T for Tom

Halfway Thru 2018 in Music

Posted in Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 10, 2018

This year is shaping up to be a weird, if a mostly disappointing one – two years into the dystopian future and no one has really emerged as a guiding light to take music into the protest era it deserves. There have strangely been a number of follow-ups by major artists who released LPs just last year, but nothing was really new or unique (more Gorillaz, Father John Misty, Drake, etc., but just repetitions of previous).

Anyway, I’ve listened to a lot of good music, but most of it remains unremarkable and I couldn’t even remember most of this list while trying to make it. Nothing jumped out at me except for Camp Cope and Pusha T, and Franz Ferdinand and Shame are kinda funky and fresh. Everything else has just been music, some good some great some bad. Whatever. Here’s to hoping for a better second half.

 

Albums, in no order:

Pusha T – DAYTONA is raw, explicit, and on point. I’ve never really listened to Pusha before, but my immediate returns are that the guiding hand of Kanye West have put his lyrics in an audio package where it finally belongs.

Franz Ferdinand – FF set out to make an album with all the energy of their first and still most recognized debut. They have succeeded, and then some.

Camp Cope – No one is making music as important as Camp Cope right now.

Shame – look past the Pet Sounds cover homage and find the most unclean punk in years.

Favela – Sonically unique, listening to Favela is like traveling on a piano through space.

 

Songs – there have been some dope tracks though:

the 1975 – “Give Yourself a Try”

Dega – “Don’t Call It”

Shame – “Concrete”

Franz Ferdinand – “Lazy Boy”

Black Thought – “Twofifteen”

Amber Mark – “Conexao”

Favela – “Patience”

Pusha T – “What Would Meek Do”

“People talkin’ shit, Push’ how do you respond?”

“I’m top 5 and all of them Dy-lan.”

Nas – “Cops Shot The Kid”

Oscar Key Sung – “Cobras & Roses”

MO & Diplo – “Get It Right”

 

 

Everything I’ve put into consideration:

Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Casino & Hotel – it’s better than the worst opinion, but I listened to it for twenty minutes before realizing I had already heard six songs.

Beach House – 7

Black Thought – Streams of Thought vol. I – one of the best rappers all time

Leon Bridges – Good Thing – good follow-up

Camp Cope – How to Socialize & Make Friends – **** will idolize

The Carters (Beyonce and Jay-Z) – Everything is Love

Beyonce: “we should rap together.”

Jay-Z: “Okay.”

the end.

Neko Case – Hell-On

Dega – Dega

Dr. Dog – Critical Equation – not their best, but never bad.

Drake – Scorpion – there is 25 fucking songs on this thing. too many.

Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer – unnecessary.

Favela – Community

Franz Ferdinand – Always Ascending – love it

Geowulf – Great Big Blue – “Saltwater” is a banger.

Get Up Kids – Kicker

Gorillaz – The Now Now – it’s like The Fall pt. II.

Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy In This Land – really good

Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off Dog

Ben Howard – Noonday Dream

J. Cole – KOD – whatever

Jim James – Uniform Distortion

Kids See Ghosts – KIDS SEE GHOSTS – fucking dope

Lord Huron – Vide Noir – nice

Lykke Li – so sad so sexy

Middle Kids – Lost Friends

M.I.L.K. – Maybe I Love Kokomo

Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer – why do people like her? It’s just knock off Madonna.

Nas – NASIR

Petal – Magic Gone

Pusha T – DAYTONA

Rhye – Blood – isnt great but seems great in a terrible year. Easy listening anyway.

Shakey Graves – Can’t Wake Up – got some bangers, got some nonsense.

Shame – Songs of Praise – TURN IT UP TO 11

SG Lewis – Dusk

Snow Patrol – Wildness – actually a good return

Oscar Key Sung – No Disguise

Twin Shadow – Caer – what is this shit

Kanye West – YE – bold and daring for all the wrong reasons, but sonically gifted as always

Wilderado – Favors

Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs

Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On – great music, but doesn’t live up to the album title at all.

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This World

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on June 28, 2018

A world of neglect and the things we do to each other

“Just help us out”

Never enough to gain favor

Only gains to our savior

As everything trickles up.

 

Like a dam held up

We don’t ask for much

But asking, it seems,

Is uncouth.

 

Just a meal or fair rent

Is a chance to survive

To say nothing of what happens

When we nearly die.

 

But that I think is the point

That while children are crying

   And homeless are starving

   And mothers are working

   And soldiers are dying

   And workers don’t sleep

   And families cant eat

We shouldn’t feel good about living.

