RL399 - The Initiating Woundedness

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John doesn’t want to be part of your art happening, referring to

The show title refers to John having destroyed a friendship where both parties had woundedness and were assuming wrong things over text messages, but John’s woundedness was the initiating woundedness.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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.

Being on a different recording schedule, waking up 5 minutes before (RL399)

John is late today, but it was just so early before. Of all the people, Merlin is the best at accepting John being late. Merlin is going to mess with his Pre-PC mix again because it is a mess. Merlin starts singing ”Roderick’s on the line!” and ”Online with Roderick and you are home and alone” and John starts beatboxing to it. Is today different from any other day? Is it earlier than usual for John? He is not sure. Sometimes you just can’t get out of the room in your head. Merlin has been trying to adapt to their new later recording time by telling himself that he can sleep later, but it is not really taking.

Time is a strange thing and Merlin’s schedule has adapted, but he doesn’t sleep longer for that. Some people don’t have to set an alarm because they have an alarm in their head, and John has that. He doesn’t wake up at the same time every day, it can be noon or it can be 8am, but he generally wakes up 5 minutes before he is supposed to wake up, although he doesn’t rely on it. If he can he will just roll over and go back to sleep, which he often can because he has no lords or masters and he is living in a perfect libertarian fantasy land.

That also entails what Howard Jones says: No-one is to blame! That music is very touching! John often thinks he should have sung with more gravel in his voice, giving himself more of a blues voice, like Howlin’ Wolf who had a huge influence on Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits. Merlin likes it when John’s voice is clear.

Going back on the news cycle (RL399)

Both John and Merlin have gone back on the news cycle and it is not making them happy. The news isn’t coming fast enough and every 5 minutes you think there has got to be some more news. Merlin has a small draft of people whose names they are waiting to come up, like News Bingo, and he finds himself in Slack or Text threads, just shouting out people’s names with an exclamation point, the same way he goes ”Baby!” or ”Sweet dog!”.

John is on the cycle and he is looking for more punditry than what he is getting right now. There are some ”sky is falling” pundits that don’t need any new news, but the sky is falling all day every day. They can also just re-up their article from April in light of today’s news. Merlin does that sometimes and is just retweeting himself. He could go back to 47 folders, or 48, 49, as many as it takes. He could go back to every one of the folders!

John has been largely quiet through all of this because there is nothing to be gained by John communicating to the world that he is just sitting here with his fingers crossed. Merlin argues that in lots of place, in particular on Twitter, there is no way to say what you are not saying and there is no affirmative way to participate in a conversation. Some people infer what one’s silence means because it suits their own view of the world. It is not that John is on vacation or that he doesn’t care, but he is right here with all the others and he has comments that he is not sharing.

Destroying friendships by not being good at text messaging (RL399)

John has exchanged a series of letters with a friend recently where the precipitating letter was John feeling like the friendship he has with the person has a lot of tension in it, the friendship used to be close, but not it has gotten all messed up and tension begets tension and the quality of the relationship has declined over time because most of it now is been conducted over text message, which John is terrible at. He is great at quippy texts or at long texts, but as soon as there is any kind of emotional component to it he thinks he is great at it, but tone is hard!

John for example is not a fast responder and Merlin is accustomed to that and he doesn’t take any particular concern away from that, but with a lot of people if they don’t respond they are either dead or mad at him or both. Different people will infer different things that were not meant to be implied. John does it so badly, even though he knows that he is doing it. If you are used to another person being a very receptive and happy and gay when they respond and then they respond slowly and say ”Sounds good.” you could draw wrong inferences from that.

His whole life John has always assumed that people are mad at him. Everybody was always mad at him when he was a kid and when he was in his 20s and 30s, why would it not be true now? If somebody is ”Sounds good.”, he is like: ”Oh, shit!” and he never gives it the benefit of the doubt, but he has watched a few relationships either explode in a ball of fire or gradually just degrade into a grinding sound because of text messaging. For years John defended that he was great at texting, but then people send him texts that are even remotely accusatory and they get 5 texts back that are all 6 paragraphs long. ”You know who can long-text? Me! I have nowhere to be! I have all night!” John wrote several articles for CMJ using T9, so his thumb can go!

