The Dishwasher Story

Prologue

As I noted in my last post, 15-20 years ago I wrote a regular series of essays, most intended to be humorous. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I wrote this one circa 1999 about events in 1980-1982. I have edited it a little from the original. It’s a little long but I hope it is worth the effort.

The Story

This is a little reminiscence of my grad student days, brought on by a visit by my former roommate, Dave. It is, like my travelogues, almost 100% based in the truth, with a few details changed to protect the guilty (and a few others forgotten because I’m getting to be a senile old fart).

During my first year of grad school, I lived in a single-bedroom apartment. This was in Atlanta, as I was going to grad school at Georgia Tech. I got the apartment in a big complex named Jade East about 2 miles from Tech, on Collier Road. The apartments were old, and a bit rundown, but the location was ideal: it was right on a bus line that went to Tech, it was near an entrance to I-75 for travel around the area, there was a grocery store a block away, and — perhaps most important for some occasions — there was a liquor store within walking distance. (The apartments have since been torn down and replaced with a more upscale apartment complex.)

I was able to convince the management of my good character, despite being a Yankee, primarily because I could afford the rent and had a real credit rating. I had been lucky enough to get a major fellowship that would cover the rent, the security deposit, and leave enough left over to buy grits and beer. I opted for the single apartment rather than look for roommates for two major reasons: 1) I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to stay, and 2) if I did stay, I was hoping my longtime (5 years) girlfriend might come to Atlanta to join me. Fate was clearly laughing behind my back, because I ended up staying in Atlanta for almost 8 years, and Diane dumped me for some yuppie about 6 months after I started grad school.

So, I spent a year running at the ragged edge of poverty, but enjoying my privacy. Right, like I had much time in my apartment. Actually, I spent most of my time in the lab or in the library, trying to study for exams and pass my courses. Another reason I spent my time at the library was the noise. My downstairs neighbors were apparently a family of 22 Asian students who never slept, but who shared their one-bedroom apartment in shifts so they could play Donna Summer disco records through industrial sound systems. This was before karaoke, so they simply sang along loudly with bad accents. Even to this day, if I hear “I Will Survive” I want to grab a broom handle and pound on the floor. (I know it was about that many people, because in 12 months, whenever I went to the laundry room there were 2 or 3 of them doing their laundry — 6pm, 3am, 7am, noon — it didn’t matter. Always someone different, always 6 loads of wash.)

After Diane gave me the heave-ho, the image of a hot bachelor pad may have come to mind. Hot it was, because the rent was so high I couldn’t afford the electric bill if I ran the A/C much. So, I usually worked until 10pm, then came home and opened all the windows and sweated a lot…by myself. I remember that there were 3 women in my classes in whom I had some interest. Unfortunately, all were sighted, mostly sane, and they refused to date outside their species (this has been a life-long problem). Tech was not exactly great for the single male, as the male-female ratio at the time was 7-2, and of those 2, 1.5 were best described as “burly” and dreaming of a career directing drilling on an oil platform in the North Sea. So, the usual visitors to my den of potential iniquity were male classmates in study sessions.

At least a few of my classmates, however, also came over to drink beers, watch bad movies on TV, or do some gaming. The really good ones did all three. One of these was a somewhat quiet classmate named Dave. Dave & I didn’t really notice each other in class at first, but we were forcibly introduced by a young woman we were both trying to ask out who told us that we’d be ideal roommates. She was right, but we thought it was a ploy so we’d stop trying to get her as a roommate. If so, it worked.

Dave & I hit it off. We had similar strange stories to tell. We liked the same odd movies. And, Dave was interested in games — something I had as a hobby at the time. So, we got a group together to do D&D gaming some Friday nights, which was principally an excuse to tell bad stories, drink warm beer, and watch bad movies. (The cable installer had left the wrong cable box in my apartment, and I had all the premium channels although I was only paying for basic service. They never fixed it.)

One weekend, we had about 6 people over to play D&D. We had what seemed like a dozen pizzas, several cases of beer, and played until 4 in the morning. I eventually went into the bedroom and fell asleep in my clothes. A few people left, and Dave and others too tired or inebriated to drive home ended up falling asleep on the floor and couch amidst the empties.

