How to Date the Travis Bickle Way

In Taxi Driver there’s a scene where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) takes Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a movie, which turns out to be X rated. (It’s reportedly Ur kärlekens språk, a graphic sex-ed film from Sweden.) Maybe not the most conventional choice for a first date, it goes over poorly.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I went to a concert on this past Sunday night. You may remember that my social anxiety makes this a daunting prospect; but Jonathan Richman was performing at a local bar, and I was determined not to miss the chance to go. So determined, in fact, that I spent the week leading up to it  quashing the recurring urge to back out. By the time I met up with Tim and his friend, I was pretty much a  nervous cat and expected the worst at every turn.

Fortunately we all got along together, and the only hiccup was that some tickets were left in a coat that hadn’t attended with us. Not a huge deal on my end, as I hadn’t paid my way yet anyhow. Besides, admission was ridiculously cheap. All that mattered to me was securing one of the few wall-hugging stools. The three of us managed to snag exactly one stool, which was graciously granted to me. Then the woman who’d saved the seat next to me offered to free that one up by sliding over. We thanked her and annexed the stool to our growing kingdom of seatedness.

Eventually her husband arrived and sat down, but we didn’t really notice. As usual, Tim and I had started talking about movies. The first I was aware of the guy, he’d leaned over and injected himself into the conversation. After some awkward back-and-forth, he decided that it was sharing time.

Fella: Hey, you guys know a lot about movies, right?

Me: Some, yeah.

Fella: So you might know this one. For our first date, I took my girlfriend — she’s my wife now; this lady here — I took her to see Salo!

Me (weakly): Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Fella: Yeah! It was a test, and she passed!

Salo is a masterpiece, but it’s not the sort of film that you show to an uninformed viewer. It’s an unflinching adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, set in the last days of Mussolini’s Italy. Given writer/director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s previous works, it’s fair to say that the film is intended to show how human love and tenderness can exist in even the most detrimental conditions. However, those conditions include rape, ephebophilia, torture, coprophagia, and assorted other activities that are not for eyes of the cinematically timid or, y’know, people who don’t want to see that sort of thing.

I didn’t ask for the goal of this “test”, but obviously she passed it. Perhaps by ever speaking to him again. She certainly didn’t look thrilled that he was telling the story. The look on her face spoke volumes about how often she’d had to hear him tell it. I wondered briefly what sort of test he’d had to pass; being carbon-based, perhaps. I just hoped he didn’t drive a cab.


Magical, Farting Elves

Network diagnostics are not a strong point of mine, so when things get screwy at work I’m pretty helpless.

Today, for about a half an hour, the network completely forgot I existed. I lost access to servers, code repositories, email, and a number of internal apps. Some of my co-workers suggested that I should check that my passkey still worked, but others pointed out that I might just leave if it didn’t.

To stay sane (and because IM still worked) I chatted with a co-worker while struggling to get my access restored.

Me: You know how you had network problems the other day?
C-W: Yeah?
Me: Now I can’t log into anything.
C-W: oy.
Me: My computer locked me out, and I could only get back in by restarting it.
Me: But anything that requires a password is hosed.
C-W: Freak week.

13 minutes later…

Me: It’s exactly as though my password expired, only it shouldn’t have.
Me: I didn’t get 1000 reminders. 😉
C-W: Weird.
Me: Aaaand now it works again.
C-W: Lucky you!
Me: Someone must have fed the elves.
C-W: Or farted.

Yup. Farting elves are the cause of so many of our problems. If only there were a way to treat their tiny little flatulance.

A Fair Exchange

I was chatting with D____ about movies when the following exchange occurred.

Me: I got the see the director’s cut of Alien at the Michigan, and it was GLORIOUS!
Me: I forgive Ridley Scott a lot, because that is still my favorite movie.

D____: I think that’s fair

Me: I still want my money back from the free screening of White Squall, though. THAT, I will not forgive him for.

No sooner had he called me fair than I turned into a judgemental jerk. It’s that sort of IM whiplash that could launch a thousand psych term papers.

I Thought the Know-Nothings Were Extinct

While I was in the jury selection room last year, I conducted a little anthropological research. This was not by choice; my intent had been to quietly work on the second draft of “Heart of the Warrior”, but the chatter of those around me made it difficult to focus.

The chief subject of my study was an older woman who had somehow managed to avoid a summons up until now. She had a number of odd opinions which she shared loudly with those in her vicinity, but what interested me was the way she closed off discussion when her notions were challenged.

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone shutting off contrary information. Certain news channels even cater to those who already know all they care to. What caught my attention was how she went about it. By way of example I’ll use the AT&T snitch discussion.

According to her, AT&T spontaneously detected that a) her daughter was cursing on the phone b) to her own daughter, c) who is a minor. The phone company then informed the police and unpleasant federal charges ensued. Therefore you should always be wary of technology.

