RL155 - Crucibility

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • Songwriting under pressure (Music)
  • Advocating for art during John's campaign (Run for office)
  • Buying the world a coke (Factoids)
  • Long Day's Journey Into Night (Family)
  • Carrying a Goody comb in your back pocket (Style)
  • The vocational wheel in Junior High in Florida (School)
  • John in Honors English in Junior High (Early Days)
  • People on the political base making their best effort (Run for office)
  • How to explain complicated facts (Run for office)
  • Environmentalism (Run for Office)

The problem: John aspired to have a Goodie comb, referring to the common habit in the 1980s to carry a comb in your back pocket. John never had the Goodie comb that he aspired to.

The show title refers to being able to be creative under pressure when you are in the crucible in the studio and adding extra crucibility by having to pay people for it.

Merlin opens the show with this sponsor read to very cheesy classical music.

This episode of Roderick on the Line is sponsored by The National Gondola Manufacturers’ Association. The NGMA develops and lobbies for pro-gondola policies and advance the well-being of gondola-producers, building a more just, verdant and peaceful society. NGMA: Help making the things… That help make gondolas.™

Merlin says Thanks to Roderick Nation who suggested campaign slogans based on lines from John’s songs. ”John Roderick - more than shapes!

It is going okay for John. Merlin sings: ”John, the two of us need look no more” to the melody of Ben by Michael Jackson. He had prepared that and although it wasn’t very good, at least he has something prepared. John liked it! Merlin was singing into a RAT (distortion pedal), not literally to a rat, but he never understood the filter knob which is a high-pass.

There was Michael Jackson’s hit about the rat from the movie Flowers for Ben Algernon (actually, they mean the movie Ben), which is about the Death of a Salesman. John found it to be a Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Merlin adds that it was an Ibsen of A Doll’s House. It is a Hot El Baltimore. It is a Green Light over East Egg. It is The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. All unhappy podcasts are different.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Songwriting under pressure (RL155)

Once John wrote a song called Long Day’s Journey into Night. It was not a pun with https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knight knight] like in jousting, because that would be more of a Paul and Storm song. Ken Jennings is really good at that pun game. Merlin bets he is insufferable and John agrees that he is really something. Merlin suggest it could be a porno, with a guy who works on the railroad with the name of Long Day, a gay night porn thing, with time-shifting to some Star Trek and you have a journey into Knight. Long Dai spelled ”D. A. I” The song is from an era when John was writing songs that were pretty epic, but also very precious. It doesn't have the same light-hearted grace that exists in his later work.

Online you read fans writing profusely and critics writing insufferably after having listened to the first 30 seconds of each song once. John loves people who are really familiar with his work and have an interesting and thoughtful comment on it! Even before Merlin knew John as a dude, he enjoyed his music and listened to it a lot, but as he got to know him personally, he came to realize that when John listens to music, he likes to be immersed in it. He doesn’t do his laundry at the same time. As someone who has been previewing some of John’s tracks before their release, Merlin knows that John appreciates people listening to his music by just listening to it all the way through with headphones and not fast forwarding!

Merlin thinks that although John is a great lyricist, he seems like an uncomfortable lyricist (and there may be an almond of a crucible here), but he still writes great pop songs! Merlin loves the structure of the songs, the way they work, the fruity parts, the complicated parts and the changes. John writes a lot of his lyrics later in the process and he wrote some of his more popular songs kind of in the studio. He definitely wrote the song Hindsight in the last hour and he wrote Scared Straight in the studio. This is one of John’s major work problems: In the studio he is in the crucible, in the pressure cooker he produces, but he doesn’t like to be in the pressure cooker, because it is not a happy place to be. Even though he can see it coming, he doesn’t want that to happen either! That is why he spends so much time trying to devise a way to stop the progress of time. Still, if he had four more hours, he would squander those four hours, just as he squandered the four hours leading up to this moment when he was spending four hours thinking about how he could stop time. When John finally gets into that crucible, he does make things!

Part of the reason that there was never a 5th Long Winters record is that John very deliberately and methodically eliminated all the corners that anybody could put him in. He didn’t need other people’s money anymore, he didn’t need other people’s approval anymore, he moved out of his mom’s house so she couldn’t wag her spatula at him and tell him to get off the couch, and he ended up finding himself in a round room where nobody could corner him. It is very telling and he thinks about it all the time. In the context of his campaign, he was in a corner every day. Merlin and John have both felt that on one hand it is good to feel external pressure, but on the other hand they both don’t want external pressure. For John, external pressure is an important component and a motivator. Merlin used the phrase ”The crucible of the studio”, but John is also paying to be there, which gives it some extra crucibility because now he is paying everybody there, like Tucker, to sit and feel bad. Generally people don’t like having to pay to feel bad about things.

That is why Merlin doesn’t subscribe to magazines anymore, because he doesn’t want to pay to feel guilty about the New York Times. In the studio there is the feeling that this is your last chance and if you don’t get this done now, you are going to end up not only not getting this done, but your dream will be over. John rounded that corner off, too, because he did have a little bit of time left and his career wasn’t going to be over if he took another week or another two weeks. Then Twitter, the Internet, podcasting and all the other things came in. There were rewards to these things! A lot of musicians who were at John’s level in 2006/2007 kept making music, but their careers didn’t really continue, because times change. John jumped from one ice flow to the next and to another and to another. Some of that was running from the corner, but it all produced new exciting things.

