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.


And They Tell Me I Can’t Work With Others

I’ve been worried about getting down-sized next year, so when a friend and coworker suggested that I start networking in the developer groups around town — I didn’t quite jump in, but I did cautiously dip my toe in the water.

As I already had conflicting plans for an after-work meeting, I decided to attend a “full day” exploration of a JavaScript package. Several caveats here: “full day” is quoted because you don’t have to stay for the entire session, I’m familiar enough with JavaScript to know that I never want more to do with it, and I knew going in that it would involve paired programming. Paired programming is exhausting for me at the best of times, as it takes me conscious effort to be social. At worst, it’s a great way to make me dream of a locked office with a pizza slot in the door.

Fortunately, this was one of the better experiences I’ve had. Everyone was agreeable and we more or less fluidly moved around our table offering input as needed.

The package (Angular, for those who care about such things) was interesting, and by noon I’d started to get my head around its particular elven incantations. The exercises we did were too simple to really demonstrate the usefulness, but a good programmer has imagination, and I think I’m decent enough at it to see the applications.

It won’t make me jump into a JavaScript project willingly, but it’s nice to know that there’s something to help make the script less cumbersome.

I left early, because we’d gotten bogged down in a configuration nightmare on my laptop, but I’d still say that it was a good experience. I’ll definitely try the after-work meeting though. I don’t particularly enjoy having to wear pants on a Saturday.

Our Traveler Returns from SPACE

It’s been several years since I last sold comics at a convention, but this month found me once again behind the table. The Plastic Farm table, to be precise, at the Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) in Columbus, Ohio. Plastic Farm is an ongoing series chronicling the deepening insanity of a man who can alter reality, and it’s the brainchild of Rafer Roberts.

The reason I was at Rafer’s table is that he had drawn the comic I was there to sell, Wild Women of the Kitty-Kat Galaxy. Rafer graciously agreed to help me ease back into the game, and I found it very calming to talk comics with him during the slow periods of the show.

Slow periods have always been my 2nd biggest fear about conventions. When left with my own thoughts, I tend to become overwhelmed with doubts and depression. This in turn keeps costumers away and leaves me in the abusive grip of my brain.

There were stretches of time where I was alone at the table; what’s the point of being surrounded by indie creators and not checking out their work? Having several years of perspective behind me, I realized that I could beat my bad brain. Low traffic means only less opportunity, and I let that get to me I can miss those people who do come within range. Like a trap-door spider, I just need to be patient until prey presents itself.

But less killy-eaty than that.

Besides, I found that I had missed the camaraderie of like-minded story-tellers. Everything from mini-comics to graphic novels were on display, ranging in narrative structure from image-dreams to biographies to continuing adventures. It’s like stepping into the fire bath of She-who-must-be-obeyed; it makes you immortal, or it returns you to your actual age.

On second thought, it’s more like something else. Go ahead and pretend I had a clever allusion for getting a power-up.

My biggest fear about conventions, by the way, is being trapped by a skeevy fellow describing his liberated, nearly-naked heroine to me in excruciating (and panting) detail. This happens, though thankfully not so often at small press shows.

So, it looks like I’ll be going back next year. Maybe I’ll even have another new comic!

On Writing Wrongs

Some stories come out easily; Dignity, Always Dignity was written in a few hours. Others are painfully constructed over several writing sessions, with little corrections each time through and the occasional new sentence. I’ve begun to think “Oh, I should write about that!” whenever I remember something that happened, and my iPad is filling up with tiny text documents that contain a few words to nudge my memory.

“The hubcap incident,” one reads. “The whole everyone’s a salesman bit” is written in another. “Tarantula” is empty, the file name telling me enough to know what I’d wanted to write.

These all mean something to me, and I’ve grown curious about the machineries of memory. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to jot down the thoughts. In some cases my notes don’t even reference the main association I’ve attached to the story. What these messages to myself do reflect is the association I had at the moment a story occurred to me.

The file for Stasis Meeting, by way of example, included helpful sentence fragments that I didn’t need in order to remember what the essay meant to be about. The title came by way of a freudian slip while trying to say “status meeting”. It perfectly captured my feeling that such meetings put projects on hold in order to discover why they aren’t moving faster. None of the notes were as powerful as that title.

Then there’s the file simply titled “Thanks”. The title meant nothing to me, so I opened it. Inside was the following

6. “Thanks for fucking me!”

Among my finer moments, you will not find this one. Late on a Friday afternoon, the week before release, with my stress levels at maximum, while I was attempting to decipher a colleague’s configuration problem, management descended. I already had two extra people in my small cube, so my fight-or-flight nerve was twitching excitedly. Add two managers with a question about a bug that had just been filed, and — well, I’m not proud.

