T for Tom

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.

 

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Thoughts, Pt. II

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on August 13, 2016

IX

I’m tired of being immensely talented but living without action.

X

More than half of my life has now been spent with America at war. This is something that exists in photos and textbooks, can’t be touched, and yet feels real. There are children who, at 15 years old next month, will have never lived in an America not at war. It’s been five years since we killed Osama Bin Laden, since we got our man, and nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. Faced with the possibility of taking a few steps backward to navigate a new way and new path to forge ahead, it’s easier to incrementalize a few inches on the same warring path, pick different battles, distraction, turn on the television, Cheetos.

XI

If in a serious sense we ponder at the how or why Donald Trump has made it to this point in the electoral process, we’ve failed to consider the right facts. Day after day and week after week as the nominee of a major political party continues to eschew racism, bias, xenophobia, and fear, no one has asked yet what actually can or should be done. Instead, the continued refrain is one of incredulity. But the lack of solution is not for a lack of trying. There have surely been calls to change the nomination system, to void the party lines. But that’s not thinking. That’s working within the system, and we must decide the entire system is a failure.

Donald Trump is not a product of a New York life, or a rich man’s trust fund, or a life spent outside of the trenches. He is a product of America, if not the product of America. And the longer it takes until we decide to close shop, call it a day on democracy, and find something else, this will not be the last time we are shaking our heads at a failed election. We are all to blame for this.

XII

When everyone has a voice, the smartest no longer shine through. It’s a numbers game, always going to lose.

XIII

As bad as I like to think it gets, man, it can be so much worse. There are women in Venezuela undergoing sterilization so that they don’t get pregnant and bring a child into their world. And I sit here unwilling to march on Washington. I’d like to, but it doesn’t feel like a single man or woman can make a difference in a world with so many engines moving on the same line.

XIV

Was at a concert the other night and always have a thought every time, that at some point somewhere in time there were, and maybe still are, musicians who try to use their music to impact the public, protest, what have you. I wonder why it doesn’t still happen, but then I know it clearly has never worked.

It takes a lot of money also, to not only make the music but broadcast it in a way that people will hear, especially if you want people who don’t look for music to hear it. Stages, microphones, amplifiers, cameras, water and food, broadcast television, news release. The musicians don’t have that money, not in this world. Been abused too long at the hands of those in control.

It takes sponsors to put on something that big. And sponsors have corporate interest. Never will be a big enough protest until someone takes a risk, musician or not.

XV

Still growing out my hair.

XVI

One of the things I always noticed when I came back here, to this place, and maybe I’ve talked about it before, was how there are a lot of cars on the road in need of repairs, a lot more than ever seemed to be before. People just don’t have the money to fix things anymore, and keep on livin’ with less. I wonder how deep it’ll go before something happens.

XVII

Just heard a baseball announcer say “I had asked you a question but the national anthem began, and you can’t upstage America.”

Yes you can.

Retrospective on a Weekend

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on May 21, 2015

It’s been five years, two months, and two weeks since I believed in God, give or take a couple of days. For all the significant moments in my life that I remember exactly, I can’t actually tell you which specific day it was, but I can remember that it was in the first two weeks of March of four years ago. It was a period of my life where all the days kind of run together, and I didn’t have any reason then to treat a Sunday differently from a Wednesday differently from a Friday. But I woke up that morning, and as I’ve alluded to before, nothing peculiar happened. It was innocuous, the sky was the grey, the trees were blowing in the wind, and I looked up and felt that I was the only one responsible for my life. It was empowering. But I’m not here to tell you what I don’t believe in. I want to spend a few minutes talking about the things I do believe in, and how last week I felt them again in many ways all at once. I feel rejuvenated.

I believe in the sanctity of human power. I believe that our evolution has set apart for a reason, and we haven’t found out the reason yet. I believe that our only steps forward will be harmonizing with the earth and our past. I believe that we can each do this individually, and should do this individually before we can ever hope for a better future as a planet and a biosphere at large. I wish I could swat a wand and change it all instantly, but I can’t. Instead I evolve in my own way, and in these past few months and short years, I’ve done that by returning to nature, and for the first time have started to embrace this united nation as a frontier, the true limits of earth that it really is. And last week was the most holy I’ve felt in years.

