RW221 - When I Coalesce

This week, Dan and John talk about:

The show title refers to John feeling like he is made out of smoke right now and when he comes back and coalesces he would like it to be in a form he chooses.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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

Coffee (RW221)

Dan got himself some Crazy Aaron’s Glow Bright Thinking Putty, which is like Silly Putty but bigger. It is purple to celebrate Prince. He is holding it right now to see if it gets the juices flowing. It belongs to one of his children, but now Dan has it here. John doesn’t have any sticky, goopy thinking stuff at all, he just has his thinking coffee, which as Dan guessed correctly is something he made yesterday and reheated in the microwave. He put some Peet's Coffee from the grocery store into a 20 cup Mr. Coffee from 1994 at the earliest and it still makes a lot of coffee.

There was a time in Dan’s life where he cared a lot about the coffee and the beans and grinding different storage methods for it and he thinks he could tell the difference back then, like this one is from a French press and this one is made this way and this was a drip and for this one you used to perk pot from the 1950s to make, this one had a unbleached paper filter and this one had a bleached paper filter. Now when he has coffee he just wants it to give him enough caffeine to function.

John is in his house, gearing up. They are recording this show right at the end of April 2021 and 30 days hath September, April, June, and November, meaning that there is not much more of April to go.

John about to stop eating refined sugar (RW221)

On May 1st, the International Workers Day, John is going to stop eating refined sugar. He has been on a sugar bender for all of 2020 and definitely the last several weeks, he was lucky enough to have a listener from Canada send him an entire case of Jersey Milk chocolate bars to banish the thoughts of Hershey chocolate from my head, and then it turned out they have a listener who works for Hershey in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

They responded with a giant box all across the spectrum of Hershey products from Whatchamacallits to Skors and that really upped the ante. There was a lot of chocolate happening around Easter and John went off the sugar rails, like Sheena Easton’s Sugar Walls (name of a song). She is from Bellshill Lanarkshire, Scotland. She was very good with Prince, she did For Your Eyes Only, the James Bond song, You Got The Look, that is a blast from the past.

John is really about to go through a pretty major shock to the system. He eats a lot of jam and that is one of the things on the list that has to go. A long time ago when John wasn't in the driver's seat of this decision Honey Nut Cheerios got introduced to their home, John doesn’t eat breakfast cereal, but some members of the household do, and John was pretty dismissive of Honey Nut Cheerios and he looked it up and it turns out it has nine times more sugar than all of the other breakfast cereals combined, even the ones that are called Chocolate Sugar Puffs.

Dan verifies that Honey Nut Cheerios has 12 grams of sugar per serving while Apple Jacks has 10 grams, which is less, but not a lot and if you are in the theater of sugary cereals 2 grams is not a lot of savings. John doesn’t eat them anyway, but he is just trying to clear the cupboards. He is not trying to stop eating all the different foods, but he just shouldn't be eating Peanut M&Ms for breakfast and between 4-14 chocolate bars a day.

Having trouble redirecting the creative energy after leaving social media (RW221)

John is looking forward to it, but he woke up in the middle of the night the other night and in his dream he reached for his phone. When he left the Internet earlier this year, it has now been five months since the precipitating event that propelled him off of social media (the beandad incident), almost half a year. I that moment he said: ”This is either going to be the worst thing that ever happened to me or the best thing that ever happened to me, and I am resolved that it is going to be the best thing that ever happened to me!” and he could dictate how he went from there, it was entirely up to him.

Leaving the Internet behind and social media behind was a very positive choice. He didn't have the willpower to do that on his own, but now he was forced to. It is like getting a DWI or worse, like having a terrible car accident and realizing you have a drinking problem. John assumed that the six hours a day that he spent on social media would immediately be converted into some other form of energy, like climbing flagpoles or building a Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks or sculpting the Devil's Tower out of mashed potatoes (reference to the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind). When he started his Patreon on a month later he was very convinced that leaving the Internet behind he was going to enter into a new period where…

We think about this stuff a lot as creative people: ”All I need to do is put myself in the room with a bunch of crayons and I am going to draw!” He definitely felt when he joined social media that he redirected a lot of creative energy toward it and so he just naturally assumed that it would all come flooding back in, but it wasn't the case. Not that this energy isn't there, but he is older and being creative when you are older is just harder and more work, just like everything is when you are older. It is more work climbing stairs, why shouldn't it also be more work writing songs?

