RL394 - The Colonel

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John didn’t have the Montessori balls, referring to John’s daughter sitting on Zoom calls at home while the teacher is holding up balls and boxes that they don’t have at home.

The show title refers to John wanting all kids to call him Colonel, but he is not a Colonel and he doesn’t want any stolen valor.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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

Going back to school, getting a new principal at the Montessori school (RL394)

Merlin sounds really fresh and clean. His daughter is back to school. It is not clear yet how much of the 9:30-3:30 day will involve Zoom, but a lot of it will. She likes the advisory teacher, which is like homeroom. Her school has done a hell of a job doing what they can to make this good. Every kid got a Chromebook and you have to use the school Chromebook, so now Merlin has two Chromebooks in his house and he is covered with shame. He is trying not to be fretful about it because as the dad he is supposed to be the positive cheerleader rock of a man. Merlin explains what a Chromebook is. Merlin hopes it goes well and he can’t imagine being on video with people that much each day. She is starting 7th grade and having to be on video calls all day is better than going into a building, but it still sucks. She is repping her cool blue Star Trek engineering shirt today, which is a very strong look.

The governor of Georgia (Brian Kemp) is a piece of shit, and John would change a lot about it, but he loves Georgia, it is a nice state with mountains and a nice view from Peachtree, but you don’t want to do go to Stone Mountain anymore. The mayor of Atlanta (Keisha Lance Bottoms) is a real pistol, as his dad would have said. Merlin spends most of his afternoon catching up with what is happening with COVID and in Gwinnett county in July right before they opened 260 staff had to be quarantined. There was a photo by a student at a High School showing a crowded hallway.

John’s daughter hasn’t started school yet because Washington is still in the real world where school doesn’t start until after labor day. They were told until 3 days ago that their charming little Montessori school that was going to Montessori their way through this, it is like Jesus can help you to not get COVID and Montessori can also help you to not get COVID. They were going to just have in-person classes and it was going to be fine because each student was going to have their own room at the school and they were going to cover them from head to toe in petroleum jelly at the beginning of the day, but then on Friday the new principal came out and said they are not going to have in-person classes because it seems like a bad idea.

They are pivoting on Zoom-classes, but they haven’t been working on it all summer because they were convinced they were going to be in person, but it is going to be great and they are going to scramble. The problem is that it is not just the thing you were doing, but remotely, but it is a whole different thing. COVID arrived in the midst of our infrastructure already having been pushed to the limit and budgets cut and there are not a lot of resources, runway, or expertise to go online.

First they were going to go back in and scrub the desk, as if that does fuck all, but oh wait: Now we are going all in on online and we are going to develop that curriculum, it is just teaching, what is the difference? The Royal Navy had young people scrubbing the desks for centuries and they conquered the world. They unseat Spain as the great maritime power and initially that was largely through scrubbing desks. The younger people start with scrubbing desks and then you will end up with Horatio Nelson. They were also covered with petroleum jelly. John’s faith rests in the long arc of history, as it always does.

The new principal at John’s daughter’s school wasn’t a surprise. They had hired a principal last year, a very decent young fellow who was charting a new course, with a young family and a child on the way, he was fresh-faced and charming, from Scotland and their accent makes everything seem smarter and more elegant here in America in the Northwest, he is going to put it all in the Cloud and John liked him a lot. In order to take the job he was commuting for 1,5 hours from a neighboring town, he was in the car all day, and halfway through the year he announced that he was going to take a different job after the school year. That was pre-COVID.

Then the COVID happened and John’s daughter’s teacher last year was not up to the task. Everyone at the school understood that they had done a poor job of hiring by hiring a teacher that was very young and not ready to teach a class and she needed to go back to Montessori school probably and start over again. Merlin wouldn’t hate to have a Montessori school for grownups. You get colored blocks and you get time to make tea in the day. It is a small school that didn’t have the resources to deal with the fact that they had hired the wrong teacher. John knew after 10 minutes of meeting her that she was not up to the task and all year long they had to suffer with that.

John’s daughter had been to Montessori for 3 months prior to last year’s summer and the teacher she had then was the seasoned veteran that John loved immediately the day he met her, but she retired over the summer and was replaced by a new teacher that at the end of this last school year was fired. Their initial COVID experience was terrible because that teacher was doing the thing where the Zoom meeting started in 5 minutes, but the code was wrong and none of the kids could get in and they sat and stared at their computers for an hour and after an hour she sent an email: ”Oh, sorry about that. I had an emergency, my mom’s cat got its tag tangled in the cat litter!” while they were sitting there with their pencils out, ready to do whatever the assignment was.

