RL203 - Killing Me to Death

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: It’s not Amish cake, referring John trying to make his own black powder which was not as easy as Amish cake but required exact measurements of each ingredient.

The show title refers to a girl in a neighboring school in Anchorage with platinum-blonde hair, thick dark eyebrows, red lipstick who was a year younger and John’s first exposure to that kind of thing, and everything about it was killing him to death.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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’s friend lighting all of his fireworks (RL203)

The other day John was going through his stuff and found a couple of ammo boxes buried in his closet that were full of fireworks rockets. A long time ago John used to have a huge 50-caliber ammo box full of fireworks and one time he was out with his Norwegian friend Matt Olnes, shooting off fireworks. Matt was a bit of a stinker and he said all of a sudden: ”John, it looks there is something burning!” and as John looked back there was smoke coming from his fireworks box and all of a sudden all of his fireworks went off at once and they just sat there, dumbstruck.

John was far enough away so he was not fearing for his life and he knew enough not to be lighting off fireworks next to the box, but his friend surely had something to do with that. Norwegians are one of the last groups of people in the world that you can be openly racist about. John lost all of his fireworks that day and then he chased Matt around the reservoir, threatening to kill him, but Matt was the number one guy on their cross-country running team and they both knew John was never going to catch him and it was a symbolic chasing.

Now John found this box of very old fireworks in his closet and some of them are surely unstable, you can’t go out and light the fuse and get away because they might go off into your face, you can’t throw them in a bonfire either because they will go off in every direction, and you can’t get rid of them! Merlin doesn’t want to be racist, but the kinds of fireworks you get in a parking lot at the end of June are not military grade fireworks, but somewhere some child is putting a certain amount of gunpowder into a little tube and they are unstable to begin with.

Merlin recommends John to take them to the police, but John still wants to explode them in a controlled fashion, although he doesn’t want it to be too controlled because it is a fireworks and there should be an element of danger, not that he wants his kid anywhere near it.

John having Roman Candle fights with his friends (RL203)

Until he was 23 he still routinely had Roman Candle fights with his friends. They did not obey the edit to not hold them in hand, they did not get away, but you stood your ground, pointed your enormous Roman Candle at your friend and shot 12 exploding flaming balls at them. It is a modern-day jousting that they did around New Year’s Eve at the ski resort. You need to keep your head down, you don’t want to get one of these in your face, but you stand sideways like a fencer and the true warriors advance upon their opponent. It is an opportunity to assert your male dominance over all comers.

Coming up to an age where no-one will stop you (RL203)

It is so fun to be an age where you have unlimited access to fireworks as long as you keep having money and still believe that you can go your life without being injured. Merlin says it is like iced coffee, which is the greatest thing in the world, and you can easily just get another one or four of them and no-one could stop you from doing that. John doesn’t drink iced coffee because why would you put ice in a coffee? The only people in Seattle who are drinking iced coffee are people from elsewhere. They ought to build a wall around Seattle, a gorgeous wall, and they make the Oregonians and Californians pay for it.

At first you can’t wait until you are a big boy and can drive a car, and then pretty soon nobody will stop you from buying a car that is way too fast and that you can’t really afford. No-one will stop John from buying a vintage RV (see GMC RV), somebody should have stopped him, some people probably tried, but the new lesson for him is: If the bank won’t loan you the money (see RL177), just leave it at that. If you have to go around the bank and hack the system, then just leave it!

Making his own gunpowder (RL203)

There was a period in John’s High School years when he was trying to make gunpowder out of saltpeter, charcoal, and one other element (sulfur), three things that you in Anchorage could just buy at the drugstore. There is a conspiracy that the US Military sprinkles saltpeter in the C-rations to suppress sexual urges of the soldiers and it is the first thing Merlin thinks about when he hears about saltpeter and he has known that for as long as he has known what a boner is. He has also heard schools and prisons do this.