His phone never left my side and he is still really wrestling with it. He assumed that his phone never left his side before and he checked it 16 times a day because he was engaged in all these social media imbroglios and every time he saw something interesting he took a picture of it and put it up on social media and then he had to monitor the comments and had to spa back and forth with his pals. Then he wasn't doing any of that and he was still looking at his phone at least that much, if not more, and all he was doing on it was playing mindless games, looking stuff up on Wikipedia, more mindless games, looking stuff up in classified ads.

He was looking stuff up like how much Italian Art Glass Lamps are worth on the market right now because a friend had sent him a picture with some Italian Art Glass Chandeliers that he was taking out of his house and he asked John if he wanted them, which he didn’t, but now he is curious about them. If he could restrict his phone usage and Internet usage to just that stuff he would have no beef about it because at the end of the day when he does an accounting of the day, the time he spent looking up Italian Art Glass Chandeliers is an income column, it is not time spent in the red. Just the 4 hours of playing Minesweeper makes him be arrears to the world.

Meanwhile life is going on all around him, he got a 10 year old, he is working on his house, his yard, and in his new house he is finally going to have a space where he can play music in the basement, a thing he has been having a phantom limb feeling about and the whole time he lived at his farm he didn't have a basement and he never once could go down in the basement and play guitar, which is a primordial desire on his part.

Playing guitar in the house is one thing, but going down in the basement and play guitar? He needs to feel the earth around him and the dirt piled up around his ears to really play guitar, he needs to be underground. It is all happening and yet the first thing he does when he wakes up in the morning is pick up his phone and start monkeying with it, and the last thing before he goes to sleep at night is picking up his phone and monkeying with it.

Putting his phone away (RW221)

On May 1st John is quitting refined sugar and he is putting his phone away again, the 6th time he tried to do it, put it in a drawer and just stop it. Just like social media that was essential somehow because that is where everything was happening and he had made indispensable and ”How could I have a career as a creative person if I wasn't on there in the mix? How would I know it was happening?” It was news, it was how he communicated with friends, it was like spray foam insulation: It just went into everything.

John feels the same way about his phone: ”How can I live without it? What are you talking about? What if I need to know about Italian Art Glass?” and then the grandmother voice is like: ”What if someone needs to get in touch with you? What if you are somewhere and you don't know how to get to somewhere else? What if you need to know the price of tea in China?” We don't need it! John didn't need it in the 33 years he lived without a phone in his pocket, he certainly doesn’t need it any more now than he did then. John is going to put it away!

It feels like sugar, like having a handful of M&Ms. To wake up and play 30 minutes of Solitaire before he even gets out of bed. This morning he woke up on his own at 9am and he laid in bed until 9:45am playing Solitaire. For what? To Dan it sounds John is using it to move from a sleep state to a fully conscious ready for the day state and he thinks most people do something like that if they have the opportunity to, even if it is 10-15 minutes of it. If most people have their alarm set for 6:30am-7am they are probably allotting 10-15 minutes of a little bit of time in there to do exactly what John is talking about.

If he would confine his mindless card flipping to one half hour a day, and it was in the half hour right after he woke up, he would also put it in the positive column for the day, but he does it in the morning, he does it at night, he does it in the afternoon, and it isn't about the game, it is about the phone itself, and it really does sometimes feel like the phone is beaming some ultraviolet waves at him, it is the dopamine hit, but it isn't performing any function that a deck of cards doesn't, it is giving him no rewards because when he loses at a game of Solitaire or win all he does is just start another game. He doesn’t sit and celebrate with the game as it showers him with fake confetti.

