RW41 - No room for ninjas

This week, Dan and John talk about:

  • Getting sick (Aging)
  • John going to Alaska for his 30th reunion and the Alaska state fair (Currents)
  • State fairs in Florida (Dan Benjamin)
  • How can huge trade fair shops be profitable? (Factoids)
  • Bazars only selling garbage these days (Stories)
  • Finding Reggae vinyl in Jamaica (Stories)
  • The danger of a sword cane (Dreams and Fantasies)
  • Dan's relationship to Comics, TV-shows and Japanese Culture (Dan Benjamin)
  • John's difficulty of connecting with Japanese Culture (Comics)
  • Playing with army men on top of the stairs (Early Days)

The show title refers to John not having had any interest in ninjas or Japanese culture as a kid although it theoretically should have interested him.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

John going to Alaska for his 30th reunion and the Alaska state fair (RW41)

John took his Fitbit to Whittier and climbed up the backside of Portage Pass to Portage Glacier. It is not a super-hard climb in general, but it can be for someone who is as out of shape as John is. The terrible thing about Alaska is that everybody is outdoorsy, even people you don’t think they are. John was climbing up there, huffing and puffing, thinking he was not going to make it and he had to sit on a Rock and think about his choice. Not even half-way up the side of the mountain he was winded and his feet were slipping. He had chosen to do it in Vans, which is a bad hiking shoe.

As he was sitting there, a family of six or seven Alaskans came by, the first guy pulling on a vape as he was walking, all talking, carrying kids in their arms, little kids running around, drinking Four Loko, not being in any kind of hiking gear, but with parachute pants and high-top tennis shoes. They just plowed on by, pulling on their vapes. John was getting lapped by these crows! He is a outdoors kind of guy, just with the wrong shoes and a little bit slow right now, but come on!

Then there was granddad in a rascal scooter and you would say those people had never been outdoors, but in Alaska everybody is outside and you meet the most unlikely people on the trail. John was giving up before his second wind kicked in because it had been so long since he had tried to even summit a little saddle, but it was good and his Fitbit was singing his praise! It kept vibrating and sending him little Mario Bros coins and it was good to get back to the great land.

John was in Alaska for his 30th reunion, but he also went to the Alaska state fair. He grew up somewhat equally between Washington and Alaska. He went to school in Seattle from Kindergarten to 4th grade and in Alaska from 5th through 12th grade, but there was a lot of back and forth. The Washington state fair was his first fair, but the Alaska state fair was really the fair he went to as a teenager. When the sun is starting to go down, the whole area around the rides feels a little sketchier because it is just a bunch of teenagers necking with each other. It was where John sowed his teenage oats! He was not there to look at the giant cabbage or to pet the sheep at the petting zoo, but he was there to go on rides, eat garbage food and flirt with girls.

State fairs in Florida (RW41)

By the time Dan was in his teenage years he lived in Florida. Florida state fairs were sketchy any time of day. Everyone there is borderline homeless and just having a ferris wheel pop up was enough of a draw for people. Everything in Florida is built in a temporary shanty town way so that it can be boxed up and removed, just like George Jettson who gets out of his carney, pushes a button and it folds up into a little briefcase.

Pretty much everything in Florida is built like that, except it is not cool, but it is meant to be broken down and packed onto the back of a pickup truck, loaded up, a tarp put over it and driven to the next town. The hurricane is going to take it down anyway, so why build it to last? All they had to do is to erect some kind of ferris wheel and that was enough because the land is flat and you can see it for miles. In High School they would have one at the school.

In Sunrise just North of Fort Lauderdale there was a place called the swap shop, a permanent installation about 180 acres big (700.000 sqm). It was like a gigantic flea market with thousands of vendors outside selling crap and an air conditioned inside section with little store fronts. They were going for the vibe of expensive perfume stores in international airports, but in a very Florida way.

Instead of being posh and nice it was incredibly seedy and cheap and it all smelled bad. You got the impression that everything being sold there had been stolen and the stores were probably only a front anyway. This was paradise for an 11-year old boy! Dan got his first butterfly knife there, you could get fireworks any time a year and they had a great arcade with Kung Fu, amusement park rides, a farmers market, a drive-in movie theater and a circus with an elephant performing in it. You could walk outside and buy 5 pairs of $2 sunglasses or candy.

