T for Tom

An Open Letter

Posted in Prose, Trying To Get Published, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 26, 2017

An open letter to my parents, their friends, and strangers like them:

Did all your dreams come true? Do you have everything you’ve ever imagined and more? I imagine you must be sitting there in a broad, window-lined living room, a small dog at the foot of your lounging sofa, the room dimly lit with ornate lamps, the spaces filling with the sound of Sinatra and a crackling fire while you or your spouse finish cooking in the kitchen where all the countertops are marble and the stove is electric. Somewhere in the garage are two SUVs and a stable of camping equipment for the many vacations you’ve taken and the many more you plan, miles of American highway that never stand in your way from the time away with your family. You return, you always do, because of the obligations of work and family, and spend the days in between your weeks alternately going to work and walking into church. The pension is growing, and there’s no need to worry when the boy and girl both need football equipment for their summer teams (soccer for the little girl, of course) because you’re on track for your third promotion and should have yourself set up quite nicely by the age of 55. No, nothing else could be needed.

Is that why you won’t let us have anything? Are you sitting there in that living room right now thinking, no, there’s nothing else the world could have or do, and so I will do everything I can to keep it just this way? Because I can’t think of any other reason to support the ideas, policies, and moral politics of a corrupt body that willfully, purposefully, and cruelly works to malign, injure, and put to death millions of people swiftly and at once.

If you are sitting there comfortably on your way to a rich retirement (and I don’t think you are), how did you get there? I believe you had opportunities, plural, rich opportunities in a world with less competition – when an entire race (or many entire races), gender, and age group are not allowed to gain employment in the only few sectors that pay salaries commensurate with a single family’s needs, do you feel that you fairly competed for the things you enjoy? Do you think that you got to that home, the two vehicles, and the recreational time by being treated equitably? If you think it’s been fair, you should look around. It hasn’t been, has never been fair, but the world is not ready to quit changing.

I have a strange fear, a real deep fear, that I’m wrong – you aren’t sitting there with a book in hand, staring out the windows at the light snowfall, dreaming of your upcoming beach vacation. You’re standing over the work desk, driving a truck cross-country, tossing boxes into the delivery truck, loading fish from the dock, or chopping trees. When you’re done you head home to a two-bedroom house with a five-member family, a kitchen without a stove, and only one car to drive the family. Worse, no car. Your marriage is tense because the bills are paid paycheck-to-paycheck while the children beg for more. Worse, no bills are paid and the children are still begging. And to top it all off, you remember sitting there in your parents living room – that same one I imagined for you – where the Christmas tree is lit, the presents stocked underneath, and you wonder why you don’t have the same. And worse, in your wondering, you believe the best way to get it is by getting back to that world where it seemed so possible – the world where everyone else (those weirdos with their dark skin and gay lovers and young punk hair) are stifled, put back in their place.

I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish you had the open-ceiling sunroom, afternoon sky gently illuminating your cocktail hour. I wish you had the trim garden outside with the veranda where you entertain your guests, telling jokes about the 18th hole. I wish you had the dreams of your fathers fulfilled just as they imagined for you. Because it would mean that these things were possible, in spite of the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials.

Because the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials aren’t going anywhere. This is their world to inherit. You and your friends have held on longer than usual, the benefit of growing medical science. There is reason for grievance – at the age now where you’ve either secured the healthcare you need through riches, or by simply living long enough to own state-funded Medicare, your choices and decisions and feelings about others (everyone else) is that they don’t deserve it. It might be even worse. Maybe you know they deserve it, too, but because you can’t think of a way for both of you to have it, you’ll selfishly deny them to keep your own. I can think of a few ways, but me and my generation, haven’t been allowed the clout of decision. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.

I wish I didn’t grow up knowing I’d never have full garage or a mantel trimmed with Christmas stockings. I wish I didn’t grow up making plans to own very little, not even home to call my home, for fear of debt and the subsequent inability to move about. I wish I didn’t have to show up at work worried that my hair might make me seem out of place, or that I’ll never get promoted in time to cover my expenses because the supervisory jobs are held by boomers who never got their retirement. I wish I didn’t have to consciously, deliberately deny myself children because this world can’t sustain any more, or worse, the consequences of war and climate change would keep them from even living a full life. I wish I could sit there, like you wanted for yourself, without a worry in the world.