In the middle of the night John sent a text to somebody that he had gotten into a text war with early on in the Coronavirus where they were texting: ”I keep trying to call you, but you won’t pick up. What is going on?” - ”I am sorry about that, I was wrong! I didn’t want to end our friendship over some dumb thing! That seems crazy now! I am just stubborn and prideful” - ”OMG! Thank goodness! I always knew we would be friends! I was just not sure what was going on!” - ”Oh, good!”, but it had felt like John was long past the point of saving anything and what was going to happen? That he would not be friends with them anymore?

Merlin says you have to break the skin on the soup! If there is nothing else to be learned from S01E09 of the wonderful show Ted Lasso it is that forgiveness that you share with somebody is cleansing for everybody. Merlin has a deal with several friends that every text they send to each other should begin with ”You are not in trouble!” and he has the shortcut YNT for it on all his devices. It is the opposite of ”We need to talk!” John never had a YNT-text from Merlin, but he knows he is not in trouble.

Last week Merlin was having a crazy day and someone he works with was having a crazy day and it helped to just get on the phone and Merlin discovered in the 3rd act of the call that this person had gotten some bad news and had a really bad day and Merlin regretted getting them on the phone, but he had no way of knowing. It is nice to think that you could live your entire life assuming that everybody you are talking to is having their worst day, if that is the baseline you need to not be a serial asshole, but it is difficult to do that with the entire world.

After World War I it got so bad in Germany that you needed a wheelbarrow of Deutschmark to buy a loaf of bread because of inflation. Right now he have had a huge amount of inflation in all the niceties that we need to do, and everybody now has to do the things that women had to do their entire life, which is: ”Hey! <smiley face>!” and Merlin used to be a person who wrote whole sentences with a period, but now John Siracusa is the only person with whom he has a deal that they are going to communicate with each other like adults.

There is a certain hollowness to what we are saying where if we are not laying down on our back with our belly up in the air and saying ”I am sorry!” in advance it sounds like you are being an asshole. The inflation has caused an emotional hollowness that is not that much better than occasionally wondering if somebody is having a bad day.

There is anther level of sensitivity operating, and both John and Merlin are very sensitive and easily injured and injury recapitulates injury. John can get injured by slights and almost all of it boils down to rejection. When he feels rejected everything comes into play, all of his worst defensive brittle easily-shattered childhood feelings all come up. It only takes about 1 second of feeling defensive to now begin 3 hours of being offensive.

Thinking about a friendship that stalled since New Year’s (RL399)

About a week ago John was out raking some ground bark because he is taking the grass out. Grass is bad policy because it is a mole habitat and John has no interest in providing that and John has mowed his last lawn, but it is a large area of grass at this property and he was covering it with ground bark that he got through a service on the Internet on his phone, called Chip Drop where they will just come and dump their huge load of chipped-up wood.

Because John talks to himself with an inner voice he was running down some old disputes, like that time in 1994 when a guy came into John’s store and he said: ”Hey, nice tattoos!” and he though John was fucking with him. It was just a misunderstanding, but he got mad and confronted John, and because it was 1994 he responded with smugness and condescension and boy, did that make him mad.

John has been thinking about a dispute that has been affecting him a lot, an old friend, someone he cares about very deeply, and over time bad animals got inside of their relationship, which made it hard to communicate. Both of them are introverts, neither one wants to be the one who initiates the apology or the explanation, but little critters got in and were chewing on the wires and they both could feel it and it made it harder and harder to really talk to each other and so their relationship was going along powered by the tremendous affection they have for each other and the desire to be together, but it got more and more uncomfortable in the cockpit.

They hurdled along like that until this past New Year’s where they had this terrible New Year’s and came out the other side where John just felt awful. When he was out raking chips he was thinking about this friend and although this New Year’s was this friendship-ending disaster, after a few months they started texting each other again, sending links to each other, but it was bloodless and there was still this dinosaur in the room. You become gun-shy because you don’t want to be the one who says: ”Hey, I just want you to know that whatever happens I really love you!” and then not get a reply, or get a reply that is: ”Thanks! You will always be my pal!”

John has somehow almost burned this relationship to the ground, but he cannot think of a single reason for it. There is no incompatibility, there has been no betrayal, they did not get into business together, John has never loaned them money, they do not differ in religion or politics, they have not fallen out of affection for one another, there is no reason why this relation should feel like it has foundered. Far from it! Except for John’s behavior, his paranoia, and his woundedness.