I cursed and stomped around the office glaring at everyone. Then I looked at the bug and discovered it was a problem of bad test data. Then I found out that they’d only wanted to me to estimate effort. Then I hid under my desk, figuring that I couldn’t be fired if they couldn’t find me.

It seems that this was a rejected section from I Wouldn’t Say That, a collection of unfortunate workplace conversations. I must have pulled it out but decided it might be salvaged for another essay.

Since the incident in the above fragment, I’ve gone over a year without a major blow-up. There have been rough patches, but on the whole I’ve regained the trust of many co-workers and a few managers. I’ve even been promoted and given more responsibilities. The pressure wears at me, but I’ve learned to handle it better.

This isn’t who I want to be, and it’s not what I want to remember. Probably the hardest part about writing autobiographical essays is determining what I’m prepared to admit about myself. As I described in my About page, everything but certain names is true — for a given value of truth. Memory isn’t perfect, so details may be erroneous. Sometimes too many facts get in the way of a good story. On occasion there are details that I’d rather not show. Or see.

Maybe I shared this because I’m depressed and want validation for my self-loathing. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been thinking about the events that don’t even have an empty file to mark them. I think if this blog is going to continue to help me, it’s time to open up just a little more and risk abandonment over what I’ve been hiding.

I’m going to stop thinking now and play some uke.

The Plane Truth

Last week I had to catch a flight to Virginia for training. It doesn’t particularly what for or where at, except that the airport at the training end was Reagan International. The relevance of that will be clear later.

The first thing I need to explain is that I don’t believe that airplanes can fly. When I reveal this, a lot of folks think that I’m some sort of science-denying, foil-hat-wearing nutcase who doesn’t believe that airplanes travel from place to place above the ground.

(Rather than correct this perception, I usually play along. Consequently there are several people who aren’t quite certain whether I genuinely believe that air travel is an elaborate hoax designed to conceal the existence of teleportation. [I do not. That would be crazy. The aliens kill anybody who comes close to working out teleportation. (Poor Tesla.)])

I understand the science of flight at a high level, my hats are not made of materials useful for baking, and I completely agree that planes travel through the air. I just don’t call that flight. I call it a rocket-propelled death-ride. Airplanes are basically missiles with a modicum of steering, a throttle, and a small packet of pretzels.

This training junket would be my second round-trip death-ride. (My first, also for work, was to Las Vegas. If I was strapping myself into a rocket for the first time, I wanted to have some good shows at the other end dammit!) Between the strain of getting my car fixed, driving through snow, and arriving barely in time for boarding I was already a wreck. I sat trembling in my seat until after we were safely above the clouds.

The trip back was a different story, but here’s where Reagan airport comes in. The ride from Reagan to my hotel in McLean cost around $30. It would be reimbursed, so my worry wasn’t the cost. I’d simply never called a cab before. I hadn’t needed to. In Vegas cabs were lined up everywhere, and they flock to airports like seagulls to the parking lot at McDonald’s. My schedule had me checking out of the hotel on the morning of my last day of training, so I’d have to get a phone number and actually call it.

You may recall that I’m only slightly less phobic of phones as I am of spiders. In fact, a spider with a phone would pretty much incapacitate me.

Then the media started hyping storm Not Actually Officially Named, which was slated to return the East Coast to the Bronze Age or something. Ten hours before my flight, and I’d already started feeling sick. Would I be stuck at the airport, if I even managed to get there?

Luckily, two of the other guys in training were also going to Reagan, and they had a rental car! Even better, they generously offered me a ride before I even started figure out if I should impose by asking. (Thanks again, guys! You’re swell in my book.) That was such a relief that I didn’t mind being about three hours early for my flight.

Okay. Here’s the Reagan part. I promise.

After stalling for a while, I finally decided to get it over with and go through the security check. I threw my bag, boots, and coat into scanner bins and strolled into the cancer chamber. No sooner had I stepped out then I was pulled aside by a large man who was keenly interested in my groin. Turns out that I’d forgotten to empty my pockets, and in D.C. they take that pretty seriously.

My money clip and wallet were confiscated while I was patted down and checked for eau d’explosive. The money clip (and money!) was returned after cursory inspection, but my wallet disappeared. I’ve gone through a few variant types of wallets, and I currently use a small metal business card case. With an alcoholic squirrel on it.

I stood there, ignored, wondering what to do. They’d lost interest in me once I’d passed the sniff test. I stood there awkwardly for a minute, then I put on my boots and recovered my bag and coat. More time passed. A tiny bucket trundled out of the scanner. It contained my wallet. I looked around. Nobody cared. I picked up the wallet. Nobody yelled. I slipped away before they remembered me.

