RL18 - Main Pastrami Incisor

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • John’s theme song for Merlin, identifying songs (Podcasting)
  • John damaging his ear when shooting AK-47s, ear doctors (Aging)
  • John’s neighborhood having no facilities (Neighborhood)
  • Diversity, Fox News portmanteaus (Attitude and Opinion)
  • John being gay curious (Personal Development)
  • Religious people should not be allowed to drink alcohol (Drugs)
  • John doesn’t drink coffee anymore (Food and Drink)
  • Jerry Lewis (Movies)
  • Gravity’s Rainbow (Books)
  • Toothpaste, John’s fake tooth (Aging)
  • Literature Lightning round (Books)
  • How the definition of intelligence has shifted over time (Humanities)

The Problem: Where’s John’s parade, referring to John finding gay culture in Seattle in the 1990s very exciting, but where is his parade?

The show title refers to John’s fake front tooth, his Main Pastrami Incisor, that is no longer functional and makes John unable to eat a big pastrami sandwich.

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

John’s theme song for Merlin, identifying songs (RL18)

John starts the show singing Merlin’s name and Merlin says he will never get sick of it. The problem with that song (Nasty by Janet Jackson) is that the next line (after "Nasty Nasty boys") is ”Don’t mean a thing to me!”, a sentiment that does not reflect John’s true feelings. Part of him says Germain, part of him says Tito.

There is a lot of controversy about John's opening song and people have persuasively made the argument that he is actually singing something different, but all you have to do is hold that iPhone app to the stereo to see how bad the technology is in identifying songs. Merlin argues that it has come a long way since that one time they tried it together (see video here about the Midomi app in 2008).

John’s problem is that he hears the songs he wants to identify usually in a crowded supermarket at really low volume and even though he holds his phone up in the air, the thing can’t sort the music out from the noise of clattering shopping carts and yelling kids. They should use hearing aid technology because they are perfecting tech to sort out the background noise and focus the attention of the device on the interesting part.

Merlin read an article about this. They call it Blasting the High Mids, which is a huge move forward in technology. Both Merlin's eyesight and hearing are going to hell and he needs that iPhone app just to understand what kind of dressing they have at the restaurant. John lays in bed at night and listens to the symphony of whistling and whining happening in his ears. He is alone in his house and there is no girl next to him whistling and whining, but it is the sound of his own ears slowly disintegrating.

John damaging his ear when shooting AK-47s, ear doctors (RL18)

John never had Tinnitus before, although he had been to Rock shows for 25 years, but two years ago he went to a bachelor party of a friend where they were firing AK-47s (see RL0), as you do, in a cement bunker of a firing range. As everybody got done shooting their guns, they all took their earphones off to sit and talk about how great those guns were.

Then everybody went back into firing position, but John forgot to put his earphone back over his right ear and somebody shot a bullet. The sound echoed around the concrete room and went right into John’s ear and he knew right then that he had done permanent damage to himself.

There was a siren in the background of Merlin’s side, but Merlin had dashed away desperately, thinking he could play it off legit because John was still going to talk about his hearing, but he got totally clocked by this siren. He doesn’t like to edit this program and will just leave this in! John found it hilarious and thought Merlin had gone to the other side of the room and whistled to test John’s hearing.

John went to an ear doctor who had the bedside manner of a person that had been unfrozen from a glacier and had only just met modern humans today. It was a bad doctor in pattern-colored Dockers. John's ears are part of his job, so his hearing matters a lot to him, but every time he asked the doctor a question he acted like he had never been asked a question before and it was an imposition on him.

He said that if John had come within three days of that injury they could have done something about it. Do they have a morning-after pill for noise, called Plan E? John tried to warm him up, as you do with doctors, like ”Ah, you are a doctor and I used to be in awe of doctors until a lot of my High School friends became doctors and I realized that any dingus can be a doctor!” A doctor could later have his finger in your butt, although not the ear doctor, but you still want him to like you.

