T for Tom

Drunk in a Cabin Room

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on January 10, 2018

31 DEC 17

 

I see these things that are becoming possible and I remind myself it isn’t that bad

And yet

I know that driving across the country is a whole waste of resources

And yet

I know there are few other ways to get there

And yet

I know I don’t have to

And yet

I don’t want to stand still

And yet

What am I proving by trying to keep moving? 

And yet

How am I to live?

Reconciling this world with its past and its future.

 

drunkinacabinroom

 

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From the Table of Peculiar Rocks

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on January 10, 2018

31 DEC 17

 

There are no problems to be here

Such as we know

Only shade and finding room in the shadows

Crawling darkness to darkness until nighttime we grow

Hand in hand backward in time

Where all men are created equal

And equally able to die

 

Alone here in the desert

Only the ocotillo to watch

And the Sotol Valley to rot

Just another ripple in time

 

In sands, in the shadows that roll on lines of the ridge

Out with the day and in with the night

Or rotting away in the dead dead quiet.

 

fromthetableofpeculiarrocks

From the Chimneys

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on January 10, 2018

30 DEC 17

 

To places no one goes

To see friends no one knows

It’s Puff, the Magic Mountain.

 

Up where no clouds fly

Reaching highest heights

Our Puff, the Magic Mountain.

 

There in the center valley

A line of common allies

With Puff, the Magic Mountain

 

Some things just aren’t meant to make sense

There on the top

Of Puff, the Magic Mountain.

fromthechimneys

On the Chimneys Trail, looking back toward Mule Ears.

In Darkness Without Speaking in the Czech Republic

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on January 8, 2018

Somewhere down from the mountain and past the first village on the road back to Prague, as the woods hastened the darkness that grew over the road and filled the car, only the light of a cigarette and headlights on the road, we drifted slowly back into bliss. Where the intersections were still just stop signs and only a home here or a shed there to pockmark the way home. The breeze was getting warmer as we descended further from the top, the windows open as we hit the highway. An hour or more on the road and we hadn’t a thing to say, out of peace, out of understanding. Soon, a highway opened up and the car began to gain speed there in the night, the passing of yellow stripes accelerating by in the corners of our vision. Our hair whipped more in the wind and we breathed in, deeply. We were going home later than we planned, but it felt like we had only just begun moving. It felt like we would never stop.

It felt like I would never stop sliding down those mountain slopes, and it felt like I was still standing there on the top. It felt like I was heading home, and it felt like I could never go back. What started simply as the first time I’d go snowboarding ended as a whirlwind trip of just a couple days, the final keystone of a month I had spent abroad, in Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Austria, and now again the Czech Republic and onto the mountains bordering Poland. I had been invited on a Tuesday and by Friday was in Prague on my way. I was there to see my friends that I hadn’t seen since before year of the war, but when it was over, it wasn’t so much a reunion as a baptism. I left with the feeling that I had been led to a gateway, a new way of seeing.

I would be gone three days and two nights, but my time on the mountain was shortened to a single overnight at Spindleruv Mlyn. Petra had an exam early Saturday morning. I spent the morning walking around Praha 14 alone, nowhere to go and nowhere to be, in solitude. I discovered a beautiful playground gateway with Rudyard Kipling’s “If” etched into a gate, but mostly I stared at the soviet apartment complexes that lined these roads on the outskirts. We picked up Dan after her exam and made our way north by afternoon. They spoke natively to each other while I drove, the GPS guiding my turns.

That Kipling gate, though I don’t remember exactly where we were.

I had never been snowboarding, and I had never so often just gone with it. I only learned what came next as each turn approached. I was invited snowboarding for the first time in my life, and so I drove to Prague. A day later I was told we needed to pick up Dan and I did. After we were all together I was told to drive north and I did. Each thing only came as it was needed. I had grown comfortable enough to just let it happen.