This year John’s daughter was moving up to the next level of Montessori class where the teacher was a deeply experienced Australian, another accent that Americans like to hear. There are places in the world where people will recognize that Australians are all hippies and hillbillies and it wouldn’t convey intelligence and sophistications like it does in America. John is going ham on the British protectorate. Victoria Falls? More like Victoria fails! It just camouflages their complete incompetence. They had it and they blew it.

This teacher was the heart and soul of the institution and finally after a year and a half of being in this school they knew that they were hiring a new principal, but John’s daughter was going to have this experience with this teacher and John had faith that even under COVID protocols she would put that Lawry’s Seasoned Salt of education on what his daughter was going to experience as a newly minted 4th-grader, but in July they got an email that she was going to go back to Australia after living in America for 25 years, probably going back to finish her sentence.

Suffice to say, John’s family is paddling hard to keep their head above water, and the solution is that the new principal who was announced right about the time that the teacher announced that she wouldn’t be in class, at which point they threw up their hands and thought that the school is falling apart and they can’t keep doing this. The new principal is also going to be the new upper elementary teacher, which could be fine, but now it is also happening on Zoom.

Merlin notes that people in New York and San Francisco and other places are paying $5000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment for their tech job to be nearby and because they like restaurants and theater and all the things, and it does not take those people with money and tech jobs a lot to realize that they can work from home for their Google job until next summer and why are they paying $5000 for a room they can’t leave. There are certain kinds of things that are not going to do well now and in the future, one of them being if your thing involves high level of interactivity in a closed space. If what you are doing can become a vector for spread right now it is going to be rough, and playing with blocks on Zoom is not what we are looking for.

Having big plans about a natural upbringing of your child (RL394)

When John’s daughter was in vitro a long time ago, you look over to your partner, saying: ”We got a baby coming! What are we going to do?” and there is some rustling around, some buying of little sailor outfits which were not because you want to put her in the Navy, but because they were cute. John was walking around, thinking what he is going to have his daughter call him. He would like it if she called him Colonel, but he is not a Colonel and he doesn’t want to have stolen valor.

Merlin would like to call John Colonel from time to time. John was sincere about this and all children should call him ”Sir”, which is totally reasonable. Maybe ”Herr Doktor” would be alright, or ”Professor Doktor”, but unfortunately he has not earned any of these titles and also unfortunately he could not create a world where any of the kids called him Sir, he is lucky enough just to be called Daddy.

They had all the best-laid plans of parents of our time, like they intended to use cloth diapers. Merlin was also all in on this racket. So many industries in America are predicated on an emotional predatoriness and they only begin to make money in certain situations. How do we get you angry, fearful or ashamed? It is the whole basis of Clearasil. Then there is this whole racket of giving parental advice and trying to make this mom to be feel like shit, doubt herself and "Let’s undermine the idea of probably success at every turn through a series of purchases you need to make!" Merlin was going to try the whole natural thing, which is a cult that they then ended up not going with.

A lot of white people of means having their first kid do all kinds of crazy shit and over-preparing and they ignore the advice of somebody like Matt Haughey who had the single greatest piece of advice, except the whole ”catch up on your sleep”, which is not a meaningful thing to say to an adult. He said to get a bunch of diapers and a bunch of onesies. Everything else is optional. Don’t try to buy your way into parenthood because it won’t work and you are going to end up with a lot of stuff that you just have to give away because it only has relevance for a short period of time. Don’t buy a $90 Ramones onesie because they are not going to be able to wear it in a month.

Looking at the first six months of your baby you cannot know that there will be a time 4 years later when the child is still a baby. John was not a hippie, his parents were not hippies, his brothers and sisters were hippies, but they didn’t respect them in the house, but John’s daughter’s mother’s parents were big-time hippies and she was raised as a hippie. You wouldn’t know it by talking to her, she is very capable, she is a professional person, but her mom made her own clothes until 8th grade, she never saw a television, not even through the window of a house as she was driving by in a car, until she was 16 years old, she never tasted chocolate, but it was all carob.

Even though she made the transition to normalcy and she recognizes that some of that stuff was crazy and she should have been able to taste chocolate before she was 19, there are other things that really lodged. One of those was screen time. She never wanted her little girl to have any screen time and she barely has had any screen time. There is not very much computer in her life. There has also never been sugary pop, although she takes sips of John’s sugary pop because she can’t tell him not to have a Ginger Ale.

