Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If You Ain't First, You're Last.*

This is the University of Virginia.
We have a polo team.
What of it, bitches?  
*Today's title comes from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which, I promise, does tie into today's post.

Twenty years ago today, I packed all my worldly possessions into a minivan and, along with my parents, traveled 162 miles to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to begin my first year of college. I was tremendously excited about the prospect of being around hundreds of good-looking girls on my own and starting my life for real.

I hadn't been feeling well that week, but I didn't want to tell my parents because my mom had an endearing habit of dragging me to the pediatrician if I so much as sneezed, and I was worried that whatever it was I had would derail my August 24 departure. I kept telling myself that it was just a cold. I had taken a bunch of Sudafed during the week, thinking that it would dry my ears out, and I could go on my merry way. I was wrong.

We made it to Charlottesville late that morning and I got checked into Tuttle Dorm, a rectangular monstrosity of architecture that I recently learned has been scheduled for demolition. I met a few of my dorm-mates, all of whom seemed to really have their shit together, and I met my resident assistant, a serious, studious engineering student. He seemed incredibly adult and mature, although looking back, I attribute this to the fact that he had a mustache. At around 3:00 p.m., I bid my parents farewell and just like that, I was on my own for the very first time.

But let's not forget about my ear, because it will become important later.

So, along with my roommate (whom I knew from high school), and 12 million bacteria sloshing around my ear canal, I set out to explore our new home. We attended something called Field Fest. In theory, this event was designed to facilitate meeting your shiny new classmates, but in reality, it was a lot of me standing around, too freaked out to talk to anyone other than my roommate, and thinking about comic books. Don't you wish you knew me back then?

Later, we also went to a giant cookout, where we saw a little known folksy-jazzy-rock outfit called the Dave Matthews Band. In my infinite wisdom, I clearly remember thinking that "these guys won't be around very long." (Note: Now that I think about it, the DMB show might have been the next day, but it makes for a better narrative this way, don't you think?). Either way, I have zero ability as a purveyor of musical talent.

As the evening wore on, I began to realize two things. First, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything. I had graduated from high school with 47 other people. There were approximately 2,300 people in my first-year class. Virtually all of us had been academic superstars and/or varsity athletes (usually both). I was but a very small fish in a very big pond. I was also growing increasingly certain that all my classmates had already bonded with one another for life, and that everyone but me was hooking up.

And second, I really wasn't feeling very good. I hadn't had a drop of alcohol (which, of course, was illegal for someone my age -- wink, wink), but I was feeling woozy, disoriented and a little dizzy, and my ear was starting to really starting to ache.

At around 10:00, my roommate and I decided to pay a visit to another high-school classmate of ours, who was living in another set of dorms. As we visited with her, we learned that one of her hallmates had been an actress or a model before graduating high school. I remember thinking something along the lines of "sweet sassy molassy! There are models running all over this place!"

At some point, we met the model, a pretty, unassuming girl named Leslie, who earned the distinction of being the very first girl I officially met in college. (OK, she might have been the 2nd or 3rd, but again, it's all about narrative, people!)

I'd like to say that I fought the good fight, and that I dazzled her with my charms.

Because 14 years later, she went on to appear in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

However, like Shawshank, my freshman year in college was no fairy-tale world. I did not dazzle her that night (in fact, I never saw her again). I didn't really dazzle anyone those first few months in college, including girls, professors, my parents, people in general....

But I digress.

By about 11:00, I knew I needed to get back to my dorm to get some rest. I stumbled back to my room, sick, tired, alone, and feeling stupid. I got in bed, but I had a hard time sleeping. So far, college had pretty much sucked.

And then, around 2:00 in the morning, my eardrum blew out.

In my life, I've had a fish hook caught in my arm, I've experienced a herniated disk in my neck, and I've shattered my wrist six ways to Sunday. But there is nothing to match the mind-blowing pain of your eardrum rupturing. I touched my hand to my ear, which was now bleeding profusely.

Sheepishly, I knocked on the R.A.'s door and explained that I needed to get some medical attention. Keep in mind that the dude had been an R.A. for all of about 12 hours.

This was his reaction:


A very sad-faced Me replied, "No. No, I'm not."

So we borrowed someone's car, and my R.A. had to drive me to the University of Virginia Hospital, the place where they didn't believe I hadn't been drinking.

The good doctors and nurses checked me out, flooded me with antibiotics and sent me home. I felt like dog crap for a couple more days, and I could barely hear for the next week, but eventually, I recovered. And my ear infection certainly didn't stop me from acting like a total idiot during my first week (including one incident reciting sports statistics to impress someone). Or during the rest of that year. I thank my lucky stars that there was no Internet in 1991.

It took me a while, but I finally found my footing in college. I joined the staff of The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.'s daily student newspaper, made a bunch of lifelong friends and figured out that I really did like this writing thing. And by my second year, I really started to figure out how college worked.

So it all ended well. And whenever I feel clueless or lost, I think about the night of August 24, 1991, and take solace in the fact that I've come a long way since then and that I'm not THAT guy. Anymore.



  1. This was incredibly entertaining!!

  2. I had the same reaction to DMB at that bbq. To me back then, if it wasn't on the radio, it wasn't any good. I was probably wishing they had put REM's "Out of Time" on the sound system instead. Of course, by week's end, I would hear that CD approximately 8,902 times.

  3. Hey look we're kindred. I also lived in Tuttle. I also injured myself my first weekend at school -- fractured ankle coming down the dorm stairs -- and the UVA EMTs and staff also didn't believe I hadn't been drinking or smoking something. Good times.

  4. Proud to say I was one of the models in Emmet dorm (okay, maybe not "model", but can we at least agree on "refreshingly down-to-earth nice girl"?), though my career has never achieved Talladega success. But it's okay, because having attended that same bbq (and having gone to how many shows at Traxx??) allows us all to say that we know Dave Matthews personally, and that has sustained my need for fame well into adulthood. Man, I miss those college days. Thanks for bringing it back so vividly ;-)

  5. What a trip that story was. I would have been one of the second-years trolling around the CD when you showed up. I'm wracking my brain trying to remember the meds you would have been on. And kudos: you absolutely rock at narrative. I never thought I could read a blogpost to the end about an ear infection, but you got me. It was a great read. And who doesn't love Ricky Bobby?

  6. @Jessica -- thanks. It took me a while to see the humor in it, but it made for a good tale.

    @Matt - didn't you develop an all-encompassing hate of the Spin Doctors at some point 1st or 2nd year?

    @anonymous -- Welcome my fellow Tuttle-ite. Maybe that place was cursed.

    @Jen - sure, "Refreshingly Down-to-Earth Nice Girl." sounds like we're casting a teen romance flick!

    @Melissa -- fortunately for all involved, I didn't join the CD until late 1st year, so I was slightly less clueless and annoying than I was at the beginning of college. glad you liked my little tale of woe!

  7. Whatta story! I visited UVA when looking at colleges, and a bunch of guys ran past our tour in togas and yelled "Send us your daughters!" The fact that I didn't apply there immediately after this incident is one of my great regrets.

  8. @Jenny -- that was YOU? Um. Sorry. ;-)