RL396 - Yreka Bakery

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: We were ruining the world, referring to us imagining that we were going to fly in these extremely polluting jets all around.

The show title refers to a former Bakery in the city of Yreka whose name is a palindrome and the city name possibly coming from a Bakery sign with a missing ”B” read from the backside.

Merlin was having a very good morning where he has been sharpening the saw, doing things, and learning things. Then he got a ”beep!” from his friend John Roderick, but Skype told him that CallRecorder was uninstalled again and he had to deal with that, but nobody cares. Merlin asks so little!

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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

Wildfires in California, changing weather in Seattle (RL396)

It is labour day and it is very hot in San Francisco. In Seattle it is uncharacteristically hot, but by other standards that would just be a nice warm day of about 85 degrees (30 °C). Looking at the situation in other parts of the country, this is one where Seattle has to take a knee and not just be like: ”Hey, it is great weather in Seattle! Haha!” People in Los Angeles are ”burning up burning up for your love” (lyrics of Burning Up by Madonna) and in San Francisco people can’t breathe. Merlin complains, but who would listen?

The whole godforsaken state of California is on fire right now and it is weirdly smokey outside. In Merlin’s part of town it is notoriously great fresh air because the ocean washes it. If it is 91 degrees (33 °C) it is rough for people in Marin County, while 91 degrees where Merlin is, San Francisco broke its record yesterday, and it feels like 1000 if you adjust for inflation. 91 will make 105 look like 87. People in San Francisco don’t have air conditioning because they don’t need it most of the time.

Nobody has AC in Seattle either, or at least used to. When John was a kid it never got hot in Seattle, it rained all the time, it rained in the summer, every once in a while there was a dusting of snow, but in the last 10 years all of a sudden it is 95 degrees (35 °C) several times during the summer. Where did that come from? John’s mom had a little pool in the back, one that could hold an adult, and her rule was that it had to be 80 degrees (27 °C) to go into the swimming pool. They would sit in the kitchen, staring at the thermometer, and even if it was 78 (26 °C) she would say that it had to be 80 to go into the pool.

John’s mom obviously didn’t like kids, but it was a struggle in the 1970s to go into the pool as much as you wanted, but now sometimes it is 80 degrees for weeks at a time. Still, 80 degrees does not compare to 118 degrees (48 °C) and Seattle has been lucky with the fires this year, although the California fires are so bad that Seattle is going to see smoke from them this week and their air quality is going to go to shit. Merlin feels like it should stop at the border. Mount Shasta is not doing its work and it should hang over Eureka, or Yreka.

Yreka is a place you can’t avoid and you don’t think you are going to end up there as often as you do. You think: ”Yreka, hahaha, what a nutty place, funny funny kind of place, Yreka!” (lyrics referring to a David Letterman song about Bermuda). Eventually you feel like you know the place, like you ran away from an ex-wife and live there for a while, and it would be a good place to being sheriff if Twisp won’t accept him. Once you passed through the city of Weed you are in the shit all the way to Cottage Grove, Oregon. People think of the mountains of Southern Oregon, the Umpqua National Forest as some little thing you go through, and when you come to Medford you think you have made it because it is a town, but there is much worse to come. You think that at Grants Pass you are at the top of the pass, but it is terrible. This is Interstate 5, the West Coast’s gnarliest freeway.

Yreka is the place that the toe truck takes you back to when your truck catches on fire, the place you are going to see if you ran out of gas, it is the place where you just have to stop because the road is bad, it doesn’t matter if you are going North or South. Sometimes you have to stop there when the pass is too gnarly and California Highway Patrol is like: ”No! Hold there!” and it is also where the smoke should stop, but it doesn’t. Merlin doesn’t know any of the Notable People on the Yreka Wikipedia page (Internet science page), but he finds it lovely that there is a section called Palindromes talking about the Yreka Bakery.

Things not coming back as before after the coronavirus quarantine (RL396)

Merlin’s family has a wishlist of things they are going to do when / if the current lockdown situation ends. For months John was feeling like he was managing this quarantine well and that it was fine. They just started school, which is its own fresh hell, but they got through the initial bumps. Now John started to feel that travel was such a part of the structure of his life, but he hadn’t realized it. His friends are all over. Merlin is in San Francisco, he has friends in New York, in Los Angeles, and after being a touring musician he became America’s new Charles Nelson Reilly and is called upon places to do things and has to get on a plane, trying to keep his miles up, and that feels like another world now and in its absence it is like a missing tooth.

John didn’t quite get that when the thing all shut down and then stayed shut down. He hasn’t been to Seattle in weeks because it is fully 9 miles from where he currently lives and he would need a reason to go there. John misses New York way more than he misses Seattle. It is also on top of Merlin’s list. The people who have been living in New York this whole time want to get out of there, but it is different for those who are only in New York sometimes. Normally John doesn’t need a reason to just go there when he want to see what is going on there, but now he can’t go there, he can’t go to Los Angeles, just all the places, all the friends, all the things.

