T for Tom

Thoughts on Time, Memory, and Sentimentality, and other reflections

Posted in Uncategorized by johnsontoms on May 27, 2011

Remember when we were young and knew nothing? When every day was a new surprise filled with places to see, worlds to explore, and rules to break.  I think we all have a bank of memories from our childhood and save them happily for recall, but with what emotion are we attached to those still frames in our mind?  I have a catalogue filled with activities and events from when I was young, ranging from playing football in the front yard, getting chased by an angry swarm of hornets, digging a hole to China, and the ubiquitous yelling of my mom out the front door to return home.  But in each of these I cannot place a singular and intensive emotion, a feeling that wells up inside me like any swelling of joy would to a happily married couple recalling their wedding day.

There are times and events that do bring about great feelings though.  And they always catch me by surprise.  Just trying to square away my locker the other day, listening innocently to music on my headphones, when on comes a song that reminds me of 2010:

Driving west on Hwy 71 as the sun reaches the horizon, sky turned orange and blue, cigarette out the window on my way to the Austin Greenbelt with plans to hike a few miles, reach a creek and sit down with a good book.  This was one the songs I chose most during those days and now it always reminds me of that time and one particular moment – driving southbound on Hwy 183 towards the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board where I needed to file my Military Service Deferment form to delay my student loan repayments while in the Army.  That was five days before I left for Basic Combat Training, the day before my birthday this year.  And just this week when that song came on I couldn’t help but be filled with an overrunning sense of longing for freedom (ironically), not from the military in any way, but from myself and the things that tie us to this system we live in.  The song for me is very uplifting, and the lyrics point to introversion.

The question I ask, though, is what makes this song trigger a system of recollection in my mind and why do certain emotions rise when others do not?  It could be that the time period was just a year ago, and an important one in my life, to be sure.  I started listening to that Nada Surf album at the middle of the year when I was hanging out with CJ Harris one night, a fancy little chick from California who I worked with at the US Census Bureau and who needed rides home every now and then when she didn’t feel like peddling her bike the whole way.  In return for the trip home she and her boyfriend Justin would exchange their time and a few bottles of beer, and it became a mode of bringing in the weekend over the course of last May.  One night we began to discuss Nada Surf when they turned that album on, and for the rest of the night we danced to the jams that came over the radio, including “In The Mirror.”  For the rest of the summer that album was one of my soundtrack albums, playing over my car stereo as I drove to a pool party on Memorial Day, spend the afternoons playing disc golf, made my way time and again to the greenbelt, drove out to Lake Travis for a Fourth of July barge, and met with various new friends for long nights and beautiful women on West Sixth Street.  I was doing things that I had previously not done with people I had never before met, and for that were content. I had women, I had dancing, drinks, music and, for a brief moment, could forget exactly what brought me to that time and place – an ugly string of failures that I was running from and knew not the direction I was heading.  It’s here that the lyrics come into play; “I look in the mirror to see what my hair is doing…. to see if it’s kind of stupid. But that’s the reason I’m looking. I’m trying to see what I’m doing, and if I’m human.”  It hurt to know that I was someone even I couldn’t like, and in spite of the beautiful women (oh, and they were beautiful) and all the decent days and nights, I’d still wake up searching.  And that’s what this song provokes in me.  I was searching all year though, whether I knew it or not, and I will always be reminded of that time in my life by that song and a few others, even for the lack of one distinct event.

So is it time, memory, or sentimentality that links us to certain objects in our environment?

Other songs do too bring about a range of emotions, and I don’t have to look far to find another example.  I’ve made it a habit of falling asleep to music each night, as the Army has a way of affording me little to zero free time – sleeping to music is the best chance I get to enjoy what used to be a twenty-four hour pleasure of mine.  I try to listen to the newest albums I’ve purchased but often end up spinning something soft on the ears, and about two weeks ago I turned on Dinah Washington’s “What a D’fference a Day Made”:

There is only one moment that flashes before my eyes when I hear this song, regardless of the number of times I listen, and on this occasion I nearly broke down and cried.  There was a night, ’round about late July of 2009, while I was still working as a reporter in Oklahoma.  There was a mad woman named Sandra Wells who ran an art gallery, moonlighted as a realtor, and served as the town switchboard – she knew everyone and brought them all together, which on this night was the reason a few of us had converged.  I had been with Alison for a few weeks by this time, having met her when I moved to Ardmore in search of an apartment, meeting her as she sat in the office of Kiva Realty – I eventually offered my help that night to set up that month’s art display and by the end of the night had befriend a Tobin Garrison, local artist, hep-cat, and madman.  Tobin lived on a open lot of land, owned by his parents where they raised and sold exotic livestock for a living.  His quarters where more of a “nickels”, if you will – a wooden shed large enough to fit a twin-sized bed, record player, and bathroom.  Behind he had built a wooden deck but in front was where we spent nights discussing the phases of the moon.  With a bowl of tea in our hands we’d sit around a wood-lit fire and just dispense our thoughts as the mules and chicken grazed near our sides, close enough often to touch – one donkey even behaved jealously if you didn’t give him enough attention, but I was often distracted by the sounds of Fats Waller on the piano running from the record player.  The night in particular that returns to me is not in any way distinguishable from the many times we gathered, but for one reason: on the way home from Tobin’s house, after leaving the farm and driving down the dirt country roads, ramping onto the highway for the few miles home, the sky was lit fully by the moon.  It was then that this song came on, I turned off car lights, grabbed Alison’s hand, and we drove home in the moonlight.  “This is perfect,” she said with existential intent of the word, and for that moment it surely was perfect.

So, here I recall an exact moment in time, not abstracted by a feeling that encompasses a time period, but rather a piece of time that begets a single feeling.  I feel no regret or longing for that night or those times as I my life continues to pass, nor even for the woman, but rather for the idea that that night might have enveloped: I was on my own, with a woman who had me as her own, and it seemed to culminate in that moment.  After spending three years attending school, moving back home while looking for work, losing myself and my mind in the process which led to losing my longest relationship, I was in a new town with new experiences.  The “d’fference a day had made” was overwhelming.  I was happy, and on that night we were happy.  Of course, the following months began a landslide that eventually led to my termination, relocation, and revolution.  But here I can still recall one single night when none of those things mattered.

So why then is it that certain things trigger a group of memories (“In the Mirror” and 2010) and others bring about one single moment in time (“What a D’fference…”), and yet other times of my life which should be much more greatly important have no trigger?

The most important time in any young American’s life is the period spent in secondary education, having begun to attend college and moved away from home where the young adult for the first time experiences relative, cognitive, physical, and environmental freedoms from all previous restraints.  This too for me was most true.  Attending the University of Texas at Austin gave me the greatest friendships and memories that will last a lifetime.  While there I became most of who I am today – somewhere inside the previously introverted child who could spend whole nights and weeks at home writing shitty poetry and prose came the young adult who never turned down an offer to hang out, have a conversation, and make new friends.  I lost all sense of shame, did all manners of things to shake, move, and groove into a sense of belonging, where when I emerged I was a scholar, educated and motivated toward a career with a good woman by my side.  It seemed that everything was going my way, and all those nights that can never be duplicated are now in my mind forever – marching the field at Darryl K. Royal Stadium, skipping classes to grab a beer, walking the Drag, going downtown, sitting atop the parking garage so blazed that when it’s iced over we decide it will suffice as a skating rink, attending endless costume parties, that time with the LSD, meeting with counselors to improvise “Plan Pass Tom”, getting a girl, camping for nights on Lake Travis, traveling to California, attending SXSW parties like gangbusters, doing homework first so I can attend the Phi Si party, reporting on campus soccer, meeting athletes and coaches, working for FOX TV Austin, and donning my grad cap with Liz next to me, both of us looking to the future together.

Why are these nights not attached with any great sense of emotion?  The question comes before the explanation here because I cannot think of any great way to define to you that I do not, on rare occasion, feel any sense of emotion, happiness, regret, or otherwise for any one event that took place during those three years. Is that bizarre?  Possibly.  Before I continue, though, I want to define what I mean by lacking emotion for those years.  Do I wish I could go back? Sure, at times.  Do I was that young again, and could make those mistakes again? Absolutely.  But do I hear things, or get reminded of things that almost make me cry when I think of that time? Not when it comes to my ages 18-21 it doesn’t.  And that’s what I mean by “any sense of emotion.” I remember clearly most everything and enjoyed it thoroughly, but that in my life has come and gone.  I, in many ways, do not resemble that person at all.

And that may be the key to memories.  It could be the passing of time that relegates our swaying sentiments and keeps us from getting trapped in sadness for the past – the more recent the events, the less we feel their ghost.  I submit that it may too be the time or event’s weight on our construction – how important that event was to making us who we are.

For me the two times I linked at the beginning, that cause me some grief and simultaneous joy, were key events in the life of who I am now.  Were it not for those two events I in some ways would never have joined the Army (“In the Mirror”), nor would contain the passion for living that I used to motivate that decision (“What a D’fference”).  In the time since leaving Oklahoma I have undergone a spiritual and philosophical makeover, one that has made me stronger of the mind and of the body.  I believe I am more prepared now to handle the actions, events, and, let’s go ahead and say it, wars that lie ahead for me.  It’s just that every so often I get blindsided by a memory that makes me think back to a time when I was younger and knew nothing.

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