If you had a hammer and pestle you would use these things in other tinctures, like you put a little bit of sulfur, a little bit of mayonnaise and a little bit of Hungarian paprika and grind those together to use as a compress on a sprained ankle. You were making medicaments with those ingredients and you could buy them in cans at the drugstore before the Nany culture came along. John and his friends would combine sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal in different measures. Merlin didn’t trust John that medicament is a real word because John also says breakdast John has stopped saying breakfast entirely.

The mixture of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter is very precise and you have to weigh it out, not just toss 1/3 of each in there, not like Amish cake, and sometimes they would get a thing that sparked and smoked and make noises like a witch’s cauldron, they made a lot of snap, crackle, and pop, but they never got anything to explode. It only explodes when it all burns very quickly and expands and hits the oxygen.

At the time 1983/84 you could go to the Fred Meyer and there was an entire shelf of black powder sold in canisters the size of Quaker Oats in dozens of formulations, like smokeless, large grain, small gran, because people still did black powder hunting in Alaska and a lot of people including John’s friend Calstad (?) who loaded their own bullets, they had machines for that in their garage. Merlin’s uncle made his own bullets. They would roll in there at 15 years old, take two canisters of black powder up to the counter and they just sold it to them and they were out making pipe-bombs all day.

By the time they were Seniors they had moved the black powder behind the counter and at least the Fred Meyer at Northern Lights and Benson stopped selling it entirely. John stopped building pipe-bombs after they had a very scary experience with a pipe-bomb and that was the end (see RL63). Frank Kufahl, the one with the cricket bat (see RL11), wouldn’t have liked that, but he was principal at Steller, a very weird thing, an alternative High School, but it was different from SWS (School within a school) that John was in for some time (see RL180) and he got tossed out and had to walk across the star bridge and get over into the fame school. Merlin remembers a lot of those things! Everybody knew what Mr. Finnell did (also see RL11).

It seemed like at Steller you could just walk out of class and wander the halls, there was a girl with platinum-blonde hair and thick dark eyebrows and pretty red lipstick, it was John’s first exposure to that. She was a year younger and everything about it was just killing John to death and it imprinted very hard. Frank Kufahl became the principal of that and with his tennis racket and his cricket bat he did not fit in there at all and everyone there knew it and he knew it, but he had done his vice principal time and was still on track to be a principal. He was trying to get people to go to class, but that was not what happened there.

Eventually Don Shackleford became the principal of Steller. He was the one who was disappointed in John (see RL32, RW84, RL180) and found the pipe bombs in John’s locker. John is so glad they are recapitulating that episode from a long time ago, but every day someone is born who has never seen The Flintstones. John was describing them the other day to someone who could not comprehend them. It was a Millennial and John was like: ”Jabadabado!” They are like The Honeymooners in cartoon form and with cavemen and birds, they were the first steam punk. Also the movie Wild Wild West.

Merlin’s friends in college sneaking up on each other (RL203)

Merlin is always reluctant to talk about death because somebody will have the technology in the future to pick out all the parts of their show after they are dead, even if you don’t have access to Captn Mariam, there will be a way eventually, and somebody is going to put together a reel about the times they talked about death and all the shit you say when you are alive about being dead, like: ”Fuck you guys right now! Turn this off!”

Merlin thinks about John’s ammo box full of fireworks because there will be times when he thinks: ”Oh shit, this is it!” Back in college his friends used to do a werewolf thing to scare each other with conceit that if they could sneak up on somebody they were dead. Merlin’s friend was in the very quiet library at 7:30pm, almost closing time, and his friend came up from behind and grabbed him on the shoulder and he said: ”Holy shit, Richard, I don’t want to die translating the German word for absurd!”