When the pandemic hit, Delta Airlines was a bit cagy for a few days and then the started refunding tickets and as John’s tickets and travel arrangements came due they decided to cancel those, too. Right now John has 6 major plane tickets, a couple of them international, that are just sitting in a Delta bank somewhere and Delta is pretending and John is presuming that one day soon the Delta bank will open and not only will those tickets all be there without penalty, but that John will want to go do those things and be re-invited to do those things.

John was supposed to go to Japan, he got asked to go to the US Army War College which he was so excited about, but they told everybody that they are automatically invited for next year. That other thing in Alaska was not going to fly him up there and treat him nicely, but they still had to do it and they did it over Zoom. The whole experience was very positive and John loves the organization and the people who work there, but part of what made it hard was that John really wanted to go up there, meet them, go to dinner with them, and hang out, and the Zoom experience was only bad in relation to what he had imagined was possible.

John doesn’t see the Delta bank opening one day and he saying: ”Wow, I have all those saved-up trips and I can’t wait going!” People in the music business don’t think that 2021 will be the year. The questions we are asking each other is. ”What would it take you to go to a Creeper Lagoon show?” Merlin thinks about this so much and his at this point his imagination is so impoverished! The question is not only what happens next, but next after next. A bunch of tech companies have announced that you can work from home until at least June of 2021. Last week Merlin’s wife was informed about the same deal. She doesn’t have to come back to work unless she needs to for something like pick up her calendar that still says March on it.

So many things are just going away. The whole idea of business travel and tourism that has been the tentpole of so many pieces of the industry. Merlin doesn’t see himself seeing Creeper Lagoon for a good long while, not at least because his family and people like them are the sin-eaters for the maskless youths right now. They are trying so freaking hard to do all the right things, and then you see other running around and half-assing it at best. He doesn’t want to hang out with people who make poor decisions that affect others.

All the restaurants, catering, the bars & clubs, we are going to take a hard look at all the reason we congregate in a Downtown. Some of those businesses are not going to be able to wait this out or transition, but the whole premise that we want to live and work on top of each other because it is good for efficiency and business and it is where we want to be because we are social creatures and we want to squirm around in our hive and rub against each other, John has always felt like that was the same as museums being open from 7am-3pm because they are catering to their mean audience, which is people between 75-79. Why aren’t they open at 8pm?

Why should you still live in a city when all the great things are gone now? Vashon Island (RL396)

A lot of the great stuff you could do in San Francisco has been gone for months now and in some cases it is gone daddy gone. If you could make 6 figures working from home, why would you do it somewhere where you are stuck in a one-bedroom apartment that is $5000 a month when you could live in Lake Tahoe that is getting super-overwhelmed with people wanting to buy houses right now while the number of houses on the market in San Francisco have increased 100% year over year. You could move to a place where you could get a really nice house for a price that is two years of rent in your current place. Why would you stay in a place like this if you don’t have loyalties with roots, schools or churches.

John bought a house a year ago and during that process he was looking at Vashon Island that is a very short ferry ride away next to Seattle, a long thin island in Puget Sound that stretches from West Seattle almost to Tacoma. There are ferries at both ends and there are even ferries at the West End that take you over to Kitsap County. It is a very developed island in the sense that all the islands in the Puget Sounds used to be farming communities and gradually the waterfront property turned from little humble two-bedroom cabins to big handsome mansions and big ugly mansions. The centers of those islands are still very bucolic and like a trip to the past that you vaguely remember. There is still a store at the crossroads and the porch of the store is wood, there is a jar of candy…

After a while the main street started to get fancy restaurants where they served you pickled ferns at Baron Bread and everybody thought they are amazing. ”Is this your first time dining with us? We do things a little bit different here!” Everybody is excited about those restaurants and they are terrible, but luckily the ice cream store and the pizza parlor are still there.

John was looking at places on Vashon and it is not super-cheap, but it is 10-15% cheaper and it was always a joke in the old days that the Vashon Island real estate agents made a lot of money because every year people would move over there and buy a really cool big house and they would live there for a year and realize that the ferry boats, although they run every hour on the hour, are actually a very tenuous connection.

When people say: ”Hey, come to my show!” you have to drive a half hour to the ferry boat, wait for the ferry, take the ferry over, it is just a lot of resistance and in the end you never leave the island and people go crazy because there is just this one place with the pickled ferns, one ice cream parlor and a pizza parlor and they need to get out of there and they sell the house, but now in the pandemic if John hadn’t bought a house a year ago, he would have considered Vashon much more seriously because he doesn’t go to Seattle anyway!

The night John and Merlin met they went to Oakland to see a Rock’n’Roll concert, but how rare is that even for them as Rock’n’Roll people! Oakland is pretty far away.

