People in Suburbia

I took a college class in project management, in which students worked with 3 or 4 others on a small group project. There were 4 people in my group: myself, a Sudanese girl, an older guy with red hair and thick red beard, and a young male who I like to call Forgetful Guy.

There were two incidents that make Forgetful Guy stand out:

  • Red-hair guy showed up in class one day, and Forgetful Guy immediately comments “hey, I really like the new haircut, it looks good on you“. Red-hair guy wasn’t really sure how to respond, but he said “I guess you could say I had some hair cut. Did you mean something lower?“, hinting at his face and neck. Forgetful Guy stared for a few moment, evidently looking for something, but not finding it. “I shaved my beard if that’s what you meant.” “Oh! Right! Hey, you look pretty good clean-shaven.
  • During a break, Sudanese girl left the class, probably to take a phonecall. A completely differently Sudanese girl walks in, and asks Forgetful Guy if anyone was using the empty computer next to him, that she needed to print something out. Forgetful Guy makes a comment that our project will be due in a few weeks, but we can put it off until the last minute since we already have things finished. The new girl looks confused, but she makes conversation anyway, asking Forgetful Guy what degree he’s going for, they get chatty. The new girl prints her paper and leaves. The original Sudanese girl comes back, and Forgetful Guy asks her if she changed her jacket. She hadn’t. It dawned on him that he’d just mistaken an entirely different person for someone he’d been working with every week for the past 13 weeks.

Forgetful Guy has problems remembering what people look like (a phenomenon known as Prosopamnesia). He is wholly capable of describing faces, recognizing most people, but has a tremendous amount of difficulty picking out a particular face from a collection of pictures. He has a habit of confusing two people who resemble each other in some superficial way (the Sudanese Girl and her doppelganger were dark-skinned, thin, and wore glasses, but otherwise wholly dissimilar).

Its not just faces, but Forgetful Guy is frequently unable to remember names, and is usually incapable of identifying celebrities or naming actors from a movie he’s just seen. He’s occasionally unable to recognize people who change their appearance in some non-trivial way, such as coloring their hair.

Forgetful Guy explained that he’s neither bothered nor feels impaired — its more of a quirk. He’s usually capable of recognizing people who he works with on a daily basis.

I took off my glasses for him and asked if he still recognized me. He commented “at first, maybe not. But after a while, yes.” How do you mean, I enquired. “Your voice is really shrill.

:<

In high school, I used to go over to friends house to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and drink orange soda. She brought over another friend who I didn’t know to well, but recognized him from chem class. He was a bit of an odd duck: knew ballet, was learning to speak Portuguese, could ride a unicycle, referred to himself as a lesbian-identified male.

He was also a compulsive liar — not the pathological sort, but just type of person who is incapable of telling truths. If you asked him if he slept in late, he’d reply that he’d actually been up all morning; if he had cereal for breakfast, he’d tell you he made waffles. But, he was really good at analyzing episodes of Buffy and drinking orange soda, and he always had amusing fictitious stories, so he was fun to keep around.

Hair Guy gets his name because he had a hair fetish. Of the few truthful things which came out of his mouth, he described in detail his unnatural, head-over-heels, fluttering-heart fascination with long hair. Thought it was weird that he had zero reaction from women’s breasts, bums, lips, or eyes — you know, “normal” things. He didn’t like nudity in any form, and considers all genitalia to be very ugly. He commented how he fantasized for hours over women brushing and straightening their hair, liked to see women shake ponytails, was infatuated a certain Russian tennis player’s long hair. After that point, he’d often offer to French braid my hair… and I let him. (Why shouldn’t I? He was a pro!)

I didn’t really talk to Hair Guy after we graduated. Five years later he friended me on Facebook, and we caught up with one another. He explained that his compulsive lying got him into a tremendous amount of trouble:

  • In college he inadvertently blurted out that he was dating a girl, and narrow escaped having his ass kicked by her boyfriend.
  • He related a story in which he went to a computer hardware store to buy a graphics card. The clerk said “so, are you looking to play a game?” and he blurts out “actually, I’m a programmer, I want a new graphics card to program at home”. The clerk commented that he looked pretty young, and he said he was 22 and had a background writing robotics software for a hospital. He went to pay by debit card, and the clerk asked for a photo ID — which had his real age (18 at the time). The clerk took him to be a con artist and refused to make the sale. Compulsive Lying Hair Guy couldn’t set foot the hardware store again.
  • He commented to a college professor that he’d been asked to give lectures at a college in a neighboring city. The professor just happened to know most of the other faculty at that college, asked what and whom he lectured for, etc. Knowing he would be outed if the professor found out, hair guy dropped the course in embarrassment.