Since coming back to America, I’ve been through the Appalachian Trail, up the waterfalls of Jefferson Forest, to the summit of Guadalupe Mountain, across the entire Chisos Basin in the Big Bend Mountains, seen the relics of Pueblo life carved into the Gila Wildnerness, been snowed in at the top of Lincoln National Forest, and will soon be embarking on my third trip into the Grand Canyon. It will be my first trip to the Colorado River though, and every time I’m reminded that it is sincerely the most spectacular land feature this rock of earth has ever created. But last week I nearly touched the heavens in a place called Chiricahua National Monument in the southeastern basin of Arizona.

Nothing can prepare a man for the moments of surprise only nature can create, because seeing truly is believing. I knew through reading that the monument was a relatively small, 100-acre-or-so area up the Coronado Wilderness, preserved for its unique rock formations. Some 100-million years ago Sugarloaf Mountain was an active volcano that erupted for the final time, spewing volcanic ash all throughout the basin. The ash-flows changed the rocks there into a supple Rhyolite, which over the last 100-million years has been eroded to create standing pillars of rock, each in looming up from the ground to make shadows like giants. And from on top of any one of the pillars looking into Echo Canyon, it can seem like a buried army. It can seem like a place untouched, and for that it evokes the spirit of the holy.

More importantly, it is a stern reminder to me that there is a certain beauty that will always exist within the world no matter how hard the darkness of humanity casts over the land. My experiences here in America will be for the foreseeable future always marked by my impressions of my own past, my impressions of the different continents I’ve seen, and primarily the differences in the people I’ve met along the way. I did not want to return to America, and hiking there in Chiricahua I made the remark once, “such a beautiful land spoiled on such loathsome folk.” It’s a bit hyperbole, but it’s a bit truth as well. Luckily I was in the presence of one of the most inspiring persons I know, and she was receptive to hear me ramble. This was something I hadn’t been afforded in quite some time, but it allowed me to vocalize an idea I’ve been tossing around for a few weeks now.

Recognizing that the escape to nature is Muir-ian in it’s own right, I couldn’t help but wonder what facilitated such a transformation in myself. After having spent countless weekends wandering the sidewalks of any European city and wanting nothing but for coffee and conversation, how now did I revert to such apparent lonely desolation high in the mountaintops? Where did I decide I no longer wanted to be among the people of this world? It is, obviously, provoked by the people I am surrounded by. And it got me thinking about freedom.

We’ll never be free, truly, I’ve given up on this. But there is a freedom to be found in different ways, individually. But this freedom here, this freedom in America as I’ve found it, comes with a price. The books will read and the films will show and the explorers will say, “there is freedom in the mountains,” and they are right in some ways. But no matter how many hills I climb and how far away I get from the city, there will always be the underlying purpose that I’m doing this to escape. If I disappear into Yosemite never to return, even fifty years from now after spending every new day of my life there, I cannot forego the recognition that the freedom of that life is chained by the notion of having fled. And no matter how gratifying such a freedom can be, it is to me not honest. I had that honesty in the past, and it wasn’t in America. In places of happiness, freedom existed because I utterly felt no compulsion to lead in any direction – there was an ostensible feeling that the end of any day would lead to bliss. And it didn’t matter what I did. Most of my days were spent walking without a map and I always ended up exactly where I wanted to be, even if I didn’t know where I was going. But here in this country, my escapes are always calculated. I enjoy them for their refreshing qualities, but their limitations are equally heartbreaking.

Echo Canyon

Echo Canyon and the Giants

Finding the holiness then, is the thing to hold onto. I can remember after a day of hiking while obscenely drunk, we ended in the Heart of Rocks, appropriately named. It is the south side of Echo Canyon and follows a draw out into the canyon, mazing through the giant figures above until resting on the edge of a cliff, staring out across the canyon with the sun setting over the range in the distance. We had a long conversation there about the things humans do to each other, and I became unnecessarily and passionately enraged at this. We do so many horrible things to each other. But Alison passively walked away to rest in the hammock, and her calm was remarkable to me for its ease. I know she is not unaware of the things I was saying, but it must be that it no longer weighs on her life. I wish I could find that kind of peace.

