RiYL4 - John Roderick

This week, Brian and John talk about:

  • Getting presents from John Hodgman (Currents)
  • John buying his house (House)
  • Being an introvert (Personality)
  • Reading books and writing a novel (Philosophy)
  • How metaphor gives us unique solutions (Philosophy)
  • People are not that different, experiencing joy and pain equally (Philosophy)
  • John looking for a way to justify himself (Philosophy)
  • Language barriers (Philosophy)
  • Conclusion
  • Outro

This show is hosted by Brian Heater.

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

Getting presents from John Hodgman (YL4)

John has a signed picture on his toilet of Dick Cavett from a PBC syphilis venereal disease special broadcast in 1971. It was a gift from John Hodgman who saw that signed photograph at a memorabilia auction and bought it because he is a weirdo. The thing about getting presents from Hodgman is that it is a real mixed bag! The most recent time John opened an envelope from him it was a jar of Hodgman-brand mayonnaise that was obviously leftover from his Ragnarök preparations. ”Why are you sending me a jar of commemorative mayonnaise? That's not a thing!”

If Hodgman did make a bomb shelter John would not be at liberty to reveal it, but when you jokingly make your act revolve around Ragnarök for over a year, it has to seep in and you have to start believing that it is a possibility that the Mayans were right and the world is ending. Brian likes the idea of having a bomb shelter only with things that have your face on them. Also: Building a bomb shelter in Brooklyn? After the apocalypse Brooklyn will be a smoking crater 100 feet (30m) down filled with fetid water. There is no ”We built the bomb shelter in Brooklyn!” - ”No! You didn't!” because a bomb shelter in Brooklyn would have to be a mile (1600m) underground.

When Brian was at NASA he had a last minute interview with an expert on asteroid impact and who went around telling people that we need to be constantly monitoring these things. Somehow it fell on him to become the end-of-the-world expert, and specifically the Mayan Apocalypse. What is going to cause the end of the world according to the Mayan Apocalypse? Is a giant lizard or iguana going to swallow the world? Isn't that what the Mayans thought? Maybe John is confusing that with the Christian Bible. He read most of the Bible, but never got all the way to the end and he just assumed that an iguana would swallow the world because that is how all the great creation stories end: Some big reptile swallows the world. It starts on the back of a turtle and ends in the mouth of a lizard!

John buying his house (YL4)

John bought his house five years ago with his ill-gotten Indie Rock fortune and having a house is generally a pretty great feeling that gives John a lot of satisfaction. He immediately switched gears to ”Now I have to maintain this place and have to continue to earn money to keep this place alive!” John was coming from many years where he basically slept in his car and now he had a house. It was wonderful to have a place for the candlesticks, fencing sabres and encyclopedias, but John also can no longer really put all that stuff in his car if he loses the house, so he has to keep working.

When John was thinking about buying a house he had to climb down out of the big tower he had built in his mind that buying a house was some kind of massive turning point, life choice and statement. That is only true if you believe that a) money is real and b) that life is a trajectory that moves in a single inevitable direction. John told himself that buying a house was simply the next thing that he was doing. If the house burned to the ground or if he decided five years from now that he didn’t want to live in a house anymore and decided to buy a jeep on Craigslist and drive it to Tierra del Fuego, then he will do that and that will be the next thing that he will do.

The concept that becoming an adult is buying a house, living in it until you can afford a bigger house, getting a bigger house, raising a family, and one day downsizing to a condo in Boca Raton is a trajectory John has never been on anyway, so why would owning a house suddenly put him on it? It is just a mental technology. John is now raising a family, but he can still live in a car at some point later. When his daughter is old enough they will literally buy a jeep on Craigslist and drive it to Tierra del Fuego, and the only reason they might not do that will be if they are driving their jeep to some other place because they decided Tierra del Fuego was a bad idea.

John has been all over the world from London to the bay. Everywhere he went it is ”Hammer! Go, Hammer! MC Hammer! Yo, Hammer!” (lyrics U Can’t touch this by MC Hammer) John has touched, it in contravention of conventional wisdom (reference to the lyrics). The idea that John would one day live in a different city than his home has kind of faded, simply because he has been to so many places and in every case he felt that Seattle is better and nicer than every other option.

