Mrs. Spastic

I can’t remember what her real name was. Spacek? Spassky? I’m sure she had a first name too, but if she ever said it I wasn’t paying attention. What I do know was that in some small way, I was instrumental in her personal growth.

She lived in Oxnard Shores. I no longer did, but I spent some weekends there visiting my father who had moved back after some time away. I still had friends who lived there. I was  about 14 at least a year or two older than any of them as I was both immature and small for my age, stunted in mind and body.

One of these friends was a boy I’ll call Jake. He was about 12 or 13 at the time. He came up with Mrs. Spastic’s nickname and was the one who introduced me to her as well.

“She’s a crazy lady. This’ll be fun,” he said.

Mrs. Spastic lived in a typical house in Oxnard Shores, a single-story tract home with a cinder-block wall to shield a concrete yard from the ocean wind. Shag carpet was commonplace (it was the 1970s), screen doors ubiquitous.

We walked up to her front door and rang the bell. Jake told me we could just walk right in if we wanted. She never locked the door. She never locked anything.

The door opened and there stood a woman in her 40s as best I could tell. She was about five-two, no matter which way you held the tape measure. I was no taller than her then, but I was considerably narrower. Her hair had a bowl cut that I would one day associate with child molesters. Her most prominent feature though was her smile. It was too wide for a normal set of human teeth so hers spread out leaving gaps you could floss with a shoelace.

Upon greeting me, she grasped my hand in both of hers and held it against her belly, which had surprisingly little give for a woman of her corpulence. When I tried to pull my hand away, she tightened her grip.

“Jake tells me you’re an actor,” she said. Surprisingly enough, this was a little bit true at the time. I had started auditioning for school plays in the eighth grade, something that would continue all the way through high school. I wasn’t that good so I mostly got cast in small to medium parts in dramas and bit parts and extras in musicals. In the musicals, I was told not to sing because they said I couldn’t carry a tune. I sometimes sang anyway just to prove them wrong. I never did.

“Theater’s pretty cool,” I said.

“Do you like Oscar Wilde? Because I think you would be perfect in The Importance of Being Earnest playing …” she said, citing some character in the play whose name I didn’t recognize. I was trying to figure out if the Ernest in the title referred to Hemingway or Borgnine, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. Like most 14 year olds, I was loathe to admit I didn’t know everything.

“You think so?” I said.

All the while, Jake is standing behind Mrs. Spastic making faces and clicking his retainer every time she said something. I found I could keep myself from busting out laughing if I let myself smile. I ended up smiling a lot. She probably thought I was the most charming boy ever.

“Hold on. I’m going to get my copy of the play. I think it’s in the bedroom,” and off she went to go find it.

As soon as she was out of sight, Jake went into the kitchen, picked up a plastic bottle of dish soap, and squirted its contents all over the curtains covering the window above the sink. Not to be outdone, I opened the refrigerator and fired a snot rocket into a carton of milk.

Mrs. Spastic emerged from the bedroom empty-handed, blathering on about how she couldn’t find the play anywhere. That suited us fine. We already had our fun for the day.

Jake and I visited Mrs. Spastic a number of times after that. On each occasion, we committed some mischief. A salt shaker had its top loosened so it would spill all over her dinner. A toothbrush was peed on. Her garbage disposal was stuffed with Brillo Pads so it would grind to a halt the next time she used it. We never stole anything though. Both of us considered thievery to be low-life behavior and we knew we were better than that.

For a while, we got away with everything. She was nothing if not trusting, so trusting in fact that she used to leave her keys ignition if her car. This proved to cause my fall from grace in her eyes. One day, I thought it would be funny to start the car and rev the engine as high as it would go.

This caused Mrs. Spastic to storm out the front door all apoplectic and screaming at me to stop that this incident while I ran away laughing. She also threatened to tell my parents, or maybe the cops. In either case, I wasn’t too worried. The reason crazy people make the best victims is that nobody believes them.

After that, she had little interest in my acting career, which was fine. I was spending less time in Oxnard Shores anyway and Jake had moved away. Before Jake left, he must’ve introduced her to some other kids in the neighborhood because word had gotten around that she and her home were fair game for anything you wanted to do.