For too long we stayed in the Heart of Rocks and immediately upon departure we passed by the Big Balanced Rock for a second time. It’s a 1000-ton pillar that has been carved away at the center to create what looks like a dreidel spinning on a stone column. But this time, to get a better look, I walked into the center of the formations to see its silhouette against the sun. And in this moment, I found my sanctuary. The rocks created a large circle around me, near 50-meters in diameter, but each rising almost 50-feet or more into the air. And in the center was only grass, a few shrubs, and I standing there alone. I felt that they were praying over me, and wishing me a safe journey ahead. I was surprised that this spot, not 10-feet off trail, hadn’t been named or reserved. But it was probably intentionally so, to keep people out. And it was more magical that way – I felt as if I had opened the doors to a temple, and there in the sunset knew that everything would be all right in the end.

Cathedral at Big Balanced Rock (photo: Alison)

Cathedral at Big Balanced Rock (photo: Alison)

There are places where men don’t go, and these places are the last of the cathedrals. Without worrying too much about the world at large, I can go there in good company and find restoration. It is my own prayer and only the rocks are listening. That is something I can believe in.

I Will Not Miss These Things

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on April 29, 2015

As you reach the halfway point on the North Franklin Mountain trail, heading southward during an ascent from Mundy’s Gap, just as the ridgeline trail meets the summit trail, there looking westward you can see the canyon below and the city further beyond. At your feet there, and for miles in each direction along the eastward side of the summit, is an unexplained number of unexploded ordnances from the years spent blasting rockets, artillery, rifles, missiles, and canons of all kind into the mountain for testing, or something. You can take the trail up to the summit from this point, but there’s only a single trail leading down, a single stretch cleared out of the side of the mountain where otherwise you might find a Vietnam-era mine waiting for you. I know this because there was a day, the second time I tried to summit the north peak, that I reached this area, my furthest point yet. I hadn’t really tried to summit the peak before and ran out of daylight each time, but I’ve never gone past this spot. There’s a giant sign in the ground and a long chain of fence keeping the hikers from descending improperly, lest they blow the fuck up. I didn’t get higher because I spent maybe thirty to forty minutes staring at it and thinking, what have we done?, or, what hasn’t been done to clean it up? and why not? I lost daylight thinking about it, and I haven’t gone back to try the summit again. I will not miss the opportunity for the loss.

I will not miss the mountains, in their empty and uninspiring way, for being so corrupted by the city below. When my wife came back for the second time we had a discussion about this place makes it so difficult to breathe. I’ve been confused for some time why a place that is situated in a river pass between two small mountain ranges could be so filled with grief, and in some time I knew the answer – from any perspective near or far, I couldn’t see the mountains for the city below. The first time I drove into the city, the first time I came down from the Sierra Blanca ridge, that day when the sun bore through the clouds and lit the valley below and the sight line stretched for a hundred miles and right there in the middle you could pick out an entire thunderstorm that looked merely cartoonish and singular in the space around it, the rain banding downward like a showerhead and in an hour I’d be covered with rain. Driving in that day I was bewildered at the sight of the mountains. But never since. I will not miss the city below.

The city is among the dirtiest I have known, and not from the sand and rocks and dirt that soak its atmosphere. It is littered with trash. From my porch I can look up the short hill behind the parking lot and see ten twenty thirty bushes with something stuck in it; plastic bags, bottles, potato chip sacks, papers of all kinds. What the wind doesn’t blow out, the rest is thrown on the ground by the people of the city. I will not miss the people of this city.

Driving home there’s a new billboard posted. It’s in the spot where just after the downtown there are two highways running parallel. Primarily the interstate, but just southward and below is Highway 85. Highway 85 is, for about three miles, the literal border. If you drive southward on Highway 85 from Sunland Park, the concrete shoulder of the highway is the fence. Well, it is the fence insofar as it has on top of the concrete walls a 10-foot high, 3-foot thick copper and brass fence that even a bird couldn’t pass through. This fence starts here and follows the city for the populace’s entirety, and continues on each direction. In certain high-traffic areas there are two such fences running parallel, a distance of about 100-feet between them. They are lit on all sides by a series of halogen lights, each light pole only 10-feet apart, running for 24-hours a day for maximum visibility in all conditions. The border patrol places a manned Chevrolet Tahoe every quarter-mile in these high-traffic areas. They rove the space between, a quarter-mile at a time. And, in what I guess is the most trafficked area, the fence even has inverted lips along the top, sometimes barbed wire. I will not miss the fence.

