RL395 - Talismans and Memories

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: There’s no subtext to anything in the suburbs, referring to there not being any subtext out where John now lives, but it is all text. A hat is just a hat and a Hawaiian shirt is just a Hawaiian shirt and is not encoded with the Boogaloo movement, which it can be in other parts of the country.

The show title refers to John selling his house and moving because he didn’t want to live in the same house for 25 years and gradually suffocate under the weight of all of his talismans and memories, but he wanted to reinvent himself.

Raw notes
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Show anniversary / artisanal pottery (RL395)

Merlin greets John with Mr. Guy, BMOC, and counselor. Happy anniversary! Capt. Mariam texted John yesterday and told him that 9 years ago on a night just like tonight John was a guest on Back to Work (see BW31), which was the pilot episode to this program. Merlin didn’t get John any gift, but the traditional gift would be a ceramic bowl and some artisan pottery. John loves that stuff and earlier this year he bought some artisanal pottery because he was moving into a new house and he wanted new artisanal plates. A lot of people in the Northwest are throwing pots and make plates that don’t stack and bowls that can’t nest and John is there for it all!

The Japanese call it Wabi-sabi: The errors make it fun. They went around with this recently in Merlin’s household because his lady friend has been desiring new bowls, but Merlin is more practical in this regard and is a karma-suck about the bowls. He likes consistency and a thread that runs through all of his issues with organization is that he wants to just grab something without having to think or unstack. It might be his version of wanting a girl with combat boots or keeping a small bag packed. He should never have to move anything to get to anything (Adam Savage’s principle of First Order Retrievability).

As ET would say: ”We are ready”. Merlin wants the pans to be deployable. ”Kiss the pan! The pan kisses you! Only English people can fly” (reference to Mr. Show) Merlin still thinks about Mr. Show quite a lot. He doesn’t have any self-control for these things and when the vice president announced: ”A familiar friend of mine might be stopping by today” he instant thought of the video of the giant face of Tankerbell appearing on stage and then he talks to the guy with Limber Legs (see here). You can’t unsee it! They were so far ahead of their time!

Having all your clothes be the same (RL395)

Merlin is pretty close to having his clothes be Steve Jobs clothes where it is just a closet full of the same clothes. He buys all the same underwear and socks, he wears the same pants every day, and the only thing that really changes is his undershirt-T. Then he usually wears a long sleeve shirt over that like a Mack Weldon shirt, who has been a sponsor of this show for a long time. They have a delightfully wide palette of colored underwear and socks and when John has ordered from them he always gets a different color of underpants and a different pattern of socks, so that now his underwear drawer looks like a bag of Skittles.

John has lived in a mono-color underwear and he never wants to go back, but he wants his underwear to be all the colors of the Maracas (?) of Brazil. It is so much more fun than what Merlin is doing because Merlin always buys the same color of underwear. There are many aspects of his life where he really thrives on a certain kind of existential or visual chaos, but like with the pans, Merlin wants to be able to stick his hand in the drawer and pull out a fork without having to think about it. This is what The GAP accomplished: If you were a Trad Dad you can just march in there and get 6 pairs of these khakis and 6 pairs of these polo-shirts. There are other parts of his life that are much more interested and he likes John’s, which is fun. He wears fun shoes, he got fun outfits, he will even wear a bow-tie, he is a super-fun guy who is painting with such a palette and has so many options.

Sometimes John wakes and waits for the announcement what the uniform of the day is. If he were a chaotic evil person his underwear drawer would have boxers and briefs and G-strings and Tighty-whities, but that is basically an underwear drawer full of found underwear. For a while John had 3-4 different kinds of underwear, like traditional boxers that flap in the wind, boxer briefs, briefs and a few pairs of German underwear, but as time went on the German underwear all got stolen by girlfriends and the boxers don’t fit under skinny jeans, so little by little…

John has at least historically had a reason to require different underpants. If he is going to wear an airy seersucker suit topped off with a straw boater, the appropriate underwear would be some all-cotton boxers. John had a phase where he was wearing tight pants and they don’t go with a boxer. Their late great friend Leslie Harpold used to say: ”I don’t like buying toys for my toys!” and sometimes that is what it is because you need a different brasier to the thing you just bought.

