RL284 - You’re Grass Now

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • University priorities (School)
  • Accomplished people, Michael Giacchino (Stories)
  • There is nowhere to move if you live on the West Coast already (Geography)
  • Isaac Marion living in his van (Stories)
  • Purging and organizing (Merlin Mann)
  • John’s childhood train set (Early Days)
  • Namespace pollution (Technology)
  • Hyperlinking in text messages (Technology)
  • John Vanderslice producing albums for Seattle bands (Music)
  • Google asking John for feedback, but rejecting his changes (Career)
  • One gallon Ziploc bag (Merlin Mann)
  • John's Christmas tree (Objects)
  • Setting up an eBay store (Objects)
  • Getting a mounty jacket (Style)

The problem: A loaves and fishes type situation, referring to Storm DiCostanzo from Paul & Storm taking a power-strip to the airport to quintuple the number of outlets available for everybody.

The show title refers to John’s train set during his childhood where he just painted a sheet of plywood in green and said that it is grass now.

John just spilled coffee on his shirt that was clean for only 15 minutes. He found it to be a nice shirt to put on today and what was he saving it for? A wedding?

John has been puttering around this morning and he is barely awake. Unlike Merlin he is not living in a conventionally structured family and he doesn’t have to get his daughter up to school every morning, but only sometimes. On days when that is not the case, he will just lie in bed and stare up at the reflective moons on the ceiling of his room (he doesn’t have that), having deep thoughts at the same time. Merlin is curious about the general nature of these deep thoughts. John doesn’t really think about the day, but he takes each day as it comes. If he has to hit several Lily Pads and logs on his way across the stream to the other side, he is laying those out, because the logs are moving one way and the Lily Pads are moving another. John has a manilla folder full of things he is permanently anxious about and he needs to run those. It is another day where he hasn’t put out a record album. He is still not 100% sure if he graduated from college, actually! Then he has a subset of items that are over 10 years old. He has to fill in that swimming pool, fix the foundation of that barn and rebuild that front walk. At first he tells himself that this will be the year when he is definitely going to do it, because it is just a matter of a few phone calls, but he doesn’t have any money and this will be the year he is going to figure out a way to earn money!

John thought about the RV this morning and he needs to get that done. Maybe he should put it in the swimming pool to catch two birds with one stone.

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

University priorities (RL284)

Merlin thinks about college for his daughter every day. This morning her socks were too small because she is growing so fast and she is almost 5 foot tall (150 cm) now. Merlin is counting on the college system to fall apart because it is due! Like when you think that if there is an earthquake I won’t have to go to dinner with this person tonight, Merlin keeps thinking that some university 9/11 is going to happen and we will have to start over. You never see the apocalypse coming the way you think it is going to come. As universities proliferate, they become less and less meaningful and more and more just diffuse. Pretty soon they will be the equivalent of summer camp, gardening school or banana pants. You can spend $100.000 a year to send your kids to university and what are they going to do there? They are going to read Mark Twain and Beloved and they take a bunch of Maths classes they could do online.

One of the universities in the Midwest was talking about gutting all of their humanities department and languages. They see where the bread is buttered and they realize that they have become a trade school. It is all going to be petroleum engineering! Why is it even called a university? There is nothing universal about it and it should be called a specificity! When Merlin got to college, it was $5000 a year including everything, and he got to sit around and read books. He could read books any time, because he has a library right near his house. John says that getting a liberal arts education requires that you are in college somewhere and talking to people all the time. Getting a petroleum engineering degree requires that you talk to people, but you should do that on a job site at a petroleum situation down in Louisiana somewhere with a guy in some overalls telling you to turn this wrench.

Accomplished people, Michael Giacchino (RL284)

John was having a show with his friend Sarah Vowell who interviewed Michael Giacchino, the composer for, amongst others, the movie Up, the JJ Abrams movies, the Incredibles, Lost, the Star Trek reboot, and Rogue One. He is John's age and he is an extremely accomplished and also happy person who is really good at his job. John meet one of his children who was happy as well and described their life and their family life as good. It was obvious that they were high-functioning, but they weren’t dull witted, but they were sharp and they were capable of feeling sad.