Merlin is utterly fascinated by this topic. Trying to understand why anybody wants to make anything is such a dark art and it differs a lot from person to person, either in terms of the motivational inspiration, or what people get out of having done it. Somebody who is very prolific and successful is a little bit like Anna Karenina: They are doing it great, they are having a great time, people are enjoying what they do, but obviously you want to kill them because it is super-frustrating that they get so much done. It is easy enough to say that their way is obviously the way to do it. There are 10.000 ways not to do it and sometimes it is almost impossible to understand why you are not functioning at even 1/10 of the level of somebody else. Part of that could be the pressure you put on yourself, because now you make an impossible situation even more impossible by constantly raising the bar, moving the bar and hiding the bar. This creates self-doubt, anxiety and all the other kinds of stuff that make you utterly uninterested in even attempting something. Of all the things Merlin is morose about, this is not on top of the list, but what if he did make something and it is not what everybody was expecting? Then people are disappointed, he has wasted his time and why did he bother in the first place? That is a common feeling that John definitely shares.

Advocating for art during John's campaign (RL155)

Spaces for artists in the city

When John is talking to the city, he is coming from a place of artists and art makers who are not a unified group of people who all work the same way. A lot of them don’t want your attention, but they just need to be left alone, living in run-down places, because that is part of their thing. How do you convince a city to preserve places that - to people driving by in their Teslas - look like abandoned and decaying warehouses that could be replaced with big bright shiny things? In those dark places the culture of 10 years from now is being germinated and those spaces are key elements of any real city. You can't think of them just as underused property! The problem is that there is no way to make an economic impact statement about those place and that kind of mental space. True artists, the ones who are not only making seashell art that people put in hotels, but people who are actually exploring new ideas and who aren’t ”successful” yet, are in some way the children of the city, just not strictly in terms of maturity.

If you are a parent, the dumbest thing you can do is to constantly expect your kid to be a grown-up when they are not. It is helpful to understand that at the kid’s level of development, this is what they are capable of. A sane person wouldn’t ever expect their kid to come home from school and write a novel in a day. You certainly don’t expect your kid to be profitable. John’s daughter can’t even manage to get down to the corner store and get him cigarettes! Any sane person would have reasonable expectations and say ”Plus, you know, you are kind of nice to have around and I’m very excited to be here to watch you become a more interesting person and to have a future that I could have absolutely no way to fathom or predict” The city is interested in artists once they are successful and once they are in the New York Times, but they are not as interested in the artist when they are just finding their way. Inexpensive places to live and to figure out the thing that you are doing being available attracts a lot of people to a town!

We don’t guard young artists as we do with our kids, but we treat them like dirty hippies who’s places need to be turned into place where people who work at startups will live. The next artist is never popular now. People recognize the last artist who started from nothing and who is enormously popular now. Isn’t that an uplifting story? At the same time, the next artist is always back to square one. There are people in the art curatorial world who are out there, digging in the dirt, looking for the next big thing, but for the most part, a city has no provision for the fact that heart-scrabble is the pool where new ideas are generated. The Mountain View, Cupertino idea is to build a tower and fill it with young people from Stanford. That is one vision of the future, but traditionally the ideas that push progress come from people who are in a corner. They have that flash while in that crucible partly because they are under pressure. Being under pressure to make $100 million before you are 26 is not creative pressure, but ego-pressure. It is why the Internet economy is based on taking an idea that somebody once had, put a cat on it and modify it again and again. It is not really pushing the civilization ball forward, but it is just moving the profit ball around.

Graffiti vs concrete public spaces

On his way into town, John saw two interesting things today. There was a private jet parked on the tarmac of Boeing field, painted in Neo-Polynesian tribal tattoo graphics taken out of context with no ethnical aspect. He was wondering if that was some kind of Red Bull thing, but on the engine, written in gothic script, there was a Latin phrase that was basically like ”Ipsom Dolor…” It was clearly some person with lad mag aesthetic who got rich and suddenly had all the money in the world. It was not a small jet either, but somewhere in the Citation / Gulfstream zone and it was their choice to make their own jet look badass. Just by looking at it you knew that being onboard would be like being inside the fake fur hat of the guy from Jamiroquai. It is hard to know whether this guy is an Internet entrepreneur who is broadcasting this aesthetic because he is a badass, or if he actually owns Oakley sunglasses and this branding is part of his overall brand of badassitude. John was shaking his head in disgust.

Then John was passing one of those little Sprinter cars going the other way. It had a company logo across the hood of the car, something like ”Graffiti be gone!” and was the brand new car of a startup company that just from the name finally wants to get on top of the plague of graffiti that is causing our cities to be so uninhabitable. There is the aesthetic of this guy’s airplane and there are the people in this car who imagine that the real trouble is the broken windows theory. Graffiti artists are exactly the people who are backed into a corner and then produce something. The best graffiti work is up there with the best art! The worst graffiti art is still speaking in a language where people who don’t understand the language don’t know what is happening, but there is a whole philosophy behind it of reclaiming the brutalism of the concrete public space.