Merlin thought about it this morning because he went to bed late after watching all of the Tonies last night and some musicals after that. His avatar in Skype is now Aaron Burr, sir, from the musical Hamilton. This morning he was a little underdressed, he was making coffee, running around, watching the WWDC presentation, and he started to fall down like somebody had just unpinned his knees, like old people fall down sometimes. He almost fell down because he was wearing Crocs and the little rubber Crock had gotten wedged under a little table. John doesn’t even understand why Merlin owns Crocs.

As Merlin was about to fall he thought: ”Oh shit!” and now the first paragraph of his obituary will be about ”Inbox Zero” and the second paragraph will be: ”His Croc got stuck under a little table!” John can’t believe Merlin owns Crocs, does he also wear little short pants with suspenders, like a Lederhosen, except it might be worn by somebody in Spanky and Our Gang. That would technically be cosplay and Merlin doesn’t doesn’t cosplays anything cool, but something pretty funny that is not like a Marvel comic. He thinks about it all the time. He likes cosplaying what he is like he is so middle-aged dad looking.

Merlin’s clothes having holes in them, what to put in the watch pocket of your Levi’s (RL203)

People have noticed and remarked when Merlin wore clothes with holes in them, like John Siracusa has seen it from many feet away that Merlin’s pants had a tiny little hole from the edge of his iPhone in them and they were all talking about it, so Merlin stopped wearing clothes with obvious holes in them. In a pair of jeans there is a big difference between a crotch hole and a knee hole, but then there is a big leap from knee hole to front pocket hole, which should be worn with enormous pride. Merlin’s front pockets tell a story about who he is, which has been true for several years.

John always had guitar picks in the watch pocket of his Levi’s, but for Merlin it has changed a lot over the years. In the early 1980s it was quarters for video games, a couple of Jim Dunlop 1mm Black guitar picks. For a while he used the pussy grey ones, but fuck that, you want a black one. Also various kinds of drugs, at one time caffeine pills, Ephedrine, Adderall and today he often puts his Imodium in there. It is a pill pocket for him. When he is going out to do a performance he wants to have his sleeping pill early enough and he takes it out of his watch pocket on stage, but of course he worries that some other thing can interrupt and he has to get back on the horse.

John never had quarters in his watch pocket because 85% of the time that he was at a video game parlor he was there to watch other play video games. Merlin had an allowance at the time, but he rarely had more than $5-9 and often he had none. There was a refillable cup with a dollar product at Subway that was $0.25 to refill and boy did he ever use it! You could get a little mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for $0.05. John could not play video games well enough to get his money’s worth, never in his whole life did he play $5 worth of video games. If he played $2 worth of video games that felt incredibly decadent.

There was a time when Merlin was not very nice to his mom and it broke her heart and made her feel bad. They didn’t have a lot of money and it made her legitimately sad when he spent the money he did have on video games. To somebody born in the 1930s taking the tiny bit of money you have and putting it into a machine for 90 seconds of pleasure feels gross. You don’t get that money back and somebody had to work for that.

If you were good at Defender and you could play Defender for an hour… For Merlin it was Stargate in particular, and it was magic to watch people who were good at that. Tempest was an art form! John was pretty good at Tempest. To know when you were going to employ the smart bomb that destroys everything on the screen, and there were perfect moments when you are shooting aliens all around and the screen became clogged with enemies that there is no way you are going to survive and then you deploy a smart bomb and everybody is destroyed.

One of the great things about Merlin’s jeans is when he started carrying a space pen and John was watching the space pen shape faded into Merlin’s jeans pocket, you could even see the tapering ends. That was a statement!

Merlin puts cedar shoe trees into his shoes when he takes them off, he has enough shoe trees for his primary shoes and he likes to rotate them. John has about 14 vintage pairs of shoe trees, some of them from the 1940s, but he doesn’t use them at all. The news ones are nicer, but you can sand your old ones to bring out the cedar smell. Merlin sometimes buys 2-3 new ones from Amazon and throws out the old ones, but John would barely consider sanding his old ones, it is like polishing your silver candlesticks from the 18th century, you want to keep that patina!