Michael knew at a very young age what he wanted to do and he found pursuing that really enjoyable. He got up in the morning and was like ”I’m doing it!” He taught himself how to score, how to compose for an orchestra and how to conduct for an orchestra. He did go to various schools, but for the most part he was just watching Planet of the Apes and figured out how it was done. Now he is 3/4 on the way to an EGOT, he got Emmies, Grammies, and an Oscar for Up. John didn’t know any of this, and the three of them were just sitting in the bar at the Washington Athletic club at 1am after they had done a good show and they were shooting the shit. It was obvious he was accomplished and he was beloved. John didn’t do any advanced research on him, but it turned out they had met before through San Francisco’s number one, Adam Savage.

As John came home, be was like ”Who was that guy? What a nice evening! I should figure out who that was!” and Oh, he is fairly accomplished, but crucially he was really happy to be in the world and to be himself. He loved his job, he loved his work and his kids, 2 of them are in college and the youngest one is still at home, and Sarah was saying that the youngest one reported not being able to think of a single advantage to having his older brother and sister out of the house. He also knows the complete world history of the popular entertainment in the 20th and 21st century, and he and Merlin would go nuts with each other! If John puts himself back to the age of 22 when Michael was 22 and they were both thinking about what they were going to do today, Michael was going to figure out how to write in the treble clef while John was thinking how to get all this mucus out of his eyes. Sometimes in life you meet someone who is firing on all cylinders. It is not that he doesn’t have problems, he confesses to being sad.

There is nowhere to move if you live on the West Coast already (RL284)

John is often leaving his house to go to events and meetings, or to have coffee with somebody. When Merlin has to go anywhere or when he has a scheduled phone call with a pseudo-stranger, he over-engineers his day, while John does not seem to do that. John is always late because he leaves the house too late and the traffic gets worse all the time.

When John moved out where he lives now, he thought he was solving for a lot of problems, but all he did was buying his first house. He was very conscious that it was only his first house, because from the time he was born to the time he graduated from High School his parents had something like 10 houses between the two of them. They would buy a house, live there for a few years and buy another house. Times were different, because you could buy a house for $20.000. John bought this house that is not around anything and that is a long way to the next thing. It is nice, but it is not really walkable to anywhere. John does want to be able to walk places and there is a part of him that is ready for a change, but there is also a part of him that is rooted there and it hard to balance which one he wants. Does he want change? Does he want to be rooted? It is basically like the 2008 election where he had to choose between Change and a WWII veteran. Buying a house is a lot of hassle, because you have to go to a lot of places and sign stuff and you got to be vetted.

John’s house has probably increased in value, but what used to be a situation where he was like ”Free money!”, now just seems like ”Ah, fuck!” It has increased in value but so has everything else. Then there are all the eels! A lot of people are going to want their cut. Just getting somebody to figure out how much it is worth might be $5000. Then you are getting the house ready to sell and all of a sudden you are doing all the things you wish you had done 10 years before. You put in the walk and you fix the barn and you fill in the pool in order to sell it to somebody else, but now that you have fixed all the things, you want to live here.

John follows a thing on Instagram called cheap old houses and every day they post 5 pictures of these 10 bedroom houses in Ames, Iowa or South Carolina or Ohio. They are on 18 acres (73.000 sqm) of land and cost like $79.000. Some people in Seattle could sell their house, move to South Carolina for the rest of their lives and just live off the money. John is not one of those people, so where would he live? This is a constant question when you are living on the West Coast. If you live in the middle of the US and you need a change, then you can always go to the West Coast and people have done that for time immemorial. If you want to put a flower in your hair, move to San Francisco! If you already live in Seattle of San Francisco, you are not going to move back to Ohio, because that goes against the stream. You would have to move to Tokyo or something!

Isaac Marion living in his van (RL284)

There is a science fiction book called Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion. He is very young and has tattoos on his hands, but he is a person John knows and likes. He put out a recent book, but people just liked his one book or they don’t read books anymore and nobody bought his book. It is like with podcasts, the more there are, the more difficult it is to get people to listen to them. Merlin admires anybody who does a lot of a thing and keeps doing it. Isaac is still a bachelor and had bought a house when he had his first success, a cute little house over in a cute little neighborhood. Now he sold his house and was going to live in his van for a while. To John that felt like a come-down, but a part of him was also ”Woooooowwww!” Merlin is in the middle of a big purge and he sees the appeal of living in a van, although it would be tough for 3 people.