There was one hopeful thing he said while leaning in confidentially: In the next couple of years they were going to have the technology to fix Tinnitus because they were very close to a major breakthrough, but John was not supposed to reference it again. It was interesting that this doctor at the Polyclinic on Broadway was somehow tapped into some super deep-in-a-mountainside-lab ear doctor who was verys close to a major breakthrough. Did he just get back from a conference? Do these guys text each other? (John references this doctor's visit in RW48)

Merlin doesn’t want to make this about World War II, but what if the doctor was in an earcular [sic] Manhattan project and had somehow attracted the Werner Herzog of eardrums to work on this? Maybe he can’t say any more, but obviously John can be trusted with this secret because at one point he was almost in the Special Forces. Merlin likes doctors who are very down-to-earth and say: ”We don’t know a fucking lot about this stuff and part of your ear just got blown up a little bit!” while smoking a Winston.

The other day John was asking for an old-school doctor on the Internet, not one who is going to tell him about Eastern medicine or that he needed to do aerobics, but an old-school doctor who smokes cigarettes and talks to John like a guy. He got 30 replies on his Facebook page from people saying: ”You should use my doctor, Briana McPherson, she is amazing!”, but they were not listening to him!

John is not going to go to a doctor named Briana because she is going to tell him that he needs to aerobicize. He needs a doctor named Herman, who is a smoker with a really cold stethoscope and a pair of pliers in his back pocket. They will talk for 45 minutes before he asks: ”So, what is the matter?” John and he hasn’t been to the doctor in how long because he doesn’t believe in doctors, but he was bitching about this and a person close to him said: ”I am going to make you a doctor’s appointment!”

John’s neighborhood having no facilities (RL18)

In Seattle everything is nearby, but there are no facilities at all in John’s neighborhood. They built a free clinic down the street which really angered John because it was on a lot that could have been a nice café, but they built a medical facility for poor people, as if there aren’t enough of those.

There are no cafés down there, but there are all kinds of medical clinics and veterinarians and stuff. For every one of those clinics Merlin wants a nice café with real coffee and angry ladies with tattoos. The tattoo coffee shops are all up in a neighborhood without any no brown people, but John lives with the brown people and nobody services them with good coffee.

John doesn’t miss the Capitol Hill experience, it is irrelevant to him now. Walking around up there feels like being in a Lady Gaga video and all John can identify looking at the kids is how the men have ripped off his fashion sense and the girls have ripped off the fashion senses of the girls John was dating 10 years ago. It is really annoying!

This could a a hit Willie Nelson song. The problem with diversity is that it always benefits the… but Merlin doesn’t want to go ping pong and wants to skip the whole café problem. It is a black box for him, but saying ”black box” is a racial thing in and of itself and it is also a lady thing, so now Merlin is a mysogynazi. [sic]

Diversity, Fox News portmanteaus (RL18)

John's two reading books in 5th grade were called Serendipity (in RL13 he says Synchronicity) and Diversity. Some listeners have told them that they had those same books. At the time John didn’t realize that diversity was going to be such a problem later. To Merlin it is like auto insurance: It seems like a good idea!

When John will run for president, his platform will be: ”No more Nanny State mandatory auto insurance!” There is a lot of forced insurance going on because of Obamacare, but Merlin is not going to talk about the Tea Party. He likes those very sticky Fox News portmanteaus that John comes up with, he just coined the term Mysogynazi, which will surely be on Fox News in two months.

What about a diversisexual? John was thinking about diversisexuality this morning because it is a common trope that if you let the gays marry and let them out of the stables, then all the young men who are on the fence are going to be tempted by the gay lifestyle. The gays are going to recruit them, they are out there getting Hitler Youth, playing a tuba, banging on a drum, and suddenly everybody wants to uniform.

John being gay curious (RL18)

John moved to Seattle in his early 20s during the big explosion of the ”We are out and we are proud!” gay rights movement. When he arrived in 1990 it was just at the beginning and there was still a very vibrant underground gay culture, but that went mainstream very quickly. John was living right in the middle of it, surrounded by young people.

