RL273 - One kilometer

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: ”It was the first thing that John had ever finished”, referring to John’s walk across Europe when he was 30 years old being the first thing he had ever finished while he otherwise has tremendous issues with productivity.

The show title refers to one kilometer of John’s walk across Europe in Slovakia where he was in a car, making his trip technically incomplete.

Next Monday they will not be recording a show, but they will do a live show at the SF Sketch Fest!

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

Depression and anxiety (RL273)

John went to bed early and then he woke up in the middle of the night. He was going to bed at midnight like a normal, but then at 2:45am he popped awake, like ”Hello everybody!” Merlin usually gets up in the middle of the night, goes to pee like a gentleman and then gets a little alone-time with his anxieties, somewhere between 5 minutes to 1 hour or longer. The thing about anxiety is that it was hard for John to know what it felt like, because it is very rare that he is feeling anxiety. Instead it would mask itself as other things and pad in on little cat feet. Merlin could always say with some confidence that he does not have depression. He is a happy guy and has anything but depression! It is rather the opposite and he is feeling very anxious, but a lot of people told him recently that anxiety is a big side effect of depression and they are fruit from a similar tree. The problem is the habit of anxiety if you don’t just let it pass through but make it part of your habit. Merlin doesn’t touch the doorknob every time he goes by it, but he does get intrusive thoughts, not the kind where he wants to have sex with a baby and throw it on the train tracks that some people get. Maria Bamford talks about this a lot, because she has really intrusive and bizarre sexual thoughts. It is nothing she actually wants to do, but once the idea is in her head, she has made great comedy out of that. Still, Merlin doesn’t have that, but he does have thoughts he can’t stop thinking of.

John has been a muller and a stewer, but a lot of it is managed now. When you are depressed, you feel that the whole world is allied against you and and you are the goat in every scenario. The medicine John is taking now has relieved quite a bit of that and he doesn’t spend all afternoon mulling anymore. He does still have those tendencies, especially that parliament of nooges who advocate for irrelevant things up the wrong channel and collect and form impossible problems. Somebody is saying that we don’t have a single sharpened pencil in the house. How did that become the thing that keeps John from finishing his record album? He has these periods where he is seized with energy and is convinced he is going to go to the bottom of this. His dad and his uncle Jack did the same! John had one of those periods recently and he created some folders on his desktop, he made some commitments with people over coffee, he planted some flags, but he is still standing here every day with his same self, not taking any first steps and not actually moving in any direction, which is exasperating.

John's inner parliament (RL273)

John had the same checklist with three things on it (see previous story!) haunting him for 12 years! He can’t abandon it! Well-meaning friends are giving him all this well-meaning advice to throw it away and get on with it, but he can’t! All it is doing is torturing him. What kind of way is that to live? Where is the anxiety? In a way, anxiety is all over it and it is sticky with anxiety, but it doesn’t jump out in its joker-costume or as the new version of Harley Quinn (in the ”Daddy’s Lil’ Monster”-t-shirt, from the Batman universe). They shortly talk about that fictional character and her being in the movie Suicide Squad where she was heavily sexualized. John wonders if she would be a good personification of his anxiety. He does not have one critical voice, but a whole parliament of critical voices that are at the same time on message and contradictory, meaning he has many Harleys Quinn. When you are trying to face this stuff down, it helps to identify these voices. Is that your dad or your boss Randy? Then you decide how you feel about that voice being there and whether you listen to it and give it any credibility. That whole ”voices in my head are a parliament” thing is something that John grabbed from Bismarck, who described his own inner life like that. Bismarck is so full of wonderful aphorisms that it is sometimes hard to track down all of the great lines from his catalog. He reads like Sun Tzu and he is full of great little political jibes (?). At some point he describes his own inner life as this Reichstag of disagreeable inner selves and when John talks about it, it is really a direct grab. John celebrates Otto von’s entire catalog!

The vicious cycle of thoughts (RL273)

It is always easy to give advice to other people if you don’t have the same problem. People who don’t procrastinate have no sympathy or understanding of what it is like to be somebody who procrastinates. Explaining it doesn’t help. If you procrastinate, or whatever else your specific hangup is, then you see stuff in the tealeaves that other people don’t see and you are motivated in ways that are very exotic and unknowable to people who don’t have that. The problem is the repetition! Quoting Robert Wright from the book ”Why Buddhism is true”: If you are in an area where there are tons of rattlesnakes and lots of people die from rattlesnakes, you can understand why you would be very cautious or why you would imagine a snake even when there is no snake, because when there actually is a snake 1 time out of 100, it served you well from an evolutionary standpoint, although it might not make the most sense in a modern society. There is a deficit in perception and cognition and it is the repetition that kills us, the feeling that the repetition is out of our control, like having a thought you keep thinking that is making you unhappy, but then somehow, like pressing a bruise, you can’t help but revisit the thing that you hate because it feels so much a part of you. You don’t have to have OCD to have these thoughts that you hate and you don’t know how to stop it.

