T for Tom

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.

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One Minute for a Million Opportunities

Posted in america, poem, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 24, 2017

Staring out the window of our second-floor barracks room, facing southeast outward to the parking lot in front of our Alpha Company building, there were a few tall, green oaks that stood in the hundred-foot space that separated our building from Bravo Company barracks next to ours. Our room was near the corner, and the two windows that on either side of my locker were always open because the air conditioner was in disrepair at all times. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, the scene out the window would be dark except for the orange glowing halogen in the street lamp between buildings. But every morning just after physical training and each afternoon at the end of class, the few minutes when I could slow down to think for myself for just one minute, I’d approach my locker and then swiftly move aside for the other five soldiers I shared the room with who were eager to shower or eat or busy themselves in some or other. Early on during that training phase in Virginia, the second and longest I’d endure after entering the Army, we had limited personal time and were under constant supervision. When other soldiers across the Army were training to be infantrymen and supply men and gunners and were scrutinized during a short, two-month period that saw constant activity and rare personal time, my classmates and I were the fortunate ones. As aircraft repairmen, we set about a long, six-month, class-based training phase that freed us up for almost every afternoon.

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The hangar.

And every day that I’d get off that converted school bus that carted us from the hangar back to the barracks, after standing in formation to hear our orders, if we weren’t scheduled to conduct barracks maintenance or trash pickup or supply loading or weapons maintenance or general training, and if we weren’t forced to get in the chow formation and march to the dining facility, if all those things lined up, we could have the evening to ourselves, only so long as we didn’t leave the barracks footprint. It was limited to the basketball court and bleachers immediately in the front or the PT field adjacent, but we could go there. If we wanted. And during those days, when I had the freedom to make a personal decision, I’d stand at that window and look out at the green, take in the sun through the window, and ask myself what I wanted to do that evening.

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The locker, the windows on both sides.

I’d listen for the clang of a chain net that meant some were playing basketball, or I’d see Ryan and Jason taking off to the smoke shack for cigarettes. Later on in training, as we were given more privileges, we would walk to the library a half-mile away and sit in the smoke shack there alone, away from the hundred other soldiers that were constantly around. During the first early weeks when we’d walk to the library or the post exchange, I’d picked up a couple CDs. It was the only way I had to get music, culture of any kind, and was the first time I’d been able to do either in six months time. One of them was the latest Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues. A while later in the summer, it was Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but in the early weeks and with no other way to get new music, Fleet Foxes was played over and over and over. I put the album on my computer and on my phone which I had access to only in the evenings. The sergeants would occasionally do uniform checks in formation to see if any soldier had snuck their phone to class, and so going without, I made the habit of throwing that locker open when I came back from class, turning on a song and staring out the window. It was only 5pm, but after 12 hours of commands, that peaceful, gentle minute to myself, to make any damn decision, was the minute I lived for. What would I do today? really can be the truth of freedom.

We had a day once, just a couple hours. John and I set out to find the body of water on post, because godammit there was a body of water. If you’re not familiar with how wonderful the sight of a lake can be after six months of walls and trees, then you won’t understand why I nearly broke down crying just listening to the soft wave from a fresh lake lap up on the hard dirt beach. I mean, we just took a walk to the water, and it was magnificent.

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The lake on that day.

“After all is said and after all is done I feel the same / All that I hoped would change within me stayed.”

Through these little moments of repurposing our perspectives on freedom, the spirit was rich and growing, but I was still that lost, confused young man looking for answers, questions that led me to the Army. I guess I remember this song most during those early afternoons because I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t become something, even in the abstract. Because it was enough then just to have a cigarette after class, and it was enough then just to order a pizza a couple times a week if only to eat outside the DFAC, and it was enough then just to be with the friends I’d made in a forced environment. Inside me, some things stayed: the desire to be great, the unending feelings of failure and loss and hopelessness, that my dreams were always tethered to the fortunes of circumstance, circumstances that led me to the army. And I knew it would take much more time to get anywhere nearer I wanted to be, because in those times, in those vacuum environments, it was enough to just be with people who understood.

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That’s Ryan Landes in the smoke shack where we hid.

“After all is said and all is done / God only knows which one of them I’ll become.”

More days than not I chose to live. Thankfully. I could’ve never seen the rest coming.