The European night always came early and we arrived at the mountain in darkness. We bought lift passes for the night slope, which they could best translate to me as “not for first time.” I said let’s go, and they were happy to see my excitement. Petra smiled, Dan gave a laugh. I picked it up after only a few attempts and we spent the whole evening on the slope, together and alone. I went at my pace, seeing only their peace sign gestures as they barreled down the hill past me, smiling as they went. Eventually we met at the bottom, exhausted. They told me we would be staying with their friends who worked on the resort and we drove a block or so to the home.

It was the kind of resort lodge you’d expect, but turned into a hostel for workers. We threw our bags on the floor of a room that had four bunkbeds, a wall full of extreme sports posters, and a small tube television playing skiing videos in silence. The windows were fogged over from the heat indoors. We sat there for a few hours passing a bottle of moonshine, slivovitz. They passed joints and laughed. Petra told me “we may talk only in Czech, too drunk to translate” but I waved it off. They each took turns to smile in my direction as I downed another slug of slivovitz, and their gestures were enough. My movement was unbroken.

We kept passing the moonshine in that cabin room until it was gone, and made our way to a bar somewhere down the road. I remember being in a dark, red-lit room with loud music, and then waking up in the snow of a driveway across the street while it was still nighttime and then walking, soaked, in a straight line hoping I’d find the cabin. I was lucky enough, opened the door and fell asleep on the floor.

In the morning I was told we’d be taking a bus to a different slope and followed Petra’s gestures as she spoke in Czech to Dan, rushing to board the bus. It stopped at a resort up high on a different peak, and we started walking with our boards for what seemed like a mile in soft-pack snow, surrounded by nothing but trees. The sun had never shone so bright. Eventually we reached their friends at a small cabin and off in the distance I could see a new slope. They went to their friends and I started making my way down the mountain on my own. I spent the afternoon alone again, in turns snowboarding and catching my breath, and, unable to mount the single lift to ride back up, walking three miles back to the top. I was so exhausted there in the snow that I took all my clothing off just to cool down. Amongst the slopes, still no one cared. No one was even really nearby. Eventually Petra found me in the middle and we all paused to catch our breath. We stared east at the mountains and said nothing. After a few minutes Petra told me that the last bus back would be leaving soon. We slid down the slope as quickly as possible, boarded the bus, grabbed our bags, and loaded the car to drive back to Prague. Snow was falling as we started to leave.

The back of Dan’s helmet reflecting the second slope.

I was so excited to go snowboarding for the first time that I didn’t really think of my friends the whole time, friends I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. I was so excited to drive north with my friends from across the earth, that I hadn’t really thought that I didn’t have snow tires on the car. I was so overwhelmed by the isolation of the peaks that I didn’t really care to speak to anyone. I was so in tune with the rush of adrenaline and the beauty of the mountains that I didn’t feel like coming down.

We drove off in darkness without speaking. We let the wind speak to us. We spent three days together without saying more than a smile, but said everything we needed to say. I had been by myself but I was never alone. It felt like I had found out how to keep moving. The darkness at night on the way back had never felt so wonderful. A new day was on the other side.

2017 Music In Review

Posted in Uncategorized by johnsontoms on December 7, 2017

The below five albums are not only the top seven this year, but also the seven without major flaw; they have their individual merits, but when I was looking to expand the list of top albums, I couldn’t think of what would be number eight. Every other record, even though there are good ones, has some major flaws. And maybe that then is the takeaway for these included below: they are far and away that much better, and I hope you give them each a listen. [sidenote: for all the new wave disco and dance music I listen to, the winners are always just rock and fucking roll]

 

1. Beach Fossils – Somersault – when we saw the election end, we knew a new political could rise for popular and underground music, but I didn’t expect it to arrive so suddenly and with such aplomb. Somersault possesses style, cool, and je ne sais quoi, without being effete. It is somehow the best of the Clash during the Cold War, translated to the New York underclass of youth who’ve never been given a chance. It’s general breadth of focus in fact makes it more pointed: these things we want to sing about aren’t new or sudden – the struggle to survive is persistent and affects us all.