Being gay seemed very exciting. The gays had a good sense of humor, they were chic, and they felt newly liberated. John had been living in a closet as well, a closet of unacceptableness, and he wanted to feel newly liberated, too! ”Where is my World War I aficionado parade?" He went to a lot of parties with his gay friends and he tried out the gay lifestyle. For a couple of years he would make out with boys when the opportunity presented itself, which it frequently did, and what about bisexual? Let’s see how that feels!

If it would be possible for a person to change their sexual orientation by exerting their will, John would have chosen, and in fact he tried to chose, to have a more open orientation than he ended up with. It turned out in the final accounting that he was 10% gay, which was not enough to sustain a bisexual relationship. There is a lot of hyperbole out there saying that if we legalize gay marriage it will be the beginning of a slippery slope and pretty soon it will be frottage in elevators and dogs and cats sleeping together, but that is not possible!

Merlin’s mom is really serious, she carries a gun and stuff, but she is in Florida, and she has a friend of who has almost been a family member since childhood and who is from the Bay Area originally, the East Bay where the white people live way out in the East. This friend was picking a thing with Merlin because he is living in San Francisco.

It was like watching an old man trying to punch somebody who is not even there. She was getting ready to swing, but there was nothing to hit and Merlin was not taking the bait. He was buttonholed and was stuck next to her in a bar and couldn’t get out, like being seated next to somebody at a party and you wanted to literally kill yourself at dinner.

San Francisco is such a stupid fucking town in so many ways, but what Merlin genuinely loves about San Francisco are the homeless, no, the island of misfit toys, no, if you got thrown out of the armed forces of the Pacific theater in World War II for being gay they dropped you off at the port of San Francisco. If you were a guy dude in the fucking Navy or Army and you acted upon it and you were ready to risk that, you got thrown out and there were all these other dudes here who wanted the same thing.

It is like if you are Snake Plissken, but instead of being dropped into a New York City prison camp you are dropped into a hill-top city surrounded by water and Donald Pleasence wants to suck your dick. Merlin thinks it is glorious if you have trouble understanding how you fit into the world and who you are and you are landing in an environment where you are not the only ”fucked-up” person (see Castro Street Fair of 1976).

Merlin's mom's friend was saying that gay marriage should never happen and San Francisco was a petri dish for Wrong, and she would see two guys kissing and get super-uncomfortable. Image spending your entire life feeling thinking you are the only person in the world who is really screwed up about something and then you found 100.000 other people who felt the same way! It becomes your family!

Wouldn’t she love it if her kids felt out of place their whole lives and they finally found somebody who understood them? She said that the problem is that if we allowed gay marriage the people will also be allowed to marry their dogs, and Merlin was dumbstruck. He always thought that was one of those make-believe hillbilly things people said, but this educated woman, a successful professional, thinks that gay people fuck children and dogs.

It is one thing to be talking about policy and politics, which Merlin doesn’t want to do on this program, but this is life and culture! It is another thing to talk about somebody’s ability to just live as a normal human being, and she does not think that is a normal human being and as much as Merlin didn’t want to take the bait, he finally got un-buttonholed and had to walk away.

Merlin wonders if John was regarded by the legitimate homosexuals as a carpetbagger who was coming in and was hanging out a little bit with his musky masculine and his vintage glasses collection, making out with people, taking pieces off the table, but John thinks that the legitimately well-adjusted young homosexuals of Seattle were not interested in pursuing a brief relationship with him.

The young, emotionally well-adjusted gays in Seattle at the time were a fraction of the population of the homosexual community and most of the them were also confused and their sexuality was also on a continuum. Some were more inclined to make out with straight boys and some were more inclined to be right on the fence as well. This is the problem with vegetarianism, too.

The movie The Boys in the Band seems like from another planet because it is so broad. Merlin liked it a lot and his mother in law directed it as a play one time. There is a lot of mincing around and it is almost an allegory, like something Rod Serling would write: ”Here are seven kinds of homosexuals arguing in an apartment”, but as late as the early 1990s that was still more or less representative of how (it was perceived).