The effect of the fence, the effect of the people who transition daily from side to side, the final causality of El Paso is that it is stripped of any culture. The displaced people who come here in the military refer to this as Mexico, because it is clearly not Texas. But tellingly, it is neither Mexican. Those who got across at a time when there wasn’t a fence and those who come here daily for work or recreation, they come here to get away from Mexico. And they’ve brought none of it with them. They’ve replaced whatever culture they had (and wanted to leave behind) with what is the assumed American identity – where we lack for taco trucks, communal and religious events, colorful homes, and tight communities, we make up for in Red Lobsters, Olive Gardens, JC Penney’s, PF Chang’s, movie theaters, car dealerships, McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Starbucks, Whataburgers, shopping malls, Best Buys, Wal-Marts, gas stations, Subways, Taco Bells (no, seriously), Barnes & Nobles (there’s only two, but they represent the entirety of booksellers in El Paso), and car washes. I didn’t understand at first why there were so many car washes until I spent two weeks here. But more than the dust, I am disgusted by how difficult it is to find a local foodstuff. The best, and really only, genuine burrito I’ve found comes from a converted gas station by a business founded in Juarez. Its ingredients are all slow-grilled in large vats, and their tortillas are handmade each morning. The place is called Burritos Crisostomo, and it has two locations. Everyone I talk to says it pales in comparison to El Taco Tote. El Taco Tote is an El Paso foundation, and is best compared to Chipotle food, stuffed into a Dairy Queen building. I do not eat at El Taco Tote. I will not miss El Taco Tote.

Looking for any other kind of independent foodstuff, local or otherwise, can be counted on a two hands. There’s two pizza places, (Nona’s and Ardovino’s), an extension of Austin’s County Line Barbeque (here called State Line Barbeque), the aforementioned Burritos Crisostomo, Kiki’s Mexican (the oldest and most original Mexican restaurant in town that no one goes to), La Malinche (the only menudo to be found in a citizenship once famous for it), and Casa Pizza (which is actually a Greek sandwich shop that makes the best salami subs). This rest is a smattering of Denny’s, IHOPs (WHO THE FUCK STILL EATS IHOP), Olive Gardens, Chili’s, Applebee’s, TGIF’s, etc. These places all have the longest lines and numerous locations. This wouldn’t be surprising if it were a burgeoning frontier township striving for capital growth. But El Paso alone, excluding Juarez, is the country’s 14th largest municipality and has nearly a million people. They all eat at Red Lobster.

The reason for this, again, is the desire to seem American. The sad triviality of this is the cyclical and non-expansive nature of El Paso’s population. Outsiders do not come here, El Pasoans do not leave. The University of Texas at El Paso boasts a student body over 25,000, but I assure you that most come from the city itself. They graduate and return to the workforce in El Paso as the few who do not labor. Because of this the education system remains mired in a spiral, teaching its students to grow up and teach its future students, and for their lack of broad and divisive course study, they do not burden their current and future students with any thought of improvement, change, deference. El Paso is as it was and as it will continue to be: a city of poverty, labor, low-income, and poor man’s education. It bleeds into every facet of character both visual and visceral and cannot be misunderstood by anyone who spends more than a day here. Because if you spend any time more than a day, you will see that anything that was sacred in El Paso is no longer. And that can only be allowed by an entirely uneducated population.

There are of course the mountains that will never be cleared of explosives, but there is also the ghost town comprising El Paso’s former downtown. The brochures attempt to sell you on the historic nature of the Plaza Theater, the multiple Kress Buildings once running the famous Kress Department Stores, the Oregon Street shopping district. It is, I say assuredly, a photographer’s paradise. The kind of empty, decrepit relics of postwar booming American cities – neon signs that haven’t lit in decades, candy-striped barber poles, hand-painted advertisements, handcrafted aluminum signs and banners, individually numbered curbsides, aluminum awnings and full corner glassworks, red brick walls with giant painted Coca-Cola logos. It’s the kind of scene straight from Bogdonavich’s “The Last Picture Show,” and it encompasses every corner of downtown. In one notoriously jaded lower floor, there’s a stretch of windows plastered with make-believe images of stores that could be housed in the empty storefronts, emblazed with the words “this store could be you!” I doubt if there’s been a store in any of these buildings since the 80s, and I wonder if ever there will be again.