We have acquiesced to most of our public space being bare concrete walls like under-Freeway passes. We stood idly by while big infrastructure determined that we were going to look at grey concrete. Being in a way of grey concrete as you are driving around is a practical and powerful esthetic. Graffiti has a whole ideological philosophy to reclaim that space, at the least with color, but here are these guys puttering in their car saying ”Graffiti be gone” John is sure that they are going to businesses who had their front doors tagged. At the same time the guy in his Jamiroquai plane is probably on a gold cellphone talking to a graffiti artist about putting up a piece on the wall of his concrete loft-style office space down in the Mission in San Francisco. Merlin would like John to write the song about this, or he would really like the late Harry Chapin to write the song about this with a little twist at the end. Chapin is not an uncomfortable lyricist and he would dive right in! He knows how to tug at your heartstrings and there would be an O. Henry component in it. Maybe the graffiti guy and the plane guy would realize that they were twins separated at brith. John just got chills from Merlin’s idea!

What is the value of art and artists?

Artists do so much for us, but it is never a thing that you can properly put a price on, which is a cliché to say, but John thinks about it all the time. We have gone so far in that direction that we reckoned the value of Angry Birds to be over $1 billion while the value of Eugene O’Neill or Mick Jagger is reckoned to be much less. Mick Jagger is one of the richest rock stars in Britain with a net worth of $200 million or something, which is one 1/5 of the value of Angry Birds. The collective work of Eugene O’Neill has a value of a few million dollars spread over all his inheritors.

John needs to go out into the city and say that we absolutely need to build transit and affordable housing and we need to provide clean water and work for an equitable city, but how can he put a value on the intangible things that make a place special, that make us stay alive and that help us live and love? Without being able to attach a value to it, how can he advocate for it and put it up against something else that is clamoring for the same resources, even if those resources are just ”Let’s leave this space alone” or ”Let’s leave these people alone”? There are lots of people who wag their Clinton thumb and who want to make the argument that artists have brought in over $274.6 million to Seattles economy since March of 2011. People like to hear numbers and they realize that it is an industry equivalent to the industry of chroming hubcaps, pipes and bumpers.

The last artist made stuff that generated $250 million for Seattle and we recognize their value, but John is always talking about the next artists who have made nothing yet. You can’t gauge their value by their potential money either. Some of the best artists don’t make any money and we only recognize their value later. You can’t go into Seattle public schools and think of arts education as job training either, which is how a lot of people think about it. The idea of teaching math only because it will get you a good job is a disgusting undervaluing of the importance of learning math. What is math? It is a trade! Computer-maths is a trade! All the atheists from Brandenburg or from somewhere around lake Balaton in Hungary, they are listening and you can see their Fedoras from here, will object to this, but math is the language of God! Look over God’s shoulder for a moment, and by God John means all of the uncaused causes and all the negative numbers! It is both a human thought technology, but also an uncovering and a discovery of a first principle.

Instead of equating that with skills that will help us later in life, we should ask ourselves ”Should we not all be thinking about this all the time? Should not math and higher math and the implications of math be on our minds all the time?” Because they should be! We should look at everything through a lens of math because it is the only reason that the things we’ve built are standing and it is the only coherent fabric that explains anything. It is beautiful poetry and at the level of molecular biology or particle physics it is this unified theory that we have been struggling to find or struggling to reconcile with gravity. At a certain level that should be our temple and we should all go there every day and say ”Wow! We have really figured out a lot in recent memory. Just in the last 100 years!” Then you go into the schools and you imagine all the constraints on people, even the ones who feel the poetry and go into teaching full of poetry. Then we require them to teach in prose and little by little you drain that poetry out of all those experiences. Kids are just sitting there feeling like they are in prison and the pressure from the parents is almost unavoidable. Is he going to make it? Is he going to be a good human? Is she going to get through to the other side and be one of the good humans?

Diversity and gentrification

When we ask ourselves if this community is friendly to art and artists, we need to check if there is enough room in the lower middle class for people without a typical career-based full-time job who do interesting things. How do you put a value on that? How do you put a value on every kind of diversity? The first kind kind of diversity is being around people who are not your race and gender, but are you also around people with different economic classes and backgrounds? People with more locked-in or less locked-in futures? In the same way as with artists, we don’t really notice diversity until it is gone or until it is ”under control”. When Merlin was moving to San Francisco in 1999 as a white guy in an Asian neighborhood, there were a lot more black people living in the Bay Area. There are still people in Oakland, but less, because it is getting expensive there, too. The people with money come in and push out the other people. Now it is white people pushing out white people. The app-class is moving in, people in finance, people in venture-funded companies and big corporations, but it is certainly not becoming more interesting and it is certainly not becoming more diverse. These people are turning the house that somebody else got thrown out of into a condo and now the restaurants and the bars around the area get pushed out because they are making too much noise.

Merlin has seen this with work he has done in the past: There was a time where the value of user experience was though of as just spray-on usability. You guys do all your coloring! Now you realize that the difference between a good experience with an airline and a bad experience with an airline, even just based on their website, will completely change your feeling about the company. If you are an artist or a person of color and you come into town, you are going to know in 10 minutes how welcome you are there and whether that is a place where you can make a life. Having some kind of diversity makes every place a better place.

The tendency on the West Coast and increasingly everywhere is to practice lip-service Liberalism. Diversity is welcome as long as it is within the confines of bourgeoisie values and culture. We welcome all people into our bourgeoisie envelope of values, but we do not understand how to provide opportunities for people who are not trying to move into a bourgeoisie state, but who are literally struggling to survive or to remain in place and not be displaced from their own homes and communities. Seattle has a great record of diversity in government and public hiring and they have tried and tried to live up to their own standards, but they still don’t understand how important it is that neighborhoods remain intact or that the experience for a young white artist living on Capitol Hill is incredibly different than for a young black artist living in the central district. Great work comes from being backed into a corner, but at a certain point you are backed into the corner under the threat of violence or there is not even a corner for you because you are backed into an oven.