A lot of the things that happened in the 1960s look pretty causally racist in retrospect, but it is incredible that the movie In The Heat of the Night even got made. It is so good and Sidney Poitier is so obviously the smartest person in the movie! Although it is a kind of racism, too, it wasn't at the time, not compared to hanging somebody from a tree. It is a pretty long way to having Hollywood put a good-looking guy as the lead, like Bill Cosby on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or what have you. Imperfect, but steps! But to their credit: Hollywood didn’t lynch a lot of people.

It was not cool to be out of the closet unless in very specific situations in very specific cities. It has only recently been cool, but in The Boys in the Band you saw yourself on screen maybe mincing for the first time, but you weren’t just the Clifton Webb character.

If the right young man approached John after a show and if he smelled right John would still give it a go. Maybe the particular way John smells could be right to him. John has smelled right to people before. John is no longer in the business of worrying about other people’s culpability, they got to look out for themselves. When they meet John in a dark alley or come up to him in the high corn, they better have their A-game because John is not going to hold their hand.

John doesn’t find masculine men like the one on the Tom of Finland art attractive at all, which is where he realized that wherever on the gay scale he was, it was very straight. He also doesn’t like bears, but they find John attractive from a distance. Merlin finds the bears pound-for-pound to be the most fun. If John really needed to cry, which happened 1984 the last time, he could lay his head on the fuzzy chest of a bear friend and have a good cry. Bears are the one type of person in the world who are big and furry and comforting enough that John could actually lean on them, as opposed to John always being the one that people lean on.

John doesn’t like shiny gym rats either and his homosexuality manifests itself exclusively in being attracted to twinks, like a Cabana Boy or a Moroccan house boy. He is tighty, he is friendly, he smells good, he is an extremely good cook, and his hair comes down playfully in front of his eyes like a young Leonardo DiCaprio who is not playing a retarded boy. A little chubby is okay. John doesn’t think that ”twink” is ping pong, but it is an accepted reference point in the great gay lexicon. John has lived on Capitol Hill for many years and he is entitled by grandfathering by having had his pinky in enough people’s poopers that he can use the lexicon.

John cried in 1984 as a teenager because some girl was mean or because his parents yelled at him. The last time John cried was when his dad died. Merlin liked John's dad! He was a fun guy to be around, he was a pistol, and in fact that is a term he would have used. John is making his dad's voice, and he really sounded like that, but 10 times more.

Religious people should not be allowed to drink alcohol (RL18)

A couple of years ago Merlin and John had an argument where John said that Christians or religious people of any stripe should not drink alcohol. Merlin had argued that John was being ridiculous and that Christians of course should be able to drink alcohol, but John doesn’t think so.

They shouldn’t drink alcohol or take drugs or commit adultery or do any bad things because they have eternal reward in heaven to look forward to, whereas the rest of us are going to spend eternity in torment and the only fun we get here on Earth is finger-banging each other. If the Christians are in here, sopping up all the gravy with their buns, there will be that much less gravy for John and the rest of the secular humanists who are doomed to an eternity in a pit of fire.

If religious people cannot handle the responsibility of living in cities while maintaining their separatist identity they should be corralled into camps. The camps can be made nice, separate, and equal. We could put up some fencing around all of Oklahoma, but it doesn’t have to be cyclone wire. They want to be together? Let’s get them all together! It is like a Marcus Garvey type situation.

John doesn’t understand why religious people want to live in cities. Cities are vibrant places where people stick things in each other and yell at each other. There are all kinds of people smoking marijuana, there are all kinds of things happening in cities, and John doesn’t understand why religious people even want to be here.

They probably don’t and they are here probably because they were born here or their parents moved them here. They really want to be in a bucolic place where they can’t be injured by offensive speech or by seeing men kiss or whatever is hurting their feelings. That place could be maybe the entirety of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma.