If he were 23 years old John would want to live in Berlin and be a 24 hour party person. He would still think that maybe he was going to be a graffiti artist or maybe he was going to make banjo techno or whatever it is that young people are on about. Berlin would feel like a vibrant place, but John has the wherewithal to travel to Berlin anytime he wants that energy and then when he wants to smell fresh air and pine trees and be close enough to a juice bar where he can get juice without being too close to a juice bar so that he has to feel like he is part of a juice bar culture, he comes back to Seattle. Seattle is a medium sized city in a temperate climate in a very polite corner of the world. Why wouldn't you have that be your house?

Being an introvert (YL4)

About half a dozen years ago John realized that part of his struggle in going through life was that he was an extroverted introvert. He enjoyed very much being in front of a crowd of people, but he did not take his energy from other people. As a culture we have a lot more understanding that introverts are a thing now than we did even 10 years ago. During John's whole life it was assumed that he was an extrovert because he was talkative and he was a performer. He loves to be a performer and to talk to interesting people, but then he wants those people to pack up and go away and he wants to be alone. It is where he really feels the most himself.

One of the great things about being a musician is that there is always a hotel room at the end of the path. Even when he is playing on the Jonathan Coulton cruise he can just go back to his room and close the door. It is not an existential aloneness where he needs to be in a cave in the mountains, but he just needs to be away where people can't come up, stick their pinky up his nose and say ”I'm your biggest fan and that entitles me to stick my pinky up your nose!”

After John bought a house he finally was no longer answerable to anybody. He had his own space where he was away and it got a little pathological because being forced to interact with other people was what gave him the frisson to be a creator of things and a member of society. He has excluded himself from other people through his relative wealth and he has a nice white picket fence that you cannot get through without risking triggering one of many booby traps he has upfront.

What that meant was that sometimes five or six days would go by and he wouldn't go outside and wouldn't have an interaction with another person. He would be alone with the howling demon dogs that live just beneath the surface of his brain and that ended up not being healthy. Even though he doesn’t like sustained interaction with other people, he does need regular daily contact.

John also has the technology to keep his family in a pen where they do not have access to him. He has large family pens in the back and he sees them at feeding time, obviously. The challenge of having a family is that John never loved anything like he loves his daughter and now what do you do? His whole life he felt loving things was a luxury he couldn't afford and now he does love a thing that really is affecting his choices on a daily basis. He doesn't tire of her and she doesn't intrude on his mind like most people do.

Reading books and writing a novel (YL4)

Reading novels was a huge part of John’s self education that started when he was eight and continued until he was 35. It was the way he gave himself a moral education. Novels are a way to explore philosophical ideas in a palatable place. At one point John tired of novels profoundly and made the gear change that seems to happen to all men in middle age when they just start reading about the Civil War. John doesn’t have cable and can't watch the Hitler Channel, but if he had a TV he would just be sitting and watching tank technologies of the Third Reich. That seems interesting! That seems better than reading a novel about the manners of 18th century France.

As far as writing a novel, John dreams up scenarios all day, but why does the world need a novel from him? John doesn’t think it does! He does feel a responsibility to share what he has learned with people beyond his progeny and share it with a larger group of people that are interested. His podcast is a place where he is finally able to share his interest in general knowledge with people who also have an interest in general knowledge that is not just a compendium of facts. It is John’s attempt to apply facts and curiosity to living a moral and gratifying life. People are interested in that, it is why we go to school or church. We want to hear the experience of others trying to navigate the world and make sense of it.

How metaphor gives us unique solutions (YL4)

Music can be the most powerful form of ministry. Most musicians don't think of it that way because the music does the heavy lifting. You can make a great-sounding rhythm track and just talk about squeezing a lemon until the juice runs down your leg over the top of it, and the music is doing the large share of communicating to other people. In that instance we are talking about Led Zeppelin ripping off Muddy Waters, but the music is helping people feel like everything is going to be okay.

Indie Rock was a genre that took from the Dylan / Leonard Cohen school of obtuseness but in addition to a musical reaching-out it also took a more direct form of ministry or lyrical reaching-out. It is not going to be remembered as a genre with a lot of importance in the grand scheme of things, but what separated them was that they were trying to say meaningful things in the words. In those rare instances where you have really powerful music and meaningful words, a song can do the work of any of the greatest works of art. A great song can transform somebody as much as much as a great play or a great painting.