There were a lot of things, cloth diapers being the first one that they tried, but they believed that they were going to speak Spanish to her every day, that they were going to teach her how to juggle at a young age. One time they ran into a young dad at a park when she was 2 and he had a 2-year old. The park was in Kirkland, Washington, a neighboring town to Bellevue, Washington, the tech capital of the Northwest. It is where CostCo is based, it is a very healthy bedroom community, very close to Redmond, except it is on the lake, so it is nicer. He said they come to this park every day at 1pm for 25 minutes between soldering lessons and Chemistry for physical education.

He was a tech person, he couldn’t have been 30, and he was talking about the education and upbringing of the child and how the child was in the 99th percentile already at age 2, and over the course of the conversation two things happened: John and his daughter’s mother were looking at each other and thought it took everything just to get to this park today and they are not teaching their child Chemistry, they don’t know what percentile she is in, they just barely made it to this park. Also, this young person came gradually to the understanding that having their children play together was going to injure his child because John’s daughter was so not a high achiever that she wasn’t speaking French to him and so on.

Merlin calls it ”sweaty” when somebody is so sweaty to make a dad joke, for example. He once met a mom who was so sweaty to always bring everything back to how well her child was doing. In this case you just say: ”Wow, Daenerys is really smart! That is great! You are so full of shit! You and your husband obviously hate each other and you think this baby is going to save you, but the baby is not going to save you!”

You will find out that the process of being a parent is one by one abandoning all your best-laid plans for how you are going to have a nature baby and you are going to speak French to her every day. John doesn’t want to put diapers in the landfill any more than anybody else does, but cloth diapers is a terrible thing and John has never met anybody who ever went all the way through with them.

John having thought about homeschooling his daughter (RL394)

From a time before his daughter went to school he started to consider what it would mean to home-school. He speculated about childhood education for many years and for decades he felt like they needed to reform the schools because the schools had done a poor job for him and he had a good sense of what needed to happen. Their good friend at the time Dave Bazan, his wife embraced home schooling and she was going to stay home and he was going to go out on the road and make the money and bring it home. He was going to bring home the bacon and she was going to fry it up in a pan. ”So that is how it is in their family!” (reference to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

She went the whole nine: She has chickens, she plowed up the gras in their suburban home and turned it into a victory garden, she utilizes the local homeschooling network, she did all the things! Watching her John’s initial reaction was: What if she, Ann Christine, just taught his daughter, too? They both were raised in an evangelical context where they didn’t just go to public schools. Where Merlin is from, homeschooling is almost synonymous with religious nuts. Ann Christine is extremely smart and has given those kids a first-class education, but she works an 18 hour day with those kids.

John was wondering if there was a way to homeschool his child where he can continue to be an artistic loafer dreamer who goes for long walks and looks out at the world, but also his kid gets a first class education. It turned out at least when she was young that that was not possible. John had the resources, he had his mom who was really hands-on with the baby when she was little, but they ended up sending her to school because to be alone with a 2-year old all day from the morning to the night is like being hit repeatedly with a nerf bat where the first few times you are hit with it you are laughing, but by the 5th time you are: ”Okay, knock it off!”

One of the surprises was that walking along a creek bed with his daughter, it wasn’t going to be like Tom Sawyer where she was going to say: ”Daddy, let’s look under that rock!” and John wasn’t going to be able to open the rock and say: ”Oh, do you know what that is? That is genus sparcificus!” and she wasn’t going to initiate a curiosity of what snails were and he wasn’t going to be able to say: ”Hey honey! Look over here! Don’t you want to know what this snail is?” because she was going to go: ”No!” because she had her own life. She was being curious wrong. John could tell her all about the French revolution, but she was just: ”Nope!”

Now John is back up against it in a couple of different ways: 4th grade was key in John’s history in school because that is when he departed from the trajectory. Up until 4th grade he was a kid that excelled in school because he was in the 99th percentile and the only demerits he ever got all had to do with socialization, and everyone was assured that he was going to be a superstar, if he just got this socialization component.

In 4th grade John started to feel like school was not all that it was crept up to be. The adults didn’t know what they were talking about, homework was baloney and he shouldn’t have to do it, and all the ideas that ended up causing him tremendous grief for the rest of his life all started to manifest hard in 4th grade, it was when he left the path and never got back on it. John remembers 4th grade and his daughter is going to remember her current situation, but what can he do about it?

John is now on the threshold of thinking very seriously that he will have to home-school her for 4th grade. Even if they keep the Montessori as some kind of beard, the actual school is going to have to happen at home. Last year trying to do this over Zoom was a breakdown in tears every day because there was some disembodied face on there, holding up some little boxes and balls that John didn’t have, saying they can find the worksheet on Seesaw, and they didn’t know what the hell a seesaw was, so John was just going to teach her long division, even though he knows that Montessori math is different, but it is the only thing he knows.