Rich artist kids vs poor artist kids

A lot of white kids making art and music schlepp around in the town, walk from dark doorway to dark doorway and feel like they are living a rough and dangerous Downtown life. It informs their art and character. When the police slowly cruises by, looks them up and down, they stand there in their dark doorway and say ”Oh man, the fucking cops just scoped me, fuck those guys!” The difference is that the cops kept driving. They scoped them, they gave them a dirty look, but they kept driving. The young white artist feels like the grid of the city is informing their views and they are going to take that back to the art they are making. It basically co-opts the history of jazz and hiphop and it is going to be some gnarly shit.

The young black guy in the same exact situation is probably actively trying to stay out of dark doorways, but when the cops roll by, they turn on their flashers, pull over and ask for their ID, ask where they live and what they are doing out. You hear those differences reported over and over and it is impossible to know how that changes your feeling when you are backed into a corner in your own art-making, when you are poor and struggling and asking yourself if you can even be an artist, or if you can even make this stuff. You need to do it, but you also have to survive. What ends up happening is that you get an increasingly bourgeoisie art culture where the people who are being able to make it through are the ones who in that moment can call their folks and ask them to cover their rent this month. Many others have to drop out at that moment. They are not making things then, they are embittered and rightfully so.

Having that conversation with the city at large is difficult, particular in a world where people tell you that the market is the market and it is just what it is. There is no malice attached to it and it is just a natural system. John hears that idea from all walks of life. We have set an organic system in motion! The market is just humans! It is just a language we have given ourselves to express our natural desire to trade with no awareness or less awareness of the fact that the market is rigged every step of the way.

Buying the world a Coke (RL155)

When John wake up this morning, he was singing ”I would like to buy the world a Coke” and he realized that cokes are expensive in America, but they are not very expensive around the world. Let’s assume that the average price of a Coke over the course of the Earth is $0.50. In reality it is probably more like $0.03. There are actually lots of people who could literally buy the world a Coke. They could buy a Coke for every person in the world and pay for the logistics to supply it. There are people in Seattle who could buy the world a Coke!

Long Day's Journey Into Night (RL155)

John was enthralled by the play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It takes place during Eugene O’Neill’s own childhood in the late 19th century and came out during the really fruitful period of American letters in the 1940s. John's dad was 21 and his uncle Jack was 17 when it landed. Both of them identified strongly with it and said many times that it described their family and their household in a way that no other work did before or since. Uncle Jack has been trying to write his own version of it his whole life. He is in his late 80s now and sends John drafts of the plays he is working on. His dad and uncle Jack were trying to make sense of the world they grew up in and this work of art was one of their great moments. They felt alone and isolated growing up because they were living in a middle class community and their friends didn’t have the same problems. In this play they saw their story read large and it changed them both. When John was 21 and trying to understand his own life, he read that play and he cast his father and his uncle in it, which helped him. It is a work of art that has started to be threaded into John’s family’s sense of itself. He always recognizes it as more than just a seminal work, but as a work with a personal element to it. John’s grandfather wasn’t able to write his own story, John’s dad never wrote that story, but his uncle Jack has tried.

Carrying a Goody comb in your back pocket (RL155)

When Merlin was younger, his family would have a large Goody comb at home, something in the order of 6-8”. When the early 1980s came around a new thought technology emerged and they made them small enough to put them in your pocket. Merlin did carry one of these in his back pocket, because he is not a monster! The handle would stick out of your right back pocket of your Levi’s or corduroys, tines facing in. John never had a Goody comb although he aspired to have one, but either he couldn’t keep himself from losing things or his mom would buy one of those combs that you would find in a men’s room in a jar of light-blue disinfectant, but John was not going to carry one of those around. Can you believe that they would carry a comb around?

The vocational wheel in Junior High in Florida (RL155)

Merlin found the school system in Cincinnati terrific and going to public school at the Suncoast in Florida after that was a very different thing. In Junior High School 7th to 9th grade in Florida they had vocational tracks where you could take health class, marketing, graphic arts, drafting, wood shop, metal shop and so on. Merlin didn’t go to public school in 7th grade, but when he came there by 8th grade, he had to take at least one of these trade classes. During the year he missed, every 7th-grader had to go through what they called the Vocational Wheel, spending 2 weeks in each of the vocational classes. This is a pretty brilliant idea because it is nice to have exposure to all of those. You make a lamp, you make a toolbox, you sell pencils at the school store, you learn how to use a T-square etc. On the face of it very cool, but Merlin remembers realizing that school is not only for teaching him math, English and science.

When you are very young, school is about being places on time and standing in line. The time from Junior High and until before you get into the things you need for college is a weird period where almost everything you are exposed to is about following rules and not becoming a burden on society. Places with good schools tend to have better results, isn’t that a funny coincidence? Merlin still had music and art classes, which now are little side things in public school. You don’t get PE, art and music every day, but you do it like an assembly. It was something that really struck Merlin because it felt Stalinist. In the Soviet Union you would do a test when you are 12 years old and that would decide what you would do for the rest of your life. The message here was that all the suburban kids that could pull it off and make it into pre-Algebra or Algebra were going to be pretty okay, but what about these other kids? They were not coming in as much and they need to learn how to make a toolbox or a pencil holder.