Hawaiian shirts being coopted by the Boogaloos (RL395)

Merlin wonders if John still listens for the announcement about the uniform of the day and if he is still a fun dresser amidst these difficult times. At the top of the quarantine John was already working with a reduced palette because all of his stuff is in storage and he is working out of a bag. He had moved in with his daughter’s mother with only two duffel bags full of everything and in the fall he was prepping for the two things he normally does in the winter that involve different clothes: Sketchfest is just fun clothes that you wear, normal stuff, because John is not Paul F. Tompkins who goes to Sketchfest in a 3-piece suit and has a different hat for every hour.

But there is the JoCo Cruise and John spends a couple of weeks in Hawaii every year, so he knew when he was packing in September that he probably was going to need some stuff for both those things. He packed a bunch of Hawaiian shirts because he had decided several years ago that old Hawaiian shirts were what he was going to wear on the JoCo Cruise and when he is in Hawaii. He pulled all that off and came back to Seattle in March and went into quarantine and during that time of the year in Seattle you just wear a sweater and a rain jacket, and when it started to get warm towards the summer he threw on those Hawaiian shirts again.

It was great because John could wear Hawaiian shirts 9 months out of the year, but then of course the Boogaloos came along (see Boogaloo Movement) who are for the most part are wearing Hawaiian shirts they got at Walmart, they are not vintage and they are not reverse prints. The same is with the incels and the fedoras: They are no the right hat, they don’t look good, but all of a sudden John got self-conscious about going out into town in a Hawaiian shirt because it is never about the connoisseurs that you see across a crowded dance floor and they go: ”Ho, nice!” - ”Thank you!” and then they never want to speak to each other again because they have seen each other, but you don’t want to unintentionally want to rep white nationalist hanky code.

Wearing Hawaiian shirts around his neighborhood, he is in the suburbs, and there is not a living soul out there that Boogaloo even exists, maybe except for a few dads who are in their garage tinkering. This is just a place where people are mowing their lawns and there is no subtext to anything in the suburbs. It is just all text. John would not wear a Hawaiian shirt to Capitol Hill and walk around in a Fedora with a Tiki Torch and be like: ”These are just my normal things! I don’t know what you are all upset about!”, but every time he put one on, even just around the house when he was not going to go very far, he was like: ”Ah, man!” 85% of John’s shirts that he has not in storage are Hawaiian shirts and he wears them around the house and over to his ravine where nobody can see him.

The only problem is that sometimes he has to go to a store, and the hardware store is probably one of the places where you most likely will get an okay sign. It is complicated! John doesn’t have enough clothes to not have to fall back on Hawaiian shirts. Because every Boogaloo who is wearing a Hawaiian shirt is also wearing a Flak Jacket and Oakley sunglasses John is unlikely to be mistaken for one of them, but you never know.

John has been collecting these shirts for over a decade. Millennial Girlfriend not only left in the middle of the night and took John’s Filson bag, but he also had a closet full of clothes at her house that she somewhat insisted upon including some of his best Hawaiian shirts because she was living in Venice California. As soon as she got back there she took all of John’s stuff to the Goodwill on the first day. If those shirts could speak! Some guy is now walking around Venice Beach in a bathrobe and one of John’s old shirts, looking like Nick Nolte in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. In recovering from the trauma of that relationship John built up that catalog of Hawaiian shirts again and he was not going let this keep him down.

How thrift stores have changed over the years (RL395)

John was concerned somewhat that he was doing shopping therapy and he doesn’t want to just buy things to make himself feel better, but he had just lost this thing… collecting Hawaiian shirts is a fool’s errant. Every thrift store you go into has 50 Hawaiian shirts, but 49 of them are garbage and the 50th one doesn’t fit. Thrift stores used to be just a place if meditation for John, but now he hasn’t been in one for 6 months.

In Merlin’s heyday of vintage from 1984-1990 he was forever going to the thrift store and where Merlin used to live it was often donations from somebody who had died and a lot of those men were very small. Merlin is a pretty little guy who is close to the mean for America, he is 5’9” and change, back then he was maybe 145 pounds, and he had trouble finding stuff that fit. Johns journey has been one of struggle and of American sticktoitiveness where he had a program and stuck with it.