On Hopelessness

Posted in america, Europe, Prose, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 28, 2018

Snow drifted softly to the ground as I walked the streets of St. Petersburg, covered in white everywhere except for a few recent footsteps in the snow by the people walking in every direction up and down under the dim light of a lamppost in the winter night. I was at the mercy of the guide to my side, but also to the whims of this frozen nation and its people, its principled foray into modernity based squarely on its resistance to change – I couldn’t speak Russian and hardly knew the alphabet, and so couldn’t learn much to help myself during this week long voyage into a great northern Christmas. Were it not for the few people with me at different times, I wouldn’t have eaten well or even much, and certainly would have been left to my own silence and thoughts there in the cold.

Though for the sake of speaking, I learned, there was much helplessness to go around. On just the first night of five, I had been taken to dinner by a young woman my age who was lucky enough to own a vehicle and who drove me across the bridge into the city and to a warm, deep red colored restaurant where we shared borsht and a beer. Her name was Tanya, and you wouldn’t know her from a European or an American if you passed her on the street, and especially if you heard her speak. She had large, open eyes set under a head of dark, almost black hair, and could have easily been the girl next door. I asked her why she was here in St. Petersburg and how she learned English so well, and she told me that she had lived in Germany for a couple years while studying but had to return to work. I asked her if it was her choice, but she said it wasn’t. “It’s hard to stay away, and since my studies were paid for, I had to come back and work for the company that provided it.” I asked her when she might expect to be able to travel again, and she said she didn’t know. “It doesn’t really work that way.” Getting any more of an answer was the first time I had been stonewalled. I would learn over the week that her impenetrable spirit was less the will of the people and more the will of the state, and it found its way into everyone there.

My second guide was a few years younger than myself or my guest the previous night. Her name was Anna, fittingly, and she had bright, almost red, brown hair that seemed to sparkle. We met in the afternoon at a coffee shop down Nevsky Prospekt, and I couldn’t help but think that the shine was from her infectious smile or the sunshine outside that lit the snow-covered ground and turned it into an upward facing mirror. Like Tanya the night before, her English was easily understood, though she carried a more typically-Russian way of affecting her words. As a sign to her age, she was dressed head to toe in a full-length purple parka, accented with purple gloves. She took me to the Christmas fair in the middle of the promenade that occurred in the daytime during this January week, the time of Russian Orthodox Christmas. We talked about traditions and watched the skaters in the ice rink, before she mentioned that her brother had been in the Russian army. As I was in the American army now, I wanted to know what she thought. “The Russian Army is mandatory for most men.” I didn’t know what she meant by most men. “Well, there are those that are can pay their way out of it, though they’re not supposed to,” she said. “But that’s just the way a lot of things go.” She jumped back into talking about Christmas as if nothing had happened, and before long offered to enter a bar mid-afternoon to take a shot of vodka, simply as a means of warming up. It was truly just the way things had gone, and appeared to continue.

Eventually I asked her to see something different, to get into the thick of St. Petersburg. I’m not sure if it was naiveté or youth or both, but she had a tour guide’s knowledge of two art museums just off the prospect – she knew of their existence, but seemed uninterested in the reasons why. She did make sure to remark on St. Petersburg’s first Starbucks that had just opened and which we passed on the way. Shortly we arrived at an unremarkable building and turned into the center hallway. “This is the John Lennon museum,” she said. “We have to go into the building to maybe enter.” The halls were painted with graffiti and on the doors of one entrance was a plaque to John Lennon himself – “In the name of John Lennon – the Temple of Love, Peace, and Music.” We walked up a staircase to an empty hallway where a printed sheet of paper was taped to a bell – “ring to enter.” But no one answered. “It’s often closed, and there are no times,” said Anna. “We can go to a different museum across the street.” And just as quickly we left. It was just the way of things.

The next gallery was a modern art institute of sorts that was more clearly marked with neon signs and that operated a bar inside, which was a nice evening greeting. It still had the feeling of being a bit ramshackle, and I was getting the feeling that these two museums, in their disparate and near-hidden existences, persisted only so far as the state allowed them. The second museum featured pieces on the city’s subways and architecture, and was likely much less a threat. The John Lennon Museum, which I later learned was referred to by its address, Pushkinskaya 10, was much more in disguise – I never found out what was behind the doors, and steps had clearly been taken to keep it that way. There was a spirit of protest somewhere in the halls of that building, but it was under cloak and mask. But in spite of the cloak and deceit, I couldn’t help but note that I had come there and found it with a little help – we didn’t have to try that hard – and that the state, like with everything else, somehow allowed this to continue. I had the feeling that the museum itself was somehow purposefully hopeless. It evoked the sense of freedom in name and image, but could do nothing to obtain it. I believe that it was allowed to exist exactly in such that way, as a symbol to the people of St. Petersburg. We were supposed to rejoice that the freedom expressed in our dreams was allowed to exist, somewhere anyway, even if we could never have it ourselves.