John went online and found a very reputable text book company and ordered a whole suite of 4th grade workbooks across all topics: geography, vocabulary, language arts, math, story problems, biology, all the things, a big stack of them, because there is no harm going to come from working through these books with her. Whatever Zoom call they are on is going to be hard to parse and incomplete and John doesn’t want school to be a theater where they sat on a Zoom call for an hour and it was excruciating, so school is over for the day.

John talking to his daughter about puberty (RL394)

Last night she had a hard time going to sleep, as usual, and John said: ”Sweetie, has momma talked to you about puberty?” - ”Not really!” - ”Have you heard about it?” - ”It is something that happens when you are a teenager!” John was freelancing here, not having talked to her mother about it, and he had been reading some book that said that some kids started puberty when they were eight, while John didn’t start puberty until he was 17 because he kept wearing that flight suit and you can’t get a boner in a flight suit.

You could tell that she knew there was something to it, part of it might be that the word ”puberty” sounds like something you don’t want to talk about. John told her that it is something that happens when you are a teenager, but it starts sooner than you might think and it is going to be a transition that is one of the biggest things that happens in life. Part of growing up is what she has been doing: Eating a lot of food, reading a lot of books about Star Wars, and you get bigger. A lot of people would think that if you keep doing that one day you will be a grown-up and someone would hand you the keys to a car and then you would have a job in government.

For a lot of people that is kind of what happens, but one of the reasons that daddy is strict with her sometimes is that he wants her to have more than just the skills that she would naturally acquire by eating a lot of food and reading books about Star Wars. There are other things she needs to learn, and sometimes she doesn’t want to learn them, but she needs to know how to do long division, for whatever reason, nobody does it anymore, but John does it in his head and that means that she is also going to learn to do it in her head.

But puberty is a thing that has happened to every person and it is wonderful, but it is a very different experience than just eating a lot of food and growing up. Things start to happen! There is so much negative energy around it and everybody is afraid of it, which is why John wanted to bring it up to her. If the first time you talk to her about it her mom sits her down in a hard chair and pulls out a pad and says: ”Here is your future!”, gets out a whiteboard, a book called ”Your Changing Body”, and a crucifix… It is part of this whole thing in America that we don’t talk about death and about sex, and adolescence is this thing that terrifies us all and we fill our kids full of terror.

The only way John’s parents talked to him about it is by buying him some book and he couldn’t get far enough away from that book. In other countries they just give the kids three glasses of wine and show them Emmanuelle in Paris. As John was telling her that it is a transformation that happens in her that will take several years and she will start to have all kinds of new powers and responsibilities, her feelings change, and part of the reason he was talking to her about it is that he can see that she is starting to have intense emotions.

It is all part of what it takes to go from being a child to being an adult and a lot of people make that transitions without any help from the adults around them, and he wanted her to know that she is going to have as much help as she will need. She was pulling the blanket further and further up under her nose and was looking at John with these eyes like he was telling her the craziest ghost story she has ever heard. It sounds really intense and it is, but every single grown-up you have ever met has gone through it and it is going to be a big part of her life from the time when it arrives on little pad-feet until she is 50 years old like John and still wondering why it went so badly.

John was completely shooting from the hip, but they needed to start talking about it in a way so that the first puberty conversation is not one where she gets the whole palette dropped in her lap all at once, although it never going to be casual. It is just that we talk about puberty now in addition to talking about Star Wars. Merlin feels like we are all taught to be ashamed of a lot of things and to do everything we can to never feel that shame and to act like we are tougher than we are, and never be vulnerable.

Merlin was told to stay the hell out of this conversation by two different people in the house. Why is it such a big deal? He wishes there would be an Ann Dowd character from The Leftovers and The Handmade’s Tale, some kind of a stern older middle-aged lady with long hair, maybe an Australian who sits them down for the talk in a very candid way without any shame. Merlin does not want her to be Carrie (from The Leftovers) and he is worried that she is going to be in the shower and they are going to be throwing tampons at her and they are going to laugh at her, all because he never sat down and talked to her about pads.

The only shame John wants to impart in his daughter’s life is that when he is eating something he does not want her to come and take that food off the plate. She has a very strong food drive and if he sits down to eat something all of a sudden she will appear over his shoulder, like having a pet that hears the crinkling of the food. She is savvy enough that you first catch a glimpse or a shadow of her and then she comes into frame and she knows to be holding something, like: ”Daddy, could you help me put the battery in this?” - ”Mhmm, this doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I am eating a little bowl of leftover noodles?” - ”What? No!”

