RL3 - The Viet Cong Can Smell the Soap

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problems:

  • the perfect storm behind John’s Egyptian cold; °
  • Deweys vs. LOCs; °
  • wishing you were the fruity English guy with the briefcase; °
  • declining standards at the DMV of countries; °
  • when science systematically moistens our cellos; °
  • how Merlin started loving BNs;
  • whether John might be a 60-year-old sleeper cell; °
  • how Rem Koolhaas is ruining literally everything °

The show title refers to John reading in an 1960s Special Forces handbook that he was not supposed to shave with lather because the Viet Cong can smell the soap and find you in the jungle.

Raw notes
The segments below are raw notes that have not been edited for language, structure, references, or readability. Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first! These notes were not planned to be released in this form, but time constraints have caused a shift in priorities and have delayed editing draft-quality versions to a later point.

John is sick (RL3)

John is sick and having a peanut butter sandwich makes him sound even sicker than he is. When he gets sick it is never a small matter. He never gets sick for 2 days, but always for 20 days. It is like marching his people out of Egypt: No matter if everybody else has the same cold and they are all over it by the weekend, John has to go through a long march, seas have to part, and plagues have to come… it is frustrating!

Getting sick hard is part of the extreme no-compromise lifestyle John has adapted since he was a young man. It is a program based on no fear, a totally burly shralping. There is hurly, and there is Thule, the thing on your car where you can put a board in. John’s van blew up, but he didn’t have any stickers on it.

Merlin wishes he could give John some Theraflu (see RL277), but John just drank a whole lot of Robitussin, which he doesn’t normally do. He doesn’t like medicine because it goes against his core values that he is perfect, that he can endure any pain, and that drugs are bad, which is John’s trinity. Merlin thinks John is like a Marine: He can not get the child cold enough or the bed hard enough or Taco-shaped enough (Merlin’s inflatable bed will lose air over night and then look like a taco, see RL2).

John just realized that although he is talking to Merlin on the radio he took a bite out of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which is disadvantageous to the listener because no-one wants to hear a sick person eat a sandwich into a microphone. It is terrible! There is probably one girl out there who would enjoy it! John won’t say her name and now there are five girls, one of them is into it and four of them are scared. Let them wonder!

John having a bumper sticker about ski bindings in High School (RL3)

When he was a teenager, John had a 1974 Chrysler Imperial, also known as a pussy magnet, but John called it a boat because they didn’t use words like ”pussy” in High School, except to describe wimps. His car had many stickers on the back that were all about ski equipment like Salomon bindings, which is a private language with which John was communicating very definitely that if you had Tyrolia bindings on your skis, you were a pussy!

If someone had given John a pair of skis with Tyrolia bindings on in 1984 he would have refused them because he is not a pussy and because he is not going to use that brand! There are only four brands of ski bindings and John had chosen sides and expressed that partisanship through stickers on the back of his Chrysler.

Merlin notes that there are no cars with a bumper sticker by Atlantic Records, although it is a great label that put out a lot of great stuff, from R&B, Led Zeppelin to eventually John’s buddies from Death Cab for Cutie. Merlin had an SST Records sticker on his car. You do see Punk Rock bumper stickers.

Merlin doesn’t understand why people ski. You could just buy a scissor jack and hit your leg with it until it broke. It is the fresh air! There is a lot of drinking in skiing and wherever there is drinking you are also going to find date rape, the silent epidemic. Although that might not be entirely true because there is a lot of drinking in Rugby too, but there are no girls in Rugby and date rape is a lot lower in Rugby because it is a 100% male environment.

Lacrosse has much more date rape than Rugby. There is probably not even Lacrosse on the West Coast, but it is big in Rhode Island where Merlin’s lady is from. It is a series of rapes you have to get through in order to graduate. The Rhode Island mafia was a terrifying local mafia. They never became big, but they stayed an artisanal mafia.

Rhode Island, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Twin Peaks (RL3)

John never played at Lupo’s (today Strand Ballroom & Theatre, in Providence RI), but the only show he ever played in Rhode Island was with Harvey Danger when they played in… not in the David Byrne school RISD (from the Talking Heads). There are not that many cities besides Providence and even that stretches the limits of the definition of a city.

They have a lot of eggs in their food and a lot parties. It is a stretch to call Rhode Island a state, like calling Lichtenstein a country. You can rent Liechtenstein now for $70.000 a night. The whole country is about banking. If you find the Swiss too revealing you can give your money to Liechtenstein.