Purging and organizing (RL284)

John has a lot of wall-warts and doesn’t know what they are for. He also has too many cables, but in his Rock & Roll world everything is connected with a cable to everything else. If you buy a distortion box, which is a box that creates distortion, it comes with a wall-wart in case you want to sit and play with it all by itself. Merlin mentions those Charles Bissell boards where you can plug everything in and tidy it away. Typically you put a 9V battery in those pedals or you could use one power supply on your board and connect all your pedals to it. You don’t need 10 wall warts, but you just need a powers strip for pedals, which makes it so much easier to have a bunch of pedals for your guitar sound. John has all his wall-warts in a box, but he will never use them again. Still, they are part of the thing!

Merlin explains how he usually handles storage space in his kitchen with different areas, like the working area. Not everything is equally important as everything else and he keeps things in their respective area. Because his daughter lives entirely on pasta, Merlin wants his pan to boil the water and his colander always at the same spot in a cabinet in the working area. Merlin is a Calphalon family and they have all the pans. Every one of them comes with a lid, but you cannot have all the pans and all the lids in the sub-working area, because stacking will not be optimal. Merlin likes to go not more than 2 deep in order to avoid chaos when grabbing one of the things. John has some thoughts about the words colander vs sieve. As he was searching for the word Sieve, he was connected to a page called drivetribe.com showing a picture of the race car Audi E-tron Vision GT, but neither he nor Merlin could explain why. Merlin believes that you should be able to have these things in your sub-working area where you can pretty easily grab any of this stuff. He spent 15-20 minutes yesterday refactoring the pots and pans area. There are some pans he likes a lot, but he doesn't use them often enough for them to earn a space in the sub-working area.

You should do a similar thing with your life: You can’t have all the stuff in all the places and there needs to be some curation. When it comes to electronics, it takes a lot of humility and honesty to take the risk of potentially not having this in the working or sub-working area, but let it go into the deep storage area or the throwing-it-away area if you don't know what it is for and you haven't used it for a year? This is not John’s primary way of thinking. Merlin once had a garage sale and was detangling cables for devices that nobody had used since the 1990s until it occurred to him that nobody goes to a garage sale to buy a USB-A cable. Rule #1 is to never organize anything that should be thrown away. There is something comforting about organization and as part of Merlin’s ongoing purge, he is also refactoring the way he stores cable-stuff, which is a little bit mental. He is not going to throw away any Calphalon lid, but if he wants to move something to another area, then something else has to go, and as Michael Stipe says: If you throw something away, where is away? It is a storage and space issue, but at the heart of it, it is a philosophical issue about what kind of life you want to lead.

John’s aunt had a thing that seems very French, a wrought iron circular torture rack that you would hang an infidel on, hanging over your kitchen island and all your pots hang on it. It is a good look, but Merlin’s wife is historically not for things hanging from the ceiling, which came up in a discussion about the stuffed animals collection that is problematic and needs to be curated. Merlin suggested a net hanging from the ceiling, but he got a look from her like he said a thing he wasn’t supposed to say in front of the child. Anything hanging from the ceiling is a difficult sell in his house, even when it comes to a surround-sound system with speakers hanging from the ceiling. That idea got immediately kiboshed.

John’s childhood train set (RL284)

John’s dad got a job for the Alaska Railroad while he was living in Alaska. The rest of John’s family was living in Seattle in a 3-bedroom rambler and his dad bought John an H0-scale baseline train set. It was an example of him doing a thing and then ”See ya!” He bought a train set and went back to Alaska and "Good luck with that!" They set it up on a piece of plywood, but now that he had a train set on a sheet of plywood, where was it supposed to go? You can’t have it in the living room and you can’t have it in the garage, because then you can’t have the car in the garage. John really liked it and it was fun, but unfortunately he didn’t have a father in the house who was handy. In fact, even when he went to live with his dad, he didn’t have a father in the house who was handy either. He was a fine father, but he was not handy. John never had a train set with mountains and towns, but it was always just a piece of plywood that he spray-painted green make it to look like grass ”You are grass now!” He had nailed the track to it and he had a few little houses.