This is remarkable but entirely credible because the city is constructed of a commuter’s world. From its farther westward point to its furthest eastward point, El Paso stretches from 36-miles. My own commute to work is 26 miles. It stretches from the west side of the North Franklin peak all the way down to the pass, and then east and southward along the border until just after San Elizario. San Elizario represents the end of the municipality as well as the only remaining bit of culture. San Elizario is famous for being the only jail that Billy The Kid escaped from, which is the dubious variety of fame, but nonetheless. Pat Garrett was here the sheriff, and you know this from the films. Each of the first Fridays here in San Elizario is an event called Art Fridays where the well-maintained adobe hut buildings that comprise the downtown square open up with art galleries, wine, sidewalk projection shows, and live music. The only people who go are the ones who operate the event. The other 900,000 people all miss it, and I will not miss them.

Because everyday I drive home and one of these 900,000 people nearly take my life on the highway. [Ed. Note: the following few paragraphs will contain statements seemingly derived of hyperbole, but I assure you they are not an exaggeration]. Driving home is a dangerous activity here. If not for the poorly constructed weave of highways, or the central traffic funneling that is the interstate, or the endless construction zones throughout the city, then mostly for the people using the roads. A few bad drivers are blemishes to the record, but a city that experiences a dozen wrecks in a single rush hour has an endemic problem. This, the traffic and its inefficacy, is the largest and singular proof of the city’s problems and cultural clashes. Because there are two types of people on the roads here, split in unequal numbers; there are the native, uneducated poor who drive well below the speed limit from I assume is a great fear of death, police, and a cost they cannot afford, and there is the non-native, uneducated poor in the military who through brazen ignorance treat the world like a playground and only drive as fast as possible. There are no less than 10 cars abandoned on the side of the highway during my commute, every day. There are no less than 1-in-10 cars driving on spare tires. This is a big one for me, because it is the sad evidence of two terrible ways of life: the first, that the driver got in some accident to lose a tire; the second, that they have not the income or budget skills to replace the spare. The types of vehicle that make up the roads are the types of vehicle that you sold to a dealership ten years ago. Here there are ten trucks for every car, and not because we need trucks in El Paso. El Pasoans drive trucks because they are old, cheap, and can be purchased easily. When it breaks down, I assume they replace it with another 1997 Dodge Ram, as most have and are. Just the other day I tried to park in the garage of the University Medical Center, but it took fifteen minutes just to navigate to the fourth floor, because the trucks trying to drive and park in there were too big and driven by people who couldn’t handle the size of a dually, 2500 series hauling truck. It’s not because they need a truck – it’s because they need a vehicle they can purchase in cash, in whole, and for cheap. That vehicle will be driven until it cannot, and then it will be replaced. Whether by falling behind on maintenance or by totaling the truck in a wreck doesn’t matter.

And they wreck so frequently. Often, and by my own experience driving in Europe, I’ve learned that we teach our drivers in America to drive defensively to a fault, instead of driving aggressively. The intent of the adjective aggressive is not to provoke stupidity, but to instigate vigilance – the vigilance to be aware and cognizant of a vehicle’s surroundings. But by fearing aggressive driving for misunderstanding it as fast and dangerous, we default to defensive driving for sake of safety and isolation from fault. The thinking goes that if I don’t do anything wrong, nothing can happen to me. This is manifested mostly in the failure to obey any right-of-way or fast-lane designations, and primarily occurs in wrecks where entrance ramps enter the highway. Never once does a vehicle on the highway allow another vehicle to enter. To compound the situation, the vehicles entering the highway often decelerate out of fear to find an open space, rather than accelerate. And in the many cases where this results in a wreck, the immediate response is a shaking motion of the hands and the phrase “no police, no police.” I’ve seen this many times, and expect it many times more. But it is not their fault for fearing police involvement. It is our fault for creating this place. It is our fault for putting up a fence, divesting half the workforce, separating families, stifling the already poor, and enforcing it through force. It is our fault for creating a world that has yet to open its boundaries. It is our fault for being patriotic to a written document instead of to the human race. It is our fault for filling this city with problems and leaving it to rot. I will not miss the rot.