By now we should all be aware that our communications are (at least) randomly scanned for certain key words and phrases by Homeland Security, but they frankly aren’t likely to give a shit about cussing. You’re more likely to attract their attention by saying that your car bombed out on the way to the airport.

But let’s posit that AT&T is itself scanning all conversations for cuss-words. That’s a ton of data passing through filters and detectors just to monitor naughty words, but let’s say they do it. They would then need to detect that there is a child on the line. Possible, within a small margin of error, for extremely young children perhaps. Older teens would be practically impossible, though. They’d then need to investigate possible instances of children hearing naughty words to actually identify all parties and their ages. This is a massive expense of additional equipment and labor just to protect virgin ears, purportedly being done by a for-profit company.

When one of those hearing this tale pointed out that it would be difficult for the phone company to assume the burden of policing language, she immediately shut down the discussion.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know about that, but my daughter was convicted.”

She had launched into this story, not to talk about her daughter’s plight, but to back up her assertion that technology is evil. Now, with that portion of the tale challenged, she acted as though it was an irrelevant detail — one that warranted no discussion. Her reinforcement of the outcome served to assert that she’d been right, whatever she’d been talking about.

I didn’t get much writing done, as I was drawn into her bizarre performance. She held court for the entire morning, espousing her baseless views and deflecting any criticism with her trusty shield of Not Knowing. (Global warming doesn’t mean that there won’t be cold weather. “I don’t know about that, but I had to turn on the furnace earlier this year.”)

She even had theories about how we were being called up to be dismissed. Despite the fact that they were clearly just going through a stack of forms in no particular order, she had an elaborate explanation that evolved as names were called. At first this stunned me, as she’d resisted any input for over three hours. Then I realized the difference.

She disregarded only what she didn’t witness. Her experience informed her opinion, and she didn’t trust the experience of others (or at least of strangers). Human nature, really; it’s just that I’ve rarely observed it so blatantly and repeatedly expressed in such a short span of time. My own experience was that things get shouty when conviction butts into knowledge, but that never happened here. Perhaps it was that the others in the conversation were simply killing time and weren’t all that interested in convincing her of anything.

I don’t know about that, but it’s a probably a good thing I was only observing.

Emblematic of Entomophagy

I’m at work with my team this fine Saturday to support the release of a new product. A lot of effort has been put into making us comfortable and keeping the atmosphere light. There’s an extensive breakfast spread, balloons are everywhere, and there are reportedly games planned for when we’re sure everything is okay.

QA, understandably fixated on bugs, gave us all special necklaces for the day. They glued plastic toys of insectivores to Mardi Gras beads and left them on our keyboards for us to find this morning. The idea was that these bug-eating beasties would help keep the launch free of bugs.

I believe that I’ve discussed my arachnophobia here. So of course, while everyone else got centipedes and scorpions, I came in to find a spider lurking at my station.

Now I don’t want to be the jerk that won’t play along, but there’s no way that damn thing is hanging between my nipples. After an ill-considered attempt to wear it backwards (“Aaagh! It’s in my neck hair!”) I used the materials at hand to modify the charm.

If I was a bug this panda would terrify me.

When my handiwork had been discovered by QA I explained that pandas also eat bugs, if they happen to be on yummy bamboo shoots. This claim was met with suspicion, but I was granted points for ingenuity.

When the release wraps up smoothly, they’ll have to acknowledge the power of my panda pendant.

Rerouting to Terror!

On September 6th Tim and I headed for Vandergrift, Pennsylvania to attend Drive-In Super Monster-Rama, an event that features 8 classic drive-in horror movies over two nights. This would be our 3rd Monster-Rama, and we’d be meeting up with friends from Maryland and Nebraska to enjoy these excellent film prints.

This is part one of my trip diary, in which we learned (in Jessica’s words) that our navigation would not be ruled by fact-checking.


Tim and I arranged to meet at the university parking lot that we use for work. I arrived early, so I stood in the morning air reading my copy of Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide. The dev manager for my current project pulled in a few spots away from me, and she advised me to try going further from work for my vacation.

Moments later Tim pulled up. We transferred my luggage to his car and drove closer to work for breakfast before starting the trip. Who did I cross paths with on the way into the restaurant?

At this point, she’s probably convinced that I’m not actually leaving Ann Arbor.


Dude walked into the restaurant wearing a white t-shirt with the custom message “Have you seen the sporty new Toyota Kamikaze?” I suppose he believed this to be an insightful enjoinder to buy American, but it’s really a notice to those around him that he’s the loneliest xenophobe in a cosmopolitan town.