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John, Jason, Ryan, myself; Hampton, VA, 2011

We Have Never Defeated Nazism

Posted in america, Prose by johnsontoms on August 14, 2017

Fewer and fewer times do I have things to say. The myriad issues that plague us, approachingly, personally, more and more each day, the more I am becoming numb. The struggle for positivity is at large among the world favoring those on the wrong side, and each event is merely evidence in loss. Charlottesville is no different. I am not surprised that such an event even had ideation and was organized in principle; I am not surprised that many like-minded individuals attended in support, among which many wore and flew Nazi flags, symbols, regalia, and dress; I am not surprised that those who hold (rightfully) values in opposition chose to counter-protest; I am not surprised that these clashes ended in death; I am not surprised that the President is unmoved. What I am surprised about, by many on both sides (to use a phrase), is the end-gaming that Nazism, as an idea and object, is both at once to blame for the outcome and at the same time defeatable. It’s presence at the event and in the year 2017 (the year two thousand and fucking seventeen) should make obvious that Nazism, as an avatar of hate, simple hate, is both indefatigable and undefeated. We did not defeat Nazism. We did not defeat Nazism because it is just one face of fear, hate, and oppression. But fear, hate, and oppression come in many forms, and like Nazism, they persist. We may have defeated an evil in 1945, but we did not defeat evil incarnate. Nazism as a form of government then was defeated, but Nazism as an ideology for hate was not defeated. Do not think that defeating it now will solve the crisis at hand.

These conclusions are simple enough:

If it is that Nazism is here again, it must be, then, that it never went away.

If it is that Nazism never away, it must be, then, that we never defeated it.

If it is that Nazism was never defeated, it must be, then, that it is spreading.

If it is that Nazism is spreading, it must be, then, that is being bred.

If it is that Nazism is being bred, it must be, then, that the system allows it.

If it is that the system allows Nazism, it must be, then, that the system must be changed.

This is the conclusion that will propel us in the right steps forward. This is logic, by definition. Logic determines that if we cannot suffer more tragedy, we must trace the events of causality to their root. Heather Heyer did not die because she was hit by a car (figuratively, at least), nor did she die because of the Nazis in the crowd. She did not die because the President of the United States encourages and endorses white supremacy, and she did not die because police did not intervene soon enough. The police did not intervene because of the never-imperiled distinctions of free speech that so protect our civilization that we forego simple enforcements that deny hate speech; the event occurred because declaring it an obvious intrusion on minority rights would be to declare it an intrusion on free speech; that do declare these protests an act of free speech must then equally protect those who choose to speak in opposition; that to protect both groups means to allow them, if not rightly encourage them, to appear face to face in physical antagonism without a determinant end.

Rather than step in and declare the obvious facts that this event would lead to death, the system must masquerade in protection of our constitutional rights until someone loses theirs.

This same masquerade is responsible for allowing Nazi flags in the march. This same system is responsible for allowing Nazi symbols online and in books and on clothing and in the streets and in the homes. This same system that will not impugn a person’s defined right to free speech is responsible for letting any person freely speak hate. This same system, the one that lets people freely march in Nazism in 2017, is the same system that declared victory over Nazism in 1945.

You’ve seen the pictures by now: improvised war slogans and updated propaganda to show Uncle Sam towering over the Nazi flag, ready to fight again. Do not be fooled that such a limited grasp of the issue will solve the problems. These are a few of the problems:

Black people cannot go safely in public.

Millions of Americans go bankrupt each year due to medical expenses.

Non-cisgender persons are shamed, murdered, and denied medical treatment.

Government officials are systematically redacting environmental protections.

The world’s wealth continues to accumulate at the top.

Aid is not distributed evenly around the world to states in need.

The education system is being dismantled to encourage creationism and science denial.

These problems are not the direct result of nor the cause of Nazism. They are one and the same in effect a result of hate, in its many forms. Distracting us to think that Nazism can now be the enemy again is to look away from the many problems that defeating Nazism will not solve. Distracting us to think that we can “defeat Nazism again” is to endorse the same government that “defeated” it before. Should you then endorse that system of government if it never defeated Nazism? Should you then endorse that system of government if it breeds Nazism?

Do not join in the chorus: Nazism is not your only enemy. Hate is the enemy. Government officials who prescribe hate are the enemy. The voters who empower those officials are the enemy. Be they Nazis, whites, klansmen, or your grandfather who’s just a believer in small government and fiscal responsibility. If it was your own father who prioritized lowering taxes over social equality, he is the enemy. He is also a fool. Do not be a fool also.

If you want to change these things, you must change the system that allowed them to exist. If you want to rid the world of these crimes, you must snuff out the protections that empowered them. If you want the voice of love and equality to be stronger than the voices of hate and persecution, you must form a system that educates, encourages, and promotes a tolerance for love alone with a violent intolerance for its opposite.

If you want a system that can defeat Nazism, the American system isn’t for you.