One weekend I was visiting, a bunch of us were sitting around feeling bored so we decided to all go see Mrs. Spastic together. We marched up to her front door and rang the bell.

“Hold on boys. I got something for you,” she said and shut the door. All of us liked gifts so we waited patiently for her return.

When the door opened again, her smiling gap teeth were now gnashing in fury. Not only that, she had a weapon. I didn’t get too good a look at it, but it appeared to be something akin to a high-powered slingshot with a pistol grip and she was shooting what I think we’re ball bearings at us. We scattered and fled. She could have easily put one of our eyes out, but I doubt she cared. She was clearly sick of our shit.

I never saw Mrs. Spastic after that. I doubt any of the others did either. I like to think she went on to spend her days enjoying her well-earned peace and quiet, free from unexplained mishaps around the house, and relaxed enough to read her beloved Oscar Wilde.

Heat

There’s a reason I don’t live in the Southwest, or the South for that matter. It’s their summers. One’s a dry heat and therefore less oppressive, though I’m not a fan of either of them. One kind of sweltering heat makes you fuck a cactus, the other your cousin. Both could be fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to live that way.

I live in San Francisco where summer days usually aren’t bad. There are exceptions though. This past Saturday was one of them. It was not as hot as either the South or Southwest and did not drive me to sexually assault a cousin-cactus hybrid, which I figure is at highest risk for rape in extreme heat and moderate humidity.

Instead, I lay on the couch and wheezed F bombs at no one in particular as the afternoon wore on. Rebecca eventually got motivated and dragged her ass to the gym, but I did not budge. When she came back after an hour or two, I was feeling the effects of caffeine withdrawal. It was then I  decided to finally get out of the house.

“Going to Trash Muddy’s!” I said to her as I headed out the door. I was referring to Muddy Waters, a cafe owned by the same people as Muddy’s and located eight blocks away on 16th Street. It’s a little crustier down that way, hence the nickname I gave it.

I stuck to the west side of Valencia Street, shaded from the late afternoon sun, as I walked toward the cafe. I was unfortunately not shielded from the late afternoon crowd. The douchebags in v-neck t-shirts and Shia LaBeouf hair were the most aesthetically offensive, but to be honest I wasn’t thrilled about any of them. They walked slower than I did and impeded my progress. Never mind that I was in no hurry to get where I was going. If I was going to dawdle, I wanted it to be on my terms.

I got to Trash Muddy’s, ordered a large coffee, and sat in the back room. I was at the same table as last week, the one with “DIE TECHIE SCUM” etched into the wood. Did the person who wrote that mean me? Maybe a little. I do write code for a living, but I’m not some 24 year old who’s lived a life of privilege. I’m a 54 year old who’s lived a life of privilege. There’s a world of difference.

It was hot in there and the air was heavy and still. Ordinarily, I would hate that. I kind of liked it though, either despite or because of my drinking hot coffee.  I was able to relax enough to enjoy being the only back there. I also liked that other than my phone, I couldn’t see any technology more recent than 1990. It almost made me put my phone away and enjoy the old-timey goodness.

Almost.

Pausing Briefly To Look Around

I’m in a different building this week. From the window where the training course is being held, I can see a couple of other buildings of the company campus. The one where I usually work is on the other side of things. I figure it’s probably a few blocks away.

I’m a city boy so I think of distances in blocks, where getting from points A to B can be plotted on a concrete-and-asphalt grid that reeks of piss and vomit. Where I work is not like that. There, getting around involves a straight shot across expansive parking lots between uniform beige buildings placed at odd angles to one another.

The building I’m in for training is just far enough away for me to choose a different route for my lunchtime stroll. So, instead of walking by the water tower and the abandoned special-needs gulag surrounding it, I wandered along the base of an embankment with a creek on the other side to the corner of the company campus. There I sit in a shady spot behind a bunch of dumpsters and shipping containers, which I imagine will be some kind of makeshift post-apocalyptic village after society takes a one-way trip down the crapper in the near future.

