RL374 - Licking the Butter Lion

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: Everybody was trying to get out of Florida, referring to John coming back from the JoCo Cruise to Ford Lauderdale and the airport looking like Mos Eisley because everybody was trying to get home.

The show title refers to a butter sculpture on the JoCo Cruise that the performers were already able to lick while everybody else was still getting through a more rigorous screening.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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 returning from the JoCo Cruise during the Coronavirus pandemic (RL374)

Shucky Darn and Slop the Chickens (reference to Garfield)! John is back on land, back in the world, but the world is not the same. Merlin has thought about John a lot in the last 10 days (John left for the JoCo Cruise just before restrictions on travel and public gatherings because of the Coronavirus pandemic took effect).

You cannot underestimate the number of people who came up to John on the cruise ship and said: ”Lot of different kinds of gravy here, am I right?”

When John got to Florida it was not clear that they were going to get on the cruise. Hodgman was held off the boat because he had been to Italy, and John just came from Seattle that was a hotbed. As they were going down to the boat, at any point Holland America (the cruise line that owns the ship) could have said: ”Nobody from Seattle!” or that the whole thing was cancelled, which with the wisdom of retrospect would have been a really good idea, but people were probably safer out there and it was Merlin who was literally shitting himself for 10 days, thinking that everybody he likes is going to die and turn into some kind of Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

The JoCo-part of the cruise had gotten more and more professional as time goes on, it is not their first day, and all the performers were ushered on before anyone else was on the boat, they didn’t pass through any kind of screening, but just ”Willkommen!”, which was great because they were all licking the butter lion while everybody else, the sea monkeys, went through a more rigorous scanning.

Everybody was trying to do the elbow-bump, but it only lasted for a short time because they were all on this boat and if they were going to get sick, then they were going to get sick. They were hugging and smooching and sea monkeys were rolling around as they do with each other, they were so horny! They had put an on-board messaging service together called Twittar that doesn’t involve the actual Internet so you don’t have to pay money to log into Internet at sea. I does break the Dave Bazan pledge of ”No Internet!”, though!

A new element that really came to their attention this year was called Tindar where the sea monkeys are running a little dating site because they haven’t had enough orgasms already. Everybody professes to be on there primarily looking for cuddles. John didn’t personally go on there, but many other performers showed John their profile. There is a lot of polyamory and it is a very supportive environment, but it was clear that people were not maintaining social distance. They were rolling around and smooching and everything was going crazy.

About 3/4 of the way through the cruise Jonathan and Paul said that this boat had the lowest incidents of sickness of any cruise they have any done or any cruise that Holland America has ever done. Usually cruise ships are full of sickness because people lick door knobs, but this time it must have been herd immunity. As they got back and got in range of Internet service and saw what had happened in the world, they didn’t even want to dock! Merlin had to go out on Friday for a doctor thing, but apart from that he had been staying at home.

They were halfway to Grand Turk (island in the Atlantic) when the drugs set in… no, this is bat country… before Grand Turk stopped allowing cruise ships to dock and they had to turn the boat around and for a good day and a half they went through the ocean at 1 knot speed because the captain didn’t have anywhere to go. He had a big ship full of nerds, but no-one wanted them anymore. This was the first time John realized that after they had left the world kept going and there weren’t very sailings happening anymore. As they were coming into port Paul said that Holland America was closing down all operations as soon as they docked.

John definitely had people when he went home saying: ”We didn’t think you were really on a cruise, we thought that was a joke!”, but it was a good cruise this year, although there were some problems. Hodgman got held off, Wil Wheaton didn’t come, which was the first time he missed one, Zoë Keating got sick, Liz Phair is a germaphobe and decided not to come at the last minute, but she did fly to Santa Domingo, went to her hotel, got into a van, drove to the stage, played her show, got in the van, drove back to the hotel and flew away. She never touched the boat and Jonathan didn’t even talk to her. She has kids and one of them is asthmatic.