This city came to these problems the same way any other has. But only because it started in the muck, it buries itself even further with the added contemporary problems of a mortgage-crisis, low-unemployment, and border security. There is here like there is in all the world, a growing population driven by consumer interest. But where a city like New York or Tokyo or Paris might have the standard quality of life to allow its citizens the luxury of a new smartphone, El Paso cripples itself by choosing to buy the iPhone 6 even when household income cannot support it. At every stop light, the lead car is slow to accelerate because the driver is staring downward into a smartphone. This is not an exaggeration. It is doubly worse on Fort Bliss. Without failure, every car that I see swerving and driving with inconsistent speed is driven by a person that is looking at a smartphone. Just last week it was only my horn-honking that saved the Jeep in front of me from smashing into the highway barrier instead of curving with the road. It wouldn’t be so endemically true except that the places of highest congestion occur where there are shopping malls. I live near one. On every weekend, the roads there back up through all intersections. These people do not go hiking, do not go downtown, do not go out, they go shopping. They spend what little money they have on things, just things, and do nothing to improve their way of life. The city’s parks are not parks, they are dead-grass fields with a few lights. There is no entertainment in El Paso because the people wouldn’t go. There are no arts districts, there are no independent shops or bakeries or clothing stores, there are no live events. There are only shopping malls. I will not miss the shopping malls.

It is not their fault. We have created an education system that teaches us to want things, and to work for the money to have things. We do not teach our children to work for ideas or fulfillment. We do not teach them to work for life-enriching experiences, nor emotional stability. We teach them to work for money, and money buys things. Our status and fulfillment is derived from our possessions, our visual manifestation of who-we-are-cum-what-we-have. This is a problem everywhere, but it is a depressing reality in a city that should not afford its luxury. This is a city that should be building and cleaning and developing a better future. This is a future full of people that wanted to be better, but they stopped improving just after crossing the fence. We’ve taught people on both sides of the fence that over here it’s better because we have things, and access to things. If only we could get the things, our life would be better. And the people already on this side of the fence, we won’t let them over anymore to take the things we already possess. But we have so little things, and each of them are unimportant. If the people here could understand that. If only they could see all the things blowing here in the wind, the things litering the sides of the road, filling up the trash containers, and sitting around wasting in the desert sun. These were things that were bought on Saturday but were useless by Monday, and were thrown out. Not thrown anywhere particular, just out. Out onto the ground, into the desert, out of the room and no longer their problem. There is a special kind of laziness that only a poor education can create that allows this type of ignorance, this deference to nature and humanity. It is an education derived of living for, possessing, and needing things.

Things. They are just things.

I will not miss the things.

The same education that made this possible made the war that made the job I have possible. But this education infects the other 400-million people of this country as well. I will not miss serving in this capacity. It worked for me insofar as its benefits to my own life outweighed the negative effects incurred. For so long as it paid me a substantial amount o erase my student loan debt, I could suffer it. For so long as it subsidized my life in Europe, I could suffer it. For so long as it emboldened my experiences and placed within me within an environment of curiosity and wonder, I could suffer it. But it does none of these things any longer, and I will not miss it. I will not miss the city that it brought me to, or the people that continue to suffer it. I will not miss the handshakes I receiving for defending a country that shouldn’t be defended, and I will not miss the uniform that places me within a peculiar and isolated portion of society. I have done good things while in the military, but many of them are a result ancillary. The places I have gone, the things I have learned, the people I have met and the woman I have love, these are all indirect benefits of a system that now exists only to ruin my mind and further my depression, and I will not miss it.

I will not miss filling my days with data and facts and figures that amount to war. I will not miss knowing that my work, when even its fullest contribution and development still only totals 1/400,000th of the Army’s power, comprises 1/400,000th of this nation’s power for war. I will not miss hearing phrases like “combat power” and “force strength” and “shoot, maneuver, kill” and “strike the enemy” at simple board meetings and welcoming conferences, as if these phrases were as common as “brand synergy” and “competitive value” and “marketing power.” I will not miss being told to “impact soldiers” when there is no way for me to have an impact – if I present myself wholly, truly, and genuinely for the person I am, I am met with derision; I am not like these people, I read, I wonder, I think, I believe in peace, and I speak clearly. In order to make an impact, to have influence, I have to become, and have become, one of them. I will not miss being one of them. I miss being inspired, I miss being creative, I miss believing that everything is possible. And to get that back I have to be free of this, and I’ve errantly found a way. As has happened numerous times before, I’ve found another way to return to nature, return to searching, return to freshness. I’ve found another way to screw up, and I miss the feeling it gives me. I can do anything again. The end is here, but the beginning is coming up right behind.