John in Honors English in Junior High (RL155)

Both John and Merlin think about Junior High all the time and a huge part of their listenership agrees that Junior High should be reformed. When John was at that age, he was shaped like a Shumai Dim Sum: A frilly edge and a big porky center, a small garbage-can shaped pork bun. Because he was also entering puberty, he was all of a sudden producing dander and eczema. Emotionally he was still a child, but he was having feelings that he had never had before. Here he was, a little dumpling body extruding things, essential oils pouring out of him and having all these intense feelings about everything. The other kids at school were all going through this stuff at different rates. Some of the guys could already grow mustaches and had muscles, while some of them were like John, like pupa. The teenage girls were also on a wide spectrum of their transition to adulthood. They were cruel to each other and to John!

On the first day of John’s Honors English class, the teacher said ”In grade school you were allowed to write in pencil, but now you are in Junior High and we are preparing you for High School, which is a big deal, and you have to write all your papers in pen. If you write a paper in pencil you will get an F” John’s first year in Junior High coincided with the first year of erasable pens, called EraserMate. They had gummy ink that you could erase, but they were not inexpensive and John had a really hard time even keeping one writing implement on his person. He would put the pen down and forget to pick it up and he lost so many pens and so many pencils. He didn’t feel like he had control of his possession of any implement. John could not get his head around writing his reports in pen. Partly it felt just like a punitive rule, partly because when he had an idea he would just grab the thing that was nearest to him. He had a lot of pencils and only a few pens. John kept writing reports in pencil, sometimes 2-3 pages, because in 7th grade your report on WWII had to be 3 pages long, he would hand them in and get an F.

John got Fs until the school agreed that he didn’t belong in Honors English. Nobody was reading his papers and the teacher was just giving him an F because he had failed to follow the rule. In his personal experience of walking around the school he was also being taunted, tormented and forced to take showers with other boys. He had strong feelings for everybody, while their strong feelings for John were mostly that he was a dander-covered homunculus. Yet, the adults in that situation wanted him to write in pen and he either couldn’t or refused to and got Fs until they sent him down to regular English. The kids from Honors English would go to a college, while some of those in regular English might go to a college. It is not like remedial English where you know you will never go to a college, but you are down in the mix with the normals and ”Good luck!” John was astonished and surprised that no-one had ever suggested that he would be a regular. He was backed into a corner and he worked that corner and set the curve in that class until the teacher of the normal English class went down to the principal and said ”Please take him out of my class! He requires too much attention!” They put him out of this class, but there was nowhere else for him to go and so they put him back in Honors English and told the teacher to just deal with it. She did by giving him a D instead of an F. John had gamed the system.

The pressure on John as a 12 year old with a bunch of Fs and Ds on his report card was immense. At the same time he was also trying to not explode every day. He was basically like a water balloon filled with oil, covered with hair and skin flakes, just barely making it. What you want is somebody to tell you that you are okay and you are going to be okay and you don’t need to learn how to write a 3-page report about WWII and you should basically be allowed to sleep until 11am, be put into a soothing room with soft pillows and given music and film appreciation classes. It would be amazing Junior High schools where you were given art appreciation classes for two years and where you would sit in a dark room and watch good movies.

What if there was a role that was definitely not a teacher, but also not a guidance councillor, maybe more like a neutral assessor with a little bit of empathy who would just kind of see what you needed now, almost like a Junior High concierge who would tell you that you needed a couple of weeks sitting on a bean-bag chair watching some movies and then it will be time to cut trail. How would you empower somebody to do that, knowing what the systems are like? How would you pick somebody with that acumen, train them properly, convince the wider world and the school district that this person should have that kind of gatekeeping power and then have the facilities waiting to receive kids at different levels of development?

As much as we all try to be disinterested third parties in something, there is something very difficult about not getting heavily involved in something. You get a little bit of your dick in the door about something and you start feeling really strongly about some issue. Your feelings get hurt and you don’t like the way this kid is trying to make you look bad. You would have to have somebody who is the ultimate super-adult. They wouldn’t be evaluated based on test scores, but it would have to be somebody who would get a bonus in 20 years if the kids are still alive then. It would be like a railroad roundhouse where the train comes in and the roundhouse turns, very humanely, not in the way we do it now, which is ”You are on the shop track and you are on the college track”, but rather ”You need to listen to music right now and you need exercise and you need to dance”. What a God-sent that would be! John has a moment with his daughter ever day where he tells her that what she needs to do is to dance for 20 minutes. She is very excited and she dances. Thank God there is dancing!

You couldn’t build that idea the way we typically build ideas, which is on the burned-out blocks of the Parthenon. Instead you would have to build it from the vision backwards, see it and reverse-engineer it. That is the experience that kids have at expensive private schools, because people there are being paid to take that kind of structuring gentle hand with their charges, but how would we introduce that kind of thinking to the city at large, up against all these people who are like ”What kind of job-training is that?”

People on the political base making their best effort (RL155)

The last week or two have been really hard for John. He had a lot of anxiety and felt like he was behind the 8-ball trying to catch up. Coincidentally, many of the people who make up his real brain trust took vacation all at once and he recognized how important it is to sit with friends and talk about what is going on when things are really going on. He felt very alone. John was checking off the boxes of things a candidate for public office has to do. Fulfilling these obligations has been an incredible learning experience.