The problem with Liechtenstein is that it is really part of Switzerland and they use the Swiss Franc. It is like the Vatican. Luxembourg is the country with the stamps, the Luxembourg Philately. Luxembourg is a great country! Merlin wonders if it was the one in The Mouse That Roared with Peter Sellers. It is small, but it has a fascinating history. They speak French, Dutch, and German, similar to Switzerland where they also can’t decide what to speak and speak German, Italian, and French.

There is a continuum from German to Dutch. In Winterswijk, Netherlands you will speak Dutch with such a German accent that you are more intelligible to the Germans across the border than you are to the Dutch in Den Haag. Luxembourg is a proper country, it is a duchy. Back in the old days you had a bishop in Münster in Germany who was responsible for administering his flock throughout Münsterland, and that encompasses part of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium. He was the big government cheese!

The city of Luxembourg is like a train set. They built it on a ravine, shrouded in fog, and it looks like people have taken Laiken (?) out of a bag and glued it to little pieces of rock that they made out of felt. If John was ever going to go on a honeymoon somewhere and it wasn’t on a beach, he would go on a honeymoon to Luxembourg. You feel like a princess there, even the groom. It says it right there on the sign when you come in!

Merlin mentions Wolfram Alpha, but John had never heard of that. He looks up the area of Liechtenstein and San Francisco. At the DMV of countries they might ask Liechtenstein if they didn’t miss 7 zeroes at the end of the number. Liechtenstein's Western border is a river, which means you know when you have entered Liechtenstein because you have just crossed a river, but then the ground immediately starts arcing up into a mountain. The border with Austria is up there somewhere in the misty cloud on the Eastern side.

The whole country is basically just the Western side of the alps and you can stand at one side of the river and see the entire nation of Liechtenstein before you. They continue talking about Liechtenstein. It is not a poor country and there is no ghetto in Liechtenstein. There is cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snow-shoe hiking.

Twin Peaks in San Francisco (RL3)

On June 9th 2002, the morning after Merlin met John for the first time, he and his wife, John’s band, and Ken Stringfellow went to Twin Peaks where you can see the entire city of San Francisco from one place. It was the first time John had even been up there. Merlin had orange hair and Ken Stringfellow had green hair (see this photo with John and Ken from that day), although they were old men and they should have stopped that silliness. Merlin still doesn’t understand how Ken could be outside during daylight.

The primary industry up on Twin Peaks is Chinese ladies selling San Francisco fleeces to people who refuse to believe that it is cold up there all the time. John heard that they are building a giant stem cell research laboratory, it was all the buzz in the stem cell scene. Merlin follows the Twin Peaks newsletter, which is in very small circulation, maybe it is only in his head. It is in Chinese, but the problem is that you want to read it again an hour later, which is always funny, but racist, or racial like Rachel Weisz.

The Viet Cong can smell the soap, John shaving dry (RL3)

At one point John started shaving without lather because he had found an old Special Forces handbook from the 1960s that said not to use lather because the Viet Cong can smell the soap and will be able to identify and find you in the jungle because they are very attuned to their environment. Wherever John goes he assumes there are Viet Cong, which is not bad, but it is self-preservation.

After a while of shaving with only water John tried to shave with cold water, which was painful, so he tried to stop using water altogether and just shaved dry, which is also painful, but there is a beauty to it. At a certain point he just stopped shaving. Special Forces like the SEALs and the Black Ops wouldn’t shave, they would have Taliban beards if they could get away with it, but they are part of a corporate structure and have to go back to the base where some candy-ass general who has never been out in the shit says: ”I don’t like how long your sideburns are!” and those guys have to fucking shave. It is ridiculous!

As part of John’s ethos he sets a standard for himself about certain things like shaving, bombs, or evacuating his bowels. It is a light that illuminates his path. If he wakes up in the morning and thinks that everything is nuts and he is also nuts, the fact that he can choose to shave without using water gives him some clarity and enables him to say that he can handle this. If there are Viet Cong in his apple tree they are not going to smell him today because he shaved without using detergent.

