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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Hiding From Synthetic Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heartache, don’t come near me.

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

Still though, I was closer to the infinite there.

Dark days, stay away from me.

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.

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.

 

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

On Good and Evil

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on January 26, 2017

We must remember the equal law of the universe. Perspective allows but timeliness denies the ability to see that things are as good as they are bad in equal measure. So for whichever you feel the direction the wind, hold also that it grows and shrinks for the opposite as well.

It would be easy to look around and say that things are as awful as they have ever been in a long time. But even 158 years ago, Dickens famously recognized that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The temerity of humanity hasn’t changed much. That in our ability to see further, imagine greater, and believe brighter, there lurks too stronger fears, more powerful hate, and terminal disbelief. The limits of each end are only defined by the reach of your knowledge.

For these fears to exist now, that we headed in a doomed direction, must then be because of the greater acknowledgement that we can do so much better. Just a few hundred years ago, there was not a real testament to the power of peace, but the wellspring of harmony spreads in the modern times only as the violence of war continues to reach every corner of the earth. They are as married as tide and the moon.

The fears that bring this about are of course very real. There are genuine concerns that the climate may buckle before our children grow old. There are real people dying everyday in a war that grows only in extremities and sees no end. There are people everyday dying in poverty, left without the programs in place needed to ensure their survival in an overcrowded world. There is an entire gender that has very little control over its reproductive system. But to recognize these is to know also that a future can exist without these issues. Equal parts good, bad.

I believe that this swing of things is the direct result of the positive steps taken in the recent past. While not fully developed in practice or politics, there is an increasing public awareness to the value of positivity, charity, and peace. Negative rhetoric only increases to combat an equal measure of positive rhetoric. And out from this war of words, ideas, facts, and beliefs, we have seen only one side “win,” insofar as allow it to be a victory. And it may even be a giant, leaping step in that direction. But not long ago there was a victory for good. For all these reasons, it may be an even bigger leap than the one we’re taking now. And then it’s the good’s turn.

For this we have to keep hope alive. It is unbound by the rules of good and evil, and exists only within your heart. Hope. The world continues to conspire to make evil of art, reason, fact, and existence, but we are still alive. There is no greater reason to rejoice than to celebrate that the streets are still full of good people. And a great deal of them are taking to the streets in increasing numbers.

So there in your home, keep hope alive. There in your workplace, keep hope alive. In your churches, your synagogues, your gardens and bowling alleys, keep hope alive. Everywhere we look go and gather, there are people in the great communion of the soul, conversing, cheering, arguing, and living in the splendor the human condition. It is by its definition an awful condition to be stricken with in our existence, but that only means we can achieve an equal amount of good if we recognize and overcome its terminal end. We are not meant to be here, and so the only choice is to make good of it.

Because without hope, we will meet only our end. We’ll meet our end anyway, but let’s make the choice to do it in peace. Here’s to optimism in the new world.

The Gap in Empathy, or Social Progress as Self-Evident

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on November 4, 2016

There was a young man I spent some hours talking to the other night. About my age, white, longer hair than I (which means long hair), thin, frameless glass, and whether part of his Halloween costume or not, a pair of suspenders exposed over a white shirt. He could be and was mistaken for David Foster Wallace. But you know who David Foster Wallace is because he did something exceptional, at least once. I didn’t know this young man across from me at first, but I knew him later as we spoke. He exists in various forms throughout this country and throughout this world.

My introduction to this man came as he knew a childhood friend of my own. They were in a probationary summer school program, by which they attained full admission into the state’s flagship public university only after attending the summer session immediately following high school graduation. There are a few other programs that exist to admit students into the university, and this one is sandwiched in between the two most prominent – the state of Texas’s Top 10% Rule, and the Continued Admittance Program. The first, the top 10% rule, requires little introduction – if a student attends any public school in the state of Texas and graduates in their class’s top 10% population, that student receives automatic admission into any public university in the state; the purpose of this rule is to increase minority populations in the state’s largest educational institutions, and it has been proven a resounding, although incremental, success, one worthy of continued defense in our nation’s courts of public law. The second admission program I mentioned, the Continued Admittance Program, is available to those students who are just outside of their high school’s top 10% population and would have normally received admission the public university of their choosing, but were not selected due to a limited amount of space; these students can choose to enroll in any branch of the university of their choosing in a separate location (as in, the University of Texas at Dallas) and after a year of passing grades can automatically transfer to another public education institution within the same university’s system (as In, The University of Texas at Austin); this program achieves a secondary goal of allowing these students, who through subjective opinion prove their value as “stewards of education” by passing their classes and filling any available slots that become available through students transfers, dropouts, etc.

The program that admitted my friend and this young man is the little-known, thinly-sliced invention that fits somewhere in between, by someone’s imagination. It can only be imagination, as though the metrics I just laid out before were somehow still not quite fair enough. Even so, there’s a small number of high school graduates who are on the outside of their class’s top 10% population but are deemed worthy of not having to wait – and by enrolling immediately, have the opportunity to attend their public university of choice via this commitment. It’s a small number of students, and their impact on the racial and ethnic makeup of the university is marginal, though relevant.

This is important because I had to explain this to my wife the other night as this young man sat across from us. He took exception to this definition by writ of its simplicity:

“Hey, it’s not that simple,” he said. “I tried really hard in high school, and I got in the way I got in.”

There was never any implication that he didn’t work hard.

“That’s fine man, and you probably wen to a difficult high school,” I said.

“Lake Travis, and it was.”

Lake Travis High School is located a few miles west of Austin and is predominantly white, if not entirely. The district exists as a confluence of rich, elite whites leaving the suburban confines of inner Austin and it now forms one of the largest tax districts in the county.