At some point, John's mom’s boyfriend Bobby put 4 pulleys on the roof of John's bedroom, connected the train set to a rope on its 4 corners and you could pull it up against the ceiling. It was the coolest thing that anybody had! John cannot believe his mom agreed to this and it was surely a horsefly in her ear the entire time. It does not work with any of her other systems, except for that it sounds pretty efficient. It was heavy enough that it had to be closely calibrated to work properly. Bobby never graduated from High School, but he owned his own company that made intake manifolds in one of those low 1-story garage buildings in the industrial part of town. There were 6 guys in there looking like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers making intake manifolds and selling them to people with hot rod boats. Bobby was good at making things. He would just take this mini bike engine, put it on top of this windmill and now he got fresh water. The train set didn’t stay there forever because John moved to Alaska and his mom wanted him to take it with him, which he did, but without the plywood. At his dad’s house they had 3 bedrooms and one of them just became the train room. Merlin had some acquaintances who had a guinea pig room, which was very gross and very ambitious for San Francisco.

John’s dad was not able to buy a single stereo that worked, but he had someone custom-make an H0 set of rolling stock in the Alaska Railroad livery which was not something that was available in the store! If someone could put together all the stories of John’s father just slightly abusing his position! Why couldn't he just buy a good working stereo, like the Nakamichi stereo that John’s friend's dad had? He could have John ride in the front of the train and he would just take whatever train car he wanted today, because he was the Scott Pruitt of Alaska trains. They would just walk into the mayor’s office, like ”Hey, there he is!”, but what were they doing there? If they could do this, they should be able to get a tape player that works!

John had this train until it became socially awkward for him. As his sister moved up to them, she moved into the actual functioning bedroom and John put a mattress under the train set and lived liked that for a couple of years, like Kristofferson Silverfox in Fantastic Mr Fox. John was happy under there, because it was like a little nest. Then there was that late 6th grade moment when everybody was starting to mature, when the little boys were getting mustaches and the little girls were getting boobies. John was not any of those things and he was getting neither one of those things and someone came over saying ”Dude, you are living under a train set? I’m listening to Led Zeppelin!” Then his dad moved and the train set went into boxes and John never recaptured his childhood.

Namespace pollution (RL284)

Merlin has never been in a public place where somebody yelled out ”Hey, Merlin Mann!” and it wasn’t directed at him. Merlin Mann == him, that is who he is. That name is him and he is that name. On the other side, a lot of people named John don’t necessarily assume when they hear that name it means them. John says that there is a particular tone to his name and if someone says ”John!” in a crowded room or a mall and they mean him, you can hear it. Anybody who knows him and is a friend of his would say it this way, because John is a John, not one of the Johns. John thinks that Merlin Mann is the greatest name of all, especially the 3rd (Merlin Mann III). This was Merlin’s dumbed down explanation of namespace pollution. In computer programming it means that things are not uniquely named and could mean different things when called upon in a similar way. It is why people have to pick names like ChunkyLover1492.

Hyperlinking in text messages (RL284)

Somebody had texted somebody and had mentioned ”John Roderick”. His name in the text stream was shown as a hyperlink and they screenshotted it and sent it to John’s sister. Messages on iOS is a hell of a thing and Merlin has no idea how it figures it out, but he was able to replicate it during the recording. It links to a spotlight search of John’s name. Maybe Apple should spend less time hyperlinking all of Merlin’s text messages and make them come in the right order on all the devices! On the Macintosh computer it links to the album ”One Christmas at a time”, which is infuriating to John because it is only half his album.

John Vanderslice producing albums for Seattle bands (RL284)

John Vanderslice is actually making a new album right now with a good friend of John's in a Seattle band called Cataldo. His new way of doing things is telling them that he doesn’t want to hear their demos, but he wants them to come in, cut the track live and they don’t get to overdub. They don’t even get to listen to their takes. It is not even the old-fashioned way, but some crazy way. Part of agreeing to make a record with him is agreeing that they just not bitch and he is going to tell them what is going to happen.