My routine and surroundings are quite similar to any other week, but just different enough to make me feel like I’m wandering around a place that isn’t quite my world. Fortunately, I feel like that most of the time already so the experience is not all that disconcerting.

I’ve felt similar about this blog lately. Believe it or not, I had a mission of sorts when I started blogging more back in late January. Trump had just been inaugurated and I predicted that politics, particularly that of the “Trump sucks” variety, was going to dominate verbal outpouring on the interwebs. I wanted no part of that.

It’s not that I’m an apolitical or that my political leanings have been kept entirely out of my blog posts. It just wanted what I wrote to be my voice and my perspective instead of echoing what everyone else was saying.

I’ve spent enough time on social media (primarily Facebook) to be sick to my guts of the neverending onslaught of groupthink. One could blame millennials and their affinity for the hive mind, but my memory is too good for that. People have never needed much prompting to jump on the bandwagon. Modern technology just gives them the opportunity to be more vocal about it.

Fuck that, thought I, I’m going to say what I want. I’m not going to worry if anyone sees things my way. And to show real bravery, I’m not going to back down even if no one cares one way or another what I say.

So month after month, that’s what I did. I indulged in high-minded experiments that yielded mixed results at best. I was open-ish about my mental-health issues and past substance abuse. And of course, I fell back on vulgar humor when I didn’t have anything else to say.

I was all me, all the time and while my efforts didn’t get me much in the way of accolades or increased readership, the volume of work has been high and the quality at least adequate. Where I think I’ve failed so far is that I haven’t produced that breakout piece of writing that raises my work to a new level.

Still, I keep at it simply because writing is preferable to not writing. It’s all a little strange, a little absurd, and what was once purpose has turned into force of habit. Maybe I’ll achieve brilliance someday, but it’s nice to know I don’t have to.

A Flickering Bulb

Starting Monday, I’m going to sit in a five-day training class at work. The class will be held onsite, but in a different building than where I usually work. While there, I’ll learn how to administer a large, complicated software package. More to the point, I’ll learn how the administration works so I can do productive, nerdy things with the API.

Fortunately, I’ve been playing around with it so I won’t be walking in completely cold. I’m just a simple boy so I need context for concepts to sink in. The goal is to have a bunch of stuff I’m either confused about or oblivious of to make perfect sense by the end of the week.

That’s certainly doable, but it will be exhausting. You see, I have this problem paying attention for an extended period. In a training class, that is exactly what I need to do. I cannot always be asking the instructor or the person next to repeat what said while I was off in Daveland.

On normal workdays, this isn’t a problem. Within reason, I get to fade in and out all I want. Writing code for a living affords me this luxury. This doesn’t mean I can space out and daydream all day, far from it. I always something on my plate and there is an expectation for me to get it done in a timely manner. This requires focus. It just doesn’t require it 100 percent of the time.

The mental wanderings don’t usually last long. I often listen to music at work when I’m doing something I know how to do. When I’m trying to figure out how to do something, I have to turn the music off so I can concentrate. When the music is playing, it actually helps my overall focus because it helps to drown out the attention whores that live inside my head. When my mind wanders from the code on the screen to the song pumping through my ear buds, it stays just long enough to appreciate D Boon’s guitar, Dennis Thompson’s drums, or Patti Smith’s voice.

Alas, I know of no instances of all three in the same song.

Other than music, my brain’s diversion destination is often a memory that has crawled out of hibernation for reasons that are not always apparent. Other times, the brain veers off toward a story idea or joke I just thought up. In these instances, I will often jot them down so I can give them a full vetting later on.

All in all, these flights of fancy are good for my mental health and that holds true in both directions. I know what it’s like to do nothing but let my brain run wild and the experience can be very unpleasant. The memories that appear can be of things I deeply regret. The stories I think up are sometimes worst-case scenarios just plausible enough to keep me from rejecting them out of hand.