The Dirty Dozen, wanting to be the British guy in movies (RL3)

In the movie The Dirty Dozen Lee Marvin is making George Kennedy dry-shave the guys because they grow beards. Keither Sutherland’s dad (Donald Sutherland) is in that movie and plays the crazy one, but he is not as crazy as Telly Savalas. That is a good movie! Like Stagecoach (movie from 1939!): Yes, there are other great Westerns, like Shane or High Noon, which is very overrated in Merlin’s opinion, but when you watch Stagecoach you realize that this is where all this came from and back then it wasn’t such a cliché.

As a kid John was an anglophile and he really liked England for some reason. If you put a Union Jack on something he would buy it, which made him a proto-mod, but even a long time before he was aware of that he liked England, Ye’Old, castles and such! In every movie John saw as a kid there was always a team of guys: The American guy was officious, handsome, and kind of a penis, there was a raddy guy from Yugoslavia who was good with a knife, and a British guy who was always a little bit faggy and carried a briefcase full of explosives. He always had a quip before he would blow up the bridge.

As a 7-8 year old boy, that was the guy John wanted to be. He did not want to be the American hero with the square jaw and certainly not the raddy guy with the knife or the guy that was a little twisted, but he wanted to be the slightly effeminate British explosives expert who had a little quip and took it right to the edge. If you took out the part about being cool and replace having a bomb with D&D books, that is pretty much Merlin: Faggy, briefcase and a quip, kind of a smart-ass.

You have David Niven and you have Alec Guinness from The Bridge on the River Kwai: You shave because you are fucking Alec Guinness and you are not going to let that guy push you around.

The English guys in Slaughterhouse-Five (by Kurt Vonnegut) kept it all wired and told Billy Pilgrim that he had to keep his dignity. Every morning you get up, do rigorous exercise and evacuate your bowels. Keep calm and cary on!

John possibly having been a spy the whole time, his dad thinking he was in the CIA (RL3)

Merlin thinks that John should really be a Vietnam veteran. John’s dad had read so many books about the CIA that in his imagination he was living a parallel life where he was in the CIA and John didn’t know that until much later in life. His dad had read so many John le Carré books where Smiley (retired spy George Smiley) walked across the Tiva river and handed some guy some microfiche that he believed in some way that he had done these things and that his actual life was just a cover for this real life he had led since World War II.

John's dad was a World War II veteran and somewhere back then he started this faint sense that he had actually been on a secret mission the whole time, and for all John knows he was. John has the same thing, it is the Chuck Barris problem: He has been sharpening his knives for so many years that he is not sure if he hasn’t been a spy this whole time and he is some sort of Manchurian candidate, waiting for the right combination of whistles and tweets to be activated and go to work.

Maybe John is a sleeper cell! He might be in better shape than he thinks and he could be 60 years old. Maybe they are Frank Sinatra-ing him a little bit and he has to go off and take some people out. He will start hallucinating about Mao, he is paranoid almost to the point of being phlegmatic, he likes guns, and he feels under-appreciated and often asks: ”Where is my parade?”

It is why John cried through The Truman Show. He is not a Jim Carrey fan, but got dragged into this movie either by some people who thought they were going to see something like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, or he was at an AA meeting and agreed to go to the movie with them.

John went to the movie, already po-faced, expecting this to be a terrible movie where he did his riff the whole time, but before the credits in the beginning were even over John was balling and he balled through the whole film. His friends thought the movie wasn’t very funny, but John just had to leave and he walked the city streets for hours, trying to figure out why the hell The Truman Show affected him so strongly. He is a Manchurian candidate and it got a little bit too close. He saw the glint of the camera lens, but when he turned to look it was gone.

Merlin felt that way about Synecdoche, New York and can’t even watch the trailer without crying. John can’t watch it because it is a terrible movie. Merlin agrees, except it is probably one of the greatest movies ever made and people feel strongly about it. It is The Smiths of movies and Merlin forgives his friends who are incorrect by not liking The Smiths. Merlin doesn’t like them on a Sean Nelson level. He doesn’t like anything on a Colin Meloy level.

Library organization systems (RL3)

John went to the University of Washington, and Merlin wonders if their library was following the Dewey Decimal system or the Library of Congress system. There are multiple libraries in the university, but they have standardized it now.

Merlin spent a lot of time in the B-ends. He had a hard time learning the Library of Congress system because he came from Dewey Decimal, although pretty soon he asked himself: ”What the fuck is Dewey Decimal? You got to be fucking kidding me! That is the most stupid…!” It didn’t make any sense.