”Because it is funny, I have been sitting in the living room for 1.5 hours, watching you trying to put that battery in there and you never asked for any help, but now that I have a little bowl of noodles, all of a sudden I am the most important person in the room” - ”I have no idea what you are talking about!” If there is food being consumed she does it every time, like some snake charmer thing! She is not going to get any noodles, no matter what she does! If she came in and handed him her piggy bank and said: ”Daddy, I love you more than anything! I want you to have my money in exchange for one bite of noodles” John would still say: ”No!” Other than that, John was so covered in shame and he doesn’t want her to have any shame about anything and of course that is very difficult.

How do you discipline a child in any way that keeps her from eating by knocking her plate on the floor and then getting on her hands and knees and licking it off the floor. Merlin doesn’t want to transfer his own unnecessary anxieties to his kid because she is going to have her own anxieties and hangups and shames. It is more a question of how you deal with the ones you have rather than acting like they don’t exist?

How to not have your kid be afraid of math (RL394)

One of the things that we all have to deal with, and Ken Jennings is dealing with it too, is how to have a child that doesn’t naturally love math no learn to hate math and associate math with the worst feelings they have ever felt. There are kids who are off doing math when no-one is watching, while most of us have the experience of sitting with the child and explaining how to do it and they go: ”I don’t get it! I don’t want it!” That math experience can drag down the entire school year. When John is trying to demonstrate to her is that in the course of a normal day you have to do math in your head up to a certain point.

John has never done trigonometry in his head, but you have to do arithmetic including fractions, long division, multiplication, and word problems. They come up every day, like if you are supposed to meet somebody at 2pm and you meet them 15 miles away, but you have to stop at the grocery store and you only have $11. How are we going to solve this problem? You figure it out in your head and it involves all the different things that you are trying to teach a little kid. It is not that you need to be able to do it because you are going to be tested on it, but it makes life so much easier and it really is just as important as any other core set of skills because you don’t want to be the one when somebody asks: ”How many years was it between 1815 and 1892?” - ”I don’t know!”

Merlin heard a recent interview with Tig Nataro on the podcast How To!, and she was specifically talking about how she was always struggling with math and how it is really hard and her brain is just not wired for math although she is obviously a very intelligent person. One day she was working in a waitress job and was having trouble counting up the change and person she was waiting on said: ”I am glad my tip can help fund you going to college!” and carried that with her for years.

Every day John’s daughter comes to him with a math question, she just doesn’t realize it is a math question. Like: ”How old were you when I was born?” or ”What age were you when momma was my age?” John loves that stuff! Merlin has gifted John a spreadsheet for those kind of questions. You can love spreadsheets and not be a fan of maths! John actually had to learn a little bit of Excel because he wanted to add other people into it and he couldn’t get it to calculate, but all he needed was to do a couple of very simple key commands.

Colleges and universities needing a reform

The world being shut down over the last few months has for John and a lot of people been a net-positive, but our absence is not helping the people who have to do it have any better conditions and the Top 10 billionaires basically all doubled their money in the last 4 months.

This might be a better way to raise a kid, too! The problem being of course that kids want to play with each other. The one sector that Merlin thinks is so overdue for a revolution is colleges and universities. When Merlin went to college in 1986, many centuries ago, it cost $5000 a year for everything, now the idea that you take all of these contributing factors… there are so many fewer careers of any kind for 80% of the country.

Merlin made up his own major and it was called Cultural Studies, but $5000 in 1986 to do literature and cultural studies is not such a bad deal, he got some pretty good jobs after that, but today would he go to a school for up to $60.000 a year and take out $250.000 in debt to write a very narrow undergrad thesis on cultural studies with a concentration on infomercials on TV? That doesn’t sound like such a great bargain right now. It has gotten way too costly and so many Millennials are so impossibly deep in debt right now to be able to publish listicles for Buzzfeed. It is time for a serious fucking rethinking of the entire college system.

Yesterday John read a tweet where somebody said that one of the ways to make elite universities more equitable and accessible is to eliminate all legacy. Who cares? Elite universities? Who gives a shit? The whole idea that going to Yale… God bless the people going to Yale and one of our good friend’s daughter is going to Yale this fall and it was a big deal when she got in and there is nothing bigger than getting into Yale and John wishes it had happened to him or that he had ever applied, but beyond that? That could have been the pathway to at least being The Colonel and of course possibly becoming by fiat the retired director of the CIA. Can you imagine a pathway to John being more insufferable than if he had gone to Yale? We really dodged a bullet there! It is like Jackyl and Hide, except John would be more like a giant Colin Meloy with a greater vocal range. He would be the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man of Colin Meloys.

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