It was a little bit sad because John was hoping he and Liz Phair would come off the boat, engaged to be married, which would be entirely reasonable. Merlin explained to his daughter the concept of TV-boyfriends and girlfriends and that it is not in respect to one’s binary sexual preference. Merlin got some TV-boyfriends, but it doesn’t mean he wants to shack up with them, but just with Indie Rock matador girlfriends, you just hope that when you lock eyes there will be magic. Merlin likes to be seen and feel special!

The cruise is a magic time and not being on Tindar does not keep John from feeling magic and Liz, as soon as she came on the boat and understood the magical rules and lack of rules, that they would be swept up… she and John know each other a little and this might be the thing where she says: ”I would like to know you a lot!”, but that is not how it went down and John is still reeling. Merlin is impressed that she fought through that she fulfilled her obligation. She was not there for the free vacation and cuddle puddles, but she was there to do her job. The land concert was great, she played that Supernova song (?) and when all was said and done it was a great cruise and John could almost say that some Aloha had happened, which was nice.

Coronavirus (RL374)

Merlin thinks that right now everybody is trying to be a bit nicer to each other, or at the very least not to be hostile to people and not take the easy dunks all the time. It is said that we are also going to see lower incidence of lots of things, including the flu, as a knock-on effect of less exposure, which might be one reason why the cruise was such a clean ship. Merlin was on that boat once, which was this supposedly fun thing that he would absolutely not do again because it was not his tempo. It was wild how much performative cleanliness or safety there was.

If you give clear instructions to a group of sea monkeys about what the expectation is in terms of maintaining social distance, they will adapt the new protocol. If you were on an outlaw country cruise and tell them that from now on you could only put your chair roots (?) out inside half an orange, 9/10th of them would say: ”Hell no!”

Tim Eyman running for governor of Washington (RL374)

Tim Eyman, who is running against Jay Inslee (at the 2020 gubernatorial election in Washington), said he wants 251 people to come to his rally and he will bring a six-pack of Corona. He has done more damage to the state of Washington than 50 other bad men. He is the worst and everybody with any sense… he is one of the people who uses the referendum… he is nuisance-lawsuit guy, except he succeeds because his nuisance lawsuits are: ”We are paying too much for car tabs! We should only pay $50 for car tabs! Why is the government taking our money!”

The problem is that the state of Washington doesn’t have an income tax and they pay for all services through things like car tabs, they use fees attached to tickets and hotels and rental cars, which is how they pay for the roads and all he things they need, but Tim Eyman says $50 is the most we should pay and he gets a majority and all of a sudden there is no money in the public coffers to do anything, including EMTs and schools! You should coffer into your elbow! It is a dry coffer! He has been doing that for decades and has a really good way of figuring out the libertarian one-sentence messaging and he keeps passing these things. He is a real risk, but he will never get elected governor. He also lives off of the money he raises.

Coronavirus (cont)

Merlin and his family are fortunate in just about any way a person could be fortunate and they sure do know it. His work will continue because the place where he records is very near to the place where he lives and it is not very difficult for him to avoid people on that small journey. Having a second place is also very nice so that daddy is not crowding up the house. They also have a park and a yard, there are various ways in which… not even getting into the fact that Merlin’s wife is going to have a job no matter what and get paid no matter what and they have insurance and all these things. Not everybody has that and it has been top-of-mind for Merlin and he was spending money like a door-knob in a wet sweater: ”All the kids must be fed! Feed the children! Pay the school!”

Merlin is making himself very anxious and situationally depressed by gobbling every bit of this information, useful or not, and he is sad, frustrated and angry at the way this is operated at a high level. He did literally sleep 13 hours yesterday. The school district and Merlin’s kid’s actual school has been great about this and said that the kids can stay home without penalty for the next two weeks. She ended up going, but then they shut it down for the next two planned school weeks plus through spring break.

John is caught up on this because when he came back a big info dump happened. They were all standing there in the Fort Lauderdale airport and the phones went back on and they were all standing there: ”Oh, wow!” and getting it all at once. Merlin’s friend was in Poland when Trump made that unfortunate speech where he made some errors and she was one of the people who was struggling to get a flight home to get in under the wire (actually, American citizens were still allowed to fly home, but Trump said otherwise).