I am thankful, however, that you raised us in this world. Without the heartache, the unending the debt, the racism, the age discrimination, the wars on your behalf, the political manipulation of women’s bodies, the general diaspora of hate and filth, I wouldn’t be here today wishing you well. I might be just like you, in that living room telling the world to stop growing, stop changing, I like it just the way it was. I am thankful that I am eyes-open to the starving, the slaving, the shaming, the stealing, the warring, and the killing. Because I don’t want that for anyone. And that’s more important than what I do want for even just myself.

There isn’t enough for everyone to have large homes and multiple gas-fueled cars. There isn’t enough for everyone to have retirement funds or closets full of clothes or food for baby or books on the shelf or luxuries upon luxuries. There’s barely enough water on the planet as it is. We’re all just trying to survive. Those of us who suffer are catching on that the good life is an oasis, if not a myth outright. Don’t be so ignorant as to suffer and not yet be aware.

Because whether you have it now or never got it and still dream of having it before you die, I’m tired of you taking it from me before I ever even get it.

Signed,

T

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On The Road

Posted in Prose, Trying To Get Published by johnsontoms on September 16, 2012

After watching a trailer for the upcoming On The Road, an adaptation from the legendary beat novel of the same title, I am overcome by a feeling that I never got while reading the stories of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty-

 

I have done these things.

 

The poetry, the soft lighting, the spirit of the forties, the free-willed Manifest Destiny that shot two vivacious souls across the span of the Midwest, across the Rockies and into the heart of California are remembered with the kind of sepia-toned nostalgia that says “it can’t be done again.”  At least not in that way.  We think that Sal and Dean (real-to-life author Jack Kerouac and friend Neal Cassidy) had some vision of the American Spirit in them that we have never captured sense.  That they were the only true “mad ones” that the novel speaks of, carousing their way into and out of trouble, apartments, truck beds, and women’s arms as they travelled their way into the annals of lore.

 

But I have done these things.  Why don’t I feel like I am in some ways equal?

 

On a naked night under the western moon in an open prairie, there with the cactus and running water and sleeking lizards of the cool sand bed, I too have danced with strangers near a burning fire, passing bottles of liquor over our heads and catching the bourbon as it comes pouring out, jumping up and down with our hands flung forward doing the twist to the beat of Ray Charles until the batteries died in our hearts or our stereos, whichever came first.

 

In the dirtiest homes of the blues I have bought a round for the house and made friends with the bartender, took home a good girl and told her wild things about the hopes I have for humanity before laying her down and committing to the idea that drug-fueled sex and blowjobs resemble something near to love.

 

I have hitch-hiked hundreds of miles, walked the rims of the Grand Canyon, passed out drunk in the street, and gotten high on life and barbiturates before walking through the thickest crowds of the night.  I have taken acid from a stranger and spent the evening walking through what in my mind was a Technicolor dream, though really was just the university campus.  I have taken MDMA from strangers also and danced in the forests during a 72-hour techno music festival, ending the night by becoming myself a chupacabra and escaping into the thick pines to lay down with my brother the wolf.

 

But for all these things, I don’t feel like I’ve done it right, or never found that spirit.

 

It wouldn’t be impossible to say either that Sal or Dean did neither find that spirit as well.  Throughout Dean spoke of his inability to cure his desires and mistakes (often intertwined) and eventually succumbed to them in the south of Mexico after their most harrowing and indulgent ventures.  Still and in spite of this, I feel like they had, if only for a little while, freedom.  The kind of freedom that can’t be found even here in the land of it.  The kind of freedom that transcends duty or politics or theology or nature or society.  Those two mad ones, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing,” were free at least for a little while from the human condition – the very contrite facet of living that tells us to behave a certain way.  They did it the opposite, and sought to learn everything they could, the greatest education on earth.

 

But watching the trailer gives it a sort of character I hadn’t envisioned before.  In reading I saw Sal and Dean sitting there cross-legged on the bed of their condemned apartment in Denver, high on opiates talking mad lib about the world’s problems, thinking I could never do this.  But there in the trailer, seeing it on screen, I see the movements of a man exactly as I have before.  I danced that way with crazy women in the streets, and I drove fast cars down hills trying to save gas for the uphill push.

 

Where is the disconnection?  All I can think of is that we now live with too many penalties.  Smoking a joint can be traced now for weeks with the right test, while before it just meant getting kicked out of the bar, and occasionally cited by the law.  But they could run from the law.  Not paying for a meal meant before getting beat with a broom handle, but now it means being held against your will until the authorities arrive.  Before, asking for a ride meant sticking out your thumb, but now it means I am unfit to work and mingle within common society and therefore a threat to any passersby.  It would be too easy to assume that I just needed a fucking ride.