Merlin thinks you should put everybody into Utah and convert it to a full-crazy religion state. The problem is that right in the middle of Utah there is a range of mountains called the Rocky Mountains and unfortunately if you look at a map it seems plenty big enough to hold all the religious people, but everything West of the Rocky Mountains is an uninhabitable wasteland and all the religious people would have to live up in the mountains on this high, rocky plain. John understands completely that they would potentially want some warm climate or some green pastures. We can’t confine them to Utah, but it has to be geographically more diverse, maybe Galveston could be their beach? This is still pie in the sky stuff!

Merlin can tell why John didn’t graduate from college: He is capable of so much of a better argument than that. This has got to be one of the 9-16 weakest arguments Merlin has ever heard John make, it doesn’t make a lick of sense! It is bananas and close to a religious insanity, although John is exaggerating. Coptic Christians with UFO cults? Yes!

John is not talking about anybody with any faith in anything! People in Narcotics Anonymous will still be entitled to have a power greater than themselves and live in cities. Merlin can’t even begin to take apart all the ways in which John is so incredibly wrong about so much of that, apart from wanting to put people in a bad state. John wouldn’t call Oklahoma a bad state. There are plenty of nice things in Oklahoma, although he would never eat Sushi there (see FS108, FF52). Merlin asks if John has any sense of how high the corn is in Oklahoma, but John is not a musical guy and doesn’t get the quote from the musical Oklahoma.

John doesn’t drink coffee anymore (RL18)

Merlin doesn’t understand this episode, but John didn’t have too much coffee because he quit caffeine on New Year’s Day (see RL23) Now he is sleeping like a baby, but the reason he wants to go to the doctor is that he is walking around in a fog all the time.

Jerry Lewis (RL18)

Merlin only likes 4 or 5 musicals a lot, it is like poems: He thought he liked poetry, but it is like Folk Music, Reggae or Musicals: It turns out there are five poets he likes, but he is not going to sit there and spend an evening reading Gary Snyder.

John claims that Merlin celebrates the entire Jerry Lewis catalog, but that is not accurate. Jerry Lewis is fascinating because even if you are not being reductive he is full of many paradoxes and unresolvable warring sides to his personality. The Day the Clown Cried is a terrific example: Patton Oswalt claims to have seen it, but it is like a Yeti: A lot of people claim to have seen it. Merlin has seen the script.

Harry Shearer had a copy of the script and Merlin has seen bits from it and it is staggering. It is 300 pages because it is a very long movie. Jerry Lewis plays a clown in Poland who makes fun of the Nazis and they put him in a death camp. It becomes his job to do clown stuff to make children go into the gas chamber. He had trouble getting it made, apparently, and he had to go to Sweden for it. It is a fucking long movie! ( it is actually only 90 minutes). He did draw attention to one of the little-known facets of the holocaust. You know about the Gipsies and the jews and the homosexuals, but who speaks for the clown?

There are production stills from that movie, pictures that are absolutely horrifying because they show Jerry Lewis in shitty clown makeup wearing the striped outfits from Auschwitz, which happens when a person no longer has people around him who say: ”No!”, the George Lucas problem!

Nobody can dispute the great things Jerry Lewis did for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He brought in a ton of money and he raised a huge amount of awareness about a disease that was very unknown in the early 1950s. You mostly remember him acting like he was retarded and talking about his kids and bringing up grown men in wheel chairs, trying to make them cry on stage, thereby bringing these people into his twisted universe. John hasn’t seen The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon since 1978 and he doesn’t remember the one from a couple of years ago. This last year (2011) Jerry Lewis got drummed out of the show.

In 1978 John was sitting in a beach cabin on Maui with his father, it was a beautiful sunny Hawaii day, the waves were crashing on the beach, and they were inside watching the Jerry Lewis Telethon because it was not something that you missed, like an after-school special. Like a Merlin Perkins it happened once a year and you watched it.