Google asking John for feedback, but rejecting his changes (RL284)

Google sent John a thing telling him that he is a person on the internet, and they asked if he wants to go in and edit his existence. If you google John and scroll down on the sidebar, it got his Wikipedia and his top songs like Commander Thinks Aloud, available on YouTube and Spotify. Then it comes down to albums and the first album it lists is One Christmas at a time, John’s Christmas album with Jonathan Coulton that no-one bought or wanted at the time. The second one is Putting the Days to Bed, but there are no further ones. Who’s fault is that? If you put John Darnielle there, he has three books but no albums listed at the bottom. John Vanderslice has 5 albums listed and it looks like he got a new haircut.

John wrote a little email back to Google, like a bug report, telling them that he has 4 albums and that One Christmas at a time is not his peak achievement and not the first thing that you think of him. You could put The Worst you can do is harm in there, because it is the first one, or When I pretend to fall because it is the best known, but Putting the days to bed sold the most. After about a week, Google wrote him back and told him that they were good and those changes were not necessary. They had asked! What the fuck? He was not asking them to take some post down where somebody said something bad about him, he is just asking them to put all his record albums up where they have dedicated room to put them up. ”We determined no changes to John Roderick were needed based on your feedback. If you believe this was an error, check out these guidelines and submit it back again with more details!” Just send it in, we don’t care! You can’t bore our robots! Up your butt with a rotten coconut! Twice as far as a Hershey bar! John almost said that to his kid the other day, but he really should not, because they said that back in the 1970s when it was a different time, nobody was watching them and nobody was monitoring them. You wouldn’t put a rotten coconut anywhere except in the garbage.

One gallon Ziploc bag (RL284)

Merlin used to buy more plastic things into which he could put other things, but that is no way to live. You don’t need most of the cables! Merlin has a Bankers Box with several, 8 or 9, one-gallon ZipLoc bags, each of them with a label on it, like USB-A, USB-C, USB-Micro, USB-Mini, and Ethernet. When John worked at Piper Jaffrey, the top floor of the house was just old records and there were Bankers Boxes to the end of the Earth. Merlin has 3 primary Bankers Boxes: Dead items that he probably should throw out, but he is not going to do it yet, above that are current things that he is just not using right this second, like a Bluetooth keyboard or an iPad cover that he is not using, but it is stuff that will have some usefulness. On top of that is the Box of cables. If a Bankers box with a dozen ZipLoc bags will not fit all of your cables, then you have too many cables!

Merlin does not keep every USB-cable that comes with every thing he has, but he will keep the amount he needs! Put all the things in one place and curate down to what you really need, one of the least emotional things you can do this with are electronic connectivity things. Merlin talks about his go-bad for travel-charging and reminds John of a life-hack he learned from Storm DiCostanzo of the Paul & Storm musical organization. He travels with a good power-strip so that when he arrives at an airport and there is only one outlet, he plugs in the power-strip and motions to everyone to come and partake of the power. He is doing a loaves and fishes type situation! Even if you might not use it every time, you are never going to be in a situation where you wished you didn’t have a power-strip.

John's Christmas tree (RL284)

John just took down his Christmas tree. It is a multi-season tree! People had started texting and tweeting him to say that it was an Easter tree, but that was fine. At some point someone came through and took all the good ornaments off, which was good because John didn’t have to think about the good ornaments when he finally took the tree down. When Christmas comes around again, those things will surely materialize again without John having to think about it. John’s daughter noticed that every year in her life they got a Christmas ornament in connection with a trip that they did, which was actually true. John is not a Christmas ornament guy, but he has some from his childhood that he would fight a rogue Elephant for if it would try to take them away from him.

After that conversation, his daughter independently decided that they will now buy a Christmas ornament every year and they will mark the passage of time with Christmas ornaments, which felt a little worrisome because it is a page out of John’s playbook. Now he has the tree in a bin in the basement that isn’t quite big enough for the tree, a small Charlie Brown tree made out of aluminum that he got from a thrift store, which was exactly what he wanted, because he doesn’t want to come home to discover that his house burned down. An aluminum tree is exactly what a dad has in his house and if the mom wants a beautiful tree that you cut down in the forest, then the mom can have that in her house if you are lucky enough to have two houses, which they do.