What makes it chronic for John is that none of the thoughts in his pantheon of thoughts are unreasonable by themselves. He is not afraid to go downstairs and he is not afraid of snakes in any way, shape or form, but all of his throw-a-baby-on-the-tracks ejaculatory thoughts are interesting and fun. Fantasies are not the problem for John and none of his thoughts feel abnormal. When he had depression, all the things he was telling himself felt perfectly reasonable. He was a trash garbage person and he could demonstrate why. His friends did hate him and he could show you the evidence. The thoughts that plagued John are the thoughts that seem all the more reasonable as soon as you apply a critical faculty to them. There is a deficit of pencils here and he does need five new folders on his computer that are named and numbered! Until he does that, he can’t begin. Having done it now, he feels that he has done some pretty good work and he needs a little break. He got these folders now and they will be used to organize his next step, but the actual next step is a pretty big job, so he should probably have a sandwich first. It is not easy to just say "Look man, I keep coming back to this thought that is intrusive and that I can see is irrational!", but you are locked in a pattern that is absolutely incapacitating and it is something that feels like there is no solution to. People who don’t share a morbid fear of stairs or germs on the other hand think that this would be pretty easy to get over or work around.

When John and Merlin first met, Merlin was the Internet’s Merlin Mann and he was building a name for himself as a productivity guru. John has the insight that Merlin was trying to solve an actual problem for himself. He didn’t just go out and test all these options for his websites, but he wanted to be more productive. He always had the sense that he was capable of doing seemingly basic things better, but it was always challenging to him and he wondered if there was a fairly light infrastructure he could introduce. When the infrastructure was getting too heavy, he would try to pull back and find a different way.

John is the same way and the stumbling block with John’s repetitive thoughts seems to be that others who don’t have the problem see it just as a productivity problem. All you need is a plan or a system! John’s close friends, well-meaning people, his own mother, they are pulling yellow legal pads out and they really want to help by doing this step by step. The first simple step we have to do is X and John digs it, but then the wheels come off immediately and it doesn’t seem to other people like John is doing anything other than stopping in the middle of the road for no reason. It is not that he sees snakes, but John is caught in a loop! He get knots in his stomach laying in bed at night, thinking about really simple things to do. It is a closed loop, it is not like a loop that affects his ability to take a new job or make a switch between being a musician or being a writer. John honestly doesn’t know what he is getting out of those constant small failures, like his list with 3 items on it. He could finish his book and his album in a month, honestly, if he didn’t worry about their quality. He could have that record done in two days if he didn’t care whether it was good or not. It would be off the list and he could go on to the next thing. By caring about it being good, it is impossible for him to finish because he can never make a thing that is good, which makes him think that he is incapable of doing a thing that is good and that paralyzes him.

John will make a folder on the desktop and will put all the lyrics that start with the letter ”R” in the ”R”-file. That will help him organize them and will tell him which ones are good. As he puts them in there, he is like ”this one’s good, that one’s good, this feels great!” Two days later he opens up the ”R”-file, thinking that it is full of great stuff, he reads them all again and realizes that there is not a single good thing in there. It is all garbage and he closes it and doesn’t open it for another month. It sits on the desktop as this throbbing red thumb and he has created a taxonomy of failure, this folder that is full of garbage and that contains everything under the letter ”R” that he is capable of making. To add more garbage to it doesn’t seem like the right process. What he needs to do instead is to start working on the novel and so he makes some files, goes over there, rolls his chair over a couple of feet. John has done so much work on both things. The novel has 100s and 100s of pages, he had like 8 people read it and all of them have come back with really good constructive comments that John agrees with, but when he opens the book to fix it, he realizes that he has to redo the whole book. He has enough files of lyrics for 50 albums, but he can’t get this voice out of his head that tells him when he looks at it the second time it is garbage. All the solutions that are suggested by his well-meaning friends just seem like brutal to him. Why would they even suggest such an awful thing, as that he should throw all this work away, all those great files full of garbage. That is his cycle!