This person also has woundedness and they respond to John’s woundedness with woundedness, but John’s woundedness was the initiating woundedness that propelled it and there was nothing good about that! John doesn’t want to loose this person, not even if there was a reason, let alone just loose them because he turned one misread thing into something else. There are a lot of dynamics around the fact that John doesn’t really how to have friends and relationships, really, and part of the identity he always had where he could be friends with anybody and he was a member of a lot of different communities and could come and go freely, all of that is another way of saying that he wasn’t really a member of anything.

He helped built that cabin, but he never spent a night there, and he found that the hard part is building the cabin and spending the night is reaping the benefit of the hard work, but spending the night in the cabin is the friendship, helping build it is just moving around and building cabins with all these different groups of people and when it is time to spend the night he goes on and rolls out his sleeping bag under a tree somewhere.

John put his rake down and sent this person a text: ”Have I ever told you what you mean to me?” SEND, which is a lot, and he picked up his rake and raked for a while. John doesn’t have any notifications on his phone because he will look at it when he is ready, but no he didn’t know if they had replied and he forced himself not to look, but to just rake. When he eventually looked the reply was: ”No, you haven’t, and I would be curious to hear what you had to say.”, ending with a period and no supporting exclamation points of smiley faces.

Now John had to back this up and he couldn’t just put the rake down and send them three long texts. He is not a quick replier and that does get him in trouble. Their friend Ben Acker (?) of California, if you text him at any time 24 hours a day, you will get a reply within 30 seconds. Merlin is also very good at replying, as are many of John’s friends, but when he gets a text he will often just look at it and then put the phone down and go back to raking and he will even do that right in the middle of making plans with somebody: ”So we are meeting at 2pm?” - SILENCE.

John went home that night and thought that he should be pretty good at this situation. He got nothing to lose. This relationship means a lot to him, but it also feels damaged beyond repair. It was too late to protect his dignity or his pride or anything, he had to show all his cards because he couldn’t walk back from the text he sent. John decided to write an old-fashioned letter (he means email, although he does have a person where he was thinking of writing an actual put-it-in-the-mail letter).

John doesn’t want to be the crafter who sends letters to everybody, that sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it would be nice to send letters, although when he gets a handwritten letter now, he is not nervous, but he wonders if he is now part of somebody’s art happening. Merlin would exchange letters with people in the summer between years of college, those were the best letters, and they would make each other tapes, it was a happy ecosystem. John did a lot of drawing in those see-you-in-the-fall-letters and he would do pretty extensive cartooning, which he would love to see again.

Merlin used to save all his notes from high school, all his letters from college and keep them organized in different boxes, the way he stores his different cables in Ziploc bags now. John also has a big box full of old letters that are organized, some of them were scented and now the box is redolent and when he opens the lid it is from an earlier time, and it smells like Calvin Klein Obsession. They both dated an Obsession girl, and Merlin hated the smell of Obsession until he had an Obsession girl. John thinks it is like choking on an after-dinner drink, but then when you fall in love with somebody who smells like that, you are like: ”Nawwww, that girl!”

John sent this email that basically said: ”I don’t know what went wrong! This relationship started in a rough place for us both, but we rocked along and just meeting you and spending a couple of days paling around just confirmed something about myself and made me realize that I was who I thought I was or maybe I was better than I thought I was.” That is a hell of a nice feeling, and that was John’s relationship with Merlin 100%.

One of the nice things about the style of John’s career is that he flies to places and does shows that are often six people who do different things, a comedian and an actor and a juggler and a talk-show host, and they are all going to do three things together tonight on SketchFest stage. John gets introduced to people all the time in a way that makes it feel like the first day of college, and so many of his good friends come from that kind of thing. Merlin talked to David Kapner backstage at a show once and he still talks about it.

John sent this email and he said all the things: When they met it was great and they had some great times and then he remembers exactly the day when it started to feel weird and it was his responsibility and his pride was involved and they went down and hit a bad spot and even though they recovered from it and had many great adventures after that there was always a tinge from this first bad experience and every time a subsequent bad thing came up it added to that and John was never able to say anything in realtime and there was a tendency between them to be defensive and it just got worse and worse.

John just needed to say the things he had been afraid to say about what happened, and he also needed to say that none of this is what he wanted because he treasures them and he will always treasure them, and the reason he is writing this is that this isn’t a thing he wants to just dissipate in a cloud of bad feelings and hurt. There was nothing to lose here, and the only way that this could have been a suicide mission would have been when the reply back had been: ”Wow, thanks! I got your letter. Super-sweet. Cool cool. Right back at you!”, which basically is: ”It was really good knowing you!” and he would wonder why he did that to himself.