Then he went to fancy school and learned the Library of Congress system and he never looked back. It is like inches and miles: Somebody just stuck their pinky out and said: ”That is how long it is!” It is not related to anything. Merlin also liked that the books he liked were near the beginning.

John's dad would just walk into a library and ignore whatever their system was and ask the librarian about what he needed. Then he would sit in a chair and read a magazine while the librarian found all the things for him. You need a certain kind of authority to do that as a child and just walk in and get the librarian do your research.

Like when you are ordering French Dip: ”Henry Huggins! Go!” You assume that this is what they want to be doing, and most of the time you are right. John has loved a lot of librarians. It is a job he would excel at. Batgirl Barbara Gordon is a librarian and if that can’t make you love a library, Merlin doesn’t know what will!

Merlin doesn’t like being the way he is, but he now looks down his nose at Dewey Decimal. He takes his daughter to his little library here and most books are novels, but that whole section is called F. Did it not occur to you when you put that together that there is a whole bunch of things called novels?

It is like the story about the engineering firm that was having the grand opening for a big beautiful glass library that was finally complete and people said: ”This is amazing! I can’t believe this is strong enough to hold that many books!” and the guys all ran out of the building because they never thought about having books in there.

There are Dewey Decimal people and LOC-people. Some of the popes were total LOCes, like the Borgias. Aren’t those the people in Florence? They later continue to talk about Dewey Decimal people and LOC people (the LOCes, pronounced ”loshes”). Merlin mentions Richard Hugo who is a big LOC.

The guy who played the piano is Victor Borge (Danish comedian), but he has nothing to do with Señor Wences, although it seems they should have worked together. They were both on a Dean Martin program, but in different episodes. They were both on Ed Sullivan, and they were both amusing in a way that made a lot more sense to our grandparents. Merlin loves Señor Wences still!

Victor Borge was a great comedian and piano player who was very amusing. You would be a funny guy and you would sit down at a piano and dazzle your guests. Like Cole Porter before the horse fell onto him. His house in Connecticut was recently for sale, it was not a Koolhaas house, but a cool house. This is what George Orwell talked about in an essay: Koolhaas puts cool and house in his name and now you can’t help but thinking of him when you see an actual cool house, but that is bullshit!

The Seattle Public Library built by Rem Koolhaas (RL3)

The Downtown Seattle library is a Rem Koolhaas design made of glass, a public building that is made to give the city of Seattle some jewel in its crown so that tourists from around the world would come to look at their Rem Koolhaas building.

On the outside it looks like a piece of road tar made of glass that has no two parallel lines and on the inside you have to move out of the way of the crowds of sheep being herded through to look at your glorious architectural edifice that looks like a space port on a minor planet in the Dagobah system that has been neglected for 800 years and already the light bulbs are burning out and the stair treads are getting worn. It already looks like shit, but people are being herded through like it is a thing they need to see for their lives to be complete.

John goes there on a weekly basis and shakes his fist and screams at the top of his voice: ”It is a God-damn library! Where are the books?” You can’t even see the books! It is from 2004 and it is terrible. The original library that was on that ground was a Carnegie Library that looked like the San Francisco Mint building with arches and columns - it was beautiful, but they tore the freaking thing down before John was born in order to build the second incarnation of the Seattle library. It looked like a regional post office and was made in Internationalist style which was developed to compete with the Soviet Union in who can make the ugliest building in the world.

You would drive past it 60 times and think you were driving past the DMV and wonder where the library was. You would get from one escalator to the next and never see a book. Then they built this Rem Koolhaus building and if you say a bad word about this library 70% of the people in town will react as if you told them that their kid was ugly. It looks like somebody was in first semester of graphical arts class and they took their first orthogonal drawing and made it out of chainlink fence, it is an abortion of a building!

Somewhere along the line we have decided that if an architect doodles on a napkin that is sufficient and it is all the architect himself needs to do. Then his team of young hungry assholes converts that into some broken Rubik's Cube and we spend $200 million to put it into the center of town. Pursuing a book there is a Sisyphean journey because they are 6 stories up in a catacomb that you can only access by elevator and the library itself is a space port. You just keep waiting for the next transporter barge to Ios to arrive and for all these people, the lobby full of tourists and the homeless people masturbating to get herded up to the barge and off they go.

