RL434 - John and the Girls

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John was in a rolling bubble, referring to his road trip to Ohio when they were avoiding all the heat waves, fires, tornados, and crazy storms that were all across the country and were like in a rolling bubble.

The show title refers to John going on a 16-day road trip to Ohio with all the women in his family, including his mom, daughter, and sister.

The audio starts with a 3-second clip from the song Fingertips by They Might Be Giants.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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

Rearranging the cables of your TV- or computer-setup (RL434)

It had been a long time since they last spoke and when Merlin came in this morning there is something not working in his Macintosh computer setup, something with a connection and as James Burg told us: Things get connected to other things and then you can’t tell where the failing connection is. They had agreed to push their recording time a little, and Merlin found himself singing aloud a line from a They Might Be Giants song: ”Everything is catching on fire” (from the song Fingertips) Jerry Lewis covered that. Merlin texted it to John, but put it in quotes so John wouldn’t think he was literally on fire.

Merlin was listening to Lindsey Buckingham (from Fleetwood Mac) this weekend.

When you are play live and you have a Charles Bissell (from The Wrens) style pedal setup you might have little junctions and stuff, but basically there is a signal that goes from a guitar to an amp, called the signal chain, and you can troubleshoot it and check if the battery in your BOSS stopped working, but Merlin has something much more quantum going on because some things are powering other things and some things are moving signals to other things, there is so many things accumulated and plugged in and he tries not to touch it, he could probably use a cable audit.

He is very close to pull everything apart and putting it all together again in the TV area of his house because it looks like the goop coming out of the dude’s head in Alien when he is just a head. Everything is just pouring out of the credenza. When John does that he goes all the way to coiling the cables and essentially putting them away before he rebuilds it out of what feels like brand new parts. If you don’t go all the way down to unplugging from power sources you are not going to discover how many wall warts and power bricks are attached to nothing and haven’t been for years.

Merlin likes the idea of channels. In data centers for example it makes sense to have a big tray in the sky through which all the ethernet cables pass. John thinks that wireless charging is going to do away with a lot of that. He is making an investment in wireless technology at the moment.

John having been on a road trip to Ohio with the whole family (RL434)

Both John and Merlin were traveling. John is sitting here with a cough and it is the first time since more than 2 years. The quarantine has been for more than 1.5 years now. Merlin remembers that even in the first week of March 2020 he thought they were still going to do their Disney trip for Spring Break at the end of March and John just went off on a cruise and as soon as he left they closed the door and there were no more cruises. Merlin asks Alexa and it has been 532 days since 2020-03-01. John has had zero colds since then and he normally marks his passage through time based on quarterly colds.

John has an upper respiratory vulnerability, he had a lot of unrecognized allergies as a kid and he spent a lot of time with people putting cats in his face, which is what you do in the Northwest if a kid is feeling down, and all his bedding was feathers. John was allergic to cats and other things, including Louis (see RL324), which is why he kicked him out in the morning and he ran out in traffic and got hit by a car. John hasn’t had a cold since the beginning of the pandemic, which is one of the best things about the whole experience, the one bright side of this global catastrophe.

Driving 8500 miles away from natural catastrophes

John was just on a road trip, which they had talked about before (see RW221), but he had not mentioned it during the time leading up to it. He just drove 16 days across America with all of the women in his family, which sounds like the next Netflix limited series ”John and the Girls”, they drove across 21 American states and 8500 miles of driving, a lot of 8-hour driving days. His mom turned 87 on the trip, his daughter is 10.5, and his sister is alternately 10.5 and 87. It was a lot!

There were various heat waves, fires, tornados, and crazy storms all across the country and they just stayed out of all of it and went to a part of the country where the opposite was true and it was unseasonably cool, like in a rolling bubble. They had a wonderful experience except coming back into the Northwest they hit the wall of fires, the new normal.