The actual flight was nothing. The plane seemed to be from the 1960s, with original naugahyde. As the plane chugged to the runaway, I could see a wing bouncing harder than a check from Bernie Madoff. No problem. The whole trip was almost over, and my nerves had given up trying to keep me alert. At least if I died I’d have my wallet.

Billing Time

When colleagues find out that my degree is in English Literature, they look at me with confusion and ask how a came to be a programmer. The following is more or less what I tell them. Well, mostly more. People generally don’t have time for the director’s cut.

I was working in a college book store, entering invoices into the computer system and sometimes helping process deliveries. It was dull work, but at least it didn’t pay well.

Wendi was working for a local firm that sold its own software and provided butts for consulting gigs. It was a small company run out of a decommissioned rectory. When their receptionist/recruiter moved out-of-state, Wendi suggested that I apply for the job.

It was a terrible idea. I hate phones. Calling in a pizza order leaves me with a racing pulse and the start of a tension headache. I knew nothing about computers beyond minimal experience with BASIC and PASCAL, and I was terrified of strangers. Making a cold call to a programmer about a job I didn’t comprehend lay far outside the realm of Things I Could Do.

So I applied.

To my total surprise I was called in for an interview. A few people talked to me for a bit, and I wound up standing in the parking lot for an hour listening to the company president as he smoked most of a pack of cigarettes. My ankle hurt, and the smoke made my eyes water, but I stood there and took it for the sake of the job.

Turns out they’d already decided to hire me.

A week later I was helping my new boss clear space in HoneyPot, Inc. for our new office, and he told me how I’d come to be a recruiter. I’d mentioned having finished the first draft of a novel, and he’d been impressed by the initiative and drive that indicated. He figured I wouldn’t have a hard time learning the job.

His faith was touching but entirely misplaced. As a recruiter, I was useless. The one and only call I made was a disaster, and I wound up explaining to my poor victim that I had no clue why I had been asked to call him in the first place. Fortunately the company with which we’d just merged into Honeypot had its own, well-oiled recruiting staff. I was not asked to join them, and I never again even pretended to be a recruiter.

That left me with reception. Again our partner office already had a receptionist, and she was incredible. I sat at our little side door and served little purpose but to tell employees where the managers had disappeared to.

One day the phone rang, and I stared at it in terror. I forced myself to answer, which was good as the caller turned out to be the VP who’d been the president of the company I’d hired into. His flight had included a stop-over, but delays in the initial stretch had led to him missing his connecting flight. It looked like he’d be missing his business meeting.

“Oh, man,” I sympathized. “That sucks.”

There was a lengthy pause on the other end as he accepted that I was unlikely to be of any use in the situation. Finally he told me that he’d call the representatives of the company to reschedule and work out arrangements to come back.

“Okay,” I told him. “Good luck.”

As soon as I hung up, I realized that I’d just lost my job. What I didn’t realize was that I wouldn’t be fired, not for another four years.

Having started precisely at my level of incompetence, I had nowhere to go but sideways. I wound up assisting an office administrator. My new responsibilities consisted of entering time sheets into an Access database and managing the software library. The first kept me busy for just over half of a day each week, and the second consisted solely of telling developers they couldn’t have the software they wanted.

Incidentally, after I became a developer the admins saved on personnel costs by locking the software in a closet and pretending to not have the key.

I had a lot of time on my hands at precisely that moment in the cultural zeitgeist when everyone was making one-page websites about their friends and interests, usually with lots of blinking text and aggravating MIDI loops. The majority of my work time was spent making constant tweaks to my Geocities page.

One day an account manager caught me. I’ll call him Tom. He looked at what I was doing and asked why I wasn’t out billing. I laughed. Tom laughed. Within a week I’d been assigned a contract to make a dynamic Word document for a school district to use. I’d become a developer, and it would be many more years before I felt like one.

I finished a second draft of that novel before writing it off as an unsalvageable mess. It will never see the light of day, and that’s alright. I have other stories in me, and after all this one gave me a career.

Highway 66 Revisited

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 four of my trip diary, in which we rested a bit between Monster-Rama nights.


The thing about western Pennsylvania is that a straight road is as rare as a steak still on the cow. The reason for this is that two tectonic plates met there, and one threw up its metaphorical hands. Bits of ground jut up all over the place, and it’s easier to wrap roads around them than to make things level.

Perhaps this is why it felt like we spent considerable time on PA-66. Certainly much of Saturday was spent on this highway, driving around Vandergrift and North Apollo.