About 8am, I was awakened by the sound of the doorbell. I staggered to the door, in rumpled clothing, my eyes somewhat bloodshot, and opened it. Two freshly-scrubbed, preppy-looking young people. They wanted to tell me about their religious sect and bring the word of God to me. Well, I wasn’t particularly interested, especially before noon on a Saturday, and my lack of concentration was obvious. The young man suggested that they come in, and we could go over their Bible while sitting down. I stepped to the side so they could look into the living room — beer cans everywhere, bodies stretched out among empty pizza boxes — and took a step back. Dave had stirred himself and was sitting partially upright. Because of the lack of A/C, I seem to recall he had partially disrobed, which only heightened the effect of his disheveled appearance. He squinted towards the door, and roared something like — “Send in the woman so we can ravish her!” He then threw some dice left nearby, looked at them and hollered “The fates say to send in the man, too — she won’t be enough!” With that, he fell back to the rug, more or less in a stupor.

I decided to cut things short, seeing as they were now horrified and speechless. I put on a severe expression and asked “Does your religious group make human sacrifices?” The young man barely squeaked out “N..n…no!” So, I shook my head sadly and said “Then I’m sorry — none of us would be interested.” and I closed the door in their faces. I then stumbled to my room and went back to sleep. Oddly, I was never bothered by religious solicitors at that apartment again. This may have been coupled to the skull and crosses that were mysteriously carved into the door frame sometime in the next few days. Or, it might all have been coincidence.

Anyhow, Dave & I realized that our joint performance that morning presaged a long and productive friendship. So, when my lease was up, we looked about for an apartment to share. Oddly, we ended up at the other end of the same complex, in a “townhouse.” The location was ideal, after all (the grocery store expanded to 24 hours, and absorbed the liquor store). On many occasions we found that the “town” in “townhouse” was actually Arkham from H.P. Lovecraft, but that simply added to the charm.

Many adventures occurred at that locale over the next 5 years, and I may relate some of them in later stories. However, I will tell here the tale of the dishwasher, mainly because Dave and I got a severe case of the giggles a few nights ago reminiscing about it. Of course, we were sitting out on the porch drinking beers and giggling about life in general, but I’m sure there must be something about this that is likely to amuse sober people, too.

After Dave & I had been living in the apartment for a few years, we noticed that the management kept changing. Apparently, this complex was well known as a tax dodge. Some company would buy in, run the place for 6 months, then sell at a paper loss for tax reasons. Meanwhile, they would invest nothing in the townhouses (they kept up the single-bedroom apartments, because that is where some of the staff lived, as did some city officials). Thus, we were sort of conditioned to not expect speedy maintenance service at our end of the complex.

One fine winter day, we loaded up the dishwasher and started it. Our usual approach to this was to wait until there were no clean dishes. We’d then chip away the dried food holding the dirty dishes together in the sink, put them in the dishwasher, put in too much detergent, and wash them a few times. This was a waste of water and energy, but we weren’t really into that whole environmental mindset then (although we were preserving some odd species in containers in the back of the fridge; do you know that jalapeño peppers kept in the dark for 18 months grow pink mold that is faintly phosphorescent?). Plus, the disposal in the sink was able to chew up food less efficiently than the guy in the “before” part of a Fixodent commercial, so we usually left it to the grinder in the dishwasher: two cycles through the dishwasher could handle pretty much everything but chicken bones and one instance of Jell-O gone terribly awry.

This time, the dishwasher didn’t do its usual half-assed job. It didn’t do any job. It got a little way into the wash cycle and just stopped. We swore, we checked fuses, and we tried manually advancing the timer, but we had no success — we had a dishwasher full of dirty dishes, dirty water, and large chunks of food that just kind of floated forlornly in the gray water. So, we went over to the office and filed a maintenance report.

A week later, the dishwasher was still broken. So, we finally pulled the dishes out and washed them by hand. We noticed the water was beginning to smell bad, so we did what any other trained scientist would do — we pulled out the bottles from under the sink, and poured stuff into the dishwasher on the theory that if it would deodorize the floor, it ought to work in the dishwasher too. I seem to recall that some pine scented cleaner was the principal ingredient in this mixture. I know we got a little silly, and squirted in Windex, too, and maybe also some furniture polish. We figured it smelled bad, so some lemon fresh scent wouldn’t hurt. Besides, in a few days when it was fixed, it would all be pumped out, right? We reported the problem again to the office.

Another week went by, and Dave and I switched to paper plates. We reported it again to the office, but nothing continued to happen. Eventually, we got used to using paper plates and washing the pots by hand. We saw the apartment management come and go, but no fix was forthcoming. Throughout the spring, we did dishes by hand, used disposable plates and forks (adding a certain je ne sais quoi to our all-too-infrequent dinner dates), and forgot about the fact that we had a dishwasher.