All that social social media / phone / dopamine's stuff, he was super-addicted to that tube, the rush of faves and likes and so forth, but he is really not getting any of that with this. He loses 80% of the games he starts. Past a certain point he is not interested in what it is, in the mechanics of his mind that have delivered him unto here, he doesn’t care anymore about the psychology because whatever the psychology is is irrelevant. The reality is that it is just a massive waste of time, he is starting to look at it like an 85 year old grandfather would: ”What are you doing? What a stupid…!”, like Eddie Murphy as an older Jewish man coming to America.

John is anxious about it for a couple of reasons: He knows that even more than sugar it will be a blow to the rhythm of his day. ”Idle hands are the devil's play!”, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

Right now he is looking at his phone as much as when he was on social media all the time, but he is not on anything. Everybody knows the feeling of sitting somewhere where other people are around, whether it is your friends or your child or the people you love most in the world, and there is a voice in your head that is saying: ”I wish these people would go somewhere else so that I could look at my phone for a while! I don't want to look at my phone in front of them, I would be embarrassed to look at it in front of them, but I really want to look at it!”

John will do that, he will say: ”Hey, why don't you guys go outside for a second and check out the… did you see that flash in the sky?” - ”What are you talking about?” - ”Well, go check it out!” and he will quickly look at his phone. It is super-duper weird and super-duper bad for your health and he feels his mental health tied up in this relationship, this escapist parachute he is constantly grabbing for.

John’s has always proudly thought of himself as someone who doesn't get bored because he has his imagination and he has all these options that other people don't, to sit and entertain himself. It is a point of pride and also his greatest gift, but he is not using it. It is meditative in the sense that while he is playing Minesweeper on his phone his mind is going, he is running scripts, he is playing with events and things that have happened, ideas, it is partly a reflective time, but it is not a productively reflective time because the scripts he is running are looping just like the game is looping.

That may be the thing that is comforting, he is able to focus a certain portion of his attention on this thing and that allows the unspoken-for attention that he has in his head to just become unmoored and float around in an Oort Cloud of memories and ambitions and replayed conversations, like watching movies of his dreams. But just like pun is the lowest form of humor, that feels like the lowest form of his imagination, like undirected waiting room level, but even in a waiting room he has stimulus, he looks around the dentist's office and thinks: ”What would happen if right now Batman came in through the ceiling?”, but all that top level stuff is taken out of the game. He is not looking around, he looking at Minesweeper, which is absolutely a 2-dimensional thing in every way, also Solitaire.

Mulling over past events (RW221)

The danger is that his thoughts will find some past insult, some moment where where a person 25 years ago made a comment that he has replayed 100 times in the past 25 years and it will come back. Rather than say: ”What are you doing? You have rung every last bit of reflection out of that one time that a person made a comment and you didn't have a ready retort, that you have sat and stewed over in the middle of the night 100 times, you are going to revisit it? This is what you are going to do with your spare time? There is nothing left there. You cannot find anything there to grow on!”, but that is where John’s little head will settle.

Last night, sitting and playing the game, he found a remark that a guy made after coming to see him play in 1995, a coworker of his, and he made a remark about his between-song banter. It wasn't a remark where he should have had a retort, it was more a remark that made him go: ”Huh… Uh huh…” and he has been thinking about that since 1995, which is 26 years ago, and that remark and his thoughts about it came into his head yesterday while he was sitting and playing his game, and rather than go: ”Oh mind, oh silly friend!” who lives in his head and apparently has a matrix of file cabinets, or is a jukebox that loves playing the old hits or whatever. The guy that said it to him hasn't thought of it in two decades, in 24 years and 9 months, and he was the only one there, so no-one else has ever thought about it again because it was just the two of them standing there.

If there was anything to learn from it, if he was able to glean anything from it, the window of opportunity for learning something from that remark wrapped up around November of 1995, that was the last time he was ever going to be able to convert that into positive energy and now it is just a rut. There was another one just yesterday, a long ago comment that he got so twisted up about that he actually put his Solitaire game down on the table for a minute so that he could stare off into space and think hard on this insult that someone had paid him in the 1990s.

