T for Tom

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.

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On Age and Reconciliation

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on June 21, 2017

The smallest things can bring back a wellspring of memories so flush that the absence of the figures, the places, the smells and moments that created each one will be longed for so overwhelmingly as to supersede any wiser, calmer notions of present tense. Today I sat and waited through a simple slideshow commemorating the career of a lifelong officer in the Army, but the song that played over such militant bourgeois had with it the ability to conjure a past of my own – the song that played was typically reserved for soldiers who passed away and were then being memorialized, something I’ve sat through more times than a few. I hadn’t at any one time before known a soldier as a friend to have passed away, but to have gone through the act regularly to have then no longer heard the tune for nearly two years, put me right back there like the times before when it became passé. It put me right back in that place where I wish for all the earth that I could be 24 and in the Army again, but knowing all the while that every decision I’ve made that led to my exit has been the right one. These conflicting emotions are hard to reconcile.

As I get older, as each experience I endure becomes more rich, more colorful, more true, as I gain perspective looking back to understand the things I learned while I was young, I become more and more attached with the idea that their symbols will last forever. Even the past year when I was no longer in the Army and which I regard often as the hardest and most challenging mentally and physically, I find myself wishing I were back there to commiserate with those that needed commiseration. I wish that I were back in that bar serving beer and cooking hamburgers and finding company among the few others that understood how cruel the world had become, before I moved out to step back in line with the system that betrays us. A song maybe, or a certain color of the sunset, or even just the general sobriety that I keep these days can be enough to remind me that for a year and a half I was as if a child again with little obligations beyond paying my debts, which I was only just able to do, and the rest spent baking in the summer heat of a Texas sun while drinking cheap beer with my friends on the water we could find, the only peace available to those with little to spare. Even there, amongst the general confusion of a futureless existence, came peace a little a time.

Now with little present for sake of the future I am back to wishing I could have the world at my fingertips. I am reminded daily while working in the Army infrastructure that I once was the Army, in the uniform. Sitting next to me at all times is a framed collection of photographs that I made some years ago, photographs of the places that meant the most to me with the friends I kept – Paris, beaches of Italy, Salzburg winters, Netherlands adventures. And just as much as those moments shaped my entire existence, I think also of the hideous and despicable and asinine things that I was forced to endure just to have those few moments with those few great people – enduring gas houses, going sleepless for days wearing battle rattle, eating steaks off the desert floor, pushups for no reason, sleeping 50 to a tent, PT in the rain, yelled at constantly, standing in line all day, and above all, living with the knowledge that I could die if the circumstances were right.

There isn’t also a day that goes by that I know I haven’t made the right decisions. There isn’t a moment that I get home and not know that I’m in the right place because every time I look at the family I’ve got and things around me, only the things I love and need most, I know I’m going to be alright insofar as I’m allowed to control it. But when those times come and I haven’t seen or spoken to my friends in weeks, months, years, and I wonder where they are, I can’t reconcile that I wish I were back with them right then and right there, slapping each other’s helmets and telling jokes in the snow and missing chow time because we were greasing the cannon and working night shift in the winter and inspecting weapons and running in formation because we were friends and we hated everything we did but we did it together.

It’s hard to reconcile that time passes. I might still have my friends near me even after these changes if only the world didn’t separate us so casually, cast aside like figures on a map, each returning some way or another to a life they knew familiarly and hoping to stay in touch over the thousands of miles that now separates them. If only it weren’t so hard to get ahead and move freely about this planet, I’d have you all still near.

I’m working my way there. I just hope you can hang on until I get there.