Merlin and John frequently talk about conspiracy. A lot of people have the sense that the system is rigged or gamed or that there is malice involved. Every legislative district in the city has its own Democratic party organization. Those organizations have a chair person, a secretary, a sergeant at arms and there are ranks and files of different LDOs and all kinds of jobs. It is a form of voluntary organization that people love to do. These groups are exactly like the people John met in Rock and Roll who love to talk about the liner notes on records. They are wanks! There are so many more people who like to talk about records than people who make records and as a music maker John never fully understood the record store maven.

There are people who collect records and consume music in that way. They think of who the original bass player was, they think about the studio, about what the B-side was, what label it was on. All that collecting and churning of information plays to the cataloging and librarian impulse we have. There are people like that in the nerd world and the tech world. Sports is the ultimate expression of it. There is a huge community of people in politics who have the same impulse and the same desire. They get together and the language they use is Robert’s Rules of Order which is official-feeling and powerful. The Democratic party is one of the two parties in America that ever actually has power, which makes them feel empowered. They are part of a big operation! People who run for office need to go around, meet these Democratic district organizations, talk to them and earn their endorsement.

Nobody has all the time in the world and they might have read your thing, but they don’t have the time to sit with you for 30 minutes and talk to you. They invite all the candidates, each gets to speak for one minute and the people who have come to the meeting vote on them. It is like horse flesh! Part of running for office is to be able to go into a room and lay out your plan for governance for an entire city in one minute. Based on that and based on whatever research the people in the room have done independently, they decide to endorse you or not. Their endorsement is either valuable or not depending on how many of them you can rack up and whether or not you are running as an insider or an outsider.

Nobody has the time to talk to each candidate for 30 minutes, but the candidates have to run all around town in a pack. John now sees the people he is running against every day now. They are all giving their one-minute speech and they are not really inclined to be chummy with each other because they are competing, but they are also the only other people who know how this feels like. John is looking at his opponent with sympathy in his eyes, like ”How are you holding up? Everything alright?” and they are just giving him the uncomfortable handshake. "Seriously, this is really hard!" They reply with ”Hmm”, they get up and make the Clinton thumb and they give their speech while John is still disinclined to give a one-minute speech. From the outside this has to look like a conspiracy! These people are all insiders and the logic from outside the system is that they are just voting for their friends. No new blood can ever get through here! This is how regular people think of the political system, but from inside John can see what a hodgepodge of accident it is and how these meetings are kind of like a vestigial version of the town meetings of old New England.

The people at those meetings are really proud of participating in the democratic process, but this isn’t very democratic at all and the decision whether or not to endorse one of these candidates is being made by a vote of 25 people. They can go online and do as much research as they want, but for some of them, this one minute is their moment. It is still more than what most voters know about their candidates! Like so many things in public life, it doesn’t feel like a conspiracy once you are there, but the end-result of it looks like the product of a conspiracy because the people who can make it all the way through this hazing effectively are people who are either very practiced in the art of it or who have a lot of pre-existing relationships with those 25 people in the room. Maybe they are a long-time Democratic party operative themselves or maybe they have enough money that they can bypass that process entirely and appeal directly to the people. They will buy the world a coke! Vote for me! It is fascinating to see!

John wouldn’t even describe the process as broken. It is like these buildings in Greece where people in 400 A.D. needed to build a house and took some of the rocks from the foundation of that old building. They rebuilt a house out of blocks from the Parthenon, then that house burned down and they built a fence with those burned rocks and pretty soon somebody added to the fence and it became a little bit of a castle and they put a steeple on it and called it a church. Now it is a cellphone store on the outskirts of Athens and we think that this cellphone store is really interesting, not knowing that at the bottom there are blocks from the Parthenon. Being part of that process is thrilling and interesting, but it is really impenetrable. It has been exhausting and it is causing John’s stomach to churn all the time, because there is that reformer in him.

People all around him shout that we need reform, but they don’t even appear to recognize how you would even begin a reform. All the people in these meetings are participating with the best intentions and it is crazy how such large groups of people, all working with their best intentions, can produce results that are so far from what we imagine would be our best effort. John has not met a single contemptible person on the campaign trail! Everybody is really interested and they are all trying to make a difference. They have different ideas and different ideologies, but they are all people of goodwill from across the whole spectrum of people. Yet, they are complicit every day in small incremental compromises that are not compromises between two great ideas, but compromises of what they can get done in a minute and they have four more of those today. We are actually building a civilization out of these one minute increments and all of this is very hard to explain in a minute.

How to explain complicated facts (RL155)

Rent control is a huge argument in the city right now. Many people of good will really want to help people and really believe that rent control is a two word solution to a huge and far-reaching spider-web of a condition that produces innumerable problems. They stand up and say ”Rent control!” and people applaud. Over time, John can see other candidates get to their end of their speech and say ”Oh, and also rent control!” in the hopes that they can get an applause, too. After a while that starts to feel like there is a broad movement for this, but there isn’t really. No one is taking the time to really think about it, except the people who are promoting it, but they mostly have not thought about a lot of other things. It is like when John was 24, he was feeling that if no-one had ID, then we wouldn’t even need IDs. The solution to the problem is always simple until you are looking at the effects of it. The incumbent in John’s race is saying at every instance that it is too complicated to explain right now, which means he is doing a bad job of communicating to people that it is complicated, because he is doing it condescendingly. People who do see how complicated it is don’t find a way to say ”Here is the idea!”