 

2. Slowdive – Slowdive – This feels like all the emotions of a protest album filtered through space and time. Layers and layers of intricate detail open the album in reverie before descending into the face-smacking anthem of “Star Roving” and eventually descending into the eulogy of “Falling Ashes.” It moves along like time, our own and the infinite’s, equally and in motion together.

 

3. Sylvan Esso – What Now – Sylvan Esso found their calling and are all the better for it. By embracing Pop, real true pop, Sylvan Esso have charged hard into the next step for underground music: out into the light.

 

4. Ryan Adams – Prisoner – I’ve been doing this now for over ten years, and I’ve been hesitate the last couple to include a Ryan Adams record because it seems like every year when I got started he was at the top of the list. For Prisoner, I can no longer ignore it. He’s still writing some of the best American music available and Prisoner is, quite possibly, his finest achievement, seventeen years on.

 

5. War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding – War on Drugs found a way to take an award-winning formula and perfect it. While there are no major steps away from the success of 2014’s “Lost In a Dream,” the positive changes have paid major dividends. A Deeper Understanding is tighter, more controlled, and delivers a strongly-wound collection of rock and roll.

 

6. Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – I’ve never heard something both so gentle and violent at the same time. I wish more people would say the things that need to be said. On that alone, Joey Bada$$ tops all lists: “Start a Civil War within the USA amongst black and white and those alike / They are simply pushin’ us to our limit so that we can all get together and get with it / They want us to rebel, so that it makes easier for them to kill us and put us in jails / Alton Sterlings are happenin’ every day in this country and around the world.”

 

7. SOHN – Rennen – It’s a bit more experimental in production, though notably drastically less in one area: without dubbing his own voice into an instrument, the onus is more on the actual musical instruments and the layering that provides substance for his other-worldly singing talents. While the writing is sometimes limp in comparison to 2013’s monumental Tremors, Rennen is a thorough triumph that at times surprises with nuance while still bristling with energy.

 

Songs:

We should really listen to the words our artists are writing for us, here in these times.

1. “Thinking of a Place” – The War on Drugs – “And I’m thinking of a place and it feels so very real, just moving through the dark.”

2. “Star Roving” – Slowdive

3. “Down The Line” – Beach Fossils – “I don’t want your Wall Street, don’t got no degree. Written on the concrete, A-C-A-B.”

4. “Please” – Rhye

5. “The Glow” – Sylvan Esso

6. “Standing In the Middle of the Field” – Cut Copy – “You’ve got to give up the things you love to make it better.”

7. “Call It Dreaming” – Iron + Wine – “Where we drift and call it dreaming, we can weep and call it singing.”

8. “Prisoner” – Ryan Adams

9. “Land of the Free” – Joey Bada$$ – “The land of the free is for the free loaders, leave us dead in the street to be your organ donors. They disorganized my people, made us all loners. Still got the last names of our slave owners.”

10. “Ascension” – Gorillaz – “I’m just playing, baby, this the land of the free, Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap, Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me: Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree.”

11. “What Once Was” – Her’s

12. “English Letters” – Favela

13. “Chinatown” – Liam Gallagher – “Well, the cops are taking over while everyone’s in yoga ‘cause happiness is still a warm gun. What’s it to be free, man?”

14. “Do I Have To Talk You Into It” – Spoon

15. “Conrad” – SOHN

16. “Nobody Else Will Be There” – The National

17. “Head for Supplies” – elbow

18. “Outcome” – Anoraak

19. “Your Love” – Middle Kids

20. “In Between” – Surf Rock Is Dead

 

Albums:

Ryan Adams – Prisoner – **** – Truly challenges as his best record ever.

All We Are – Sunny Hills – ***

Alt-J – Relaxer – * – Eight tracks so empty you’ll fall asleep.

Angus & Julia Stone – Snow – ***

Anna of the North – Lovers – ***

Arcade Fire – Everything Now **

At the Drive-In – Interalia – * – It’s not 2000 anymore.