When you are a news junkie who is following everything from second to second 18 hours a day, getting anxious and ramping up, most to 98% of that information is just logically inferred. When John was on the boat they weren’t getting any of that news, but based on the information they had when they left port they knew they were going to come back to a different world. When they were refused entry to Grand Turk it was clear that things were changing, they were hearing the scuttlebutt from the cruise lines itself.

The people on the New Amsterdam were more than 1000 people on that boat who work on the boat and live on the boat for 8 months at a time. When the ship docks they go to work for 5 hours to turn the ship around, put the gravy back into the gravy boats, change the sheets, sanitize and then there are 2000 other people waiting to get on the boat. All those people didn’t know what was going to happen to them. Everybody handled it wonderfully, it was really a pitch-in-altogether thing!

You don’t need to follow the news because it doesn’t help 98% of the time. If you read a digest at the end of every day that was three articles long, or even at the end of every week, of political news and normal news, that would be enough. It was clear two weeks ago that you shouldn’t go to bars or on a cruise, but they were still in the state of ”Should I? I wonder if…” and it was much more about if they will keep them off a cruise rather than if they themselves should not go on a cruise. Only 35 people didn’t come out 2100 people.

John on the way home (cont)

They didn’t know whether they would come into Fort Lauderdale and be refused entry and they were wondering what they were going to do if they would stop the boat. The people who got off in Oakland (from the Grand Princess cruise), some of them got sent to the South, to Travis Air Force Base, and it was pretty rough going for the folks on the Air Force base. They were prepared to say that they are not going to get off and go on an Air Force Base, but they would stay on the boat and keep putting on shows every night until they run out of songs.

What they weren’t expecting was that the Fort Lauderdale airport was like Mos Eisley because all the cruises had been cancelled and everybody was trying to get out of Florida. It was a complete zoo! They were entering a world where a contagion had escaped the joke cage they thought they could put it in, and all they needed to do was get home. Then you are in a small regional airport where there are 8000 other people also trying to get home. Because of the way John’s itinerary got put together he flew to JFK and had to take a shuttle from his gate to some other gate and sprint through the airport to make it onto his flight. All of this was not limiting his exposure!

Merlin is back to watching comfort TV like Parks & Rec, something where people are putting their hands into somebody else’s mouth and everybody cringes because we are all so habituated to thinking about politely avoiding other people.

Fortunately John was on the other side of the… that was all people who were coming into the United States and within the airports it was just a regular busy day and John sat next to a woman who works at Wikipedia and was a total JoCo Cruiser with a buzz-cut with rainbow color in it, but had never heard of it. Before she sat down she wiped down not just every aspect of her own seat, but also the back of the seat in front of her. On the flight from JFK there was nobody in John’s row because at that point he had entered into domestic travel where people were cancelling. When he landed at SeaTac it was a ghost land.

Setting his mom on quarantine (RL374)

John already knew about the concept of an incubation period, but learning about the idea that you could have it and be asymptomatic and never show or be incubated for two weeks, the prospect that John could have it and bring it home or that his daughter got it at school because they didn’t close her school until last Friday, that they are sitting in here and they have it and it is only waiting to finally bloom or maybe they won’t get sick, but they will be the contagion, one of those green balls that turn into a red ball, that is the crazy part.

The susceptibility John has to getting on that news dragon now just sitting there: ”Oh no! 14 more people in Italy died!”, all that really is important to know is that they can’t meet anybody else. They can’t have any playdates, they can’t go to restaurants, and doing that is all they can do. Knowing more isn’t necessarily good. Merlin pushes back a little bit, because he is worried about his mom. There is no need to deliberately ramp yourself up, but there are people who do need to worry about stuff. John has isolated his mom and his sister is bringing groceries to her, wearing white gloves, they are not reckless.

On his way downstairs to record the show John had to step over his daughter who had arranged a card game on the floor and asked him to play the card game with her and as John told her that he had to do his show she said that the card game will still be there, blocking the door when he would be done. They made a mistake yesterday when her little friend across the street whose parents are normally pretty socially distant and reclusive, if they could play together it would be a great relief to both families and yesterday there was some article by a paediatrician who said that you can’t have play dates, but if the kids are playing outside it is probably fine.