No matter how the end comes, it is here and I will not miss it. Everyone I know repeats the same phrase unprovoked – I never belonged in the Army. I contend that there were moments when I did belong. There were moments, moments sitting along the Salzach river or the Italian beaches of Porto Ferro, moments drinking oak-barrel scotch from the frozen Finnish pubs, moments sipping mulled-wine next to a fire on Christmas listening to the village folk band play traditional hymns in a 10-piece brass band, moments when listening to my new Czech friends DJ their latest set at an underground club in Prague, moments running from the bulls in Spain, moments lying in the snow of the rolling farmlands of the German hinterland, moments when I felt at home that I could belong in the Army. In these moments I belong because the Army made those moments possible. But it no longer makes those moments possible and I am irreparably depressed for it, and I will not miss it.

The strongest, most lasting thing I learned is that I have lived overseas, and it is not so hard to do again. It seemed so foreign when I did it the first time, but I’ve physically done it now – I can physically do it again. The means are not important because I have the desire, the will, and the knowledge now. It is a skill gained, like any other skill of bootcrafting, sport, musical, or otherwise. It’s been done, and I know a little bit now of how to do it again. If everyone could get this just once, they might do it again. But until then, they are doomed to comfort and security. Doomed to a home in one place.

But the world is one place. The earth is one home.

…..

I was pilfering through old photos a friend of mine had posted online, a good large collection of pictures of people I grew up with and all the things they had done. I remember all of these moments too, days in junior high and days in high school, in and around my hometown. All the people I had grown up with in a small town where everyone knew everyone, all the people were there. There were the heartbreaking photos of the many friends I had that are now deceased, the moments we shared. There were poor fashion choices and high school pep rallies and pictures taken during an innocuous lunch on a random school-day afternoon. In each of these moments were precious memories, but I wasn’t in a single photograph. I wasn’t snapped or taken or involved. If I asked this person or these people to recount the details of our collective childhood, I have a place in all of them, and yet I’m not represented in the pictographic evidence even once. I always there for everyone, always on the border, but never really inside these circles.

I always felt like I didn’t belong or wouldn’t get in with this people, and I can remember a lot of these moments exactly as I’m viewing them now in the pictures – from just out of frame. There but not really. And I wonder why, until I realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t belong. I just didn’t get in there.

I didn’t really care to get in there. I think I have this shared, collective experience with almost everyone I grew up. Always considered a part of the group, but never inside the closest circle and not a part of any one’s life any longer, not worth holding onto. The geeks, the band nerds, the athletes, the popular kids, the outcasts. Everyone called me a friend, but I’m not a part of any one’s most cherished memory. In the end, I just didn’t really care to belong to any of these groups. When everyone cut their hair, I grew mine out. When everyone wore polos and stripes, I wore tees and solid colors. When everyone listened to hip hop I wen to the rock’n’roll show. I did it on purpose because I didn’t want to fit in. I relished it, even when I thought it would help get me in. But I know now, that I what I truly wanted was to be different. I know this now.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find a group, and I probably won’t. My beliefs have always been too broad, too strong, too universal, to enriched and empowering. The kind of beliefs that others find offensive, because it belittles their insignificant problems and worries. Maybe this is why my newest best friend is mother nature.   Unimportant.

What’s important is that I need to stop trying to belong. I’ve forgotten how to not belong.

I Have Unique Skillsets.

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on April 14, 2015

I have unique skillsets. I have marketable characteristics. I have varied and useful experience, and the requisite bullet points. I have spent time in good places to spend time. I have an excellent education and a couple of degrees. I have no use for these.

I have colorful résumés. There’s a green one, and a blue one. I have everything in line and powerful references. They’re nice people who do nice things. I have the right attitude, and I’m approachable. I’d rather be far, far away.

I have many years ahead of me. I have potential for growth. I have one step on the ladder, and each step is a little more time. I have the ability to start at the bottom, and I have the strength to work to the top. I never do.

I have multiple outlets and many contacts. I have a broad network. I have places I could be, and people who want me. I have no need to try them again.