One big tendency in this game is to speak in bullet points, which is not an effective way of communicating ideas. An effective way to do it is actually with metaphor. How do you explain what being in politics is like? It is like playing Fantasy Football in a way. You are dealing with people who have probably never played professional football, but who are experts at the game of numbers football. That is a metaphor explaining what John would have struggled to explain using 5 actual facts about politics. It is true in civic life as well. Instead of trying to explain things using statistics and actual facts about things, it is actually pretty apprehensible by normal people to just say "This is like a basketball game where everybody is on a unicycle and most of them don’t know how to ride a unicycle."

The best people in public life have that ability. It is not wrong or untrustworthy to use metaphor to explain things. You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. You can also govern in poetry a little bit. Part of it is the outreach: You have to sit in a meeting, listen to all the data, synthesize it and make decisions. Then you tell people what you have decided and you have another opportunity. You are not campaigning in that moment, but you are speaking in poetry to people. People would feel that there would be more transparency in government and it would be less conspiratorial if they weren’t buried under statistics. Statistics are bad at explaining things. Merlin thinks about The Simpsons episode where this guy wants to sell the town a monorail ”You know what? A town with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!”

Environmentalism (RL155)

We need a big project like the dams or the Interstate Highway system

We can’t get people to agree on simple, incremental projects, but maybe it is possible to inspire people with a vision of the future 20 years from now and put aside the normal bickering of ”Where are the crosswalks going to be? How is that going to affect my sewer service?” It is very pie in the sky and we try this all the time, but we are also more and more capable all the time, both of disseminating a vision more broadly than what we have been able to in the past, and of collecting people’s opinions in real time. We don’t have to present the big project that we envisioned together with the bill that would enable it to pass, put it to the voters and every once in a while robo-call people who have home phones that reply to polls and who will give us some sense of how people feel about this.

Now we have technology where we could reach a large population of people in real-time and say ”Here is the project, here is the modification of the project, the comment period is already closed” and ask them about this option vs that option. We could get people to chose to make a big leap. Reverse-engineering how to get this done is going to be a separate process under the umbrella of what we have already approved. We are not going to build this out of stacked BBs, but we will calculate back from a thing we all want. If you are overly specific about what you are doing and in what context, almost everybody is going to disagree with it, especially when you say that it is time to revolutionize the educational system. If you put it that way, people are going to freak! When you get super-specific, you will get the lobbies involved. It has to be something like a Supertrain-effort, something that is so big that nobody will see it coming.

There are many examples of big successful projects that we could use as guidelines, but the world has changed a lot since then. In John’s parents’ lifetimes, in living memory, the government went across the nation and basically built enormous dams in every conceivable river valley where they could get away with it. What would it take now for somebody to come along and build a dam at the end of this unspoiled valley that is full of little villages and stuff, to capture water and to create power? It would be more than impossible! There was a window of time where it was technologically possible and still socially possible to build giant hydroelectric dams and we built a bunch of them. The electricity in Seattle is cheap because of those giant dams that they built as recently as during John’s father’s lifetime. John is making this podcast using that power!

The Interstate Highways were built in our own lifetimes. We tore down the centers of every major American city and: "Look at the roads!" There was a sense of progress after the war, the big businesses were the oil- and the automobile companies and they were like ”Roads!” They did a fantastic job of convincing us that building roads was in the public interest, they attached all this weird cold-war spookery to it, they eminent-domained huge neighborhoods in the centers of owns and they built giant, smokey, loud chasms. Here we are! John drives on it every day. We couldn’t do it again today, not in a million billion years. The next thing we need to build has to be on that same scale. It has to be better, cooler, conscious of the mistakes that were made, and conscious of the fact that when they built the dams and the freeways, they thought they were doing the best thing!

Merlin is astonished when watching WWII documentaries on how quickly every country could ramp up not only their military personell, but also their equipment. How could they suddenly start building thousands of planes in the 1940s? It seems like it would be impossible today. John’s dad trained pilots in a biplane with fabric wings. The US Navy taught him to fly in a biplane and by the end of the war, which in America was less than 4 years from 1941 to 1945, he went from training in a biplane to jet aircraft and atomic bombs. That was amazing, you guys! Hey, wow! If we really put our mind to it, we can do some stuff! If we hadn’t had that war, what would history have looked like in terms of technology? John doesn’t think it will take another war to be innovative again, but he hopes that we can do it with the penned up energy we have and unleash it in ways that are positive and cool.

John getting important endorsements

John has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, which is an enormous vote of confidence. The Sierra Club had previously endorsed John’s opponent, the incumbent Tim Burghes, multiple times and they told John multiple times that it is in their charta that once they endorse somebody they don’t stop endorsing them, because it would seem weird. Now they switched their endorsement to John, which is a major deal. He has also been endorsed by several Democratic party organizations and he is going to give 4 more speeches to 4 more Democratic party groups this week. He will stand there in his flowered hat and he will hope that he is the mule they pick to run. Important people are gathering behind the campaign. Last night John went to a very unusual show where Krist Novoselic was interviewing Duff McKagan about his new book. They invited John up at the end of the show and said that this is a great opportunity for the audience to vote for one of us. They sat on stage, talked about the Seattle city council, said kind words and encouraged people to vote. Then they both stood up, signed autographs and took pictures with what seemed to be 700 people. Krist was wearing a Vote Roderick sticker in every photo, which was cool!