I stayed with Anna all through the evening until just after dinner, where we found ourselves walking back toward the Nevsky Prospect where I’d depart on my way to meeting other students for a night of drinking. We passed church, among the many we saw along the way, but less remarkable. I had already seen the Kazan Cathedral and the Church on the Savior of Spilled Blood, the only orthodox church in St. Petersburg. With Anna now, we had passed what would be unremarkable in any Midwestern American town, a small chapel with greek architecture in the front, and a single steeple on top that didn’t rise above two floors. It may well have been a government building. But it was the year of Pussy Riot and I wanted to know what the feeling on the street was, and so I asked. “How do you feel about Pussy Riot?”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“How do you feel about the girls being held in prison?”

“You cannot protest in a church,” she answered.

It was my turn to be confused and so I asked her what she meant this time.

“No can protest in a church, even if you disagree with Putin,” she said. “It didn’t have to be in a church.” And as if for emphasis, she added, “That’s the law.”

That’s the part that always stuck with me. The immutable law. I felt like Anna couldn’t see the possibility of absurdity in the law, much in the way that we couldn’t see into the John Lennon Museum. She came up to and in front of the point – that Pussy Riot, or just people anywhere, should be able to protest when and where they please, which is a protest – but couldn’t cross a fundamental barrier that had been erected by years of social education otherwise. Where Tanya may have some cynical grasp that she is lost to hopelessness in spite of knowing better, Anna is hopeless against the modes and methods that make her life possible. Both are reverent to the cogs that spin the wheels, but there is a difference for their place in it – hopeless to change it, or hopeless to believe it should be any different.

In Bloom’s essential, though now forgotten, incision on our own American education in Closing of the American Mind, he discusses the philosophical theory that persisted throughout the duality of the sixties, and foremost by those who opposed the rise of liberality in social education: “the [social] contract theorists all taught that the law must never be broken, that the strength of the law is the only thing that keeps us away from the state of nature, therefore that risks and dangers must be accepted for the sake of law.” And in this way, Anna accepts that things won’t get better, because she also accepts that they cannot get worse. But this is merely perception, ingrained through years of reinforcement by the state and the education she received.

In America, those who uphold the law do not want to see the way things are met with change. As described before, any change in the law indicates a move toward lawlessness, or the state of nature. In the state of nature, all things are equal, in measure to their worthiness (but, crucially, not their ability) to claim their livelihood. And for so many now, for the weak and the minorities and the poor and the sick and the ill and the mistreated and the abused, for the vast majority of the United States of America, enforcing the law will uphold a way of life that we cannot survive. It is within this system that we feel hopeless, and only by changing it can we gain hope for a better future.

It takes a long time for this idea to gain a plurality – that our best hope is working beyond the system, and not by incrementally using the same system for the purpose of great change. Over two hundred years of this system has only kept the same minority in power, and from their seats of power now they continue to call for upholding the system, above all else. Above all misuses, above all misdeeds, above all errors and grafts and abuses of and by the system, we are told that our best hope for a better future remains within the system. This is merely the social education of the American people speaking, as it always does. That our best hope is within this democracy. But have we not seen the failures of voting, in multiple elections in this lifetime alone? Have we not seen the imperiling of our existence by the officials elected to representative us? We must be reminded that they are the same ones asking now for us to remain rooted in our belief in the system, on the belief that the system works. But our education, like the system that teaches it, only serves the purposes of those giving the lessons.

It takes looking at an Anna or a Tanya to see ourselves in other places. It takes seeing these young men and women in hopeless situations. The new way forward, if we find one, will be in the understanding that we can only go ahead by removing the things in our way, if even they be the laws themselves. Some nobility within directs us to break certain laws for sake of other higher laws, but I’ll leave the defining of those higher laws to the future tense.

The last question I posed to Anna before we parted was how she could not see the virtue in Pussy Riot breaking the law. Her answer was dismissive, if not correct: “what am I going to do about it?”

What are we going to do about it? Things can either stay the same or they can change. In the short term I knew there was nothing I could do about it, and parted ways with Anna to meet another Tanya, a blond. I knew it was hopeless in my five days to try and get to the bottom of the Russian existence, and so to get to the bottom of my own. I spent the rest of my time existing there in the spaces around me. If their Russian tragedies had led them to this moment, they were at least still alive. They were alive in the few art museums I had already seen, and they were still alive in Dostoevsky’s adult home, and they were still alive crossing the Neva by foot, and they were still alive in spite of it all, in spite of the system that keeps them there in that winter snow globe.

It would be hopeless to try and change that, and so we all just float on, hopeless.