Beach Fossils – Somersault – ****

Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic – **

Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder – **

Brothertiger – Songs From The Big Chair – **** – Yes, this is a full cover of Tears For Fears and it fucking owns. By virtue of it being a cover, I didn’t rank it in albums or songs but it would be near the top of both.

Molly Burch – Please Be Mine – **

Cold War Kids – LA Divine – **

William Patrick (Billy) Corgan – Ogilala – *** – Sure, why not.

Cut Copy – Haiku From Zero – *** 

Day Wave – The Days We Had – ***

Drake – More Life – ***

Bob Dylan – Triplicate – ***

Justine Townes Earle – Kids in the Street – **** – He’s at his best when he’s cheerful.

The Early November – Fifteen Years – ***

Elbow – Little Fictions – ***

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – **** – Modern satire, he’s perfected his formula.

Favela – English Letters EP – **** – Another superb set.

Feist – Pleasure – **** – Upon follow-up, a fucking great album.

Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up – *** – Actually exceeds all expectations (expectations were pretty low)

Liam Gallagher – As You Were – *** – not Oasis, but damn fine.

Benjamin Gibbard – Bandwagonesque – ***

Giant Dog – Toy

Gorillaz – Humanz – *** – Everything about this album is great except for Damon Alborn’s own contributions.

Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins – ***

Aldous Harding – Party – ***

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. I

Heavenly Beat – John – ** – Better orchestration but with none of the energy of previous efforts.

Her – Her EP I – ***

Her’s – Songs of Her’s – ****

Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow – ***

Iron + Wine – Beast Epic – ****

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life – **

Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – **** – a true protest isn’t hidden in metaphors.

Jack Johnson – All the Light Above It Too – ***

The Killers – Wonderful Wonderful – ***

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. – *** – It’s safe, and that’s not what Kendrick should be.

Langhorne Slim – Lost at Last, Vol. I – ***

LANY – LANY – ***

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream – *** – It’s as good as it should be, but it feels mostly tempered and cautious.

Leisure – Leisure – ***

The Lulls in Traffic – Rabbit in the Snare – **

Majid Jordan – The Space Between – **

John Mayer – The Search for Everything – *** – it’s fine, but it’s missing that forward leap he usually takes.

James Vincent McMorrow – True Care – ***

Methyl Ethel – Everything is Forgotten – ***

Middle Kids – Middle Kids EP – **** – Total love.

Midnight Mystery Club – Reason or Rhyme – ***

M.I.L.K. – A Memory of a Memory of a Photograph – ***

MuteMath – Play Dead – **

The National – Sleep Well Beast – **** – I was worried they would get old, but nope.

Kele Okereke – Fatherland – ** – Bossanova by Bloc Party

PJ Morton – Gumbo – ***

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love – ** – Exceeds expectations, still lingers too long.

Phoenix – Ti Amo – *** – So fun, like always.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains **

Rainer Maria – S/T – **** – Baller.

Real Estate – In Mind – **

Sampha – Process – ***

The Shins – Heartworms – ***

Slowdive – Slowdive – ****

SOHN – Rennen – **** – What a voice.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts – **** – Somehow they get better every time.

Sufjan Stevens et al – Planetarium – *** – This is actually, really an opera.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell Live – **** – A wholly different way to hear this great album.

Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Pt I – ***

Sylvan Esso – What Now – ****

The Texas Gentlemen – TX Jelly – ***

Toro Y Moi – Boo Boo – ***

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last – ***

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding ****

Way Yes – Tuna Hair – ***

The XX – I See You – **** – Their best record, and one that finally soars.

Neil Young – Hitchhiker – **** – That good.

On Plans

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on December 2, 2017

The least flawed. 

I remember when looking up from the television in my dorm room when the voice called out. The door was open because that’s how I listen to music, but also because that’s how I wanted people to hear my music, to acquiesce. The voice was female and in a split second the mind wanders, who is this, what does she look like, will she like me, what am I wearing, what do I say, before computing the question “Have you heard the new album?” and, not knowing that one existed, answering with “Oh, when did it come out?”