John’s suspicious mind is the one that tells him: ”Don’t put yourself out there and write them and say ’Did I ever tell you what you mean to me?’, because they are going to write back and go: ’Cool, cool!’ and you are going to feel like an idiot!”, but it is the middle of coronavirus and who cares? Everything is destroyed, so why should his dignity be any different?

in the moment when John quit drinking, the risk to reward ratio felt really high. He was risking everything he knew about his life, which was that he was a good-time party guy and that life is just one stoner-trip to the beer store after another, and he was trading that for what? Some membership in a cult? And then he is going to walk around being no fun for the rest of his life? It didn’t seem there was anything to be gained, except for this feeling that he was descending into insanity that he would like to get rid of. But you don’t know what is waiting for you on the other side and what the actual rewards are, and one stoner trip after another to the beer store is not that much of a stake.

John was thinking about this relationship all the time and every one of these hurt moment where he had said: ”Well, that has got to be the end of this! There is just too much pain in it and I am better off without this constant going back to the well!” is clearly not true because he is still thinking about all the things he wished he had said. She (!) wrote back: ”I am glad to get this email from you!” and John had to read this text several times because at first he remembered her saying: ”I will treasure it!”, but a day later he thought about it some more and realized that ”I will treasure it” has a finality to it, but it actually said: ”I treasure it!”, which is very different.

The text went on to say: ”I want to reply, but this is not the right time. I will get back to you later!”, which was a favorable reply that John was okay with. This was not the time nor place where relationships had to get hammered out and he was not in a hurry with it. Merlin will in those situations mostly look for somebody to say: ”We are good! You are not in trouble!”, which is still a long way from the work of fixing what one has done, and sometimes that other person might not be ready to just respond to a text and say that it is 19-whatever again.

John was just coming out of the blue and this person is in the middle of their life somewhere and the fact that John is thinking about them while raking these chips does not mean they are thinking about John while raking their corresponding pile of chips and that is just reality!

Last night John got a long email in reply and it was astonishing how much their shared perception aligns. It wasn’t one of those where it just said: ”That is not how it happened!”, but they agreed on what all had gone down at every step and the blanks that John had left unfilled were filled in. The long and the short of it was that John had spent three years feeling he couldn’t communicate very well with this person and it turned out that this person felt the entire time that they couldn’t communicate with him and they had a completely shared perception of what they were having so much trouble communicating about.

Practically nothing has changed in John’s life, he is still in his quarantine bubble, they live in a different part of the world and are in a quarantine bubble there of a different kind, there is no time or place that they have scheduled that they are going to be anywhere near one another, there is nothing actionable here, except when John is raking chips now, he could replay those situations that they talked about in their emails and he could call himself stupid or feel like a lot of the good things in his life have turned to bad things because of him, but it is pretty easy to choose not to do that in this case and say: ”The real thing here is that I felt like this was a situation where communication was impossible!” and part of the reason was that John didn’t want to put himself out there and feel embarrassed.

Instead of sending a text ”Hey, I am here, where are you?” he assumed that they weren’t coming or assumed the worst, not that they were having the worst day of their life, but assuming that today was the worst day of John’s life. And some of those events felt big and he knew in the moment that this would lead to years of impasse.

Other relationships that had stalled, with Ben Acker and John Hodgman (RL399)

Earlier this year John had a fight with Ben Acker. They both have strong personalities, they like each other very much, Ben is one of these guys like Dan Benjamin where John sends one text and he sends 15 texts in a row because he writes two words and pushes SEND. Merlin used to do that, but thankfully he stopped. John and Ben were talking about something in the middle of the night and got their wires crossed and John said: ”What did you say to me?” - ”What?” - ”Don’t What me!” - ”What What?” - ”Don’t What What me!” and they burned it all down.

Later John was talking to his sister about it and she was: ”You burned a whole friendship down over some dumb thing on text?” - ”Well, yeah! How else do you burn a friendship down?” - ”Pffft! You need to set that straight!” A third strong personality has entered the chat. It happens to John a lot, but why is he so fragile?