John endeavored to never drive on an Interstate: The 5 ladies, 16 days, 8500 miles, and no Interstates. America is a wonderful country and John is looking forward to the Biden administration rolling out their infrastructure package, in particular there are a couple of road in Illinois that he has personally earmarked for some work that need to get done. He doesn’t often miss being on social media, it has been really great to not Instagram things and to feel liberated from this dirty impulse, but in particular US Highway 24 across Illinois he really wished that he could harness the power of social media: ”Illinois Department of Transportation, what can I do as a traveller to encourage you to improve the road conditions on Highway 24?”

His sister wanting to drive her own car behind him

As they were gearing up to leave John’s sister recognized in her heart that all of them in John’s truck with him as the captain was not going to be possible for her and she said she was going to drive her 1997 Prius, nicknamed Soggy Doggy because it has had so many wet dogs in it. 1997 was the year that didn’t exist, it is not actually the model year. John found this proposal ridiculous and he didn’t want her driving along behind him like the little red UFO in Close Encounters.

The desire to have all problems find a solution and that this solution be a greater understanding of what is true and real rather than a bandaid style solution where you decide not to talk about a thing. John doesn’t like to agree to disagree, which is the heart of the problem. If he has a problem with somebody there is a truth and somehow they have not found the place where they are both standing, and John doesn’t subscribe to the notion that you can have your truth and he can have his truth coexisting with each other. You either have a reality or you have a problem.

Over the decades John and his sister have realized that they cannot arrive at a truth, it was an issue he had with Millennial Girlfriend, it happens with a certain small segment of the people in the lives he has lived. He can sit here all day and say: ”Explain to me again and let me see how I can work with what you are saying and make it square with what I am saying!”, but it just never does because it is a shifting target.

Over the last year John has increasingly come to a place where he goes: ”I get it now. What everyone is saying is that it is easier just not to fight!” because it is impossible to agree or disagree because there isn’t even an agreement on what it is that they are trying to agree or disagree, it is so far back up the tree trunk to the point where you are having conversations like: ”In this instance I can just point to science!” - ”Science is a social construct!” - ”I got nothing, then! We can’t even agree on what science is!”

In the case of Susan in particular the longstanding issue between them is a multi-headed Hydra and she says: ”I am going to drive behind you for 8500 miles in my Prius where all the check engine lights have always been on” because he had talked to a guy and he had said it was fine because it was just something that needs tightening. John cannot be Red Leader in this formation of two, because: ”What the fuck?”, but over the weeks he realized that he cannot be the manager, all he can do is get his craft from hither to dither and if Soggy Doggy ends up in the Mississippi all he can do is be there to help.

John’s mom buying a different car for the trip one day before they left

Somehow his pride and dignity gets involved: ”How can I possibly let this be this way? How can I live in a world where this is the situation?” But at the 11th hour, the day before they left, his mom called him and said she had found a car and she wanted him to come look at it with her, but he was not going to go with her to a used car lot 12 hours before they leave to drive across America, neither of them are hagglers, and although she claimed she had been looking at Corollas for years John had never heard of it. Why wouldn’t she take Susan with her?

John was in the process of packing the truck with all the supplies they were going to need, 8500 miles, 21 states, what are you talking about? You are going to go to a car lot today? 4 hours later they came to John’s house in a 2016 pink Toyota Corolla with 30.000 miles on it. At least the check engine lights were not on, it is a nice beautiful car, John’s mom was very excited and made it sound like this is a thing she had been working on, like: ”I finally found the one!” They are not doing this at him or about him, but they are doing this in their own universe that is not related to John and the road trip and the truck and all the bags and all of the special food everyone needs that he is the process of putting in the car.

Six hours before they left across the United States… it is not a trip that has no framework because his other sister Susan in Ohio said that he needed to be there at 9am on Friday, there was a hard tentpole, a midpoint with a time bracket. Susan brought an air filter, a standalone plug-into-the-wall appliance that is 4 feet tall that she needs, and everybody had a bag like this, like his daughter wanted to know where she could put her sword. They set out on this trip with them behind John in his mom’s new car in a convoy of two. John’s truck is not that old, it was a new purchase for him not that long ago, and they had this brand-new unknown unknown.