If Brian had to project a musical genre onto John it would probably be something in line with country music, but John has always been much more metaphorical than country ever lets itself be. Country projects a self-image of direct talk. To whatever degree they are addressing real human concerns, on the surface it is straight talk from one straight talking man to another, right to the heart of the issue. John is not about straight talk, but he is about using economical language to describe a broad slice of the pie of any given day.

John is not trying to get something specific across. You bring whatever problem you have into this function machine of looking at a painting, listening to a song or watching a play, and that function machine of art gives you some solution that only you know, because your response to it is individual and very unique while the art itself can be very general. We are very rarely looking for somebody listening to our problem and saying ”Here's what you need to do!”, but we are looking for those moments of epiphany where you are looking at two birds fighting over a chicken bone and you go ”That's it! Two birds fighting over a chicken bone! That solves my marriage problem!” Metaphor is where we actually find personal solutions because our own minds are always teasing a jumble of ideas of what we have been taught and how our minds work. What unlocks the puzzle is never a key, but it is always a code.

People are not that different, experiencing joy and pain equally (YL4)

John has interacted with a lot of people over the years and read a lot of books that are basically people describing their path, and it is astonishing how few new narratives there are. Everybody got the same problems all around the world. How do I find love? Why doesn't the person that I love love me back? Why does my life seem so hard when everybody else's life seems so easy? If there is a reason for religion, it is because each of us carries a feeling that our lives are hard and everyone else’s is easy, but in fact everybody's life is equally hard! Every time John says that to people, they are always forwarding him Tumblrs with pictures of rich kids flying in Lear jets, spilling drinks on each other and getting boob jobs. The answer to that is plain: Those rich kids are as miserable as anyone who ever lived!

People who are starving and who are living in incredibly disadvantaged situations are capable of as much joy as anybody in the world. Obviously it is hard to say that a child that is born into extreme poverty and never has an opportunity to even have a decent meal and dies at the age of three has as much possibility to have joy in its life as Donald Trump does, but John would argue that most people in the world experience equal amounts of joy and pain on a wide distribution. Donald Trump is a miserable son of a bitch and every day of his life is a living hell.

There are people living in abject poverty who have music and love, and their lives are as brimming over with what is truly valuable about being alive as anyone on the Earth. It isn't a question of money or leisure, but if you have enough food and clean water it is a question of a combination of love and music. It is utterly disconnected from the causal relationships that we like to attach to it. You don't need more leisure to be free. You need freedom from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds!

”Have no fear for atomic energy ’Cause none of them can stop the time! How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?” (lyrics Redemption Song by Bob Marley) Redemption is the theme of John’s lyrics and the stories that people tell him when they come up to him and say ”Your music saved my life!”, literally. This is the relationship people have to music: ”I was in the depths of despair and I heard your song that you wrote about some girl, but hearing it at this particular moment in my life actually kept me going that little bit!”

John wrote a song about a guy who was in a coma but still had his senses, called ”It’ll be a breeze” and he got an email from a fan in Canada whose brother was in a horrific fire and was in a coma and they were listening to It'll be a Breeze every day on repeat during the hour long drive they had to make to the hospital to visit their brother everyday. It is the most incredible example of a song literally being useful to someone in that situation. The brother came out of the coma and is now alive and thriving!

It is very unusual that you write a song about somebody in a coma and someone really is able to apply it. They might have been listening to this song without fully understanding that it was about somebody in a coma until they started having an e-mail exchange and John explained what it actually is about. It was meant as a metaphor and they are the one person in the world who this is no longer a metaphor for. That song has helped a lot of people, as they report to John, also using it as a metaphor for being in an emotional coma.

Although the range of human capacity seems very broad, it is actually pretty truncated and pretty narrow. Someone who survived the Holocaust can live to be 85 years old in an apartment-complex in Israel side by side with someone who has never had a problem greater than a hangnail in their whole lives, and these two people can have something to say to each other and they can be neighbors and friends and live in the world together, which is evidence that our capacities for pain and pleasure has to be pretty limited by our own capacity. If we can survive a genocide and be friends with someone who has never suffered at all, we are not that different from each other. The worst pain we can imagine and the best pleasure really aren't separated by that tremendous of a gulf.