Transatlanticism had been playing through the speakers, loudly, out into the hallway of the 11th floor of the Jester East dormitory, a building that housed 4,000 underclassman at the University of Texas at Austin, a time in 2005 when that total was more than the population of my hometown. The album by Death Cab for Cutie had come out just two years prior, and in my adolescent state of education in the sweet, sweet, late teenage years, I had selfishly neglected to listen to it: it was adored by some people within my realm of influence that I frankly didn’t like, and rejected it on the basis of keeping myself at arms reach. Now, just three months after graduating high school, I myself could acquiesce and consume this album on my own, for in that short period of time I had already moved away from home, moved into a place of my own, and started a new life. This day, the day the girl called into my room from the hallway of our co-ed dormitory, was only two weeks into that new life, and this was a moment I remember: things are different now.

There weren’t any decorations on the walls of my cubed room yet, and I don’t think I was wearing a shirt. I was playing with the cords that connected the stereo resting on a steel tower that contained as a totem pole the refrigerator I shared with my roommate, the television I brought from home, and on top the speakers that I was using to blast indie music throughout the hall. It wasn’t much, but it was home now, and it didn’t keep this girl from stopping on her way to her own room.

She was beautiful, was my first thought. And she’s asking me a question in fondness, in bonding. I don’t know this person, but we have shared musical tastes, which is enough to call out to others, it seems. It was such a surreal sequence to be in a place for the first time, here among strangers, and have simple, friendly conversations for the first time. As before I had rejected a piece of music because I disliked the people who recommended it, here I didn’t the girl and could take her suggestions swiftly, and she was gorgeous.

“It came out a couple days ago,” she said. “Come down to room 1156 and I’ll let you borrow the CD.”

The serendipity that swelled inside of me couldn’t be matched, the thought of this person so casually opening their self to me, just to share a piece of music that we had in common. In the few minutes that passed between throwing on a shirt and walking down the hallway, all sorts of ideas can pop into your head: does she study the same degree I am, is she involved in my groups, will I see her again, what’s her schedule like, will we become friends, am I going to hang out with her right now, would she like to get lunch tomorrow, and more. But I rounded the long corner and came to her door a few ways down, which was propped open also. She saw me in the threshold before I could speak and had the CD ready on her desk. She rose to pass it to me. “Just bring it back whenever you’re done.” She started to turn, but caught herself. “Oh, sorry, I’m Elisa by the way.” She quickly turned and began busying herself as if nothing could bother her, and these things just happened. I took the gift back to my room and set about adding the album to my digital library.

The album was called Plans, whose monument to time I still adore. Plans. They never seem to go the way we imagine.

 

That was September 2, 2005, a Friday. I took the CD back to Elisa that day and we crossed paths a few times more throughout the semester and the year we spent on the same floor of the L-shaped hallway, the males on one bend and the females on the other. A few people toward the middle took the effort to become the party-room for the entire floor and I was always invited every time they passed by continually open doorway, music playing out. But by then I had made friends of my own and extended the reach of my influence beyond those I was coincidentally living near. But that day always lasts, and probably definitely because of the album, its themes, and its body of work.

 

It starts with a single, hollow chord rasping away from a static filled organ, like a church hymn rising slowly in low-fidelity. Soon another chord rises higher, and the third starts quickly with after with a mood that is both familiar and warm, a rush of emotion starting instantaneously: this sounds like all the things I’ve ever head before with all the things I could never imagine, at once. A chance at something new. Knowing the name of the opening track, Marching Bands of Manhattan, places an even larger emphasis on the sublime. Like marching bands in Times Square, we hope for the same grandeur in our own existence. Plans.

Coincidentally for me, this came at exactly that time my life resembled such assembly. The album remains for me, by definition, the least flawed I’ve ever heard. From start to finish, there are no moments of complaint. Death Cab for Cutie was, unbeknownst to me at the time, an already decade old band that was just finding their footing in the mainstream, and I think looking back creating an entire sub-genre of music that now fills record stores and radio waves. But where Transatlanticism opened the door, Plans made everything possible. It is canon.