Setting up an eBay store (RL284)

John has been talking about selling things on eBay for at least 3-5 years, but he has never done it. As he was down in the basement fitting his little Christmas tree, he decided to put a bunch of winter clothes on eBay in April.

In preparation for that he went to the post office, which was one of those modern post offices with no humans. He saw other people go up to a robot, punch in some numbers, put a package in a door and leave. John was too shy for that, because he goes to the library or the post office only in the company of an adult. He didn’t want to go up to some stranger and ask how to mail a letter, because that would be like asking somebody on the streets what year it is, like some time-traveller shit! John became this guy who spent 45 minutes in the post office while other people have come and gone. He was reading the signs on the walls, like 242 days without an accident, he was going through all the brochures, like ”Have you ever considered using the mail?” If he wants to open an eBay store, he should better make a relationship with this post office, like a Daniel Plainview type situation, going out and making some furtive gestures with the people he knows he is going to want to work with, like his dad ”Hey postoffice guy, get to know me! Pretty soon I will be coming back through the buzz-in door and will be having a cigarette or something. I assume that is how this works?”

John realized you can just take boxes and walk out with them, because the boxes don’t have any value in and of themselves. Then you bring them back pre-loaded and you tell the robot that you want to mail this box. It goes away and it all happens with Apple Pay or something, John hasn’t figured it out. He got some boxes and brought them home, he is going to take the things, take their picture, put it in the box, seal the box, put a post-it note on the box saying what is in the box, and put it on eBay. John got candle sticks, he got patches that say things like Alaska State Fare 1989, he is going to put a bunch of weird stuff on there at all price points. If somebody wants a $400 jacket and somebody who wants a $1.95 Alaskan sticker, they can have one. If you put up an eBay store with just a lot of expensive stuff from the 1950s, people are going to complain.

The way to run an eBay store is to put up things for $0.99 and let the market decide. You don’t want to have a buy-it-now price of $7000! Maybe there are two rich people out there who want the same item and they will get into some crazy situation like in a James Bond movie where you are at Christie’s and the item is $1 million, but then James Bond says $1.000.200. John assumes that the market will decide what these belt buckles are worth! Maybe John needs to get his feet wet and just send something to somebody who deserves it without worrying about the eBay store, just to get used to the post office type situation. He shouldn’t practice with an actual customer, because maybe he needs to get some Inflatabags with air that he always pops from Amazon or some wrapping paper on a roll.

Getting a mounty jacket (RL284)

see also story in RL263

John once bought a tunic from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Academy because apparently their iconic red uniform is considered a copyright of the RCMP and if you quit the RCMP, which you probably can’t because it is like the Cosa Nostra or the Marines, they take your jacket and you can’t just take it to a thrift store or give it to your kid. John didn’t know that, but if you go online and try to find a Mounties-jacket, good luck my friend! They don’t do the same with the cadet jackets from the police academy, which are also beautiful red tunics and even fancier. It is a jacket without a collar, somewhat like a priest outfit that you would wear if you were in Queen Victoria’s band. The one John ordered came from a guy living in a shipping container outside of Toronto who didn’t want to deal with email and wanted John to call him on the phone. They talked on the phone for two hours, because he started to tell stories from Vietnam and John wanted to know more about that. The jacket is beautiful, but if you are a police cadet, you are in better shape than John is. If you are in the RCMP Academy and you are 6’3” (190cm) and weigh 240 lb (109 kg), you are probably built like a professional wrestler rather than as in John's case like an old fat guitar jockey.

The jacket doesn’t fit and John asked every single friend who came to the house for the last 4 months to try it on. For Hodgeman the sleeves were too long, for Jonathan Coulton the sleeves were too short, for Ken Jennings it fit around the neck, but not around something else, and one by one, nobody could wear it, because it was wrong for everybody. John doesn’t have a single friend that this jacket fits, leaving aside the fact that not a single one of these people felt like this jacket belonged to them because none of them are in St. Peppar’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is not the type of thing Merlin would wear outside the house either. He could wear it when he is making the law about what pot goes where and he would get a lot more respect! It says ”Respect my process!” or ”Here I come to save the day!” John still hasn’t found his Canadian Cinderella and he is afraid that if he was going to send a package to somebody, it would be that jacket. It would arrive and it wouldn’t be a Mitsva, but a Shitsva.

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