That alone is reason to throw the phone in the ocean, if it is just a vehicle for his head to say: ”Wow, really? Nobody is watching me at all, I have no homework left, there is no school tomorrow, and I can just dig to the bottom of my box of comic books and find the worst one and sit here and crumple up the pages and eat them!” Why would he let his brain have that much leeway? When he is out in the ravine, working and moving rocks and he is giving himself a lingering back problem, he is raking or shoveling or something, his mind also goes on adventures, but it is not that sick kind, it is a very different and much more energetic kind of imaginary life. Even the memories he recalls, the conversations he replays, are much more engaged in the world because there is stimulus coming in, the sun is coming through the leaves and there are worms in the ground.

John never having been a full member of the Rock’n’Roll culture, his fans coming from other people (RW221)

Leaving social media behind also meant leaving behind a lot of the activities that had defined the last decade for him, that had to do with going to Cons and Cruises and comedy festivals, all that stuff. It was like a 4th act for him in terms of show business, it was a new way of doing the same thing he had been doing for 20 years, which was traveling from place to place, doing performances with interesting friends and interacting with people that had paid money to see the show, just different versions of it.

In the same way that John was never fully a member of Rock’n’Roll culture… and everybody everybody says that: ”I never felt like I belonged!” - ”But you are Bruce Springsteen, what do you mean you didn't feel like you belonged?” - ”No, I never felt like I belonged in the E Street Band.” - ”Well, Bruce, if you didn't belong in the E Street Band, then nobody did!” and it always has felt like that, John never felt like he belonged where he was, but it was always an ill fit for him in all of these little universes. Leaving it behind, like putting his phone in a desk drawer, thinking about the next 2-3 years and realizing that…

John might keep doing SketchFest because the people that run SketchFest are wonderful, but he is not going to do the JoCo Cruise, he is not going to go to the MaxFunCon, he is not going to go down to Comic-Con and those were little tent poles in his life because between them they defined what he was going to do in the meantime. When he sat down with a guitar he thought: ”Who am I making this music for? Why would I make music now and for whom?” Most of The Long Winters fans are trying to get their InstaPot to to make a good soup, they are not down smoking cigarets out front of the venue, waiting for the opener to get done. They are also getting on with it!

For the last 10 years when John sat with the guitar and thought: ”Who am I making music for?” he had an imperfect picture of a person that wasn't actually a fan of The Long Winters or of him, but was a member of this culture that he also was an adjunct member of, and they had learned about him because they had been fans of Wil Wheaton's blog when they were a teenager and through that had graduated to being a fan of everything Wil did and through that had gone to a w00tstock and had discovered him and their initial impression of him was that he was the guy in the Hawaiian shirt that made Paul Sabourin look like a ding dong, and then they heard The Commander Thinks Aloud and they liked it. Is John making songs for that person?

Those are the people that he sees when he is traveling, those are the people that he is performing for so often, not people that have come exclusively to see him, but people that have come and basically have learned to be fans of him because they have come as fans of someone else and he is there so much of the time that they think: ”I love that guy’s stuff, too! I learned to really love his music!” and he loves all those people and was grateful to get to know them and be able to perform for them, but the idea that his audience was a group of acorns that had all fallen in the forest and he gathered acorns into a bag, sitting with the guitar and thinking: ”I want to play music!” it was much more about: ”I need to get some content! I am in a culture that is driven by content and I need content in order to stay relevant, in order to keep getting invited, in order to play the next biggest room or be on the penultimate night!”

John always felt that he had a content deficit, but you don't sit and pick up the guitar and think: ”I need content!”, that is not what inspires you to write or to make anything. It may inspire you to make YouTube videos of yourself reading aloud from the back of a cereal box, but if you are sitting and trying to write music or a novel or something that really engages you at an emotional level, that is not content.

John didn't feel like he had an audience anymore that belong to him because even his shows, even John Roderick on the Line, which Sean Nelson was always patient to point out was literally named after him, if you dig down into the fan base of Roderick on the Line, so many of those people came from Merlin, and even though they have become John’s friends and and they listen to the show for their dynamic and for the world of thoughts that live therein they are Merlin fans, even the ones that say: ”I came as a Merlin fan and I leave as a John fan!”