There’s a reason Tim calls us The Fiasco Brothers

We were following the GPS and wound up on rural Ohio highways instead of the tollway. It took about forty minutes to get back on course. The entire time, the GPS voice continued to attempt to get us back where we didn’t want to be, saying “rerouting” with increasing venom.

Tim expected it to say “For fuck’s sake, Lehnerer. Get on the road.” I awaited the more prosaic “Lick my balls. You’re on your own.”

As we eventually drove down our chosen road, we could hear it still muttering at us to reverse our course.

“Well,” I said. “We should be good for the next several hours.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “We’re no longer listening to the GPS!”


There’s a World Cup pinball machine at the service plaza where we ate lunch. A note stuck under the glass helpfully points out that the game is only for entertainment purposes.

So much for my dreams of football glory!


After much confusion within a half an hour of Vandergrift, we decided to once again heed the GPS. With some apprehension we pulled in at a motel where Lake’s Roadhouse was supposed to be. The motel had no name but was attached to a bar called Ricky Lake’s Place, which could be assumed to be our destination.

There was a sign on the door of the motel office saying to call a number. Tim did so, and a woman came out of the bar to meet us. She seemed both to be surprised at our arrival and to know who we were. She asked us to give her some time to get ready and told the bartender to give us some free drinks.

Being me, I whispered to Tim that our bodies would be found in the lake — which is weird, because it’s all rivers around here.

We had our free drinks (a lager and a Shirley Temple), and Tim talked up the Monster-Rama to the bartender, who might actually come as she digs Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Also the drive-in is just a few hundred feet down the road and admission is only $10, so really there’s no excuse for not going.

Wanda came back, and I know her name because she wrote it and her number on a slip for us in case we had some kind of motel-related emergency. Tim paid upfront for our stay, and the rate was so good he called our friends driving in from Nebraska to let them know. Wanda offered to leave the door unlocked on a room for them (they’d be getting in pretty late), and they could square things with her on Friday morning. It was a generous offer, but they were locked in to their previous reservation, at least for Thursday night.

I was beginning to feel confused by all the respect, decency, and trust. It felt like a rare episode of “The Twilight Zone” where the unexpected twist is that life is good.

Best Friend for a Minute

I’ll never understand friendly people.

I was heading to an ATM, but got caught at a crosswalk by the light. This guy walks up to me and starts a conversation.

Stranger: You walk just like a friend of mine!

Me: Do I…?

Stranger: Yeah. We call him Buddha. He’s big, like you, and real mellow.

Me: Ah…

Stranger: He’s a nice guy, so don’t be offended.

Me: Fair enough…

The light changes, and he’s off to chat with other strangers.

Stranger: See ya! Have a good one!

What the hell was that about? We didn’t cover this in Civics, I’m sure of it.

Socially Unconventional

“How are you?”

It’s not supposed to be a difficult question, but it often paralyzes me. Through trial, error, and the trapped looks on people’s faces I’ve learned that the truth is inappropriate.

“Not well, really. I couldn’t sleep last night after hearing what might’ve been a gunshot.”

“Well, my mom tried to kill herself again. I really don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

“My cat went in to have her teeth cleaned and had a heart attack. She’s in an oxygen chamber, and not doing well.”

This is more than most people want. The convention for casual usage seems to be some variation on “well”, “fine”, or “okay”. Anything less positive is met with awkwardness, if not horror.

When I first realized this, I couldn’t bring myself to lie for the sake of convention. After all, it’s not my fault that they asked without actually caring. Right? So I figured I’d acknowledge their usage of a polite convention.

“I acknowledge your greeting,” I’d say.

That worked poorly and earned me more looks ranging from concern to sympathy. With that feedback, I decided to return the greeting without actually responding to the question.

“Hey,” I’d reply. Or, “Hi.”

That worked well for most situations: passing someone in a hall, entering the small kitchen at work, or trying to get a co-worker to tell me why he’s interrupted me. (I lie, just a little. Nothing helps some people get to the point.)

It just doesn’t feel right in our grocery store. We live in a small, semi-rural town. People around here talk to each other. On the street, in line, at restaurants — it’s a little creepy to my paranoid suburban point of view. When someone here asks how you are, they may actually want to know how you are. Maybe not in detail, but they might be interested in a highlight reel.

It’s taken nearly a decade, but now I can respond appropriately to the local cashiers.

“Fine,” I’ll usually say. This is to mean that nothing in my life is abnormally positive or negative at the moment. If everything’s been coming up Atomic Zombie, I’ll hazard a “pretty well”. A broken down car warrants “been worse”, and when it’s worse than that I’ll just leave it at “tired”.

Then I turn it on them. “And yourself?” I’ll ask innocently, hoping to put them through the kind of mental anguish I’ve suffered for years over this social convention.

“That’s good,” they say. “Paper or plastic?”