Thrift stores still have that one smell, and John has never been able to tell if that is insecticide or whatever it is. It is a combination of artifacts of time and existence, basically like a German Philosophy book. There is a lot of Zeit und Height und Blutendungsramen and Weltanschauung, a little bit BO (body odor?), a bit of death, some mildew, Old Spice, Bay Rum, racism, CK One and a lot of yellow pit-stains. The big difference between when Merlin and John were initially shopping in thrift stores in the 1980s and now, is that in the 1980s all the stuff in thrift stores was from the 1950s and 1960s.

It was also local before it became professionalized. There was a line of J.C. Penney shirts called Paul Westerberg Shirts, old subtle blue and green Glen-plaid grandpa shirts that you could pick up with short sleeves for $2 and long sleeves for $3. Now you are getting stuff that is sourced, which is the opposite of farm-to-table. John thinks that in Seattle most of the stuff is local, even though it is professional, probably also in San Francisco. The thrift store corporations are regional entities and Goodwill in Minneapolis is so disconnected from Goodwill in Seattle. What does get shipped overseas is the stuff that doesn’t sell, which is why you see African kids in Dukakis shirts, or shirts with Superbowl XV.

When John was in Romania he was walking through a village and a little old lady was coming the other way in a Rugby shirt that said University of San Diego. Everyone in the village was wearing American cast-off stuff and someone had come recently and had brought them free clothes and everybody came and took some clothes from this pile. This wasn’t just the recent Superbowl stuff, but these were clothes from the 1980s and 1990s.

One crazy night when John and Merlin were together John needed pants for something. They went to the Goodwill in West Portal and it was super-upscale and everything was $14, $20, or $30. The stuff that can’t even be made into a bathmat ends up on a barge and goes somewhere. It is the cycle of life. It comes from China and it goes to Romania or to Gabon or something.

In the 1980s even the stuff from J.C. Penney in 1959 was made in America out of fabric that was sturdy. You still see clothes from that era where you can tell the history of the garment just by looking at the repairs that have been done to it over the decades. They put patches on this and wore the patches out and it is still a garment that is not just worth owning for its utility, but now it is Wabi-sabi.

From Merlin’s daughter’s Halloween costumes to most searched fetishes by state (RL395)

One of Merlin’s spreadsheets is his daughter’s Halloween costumes. He always writes down who she was etc, she has been a tomato, a lady bug girl, different Marvel characters, and Taako from Adventure Zone. In 2014 and 2015 she was contiguously the Harry Potter character Hermione Granger because back then they didn’t have as many problems with the author of these books. In case she ever wants to run for senate, if they will still have a senate, although we should abolish the senate right alongside the electoral college, is she going to get cancelled because she was Hermione? John doesn’t think so. It is a process we are going through, not a place we are ending up. You cannot conduct a culture for an extended period of time where everyone is on blast for all infractions.

Jerry Falwell just likes to watch the pool boy dunking his wife. Last night John was sitting around with his sister and she showed him the map of the United States where every state has its most searched kink. They were learning a lot of new terms, like: What is sounding? John didn’t know that was a thing and it doesn’t sound like fun at all. Pool Boy Cuckolding is a major thing on the East Coast (actually in North Dakota). Some of the darker stuff, not just getting fuzzy handcuffs, does seem to flare up in the most conservative states.

There was an episode of Planet Money trying to find the average American (actually the modal American), trying to use data and statistics to find the most common overlaps. If you take away all the overlaps you are left with the narcissism of modern ballgags. Merlin also looks up a map, but that is not the same one as it doesn’t include Sounding that John mentioned. He looks at Porn Hub statistics instead.

John moving to the suburbs to move on to the next chapter in life (RL395)

The question is now if John wants to code anything, or has he now moved to the suburbs and is all text no subtext? In this neighborhood sometimes a hat is just a hat, while for most of his adult life people would say: ”What is with the hat?” Out there a Hawaiian shirt is just a Hawaiian shirt, but that is not what John had in mind. He didn’t move to the suburbs in order to just surrender, but it was quite the opposite. He had a vision of how he was going to reconnect because he had become stuck in a rut and he didn’t have a clear sense of what his plan was going forward, he has never been much of a plan-for-the-future type of person.