Thinking of Things

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on June 6, 2018

Waking up in the frigid cold unexpectedly, or with the rising sun warming your tent. Outside are mountains or valleys or maybe cliffs and blue skies, and from the drunken stupor you remind yourself, the natural world is just outside. You can feel that you’re apart of it, and though your bones creak and the head might spin, everything orients at some point together: whatever I’ve done and am going to do next, I’m doing it out here. You’re probably alone, and you probably spent the evening watching the sun go down over the rising earth in the great distance, nothing between you both but those hills and the green forests that line them, or even better, the sandy bottom of a Chihuahuan desert that makes existence seem impossible. The only sounds from the wind gently brushing your temporary home, and you step out into the light. The memories of the night before, spectacular: you were just here because it was a holiday, but it always seemed to find ways to marvel you: the surprise fireworks show you watched from above at 7000’ atop the tallest mountain in Virginia, or the full moon that set for the only person sleeping at Wind Rock on the Appalachian Trail, or the sunset that turned the sky orange from a thousand miles away and across the full length of Arizona, so it seems, seen from a sky island while standing in a cathedral of rock, prayers sent to the heavens. Even the ones that hurt, like a surprise freeze in July at Bluff Springs Waterfall where you only brought a hammock because surely it was summer, and starting the fire in the morning meant coming back to life.

Breakfast needs to be made, the gear packed, the head leveled, water. But the air is crisp, cool when you need it after a warm night, warm when you need it after the cold. It always knows how to greet you. It remembers, just like you, everything that happened, and that’s perhaps the driving force – you’re never certain why you like to do something, something that can be so much work, seem so much hassle. But you do know that you enjoy most, above many things, looking back and knowing that you did it. You climbed the tallest mountain three times, or hiked 100 miles in the Dutch plains. You slept on the Persian Gulf and saw the sun settle in the dust, or you ran five miles at zero degrees Fahrenheit. You went down into the Grand Canyon and washed the cold cold waters of the Colorado River across your face just as the canyon walls went dark, having made it to your destination with only a daylight to celebrate having made it. Or maybe you just walked through a farm, on the other side of the planet, repeatedly. You spent your days in only the night, feeling the cold air slide off the grey stone of the buildings in the city center, lit like gothic dreams. The only light from the lampposts that guide the way through the alleys, nothing more, just the fog of breath floating in your face from the cigarette burning at your lip.

You think of these things. You think of them and you think of being younger. You’re not old now but you remember what it was like to be young, to be sad, to be free. And you stand there now, alone, out of the tent for the first time that morning, the sparkle of the dew glittering off the bead of the pins of the cacti, or rolling with the steady stream from the spring that starts out of the rock just over the grassy hill where are the daisies grow. These things are real, and they remind you of the life that flickers now before your eyes. It’s the looking back that’s so great. It’s the visions and endless streams of faces and markers and waters and mountains and fields and formations of people that have come and gone, and its romantic attachment to the idea that it’s still out there. That’s why you keep going back. You surround yourself with the wild wild world to remember that it’s still out there.

But mostly it’s the memories. Sometimes they come back one by one, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes you have look back through your notes to remember a name, or to see a place in your mind, or sometimes it only takes a song and you’re right back in that exact moment when it all came together, life music feeling spirit freedom earth joy the infinite. And at other times its all the memories all at once and it’s too much to handle. It’s the bars and the plane rides and the ice on the path and the feet in the snow and the Salzach and the flooding desert rains and the college graduations and the long slow burning glow of the sun that hangs its head every night in the shadows of the West Texas plains and just the feeling of being on the move to somewhere new, and the feeling of having it all at your fingertips. You remember it all, in clear and vivid detail, every bit as much a blessing as a curse. To always remember such joys, but to never forget the rapid pages of time and the people it leaves behind.

And in the cold morning air you reach out to grab them. You’d like to say hello, wish them well. But the only blessing they’ll have is that they live on in your memories, worthy of being not forgotten. And they’ll never know. So you must remember. Remember to remember.

Finding Ways to Find Our Way Back

Posted in Europe, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on May 16, 2018

It’s always the moments at the very end that stick with me. Everything before is clear as day, but the emotions that linger strongest were the emotions in climax, the emotions in simultaneously in conflict: “I’d never trade this moment for the world, but I’ll never have it to do again.”

It was the sunset that made this possible, on the last day I had before deployment. I wasn’t entirely free on that day – our vehicles had been permanently stored the week before, and we had a wakeup call at 4am to begin the long, slow, laborious task of loading our individual bags first on a bus, then on a train, then on a plane on the way to the Middle East. But in some effort of compassion, we were released that afternoon around lunch time. Those who had families went to them. Those who didn’t had each other.

As a matter of soaking up every last minute of eligible choice I had, we went as far away and as we could conjure, and stayed as active as we possibly could. The idea of sitting down and talking wasn’t enough. Taking a walk around the base would’ve been peaceful, but I always had the idea to do just a bit more – go beyond the lines of reason, because it wasn’t reason that put us here in the first place. We weren’t supposed to drink, so we bought a six pack. We weren’t supposed to be out past sundown, so we planned on taking the last train back. The biggest, most exciting thing there was available for us was to board the train for the next village over, a distance of about four miles, and play putt-putt at the community recreation center.

