Sunday, November 28, 2010

Everything I Learned in College (and More) is Already on Wikipedia

A few months ago, I was just settling down for my customary post-graduate mid-afternoon nap when I was stirred back to wakefulness by a text from my friend: What caused the fall of the Roman Empire?

Not an emergency text, to be sure. Not even a time-sensitive text--the Roman Empire had been fallen for quite some time; surely, my friend did not need to know immediately? But then I got to wondering just how long ago it fell, for surely it depends on who you ask. Did she mean the fall of the Western Roman Empire (which fell some time in the...5th century CE), or did she mean the Eastern Roman Empire (which became the Byzantine Empire and which fell...later)? My first impulse was to text back "the Goths" and be done with it, back to my blanket burrito and happily entering the land of careless dreams. I punched the words in with decisive force, plopped my head back onto my downy pillow, and held my thumb over the "Send" button in gleeful anticipation of the flying unicorns that would soon occupy my brain.

But then, I realized that she would not have asked me unless she expected a solid answer. I had studied ancient civilizations in college, and it was surely upon that knowledge that she expected me to draw now. She could get this information from any cheap website--of course she required my personal touch! My department in college had been a small one, and we often lamented the lack of interest in the ancient world among our college contemporaries. During our marathon nights of translating Latin, we would bemoan the probability that, in a few years, no one would care that we could read Catullus. As I lay in my bed at home, having just completed my hard-won degree and eagerly anticipating the reward of sleep, I realized that now was my chance. Now, I could finally be a representative of my major to the ignorant masses, a beacon of light to the inquisitive darkness. I pulled my thumb back sharply and cleared the text message with haste, horrified at what I had almost done.

With a renewed sense of purpose, I sat up in bed and thought about how best to answer. I thought about all those lectures on Roman civilization, all those classes translating Latin and learning about the peculiarities of Roman emperors brain hit a wall. Huh. I must be sleepy. Perhaps, I decided, I should clarify which time period she means? So I sent my friend a text asking if she meant the fall of the Roman or the Byzantine Empire? I was really asking for her to realize what a can of worms her question had opened. This was a question with a lengthy answer--I wanted to impress upon her the magnitude of her idle text and inspire her to let this cup pass from me. Roman, she texted back, a simple answer that implied, "Why are you making this difficult?"

I lay my phone down and closed my eyes. Think, I told myself, remember....The Romans were already weakened by...?...when they were invaded from the North by Goths....I snickered to myself as I imagined black-clad teens slumping into Rome and declaring it defeated, they guess....Ok, no, seriously, what caused the decline of Rome? 

"Your empire is against my religion."

I eyed my notebooks piled haphazardly in the corner of my room, a monument to the moment I had first arrived home and unceremoniously dumped everything school-related on the floor, vowing never to return to it again.Within those pages, I was sure, the answer must lie. I wriggled myself out of my cocoon and slithered to the corner lethargically. A degree in classical civilizations, apparently, did not mean the information remained in your brain. I heaved a sigh as I flipped through the most likely candidate, ignoring my doodles and searching for telltale words like "decline," "defeat," "Goths," or "Byzantine," anything to indicate what had caused this magnificent edifice to crumble. This was too much work for a simple text message, but it was my burden to bear, and I would gladly bear it. But no matter where I looked, I could find no word that would attest to this happening. Did I miss class that day? Did I just not care to write anything down? I willed wisdom into the geometric shapes that bordered my pages, but the ink would not spill.

Cursing my foolishness, I put away "Roman Civilization" and turned next to "Mythology." Sometimes, myths evolved to explain the goings-on in the real world. No myth explaining the end of Roman culture immediately  came to mind, but it was worth a shot. Five minutes and 100 pages later, I snapped the notebook shut. Nothing there. "Gender and Sexuality"? Nope. Maybe the Greeks had something to say about this? I dived for "Greek Civilization" with a rising sense of panic in my chest, but as I flipped through my notebook, I knew with perilous certainty that the Greeks had slipped out of the collective consciousness by the 5th century CE. I threw my last chance into the corner with the other hopefuls, and stoically sat on the carpet for several minutes. Where had I gone wrong? Was it the failing of my classes, or my note-taking abilities, or both, that the answer was not embedded somewhere in these rumpled pages?

I had failed. My friend had asked a simple question of me, and I could not answer her. What was my degree worth if, after all this, I could not provide a pat answer to the most oft-asked question about the Roman Empire? Didn't she want, instead, to know how to properly pronounce "Veni, vidi, vici?" I glanced around my floor in defeat, as if the contours of the carpet would stir some forgotten information inside of me. Eventually, my gaze settled on the feet of my desk, and followed them upward to rest, inevitably, on my computer. Artemis, she was called, for the Roman goddess of the hunt. What cheek, I thought, to have named my computer for the avaricious way in which I would use her to pursue knowledge. I had been hungry to learn about the ancient world then; now, I was just a poor post-grad sitting on my bedroom floor in my parents' house, unable to summon an iota of knowledge and desperately longing for my daily nap.

I cast my eyes upon my Judas notebooks. I glanced up at my computer. I looked at the floor. Computer again. One more time, the notebooks. Back to the computer. I knew what I had to do. I dragged myself up until I was kneeling, at eye level with the screen. To sit in the chair would be to formalize what I hoped would be a covert action, something no onlooker would recognize as web-searching even though I knew I was all alone. I pushed the power button, and the screen came alive all too quickly, as if it knew what I would resort to and had made itself ready. I opened the browser and typed in slowly, mournfully, "w-i-k--"
""? It finished with irritating promptness. I clicked on the link it provided.

The time had come. The search box was empty. The cursor was blinking. It was waiting for me. With heavy fingers, I typed the words I had never hoped to type, "Decline of the Roman Empire." Immediately I was transported to a world of quick links, lengthy paragraphs, outlined headings. I skimmed the page and a world of answers came rushing in. I picked up my phone and clicked out, "overexpansion, inflation, gothic invasions, weakened army, rise of Christianity," a humiliating task made all the more difficult by T-9 Word's refusal to cooperate. When my friend finally texted back, she let out a "haha" of laughter. She was laughing? My self-confidence lay in pieces on the floor next to my useless notebooks, and she was laughing? I read on. I can't remember exactly what she said because I blocked it out, but it was something to the effect of, "I knew you would know."

She knew I would know. She knew the thousands of dollars my parents and I had scraped together over the years to pay for college would surely fund the answer to her question. She knew.

I flopped back onto my bed, twisting left and right to wrap myself in the long-forgotten blanket burrito, and fell asleep with the image of my computer in my brain, an unfailing ally in the never-ending quest for knowledge I should already have.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


For some reason, the term "Octobeard" inspired me to create this:

Basically, a stuffy British gentleman with seven peg legs, who also happens to be an octopus. I don't know.