Finishing things (RL273)

John always wants help, he does ask for help and he has this vision in his head that someone will take enough of an interest in it so that they will actually pull up a chair. John loves to read off a thing and have somebody else hear it and bounce it back. He loves to go back and forth! What he doesn’t like is when somebody listens and their feedback is ”Great! Seems like you are on your way!” They have a solution for John’s overall problem and then they get up and leave, which makes John feel abandoned. His expectations are unrealistic because he wants his friend, who has their own creative life and who is struggling to get their own things done and who is consumed by their own demons, to devote themselves for some period of time to helping John. He wrote Ben Acker the other day and wanted him to read this draft, but Ben’s reply was that as long as you call it a draft, then you think it is a draft and you should work on it more. When you don’t think it is a draft and think it is done, then you have people read it, which was a very interesting theory! John had Dave Bazan trying to help him finish his record and Dave did quite a bit of work helping John do it. Ultimately Dave made files for John and once he had those files he could sort through them and know what to do, but John wanted so much hand-holding just beyond and he not just struggles to adopt other people’s systems, but actively resists it in his head.

Last year, John had a plan, but some life-stuff got in the way until he was a week behind. The person who was helping him with that plan said ”You are a week behind, but you can catch up!”, while John thought that because of these life-things he should set the deadline a week later. They insisted to keep the deadline and just make up for the lost week and John was furious! Why should he have the deadline be the same? It should move back a week because of the tornado that hit the town! Merlin annotates that it is not really a deadline if you move it. It’s fine, you can make up that lost week! It is crazy to say that John is a week behind now, he was doing so good! John walked across Europe and he does have the ability to power through stuff, but the idea of being a little bit behind on the project cripples him! Some things are just harder than others.

John didn’t actually finish High School (RL279)

People don’t believe John when he says that he was 30 when he walked across Europe and it was the first thing he had ever finished, except for High School, and he didn’t really finish High School, but he just got to the end of what the term of High School should have been and they were like ”That’s fine!” He doesn’t have a feeling of completing High School, because he skirted it. He had actually not completed the requirements, and they just took a pencil and erased the zero and added a one. It is visible on John’s transcript! There is a visible cheat or lie that he didn’t ask for and it does feel dishonest. It is a small thing that a lot of people would assume he was proud of. He had no anxiety about graduating from High School, because he knew it wouldn’t matter if he did or didn’t. By having not done it, by having not gone to summer school or repeated his senior year, by having not done what he most definitely should have been forced to do, his High School is not actually finished.

Sponsor: Mack Weldon (RL273)

John has a couple of Mack Weldon silver underpants in the mail. They protect him from stuff and although they are not technically bulletproof, they make him feel bulletproof. There is military grade silver thread weaved in with the cotton. John almost never wears T-shirt except when he expects to be hot and is dressing fancy and wants another layer. He is always confused if the extra layer makes him hotter and makes him perspire more or if it puts another layer between his shirt and his perspiration. His dad wore V-neck T-shirts, but neither John nor Merlin do support that. When John was a kid in the 1970s, it was cool to wear tank-tops, which John did and he looked very cool in them when he was 8, but he does not look good in them now. The silver underpants do not look silver, but John usually gets the light pastel color. He is not normally a technical fabrics person, but he wants his wools and cottons. John is talking about doing a motorcycle trip this summer up to the Arctic circle with some friends and one of them at least is wearing technical fabrics even if they are not doing anything technical. The thing about the silver underpants is that the technical material is silver, which is the oldest of the old school materials. It is easily one of Merlin’s favorite precious metals. John has silver all around the house, all his door stops are silver ingots that he got back from the crackhead’s trunk, fulfilling their purpose of being $5000 door stops. When John has socks that are not totally trashed, but have run their course, he will put them back into the river by binding them together into a bindle and putting them on top of a mailbox somewhere on a busy street. Those socks will be gone in 10 minutes! This is the beautiful thing about ”The River”: If you put a sign on something saying that it is free, it goes away, except if it is a filthy child’s car seat.

The missing kilometer in Slovakia (RL273)

John wanted to walk around 35-40 km a day. As he was walking through Slovakia he encountered one of those days that would put him around a place where he could not stop. He could stop after a half-day in a town that was only 15 km from where he had started, and a lot of times he would look around wondering if this was a cool enough town for him to just call it a day and hang out here. As you look at the map, you see that there was a big area ahead where there were no towns, probably a swamp or another type of uninhabitable zone. He went through this little town and asked someone if there is a hotel in this town. They looked at him with this particular late 20th century slavic look, like ”Noo!” as though having a hotel in this town was a stupid thing to ask for. As they parted ways John wondered who was the dummy? Those guys were trying to figure out a market economy and John knows from talking to a lot of people that on this side of the former wall there was a lot of resentment about the expectation of the intrusion of a market economy. All they had to do is say ”Yes, come to my house!” John will pay them what seems like it is probably a lot of money to them. He will pay $25 which is a lot and all you have to do is having a bed in the back of your warehouse, so why are you so smug about the fact that you don’t have a hotel in your town? Get with the program!

