky New Years’ resolutions we’ve long forgotten over the last two months.  As a kid, this usually meant giving up candy, video games, or the internet for forty days and forty nights, the same time period Noah suffered storm-tossed seas and a boat-load of the world’s fauna without the aid of Dramamine, sails, or steel cages.  After mounting a particularly towering wave, the world’s last pair of unicorns slide into the lion paddock, promptly removing magic (and many a childhood dream) forever from the gene pool.   By all rights, getting by with one less bag of Twizzlers doesn’t seem so bad.

iced-teaThis year in addition to striving to run two miles each day, I decided to halt my weekly purchase of novels and considered diving into some of the older tomes I have left to gather dust  over the years.  Thus, no new novels for forty days.  In hindsight a more effective sacrifice would have constituted banishment from the bookstore entirely, but my on-going addiction to Borders iced tea prevented such a bold stroke.  Instead while shifting through shelves of manga one afternoon — keeping a wide berth between the rest of the stacks (Mr. Bradbury, you know why) — my eyes tantalized by several new titles,  I considered what exactly constitutes a ‘novel’ per se.  My thoughts traveled back to EN212, Birth of the English Novel, and some vaguely remembered definition concerning plot and character, an eight-page paper citing specific examples in 12pt font, Times Roman.  At any rate no mention of ‘Japanese’ or ‘comics’ appeared in the slurry of words so I grabbed a handful of books and raced to the check-out counter before any divine arbitrator could consult the fine print.   Afterward outside the store, amid the blustery spring breeze and cloud-streaked skies, I walked bag in hand, swelling with my new purchases,  confident in my adherence to the letter-of-the-law even while gut-punching the much ignored spirit-of-the law with two rights and an uppercut to the chin.

To my credit, over the last fifty days or so, I ignored the graphic novel section (collected anthologies of Superman, Spiderman, and other comics) entirely.  Here my half-hearted arguments that graphic novels did not strictly constitute novels failed; in the end I could not escape the nomenclature.   Besides, nothing good (i.e. Batman’s ‘Heart of Hush’ book) arrived in the stores until at least the end of April at least . . .  and in the absence of temptation one finds strength.

Still despite my own innocence in this affair, I still felt the twinge of guilt, a smidgen of complacency in my actions; thus I sought out Dasad, prompting his confession and shared guilt with the similar question:

“Wait, so you’re only giving up videogames on Saturdays?”  I wrote to him on IM one morning, a week and a half after Ash Wednesday.

“Well, it’s like this, man,” he typed with a speed reserved for computer programmers and courtroom stenographers.  “It used to be everyday, but once Resident Evil 5 came out, I decided to alter it a little.”

“A single day sacrifice though?”

“Well, when the game came out, I thought of just abandoning the whole no-gaming sacrifice altogether, but considering a potential wrath-of-God-slash-karma blacklash, I just decided to tweak it a bit:  ‘No games that I already own, will I play.’  There.  Now we have a loophole . . . and my console is RE5 ready.”  For most individuals Lenten appeals do not need to be stated aloud, resting solely on the honor system.  In our case, we require written contracts for the sake of bragging rights.

“What about Gears?  Don’t you already own that?” I wrote with a smile.

viva_pinata“Uh yeah, I thought of that too,” he typed after a pause.  “That would put a serious dent in our Friday nights so then I considered ‘No games released before 2006,’ but that only really eliminated that pinata game and Madden 2005 . . .”

“Both of which you haven’t opened yet, if I recall correctly.”  Dasad collects games almost habitually, like a schizophrenic stockpiling voices, or old Mrs. Martin and her cats.

“Yeah, not much of a sacrifice, right?  So then I reconsidered and decided that I would only play games on Friday and Sundays.”

“Ok, so what went wrong with that?”

“There was nothing on TV last Wednesday.” I picture my friend flipping frantically through his 1 million channels, his mounting anger that nothing NOTHING was on except another abysmal season of American Idol.  Then finally after dousing the lights and shutting the blinds, he switches on his Xbox for a quick Horde match.  No one will ever know . . .

“Dude, that’s sad.”  Sincerity aside, I am laughing when I write this.