Summer came upon us in full. The A/C didn’t work well, either (besides being an old unit, and often broken, the apartments weren’t well insulated. It wasn’t that the walls were empty of any barrier. No, it was the fact that the solid layer of cockroaches that was there instead of insulation didn’t keep the heat out). Because we were in a “high crime risk” neighborhood, we kept all the windows closed while we were at school….as if there were thieves desperate enough to steal orange crate bookcases, beanbag chairs held together with duct tape, and large packages of paper plates. The apartment would get really, really warm during the day — often above 90. So, around about August, we were complaining to a visitor, impressed with our table settings and ambiance, about the A/C being broken, and the dishwasher still being broken, and on and on. She pointed out to us that we should demand that these things get fixed, or we would pay to have them fixed ourselves and deduct the cost from our rent. As she was cute and we didn’t want to appear as wimps in front of her, we marched to the office and complained. (Footnote — didn’t help, she never came back.)

Interestingly, a month before, the apartment complex had been sold yet again. Only this time, it was to a company that wanted to turn the place around and make a long-term investment. So, they took us seriously and told us they would fix it the next day. Of course, we didn’t believe them.

The next day, Dave & I returned from classes to find all of our windows open. And all the windows were open next door (there were 4 apartments per building). Our cat was cowering in a tree in the courtyard. Our neighbors were eyeing us with incredible fear and loathing in their eyes. The wallpaper was hanging off the wall in the kitchen. The maintenance man was hovering in the distance, pale and drawn, with a wild look in his eyes and the smell of strong alcohol on his breath.

And we had a new dishwasher.

As it was later related to us, the repairman had shown up shortly after we left. He had tried to start the dishwasher from the front panel, but nothing happened. So, he decided to open it to look inside. Now, as best as I can recall, Dave and I had last opened this device about a week after it failed. At the time, it contained about 10 gallons of water, and about 2 or 3 pounds of various bits of food, including some eggs, grits, bacon grease, and other items of down-home Southern cooking. It also had about 3 cups of pine scented cleaner, maybe some lemon freshened soap, and who knows what else. And all this had been sitting in the dark for about 8 or 9 months. Most recently in 95 degree heat.

Anyhow, he undid the latch, and the accumulated gas pressure inside the unit blew the door open. The miasma that barreled out nearly knocked the poor man unconscious. I seem to recall him telling us that he threw up into the dishwasher as a matter of reflex. If so, it couldn’t have made it any worse. Heck, he could have urinated in it and it would have sweetened the mixture. 6 hours later, the lingering smell was enough to cause a mild retch reaction in passersby, so I cannot imagine what it must have been like at ground zero.

Apparently, the contents had become some primordial soup that was breeding new and interesting anaerobic life forms. A common characteristic of these life forms was that they excreted sulfur compounds and (very) aromatic hydrocarbons. There was no longer any trace of pine or lemon, or any other scent that humans normally tolerate.

The workers involved evacuated the apartment after turning on the exhaust fan in the kitchen. Of course, the exhaust fans in the cheap construction all vented to the same flue, so the the fumes got pumped into the other apartments (from our experience, when our neighbors behind us cooked their weekly feast of braised skunk in kim chee with Limburger cheese, it was imperative that we get our exhaust fan on first to prevent a kind of sharing we could do without). One set of neighbors called the gas company, thinking there had been some kind of toxic leak. Our other neighbors — who did the skunk cooking — came over for the recipe.

After bringing in a portable exhaust fan, the workers discovered that the motor had rusted from the exposure to the water and chemicals, so they needed to replace the whole dishwasher. At least, that is what they claim. They simply closed it up and removed it to an EPA-approved dump site (we hope). It is possible it was shipped to Fort Dettrick for some biowarfare program. I think that maybe they simply were afraid to bail out the contents to fix it, and decided it was worth the expense to replace it. Whatever the reason, we had a nice new dishwasher…that we didn’t use for several weeks, because we wanted to finish up using all the paper plates.

Epilogue

Oddly, thereafter, whenever Dave and I reported a maintenance problem, they fixed it right away, especially if we said “There’s no rush — we’ve put in a temporary fix.” Our cat, Waldo, refused to come back into the apartment for weeks. And the maintenance man continued to cross himself whenever he saw either of us.

To this day, we continue to wonder why we didn’t have more dates while in grad school.

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On the Passing of a Colleague

I read on Facebook today that a professional colleague had died a few days ago. She was a bright, warm person with whom I had interacted when I was actively involved in software engineering research, and through professional organizations (e.g., the CRA Board of Directors). It appears that she was gravely ill but didn’t tell many people. Thus, her passing was a surprise to many. It is a sad loss, for she brought some light to us all. I had not seen her in years, but her passing diminishes my world no less than had I seen her a few days ago.