Difficult family dynamic between John’s mom and sister

Off they went and immediately it was apparent that John’s mom and sister were locked in a battle of wills and they are in a car and they were fighting about something as old as the Gods. Susan was driving and even though their mom at this point in the story was 86 years and 356 days old she was very proprietary about her car, it is her new car, she wants to drive it, she doesn’t want John’s sister to act like it was her new car, but they were back there and John was up here and he was avoiding the Interstates. Let go and let God!

He needed them to know that if their part of the convoy falls apart he cannot put their Corolla on his roof rack and they will have to work it out. Of course in the event that anything happened it would absolutely fall to him and they would all look at him and go: ”Now what?”

In his early 20s John had a good friend who tried to lay the groundwork in all of his relationships for the ”I told you so!” moment because he really believed that if he came to a point in the relationship where he could point to some earlier thing where he had said: ”X is so-and-so”, that was going to protect him from demons and it was going to usher him into the kingdom of heaven, but nobody has every improved a friendship by saying: ”I told you so!” and it certainly doesn’t help in relationships. There is no preparing anybody for the future and John is not saying: ”Let’s look at this situation in order to one day be right!”, but he is just saying: ”Off we go, but I can’t drive two cars at once and if your relationship breaks down you cannot both retreat to me truck as a safe space from one another because someone still has to be over there piloting the car!”

Marco Arment uses a phrase that became very meaningful to Merlin: ”It is not my fault, but it is my problem!” The story in John’s family is that it was often described as also being John’s fault and he is looking for it to be his fault even when it is not, which is one of his disabilities. In this case they were only three days into the trip the first time that one of them came over to John in a parking lot while he was pumping gas, and said: ”I can’t ride in that car with her anymore!” - ”Okay, what do you need?” and for a while he was able to say: ”Why don’t we have the little one ride over there and then you can ride here?” It is like the story of the fox and the chicken and the grain crossing the river.

John’s daughter speaking truth to power

John’s daughter also has no fear about speaking truth to power and they always knew it, but she is now making a transition to teenage life where she is an authentic person and when two people are having a conversation and one of them says something that doesn’t track, she all of a sudden takes her headphones off and goes: ”That is not what she said!” and in this family that is treacherous ground. But of course she is the star, the center, because she is the only child and she is everyone’s center. For the center to not just be the one who says: ”More chocolate!”, but ”Actually, what you said was this!” and not be wrong it changes the barometric pressure in the cabin.

If John would say the same thing they would be back at: ”Well, you reality is different from my universe of perpetual fight!”, but his daughter does not have a side, she doesn’t have a perspective, but she is just sitting in the middle of the room, going: ”That is not what you said!” She also has her own agency in the sense that she will also say: ”You said there was going to be a swimming pool at this hotel and there isn’t one!” She has real strong feelings about how things are going. She has so many aspects of members of John’s family in her in the most inconvenient way.

At one point she said: ”Dad, today no missions! I am done with missions and everyone else is, too, they just won’t tell you. No more freaking grave yard!” - ”Well, but… ” - ”No more missions. Not today!” He snuck in another mission and she was giving him the eye-rolls that sounded like trucks locking up their breaks on the Interstate.

John’s sister wanting to fly home, him resolving the situation

By day 4 or 5 of 16 John’s sister told him that she was going to fly home. For the first time in John’s life he no longer had any personal investment in being right about anything or being vindicated, his pride was no longer involved in any of this, there was no dignity to maintain, but all that needed to happen was that he cares for everyone and showed them care and got them from here to there in a feeling heard and cared for. Nobody was trying to hurt anybody, but everybody just had their own hurts that collided with other people’s hurts. If you are stuck in a car with somebody for 9 hours pretty soon somebody say: ”What do you mean by that?” and off it goes.

They were standing in the middle of nowhere and John’s sister said to her mom at the top of her lungs: ”Here you go again, abandoning me again at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere!” and she is not wrong, she has been abandoned at truck stops before, who hasn’t? At one point John Vanderslice pulled over in the middle of the night at a bus station and kicked a guy out of his band in Nevada or wherever because had heard one word too many. And her mom replied, also at the top of her lungs: ”Who is abandoning who? You are the one who is leaving me out in the middle of nowhere with a car!”