A lot of people say: ”I started with Back to Work and then I went here and I went there, I started listening to Reconcilable Differences…” Their interests in came through Dan or Merlin and through a maze of culture that John wasn't ever really a part of, the era that made Dan famous and Merlin famous John Siracusa famous and Marco. John was not a part of that culture, he still doesn’t understand what it was exactly. He knows what 43 Folders is, but what were they all doing and saying to each other on LiveJournal? John was 1000 miles away from even knowing what it was and was just never on the early Internet.

John’s family wanting him to buy a car (RW221)

John’s family wants him to buy a car because in order to start his suburban now he has to pull the gearshift lever toward him and sink it down into a little bit of a spot between park and reverse where the electrical connection, there is still one little place where he can connect the wires to the starter. He turns the key and then pulls the gearshift lever back and down just a little and it will start. If you tried to steal the Suburban right now, there is no way you could because there are 4-5 things you have to do just to get it to run. Sometimes at night the headlights will go off, but if John puts his left foot down in a part of the floor the light goes on. He is not even pushing down on the floor, but he is just moving his foot over to a place on the floor and the headlights go back on. John has put a lot of thought into what is going on with that and the less he knows about it, the better.

For six years John’s family has been saying to him: ”You are a full-grown person. You need a real car. You don't have to get a fancy thing, all it has to be is a car that starts every time you put the key in it, that has windows that roll down, that has a heater and an air conditioner, all the blinkers work, it never catches on fire as far as you know!” and John has always just like everything in his life been: ”Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, a car. Right, right, right. A car!”, but the Suburban really has a lot of… no-one else can drive it and he has to cast 3-4 spells to get it to life.

Especially now that the quarantine is coming to an end there is all this conversation like his daughter is going back to school, she is going to camp this summer, she is going to need to be schlepped all over, and John’s mom came and said they were going back to Ohio for a wedding and John said: ”We are?” - ”Yeah, we are going back to Ohio for a wedding the whole of us, all of the family, and I want to drive back to Ohio because there are things I want to see along the way and I want you to drive and I want you to get a new car that is going to be able to drive us all across the country to this wedding in Ohio and back!” - ”Is this just a just an extremely elaborate ploy to get me to buy a new car?” - ”Yes, but also you need to do it! This is my plan, it is our plan, we are doing this: So find yourself a car!” It was no longer optional, and that happens with John’s mom. Things are fine for a while and then all of a sudden something is no longer an option and the decision has been made.

Now John is looking at cars, but he never bought a late model car and looking at them and thinking about car payments he is realizing that if he buys a car that he has to pay a monthly payment for, he will be paying for the same car when his daughter is a junior in High School and that is like a Soviet five year plan. It is just far enough in the future that he can see it, far enough away that it seems insanely distant and also insane to make a commitment. He bought that Suburban six years ago at least and he is sure as shit still paying for that decision in the form of every morning walking out and going: ”Why did I do this? Why did I buy this? Why is this still my car?”

Dan’s French uncle wanting to do everything himself (RW221)

Dan’s uncle is French and he had a Peugeot (see RW17) and the place that he is from in France is called Brest. The starter of his Peugeot had a problem, and of course Peugeot is the best because it is French, never mind that you couldn't get it repaired anywhere and could never get any parts for it and it broke down constantly. Him being an electrical engineer and a very mechanically inclined person it was beneath him to take it somewhere to get it worked on.

He retiled the entire house himself, not because he wanted to do it, he hated every minute of it, but he did it because he was capable of doing it therefore why would you hire someone to do something that you are capable of doing, and it took him months to do it, but he did it, and the entire family was miserable and hated it, their house was always under construction and he would go play soccer and come back and get sore from playing soccer, so a week would go by where he wouldn't do anything with the tile, but finally it was done.

What he had done in order to save money he had rebuilt the starter in such a way that it had some external battery that he had rigged just to the starter, and it had a tiny little micro switch hidden under the dashboard that only he knew about. In order to start the car you had to flip the switch, which would allow the current from the battery to go to the starter and then you could turn the key and start it. Everything in his life was set up this way. There were millions of these little tweaks and customizations and things that he had done and the only reason he had done them was because he didn't want to get something technically really fixed. These things were all over the place, everywhere he had these weird little contraptions and things.