Reflecting, death of someone we know is perhaps more often a surprise than not. An accident, a crime, an acute medical incident…. Seldom do any of us get to pick the time and manner of our deaths, except perhaps the self-destructive and rare cases of heroism. Each of us eventually passes. Each of us is dying right now — that is an inherent part of living that we should accept. Some people fear death, and that means they fear life. To really live in the here and now is what gives meaning, and what causes others to miss us when we’re gone.

I’ve written about a recent family loss here. I have written the obituaries of several icons in security who I was privileged to know, such as Gene Schultz, Jim Anderson and Harold Highland. Someday, perhaps someone will write mine (although I have provided a perfectly good pre-written one). It is never possible to capture the full essence of someone in one of these short collections of mere words, although we try by recounting some list of recognitions or telling an anecdote about an interaction. With that we may express our sense of loss, and perhaps, respect, affection, and sometimes awe; simply listing biographical facts is not satisfying as a way to commemorate a full life.

What we note about people is what they accomplished, sometimes against great odds. Yes, there are those around them who loved them, and will love them still, but for the majority of us, we look back at the things great and small that were done for others…and for us. Do we remember the person as someone who made the lives of others better? Did they provide warmth and kindness, great and small? Did they help guide us on a better path? It is those things that stand out for all of us. The icon of those who leave our lives is that of what they stood for — and acted on.

For those of us left behind, it should be a reminder that our own time is limited. Are we using our time as we wish? Are we treating others around us as we really want to? Are we completing those tasks we wish to be finished, or are we spending time on things that really don’t matter? There’s a great commercial from Thailand that is making the rounds of some of the social media sites now that is touching and instructive. It nicely conveys the message that what we do now can make a difference in the future, sometimes even for ourselves. Others remember us for what we do, and that is really who we are.

Last week, a former student visited me. He brought me a bottle of expensive, limited edition Irish whiskey as a gift. I was not expecting anything, and I was really quite touched at the thoughtfulness. I made some comment about saving it for a day when he could visit with some time free to share a glass or two from it. His reply was something along the lines of “We don’t know what days we have; Don’t leave a bottle uncorked and undecanted for one that may not come.” I can appreciate that wisdom.

So, I have decanted a dram. A toast to Mary Jean, and to others who have made a difference. We miss them because they added value to life and to the world around us. And another toast to those who are adding value to our worlds right now who are still here. Let’s remember to tell them that while we can, not after they are gone and are deaf to this world. To celebrate that principle is a last gift from Mary Jean and all the others who have passed on: appreciate the here and now while we can.

And then let’s get on with making the world a better place for those who follow after us — while leaving no bottle on the shelf, unopened, in the process. Consider this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.” (I have a few other quotes related to this in a post from 4 years ago that may be of interest.)

Remembering Spaf

With a birthday coming up, and several friends having recently passed on (e.g., been dereferenced), I thought maybe I should write up my obituary for future use. After all, I know my story better than anyone else! So, feel free to use this when the need arises.

And if you have any missing bits to fill in, send them to me — I’ll update this in place.

This is not quite to this level of awesome or to this or to this but I may have a few weeks yet to get there.

Original post 3/14/12; Last update 2016-08-28.


Eugene H. Spafford, noted curmudgeon, died on <date>. If Spafford’s last wishes were honored the medical examiner will officially list the cause of death as “Jello, while interacting with Bambi and Trixie, two performers with Cirque de Soleil, and their pet llama, Julio” — not because it bears even a remote resemblance to the truth, but because it will provide more lulz on Wikipedia.

Although many people believed he was an alien being (after all, the definition of “human” can only stretch so far), Spafford was born in western New York State to poor but proud parents. His birth changed their lives: they continued to be poor, but were never proud again. Two years later, his sister was born, thereafter affectionately referred to by their parents as “our only child.”

Spafford had a largely unremarkable childhood, frequently spending time as the neighbors’ imaginary friend. His parents took him and his sister to many notable and historic places around the country, but unwary strangers would invariably untie him and he would find his way home. In later years he was known to recount some of the happiest moments of his childhood such as having other children finally talk to him (5th grade), and first being allowed to play in the yard without his leash (7th grade).

By the time he had reached high school, he had shown unusual talent for math, science, composition, and getting beaten up for having unusual talent for math, science, and composition. Nonetheless, he was named as “school mascot” by acclamation for several years running — until the other students found that despite this status, they could not get him thrown on the bonfire at other schools before football games. It was in high school that he got the nickname “Spaf,” in part because no one bothered to learn his first name.