As a military unit, there were six of us who had all been released at the same time and, though we usually didn’t spend our free time together, were compelled to join up and do something erratic. We all had the electricity of knowing this was it. The couple Joes I didn’t mind who usually played video games came along, either out of anxiety or because their systems were already packed away for the flight. There was Micah, Marshall, James, Rueben, and myself. A few of them were even wearing their tan combat undershirts, because our personal clothes had also been stored already for the long year without us.

We all met in front of our barracks building by the back gate and started walking out toward the train station just around the corner. I had a six pack in hand, and Marshall asked if I should be worried. I didn’t have a reason to care. Just as we were about to reach the gate, I heard Corey yell from his second floor window across the way. He lived in a separate building than us because he was in a different unit, but we had remained friends throughout our time first in training, and second in Germany. We had even travelled much of the country together, but he was due now to part for the Middle East himself, though with his own unit and to a different location. But walking out I heard his “Hey! What are you doing!?” and knew to answer back: “Going to Burgbernheim, gonna play putt putt. Take the next train and bring beer.” As we were paying for our tickets at train station after the five minute walk, he came bounding up out of breath and with a bottle of schnapps in his hand.

The whole scene was a little rowdier than I’m used to, in the way I like to be when I’m doing things like this. It wasn’t always the act of the thing that got me, but the act of doing the thing in new places. It wasn’t the putt putt that I came for, but the feeling of being a German citizen, on a beautifully crisp spring’s afternoon.

Burgbernheim sat at the base of the cliff that swept wide along the entire eastern border of our village and the valley around us. In fact, the small village of Burgbernheim ran east to west, and the furthest eastern point was the chapel that sat on the hill overlooking the village below. And in that village, next to a friend’s apartment, I knew there was a small community operated putt putt course that we hadn’t played on yet. The idea of doing something so banal in such an unremarkable place seemed utterly German of me – it wasn’t the putt putt, because I think that’s American faire, but the idea of just doing something to pass time in the places were we live. And I lived in Germany. It separated me from the physical tourism of each event and brought about an experience of understanding, of communion. These things aren’t too different than us.

Marshall and James, who I hadn’t really travelled with much, were nice to come along, but played their games as we went. First to make jokes, first to throw punches, all in good nature, but without the moment to just sit down and think about what we were doing. To fester on the idea that the wildest, craziest thing we could even physically manifest in our environment, was a stroll up from the train station in the next village over to drink beer and play mini-golf. I noticed the greening of the bushes as we went, and the lush, deep grass that lined all the yards and parks. I wondered if I remember their scent, or remember the colors. I wondered if I would even have the chance to walk like this with friends of mine, aimlessly and with nothing to do.

We played putt putt there, and it got a little out of hand. Not even for the alcohol so much as the pent up anxieties of what would happen to us. No one ever mentioned that in less than twelve hours we’d be putting on a uniform, never to see a pair of jeans again for some nine months. We didn’t discuss the food we were eating at the ice cream stand and how much it’d be different in the desert, and we didn’t talk about the shadows that were growing on the ground as the sun slipped lower over the horizon and off into the distance of a rolling, unending sea of farms, up and over with the hills that seemed so much like a scene from a film. We just finished our beer, found the recycling, and made our way noisily back to the last train from this village.

It was there on the train steps that I saw it growing. I hadn’t ever been to this train stop, because I hadn’t yet had a reason to go to Burgbernheim that I couldn’t drive for. But their train station was somehow smaller than ours in Illesheim, even though our village some couple thousand less people – they at least had a grocer. But where Illesheim’s train stop was a full old station that now sat empty, Burgbernheim didn’t even have the building anymore. In fact, from we were sitting, it looked like it had been leveled and turned into a green space, with a few parking spots just next to it, ostensibly for the few persons in Burgbernheim who drove to the train regularly. The advanced ticketing computers that were used everywhere just made a full train station obsolete, even in the largest metros. And so there in Burgbernheim, it had been replaced with what is known best to us as a bus stop – a simple bench system with a covered awning, and a few front from the platform where we would board the train. This platform, being so small and open and with little surroundings, was raised just enough to get on the train at its height. But the added benefit from here, looking west, was that the valley continued to sink off westward away from the cliffs, which meant we could look out and see the full view of everything we had come to love in the past year.

Life, vital life, blue skies, and the feeling of infinite youth. It was being taken from us the next day. In sadness and in communion, mother earth gave me one last fiery sunset.

I lit a cigarette and ignored everything around me, thinking of everything around me.

IMG_0214.jpg

This is that sunset, from Burgbernheim. The last sunset I’ve ever known.

I remember thinking that I hadn’t spent enough time watching the sun go down in Europe. I remember thinking that I had been on the go for so long, that I didn’t know what I was running for. I remember thinking about Nurnberg, and Munich, and Rome and Estonia and Finland and Prague. I remember thinking that I had done so many things for so many people, and taken so much time to be with so many people all around the world, that I hadn’t ever taken time to slow down. I remember thinking that I would love to do it all again, every single mistake and act and false start. I remember thinking it was the best way to put it all to sleep.