Merlin’s street car being converted to busses (RL396)

The street car outside Merlin’s office stopped being the street car and has quite a while back been replaced with busses. This is the slow dissolution of a huge benefit to where Merlin lives, which is that when he moved there in 1999 one of the great joys was being so close to a street car that takes you Downtown. It was always amazing! In the time before Lyfts it was just great to go on the train to go Downtown and have some Korean Barbecue and see a Marvel movie at the mall or go to the art supply store with the Japanese stationary.

Pretty early on during the lockdown they said you can’t pack people into a street car that also goes underground and months ago the street car line was replaces with busses. At the same time they started monkeying with the way the routes work. Each route used to be its own route, you used to get on at Embarcadero and go all the way out to the zoo, but now this is no longer a train but a bus and the bus stops at Sunset and you have to take a different bus from there.

Finally mid-August they were going to bring back the street cars on a similar crazy schedule and you could go from Merlin’s house to West Portal and transfer to something that goes into the tunnel. It is already not fun, not cool, not easy, and any time you have a transfer in public transport you triple the chances that it is going to go tilts up. They reopened the street cars on a Saturday and already on the following Tuesday they had to shut it down again because a driver had gotten sick, and now they are shut down somewhat indefinitely and there are going to be no street cars until at least the end of this calendar year.

Is that a big deal? It is for a lot of people and it takes the bloom of the rose for Merlin who loves where he lives. It was one of those little benefits that is gone away now. The train he used to use to go to things is no longer a train and there are also no things to go to. They say that a bus is better because it is more costly to run the trains, it takes more expertise in different kinds of drivers, it had something to do with social distancing and it probably also gives them more flexibility. It is one of those examples where as soon as you start prodding at that a little bit you see so many different effects. What about the café that is by the street car stop? Not doing so great! So many factors are changing, it is difficult to explore any one of them without opening up 1000 timelines.

Urbanism and the new reality after coronavirus (RL396)

That first ring of suburbs with all the mid-century houses were no suburbs prior to 1945 until a massive flight from the cities in post-war America called white flight because it was mostly white people. The cities in America became impoverished, falling apart, burning, broken windows because of an escape from the cities, not because of a virus, but because people discovered that their automobile allowed them to live in a place with a lawn. Now we are going to see a different version of that.

In the best case scenario the virus resolves itself and we manage future viruses better. If it is finally true that a certain kind of commerce, initially high-level white-collar commerce, but eventually any kind of intellectual commerce where you can have a set of skills that you can translate through a computer, can be done anywhere, then all of the questions we used to have when you were driving through Banff or Great Junction Colorado and you wonder why not everybody lives there, all of a sudden people are going to, and that is going to tax infrastructure.

John had a guy come out for the septic system the other day because being home the timeline where a septic system needs to be maintained suddenly was quadrupled because there are three people that never leave the house and all the people who normally poop downtown are no longer pooping downtown, but they are pooping in their houses. There are all these poop pipes that are devoted to people pooping between the hours of 8am-5pm in a certain extremely concentrated set of poop towers, and now those are gone, but that poop didn’t go away, but it all just moved out to the home poop pipes. The same was true for Internet bandwidth.

During the last 15 years there was an urbanist movement of Millennials with a drive to move back Downtown, which is why San Francisco is so crowded: The urbanists, the mustache waxers, don’t even want chickens because they want to live in the center of Downtown and the idea was that there will be much better public transport, you will get on your bicycles, and all of a sudden incredible restaurants appeared in Downtown where there were none or at least no good ones before. It was an environmentalist mentality, a cultural movement to move Downtown.

During the peak of that John talked to a lot of people who speculated that the McMansions were going to be the new inner city, the new ghetto, and a 6000 sqft (550 sqm) house half an hour from Downtown is suddenly going to be occupied by 3 families. It is going to be Doctor Zhivago, except different and for different reason, the flip-side of white flight because white flight is going to be directed to the inner city. Houses like the one that John’s mom had bought for $180.000 was suddenly worth ten times that, but you were going to have a complete flipparoo and you are going to have incredibly weird visuals of mansions in the suburbs decaying like the housing bubble in Florida where houses were worth $900.000 nine months ago and now they are all on fire. The old luxury was that you had to drive into work and the new luxury is that you walk to work and the new poverty is that you have to get to work from your burned-out suburb.

As they were building public transit in the 1960s it was designed to bring people into town from far away, but now it is concentrated local transit like Merlin’s neighborhood that is close to town. The poor neighborhood are suddenly relocated to the outskirts and one of the byproducts of urbanism was that this became the only place where people who work service industry jobs, maintenance staff and hotels can live, but there is no transit to these places.

