I'm graduating in three months. I've never paid a bill, written a check, or had a steady girlfriend. I've only had sex once, which is far worse than being a virgin. The replacement counts during my time at Columbia for my mail key, ID, and credit card stand at fifteen, nine, and six, respectively. And actually, I heard we were supposed to sign some form in order to graduate, which I haven't signed, so I guess I'm not graduating in three months.
But at least I'm an educated person, right? Well, sure, except that I don't really know, or care, about art or music, or math and science for that matter. But at least I've got a lot of great books, though, and I'm steeped in the Western canon, right? Well, yeah, I've got loads of books, hundreds of them, of which I've opened exactly 19% (I counted). Those books really make the room look smart, just smart enough for a woman to comment on them and then leave.
But at least I've learned how to think. Because if there is an essence to thinking, surely it consists in either unceasing, self-flagellating-cum-self-aggrandizing self-analysis or violently generalizing, obscenely pointless cross-cultural enterprises like "Zen and Kant," and "Squanto and Shinto." One of these papers, I won't say which one, is still waiting from last semester to be written, which is another reason why I probably won't graduate.
The only way I could possibly get a job, assuming I actually filled out an application and came to an interview, would be if I were asked the question, "What are your weaknesses?" at which point I would thoroughly impress them with my impassioned, eloquent, well-organized explanation of my manifold flaws and neuroses. All in keeping with the mantra of my career services counselor, who, after keeping my smelly ass away from the finance interviews, advised me to "turn your weaknesses into strengths." This was after she told me I had "summed it up pretty good" with my assessment that "they probably won't want a writer who doesn't actually write."
So the job prospects are looking bleak at the moment. But don't feel sorry for me. I'm actually pretty set. Because I am unnaturally skilled at falling, occasionally literally, ass-backwards into loads of money.
I break a lot of bones. I think the medical term for my condition is osteoporosis. Normally, it's found in elderly women, but hey, I lucked out. I broke my leg in both 8th and 12th grade, not coincidentally critical times in a young man's sexual maturation. But it wasn't until after I broke my leg senior year that I realized I could cash in on my infirmity.
I had pretty much just gotten back on my feet. I was playing quarterback in a touch football game at my job as a camp counselor. I dropped back to pass, and as I let the ball fly, some idiot kid rushed me and hit my thumb with his hand as he tried to block it. "Stupid kid," I thought, "that kinda hurt." If I could find that kid now, I would hug him. By the end of my shift, my thumb had swelled up to the size of an apricot, which, though it sounds small, is actually pretty big compared to a normal thumb.
My boss said I should probably get it checked out. I shrugged it off and drove myself home, then got my mom to take me to the hospital. Sure enough, it was broken: the kid had jammed my thumb a tiny bit back in my hand and a few chips were out of place. I got a cast, went home, skipped work for a couple days (oooh, the pain, the pain), then finally came back to the sympathy of all my colleagues. Towards the end of the day, my boss pulled me aside, and asked the fateful question.
"Have you decided whether to file for worker's comp?"
"Um, yeah, I guess."
"Ok," she said pleasantly, "here's the paperwork."
I thought a little pocket change for my troubles might be nice, so I filled out what I could there, and then took the rest home for my Dad to fill out the insurance stuff. Things got a little complicated with the thumb, to the tune of minor surgery, but the only lasting damage was a series of bumps that appeared on my thumb when I flexed it. I thought it looked like a dinosaur's neck.
I was pumped when I got the settlement in the mail a few months later because I had just gotten a portable CD player, and I wanted to buy some CDs. But when I opened the letter, and looked at the number, my knees buckled, and I started thinking about other kinds of CDs, financial ones (even though I don't know what those are).