What I know now is that these moments will never happen again. I can recreate them for myself, and I can find new ones just like them and new ones more spectacular. But what I cannot do as I get older, is fill these spaces with the people I know and love. As the beating of time wears us down, and the weight of obligations fills us up, we will be less likely to ever have so many of our friends together, willfully or not, in the same place. Some have children, some moved across the county, others are still in the Army. Some are doctors, some are unemployed, some will never talk to me again. But whatever it is that they’re doing, it is enough to keep them away from my life, should I ever ask them to reenter. The chances that I could ever get these six people back together again are non-existent.

We went on to the Middle East the next day, and set about finding ways to find our way back. We worked as we were told, drifted along in the way that life directs us. We got back and we went our ways, back into our habits and along the way of time, keeping some of us close and spreading some of us far apart. Time and youth and necessity brought us together, in such strange moments for all our lives to have been there and to have done that, in that way. Every now and then it all clicks into place and something wonderful can happen.

I can always see another sunset. But I will never see another one like that.

Some Things I’ll Never Do

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on May 16, 2018

These are some things I’ll never do. They’re common enough that maybe you’ll do some, but also you too might never do most, if you really get down to it. Things I’ll never do:

-Travel in space.

-Be the president.

-Speak Greek.

-Read Chinese.

-Visit all 195 nations.

-Swim the English Channel.

-See the North Pole.

-Drive NASCAR.

-Summit Everest.

-Live in New York City.

-Master the guitar.

-Be a major professional athlete.

-Direct a film.

-Hold elected office.

-Study medicine.

-Fly a plane.

-Build a house, by my own hand or otherwise.

-Hit a home run.

-Sail a boat.

-Live debt free.

-Patent an invention.

-Practice law.

-Win a Grammy.

-Cultivate a farm.

-Harvest a crop.

-Loom a shirt.

-Conduct an orchestra.

-Compete in the Olympics.

-Discover a star or planet.

-Walk uncharted land.

Many, many people have done these things many, many times, and it feels like they’re all just there to grab. Reach out and do a few of these things. But, really, trying to get even just one requires the sacrifice of much of the rest for all of time. You won’t get to space by conducting an orchestra, and you can’t loom a shirt trying to hit a home run.

But, each one still feels possible. The fear that keeps us from doing even just one, I think, is the fear that we’ll only ever do just one. It’s terrifying to have to pick just one, because it would mean the rest are impossible. I don’t ever want to think that I might not be able to do any or all of them, but here I am at 31 and most of them are closed to me already.

What’s left that I haven’t done but I might still could? Run a marathon? Start a business? Join the peace corps? Raise a child? Grow a crop?

It’s about finding the things worth our time. The age of information has spoiled us – we want it all – and in the end we get nothing, for only ourselves to blame.

Tell No One

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on May 10, 2018

Tell no one

Keep the revolution to urself

We all have 1

Yours isn’t special

They all echo

None stand out

The war was over years ago

No more giant leaps

That was just more noise

Sent into the void

Now with all these revolutions

Just a bunch of noise

Over noise

Good as static in harmony.

 

We’re just waiting for radio silence

Nothing left 2 do

It’s all been done

We’ve heard it before

Won’t make a difference

More echoes

Pinging off the walls

Bouncing aimlessly and unseen

Like revolutions in the wheel.

 

Never had a chance

Didn’t work last time

Wasting time trying

Little revolutions everywhere

Dying with a thud

Dull damp whimper

No great change

No collective evolution

Little bodies looking out for little bodies

Not interested in the least.

 

So do us a favor

Keep the revolution to yourself

Tell no one.

 

 

Hiding From Synthetic Light

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on May 3, 2018

In all corners there, I was constantly surrounded but constantly alone. I lived inside a fence for nine months, always in the presence of others who were there just like me but that I didn’t know personally and never would see again. I lived in their world just as mine, but neither of our worlds were really in existence, as nature goes. I was never without someone nearby, but I never had anyone close. There were nothing but possibilities, but I couldn’t leave the camp if I tried.

Do you know what it’s like to be so alone that you’re fully alive? Do you know how it feels to have all the power in the world and nowhere to use it?

We took up hobbies. I couldn’t leave the desert without a product to show for my time, and I came back with most of a manuscript and a penchant for recreational running. I had taken to getting fit, and I sought to create something. There really is fear in idle hands, to say nothing of how such a combat outpost comes to exist on the borders on the Kuwaiti desert where no living creature survives without daily truckloads of water.