John’s dad didn’t watch it because he was an old enough person to know that it was dumb. He also didn’t have anything against Sammy Davis Jr., they were the same generation. He had raced some cars and lost one eye, he also converted to Judaism and married a Swedish girl (May Britt) who was much taller than he was and who was a super-cute looking lady. If you read the Shawn Levy biography King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis you will know what a tortured individual he is. Merlin is going to start a separate podcast with Goldie (Robin Goldwasser, John Flansburgh’s wife) and they will be able to talk about all of this.

Gravity’s Rainbow (RL18)

John wants to go back to Schwarz-Commando, meaning ”black” (He had tried to made a word play about the phrase earlier in the show that Merlin didn't react to). Merlin never read Gravity’s Rainbow, Das Pension, but he read The Crying of Area 51 (actually: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon), which is a good place to start.

When John was a very young man he walked into a bookstore with a man behind the counter who looked like a bookstore employee, a heavy set gentleman with long red hair, a red beard shaved down his cheeks, and a sweater under his tweed jacket. He probably had a pipe in the pocket of his Mackinaw.

John had some time to kill and asked him: ”What is your favorite book?” He lit up and his formerly pinched bookstore employee cynical face went: Gravity’s Rainbow. He walked John back, pulled Gravity’s Rainbow off the shelves and told John it was the greatest book ever written and he had to read it! He gave it to him for half price, he really wanted him to read it!

Over the course of the next two years John tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow, at one point he had bookmarks in four different places, but he never made it past page 500. It would be sitting there on the bookshelf, throbbing in a dull red glow: ”You haven’t finished me! You aren’t smart! You can’t read!”

Finally one summer John said: ”You bastard! I am going to read the fuck out of you!” He sat down like at the time he read the Iliad all the way through, told himself: ”You are going to sit here and read this fucking book!” and he read the God-damn Gravity’s Rainbow all the way through. When he was done he almost threw it out the window, but it is sitting on the bookshelf right now, but it is no longer throbbing.

On page 750, all the way back when you already read five books that don’t make any sense at all, the story starts to come together and you suddenly know what he is referring to. The last bit of the story is a fun adventure story, like: ”Hurray, I’m glad I have read it!” You have to basically read The Silmarillion (by J. R. R. Tolkien) and at the end you get a little Hobbit.

Toothpaste, John’s fake tooth (RL18)

Merlin wonders whether people confuse Tom of Finland (artist) with Tom’s of Maine (toothpaste). It might depend what store you are in. Some stores are probably used to either one of those going wrong and you could solve that by having a big gay sex store and putting some toothpaste in there to make everybody happy.

That toothpaste is pretty gross, it is like Calamine lotion. Until last year Merlin thought that Crest and Colgate were essentially interchangeable, but now he cannot have Crest in his mouth, it is so disgusting! How could he go 44 years without knowing the difference between Crest and Colgate, thinking it was a meaningless brand difference?

John takes a cup of hydrogen peroxide and swishes it around his mouth for a minute. The large number of pages he has somewhere in his house detailing the special stuff he has to do with his teeth are like Gravity’s Rainbow! There is a tooth soldered in place of his missing tooth, held in place by a combination of braces, glue, wheat paste, saw dust, horse hair, and guitar string. It just hovers there, and this is why John can’t get a big Pastrami sandwich anymore because his front tooth, his Main Pastrami Incisor, is not functional, it is just a facade.

Literature Lightning round (RL18)

  • Cedric Watts - Tristram Shandy: John did not finish it
  • John Keats - Endymion (the long poem): John never read it
  • David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest: John read it
  • James Joyce - Ulysses: No
  • Andy Warhol - Empire (movie): No

Merlin has started Ulysses, he did read Endymion all the way through which was brutal, he got partway through Tristram Shandy and he keeps thinking each time how awesome this book is. John read Beowulf (Old English epic poem). Merlin keeps thinking he can finish Ulysses, but he can’t and he feels like a dumbass. He is Johnny Liberal Arts, but he can’t finish it. The Warhol thing is clearly a test for douchebags.

How the definition of intelligence has shifted over time (RL18)

At the time when Ulysses was written it was presumed that people had an intimate familiarity with the Bible, Shakespeare, (Ludwig) Wittgenstein, and the great works of man up to that point (1918). In order to properly understand that book you need a complete liberal arts education as of 1912 and none of us do.