Even music can my get emotional panties in a bunch on occasion. I listen to a lot of punk rock and other dysfunctional stuff, but I usually find it soothing. It’s crazy and enraged so I don’t have to be. The problem creeps in when my own crazy is too intense to delegate. Some years ago, I was at work dealing with a pretty bad case of depression when I listened to the Germs’ “We Must Bleed.” That sent my brain down an ideation rabbit hole that made me hurt pretty bad (“I want out now” repeated over and over was a particular motherfucker). Having work to do actually helped a lot. It gave me something to think about other than my own bullshit.

Fortunately, things have been comparatively calm. Listening to the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” makes me think how lovely it would be to have it playing as my casket enters the furnace during my cremation ceremony. To be honest, any song off that album would work. The thought of it is undeniably morbid, but it is also distant. Dead Dave is a mere abstraction. Living Dave is a busy little bee, living in a here and now that’s really not so bad.

It’s a good argument for keeping an adequate level of focus. Besides, that is what they pay me to do.

The Plug

My first experience with pay cable TV came when I moved to Santa Barbara with my mom and my brother in 1975. I think the name of the company was Channel 100, but I’m not certain about that. The name changed a few times between then and when I left for college in 1980. I don’t know how many times it was different companies or the same one trying new names on for size. I didn’t much care about that. The important thing was that it was commercial free and I got to hear all the dirty words.

At first, it seemed like the company would pick one movie and play it over and over for days on end. I don’t know how many times I saw American Graffiti that first summer in Santa Barbara before the school year began and I started making friends.

Thanks to pay cable, my exposure to R-rated movies first happened in my early teens. As far as I was concerned, an R-rated film was just a PG one with tits. I knew there was more to it than that. Profanity or violence above a certain level could affect the rating as well. However, those factors were matters of degree and difficult for my brain to parse. I sort of knew why Blazing Saddles garnered an R rating while Young Frankenstein did not, but could not explain it convincingly using data points. To be honest, I probably still can’t because the MPAA is so arbitrary. Nudity, on the other hand, was pretty much guaranteed to flip that switch.

I have no idea how any of that works now.

My parents, though not very permissive, did not have a problem with my watching R-rated movies at home. For one thing, I was a teenager already, albeit an immature one. Dad was no longer living with us so there was not a whole lot he could do even if he did object. My mother echoed the “it’s the violence, not the sex, that’s the problem” refrain of the 1970s progressive censor and knew that limiting me to PG films was not going to shield me from onscreen bloodshed.

There was such a thing as parental controls back then, but it was pretty low-tech compared to what we have today. It came in the form of a plug in the back of the cable box. It was a round piece of plastic with a number of metal prongs. If you pull the plug out, cable programming would not work. It didn’t matter what channel you were tuned to or if you were watching I Spit on Your Grave or Bambi. No plug meant you got a screen full of static.

Mom never exercised the plug-pulling option, but she joked about it quite often. “Pull the plug!” she would shout whenever there was something the slightest bit risque on television. The joke never got old for her.

Joke or not, my brother set about robbing the plug of its power to censor. It was probably more a love of tinkering than a need to rebel that inspired him. What he did was to stick the two ends of a section of wire in different holes of the plug’s socket until he found a combination that restored the picture. It was a simple yet clever workaround and he bragged about it immediately upon achieving success.

Mom didn’t appreciate his ingenuity. Instead, she got very upset and said he could have destroyed the cable box, electrocuted himself, burned the house down, and other worst-case scenarios popular among those who don’t know what they’re talking about. I think what really pissed her off was that my brother eliminated a part of her authority, even if she never intended to use it. Mom was pretty crazy back then (says the pot of the kettle).

I’m not as clever as my brother so the wire trick never occurred to me. I was just glad to be able to watch whatever I wanted.

You may be wondering if this unsupervised television viewing is responsible for the dysfunctional mess who stands before you today. The answer is not really, no. I was already pretty bent at that point so a lot of the sex and violence I watched was pretty underwhelming, enough so that sometimes I just wanted the people onscreen to die.

That’s where the plug came in.