Let me explain quickly about how the insurance company determines how much worker's comp you get. It uses a complex formula that takes into account the actual wages lost from missed work, the average amount you work per year, the part of the body that's injured, how well it heals, and potential future-earnings loss. I worked part-time during the school year, and full time during the summer. That averaged out to about 18 hours a week. I only lost a few days wages. The doctor said that my thumb was 98%(!) better. Sometimes I can't help but wonder, what if I could have convinced the doctor to write, say, 94%? Would the sum have been thrice as high? But I put those what-ifs aside when, like last week, my dad calls to congratulate me that the pocket change I was expecting, which he put into a nice little mutual fund, has just cracked five digits.
Thinking about going into I-banking or consulting? Sure, it's lucrative. The hours are rough, hellacious even, but it pays, like 60K a year out of college and you can't beat that, right? Well, consider this: let's say the hours are 60 per week. That's about 3000 hours a year, meaning that you'll be making in the neighborhood of $20 an hour, plus benefits. I had to endure an excruciating .1 seconds, plus approximately six weeks of tedium and a few grueling sets of thumb extensions. For that infinitesimal stretch of agony, I got about 360 million dollars an hour, or about 18 million times what you'll be getting for slaving away at some desk. While you're selling your soul, I'll be cultivating mine in Rishikesh.
You're probably wondering, how can I be like you? Well, you probably can't. Being only 18 at the time of the accident was absolutely critical to the fact that they gave me a shitload of money. But hey, if you're a really young freshman (call me) or a math prodigy (don't), then run recklessly to your place of business and look for the nearest wet floor without a "Wet Floor" sign.
For those of you who lack the over-ossification of youth, the bone-breaking game, like life, gets harder with age. Employers are no longer prone to vastly overestimating your earnings potential and handing you boatloads of cash. Fortunately, with the loss of your ability to get compensated because your employer doesn't realize how much of a fuck-up you're going to be comes the freedom and opportunity of new and exciting ways to leech off the wealthy. I want to introduce you to the second most beautiful phrase in the English language (after "cellar door"): "property liability." Property liability basically means that if you get hurt on someone else's property, and they could have prevented it, they have to pay you for it. This works especially well when that someone is, to paraphrase my friend Jacob McKean, "A multi-billion dollar real-estate corporation masquerading as a diploma mill."
I worked at Columbia this summer, at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, doing cutting-edge research that involved taking files out of folders, creating new folders, and putting the files into the new folders. I was heading out for some early morning activism one weekend while talking to my mother on the phone. "How you doin', sug?" is the last thing I remember her drawling.
I turned left out of Broadway, and very soon after found myself splayed out on the concrete, in an extraordinary amount of shock and pain. I was walking on the wire mesh grating next to the dorm. I was wearing flip-flops. The front corner of one of the grates was curved up slightly, but not so much that it was easily visible. As I was walking, my sandal slipped underneath the curved-up grate, cutting the shit out of my foot, and serving as the fulcrum for a lever with me on one side and the entire earth on the other. It only takes a rudimentary knowledge of physics to understand that I ate pavement really, really hard. My phone clattered out into the street. I groaned and crawled over and told my mom I'd have to call her back. Then I rolled over and groaned again. It would have been appropriate at this point if a dog, a pug, had peed on me.
I hobbled over to meet my friends and tell them that my part in the revolution would have to wait another day, then carried on to St. Luke's. It was relatively empty, so I got through everything—waiting, blood pressure, insurance, waiting, initial exam, broken wrist, x-ray, broken wrist, waiting, casting, prescription drugs, waiting, thinking…broken wrist — pretty quickly. I quit my job the next day
I didn't want to pressure Columbia for compensation. I'm not like that. But it did seem pretty clearly to be their fault, and, although my father was paying for my rent and food, I still had to make a living. The only means by which I could afford to, um, read and eat pain pills was my other job: babysitting an autistic kid. In the end, however, the fight was about one thing: justice. I had been somewhat embarrassed when I fell. And there was a slim to moderate chance that I could develop a mild case of Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome. How easily could they have fixed that grate? And what about those who would come after me? I couldn't let others be victimized. So I called my uncle, a high-powered attorney, and he called the lead counsel for the university, and they worked something out, getting me back my lost wages. Justice, in the tradition of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It wasn't easy justice. I had to track down like ten hospital records, and give a couple statements recounting the trauma, and, for a few of these tasks, I was not on Vicodin. Also, for this accident, which was much more painful that the last one, I was compensated at the comparatively low rate of 97.2 million dollars an hour (still nearly five million times the wage rate of an entry-level I-Banking position).