It is the same as with online education: Just because you put the word ”online” in front of it doesn’t mean it is easy, and in this case it could be a very different kind of public transit that requires a very different infrastructure and you might be building out something for 10-20 years in the future, reflecting what you know or think about 10 years in the past. The SFO airport was in the midst of getting big upgrades, but pretty soon they had 2 windows open in the whole place because the number of people flying per day went down by 90%.

In a way that is great because we were ruining the world by imagining that we were going to fly in these extremely polluting jets all around. John has an app called Flight Tracker 24 that is a crowd-sourced plane spotter app that allows you to look at any plane in the sky and immediately know what it is, where it is going to, where it is coming from, and you can track its flight back in both directions and there is a photo of it and if you upgrade to the paid version you can even know the name of the pilot. If you zoom out you can see every plane in the air in the world. John sits sometimes and looks at Schipol Airport in the Netherlands and watches the planes come and go.

What John has noticed is that so many of the planes in and out of Seattle over the course of a day are cargo. Amazon is running planes, there are 747s flying back and forth to Taipei every night 4 planes a night. John doesn’t know what are we shipping from and to Taipei that needs to come by airplane. Merlin has read that just Apple alone was accounting for a lot of flights to China and back and that is another thing that is going to change a lot. But even when no-one was allowed to go back and forth from anywhere somehow 4 flights a night were going back and forth to Taipei and 4 cargo-jets a night were going back and forth to all kinds of locations.

The urbanist dream was a world where you could work from home and all these Downtown office towers would get converted to apartments for cool people who could live down there and who wouldn’t use pollutions and who would eat pickled ferns and it would be freaking amazing and we wouldn’t worry that much if the old neighborhoods of McMansions were now 5 families to a house and they had to commute for 1.5 hours to get to work. That we were going to solve later, as is true for all problems.

Can you imagine a world were the WeWork tower in San Francisco sits there empty like freaking Detroit, where all of Downtown San Francisco is just wind whistling through the broken windows of the Pan America tower? There has been story after story about all of the small businesses that service the financial district. You came out of a comedy club, like after doing Roderick on the Line in that one under the bridge, and then you go outside at 11pm and there were tumbleweeds in the best of instances. The McDonalds in the financial district closes at 5pm, which would be unheard of where Merlin was from. Everything is 24/7 in Florida. This was true even back in the normal times, but now it is a little bit like a ghost town.

A lot of that has been overstated and it turns out that cities emptying out is not entirely true, but in an economy that was more marginal that anybody wanted to realize it doesn’t take that much damage to be a nearly fatal blow to several ecosystems.

Last night John was talking to his friend Josh Rosenfeld, owner of Barsuk Records, because they had a socially distanced family event where their kids joined them around a campfire and they roasted some wieners and they had s’mores and everybody wore masks and it was very cute and USA America. They were talking about the fact that in the course of their lives they had several different careers. There is no way John could have predicted when he was 22 what he is doing now. He thought he would never have a job or a house and nothing would ever work out. Even when he was 32 or 42 he was still having the same thoughts.

There is no way to know what is going to happen in 10 years, but he is very doubtful that he is still going to be doing what he is doing now, whatever that is. Right now he is no longer asking himself: ”When is something good going to happen?” because right now things are good. He got a 9-year old who has just started to be a pre-teen and he doesn’t know what 4 years from now is going to bring and he is not sure he is ready. His job is fine, his situation is fine, but 10 years from now when his daughter is 20 and when John is in his early 60s and the cities are whatever they are and John is whatever he is, he has never before looked at it the way he is looking at it now.

Madonna’s spectacular 2000 record Music is considered her last truly great record, but it certainly was the last Madonna record that swept the nation. John was tweeting about it. At the time people talked that she was 40 years old now and it was crazy that she was still sexy and she was still doing it. We are further from Madonna’s Music than Madonna was at Music to the beginning of her career. The equivalent of time would have been Video Killed the Radio Star (song by The Buggles from 1980). Madonna was incredibly appealing to John at the time and she is still appealing to him now.

John made an off-hand comment to Ben the other day: ”Who heard a Radiohead in the last 5 years?” - ”Radiohead continues to make amazing music and every 6 month they put out something that redefines music!” - ”All right!”

In 10 years John and Merlin will be in their early-to-mid 60s and they don’t have retirement or savings. John started with the aging daughters, but now he has crossed a line and Merlin doesn’t find this game funny anymore. You have to be excited about it because they are the cockroaches that survived every apocalypse! Cities are not going to go away, but they are absolutely going to be re-envisioned because no-one John knows has any real interest in ever doing it like we did it and those restaurants Downtown are not going to be what they were and the sewers are all going to be really stressed.

John started this episode sounding like a Richard Hugo poem and he is about to end it sounding like a Godspeed You! Black Emperor song! ”I open up my wallet, and it is full of blood!” (lyrics of The Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You! Black Emperor)

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