People get broken up with by someone they have been dating for a year and a half and it is enough reason for them to literally kill themselves because they cannot survive another day! Someone else survived a concentration camp and has watched their entire family murdered, and they go on and live more or less gratifying lives to the age of 90. How can you say that being broken up with is less of a trauma than being put in a concentration camp? You really can't!

Are some people just stronger than other people? Being broken up with by somebody that you love is maybe one of the worst experiences a human being can have, even worse than seeing your family killed. Somebody who has been through both might say that the Holocaust was awful, but the worst thing that happened to them in their whole life was their divorce. Human beings are not machines and you cannot act upon emotion with reason. Emotions and reason function side by side and are in a lot of ways oppositional, but you cannot use reason to persuade emotion.

John looking for a way to justify himself (YL4)

John struggles on daily basis with why he is writing and why he would write. He cares about humanity on a general level, but as it becomes more and more specific he cares less and less. He doesn’t particularly care about any one village in India getting clean water. Many people feel that if they can provide clean water technology to one more village in India their lives will have had meaning and they have been justified. When John looks at his own life he doesn’t see providing clean water to a village in India as being a justification or a thing he is motivated by.

Alleviating suffering for their fellows is a prime motivation for a lot of people. Those who are not just living life to enrich themselves by making money and being richer are often living life to enrich themselves with the feeling of accomplishment that they have helped other people. Who knows why we are altruistic! It is one of the big questions about human beings. Why do we help each other? Are we genetically programmed to keep the species alive in a way that we would even sacrifice ourselves or our own families to keep our village happy or healthy? What are our motivations? John is as suspicious of altruism as he is of narcissism because he met a lot of really altruistic people who were as narcissistic as anybody and they were intolerable, but they are out there helping others.

John doesn’t know what his purpose is in life. His attempts to alleviate other people's suffering through art have been successful, but he doesn’t feel it justifies him and he doesn’t know what is next. When he sits down to write, unfortunately all these questions are in his mind: ”Why am I writing this song? To help some kid who's doesn't know how to talk to girls? No! To help somebody who has just been through a terrible divorce? I don't know, do I really care about that person?” John is no longer unburdening himself and feeling a great relief at finally getting it off his chest.

If it would be enough for John to just go on living, he would be a much happier person. There are plenty of people, even some of John's good friends, whose whole justification is to get on that jet ski on Saturday. John grew up in Alaska where you go out on the weekends, fire up a motorized vehicle of some kind, tear-ass around and when you come back it is like ”Wooo! That was amazing! Let's get drunk!” and on Monday morning it all seems worth it. For John that was never the case. At this age he should probably have worked out what he is doing enough that he shouldn't wake up every day and say ”Why am I doing this again? Why am I getting up and making breakfast for myself?”

At the age of 44 John has arrived at the understanding that being fueled by dissatisfaction is a never-ending tail-chasing that isn't fun anymore. For 25 years he has been playing this game of telling himself that if he just had this one improvement in this one aspect of his life, then happiness would descend on him like a pink cloud, but there is no one thing that needs to change. If happiness is possible, it is possible by virtue of having a mental revolution that might come as a result of embracing meditation or hot yoga or veganism or something as simple as setting a goal and then setting another goal and not thinking about anything other than that goal.

Brian remarks that most people just have jobs which seems like an easier way to go, but only if you are not a quester. Some genetic predispositions push some people out of the village, otherwise we would not have colonized the world, but we would all still be living in a really big village somewhere in Nigeria. There are always people that are being pushed out, but not pushed out by others, but they are venturing out. Today you can't just venture out into the land anymore because we have colonized the world. It would make no sense for John to go to Vladivostok and go out into the woods because he wouldn't be helping people!

When you leave the village you are venturing out with the idea that you are going to come back with some pelts or you are gonna come back with clean water or with spices. John does have this genetic predisposition to venture out, but doing it in the physical realm isn't really needed and he is one of the cast of people who is trying to venture out in whatever way he can and bring back whatever he finds. Whether or not that is needed is up to the village to decide, but John is compelled.

John does not seek happiness. Happiness is great and it happens in short bursts for him. Playing with his daughter makes him happy, finding new things, discovering new things, even just lifting up a rock and seeing the bugs that live under it makes him happy. Other people do make him happy despite feeling a lot of pressure when he is around other people.