Tedium. It was like always being in the balance. For some sake, I was there and had been taken there to do the bidding of others, listen to the commands of superiors. There was always work to be done. Always a task to be completed. And yet, somehow and in the midst of eternal work, it always felt like I could be doing anything else in exactly that moment – laundry, eating, working out, reading, watching a movie, beating off, just taking a fucking walk for chrissakes, smoking, throwing a football. So long as it wasn’t being dictated to me by a higher up and so long as it could happen in the spaces I was allowed to walk, it was a clearer, wiser choice.

I spent about three hours of everyday walking to different places in the two-square-mile or so side of camp that we inhabited. It was a fifteen minute walk to the gym in the morning, five minutes to the DFAC, twenty minutes back to the tent, and fifteen minutes to the work tent for morning call, all at the start of the day. Fifteen minutes to the DFAC and back for lunch, fifteen minutes to the tent at the end of the day, twenty minutes to the DFAC, five to the USO if you could find a place to hide your backpack that didn’t make it look like an IED (twenty minutes back and forth to your tent to get your backpack if you couldn’t), and twenty minutes back to the tent. That’s two and a half hours of time walking if you didn’t have to walk anywhere for work, give or take your tasks. But given that we didn’t have access to vehicles and all our bicycles got desert-rot in about two month’s time, there was plenty more walking to do.

The trick became finding ways to make something you had to do to survive into something enjoyable. How to make time on the two or three roads that were paved more enjoyable than the weekly formation runs I was required to take there, or the handful of physical fitness timed runs I went on. How to find a way to sit on a concrete slab and stare out on a horizon as long as a ruler and make it more peaceful than when I was just resting my knees after a hour in full plated armor under the 130-degree sun. How to sleep in a tent with fifty people and no working air conditioner and not think about whether the shower trailer works tomorrow or not.

I tried to spend as much time alone, and craft out as much space for myself as I could. Even when I was in the USO tent, fighting for space with some hundred-odd soldier kids, I took up the only table, usually by myself, and set about typing in the manuscript while everyone else watched sports or played on the video game systems. I even quit smoking a couple weeks into the first month, which removed me from the open air spaces where someone would come and interrupt my silence. I took up the habit of smoking cigars on Sunday as motivation, something to look forward to. Our sleeping tents were about 100 feet long by thirty feet wide, and there were entire sections of the camp where these tents were lined up four wide by six long, like a giant tent subdivision. These tents were then surrounded by any entire wall on all four sides of blast wall concrete pillars, and at both of the two longer ends were a row of shower trailers that operated on gasoline. If the gasoline ran out, the water and the electricity would both shut off instantly, and it didn’t care if you were in the middle of shower or jerking off. Just past the shower trailers there was a single berm like a fish pond, a water catch where the shower runoff would exit the trailer and pool up to be evaporated during the day. But just on the corner there, by the shower trailers nearest to my corner of the subdivision, there was a berm pool that was built up but no longer used, where a trailer had been but was moved.

The sand walls for the berm were about five feet high still and there was nothing but rocks and few pieces of pipe left behind in the empty pooling area. It took me a couple days to find this place, having walked first to the centers of the big empty spaces between subdivisions looking for darkness but constantly interrupted by the passing foot traffic of someone going somewhere at all times. I dug into a large dumpster and found a discarded camping chair and dragged it into the empty berm. And if I put it just close enough into one corner, the trailer lights that lit up the subdivision were hidden behind wall of sand, which was just enough to block out directly exposure to synthetic light.

And I’d sit there and look up and stare at the darkness, puffing on a $2 cigar that I purchased weekly from the exchange and that had long, long ago dried out on its journey to the checkout lane and into my hand. But it would light and it would stay lit, and I’d sit there with my headphones on for an entire hour and do nothing. Listening to music became the only literal way to tune out the humdrum of war. In Kuwait, though, it wasn’t really war. It was the bones of a war fought by a different generation, and it was the sum total of humanity in the 21st century. I was just tuning it all out. All of it.

By then on Sundays I would have written in the manuscript for six hours because Sunday was my assigned day off. It didn’t really matter which day was the day off, because everyone had different days and there were no weekends. It just happened to be Sunday. For others it was Wednesday, for others Saturday. There were no football games to attend or parties to host. But after I completed laundry and working out and writing all day, on Sundays I had just enough extra time to do exactly nothing.

Heartache, don’t come near me.

While the others were playing video games or working or eating or trying to talk to their wives, I sat there and looked out and thought about myself and the stars around me. About twice during those nine months, the sand would clear out in the sky just enough to show me the stars. But mostly it was fully dark and I had only my thoughts and the music and the low-humming sound of generators to keep me company.

Still though, I was closer to the infinite there.

Dark days, stay away from me.

Something About Animism

Posted in poem, Prose by johnsontoms on May 1, 2018

Disintegration, like time and memories and feelings and it all goes to waste, no proof of ever having lived. The places where all told sundry will rest, the annals of nothingness, the universe in motion, should we all rapture and the new planetary beings be unable to read English or Sanskrit or what have you might survive a few millennia of earthly rot. Nothing is what will be left of you and I and everything you love and hate in equal measure. The rocks keep spinning, maybe not this one, but some rocks somewhere, a few collisions, possibly another spark, and another line of history that will just as surely return to void like all before and every after. Dissolution in motion.