Merlin had two friends in Talahassee that were tremendous friends and collaborators who were in a band together and their relationship ended, fortunately temporarily, based on one afternoon of drinking a new kind of canned ice coffee that neither of them had had before and basically not knowing how powerful it was, and they were so psychotic after 2 hours of drinking ice coffee that their friendship ended. It left such a mark and cut trail in your neurological system that you are: ”Oh boy, I am not going to do that again! What an asshole!”, but it is really you both drinking the coffee.

At the end of the Gamechangers show that they did what feels like 10 years ago John came out and wasn’t friends with John Hodgman anymore, he was so mad at him. Hodgman has a habit of taking over everything and he took over John’s panel in a way that was extremely disruptive and he was not reading the room and he was definitely not reading his friend John because John was throwing shapes that he should have been able to pick up on. It was with John, Merlin, Scott Simpson, and John Hodgman who just could not stand to be on the stage and not be running it.

They got to a place where John was like: ”Screw that guy!” and Hodgman was sad, but seemed to want an apology from John who was not going to apologize. They went back and forth several times where John would rather have died than apologize for something he was not sorry for. Hodgman used a wording that John couldn’t parse and he was talking to Jonathan Coulton on the side what was going on and the way that Coulton stays on an even keel is that he slides through life like a hot dog sliding down a Jello slide. Merlin thinks Jonathan is the opposite of ego assertive because he does not exercise his will actively on people very often.

This was a situation where two of his closest friends were having a huge fight and if John were in that situation he would be so excited to be right in the middle of it and get together and ”Here is what he said and here is what you said!”, but Jonathan just didn’t want to have any part of it.

John stuck it out with Hodgman, partly because he was curious about exactly what he was trying to communicate, and ultimately Hodgman just wanted John to be sorry that he was sad. He didn’t want John to be sorry for having hurt his feelings, which he refused to do, but he needed John to feel sad that he was sad. As soon as John got there and said: ”I am sad that you are sad, I don’t want you to be sad. I am mad and not sorry, but I am sad that you are sad!” his face brightened and was: ”Okay, I am sorry that I screwed up your show!” John still thinks about that because it was a very specific need and it wasn’t pro-forma.

The amazing take-away was: 1) Text messaging is no way to conduct a relationship, and 2) They see each other only occasionally and so they have to conduct a long-distance relationship, and somewhere between those two problems conditions were created that were incredibly caustic and traumatic and relationship-destroying where they didn’t need to be and none of that was real. Merlin thinks it can be really arduous and fraught to get to the position where you can express that the other person rolls in a particular way that can be tough sometimes.

This is especially true if the ”rolling” is: ”I have a hard time saying what I feel with you. I don’t feel safe talking about my feelings because I am afraid I am going to get snapped at, and so I don’t and in not talking about my feelings it just backs up!” and you don’t even realize that you are keeping score until the day it goes off the charts and then you just say: ”You know what? Fuck this!” This is so present in John’s relationships with his male friends, there is so much of this real touchy-feely stuff that is not that they don’t know how to communicate it because they are stuck in some toxic masculinity because none of John’s male friends live in that place, but they don’t know how to talk about it simply because they don’t know how to talk about it.

It is not like his female friends are super-good at talking about this stuff either, but he just feels this stuff so often with his guy friends where it is just assumed that they are going to be cool and everything is cool, but there is so much stuff that is just not cool and that is bothering John. It gets impacted over the long term and coronavirus has really amplified it because John doesn’t get to see his friends and there is just not that much reason to text every three days or even every three weeks. John hasn’t talked to Jonathan Coulton in weeks because: Why? ”What are you doing?” - ”Nothing! What are you doing?” - ”Nothing!” - ”Here is a picture of some stuff I saw” - ”Oh, good!”

Whenever Merlin feels that for example his kid is being a bit unreasonable or ungrateful, and it is not just her, he finds himself needing to say to her or to himself: ”Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Maybe that is passive-aggressive, but sometimes in life we would rather be right than happy and being right all the time has so many downsides. Not to say that we all have to agree on cheese, but is this going to make this environment more generative, is it going to make it more open, is it going to make this an environment where people can be safe to be a little fucked-up sometimes.

If you are the person who needs to be right all the time then you are going to be very lonely, but if you are willing to work a little bit at finding somewhere in between and being a little bit vulnerable, then there is more opportunity for both of you to be happy, but also: If you find that you can’t be right or happy, that is good to know, because maybe you both have moved on to other things and now you don’t have any interest in either of you being happy and you just want to go be right with someone else. What do you do if you can’t be happy unless you are right?

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