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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Roderick on the Line

Posted by Maximum Fun on 16th January 2012

Vital stats:
Format: Skype conversations between Merlin Mann and John Roderick
Episode duration: 50m-1h30m
Frequency: weekly

Time was, Merlin Mann’s followers — a square-framed group in which I count myself — suffered a perpetual drought. You’d get your luminary’s guest appearances on podcasts now and again or, on extra-special days, recordings of his speeches at tech industry conferences and company retreats. Though half of these would slice off into the rough of open-source application minutia or techniques for executing semi-documented five-keystroke Mac OS commands, Mann would still work in incisive and eerily useful observations about life, work, and the overlap between them. These came propelled by his rocket-fueled Gen-X wit, guided by cultural landmarks on maps printed by independent record labels of the early nineties. Out its back blew a noxious vapor trail meant to cloud and choke the forces of internet-enabled hucksterism and complacency. To what scraps we received, we paid the attention of Talmudic scholars.

Now, even the most compulsive admirers surely struggle to keep up with more Merlin Mann media than they can handle. Those who always approached his output buffet-style, paying attention to his indictments of certain things and ignoring his indictments of others, must see this as a boon. Those who desire only his thoughts about using your mind to create things that actually matter in a less twitchy, fearful manner can stick to Back to Work with Dan Benjamin. Those who prefer Mann’s rapid-fire cracks — not fully orchestrated jokes, exactly, but something subtler, more tonal, and further askew — about German sex tourism, fruit cocktails, John Wayne Gacy, and insistently ragtag but highly educated guitar bands hailing from the first Bush administration — now have something to download as well.

This new arrival, Roderick on the Line [RSS] [iTunes], presents a weekly Skype conversation between Mann and his longtime pal John Roderick. You might know Roderick from The Long Winters, the rock band he leads, or from his time playing with Harvey Danger, or from — and here I lean on Wikipedia — his musical associations with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Maximum Fun favorite Jonathan Coulton. I understand he has also made his presence felt at MaxFunCon, so I’d have personally known his raw charisma by now, had I but managed to scrape together the price of admission. I recognize him from something infinitely cheaper: his occasional contributions to the Seattle Weekly, the paper I read when I grew up near that city.

A Seattleite by birth and current residence with a mother lode of stories about his Anchorage adolescence, Roderick sits dead-center in the “Northwest People” circle of my social brain’s Venn diagram. I’ve somehow placed Mann, who connects with Roderick from his San Francisco home and matches him spiky-reminiscence-for-spiky-reminiscence with tales of Ohio and Florida, in the same circle. Maybe, to a defector to central Los Angeles such as myself, San Francisco simply counts as the Northwest. But as Roderick on the Line explicitly reveals, both men share a well-considered yet faintly savage distaste for such classically Northwesterly compulsions as fleece, metallically iconic architecture, Gore-Tex, and a brand of easy superciliousness I’ll call Whole Foods Liberalism.

Having grown up in that region, I can’t stop my mind from resonating on these same frequencies. Nor can I suppress my instinctual reaction to the “cool guy older than you” vibe from these two fellows, born about sixteen years before me and possessed of such immediate knowledge about (and given to such a rushing current of references to) the legitimately alternative young adult’s zeitgeist that prevailed throughout my childhood. When they get together, the conversational energy between them encourages a sort of cultural criticism. Roderick in particular goes on jags that, at first, wouldn’t sound out of place coming out of the mouth of a conservative AM-talk host, but soon take on a life all their own. His early lament about how Americans have become, in their own minds, “300 million of the most important people who have ever lived,” or how we’ve accidentally thrown out the rules that kept society running because we got our panties in a twist junking everything originally imposed by colonialists and/or dead white men, would strike a chord with me anyway. But few, I wager, would predict how Roderick fills out his theses.

Mann, naturally, summons his usual withering glare at the meaningless ephemerality of an era fixated on social-media fame. Without hesitation, he commiserates with Roderick about the distrust and disgust he feels in a world where you don’t know if the last good thing you read came from someone who genuinely wanted to write something good, or who just wrote something pseudo-good to drive you to a Tumblblog full of ads. What’s worse — I rush to explain after quoting the man I once demanded explain why I don’t have any money — we twentysomethings don’t even want to pull that kind of crap. We loathe ourselves for it, but we see no other option. We feel deep, gnawing fear. Besides, it’s that or a day job.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall just quit hosting and producing The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]