Let it read then like poetry. Let the life then be the lifeline. Let the living do the thing. Let all the birds sing a rosy song, and leave nothing for the afterlife. We are here to live until we die.

We will only live and we will only die, in that order, and not more than once. If you live bright enough, a few of the living will remember you until their turn to die. Everyone takes a turn, even the memory of you. The memory of you will die, just like time and space. In continuum we exist and in continuum we cease. Perpetuity is the only faith, death the only truth. In death’s absolute life must exist, and they tango, one to the other but always one on to the other, no new partners. Life and only death. Only life and death.

Negotiations in the Desert

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on February 21, 2018

The sound came in as if from outer space, bumbling easily along on waves of activity like gentle beams from outside the known, a message of peace from the unknown. It sounds like night descending without relent, no more tomorrows. Just a long bleeding line of darkness.

That was the feeling out there in the desert. The pattern is familiar and the refrain is soothing, but it looms with regret, or even somber acceptance. It is an acquiescence – “no more false promises.” Somehow, in spite of the better part of this automatic life promising greater if not just simply other things than anything like this, we wake up in the desert. And then we wake up in the desert again the next day and the day after that and on again that way until someone of importance tells you to board a plane and go home. This could be metaphorical, but for me it was literal. And the notion of having a place to be is now senseless.

Home becomes the unknown and then rightfully dissolves. Familiarity, comfort, being in a place of belonging, these sensations are after all this time now relegated to the sound of kicking larger stones across smaller stones that line the sand floor during the walk to the dining hall, sitting on one concrete pillar for a cigarette while staring at the concrete pillars directly across that provide a blast shelter to every building and road and become ubiquitous, or rising early in the dark to see the one spectacular and humane thing available that is the cold, cold rising desert sun striped in purple and red across the long, flat orange and yellow horizon only to curse the same sun mere hours later as it melts a pair of boots to the cement and pasting the wind-blown sand onto skin and into hair.

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The sunset from the back of the USS Ponce, November 2012.

These are things we’ve never done and certainly were never meant to do. We run timed miles on uphill roads along chain link fences hundreds of miles from the nearest Quonset hut. We drag boxes of water bottles over a hundred yards into our tents and stack them five feet high so the single stream of chilled air from the vent can cool the bottles to a drinkable temperature. We each take up a hobby or two that will fill our time and do it over and over again every day. We have all the time in the world and somehow we didn’t do all the things we wanted. I wrote a book, mostly. Two people have read it in its entirety.

I’m writing it again, differently this time, though the thing remains the same. Because the memories can’t be swatted away enough. “Heartache one more chance for you, All those things in the days before.” I sat there alone, at a desk, in the tents, in the tents that were our offices, in concrete corners of concrete towers alone with the wind-whipped trash to just get a minute to myself, or on Sundays in a half-crooked lawn chair tucked away in a dried-up wash berm behind the mobile shower unit that didn’t work any longer, the berm high enough to block the light from the flood lamp over my shoulder and the sky just dark enough to see the stars through the sand in the nighttime sky. Those moments were simulacrums, facsimiles, representations of things I knew in forms I’d never known before and never experience again. It was a series of negotiations.

All the while using these fake plastic moments, we’re left with the memories of things we can’t any longer see. Foods, persons, clothes, weather patterns, foliage, sleep. These things are replaced with choruses of indignation, collective shouts, grunts to the familiar. We churn. And somehow amidst the time lost, an actual year of life and choice that cannot be taken back, we replace our acknowledged home with this open air prison. Coming back from the unknown, we long for more. There is never more comfort than in a life on the edge. And soon, memories replace memories. “Memory leaving what you knew, former times how they follow you.” We now think only of the desert, we think only of outer space. In outer space, the worries of man whither to dust, wash to energy. It is a place of wonder.

How to get back? The strange machinations that made it possible are treacherous, impossible, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. It could be that a desire to their effect is evidence of my crippling. I too have become unhinged. But I think of these modes, these methods, these negotiations, and I think of a time when I was at my highest frequency. I was alert, I was kinetic. I was interstellar. And whenever “Streetlights fall on hollow night, I see up ahead what could be.” I see the dark and I am not afraid. I see the dark and I do not wait for the light.

I try to picture myself in the desert and think of the work. The good, terrible, painful work of getting it all down, putting it to paper as much as putting it to rest. A true literary history must be told, of all that exists out in the open. There are no more stories, only the things that have been done. There are no more fantasies, only the horrors of man.

I’ll let you know when I get mine down again. It’s not about the desert, though, but a time on the way there. And aren’t we all on our way on to the desert.

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I was there once, in the desert.