How can huge trade fair shops be profitable? (RW41)

At a state fair there are guys who sell old watches, military ribbons, or swords, but the biggest shops of anybody at the Alaska and Washington state fair are owned by at least 4 different completely separate organizations selling hot tubs. They truck out 20 demonstration hot tubs each, some of them as big as small stationary swimming pools, the most exaggerated ones with light shows and fountains and stuff, and they set them all up and fill half of them up with water.

There being 4 of these companies suggests to John that people who go to state fairs are in the market for a hot tub, even if they don’t know it. It is the Rolex effect: Overseas there are Rolex stores everywhere you go. They are freaking expensive! It would be one thing if there were only Rolex stores in Geneva, Paris, London and New York that you walk by in awe and look at the watches for $5000, but there are Rolex stores everywhere that just by their presence normalize the idea of owning a Rolex.

Over the course of John’s travels he started to think that owning a Rolex is normal because otherwise they couldn’t have so many Rolex stores, but who the hell is buying those $5000 watches? John went through a period where he thought that even though you can buy a Swatch for $50 and even though your phone is a clock, owning a Rolex is what normal people do and he thought a lot about maybe he should get a Rolex. Vintage Rolex are not any cheaper!

It might be the same with hot tub stores at the state fair: You go there and think that if you are going to get a hot tub, which John probably is now, this is where you are going to get a good deal on them. Maybe you can’t afford to pass it up? Those guys need a full semi truck to schlepp all this crapola there, it takes a week to set it up, and they have to staff it with 5 people. They also still need to have employees left at their brick & mortar store and it has to be worth it for these people. They can’t just be selling 2 hot tubs that whole time, but they have to be selling them like hot cakes.

Bazars only selling garbage these days (RW41)

The last few times John has been overseas, including down in the Caribbean, but also in Africa a year ago, he would see a little bazaar. He has to dive into it because there is the possibility that a plane went down in WWII, this guy’s grandfather scavenged it, and now he found it in the closet and is selling it at a swap meet. Sadly even in Ethiopia all the swap meets are all full of garbage made in China, the worst style of new garbage material! John never saw a single thing that was locally made and was older than 16 hours.

It was just like the duty free area in airports, except really cheaply and poorly made. This is how the Chinese economy actually works: We think they make all our refrigerators and sell them to us at markup, but instead they are churning out material that is selling for pennies and because there is such a huge wave of it, it ends up being worth billions of dollars! Going to bazars in a foreign country has been a real disappointment for John in the last few years, because there is nothing left that is interesting and the wave of junk has drowned all the little tidbits.

Finding Reggae vinyl in Jamaica (RW41)

One time John went on a journey in Jamaica with David Rees, but David said he didn't want to go to any of the tourist stuff. Typically they would get off the cruise boat and get on a fucked-up mission to get Go Curry or something, but this year David wanted to go buy old Reggae vinyl. He wanted to find a man who got 12" of great 1970s Reggae. They went all over the town Ochos Rios and asked for record stores, but those had mostly DJ equipment made in China.

After an entire day of searching they found a guy with a shop that was selling mostly junk, but he had a box with 12" records in the basement covered in mud because they had had a flood. They washed them off with Windex, played them on a turntable and David ended up buying 10 or 12 of these records, stuff you are not going to find anywhere else. You really have to commit and you can’t go to the top of the church tower or jet skiing or any of the fun stuff that you are ostensibly here to do, but they had been on 7 cruises and were no longer interested in that. Instead they dedicated this day to this one task.

The danger of a sword cane (RW41)

John finds it to be very interesting to be on vacation, wake up and decide he will find for example a sword cane and he will not rest until he found one. The danger of drawing a bladed weapon is that the person you draw it on is probably going to know better than you how to use it. You don’t want to draw a blade on somebody who is going to take it away from you and then point it at you. A lot of people carry a knife, but there is every chance that the bad guy is going to disarm them of it. You pull a sword cane half out and by the time it is fully out it is in somebody else’s hands.