Feeling the passage of time (RW221)

John is feeling the passage of time quite a bit right now, something has happened in the last year, coming out of 2020, coming out of the quarantine, coming out of all the events of the last year and a half. Where John was when the Western State Hurricanes played the Tractor Tavern in February of 2020 and where he is now a lot of time has passed, and he is not clear who he is going to be coming out of the quarantine, which is probably true for a lot of us. He is probably not going to be the same, not so much that the quarantine has changed him, not just as simple as he realized that he doesn't have to go back to the world as it was, even John wants to go back to some parts of the world, but this all happened to him at what he thinks of even in his own parents lives…

John is 52 years old now and that feels like an age where without the quarantine he could have just gotten on his skateboard and skated right through the age of 52, watching Tony Hawk on his Instagram, and thinking Tony Hawk is 52. Hell, 52 is the new 32, get one of those hovercraft skateboards and be the 52 year old guy out there with the elbow pads and the ill-fitting helmet. John is feeling his age right now in a way that isn't so much about aches and pains and it is not about responsibilities and it is not exactly negative, but it is definitely irreversible and a large part of it has to do with the events earlier this year.

Trying to sit here at 52 years old and say: ”I have to acknowledge a few things: Things are going to be harder now than the last time I tried to reinvent myself!” It is going to be more difficult in every way. John is trying to reinvent himself starting where? Starting where he is or does he want to rewind back to some self a year or two ago or 10 years ago. Did he get off on the wrong path? Is that what he is trying to say? No, he doesn’t want to go back 10 years and take a different road, that is not possible anyway. He is trying to reinvent himself in a time and place and in a way and he doesn’t have any super-good notion, but he is reinventing himself again with no plan and no real clear sense of what the future is. He was always somewhat motivated by the same belief that his dad always had, which was that he would never die and that he would always be the age he is now.

John is trying to have a very clear understanding of where he is in the arc of his life right now, that he is in a fruitful place, he is in the middle of it, he is not young anymore, he is never going to be young again, he is not old either, he is in the soft middle and he can do things, he can make positive choices, he can change his future and it can be exciting and he can do stuff that nobody expects and that he doesn't expect.

John doesn't just have to frame the next 10 years in terms of the goals that he had in his 30s and 40s, he doesn't just have to make good on some of the fuses that he lit 20 years ago, he doesn't have to pick up all those books that are half-read and the next 10 years aren't just to finish reading all those books, the next 10 years or the rest of his life can be whatever he wants. In the toolbox that he currently has, does he have the tools he needs to make choices, and if not, where can he find those tools? Is the toolbox that he has all tools for a different trade?

That is why John wants to put his phone down. Is isn't about yesterday, today, or tomorrow, but right now he needs his imagination to be not preoccupied. The last thing he wants to do is think about what Bill Patten said to him after a show at The Rendezvous in 1995. ”Go with God, Bill Patton!” He needs that untethered imagination to help him get excited about literally anything because that thing he gets excited about is going to determine so much.

John chose to buy an old house and to restore it. That was a choice to direct a tremendous amount of actual kinetic energy, emotional energy, financial resources, and none of that was foreordained. To buy a house and fix it up is a thing, it is a diversion, it is from a list of 20 things that middle-aged people do he could have bought an old car and fixed it up, he could have decided to spend his money traveling, he could have gotten a boat, these are the classic versions of a middle-aged person trying to find something to do with their hands.

But John is not limited to it and because he made that choice 2 years ago doesn't mean that that has to define him for the next 10 and it doesn't mean that that is necessarily a bad thing. Working on his house is interesting and fascinating, but right now it is required that he be really present in where he is. He keeps going up to people close to him and saying: ”Am I losing my hair?” - ”No, you are not at all losing your hair!” - ”It feels thinner!” - ”Maybe it is thinner, but you are not losing it! It is going gray and gray hair feels different than non-gray hair, maybe that is what you are experiencing!” - ”Right, it is going gray! Are you sure I am not losing it?”

John feels like he is made out of smoke right now and when he comes back and becomes solid again, which he hopefully does, when he coalesces, he would like it to be in a form the he chooses.


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