When they first met back in the Grunge times 25 years ago, John could not have imagined that the three of them would still be hanging out or that they even would still be alive and making chit-chat about stuff. As the stage manager came and told them that Mike McCready just introduced them and it was their turn on stage, they were all still upstairs talking about old times. Duff grabbed Krist and was like ”Hey man, I saw that Kurt Cobain documentary and I just wanted to say like…” and there followed another 5 minutes of them standing in a little huddle and talking. John has known Duff for a long time and he has known Krist for a while. He admires them and loves them both, and now they had really human 5 minutes together talking about really human stuff! He was really moved in that moment. It was really heavy and also really beautiful and life-affirming. These guys are heros and 25 years ago they were legendary figures to John, yet they are super-human guys with a lot of humanity. It is life-affirming to remember that people are not statues of themselves, but it is possible to go through life and remain a fully functioning person who is trying to feel. Because there is all this pressure in the political world to eliminate emotions from your vocabulary and stick to the numbers, this encounter and their support was really validating for John!

In 1991, Guns & Roses and Nirvana were bitter enemies. Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love got into a fist fight at the backstage of the MTV Music Video Awards because Axl Rose told Kurt to tell his bitch to shut up. Welcome to the jungle! Nirvana was perceived to be the antidote to Guns & Roses Rock ’n’ Roll access. They were like the Sex Pistols to Guns ’n’ Roses’s Led Zeppelin. There is the ”Time heals all woulds” factor and the ”How dumb were we back then” factor. All that stuff was really poignant and that was a conversation that was only going to happen once and John was the only witness to it. He felt fortunate and personally touched. That is happening a surprising amount.

Arctic drilling protests in Seattle

John visited the Shell Oil drilling rig that was parked in Seattle. Shell is the only oil company that is still trying to drill in the Arctic ocean. They have tried a few times and lost a lot of money trying. It is very hard to do and this is their last chance, because they are not going to keep trying indefinitely. They have towed this ocean-going oil rig that was built in 1985 and has drilled all around the world to Seattle, waiting for the ice to clear up there in July, to go up and try one more time. The city of Seattle decided that they would make a symbolic stand against it, but all the usual suspects were shouting ”Union jobs!” and ”We are not ready to divest from fossil fuels!”, all the normal business-oriented stuff, like ”It is not our business, it is Alaska’s problem”. The big criticism was that the protests were just a symbolic gesture, because there is nothing they could really do. Yet there was this huge gathering of people saying ”No, drilling in the Arctic is idiotic!" If you make one fuck-up, the oil is not going to organically degrade because of the frozen conditions! It is going to be in that arctic gyre, going around the world, befouling Greenland and Iceland and Norway. It is just going to spin around for centuries. Don’t be idiots!

The fossil fuel era is over. It is done! It is still going to take 15 or 20 years for us to roll out the different solutions to all the problems, but it is done. Give it a rest! Yes, it was a symbolic bunch of hippies in wet fleece in kajaks out there at the protests, but there was also a big meeting with a stage and speeches. Alaska natives came down from the North Slopes, from Barrow and from the whole community who had been active against ANWR and Arctic Drilling for decades. It was really emotional for John to see so many Alaskan natives in one place, speaking about their land and their feelings. John hadn’t been back to Alaska in a couple of years and before that it had been a long time since he had been to an event like that. Just the cadence of the way they speak, the songs and the places they were referencing felt like family to John. He felt moved because they are on a long journey with some of them fighting Arctic drilling since 1970 and this was the largest crowd we had ever seen. They had been doing this for over 40 years and mostly to unreceptive audiences, and now look at this: Something is really moving.

Obama just approved Arctic Drilling in one of those inexplicable moves where you are asking yourself ”What are you doing, guy? Weren’t you the global warming guy?” That is when it does feel conspiratorial! Did Obama get into some Area 51 shit and now he is making these decisions? John doesn’t think that is true. John was at this hippie-dippie event and when you really go into it, he was ”Fuck! You guys! This is it!” We have been told since 1980 that one day we will turn away from fossil fuels and we have been told that it is not possible, but it just feels like today there are more people on the ”Now!” side than are on the ”Not yet!” side. It is a big world-historical moment and that feels amazing!

Somebody tweeted John the other day, quoting one of the lines in his political bio that says ”It is great to live in Seattle because we don’t have to argue whether or not the polar ice caps are melting” and the guy said that ”sounds like somebody needs to google polar sea ice extent”. John did and the first thing that came up was a scientific study with all the data about shrinking ice caps. He screen-caped it and tweeted it to the guy who tweeted him back ”Well, if you believe a bunch of data from a bunch of scientists, yes, but here is a Daily Caller-article that unmasks the lie”

The article was actually about the fact that the North West side of the Antarctic ice shelf had put on a bunch of ice and had grown considerably during the last 2 years. As you read further down the article, it said that every other aspect of the Antarctic shelf is catastrophic shrinking to the point of no return. Of course the Arctic is almost completely free of ice now, so John wrote him again, knowing that he should not, and said ”Did you even read to the end of the article you are citing?” and he was like ”If you want to believe the big dollar climate lobby!” Even in Seattle there are tons of people sitting in the den of their split-level home shaking their disembodied rubber hand at the damn scientists.

If you look at the people who donate to John’s campaign, you will find a lot of scientists, a lot of bat-ichthyologists (John still calls them that name two years later in Roadwork Episode 95) and people studying the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly. They are donating $25, $30, sometimes even $50 to John’s campaign. John is beholden to their interest! Not to mention the computer-maths people, a bunch of trade school drop-outs, so disappointed! Merlin thought that John was going to be different, man!

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License