Mosse Humanities Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (RL3)

The Mosse Humanities Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is considered a great example of Brutalist architecture. Apparently it was designed and built at a time when they were worried about student riots and they built a ramp that Evil Knievel would use to jump something and then fall around the building like a bunker. You can see the mildew. It was so poorly designed that they put the music department in the basement and now the cellos were wilting. It has Sick Building Syndrome all over the place!

The dorms at Merlin’s college were designed by I.M.Pei, who is another one of these jojos. If they had to replace a door it would have to come from Germany and if you wanted to change the toilet paper it costs $6000. They didn’t think this stuff through and it is willfully heinous. Like the Duchamp urinal thing (called Fountain), except now people have to play Cello in that. Universities all around America built this kind of architecture during that era.

The Mosse building is the Humanities building and they have cold, wet Cellos. Nobody likes a wet cello! Couldn’t they do organic chemistry in a wet building? This is literally the thumb in the eye of the Liberal Arts.

The main square of the University of Washington is literally designed so that you can turn a firehose on a kid at one end of the square and hose him all the way across the square and off the university. It is designed to firehose protesting kids because they built it after they were forced to let blacks into the university campuses.

In every university that John ever went to he was always in some wing of the Humanities building. There are the practical sciences and then there are the Humanities which are impractical. As you move further out into the Humanities it gets less and less practical. You go past the poetry department which one would think would be the furthest out, but you can go further and that is where John lived. The classrooms they would assign his Comparative History of Ideas lecture halls were invariably always in the old science buildings that were slated for demolition.

The English department had their rooms at the school with the leaded glass windows and the books cases, but John was way out there where the wires were hanging from the ceiling and there were Bunsen Burners that had been left on because if they turn them off the gas would leak and the building would explode. These were the rooms they would allocate for the Comparative History of Ideas. Those buildings were built 40 years earlier at the hight of technology of the time and now they were falling apart.

The science departments are all having new buildings built for them all the time! If you go to Stanford right now and declared that you are an English major, they would just chain you to a bike rack while they are busy scraping the land to build a new applied sciences building.

It goes back to Liberal complaining that if you believe that Capitalism is the highest form of economic evolution and that it is value-neutral or even good, then all this stuff just follows from it. You can’t argue against the Comparative History of Ideas being put into a wet mob-bucket at the bottom of a well without ultimately having to question what the CHID graduates have ever produced in terms of money that would enable them to keep the lights on at this university, and the answer is: Nothing!

The problem with the CHID pantywaists is that they stand there and say: ”What about the wealth of ideas?” and the guy with the aluminum baseball bat who started a company to manufacture aluminum baseball bats whacks you on the back of the head, you go back into the mob bucket and life goes merrily along.

Liberals not being vigorous anymore (RL3)

John’s dad was a vigorous Liberal Democrat who defended their principles with a vigor that is utterly absent from that wing of the political spectrum today. He would get into fights in bars on the Waterfront over Liberal politics. There were people who - even if they didn’t believe in Communism exactly - believed that social justice was sweeping the world.

It was an active and muscular political philosophy, but that is now completely gone and everybody who has a modicum of Liberal thought in their mind has been acculturated to thinking that they need to apologize for themselves for existing. This constant reflexive apology is pantywaisted and undignified, and it presumes that your ideas are not strong and that the tenets of your philosophy are not worth standing and not worth putting your hand up about.

There are no large Rock concerts anymore (RL3)

Every time John goes to a professional baseball game at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon in the Mariners stadium and the teams are even doing passably well there will be 40.000 people in this stadium. When was the last time there was a Rock concert with 40.000 people in the middle of the day on a Wednesday?

Kenny Chesney is the last time that happened, but that is not a Rock concert. The last Rock concert was the Rolling Stones at the King Dome in 1975. Merlin thinks Pearl Jam might have been able to do that at the height of their powers. There is a Pearl Jam station on satellite radio. They put out 10 albums and their first album was Ten.

Most of the people who can go to a sports game in the middle of the week are working down at the offices and their boss also wants to go to the game. To go to a Mariners game in the afternoon is not to be skipping work, but to say: ”I am a renaissance man!” They are like a Greek God who does both the work and the sports. That and going to the movies will give them all the culture they need. They have a wife, they eat food, they are complete.

John and Merlin are not at the sports game, which means they are the faulty and broken ones who are not living according to a platonic ideal. They shun the sports, John shuns the wife, and they both shun the work. What are they but a sick and unhale and unhearty denizen of mob buckets?

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