It was in high school that Spaf discovered girls. Actually, he had known about them for some time, but it was at this time that he first discovered that the majority of them did not actually have cooties. His attempts to be noticed by the women around him usually succeeded, but only accompanied by finger-pointing and derisive laughter…a pattern that continued through the rest of his life. He fell in love at least twice, but the objects of his interest generally did not return his affections because they had taste and standards and nearly normal vision…another long-standing pattern.

Upon graduation from high school, Spafford took a few years off school to work to support his family. At least, that is what he always claimed, and the court records are sealed.

Then, Spafford returned to school and completed his undergraduate degrees at SUNY Brockport in 3 years of classes, probably because the faculty voted to resign if he stayed for 4. He awoke in another state after his graduation party, with a note from his family pinned to his clothing, written in crayon, wishing him luck in Atlanta, where they had arranged for him to be admitted. Much to their dismay, “The Ramblin Wreck” was a university and not a psychiatric hospital (although, frankly, that wasn’t always obvious). Thus, he attended grad school at Georgia Tech, where he again showed an unusual talent for math and science, as well as amazingly poor luck with females of any species, living or dead. After outlasting a department head, dean, two presidents of the university, and several roommates, a clerical error resulted in him getting a Ph.D. despite no faculty member actually serving as his advisor (NB. almost true!).

As a condition of his immediate and permanent departure, local officials used a rumor of a large trust fund and vast quantities of tequila to introduce a young woman to Spaf, despite her reluctance to date outside her species. After a period of deception, and prolonged hypnotherapy, they were married.  (This artifice lasted for nearly 3 decades, but the hypnotherapy finally wore off, she discovered there was no trust fund, and they divorced. Their union did result in one outstanding child; his wife insisted there would be no more, however, because she did not want to endure the trauma and the shame a second time.  She, of course, was referring not to childbirth, but to the conception.)

After a short post doc while his thesis committee waited to ensure that the checks cleared, Spafford moved out of state and was hired by Purdue University in 1987 before the stories (and authorities) caught up with him. He spent the remainder of his career there, trying (in vain) to get people to behave nicely online, be kind to each other, and to adopt wearing of bow ties. When informed of his passing, his Purdue colleagues (those who didn’t respond “Who?”) began to chuckle — no doubt from fond and amusing memories, although the mutterings of “At last!” did seem a little fervent.

Noted for his work in security (primarily as a risk), Spafford was frequently asked to travel long distances to speak — usually requested by whomever was in his near vicinity at the time. A talented programmer as well as researcher, he wrote many large software systems that, (perhaps) regrettably, are in languages for which no compiler or manual exists. This matched his propensity for giving presentations that were in languages unfamiliar to his audiences…and humans, in general. He helped scores of students get their Ph.Ds. — usually by serving as an example of what not to do. He received several “lifetime achievement” awards from professional societies in not so subtle attempts to get him to retire immediately and go away.

It was often observed that Spafford didn’t pay attention to boundaries and frequently crossed them…this was usually noted by others when talking about the fine line between genius and insanity, although it was usually vague on which side he was being placed.

In later years, he had medical issues that interfered with his work. Doctors, when not performing unsanctioned experiments on him, conjectured that it was all side-effects of the frequent alien abductions (performed on him, not by him). Consulting veterinarians were similarly puzzled, both by etiology and his species. The diagnoses were all different, but the recommended treatment was always the same: lobotomy. This was never done, because the insurance company refused to cover it, despite the frequent and generous offers of family and colleagues to take up a collection.

Spafford had a near encyclopedic knowledge of useless trivia, bad jokes, and stupid movie plot lines that he often shared spontaneously — this led to him spending a great deal of “alone time.” Besides his hobbies online, he enjoyed gardening, good whiskey, and target shooting — which might explain many missing neighborhood pets and the vigorous growth of the tulips in the back yard. As a lover, he was known to make women swoon…or would have been known, had any of them overcome the nausea at the thought so as to assent. And, he is memorialized in several dictionaries: the words “athlete” and “Spafford” are found together… usually in a sentence under “cognitive dissonance.”

In his final years, Spafford spent a lot of time reminiscing about his childhood as an imaginary friend, and wondering what his life would have been like had be been born human.

In accordance with his wishes, his remains have been freeze-dried, adorned with a bow tie, and mailed to a random address as one last bad joke. He is survived by a daughter, sister, niece, nephews, the contents of several petri dishes with biohazard labels on board some UFOs, and basically everyone who is reading this. I mean, you can’t read this if you didn’t survive, right?

Donations can be made … oh, who are we fooling? Just go blow the money on chocolate and a good whisky.

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