I had once pulled the plug just to make sure it did what it was supposed to. It did, but it was the way it worked that got my attention. For the first several seconds, nothing happened. Then the picture switched from color to black and white. After that, static would creep into the audio and video. Finally, there would be nothing but snow.

Sometimes I would watch the whole process play out. Other times, I would wait until the very last minute then put the plug back in and save the TV people and their world from annihilation. I even enjoyed it more than my other hobby of reading the obituaries and crossing the people’s names out in the phone book. There I was just Death’s file clerk. Here I was Death himself.

I eventually grew bored with both the cable-box plug and the obituary game. In the long run, it was for the best.

“But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Ricardo Montalban said that while praising Corinthian leather.

Toothy Grim Revisited

I had a brief flirtation with proper dental care about 10 years ago. I blogged about the experience a few times from June to October, 2007 if you care to go have a look. It’s understandable if you don’t. Blogs are usually regarded as things of the moment. Archives are just there for completists and stalkers.

So to recap, a piece of a molar broke off when I bit into a burrito, exposing nerve endings poking out of a Vegemite-hued crust of tooth decay. I hadn’t been to a dentist since 2000, but this broken tooth forced me to go back.

He was the same dentist I had gone to in 2000. He reminded me somewhat of Whit Bissell, albeit less likely to want to turn Michael Landon into a teenage werewolf. He did quality work and was not stingy with nitrous. With the help of this dentist, I was going to experience a toothy renaissance. Root canals were performed. Crowns were molded and set in place. Tartar was blasted away using a state-of-the-art torture device. A $650 mouth guard was made to protect my teeth from nocturnal grinding. A home whitening kit was purchased. Thousands of dollars were spent.

After a while, I decided the hell with it. I disliked wearing the mouth guard and got sick of the dentist pressuring me into buying more and more shit. I should have just switched dentists. Instead, I swore them off completely. No point in putting much effort into taking care of my teeth, I thought. Even If I did nothing other than brush, they would probably outlast my liver.

Armed with an immense capacity for denial, I set about neglecting my teeth. Years went by and other than receding gums and a couple of cavities big enough for me to feel them with my tongue, everything was going swimmingly. Then in January of 2016, I lost a filling while eating a sandwich in the cafeteria at work. It was about the size of a pea, which is pretty big for a filling. Fuck it, I reasoned. I’ll just chew with the other side of my mouth.

Overall, this worked out well with some downside. Food would get stuck in the hole in my tooth on a regular basis and I’d have to dig it out with a coffee stirrer, much to the chagrin of anyone having to witness the spectacle. I was also getting a cavity under a crown at the gum line in a molar on the other side of my mouth. The presence of these nooks for food to biodegrade in gave me what Rebecca charitably referred to as “fun breath.” No big deal, I figured. I’m old. My breath is supposed to smell like a baboon fart and if I brushed my teeth before kissing Rebecca, it showed her how considerate I am. Months passed and the cavities continued to grow.

This past Sunday, I bit into a pot sticker and there was not enough tooth left to keep the crown in place. I heard a disconcerting crunching sound and I knew that molar was fucked. I reached into my mouth and wiggled the crown. It was barely attached. I wiggled it again. It broke off entirely.

Rebecca remarked on how bad the thing smelled when I waved it in front of me. I took her word for it. Due to a combination of genetics and poor life choices, what I can smell is pretty much limited to whiskey and homeless-people shit. Rebecca poured rubbing alcohol in an empty plastic medicinal-weed container and I dropped the crown into it. The liquid turned cloudy with the remnants of tooth and meals from long ago.

Tuesday was my first day back at work after the holiday and also the first day when I could make a dental appointment. The broken tooth didn’t hurt at all and I probably would have done nothing about it if I hadn’t already promised to have it looked at. Looking through my insurance company’s website, I came across a dentist I went to in the early 90s. I remembered him doing a good job and he never tried to sell me a bunch of extra crap.

I ended up choosing him and I’m glad I did. The two teeth in question need to get pulled, but that was to be expected. I have no desire for a perfect smile, just a functional mouth to chew my food and better breath when I kiss Rebecca.

I may even start  flossing regularly, but I doubt it.