John having boxes of paper from his dad, what happens with his stuff when he dies (RL203)

If John dies before Merlin, then Merlin will not be involved in dealing with John’s house. John worries about that all the time. There is a good chance his mom is going to outlive him and she will be stuck with that whole affair, but she would just throw it all in a dumpster, and the interesting game is to figure out what she would keep. John is still navigating his father’s estate, meaning 40 legal boxes full of old adjudications.

The other day he was reading all these papers from the mid-1970s, really digesting how constantly on the edge of insolvency he was. Even when he was making a lot of money he was always getting into some bad deal and there would be another notarized letter. There are also phone bills and stuff and John doesn’t throw it away because of the story it tells. There is not another living person who cares and John has read the story and he could just recycle them or make a bonfire, but for some reason he doesn’t.

John has bequeathed the recorded music and the unreleased material to his daughter via her mother who has always been a fan of his music, which lets him assume that she would care for it. Maybe she would hand an unreleased song to Ben Gibbard and say: ”Finish this!” and whether these guys would see that as an honor or a burden to be given this garbage.

John not doing an eBay store (RL203)

What inhibited John to do an eBay store (see RL158) is that there was a Christian pastor who uses Rock’n’Roll to convince people of Jesus and who put his clothes up for sale, but they were just normcore dad clothes, trying to capitalize on that and he got a lot of flack for selling his clothes to his parishioners and John doesn’t want that to go up on Pitchfork, giving John 0.0 as a human. AV Club wouldn’t even write an article, but it would be in the comment section. Maybe Etsy is the place? John thinks if he will type up a card on a nice typewriter and tell the story of the item it might save him because the clothes are a Macguffin.

Drum & Bass live (RL203)

One time John went to a party where there was a drummer and a bass player and they were playing Drum & Bass, which is music that is normally made on computers, but they were really good at it and it was something other to hear that music live. John just stood next to them for the rest of the party, being captivated by the performance.

Getting a spam email that pretends to be from Ken Stringfellow (RL203)

John got a letter today from the government that said they were suckers. Merlin still turns that line by Chuck D and Public Enemy over in his head because it is so ponderous (lyrics from the song Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos). In John’s case the letter was an email from Ken Stringfellow that he saw on his phone in the morning after he had a dream about him and he hadn’t gotten an email from him in 3 years, it was a spooky moment. In the preview of the email he could see ”John, I have been meaning to write you…” Maybe he was producing an album in Austria and he wants John to fly in and offer his signature tambourine play?

It was a spam from Ken saying that a woman is making a film called Ken in which he played the titular character based on a fictionalized version of his actual life, and they asked John to donate. Although Ken’s overall penetration of the culture remains low, within a small group of people he is a very big deal. It is how Merlin met John when he was at a show for Ken’s first solo record (it wasTouched, his second solo record) where John’s band first opened for him and then John was his lead guitar player and The Long Winters were his band. It was a really good album and Uniforms was a song on that. That night Merlin also met Scott Miller, the guy with the motorcycle home and the big hair, the guy from Game Theory. It was the best night ever.

After Scott Miller's death a few years ago Ken is leading a big project, finishing the last Game Theory album with a whole bunch of superstars. In the same way, when John is going to die his superstar friends are going to finish his unfinished 14 albums. They should have that girl from LiveJournal contact Ken, maybe he can spearhead the effort? Merlin thinks Ken is a wonderful guy if you want all the life force sucked out of you, he is a monster.

The letter says:

”At this early stage of the campaign for Ken - The Movie getting the word out is the most important thing, so thank you all for subscribing to these emails! As many of you will remember I wrote a few months ago to explain the movie. For those that don’t, here is a quick recap: The director is an old friend of mine named Claudia. She makes beautiful films that blend elements from real life with fictional ones. Ken - The Movie will follow this format. Parts of the real me taken from both my music and family life will be the basis for a fictional character named Ken and I will play that character. The story is an intimate journey of self-discovery and it is going to be set mostly in Los Angeles with shooting due to begin later this year. With your support the enthusiastic Ken - The Movie team will make it work.”