There were numerous similar instances, times that Hair Guy says he was “that guy”. He confessed to having lied about almost everything to everyone: his name, his age, his family, birthplace, people he knew, jobs he’s held, everything. Most of the stories he tells have actually happened to other people, he just tells them as if they’d happened to him. He has a complicated life philosophy: “there’s no real difference between what you do and what people think you’ve done.

He is apparently disturbed by his own lying, making some really abstract comments that the “show” he’s put on is a completely depersonalizing experience. He feels like an actor for everyone, doesn’t have a personal identity, doesn’t even know what type of person he is behind all the lying.

In the last 5 years, he’s worked steady jobs and has slowly accumulated money. He didn’t become a hair stylist like he’d always told people he would, but put himself through college as a graphic designer. He has a 4-year degree in Mathematics. He enclosed some photos of himself: one from high school, one from 6 months ago showing his hair after 5 years of near-constant growth, and the last one being 3-month post op of his facial feminization surgery. She now lives full-time as a woman, has a girlfriend, and is planning to go to law school.

A few years ago, I was a member of a skeptic’s community (the James Randi Educational Foundation for those interested), where I met PhD in cognitive psychology. Of course, I had no idea he was an academic until until he posted his research papers and link to his instructor summary at a university website. Before that, I’d known him for his scatological humor, frank discussion of perverse sexual fetishes, and an odd preoccupation with anal sex.

His wife is a pretty woman with fire-engine red hair. They have 4 children.

My favorite cashier at Walmart is a 50-year-old woman with shoulder-length white hair and thin build. She likes to wear dark eye-liner, maybe a little too foundation, tight-fitting jeans, smiles a lot.

Something tells me she may have been a former cheerleader, definitely has the figure for it. More than that, she is incredibly perky — no, theatrically perky. The way she moves, the tone and intonation of her speaking voice, you’d swear she was in her 20s.

She’s a living embodiment of that phrase “you’re only as old as you want to be”, and always asks me about my day 🙂

Several years, I encountered an Aussie woman who happened to be an animal rights activist and a vegan.

Off-hand, she commented that she raised hens and occasionally used their eggs to make breakfast. I was surprised, because at the time, I had only a vague picture of animal rights philosophy, but I was quite sure that people wearing the vegan label don’t eat eggs.

I asked her about it, how she reconciles eating animal products with her veganism. She explained that AR activists like her don’t avoid animal products because of their origin, but rather the way animal products are obtained. Factory farms and even “free range” farms are not nice places for chickens.

Her hens, on the other hand, are as happy as can be and are not raised for slaughter. They run around on her property, make chicken noises, scratch and peck at the dirt, build their own nests, eat seeds,  etc. Every once in a while, the hens lay eggs; they don’t seem to mind people collecting their eggs.

Her veganism compels her to avoid products which intentionally causes harm to animals, not necessarily to avoid animal products in and of itself. I asked her if she had an objection to animals which die natural deaths in the wild, or even roadkill. She gave me a look that, without the words needed to say it out loud, indicated that my question might be too sardonic to merit a serious answer.

In any case, she hesitantly answers no, there’s nothing obviously objectionable about eating dead things squashed on the road — “except its unsanitary, and just really really GROSS!” Touché, Aussie Vegan.

A couple of years ago, on the internet, I ran into a guy who was recovering from an obsessive-compulsive fear of The Rapture.

Left Behind guy was a Roman Catholic who, in a chance encounter, discovered the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye, books which describe the end of days from the point of view of people left behind in the Rapture. Wanting to learn more, Left Behind guy joined the Rapture Ready community (rr-bb.com). The more and more he became involved with the community, the more and more doubts he had about his own piety — he’d had premarital sex, missed church, enjoyed lewd movies, he never evangelized, had never even read the Bible in its entirety.

He convinced himself that he was an unfaithful Christian, that the Rapture would come by at least 2012, that God would reject him and leave him behind in the Rapture. His fear of of being left behind was indescribably intense, and the foreknowledge that it was unavoidable sent him into deep depression. The anxiety absolutely destroyed him: he had to drop out of college, saw no point in going to work anymore, alienated his closest friends, couldn’t even look at a church because the sight would make him collapse with nausea.