John doesn’t know what the logic behind that article was, but they let her go outside and they played together all day out in the street. It felt a bit like security theater to only let them play with each other outside and only let them sneeze at each other in fresh air that it would somehow protect them. But today it feels like they would need to re-evaluate that, but if either one of them had it they have already communicated it to each other yesterday. That family-to-family-transmission that you hear about from China, John just hopes he doesn’t have it and the he didn’t get it before they closed the windows.

John’s sister was the one who already on February 29th said that mom was going to go into a cooler, they are not going to visit her and she was going to get her food in a box and leave it outside her door. Because John’s mom is so disaster aware she agreed to hit the mattresses. At the time John probably would have taken such a draconian step, but now it seems incredibly wise of those two to have put mom in a sanctuary because John is now confident that she is safe and will continue to stay underground. She does go down into the garage, get into her car and drive around, she is not living in the dark, but John hasn’t seen her and probably won’t see her for a month.

Merlin’s family is going to be fine, they will just be inconvenienced, but he feels a deep obligation to not contribute to somebody else getting it and that is still not sinking in.

John not feeling enthusiastic about this current disaster (RL374)

Even hurricanes and tornadoes there is this element of disaster porn because it is happening to other people and there is the excitement of watching the hurricane come toward Florida and all the threatening blasts of ”This is going to wind up in Miami and kill a million people!”, it ratchets up the suspense such that when it often doesn’t happen it is a bit of a let-down, especially for the weather people. This was going to be the highlight of their career! As soon as it stops getting worse you can just feel this ”Naaawww, this was going to be the big one!” They had a big snow event on the way in the winter and they were actually saying it was a disappointment it didn’t come.

John doesn’t feel that way about this current situation. He is not looking for Schadenfreude, he doesn’t hope that all the people in Nashville who were flaunting the quarantine and were dancing in cowboy barns to get sick as a result and have it be proved. He doesn’t anybody to be proved wrong or right. He also doesn’t feel any anticipation about the next month in the same way he would anticipate a hurricane or a tornado. Two days from now the situation is going to be worse than it is today, but John is not looking forward to it.

Because this is global and so massive and world-historical because the way economies are going to be affected and everybody who is out of work now is not going to be suddenly be back at work. There are major gaps in billions of people’s lives that are going to have to get filled somehow, but 9 months from now, whatever the final statistics are, that is a degree of zooming out… John has read up about pandemics a lot. We have all known that this is the big threat and it has been told to us enough times by epidemiologists around the globe that probably the next thing is not going to be a nuclear war, famine or global warming, but a pandemic that kills millions.

They thought it would be the flu, but it is becoming less surprising to anybody that it is something that started with animals, no because people are eating bat soup, but from pigs being corralled with chicken. This isn’t a monkey flu where people are eating bush meat, but chickens and pigs on farmer’s markets. When they talk about where the Spanish flu started in 1919… the war was happening and the countries that were at war were all embargoing information about who was sick and what was happening.

Because Spain was neutral, like Italy now, it was the one country where the press wasn’t muscled, and all of a sudden in the world’s newspapers there was all this data coming out of Spain where people were sick and that is how it got described as the Spanish flu. There are different speculation about where it started and one of them is a US military base in Kansas where they had pigs and chickens corralled together and a chicken gets a bug, passes it to the pig,… it is how flus get going.

Like so many apocalypse scenarios, at one point we are going to open the door to whatever mall we are living in and walk out into the bright new day into a different world. How different is that world going to be? It is possible that we walk out and there will be a siren giving the ”all clear” signal and the crisis is over, or it is possible we walk back out into a world that is radically different. That is the weird thing inside some of us that is waiting for the big earth quake. John has been waiting for the big earth quake in Alaska or Seattle for his whole life, he has been told it could come any time, just as it has been with nuclear war, and it becomes a companion who is here all the time.