John tried to accumulate that kind of education on his own through years of diligent study, but he has a completely checkerboard education and none of the illusions and the connective tissue that makes that book a tremendous read for someone who is completely vested in literature is available to him. He is just glancing off of it, like a Pachinko ball going down, and ”Oh, I get that!”, but mostly: ”Was that a reference to Job or to Napoleon?” A lot of it is just word-game.

Merlin also feels that way about The Waste Land (by T.S. Eliot). There was a really good class he didn't take at school called Literary Substrate of The Waste Land where you also read the bibliography, like Jessie Weston, the Grailmyth book (maybe Holy Grail, Arthurian Literature?), and every Shakespeare thing that is referenced in that. Merlin likes that better as a piece of musicality with funny little bits of language and he does crazy voices when you hear him read it, but the more he learned what exactly he was aping, like that little Greek bit, the more it seemed cobbled together. He was just a guy with a fake English accent showing off sometimes.

A lot of that literature, like science, was very important at the time. Those books had to happen in order to free up the culture of literature so that it could produce Don DeLillo or whatever, but we now live in the aftermath of it and it isn’t strictly necessary to go back and participate in the revolution again. We can just be happy that it happened and go on reading detective novels or stories that are interesting or fun.

Colleges append the words ”Great Books” to all kinds of curricula, but no-one has the attention to truly have a great books education anymore. Find a PhD student in literature who has read 1/5 of the books a high school graduate in 1870 had read! There isn’t a reason to and we don’t need to have read all that stuff. The only reason they did at the time was that there wasn’t anything else to do. Today you can just as well take a film class.

Even as educated people we have to accept that we cannot go back to a time when women didn’t have the vote, as much as we would want to, and we also cannot back to a time when the vast majority of people shared the same 20 books and any educated person had read the same 20 books.

John feels sorry for the people who, like he did himself, really think that it is essential and necessary to go back and read and understand those 20 books in order to be a fully fledged person, because you spend a lot of time beating your head up against a culture from which the important parts have been assimilated into our culture enough that those references go by in our daily lives and most people don’t even know what they are, it is just part of the common language.

Merlin thinks it is kind of a MacGuffin. One of the great works of the last 100 years is Karate Kid who gets Daniel-san to understand how to do these moves with the wax-on and wax-off. He thinks this guy is just some dumbfuck gardener, but what he is teaching him is repetition that ends up benefiting him in a way he didn’t want. Merlin thinks that people miss the point when they think it is about reading a bunch of white guys. If you don’t read a lot of lady authors you are going to be missing out, like To Kill a Mockingbird (by Harper Lee). These are books that you should read!

Getting to a place where you can have an intelligent conversation based on how to digest that much material is not a bad idea and Merlin doesn’t know what could replace that. He doesn’t fucking care what you do, but do a lot of it until you are smart! You should not sit there and learn your ciphers, but get at good at multiplication by learning all of those through 100 and eventually you do it long enough and you know how to multiply.

Was Lea Thompson in Karate Kid? (no, Elisabeth Shue) She was cute! The girl in War Games was Ally Sheedy, she has slightly messed-up teeth which Merlin finds intoxicating.

The myth of the Karate Kid analogy is that any teenage kid, no matter if they put cigarettes out on their arm, is going to do chores for some guy until they become a Karate expert. The problem now is that there isn’t any depth left and everyone has a tremendous familiarity with an incredibly wide surface of information.

We can't expect young people to have the mental fitness to learn anything at depth when there is so much breadth available. We have to re-evaluate what being smart is and we have to acknowledge that being smart now is maybe a different thing. It is a form of evolution! Being smart 50 years ago was a completely different thing than it was in 1705. Merlin counters that the definition of literate is changing, but John thinks it is being smart.