Occasionally, in fits of hysteria, he *have* to call his family members at all times of the day and night, needed to check if the Rapture had happened. If he felt inexplicably alone, heard the sound of sirens, couldn’t find a person he was searching for, he’d have to call someone to find out if he’d been left behind. His family became irate and stopped returning his phonecalls — which only exacerbated his anxiety.

Left Behind Guy had made a lot of friends at Rapture Ready — however, one of his friends, started to have doubts about her faith for one reason or another. She was berated and eventually banned from the community for spreading seeds of doubt. Left Behind Guy had seen a lot of heavy-handed moderation, decided to leave the site in protest.

Once he left that that paranoid, fear-mongering cult, he was an outsider. He watched people in the the community from a different point of view — saw people wrestling with the same intense fear, depression. He saw people throwing their jobs away, talking about the futility of conservation on the basis that the world will end in a few years, seeing people talk about experiences being persecuted by friends and family who think they’re something “wrong” with them. As an outsider looking in, he saw mirror images of himself in other people, and was horrified.

Left Behind Guy’s experience lasted about 6 months. He “recovered”, as he puts it. To the best of my knowledge, he has re-built an intensely rewarding faith on a more liberal flavor of Roman Catholicism.

My first programming job was a completely surreal experience. It was a small company of around 100 or so people. The company CEO was absolutely petulant, the pointy-haired boss type: extremely vulgar, 50ish with whitening hair, fake orange tan, knew absolute squat about software but only headed the company because he inherited it from daddy. I’d hear him all the time swearing at people, making snide and hateful comments about the people in tech support.

For a big demo, the dev team was asked to work miracles: he gave us six weeks to design, build, and test a prototype of CRM software from scratch. No requirements, “you don’t need requirements if you’re using Agile or what’cha-callit“, he just wanted us to copy a competitor’s product feature-for-feature. We told him the timeline was impossible, he said do it anyway, even if it meant working until 8 or 9 PM every night. I stated that I would not work without compensation, namely a tremendous amount of overtime. “Just work for free!” Absolutely not, I said. “Well if you aren’t here at 8 PM tonight, were will you be at 8 AM tomorrow” — I take that comment as a thinly veiled threat to be fired.

One of my coworkers was a few straws short of a bundle:  in his Southern, slightly cajun drawl, he basically said whatever was on his mind completely unfiltered. He was a gearhead, liked working on cars, even offered to tear my car’s engine apart and build me a hotrod. He was former military, frequently came to work in full camo gear, steel-toed boots, etc. This was a point of contention between Camo Guy and the Pointy-Haired Boss:

“No, no, no, go home and change right now.”
“Why, are you afraid someone’s gonna see me? Who’s gonna see me.”
“I don’t even want to hear it. You can either go home and change, or you can go home and not come back.”
“Go home? I can’t go home, I got WORK TO DO. Workin’ for a livin’, livin’ and a-workin'”
“Fine, whatever, do your damn job.”
“I’m takin’ what they’re givin’ ’cause I’m workin’ for a livin’!”

Two guys, two stubborn and inflated egos. This was a daily thing.

One day, Pointy-Haired Boss was overhead screaming and swearing at the top of his lungs to one of the women in accounting. Apparently, an accounting error was corrected, and we went from being $50,000 under budget to $5,000 in a hole. He got into this woman’s face and screamed to the point that she broke down in tears. Crazy Camo Guy stepped in:

“What the hell is going on here?!”
“None of you’re goddamn business.”
[To the accountant] “Ma’am, what’s your name? Laura?”
“Will you please get out of here.”
[To the boss] “NO! NO! NO! YOU DON’T TALK TO EMPLOYEES LIKE THAT! You don’t talk to Laura like that, SHE’S MY FRIEND!”
“What are you gonna do about it?”
“Let’s go outside and I’ll show you what I’ll do about it.”

Someone from marketing breaks the two guys apart before fists start flying. Crazy Camo guy put in a one-week notice that same day. Pointy-Haired Boss: “good riddance, we don’t want you here.”

Camo Guy happened to be a member of the local Renaissance Faire. On his last day of work, we rolled in a real cannon, aimed directly at the PHB’s office. Boss shows up to work, sees the cannot, shakes his head and swears loudly at everyone within earshot. That cannon sat there for entire day.

Last I’d heard, Crazy Camo guy got a job clerking at a bait and tackle shop. Says he couldn’t be happier.

My tenure at the company was 15 months. The boss never once learned my name.


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