Every time you put a glass down at the edge of a table your earth quake friend goes: ”Boy, I am going to have fun knocking that off when I finally come!”, but what to do with your pandemic companion and how much you can isolate your feelings in addition to isolating your body and your breath, that is the thing that Merlin had 10 more days of than John has, knowing where your feelings are. You have so much empathy for people to the extend that you have 50 different directions that you are naturally empathetic. Merlin and John are podcasters and if there is any job that is going to survive the short term it is them, but what survives the long term? They are already socially isolated and working from home.

Making a collective effort (RL374)

John has a lot of friends who don’t work this week and they don’t have three weeks of pay stashed away somewhere. How do you factor that short-term empathy against the fact that 250.000 people in Seattle could die? Just hearing from Italy that they are making triage-decisions about who gets gaws (?). You have to figure out where you can be useful and how you can avoid being a crazy person because this is just the beginning!

John wonders if he and Merlin are helping by recording this show, but Merlin thinks they are. Everybody is different, everybody has different needs, and what everybody can afford to do is to just not be awful to other people. Two Chinese restaurants in Oakland closed last week because people stopped going there. Also almost everything they said in that very good episode of This American Life that came out today could be replaced with: ”Please find quality information and please follow it!”

One of the great things about the JoCo Cruise was that in a crisis we adopted new protocols, but life went on. New protocols are surprisingly easy. What John takes away from the news is the failure to recognize 3 weeks ago that we needed to be doing what we are doing right now is going to produce greater hardship, but doing what we are doing right now is going to prevent even greater hardship three weeks from now. This is not a time for black and white thinking, but a time to minimize losses and damage to the extend possible, even if that feels frustrating.

In doing so there are all kinds of alternative futures that we are working to ameliorate and that is exciting. If you had said 4 months ago that we would be able to accomplish that so much of American work energy would be both voluntarily and collectively re-channeled to work toward a common cause, not just against a common enemy! You wouldn’t have believed that any 5 Democrats could agree on what kind of pizza to get, and now we are in this new world and will potentially come out the other side with a work-from-home economy for a lot of people.

The case for universal basic income (RL374)

We have politically been debating the idea of a universal basic income and that has not surfaced to the level that anybody is talking about it in bars yet, but it has been a political volleyball for quite a while and among political savvy people it is a platform, it was Andrew Yang’s biggest plank and has been bandied about for decades. Here we have a real-world situation where a universal basic income is what stands between true disaster for millions of people and what could be a situation that people could hunker down and weather.

A whole crazy aspect of this situation would be manageable that right now is not and something has to happen. You can’t have 250.000 people dying of the flu and 900.000 people dying of starvation. Something is going to happen and it is going to be a clusterfuck, but it is going to produce in the main a sudden awareness among an awful lot of people about what an universal basic income is, why it works to our advantage, how it is actually more cost-effective than a dozen methods we have of helping people. It is an example of collective understanding of collective action and it may be that this is the thing. John is not saying that there is a silver lining to this yet.

It is going to be a jolt to the system and it is up to us, individually and collectively, to decide or contribute to what happens as we get through this and when it is over. It may not be over until there is universal healthcare and until there is a real sea-change in the way we operate. The doom-and-gloomers and the people looking for conspiracies are worried that we are going to come out the other side and there is going to be a lot of totalitarianism.

People calling to postpone the election (RL374)

John read in a threat yesterday that a lot of people are calling for the election to be postponed and a lot of other people are warning to not give Trump any ideas, a response John wasn’t anticipating, but the last thing you want to do is hand over the power to postpone the election to someone who has so little interest in maintaining norms as Trump. Do we hold an election where actually going to the polls is not only dangerous, but an act of social irresponsibility or do we try to find a way to postpone an election where there is nothing that our current despotic ruler would like more or do we develop an online election system in a slapdash last-minute way during an era where we are all terrified that even the ones we have worked on for 6 years are hackable or just junk?

If it weren’t happening under the shadow of the possibility that hundreds of thousands of our neighbors are going to die, … some of that will be what historians will look back upon as being most interesting about our time, how we figured stuff like this out. It is an opportunity stake!

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