 

All the time with these penalties.  Having a drink at 18 means sneaking out of the house to an abandoned barn, getting laid means STDs and unwanted pregnancies.  Hell, even not washing your hands means getting fired.  Everywhere there are rules, cautions, warnings, and penalties.  It’s not so much anymore that doing wrong things will damn you to hell, but that not doing the right things will condemn you just as easily.  And then they wonder why people go crazy at such a young age now.  It’s not that easy to find the right thing to do.

 

I don’t think  Sal and Dean ever did either.  As I’ve said, Dean eventually laid down for the last time while still on that road to nowhere.  Maybe I’ve got it wrong.

 

Eventually I decided that I needed to change if I was going to come out of my slump alive.  I still dance naked on a cold winter night, not because I have no other choice as I once did, but because it makes me feel alive.  Those things and places I have been before were escape from the failures I had endured.  Now I call those escapes my successes, and am working to have them again.  But, it requires work.  I’ve learned that I had to work within this world if I am to free myself from it.  A simply penalty to pay for the chance of a lifetime.

 

Dean never tried that.  He just broke free of the jail cell and tried to outrun it.  Eventually he was caught.  I think maybe they had penalties, too, and we’re just revering the wrong people as heroes.

 

If nothing else, at least they paved the way.

Honey Butter

Posted in Prose, Trying To Get Published by johnsontoms on September 16, 2012

Honey butter. So sweet, so tender to the taste and quick to satisfy, holding it in your hands and knowing there’s more is a moment near to nirvana. It’s there dribbling warmly off the fired chicken it glazes, giving the combination a sense of the heavenly, like a seasonal treat found only under the Christmas tree. To have it now seems unreal and its delicious yet aromatic texture are too good to easily be forgotten.

But that combination, that utterly fantastic duo of chicken and honey butter that bites crisply but tastes soft and moist on the tongue, is sitting itself on top of a fried donut. Yes, everything you love about fried chicken glazed with rich, syrupy honey butter can be placed on top of a donut. That’s fried also.

This invention of culinary hedonism is called the “Mother Clucker” and can be found at Gourdough’s, a vintage airstream trailer parked in the south of Austin, Texas. Strange and exotic delicacies are nothing new to the city that also popularized the Frozen Banana stand of Arrested Development fame, but I think often that not enough is being said for what these eating habits mean for our generation.

We are the first to openly profess our love for gourmet hot dogs, gourmet pizza, Italian gelato, and now gourmet donuts (say it slowly – gourmet. donuts.). And certainly Gordough’s joins only the growing foray of such ventures, from Voodoo Donuts in Portland to Round Rock Donuts that serves them as large as your head. But the line dividing treats, deserts, and once-in-a-whiles from entrees, meals, and necessities is casually getting blurred.

When eating the “Mother Clucker” it would become difficult to call it an insufficient amount of food, if only for the accompanying guilt. For something that is constructed to be consumed and enjoyed as a desert or a treat only here and there becomes a thing of common consumption when complimented with ordinary food items like chicken and fruit, standing alone for its caloric intake and words like “gourmet” and “huge.” The thing itself becomes the meal.

This is where I get confused. Whatever happened to eating normally, at home with a piece of meat and some vegetables? I’m not asking everyone to be a vegetarian or to slave over a hot-stove, but I’ve on numerous occasions had to break up conversations amongst my friends about the merits of the different items on Taco Bell’s menu. Nothing on Taco Bell’s menu is there for discussion. Fast food should remain only as a quick solution when other options are not present. In the least go sit down somewhere and eat a full-plated meal with all the food groups. Beef substitute does not count.

I’m not even sure where the blame lies or the problem starts, though. More than once I’ve seen my own brother microwave a can of chili, and this consisted of his most adventurous cooking for the entire month. If provided with the proper ingredients and toppings, he wouldn’t even know how to prepare it in order to survive. I’d like to say that eating out, grabbing a bite, or hanging at The Max with our friends after school has caused us to forget the merits of eating at home, and going to college only exacerbates the issue – eating in cafeterias, living in dorms without kitchens, sharing apartments and always being on the go have removed the time we needed to cook from our daily lives.