So John kept on walking. It was a beautiful day and it was a very pleasant walk through what turned out to be kind of a swamp, but not a pestilent swamp, more like a low-land with some birds. A lot of the area around the Danube that is kind of river-basin-y and this was a particular rainy season. As John got to the end of the day, he was still quite far out from Kolárovo, the town he was heading to. He kept plucking along because there was just nothing else to do. He could pitch a tent at the side of the road in 3 inches of water or he could keep going. As the sun went down, it started to rain. When he finally came to Kolárovo, a fairly big little town, he walked all the way to the center, which is on a river, and there was this ”Community Club”, a sort of former Eastern Block sporting club and a bar where they also play music and a youth center, all this stuff. John rolls into this place, he gets a coke and sits down at a table. Some young person comes over and asks him ”What are you?” and John replied that he was an American walking across Slovakia. All of a sudden he was surrounded by six 20-something Slovaks, all having a good time. They were enjoying each other and John was an interesting curiosity.

They were Hungarian Slovaks who spoke Hungarian. They see themselves as ethnically Hungarian, but they were also nationalistically Slovakians. They don’t want to reunite with Hungary and they have a Slovak identity, but they are Hungarians. They are the majority in this part of Slovakia, they listen to Hungarian radio and their situation is one of the quizzical aftermaths of the dissolution of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Hungary used to be big and after Trianon they chopped it all apart and gave some of it to Romania, some of it to Slovakia and some of it to all the other nations on all sides, even some of it to Austria which didn’t make any sense at all. At some places in Romania they pushed the Hungarians out and while everything at those places is still written in Hungarian, there are only Romanians living there now. In Slovakia, the Hungarians stayed and became Slovaks. This might have been the town where John finally grasped this. Before he was talking to people in his pigeon-Slovak, which is similar enough to Czech that he had learned enough of it that he could greet people and ask if there was a hotel. He got a lot of sneers from people and it was only at this point he realized that they were all speaking Hungarian and talking to them in Slovakian was a faux pas.

Eventually John approached the topic if he would be able to stay with one of them tonight. Everybody was looking at their finger nails, but he had been doing this long enough to know that somebody would probably step forward. He had already asked for a hotel, but the hotels in this town were all booked up permanently by people living in them, essentially turning them into apartments for highway workers. Whether or not that was true is left to history, but it allowed him to ask if he could stay with any of them. One of the kids said that they were all leaving early in the morning on a big adventure going to Hungary and John could stay at his house while he is going to stay at a friend’s house, but John would have to leave at 7am. The apartment was on the other side of town, which was only a kilometer, but it was raining in the middle of the night and so they asked him to hop in the car. John hadn’t been in a car in months, because he was walking from Amsterdam to Istanbul. It was very hard to look at this guy who offered John to sleep in his apartment and they wanted to get this over with and tell them he would rather walk that one kilometer. John was not going to get a full night’s sleep and had to go up brutally early, so he got into the car, they drive to this guy’s house and John was ensconced. It was one of those weird houses where everything was in black and white and all the accoutrements in his bathrooms were black.

In the morning when John woke up it was cold and foggy. He stepped out the door of the apartment and looked down the road to the center which was one kilometer back in the opposite way of the direction John was going. John was ruminating if he should walk back that kilometer to his starting point, or if he should just go into the right direction. He was tired and fucked up and there was no coffee anywhere, so John didn’t walk back to get his boots on home plate, the last place his boots had been before he got into this car. It was a kilometer back on the road, it would make up for itself, it was fine! He had followed his system to walk from Amsterdam to Istanbul in an uninterrupted series of boot prints, where he would even walk upstairs rather than taking an escalator, but here he introduced this one kilometer break which, although he had walked 3000 km is still there as a little pea under the mattress from the center of Kolárovo to this guy’s apartment. John doesn’t let it discredit this whole thing, although there is at least one legislator in the parliament who runs for office and gets elected every election cycle on the strength of the fact that he wants an investigation. He is in the opposition and for him, that is the one reason he keeps getting elected, it is his Bengazi. He will never put a coalition together when he forms a new government. There is an ongoing investigation whether or not that kilometer is a thing where John would have to go back and walk that whole distance again if he would have to fly to Bratislava, take a bus to Kolárovo and close that link.

That walk across Europe was the first thing John had ever finished, the first thing that he ever concluded all the way. He went the whole distance although there were a million reasons why he shouldn’t have, including that it was a stupid idea to begin with. Along the way there were 50 opportunities where he could have said that it was fine and he had already made it all the way to Star Zagora, so he could cash his chips now, but he never did, he made it the whole way with the exception of this kilometer. It is not only the first thing he ever finished, but he also gets to keep it in that category of things that if he wanted it to be an unopened diploma on his shelf, he could shift his perception and have it be that. That might have been the most John Roderick story he has ever told! He has outdone himself.

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