It became clear to John in the last 6 months that he was using drugs before he got sober that he could never think of a path forward. When he looked at his options and thought of all the things he had dreamt of doing in life he could not picture himself getting to any of these places through being drunk and on drugs. It was fortunate that his heart was always big enough to be hurt. He never got drugged to the point where his heart didn’t hurt and he never just surrendered and said that he was a loser and he was doomed and he just wanted to get high, but he was always desperate to get high, but he also had a deeper desperation.

John could see every door closing. It wasn’t just options, but also personally, he was seeing door shutting inside himself, he was unreliably angry, he had sold his own values out several times and it looked like he was going to keep doing that, he was just becoming a whore (?). When John quit drinking and doing drugs he took one step up, but he didn’t have any plan beyond that, he wasn’t getting sober to go to college or to chase a dream. Once he told Merlin that he wanted to have a toothbrush and something that required keys. Having a key on the ring was a big deal. He started playing music, having friends, playing theater, not because he had a plan, but because he had stopped doing the thing that was inhibiting him the most.

When John sold his house, left the farm, and chose to move down there to be closer to his daughter and to pursue a whimsical change in style, it was all a middle-aged version of that: ”Am I going to live in the same house for 25 years and gradually suffocate under the weight of all of his talismans and memories, or am I prepared to reinvent myself, and am I going to reinvent myself by moving to Berlin and getting into burlesque, or am I going to reinvent myself more locally because I have a kid who has 10-12 more years of school?” and it all seemed easy and doable. He was going to come out here and put a certain vintage tile in this bathroom and he was going to buy pottery that was all part of a happening that was artful and encoded and purposeful.

John got here and walked around this neighborhood for a year and realized that these are the suburbs and that is not what is happening behind closed doors out there. Very few people are back behind these Seahawks flags and are thinking about local potters. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people doing it there, but John didn’t move into a culture where it predominates. One of the tradeoffs of moving to the suburbs is that you can have a firepit and invite people over, but you don’t have a nearby café. You are choosing the suburbs to give you the kind of isolation that you want, not the kind that makes you sad.

If you move to The Castro and are interested in local pottery, you may not have people around you that are interested in local pottery, but people who are interested in something. You have Jessie Char over there who decided to make 700 kinds of dumplings (Instagram story) and doing every one of them in a vintage seersucker dress. Nobody in the suburbs are going to appreciate those eyebrows like people in San Francisco do.

She did a whole thing where her mixer was broken (actually a Kitchen Aid) and she was going to repair her mixer, which is the Instagram content John is here for. His own neighbors out in the suburbs are presumably not doing that, but they wake up in the morning are thinking if they should use their leaflblower that day, and the answer is always ”Yes!” It was a trade that John was making partly because he thought he was going to get on his shoes. He was already living in a world where he was schlepping his kid, and having a kid changes everything, you can repair your blender all day long!

John also got priced out of Seattle. If he had a daughter in 1979, but he had his current career, he could have bought a house in his neighborhood on Capitol Hill for $300.000 and he would probably still be living there, but along the way a modest house on Capitol Hill became a million dollar affair and more and John couldn’t live there anymore. Merlin’s house will sometimes hold up a picture of a house and let him guess what it costs, but because it is in Montana it is $16.000. The worst game looking up what your house or your neighbor’s house sold for in living memory in 1998. To buy in San Francisco in the 1970s is pretty wild!

In the 1990s nobody understood that one of the main resources they had and that made them the richest culturally was that there was so much abandoned space. Just think about the Survival Research Laboratories, a performance art group who had a huge compound in the center of San Francisco that was built around making robots out of vacuum cleaners that had flamethrowers on them. That was until the 2000s! You could not do that in Oakland now, but you would practically have to move to Nevada to do that!

John lived in a warehouse, his practice space was one block away and it belonged to them. They paid $300 a month and they had their own building to practice, and every person John knew had either a practice space or a theater space or some other space in addition to their apartment. It didn’t feel like a luxury because those buildings were cold and dirty and had no features and the bathrooms were full of rats, but it was cheap and you didn’t think that cheap shitty stuff was ever going to be hard to find, but now you look around Seattle and it is all gone.

John had to move! Having a kid meant that he was either going to live the rest of his life as a middle-aged dad with green hair who skateboarded down to his daughter’s school, or he was going to have to get out of town a little bit. Now she is almost 10 and John has lived at the farm for 12 years, but 12 years from now she will be in college. That 12 years is pretty compressed in John’s recent memory, it was basically his 40s, but his 50s will be spent here in his daughter’s mother’s house with his two bags, waiting for his other house to get done, and then his daughter is going to go to college.