And that’s the whole point. His high school was propped up by numerous and infinitely pass tax bonds to improve facilities, salaries, and educational tools by the white resident population for the white child population. It is a highly-sought after employment location by educators, and its education reflects this increased opportunity.

“Right, my man,” I said. “And that’s why the Top 10% rule exists. There are students throughout this state that haven’t gotten the education that you already received through your circumstance of birth, and they’re given the opportunity for that education at a higher level.”

This didn’t go over well, and the remaining hours were spent toggling over his personal merit versus those whose faced many more and drastically more harrowing difficulties – this young man across from me did not struggle through poverty, starvation, and lack of transportation to get through a sub-par education system, at any merit. So much so, that for this young man, not graduating was never a possibility, as it has been and remains for a large population of ethnic minorities throughout the state (and across the country).

But I’m not here to talk about his education, at least not directly. What worries me, and what I see more and more of each day, is that this young man did in fact go on to graduate from the state’s flagship university to become an alumnus of one of the most intellectually distinguished institutions in the nation, only to sit across from me now approaching the age of 30, unmarried, working in a low-salary if not hourly wage position with little to no hope for immediate future promotion. Like so many of the people I know and continue to meet today in the city of Austin, he is visiting his girlfriend who also lives in a home with three or more roommates, stuck in a low-rent situation without hope for better by writ of circumstances they cannot control. And yet he, like the many others like him, sat there to tell me things were acceptable and improving. That he, somehow, was not a member of this nation’s increasing population of people in poverty. And I don’t know how.

These are the definitions of poverty: inability to find living wages, unable to hope for promotion, unable to seek immediate desires of family because of economic placement. These people are no longer just ethnic minorities, but increasingly consume the majority of those young elite whites who enter a world filled with older elite whites who will not make room for the youth of this nation. How is it possible that these whites who grew up in a situation where family, income, are security are normal tell me now that nothing has grown worse?

It can only be that the prejudices they were given, likely from their parents and their education, are telling them now that no matter the circumstances, their life will be okay simply because they are not black.

Looking around the party I was surrounded by 50-plus whites exactly like this man. I don’t need to speak to them individually to know that they have all come here because they have met in their jobs and in their social circles as a reflection of their status. But they remain impossibly white. Among the many other people I know like them, and like myself, are some in much worse positions: living hundreds of miles away from any family, unable to locate individual living situations and taking on roommates without furniture, without transportation or personally owned vehicles, in low-wage jobs and piles of debt, or in other words, living in poverty. Not abstract poverty, but actual, defined, real poverty. And repeatedly they say “it’s not that bad,” and go about their lives waiting for the change to come. This mindset is only possible through a framework of opinion that establishes that at one point poverty was never their possibility and therefore remains impossible for their life. Denying their circumstances in finances, health, and family, this conclusion can only be reached at the assumption of race. These conditions are taught to whites as a condition of race. Whether this young man realized it or not, he was taught as a child in Lake Travis that he will never be poor. And if the conditions for poverty exist only for minorities, then perception tells white populations that they will never possess these conditions themselves. They are not poor because they will never be poor. And that was granted to them by their race.

The logical question or conclusion to be drawn is that the status quo of race economics has never been challenged. A simple string argument delineates that a mere 1-percent or fewer of the population have the accumulated wealth to live with the singular possibility that poverty will never be their reality. For the status quo to continue unabated or challenged in any way means, therefore must mean, that a majority of the remaining plurality also believe that poverty will never be their reality, in spite of real and conflicting data. Otherwise, the system would have been changed, a revolution would have come about. It is only by the joined belief of the majority that change does not become real.

Often I have said before that these things must be fought. A simple example of this effort reaches back to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but simply mathematics tells me that a few thousand people marching around the country do not a majority make. In fact those brave few were mocked almost universally for their efforts. And if they failed to achieve real political change, they did achieve personal growth through a recognition that certain influences on our life are not within our control on a daily basis. A vast system of eternal influences exist to limit our ability for social movement, and the majority through ablution allow it to continue. The white majority of this country has never empathized about what the ethnic minorities of this nation face every day, and by subconscious inversion project on their populations the perception that existences do not meet in any way. That poverty for black and Latino populations is a poverty not achieved by white members of society.

This empathy gap denies the invention of progress. It denies minority populations the ability to find affordable housing in neighborhoods with a better education. It denies minority populations the ability to locate living wages, and precipitates that their children also will live in these conditions. Without the empathy to see what has been done to them, the real act of deducing that their struggles are circumstantial to their birth and not an effect of their own action, we cannot also see that our own circumstances might truly be the same. Because it is impossible to live in a world where things as they were remain in power.

The mere reality of time as dimension denies the possibility of static existence. Things must get either better or worse because of the contrary fact that they cannot remain the same. You will die. Death is certain. And if the value of death is worse than the value of life, any condition that pushes a person more rapidly toward death is a bad condition. That these conditions once actualized increase the possibility for other more numerous conditions implies that things are never the same, are never equal, are never static. Progress then, a merit of improved quality and improved quality of life, is the only assumptive method by which things do not get worse. And without progress because of the existing prejudices we possess, we are doomed only to perish, quickly, violently, at war with ourselves and nature.

The solution is simple. Realize that our conditions are poor, undesirable, and actively damaging. Realize that these conditions exist tenfold and hundredfold in the lives of those not lucky enough to have been born white in a Western nation state. And work to erase any continued possibility for the status quo.

Things are bad and getting worse. All you have to do is look around you and realize that it is happening to you also, and act accordingly. Your conditions will improve only when conditions improve for everyone.