We started with an early afternoon brunch at the Yakkitty Yak diner in North Apollo. This is a 1950s-style aluminum diner that serves up filling meals with a no-nonsense directness. A help wanted sign flatly states that the ideal candidate has grey hair and no life. When we entered, a customer declared that the rest of us needed to teach Mike how to grow a beard. I haven’t satisfactorily completed that curriculum myself, and nobody else stepped up, so Mike’s on his own I reckon. Sorry, complete stranger!

Tim, Mike, Chad, and I ate heartily and planned our day. All of us agreed that we wanted a lazy afternoon to lead quietly into the second late night of films, especially as the afternoon had already begun. We drove back to Vandergrift (on PA-66, of course) and went book shopping.

Reads, Ink is a lovely used book store that took up residence in a house. The walls are all covered in books, which leaves a lot of nice open spaces through which customers may wander. There are comfy chairs everywhere, and you can buy coffee. It’s a very welcoming store, even if the pulp novels are relegated to the basement.

While there, we ran into George Reis. He put together the Monster-Rama, so it was neat to meet him. It’s unfortunate that we bluntly voiced our displeasure with “Son of Blob”, but we made up for it with our enthusiasm for the experience in general. I hope.

Feet firmly planted in mouths, we went back to the motel (which, along with the drive-in, is on PA-66). We had some time before dinner, but not enough that we felt comfortable heading to Pittsburgh for anything. Mike set up his movie player, and we all watched “The Raid: Redemption” while chatting aimlessly.

Then we strolled over to the attached bar for dinner. We were the only customers at the time, and Wanda came over with the waitress and talked with us while we ate. This is the sort of thing that I don’t really know how to deal with, but everyone in the area had been extremely friendly to us so I was almost used to it by then. I tried out my small talk, and if I was terrible at it nobody seemed to mind.

Maybe it was easier for me to interact since it would be a year before I came back. Whatever, it was a simple but good experience in behaving like a sane person. I’ll have to try it out closer to home.

But the hour was late, and we had four more movies to watch. It was time to get back on PA-66.

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?”

Short of Tooth

I went to see a dentist last month. It’s been a few years; we’d lost insurance after the whole mess with The Workshop, and after gaining benefits elsewhere we decided to find a new place. Wendi hadn’t liked the previous dentist, and I didn’t like running into my former bosses there. Finally, Wendi found an office she liked. She came back from her appointment with a clean, malicious grin and an appointment card for me.

At least she gave me almost a month to prepare myself to go in…

Oddly enough, dental phobia is not one of my hangups. I just don’t like unfamiliar places. Or unfamiliar people. Or waiting rooms. What I especially don’t enjoy is filling out “new patient” forms. There’s always something on them that I can’t understand or honestly don’t know. Then I feel like an idiot, and I panic that I won’t be allowed past the waiting room because I couldn’t finish the form.

This time it was the insurance information. I’m on Wendi’s and don’t actually have a card of my own. I put down her name as the account holder, but I didn’t even remember what insurance company it was with. Plus, after 19 years of marriage I still haven’t memorized Wendi’s social security number. I’m the worst identity thief ever.

Fortunately when I explained that they already had our insurance information on Wendi’s account, the receptionist believed me. When I left I was told that the exam was completely covered, so I assume everything worked out with my patient form despite my complete inability to fill in standard information.

I don’t want to cover the cleaning and the x-rays; it was pretty standard stuff. Although it was my first experience with a sonic pick, there’s really not much to say about that beyond “it was oddly uninteresting”. I mean, my electric toothbrush is noisier. Slighty less damp, though.

For me the biggest surprise was that I didn’t have any cavities. I got the usual rap about flossing more and gums that weren’t bad enough to warrant a real lecture, but other than that everything was okay. Everything, that is, but for the “known issue”.

This is the part that surprised the staff.

I’ve mentioned my mutant ankles. Well, my teeth aren’t exactly to spec either. (Just once, I’d like to get a useful mutation. Like, not having nose hair.) It turns out that my upper canines decided to grow sideways instead of down. In the x-rays you can see them, happily nestled in my gums, dreaming their canine dreams of biting into rarebit.

Where they should have come out, there are two extremely tired baby teeth. One of which is, in fact, sleeping the sleep from which none awaken. This caused some alarm in the exam room. As the dentist calmly put it, “They could explode at any time.” I’m sure that was a metaphor, but he did leave hastily after that pronouncement.

I have to go back in November so they can measure my gums again. No further mention was made of my little time bombs or what we should do to defuse them. I really don’t want my mouth to blow up. Hot fudge sundaes through an IV just aren’t as tasty.