Unsolicited calls and emails (RL203)

Some random 206-number called John on the phone and he declined the call. The scammers now use local numbers to make you think that your kid has fallen into a well.

The other 4 emails John got this morning said that John Freeman has some new promo-materials available, Filson is sending him the Father’s Day gift guide, Mascot (record labels) says: ”Escape the city with David Heart” (?), and The New Yorker has a special delivery for him. Also Uber wants to know how his ride from the airport was. John deleted all those emails. Merlin got an email from a woman who loves the Back To Work podcast and would be honored to be a guest and she said that she would be a great fit and she is a big fan of the show. During the 5.5 years they have been doing this show they have never had a guest.

The 33rd degree of freemasonry says specifically: ”If you ask to be elevated to the 33rd level you must be refused!” To get all the way to 32 and then make the fucking classic error of asking for it? You are never going to get it back at that point. Merlin reads some more from the letter from the woman who wants to be on his show. During the last year Dan and Merlin get at least 5-10 of these people a week who always are ardent fans of the show, sometimes even from the personal assistants of people Merlin knows who should know better.

They have two ideas: Tell people they can be on, but they have to pay $10.000, or invite everybody who has ever offered to do this onto the same episode and don’t let them hear each other, like the Tower of Babel. The problem is that they would need to have some hacked version of Skype so that they couldn’t see that there were literally 35 other people on the call.

Being on a podcast about United Airlines, getting upgraded to first class with Delta Airlines (RL203)

John was on a podcast one time that was just people talking shit about United Airlines (see TYFC) with Moisés Chiullan on his show about customer service. Some of them used to work for United Airlines, some of them were in the travel industry, and they all told stories about the last time United Airlines screwed the pooch. Normally Merlin doesn’t like those kind of shows because it is a bit too cute, but in this case you could get a year’s worth of podcast out of it. Who loves United? It is like people who support Trump: He is a monster, but you have to support the dude. In the same way people have points on United and have to use them.

Because of Jonathan Coulton and John Hodgman John has joined the Delta family and he got an upgrade to first class. The flight attendant asked him if he wanted the barbecue chicken sandwich and she leaned forward and said that it was very small, or the pasta salad with shrimp that didn’t sound very appealing, but John didn’t want the small one and he asked for the pasta salad and the guy next to John chose the little sandwich. As it showed up it was not very small, but it was a few sliders and she was trying to say that the sandwiches were small. John thought she was trying to talk him out of something that she knew was not good.

Who has ever gotten several sliders, which are in some ways the perfect food, and said: ”Excuse me, these sandwiches are very small!” No-one has ever done that. Before she had delivered John’s meal he called her back and changed his order to the sliders, which was no problem, he ate them happily, they were quite delicious, partly because of the knowledge that back in coach nobody was getting these. They got some pretzel mix and that was it. At the end of the meal John felt he wanted more of those. In the past that was not a problem, you could get it all, just like in the Windjammer on the JoCo Cruise (see JoCo2015) and then you put gravy over the top.

Unfortunately they were out of sliders, but after 20 minutes an attendant walked past, leaned over the guy next to John and dropped a box of carrots and celery and pesto hummus, which was thoughtful of her. When he flew back on Delta he didn’t get upgraded to first class and he realized they were giving those Crudités to everybody. Then they spilled an infinitesimal amount of ginger ale on the elbow of the guy sitting next to John as they were walking by and the self-same flight attendant gave him 5000 bonus miles for that. He leaned over to John and said: ”Pretty good deal, right?” and John told her that he was also traumatized by that because that was his ginger ale that spilled on the guy’s elbow. 5000 bonus miles would put John a lot closer to his silver medallion status!