Language barriers (YL4)

John has traveled to foreign countries, but he never found it necessary to learn another language. There aren't that many things to say to one another that we don't already know. If there is a person standing next to you the things they need to communicate to you are self-evident and you can have a pretty fantastic conversation. John spent many happy hours sitting on a log with somebody where they had no language in common, but they were just enjoying being human beings with each other. It is not that confusing! You sit next to each other and you go ”Boo boo boo” and you point at something and they go ”Ho ho ho” and you go ”Yeah!” and you are talking, you really are. The language gets in between us.

One time John was in Turkey and stopped a guy on the street to ask for directions (see RW42). He asked in an international patois ”Where is the center? Where is the centrum of the city?” He could tell that the other guy was a student, he was 24 year old with long hair, and he said ”I am sorry, I do not speak English” - ”That's no problem, I'm just trying to find my way to the center. The center.” The guy got very frustrated. ”I do not speak English, I'm sorry!” - ”Right, I get it!" and John picked up a stick and drew on in the dirt ”center”, ”the centrum” Everybody in the world knows Centrum! The Chinese know Centrum! The guy was so mad at John and so frustrated by the fact that he didn't speak English. He was trying to communicate that he didn't speak English while John was drawing something in the dirt with a stick! Speaking English is not essential to this!

The guy thought that their language barrier was insurmountable. For years John has been speaking to people with no common language and it is not a problem if you are not hung up on language barriers. This guy was so worried about words that he couldn't get the simplicity of what John was asking. He was very proud of not speaking English and he was insistent on it as a form of resistance to English being this sweeping colonizing plague. Your politics and your Che Guevara T-shirt are not important to me right now, I am trying to find the fucking center of your town! They parted ways with no information having been exchanged. He doesn't speak English but he probably shops at Hot Topic and loves Led Zeppelin and ABBA like everybody does.

Conclusion (YL4)

Exchanges with other people give John tremendous gratification. Even this conversation with Brian made his day and gave it shape and meaning. By building his house around himself John is blocking that off and Brian had to batter down his door with his battering ram of incessant emails.

There is a little umbrella rack by the door full of swords, guns and staffs. There is even a staff of mite over there. Having had Brian at his house energized and enlivened John, which means that having a house is a mixed bag. It is its own recapitulating energy and it energizes him to think more about what he is saying. It energizes him to go talk to more people and to believe that conversation is a way of solving problems.

When Brian goes to see a movie that he really likes or goes to a Rock show that he really likes, on the train ride home he will be really amped up to go do something crazy, but by the time he gets there it has dissipated. That feeling still plants a little seed in you and after you collect a few seeds you do end up making things, you just can't tie it exactly to one concert. Living in a world where creativity is valued is its own inspiration. Plenty of people out there are going from jet ski to jet ski and it never occurs to them to make anything.

Outro (YL4)

John Roderick of The Long Winters, formerly of Harvey Danger, now of his podcast Roderick on the Line. If you liked what you heard on the podcast today, John's show is a far more delightful weekly version of those sorts of conversations with Merlin Mann of You Look Nice Today. Thanks to John for agreeing to do it! He actually welcomed Brian to his home with open arms. His house is the closest thing to the physical manifestation of John Roderick's personality you can possibly imagine. You walk in and there is an umbrella stand full of different weaponry, so don't ever visit his home uninvited! He got a grand piano covered in dozens upon dozens of candlesticks, a fantastic setting in which to speak to Mr. Roderick.

When Brian was out in Seattle John recommended a place called Randy's, which is a diner over by Boeing. If you have ever been to Seattle you know that Boeing got a huge presence there, it is where they built all the planes. A lot of retired pilots, mechanics, and things like that hang out in this awesome restaurant full of model planes. If John Roderick ever tells you to eat at a place you should definitely eat at that place, although the chicken salad left something to be desired.

Thanks everyone for listening! You can follow us on riylcast.tumblr.com or shoot us an e-mail: moc.liamg|tsaclyir#moc.liamg|tsaclyir. Thanks as always to Geneva for cutting this thing together and thanks as always to Foxy Brown for making that logo. Hopefully there will be some more of these things in the future! Stick around! Stay tuned!

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