“Hey look, the whole Lenten season is rife with loopholes.  No meat on Fridays except seafood and if St. Patrick’s Day falls on Friday, then the Irish are given special dispensation to eat corned beef.  Moreover, on Sundays you are free from your Lenten sacrifices anyway.”

“Yeah . . .” I consider, trying in vain to differentiate the rule from the habit, “. . . but I think that’s only for elementary school kids.  As adults we’re expected to keep the sacrifice every day no exceptions.”

“Ha, another bias!  Damn it all, I’m having pastrami tonight.”

In the end, I think Dasad faithfully maintained his original pledge and abstained himself from gaming throughout the last forty days.  Every now and then I saw his avatar logged onto Xbox Live but he swears that was merely to watch a movie — which he reminds me does not constitute a game at all.  Frankly I believe him, though for the sake of my own heathen soul I like to pretend otherwise.  Hell, I hear, is a quite a lonely place with a very poor library — the constant humidity is murder on the pages.  In the absence of reading materials, amid the screams of the damned, a sympathetic ear means the world to us sinners.

Economic Value

The man approached us while we stood in line, our arms plump with books like old-time school children – bibliophiles that we are. I had come to the bookstore early that afternoon to stock up on several new manga volumes. A story sickness had overtaken me over the last few weeks, and my visits to the neighboring Borders and Barnes & Nobles could not arrive soon enough. After copious cups of iced tea and several hours wandering the stacks – limited funds led me to gather twice my current wares and replace half – I found my way to the check-out counter.

. . . whether I should try peach syrup with my iced tea.

. . . whether I should try peach syrup with my iced tea.

Our visitor held aloft a $25 gift card and offered to give it freely in exchange for a twenty.

“You earn five bucks,” he explained, while my fellow bibliophiles gazed nervously at each other.

“How do we know that anything’s left on that card?” the woman behind me asked.

“I’ll stay in line and pay for whatever you have there,” he said. “It’s all there. Does anyone want it?” I kept quiet and stared at a woman on the cover of National Geographic, her face glimmering in gold paint.

“I have a twenty,” a man in the back spoke up. “I’m not much of a reader, but I suppose that my girlfriend could use it.”

The man filed in beside his newfound patron.

“I lost my job last week,” the man confided. “Right now, I could use the money. Books are less important to me.”

My turn at the register had come. I walked away, paid for my purchases and left the store. Getting into my car, I regretted not talking to the man. I had no hard cash in my pocket, merely credit, but I felt ashamed at my silence.

Throughout my life, fear has always been my bane – ice cream too, but let’s not get into that. Of course this is true of anyone (of fear, not of ice cream unless you’re lactose-intolerant). I fear speaking up, speaking out, making myself known to the world. Thus, often it is turmoil merely to announce myself to others. Especially when I feel that my voice will do nothing.

People often wonder why I read fantasy and manga. Most individuals assume – wrongly – that I have a penchant for dragons, unicorns, and cat-eared forest girls. This is not so . . . . well, I do like my cat girls. For the most part, these are mere decorations, trappings that give a story color or excitement. The true whimsy lies in the characters, those few chosen individuals full of courage, strength, and fidelity that they risk all for the sake of others. Therein lies the true fantasy; those noble souls, these heroes are akin to manticores and chimaras, the stuff of legends and myths.  Yet despite the impossibility for such creatures in the ‘real’ world, I continue to hope and prowl the bookstores. Perhaps one day a bit of their nobility will rub off on me in the reading.

I tend to get distracted.

Honestly though, in these tight times, I cannot say which is more important to me food or books. With my small paunch, I could probably last a week or so without meals, provided ample coffee or iced tea was available. Without caffeine, valuable reading time might diminish. There’s also a good chance of death too, which could really ruin that novel I’m reading.

I worry sometimes about a lot of things: the economy, my life, the arrival date for the next volume of One Piece, and whether I should try peach syrup with my iced tea. I mean, Border’s raspberry tea tastes quite good – unlike Nestea, which is actually lemon extract, excessive amounts of sugar, and toilet water – but I wonder if I should reach a little outside my comfort zone. No one becomes happy without being brave. Next time I visit a bookstore perhaps I should ask for something new, a mint-peach syrup combination maybe. It may confound the barista a bit, but the dissolution of weakness deserves the extra tip. Especially in these hard times, we need all the virtue that we can lay our hands on.