John doesn’t have 4 kids, as far as he knows, he has never gotten that email that was like: ”Guess what! I never wanted you to meet your daughter because I hated your band, but now that she is 16 she needs a car!” John had a friend that this happened to: ”Now that she is old enough to know, I want her to meet her father and unfortunately for you it is you!”, but John’s friend was thrilled, he had no idea. John doesn’t think that happened to him because all the women in his life are still actively mad at him, so he would have heard about it.

The challenge is always: ”Are you continuing to challenge yourself?” and John has never not felt that if things get too easy he starts to get very uncomfortable. He has never sought ease or comfort, he is not big on autopilot in the way Merlin is who loves autopilot. That is not only unfamiliar to John, but he is motivated by dis-ease and that has motivated him to do all the wonderful things that he has been lucky enough to do. He had to get out of this chair because otherwise the chair will engulf him or something!

John’s mom changes her house every spring and fall. She has a summer house and a winter house, she changes the color of her accent pillows, and she is always in motion that way. John is not! If you walked into his house in 2008 and in 2018, you would find the same couches and paintings on the walls, there would just be more stuff. John is not changing for the sake of change, but if he puts a painting on the wall because it belongs there, he is done and there it is forever. It is the feeling of being motivated by needing to cut trail somehow, needing to leave something behind.

Every time it goes really well for Merlin he is worried that something terrible is about to happen. Maybe it is John’s nature to be suspicious of the comfort that disguises something unaddressed that could be motivating him or pulling him down. He seems like he wants a certain amount of frisson, something that forces him back into the mix at a time when he might want to disappear into the chair. When John considers wealth and what opportunities wealth affords one, and when he thinks about being very wealthy, when he was young he would think that he could do whatever he wanted, but being middle aged you consider it at a remove and you realize that getting to do whatever you want isn’t really that big of a deal.

The more money you have the more you have to confront the fact that getting to do whatever you want is not interesting or fulfilling or even good. A lot of the evil in the world is from very wealthy people who are bored and don’t have imagination. They fill their house up with worthless shit, they go on vacations they don’t enjoy, to own a $50 million yacht is to be devoid of anything that would make you an interesting person. What do you need that for? After you make $50.000 a year they say you are past the line where any more money is going to make you happier because getting to do whatever you want is pretty easy because most people don’t want to stand atop all the peaks of the world and if you do want that you don’t need millions of dollars to do it.

Most of what you can do is pretty achievable to most people. Money is imaginary for the most part. What did John ever want? If you strip away all the fantasies of youth, like wanting a Scottish castle, wanting to walk down the aisle with your beautiful bride Christie Brinkley and drive off in a Ferrari, all of that stuff that you are imagining that one day everything will happen to you, and you get to be middle aged and you realize that not everything is going to happen to you and you are not going to live in a Scottish castle. I turns out you don’t care and you never wanted to, but what do you want? It all ends up being experiential, although not in the sense that you want to see a baseball game in every stadium in the United States, although it seems like a fun thing to do one summer because you would meet a lot of interesting people and there would be a lot of cool stuff that would come along with that.

It is all back to the same question that John has been asking himself his whole life: ”Why am I here? What can I possibly do to justify the food that I eat?” Right now John is lucky enough to have a garden to work in and he has that short term long term of feeling like he is planting this and in 2 or 10 years it is going to be this and it is going to grow and it is going to be there after he is gone. There are people who spend 40 years tending a garden and that is their gift to the world, but for John gardening is much more to create an environment to keep his hands and his imagination busy, but leaving a garden behind is not going to be sufficient to justify all the hamburgers.

Merlin often wonders if there are more things he could do for people who aren’t him. It is why married people live longer and marriages are so important: There is a built-in reciprocity, a built-in sense of what you are building every day is this marriage, this house, this relationship, and the work you do for one another. It feels very much like every day you stay married is another brick in the wall. That sounds happy! Like R2D2 getting that little restraining bolt, wanting to take off. The more your leash grows into your fur, the more your collar is just part of your skin, the paler the skin underneath your wedding ring.

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