John was in a posture where ”I told you so!” played no role, and he had no feeling of: ”I could have told you this was coming!”, but he had a situation. He had the ladies, he had these vehicles, he had a target, and he had resources. No-one was attacking him, his hurts were off the table, and they needed him right now. Normally they will look at him and go: ”Who is right!”, but now they also have the little one who will go: ”I can tell you what you said!” John suggested that his sister, who was crying, should by herself follow him in the car and he will take mom in the truck.

They spent a day driving across the Midwest, and she is the best follower in terms of two cars on a Highway. Merlin needs walkie talkies in this situation because so much can go wrong. John thinks that his sister should work for the CIA because you cannot shake her off, she has a set of skills that no-one else has, even when he crossed 6 lanes of traffic and barely made it to the exit. She is also looking and sees the truckers. We have lost a lot in American trucker culture and a lot of cultural memory in Interstate trucking is gone. John and Susan have a long-standing feeling that a trucker has to prove by their behavior that they deserve respect. You can see the truckers who know what they are doing from a mile away.

Susan is so good to work in tandem to thwart bad truckers and to make the world safe for good truckers. It is great to have her in the rear view mirror because it makes John feel not insane. They were not on the Interstate, but on 2-lane roads and they were dealing with an entirely different class of trucker. What are they even doing on Highway 24? Being on I80 is a zombie apocalypse. They used to have rules on there, but it is all gone.

Making it through 21 states

John got this crew all the way around in 21 states and got them all home with relationships mostly intact. He didn’t do any problem solving where traditionally he would have been trying to mediate. He didn’t so that, he just did what is very alien to him and it felt a lot like ”agree to disagree”. He was trying to get them to the next graveyard where grandpa Harold and auntie Emm are buried, who was the one who burned down the farm and that is how they ended up in the windmill business. His mom was marching off, looking for the headstone and his sister would pull in behind them, listening to her Madonna album or got out of the car skulking, and John made no effort to insinuate himself in between their hurts.

John didn’t pretend, like: ”Okay everybody, great! Let’s go!”, he focused on the mission, but he also didn’t ignore her sister and he wasn’t solicitous, he didn’t go over and say: ”Are you okay, baby?”, but he would go over and have something to talk to her about. She was in an emotionally heightened state, but she could still listen to the story about some great-great aunt and it was like a balm, something calming, and then back in the car and off they went to see the other place.

By the end of that day the two of them were standing on either side of some old library and they started to talk to each other. Over the course of those 16 days it happened 4 more times and each time he earned more trust the longer he demonstrated he was going to care for them both and he was going to get them to the next hotel that hopefully fucking had a swimming pool because he was going to hear about it: Too many missions, not enough swimming pools!

They went to beautiful Zion National Park in Southern Utah, they went to Tulsa that has now been rebranded by John’s daughter as Tusla. They spent the night in Paducah (Kentucky), they saw all the Bugs Bunny places, they went to Peoria Illinois, spent a night in both places.

John wishing for a light heart

It feels very unprecedented for John emotionally because it is exactly the realm in which he and his sister are always at odds and by the transitive property it is the realm where he has lived his whole life without access to a light heart. Somebody asked him not that long ago: ”If you could wake up tomorrow and one thing would be different about yourself!” and John said without putting any thought into it: ”I would like to wake up with a light heart” and later he sat there, hearing that echoing around, and found it telling that of all the things that was what he wanted.

Merlin would forward to life more if he could wake up with a light heart. It should be doable! John is not asking for millions! He was out there for 16 days, and none of the emotional struggle was about him or coming from him. He was just trying to find a cheesesteak restaurant and he was in a place where he had for the most part a light heart the entire time because he had missions and he could see that there was emotional trouble all around, but he stayed out of it, he was useful and a valuable member of the team, and that is all he wants. He does not want for anything but a light heart. It can’t be impossible to find!