The McElroy brothers (RL203)

Yesterday John learned that the McElroy brothers have something like 64 podcasts between them. Merlin has never heard any of their shows, but he should because people who like things he likes love them which is a good indicator that he would probably like them. He wouldn’t even know where to begin. John Hodgman said over the weekend that his experience with the McElroy brothers is that people like them and they are nice on their programs.

John has never employed the thought technology of being nice as a way of attracting fans and neither has John Hodgman. Merlin thinks that there is nothing worse than someone pretending to be nice. Don’t pretend an intimacy that is not there and then make him the dick to call them on it. Don’t send John an email if you are his actual friend, asking him to support his movie. Where is John’s movie? Adam Pranica was going to make a movie about The Long Winters, but at a certain point he stopped because there was no plot. If he had been there for the record before that it would have been good. He did a nice trailer, and if you can do that, then just scale it up!

Merlin shooting guns with John’s band (RL203)

There is even video footage of Merlin hanging out with John’s band shooting increasingly bigger guns until they arrived at a gun where people started to drop out. Jonathan Rothman had never picked up a gun in his life and he was a great shot. He is somebody who will five everything a try and succeed with it. How does he do it? Watching him perform in John’s band was always fascinating because he would play up to three different instruments in the same song and was invaluable in that case.

His only disadvantage was that to be able to sing is not a thing you can learn past a certain point and John should never have put a microphone in front of him. Harmony vocals are a hard thing to do, but once you give somebody a mic it is hard to take it away. You can give a man a fish and he will eat for day, but you give a man a microphone and for the rest of the time you are on tour one harmony is always going to be slightly off. Jonathan has cables that are directional. John stayed at his nice house in Hotlanta one time, a very nice mom with a stepdad component, and now he is teaching math in Brooklyn to Junior High students.

Every single member of The Long Winters that quit or was fired or quit-fired or rage quit all landed on their feet. The band was a stepping stone for a lot of people to end up doing what they really wanted to do.

John’s computer going to screen saver while he is recording the show (RL203)

John’s computer flips over the slidshow (screen saver) when he doesn’t touch it for a while. Merlin sighs when he hears that and he thinks that if John ever wants to do this show all the time they should have the talk about things that he can do to improve things. You don’t want your computer to go to sleep while you are recording a podcast! It might not affect the show at all, but it might also start doing some background things. Merlin is happy that John is getting a slide show, and he has done so many times in the past years.

Merlin doesn’t dare to ask John if he plugs his ethernet cable in when he does his podcast or if he does it over WiFi because he doesn’t even want to know. Merlin loves the screen savers on his Apple TV. They complain about how the photo screensaver on the Mac often goes into a loop and shows pictures that were taken very close to each other and there is no way they were selected at random.

A couple of screens ago there were some pictures of signs that say ”Breastfeeding station” from the time when breastfeeding was a major component of his life, not for himself, but a ”Go find a breastfeeding station!” scene, which is a great Harper Lee novel. Hakuna Matata, whatever that means. Merlin is not going to tell John because it is more fun that way. It is something from the Lion King that roughly means No Worries in Swahili. The Arabs say Inshallah after every time somebody says something that prognosticates, meaning ”God willing”

Merlin included that in a text to John, but wasn’t sure John knew what that meant, like: ”When I see you in Portland it would be nice to have dinner, if the accident will!”, but that just seemed like Merlin Mannese. Like many of his lines it is lifted from a Kurt Vonnegut novel. ”Little did they know they were making champagne!” is also a Kurt Vonnegut. So it goes. You say Inshallah because you don’t want to get in the way of God with your idea of what the future is going to be. It is like the guy who wanders around next to the king and says: ”You are mortal!” John would be great at this job, but John heard ”You are immortal!”, and the king might mishear it, especially when he is a little big older, and it might be a very confusing thing to tell him all day long. ”Are they saying Who Earns?”

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