Years ago places that served $5 donuts would have been laughed out of town. Who would ever pay such an exorbitant amount for something that’s cheap, fabricated, and a replacement for the healthy meals we should be eating? The idea for these places didn’t ever come up because eating habits were mildly regulated at home and in public. The idea is no longer bizarre. It could be that we’re always finding new ways to create comfort in food consumption.

Gourmet ice cream kind of makes sense. After a nice meal it can be pleasant to join friends at the local shop and order up a smoothie. But that’s where I draw the line. Cherries, chocolate, whipped cream, sprinkles, gummy bears, and oh, yes, little bits of cookie dough. On top of our ice cream cone.

Where did we go from eating out a restaurant, where we could get a plate of baked fish and veggies, to choosing instead the ice-cream filled pastry? And how much further can it go? I’ve seen once great eateries turn into crap-filled fry houses, where the best things on the menu are now only served fried and dipped in queso. That may be delicious, but we can’t tell ourselves it’s anywhere remotely healthy, and should not be consumed regularly.

But that’s where we are. We’re sitting there on the park bench under a warm sun and a cool breeze, holding in our hands that sweet, soft, supple fried donut with the fried chicken and melted honey butter, smiling and saying more.

Cause and Effect

Posted in Prose, Trying To Get Published by johnsontoms on September 16, 2012

There used to be things to get us fired up and point in the right direction. Years ago, the right song or advertisement could spark riots. We seem to have forgotten that actions are louder than words, and don’t listen much to the things going on around us.

Dave Matthews Band released their latest record last week, and among its familiar chords exist a song that implores us to “do something more than believe if we want to change this world.” A simple enough line, but as the album’s lead single, the artist I believe is asking us to pay attention this time. What more can we do than believe?

There was a time when Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” had an entire nation question it’s position, and at that time it was the Vietnam War. Musicians, filmmakers, authors, artists, vendors, clothiers, everyone set about making their art and products as a piece of social awareness and the public listened – listened until its actions evoked change.

These things have not changed. Artists like Dave Matthews are still making politically charged music, but it falls on deaf ears. Just two years ago The Roots teamed up with John Legend to produce an album of political charged soul remakes, titled obviously enough “Wake Up!” But their effort was judged as a piece of art, not a social tool. Clearly our problems are larger than contemporary. To that effect, we must look broader. How the hell did we ever get to point where no one seems to care anymore?

When will cause be finally linked to effect? All the time grand philosophies answered with minute and hardly relevant simplicities, and the vice versa – that our government (as such a grand definition and entity) should be wrong, it’s problems are with the such and such (abortion, taxes, gay marriage, what have you, none of these are wholly responsible for the mess we’re in). And the opposite summarization – that we have arrived at the problems inherent with such and such and that the government on the whole is to blame.

It would be much simpler still to point the arrows in the right directions, or as they say, pick on someone their own size. When then will the proper amount of effect be given to the right cause? Or when we will finally answer “What has 200 years of imagining the intent of the Founding Fathers given us?” with “trillions of dollars of debt.”

Without divulging into a philosophy worthy of Leviathan, this approach can be used on most of our problems; a scientific method for the living, if you will. I’ve gotten used to calling it, “Don’t overlook the obvious.”

This approach first occurred to me as I was sitting on a river’s edge, something I had done a hundred times during this summer two years ago, and realizing that I was not free to sit along the water but forced to do so – without money, without work, without gas to drive my car, and without any place to be. I wasn’t free, I was crippled. Asking myself then, how did I get here, I could’ve settled with the simple asnwers – had lost my job, hadn’t found a job were the easiest. But there was so much more, and in a grand way could be illumined.

I was useless.

I had lost the job for that reason, and couldn’t find one for the very same. It didn’t mean that some facet of my being could bring about a solution, it meant that I was the problem, and I needed change. These things are not new (and I direct you to Thoreau, or Plato, or Hobbes, or Rousseau).

But where men as individuals have succeeded, we continue to fail as a group. Every year we are presented with new and different problems for the government to fix, asking to cure diseases, fix poverty, feed the hungry, abolish social injustice. Yet, on the whole, it never happens. Why?

Why do we keep using the same methodology that never wholly fixed anything over and over?

All around me people complain of loneliness but never change their environment. All around me people talk of wanting to get fit but never go for a run. All around me people talk about moving somewhere different but are afraid to quit their job. We can’t go on living this way if we ever want change.