The advantage of a sword cane is that you never have to pull it out, but it gives you that little extra feeling of safety, but you don’t want it to make you too bold. When it snows in Seattle, which it rarely does, the ditches will be full of 4-wheel drive SUVs because the 4-wheel drive function gives their drivers extra confidence that they don’t deserve. They huckeltybuck through the snowstorm and lose their vehicle because they are idiots. The 4-wheel drive is not helping them at all and they spin out into the ditch and wonder how they got there. If you know how to drive in snow, you can drive a 1974 Chrysler Imperial and not spin out, because you just know what you are doing.

That is the danger of carrying a knife or a sword cane: It makes you feel like nobody can stop you and you will get in trouble more than you would have gotten otherwise. However, it gives you that little boost of confidence in case you are ever tied up with a rope to a chair and the person didn’t know your cane was also a sword. It is like a last ditch situation: In case an active shooter shows up at your workplace and you are cowering in a room with 5 or 6 other employees, hearing the active shooter outside the door and he barrels in the door, then it is good to have a sword cane, because it gives you an advantage over anyone who doesn’t have a sword cane. Letting it empower you to walk down the street like a big rooster on the other hand is not a good plan.

John desperately wants a collection of vintage sword canes, but they are extremely hard to find in America because they are illegal in most places. Dan is sure John could get those at the swap shop in Florida! He once got some Chinese throwing stars there, but they weren’t sharpened and had blunt edges. He did his best to sharpen them with a file, but he didn’t have access to any kind of a real grinder. Dan had just assumed that they were sold as novelty items and that the real kinds would be the ones you see in ninja catalogs where they sell Tabi Boots, Chinese throwing stars, Katanas, Nunjucks, foam covered practice Nunjucks, and things you would put on your shoes to scale a wall.

Playing with army men on top of the stairs (RW41)

While Dan gravitated more to plastic dinosaurs and cars, John primarily played with army men and spent about 1/4th of his entire childhood with them, mostly by himself. He used plastic dinosaurs only as things to melt down to make obstacles for his army men. John had every kind of half-track, tank and jeep and every style of army men. For Christmas in 1978 he got The Guns of Navarone playset, a 5-story mountain with an elevator and stairs based on the great spy film The Guns of Navarone.

The playset used to live right at the top of the stairs at John’s dad’s house and he would be laying on the stairs so the 2 or 3 steps below were his play area. This is a thing he misses so much and he waits for his daughter to start doing it. John spent hours and hours on the stairs with the Navarone at the top assaulting the Germans. His imagination would carry him so far away that he would not respond if somebody would be tapping his foot or yelling at him. He would be 1000 miles away!

Every once in a while John would get one of those Japanese robot toys for Christmas or something and it would enter into the story as a dastardly 3rd Reich super-weapon to be defeated by American ingenuity, but he had no idea about their world. John is sad he doesn’t have his foot locker of army man anymore, because he would play with them still. He tried a couple of times laying on top of the stairs as an adult, but it is not the same thing because he takes up the entire stairway now.

John has a little painted set of all the US presidents which might factor in somehow. When his dad would come back from Europe, he would sometimes bring John proper painted British tin toy soldiers from the Boer Wars, which were not contemporary army men. John was always very confused by them and felt guilty about these expensive presents that would ostensibly appeal to him, but they didn’t fit in timeline-wise. There might have been kids who didn’t care about historical continuity, but John was not one of them! Having those little tin soldiers would be cool now, but they would just be display items in his house.

One scene in the movie Ronin is introducing the idea of a ronin when Robert DeNiro is sick or injured and he is taken to the house of the mysterious French spy who is painting little ronins. He is building a little scene and he explains what a ronin would do. In a lot of spy movies there is some sort of eccentric character high up in the organization who does esoteric things or is a full-on kook. John has always admired those kooks!

The message is that being a spy is a meritocracy and if you are a kook you can be high up in the organization because your talents will be needed, like your perceptiveness or your patient weirdness. John doesn’t think he could be eccentric in that way, but he recognizes it as a metaphor for a kind of meditative peace. You are out of the game, action doesn’t interest you anymore and now you are just in your dark place building train sets. John couldn’t be that kind of eccentric, but he admires them.

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