But the business had changed since I was young. You couldn't just have one big score and get out. The only way to survive was—is—to settle into a nice routine, pulling a few small jobs a year. Which is why I was so grateful to find myself, a scant three months later, lying in a puddle outside of East Campus with a dull, aching pain in my wrist.
I had left a party in EC that night, sometime during that 40-day stretch of rain last semester. I was walking and talking with a girl I had met in the elevator, which should have been my first clue that something weird was about to happen. Sure enough, as I turned the corner onto EC Plaza, my foot slipped out from under me on one of those super-slick blocks of granite, and, sagaciously, I tried, and failed, to catch myself with my newly reattached ulna. Clutching my wrist and grinning, I assured the young lady that I would be all right, I just needed to go to the hospital. Struggling to contain my glee, I wished her a pleasant evening and then made for St. Luke's. I stopped by my room to pick up a book—Religion and Nothingness, I'm not even kidding—and arrived at the hospital at about 2 a.m. After a familiar routine—I know it's boring but a job is a job—praise Jesus, it was broken.
Once again I faced a tough decision. I mean, ya'll know how slippery that stone is. I'm sure everyone here at some point hydroplanes outside Butler. And, are you really going to tell me that Columbia, she of the five billion dollar endowment (I would have to work for nearly an entire day to get that), cannot afford to dig up all the granite paths on campus and replace them with something safer for the rain, like Velcro or gravel? So really, it wasn't that tough a decision. I'm currently in talks with Columbia, and I'm only asking her to pay my medical bills. But if she doesn't, she can expect to see me in a court of law, where undeniable arguments will be advanced. And Columbia, who, to her credit, has been exceedingly cooperative heretofore, will come to know with whom she is fucking if she does not accede to my demands. I'm feeling brittle…and clumsy…
Now one thing to understand is that not everyone can be me. I've been cursed with a gift—a penchant for mischance. Perhaps my children will be so lucky.
But there are things that anyone can do in order to increase the likelihood of a profitable calamity. To be clear, we're not deliberately injuring ourselves. That's disgusting, depraved, and besides, it's fraud. We're simply taking advantage of our God-given weakness and frailty. To that end, there are three attitudes to take up to facilitate disaster:
Rule # 1: Be Aggressive. Run around a lot at work. Take chances. Subtly provoke. Remember it only takes one slip up, on anyone's part, to make you the victim.
Rule #2: Be Proud. Remember that these companies you're working for are very likely part of the corporate cabal financing the military-industrial complex and profiting from the American imperialist war machine. They will easily be able to give you the small settlement you deserve for your pain and suffering.
Rule #3: Be stupid, blissfully unaware, and lacking any common sense
. Consider: before I tripped on the grate, I was talking loudly and inanely on the phone without paying any attention at all to where I was going; when I slipped in the rain, I was wearing flip-flops, like a complete idiot; and when I got hurt playing football, well, I sure as hell wasn't gonna get beat by some punk third-graders, so I put a little something extra on the pass, causing my thumb to hit his hand just hard enough to finance two years of travel in India. A thoughtful, accountable person would never do any of these things, thus, we must be constantly vigilant against all forms of responsibility.
By following these three rules, one finds oneself on the path to abject failure, and thus success. Although one must also be blessed with moral ambivalence, physical wretchedness, and felicitous misfortune, constant laziness and blame-shifting will take one far. Verily I say unto you, blessed are the weak, for we shall inherit the earth.
BIRK OXHOLM is a senior in Columbia College. He has written in the margins of many books, including his mother's People Magazine from the late 90's (he finished the crossword). Hope springs eternal.