Plans encapsulates through its lyrical and musical combination the truest centers of both crescendo and nuance. It manages to both swell rapturously and remain rooted in the heart at the same time, balancing a growth of emotion so intense that we are super-welmed, while sounding throughout like our favorite song that we’ve heard thousands of times. It can manage to give us new emotions upon every listen while continuing to bring up the same old memories. I believe its longevity persists for the purpose that our lives are the same in each moment: all the time unknown ahead with all the time behind following still. Plans does not deviate from your existence. It is the least flawed.

Song to song, upon every listen and even now as I write this, I restructure my favorite moments. Halfway through the album with the playing of Your Heart Is an Empty Room, begins a description of a room burned down and the ashes still smoldering. And just as we hear that the room is our own heart, a rising, hopeful two-note echo emerges from the guitar that replaces any tension with a sound that defines our new beginning. That simple, two-note rapture is one of my favorite moments in the album, and it defines the ability of each, or the album in total, to rise up so ceremoniously, and yet be actual nothing at the same time: compositionally the rhythm and the melody do not change, and yet you feel moved. There are many more moments like this on the album. It is Death Cab’s burst of light into the darkness, and their hope for the future.

And just as Plans fractures near the end, asking, “who’s going to watch you die?” we are greeted again with crescendo, again with nuance. I simply cannot understand how someone, this band and its members, can find such a way to do so much with seemingly so little. Waiting for the crescendo at the end of What Sarah Said, we are swept away in the rising fortissimo of the end. And yet, again, compositionally, nothing really happens. Instead of climbing the mountain, we are merely swept away to some unknown end, as if choosing to drift out to sea. And it feels like home.

Before the end, we are imposed: “I’m not who I used to be.” That is the way it goes of making plans.

And so, Plans remains the least flawed in all its individual moments and in each in total sequence. The same can be said for all the lives still living with plans of their own.

Especially So On Sundays

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on November 7, 2017

The rain was always falling in Germany, but especially so on Sundays and often in the morning. Sundays alternated between blissfully hazy and rapturously gorgeous, and always there was nothing to do but reflect. I think it was some kind of law that kept all industry quiet on the holy day which had become a national day of rest, the Sabbath notwithstanding any longer. And for the opportunity to do absolutely nothing, I always took about sitting in a park and either watching the rain fall or staring into a big blue sky full of clouds. This particular day was the former, and I walked through the water towards the public sauna.

I hadn’t spoken a word since waking up. I was able to rise, shower, change clothes, check out of the hostel, smoke a few cigarettes and walk to the sauna across town without so much as a “hello.” We forget how pleasant it can be in a world full of noise. And so I was able to listen to my own thoughts as I turned the corners on foot, seeing a dark charge of leaves smothering the puddles, the late winter dreariness blanketing all paths. The branches of the bushes that were waist-high drooped over the fences and into the walkways, while a pallor of tree canopies loomed overhead to obscure the little light that broke through the density above. Eventually I reached the sauna and paid in, including the price of a few words. After locking up my things I walked with only a towel into the sauna room where men and women, old and young, stripped to sweat out the weekend. For me, that was a lot of sweating, but the peace always worked over me more than any of the heat.

The room had a couple different saunas on both sides of a foyer that opened into a garden, and in between takes in the hot rooms I would walk out with just a towel around me, breathing in the fresh air. The garden had managed to retain a bit of snow clumps on the tops of the bushes, and I remarked internally how fascinating the imagination can be if the public good is directed together – the existence of the garden in the sauna building, in the winter, to be walked through between sessions in the spa, was so simple and yet completely foreign to my American mind. I wondered why we didn’t like to do these things as well.

Eventually I tired of the sauna, exhausted and nearly sleeping there in the foyer between showers. I cleaned, grabbed my things and left again to walk about the city. I was only a thirty minute drive from home, give or take, and wasn’t in any rush at all. So I continued to walk around the river, staring at the homes of the people who were fortunate enough to live inside, and live here.