This is why this feels like a watershed. He only drove into his driveway at 10pm last night and he got 6 hours of sleep. He wasn’t processing while it was happening because he had 9 hours of driving to do and all these graveyards to find and all these ghost towns and stuff. It was a mission of missions! Merlin says that meditation is like standing on a bridge, watching traffic go by and trying not to get into any of the cars. John wasn’t just sitting in a bus station, listening to a couple argue, but these are his people. His mother, sister, and daughter are his family, it is his universe, and these fights are orbiting around the sun of all of his own struggles and he is often cast in the role of the sun.

John’s sister admitting that she was the problem

John wasn’t divorcing himself from it, he just had a mission and the end result was that everyone is better than before. He didn’t just skate along, kicked the can down the road, agreed to disagree, but they actually grew as a unit and everybody knows more. On the last day John’s sister came into his hotel and John said: ”We did it! We made it across the country in 2+ weeks, this isn’t something anybody would have done, it isn’t what normal people do, put your family in 2 cars and drive through 21 states, and everybody is fine!” - ”Yeah, but I am ashamed of my behavior!”

She had never said that in her whole life. ”I was the problem!” John doesn’t believe she has turned some corner where all of a sudden they have a shared reality because tomorrow there will be a different thing and they will be back to their patterns, but in this instance no-one was yelling at her, she wasn’t yelling at him, and partly it was in the cold light of his daughter’s eyes if you had asked: ”Who is the problem right now?” she would just point the silent finger. The problem is not always John’s sister, but sometimes it is that Daddy has too many missions, the finger moves. The judgement of the finger feels non-judgmental, it is just the truth of a child in a world of adults who can see, who listens into grown-ups and has the ability to say: ”Right now you are the problem!” and there is no walking away from it, no: ”You are just saying that because (blank)!” All she wants is to get to the hotel and go to the pool and she would also like a Kit Kat.

Going into it, John did not say very much to himself about his own expectations, but he knew you cannot go to Yosemite the first week of August, you can’t go to Yellowstone the first week of August because it is a 4-hours wait to get over to Old Faithful, but you can go to Devil’s Tower and they were also going through Rapid City South Dakota the week before Sturgis. You can go to Sturgis and watch the Carnies setting up their Harley windmills. You got all the Sturgis without the Sturgis. It is lovely to see a bunch of Boomers on full-dresser motorcycles riding in groups 30 around the Sitting Bull Monument.

Merlin says that in life you have to realize whose trip it is and evaluate what your role is. If you don’t like going to strip clubs, then don’t go to the strip club, but don’t go to the strip club and be a dick because it is not your trip. You are not allowed to protest about the things that are exactly the way everybody else wants it to be. There are times when you are better off to just not go than to be the drag and to always make everything about yourself.

John’s daughter’s mother wanting to know where she is going to stay that night

John’s daughter’s mother wants to know where they are going to stay and in all of his travels John has never really put any premium on knowing where he was going to stay. When it is time to lay your head down, find a place to lay your head down. In trying to manage the show he realized that the amount of stress and anxiety that will be in the space if they don’t know where they are going to stay that night is not worth the tradeoff of missing some tiny corner of a potential mission because they were trying to get to the hotel on time, and he made sure they knew where the hotel was every day.

She had booked a spa on the Navaho reservation, but John felt they should be looking at what they were seeing and not looking at the clock because they were not where they were supposed to be, but for the most part they knew where they were going to stay and it brought a lot of comfort and relaxation and it was not John’s method, but he completely surrendered and at the beginning of every day he asked her to tell him where she wanted him to go. She felt that pull to find a cool that is build in a windmill or where all the rooms have a different color, like a Madonna Inn, or to just find a regular edge-of-town hotel with a pool and a free breakdast [sic].

John wasn’t delegating it because it wasn’t his position to delegate, he just said: ”You tell me where to point the craft!” and in between here and there he would find enough archeological sites and places of interest. There are graveyards everywhere, except in San Francisco. His family has enough sorted history across this country that if you point him to any county between Boyle County Kentucky and King County Washington he can find some uncle that did something terrible and is buried on the edge of town.

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