Being smart was having a tremendous encyclopedic knowledge of either one thing or several things at ready hand in your mind, but now that is completely unnecessary and a waste of your brain, because all that knowledge is available on your phone. John looks at his phone 600 times a day and it is one thing for him to understand the course of the 30-years-war and its significance in history, but to remember any of the dates or place names is ludicrous! He can find it on his phone in half a second! What we used to call intelligence was in large part just memorization of things and now most of that has been made obsolete.

What is intelligence now? We have to call it the ability to draw together disparate ideas and things across a wide spectrum of knowledge and to make sense of them at the center. We have to be able to draw on things and form hubs out in space. ”Here is a hub where Tom of Finland and MacGuffin link up and coexist” You have to be able to form these hubs, which a different kind of intelligence than being able to memorize or pass your med-school exam. It is a systemic knowledge and much more a biological knowledge.

Merlin says reading all the Ancient Greek stuff and all the Roman history stuff is a real death march, but it gives you a context for understanding things about history and relationships. It is really helpful to understand the stories! His concerns go back to how fucked-up the educational system seems to be, teaching kids to the test and the way kids are tested now.

John thinks everyone should read Plato because everything you are wondering about now is already in Plato and it is very easy to read. Merlin read all the major dialogs, but he doesn’t remember which ones are which. It is an easy read, it is not like reading Freud, but it is very conversational. Every year an undergraduate says: ”I just had a tremendous realization”, but 99% of the time that realization was already in Plato and he could have saved himself the Domino’s Pizza that it cost him to use his brain to figure it out because it was already written down and somebody was already there. John is not against great books, obviously!

Merlin says that anybody who teaches in school right now says that it is a completely different world than when Merlin and John were in school. That ”no child left behind” nonsense means that if you want funding there are teachers out there who are having to cheat and having to tell their kids basically what is on their tests in order to get them to pass and that is an elephant in the room.

When Merlin was a kid in public school it was the only thing in life that was a real rock: You might have had a tough home life and not much to eat, but you could get on a fucking yellow bus and go to school and there was a meal there for you if you were a poor kid. It had a free breakfast and it had a much bigger role than trying to get George Bush re-elected.

What worries Merlin a little bit that we took the most hollow, pretentious, fucked-up, broken and misunderstood pieces of the entire pedagogical culture of the last millennium and misunderstood them in such a way that drained them of what made them special. The ideas is to have a common education or having a bar we all agree represents ”this” or teachers should be pedagogical and a respected character, but pretty soon you get to a fuckhead at a community college who thinks he is Cicero or something.

Is there no center to this other than to get their budget for next year? Does nobody have any idea what the real purpose of being in that room is? That is how you get a nation of dumbfucks who are gaming the system, much like John did (see RL17), and you get people who don’t understand why it is great to know that Aaron Rome was gay, why that is an interesting story, and why the founding fathers did not agree on that much of anything. Education is a fucking show!

John counters that we already live in a nation of dumbfucks and part of the problem is that you can not educate 300 million people the same way you would previously educate 20 million people. You can’t expect that the definition of what is useful and reasonable for 300 million people to know is the same. When the US was founded only 10% of the population was actually literate.

In some ways it is the toaster problem: After World War II there was this incredible influx into the American family of labor saving devices like the washing machine, the dryer, and you were going to have so much free time and we were going to create an utopia where people sit around and write poems and knit sweaters for trees and make cuff links out of old typewriter keys and sell them on Etsy because we created all this free time.

The vast majority people have spent that free time drinking 64 oz (2 l) of Mountain Dew and watching television. That is not a eugenical argument, but that has always been the case: Literacy is not some kind of magic drug that creates Philosopher Kings out of everyone. It is valuable and a certain percent of the population exploits it, but for most people it just makes it easier to get around town.

Part of the problem was that mom couldn’t suddenly sit around and eat bon bons and take Dexedrine, but the standard went up from what was expected of people. In the past mom was doing the laundry all day every Monday, and Tuesday was ironing. John counters that it went up only if you measure it one way: People still work 40 hours a week, but the amount of time they are actually working is probably 15 hours and the rest of the time they are fidgeting and playing with their balls.

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