I continued to walk and stare at the green bushes that fell over from the weight of the rain and snow, and the grey concrete sidewalks that were spotted with brown and the colors of fall and winter. I continued to walk and talk to myself and at some point sat down to read from my favorite novel. I continued to walk and smoke cigarettes and take turns sitting and staring at the things around me, in total blissful ease. I continued by myself, I continued.

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Sea of Dreams

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

The valedictorian was the son of a truck driver

Had two brothers

Both older

Valedictorians the same.

I was eight seats behind the youngest when my name was called at graduation,

In order by our grade point average.

Some two hundred were behind us

Ordered by name to save them the shame.

But the kids at the top were spotlighted

And for us it felt like the inauguration to life.

It was affirmation that the kids would be all right.

 

With the applause came the dreams made for us

As much as by us

And the weight of expectations.

Those in the back came off easy

Because the valedictorian, well,

He was supposed to be a doctor.

The second fellow a lawyer

And the girl in third a politician.

Didn’t matter that we were sons of truck drivers

And so the dreams of our fathers weren’t out of sight.

The kids in the back could just smoke grass

And they’d be all right.

 

Those stuck with dreams weren’t the only ones to go on learning

And we weren’t the only ones to drop out either

We weren’t the only ones drinking underage

Smoking all day

And changing our minds

And for everyone it’s safe to say

We all missed the mark by a little.

None of us are astronauts, were never meant to be,

But a few of the kids are still all right.

 

A few of them made a few more moves and played it safe

Went out and became teachers before taking wives.

Not too far out, really,

When you’re still that close to shore.

 

A few others waded too deep and took the first thing

Married, then kids,

Then the fucking mortgages

While the lucky ones died just before.

 

We’re not really dreaming when we’re all doing the same thing.

 

Best to burn out bright

Or not go gently into night

Or whatever it is that keeps you from floating

Shifting around with human ghosts

Nothing to see

All of us lost on the sea of dreams.

This Proximity to the Water’s Edge

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

She had boarded the ship that would take her back across the water to her home, a ferry, but really a large cruiser that was used to transport people throughout the Scandinavian and Baltics via sea. I had made that sea-bound trip myself before from Estonia but this time flew into Helsinki and waited there for her arrival. Three days later she was leaving now and I had six hours or so until my return flight. I wanted nothing better than to walk around in the sun, or what little bit of it could slice through the Easter clouds of the typically grey Finnish morning.

My second time in Helsinki, this, and mostly all of both spent near the harbor, what is the heart of the city. That famous cathedral you know in the photos just a 100-meters or so off the central harbor not far from where she boarded, the steps to the chapel hall numbering some 50 or 60, enough that from its doors it overlooks the buildings at its feet and off into the water in the distance and further into eternity.

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I was so vibrant then.

Helsinki feels that way, the buildings rising to uniform height, all the even lines vertically and horizontally, so tight that merely meandering the human paths before you can feel as if stumbling through the Coliseum of the heavens.

But I didn’t go back to the chapel this morning, not for a third time just a couple days prior, but huddled close to the water line. It was early April and the sun comes up around 4am, had been up about five hours now as I walked the sidewalks along the water. The grass to my right separated me from the red brick apartment homes that overlooked it all. And from this proximity to the water’s edge, you can see, even in springtime, the frozen layer of ice that covers the sea for as far as the eye can stretch.

It’s been broken up now but not thawed. It moves slowly with the push of the ships coming to and from. It never laps recklessly like surf but merely slushes back and forth, hardly a line opening up to show the dark blue infinite. Just ice of various depths, the earth in cycle.

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…   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …

I sat there for the entirety of my hours and wondered how something could be seen as less than cosmic. Equally of magic and beyond our machinations but yet so rote and earthen. Here long before us, here long after.

Like the frozen sea so too like the fiddles here, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over, slowly, again, ceaseless unending, evangelical and worthy of praise.

 

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