I have a lot of tools. I have endorsements and I have a track record. I have certifications and I have good training. I spend my time working on anything else.

I have a large collection of vinyl records. It’s nice. I have an expensive stereo that plays the music and an expensive turntable that spins the wax. It’s been my only dream, to own all the music. But it won’t fit in my car when I need to leave.

I have a full closet. There’s more than five jackets, a row of quality jeans, and a handful of vintage cloth. The shelf in the center holds my new felt hat, the kind that traveller’s wear on the train. It’ll go with me whenever everything else gets thrown away.

I have a curated library. Nothing but the classics. Anyone could walk in and find something to read. Hardbacks and paperbacks, each chosen for the classic appeal, especially the ones with yellow pages. I’ll put my favorite in my back pocket and the rest go to charity.

I have furniture. I have a bed, two sofas, and a coffee table. I never wanted furniture and never thought about buying it until I rented an apartment. I never considered what color, what type of wood, or what size. I never thought I needed furniture. I needed furniture when I wanted to be comfortable in the place I was living. I never thought of how much time could go by on a sofa I didn’t need.

And now it’s one more thing that won’t fit in my car.

I have decorated with things that I enjoy. I put up canvases of places I’ve been, moments I’ve been happy, snapshots and pieces of memorabilia from where I’ve gone and want to go again. Postcards and concert posters and a collage of photos that help me remember. It was supposed to make me happy again. It only fills me with the worst kind of desire.

I have a nice, big bed. I have a mattress. A mattress is another thing I didn’t think about, until I did. Again, the thinking was I needed a mattress. But a place to sleep isn’t necessarily a mattress.

I have, over time, given away most all the rest. Childhood nostalgia, photo albums, unwanted and unread books, knick-knacks, unseasonable clothes, trinkets, outdated software, relics of hobbies I never finished, unworn shoes, framed pictures, anything that I couldn’t take with me. Somehow I’ve gotten more. Each time I get something new, I try to give something away. The things that don’t need to stay will really surprise you when you operate this way.

I still have too much.

I have little problems. The kind that seem monstrous to most, but really, I mean really really really, aren’t worth my dime’s bit of time and toil. I have an idea of who I want to be and no way of getting there, that’s a bigger problem. The rest is c’est la vie.

I have places I want to go, things I want to do. I have ideas and creativities and arts all rolling around in my head, but I don’t have the whatever-it-is to get after it. Instead I have a job, and furniture, and unique skills that get in the way.

I have no reason to worry. I have been in better places, but I have been in worse. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, but I haven’t been overcome yet with fear. I have things I could do, but I have only one that I want.

I want to choose. I want to be free. I want to have attorney over my soul. I want to move about, and be laughed at for dancing. I want never again to hide who I am.

All these things I have now I have because I’ve been hiding from myself. I won’t have them much longer.

How Am I Supposed to Feel?

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on October 6, 2013

How am I supposed to feel about this?

As things get worse, other things carry on.  Enough other things carry on and everywhere everyone can act like nothing is happening.  There are still the magazines to tell you how to dress, the televisions to tell you how to vote, the radios to tell you how to dance, and the schools to tell you who to be.  We walk the streets in a mired identity that believes somehow it is singular yet, all around us, are others of us.  And every one of us, alike and the same, carries on like nothing is happening.  “It will pass” and “it will end soon” are spoken intelligently like we know, like we have the answer, because it feels right, doesn’t it? But what is it to feel right?  How did we arrive in a place where giving to others is a political battleground?  And while there are so many things to indicate that such an emotion is a path wrongly taken, that too – that feeling that giving to others is a human right, not a charity – could be a symptom of years and generations of going about it all wrong.

After all – what about where we are says anything we’ve ever done was good?

Because here we are, stuck in the middle of a government shutdown during one of the most volatile, divisive, politically eruptive periods in American history staring down a mounting list of problems as society continues to rift, debts continue to grow, men and women continue to be shot down, racial divides thicken, sexual and religious inequality persist, and there to oversee it is a government body that collectively said “fuck it.”  It’s a remarkable thing to say, maybe finally, that democracy has failed.  It has failed us, it has failed itself, and I begin to wonder how much longer we can sit by and try to patch the holes in a ship that is clearly capsizing.  What’s so wrong with revolution after all?

But we mustn’t think politically.  These problems are too rich to play with numbers, too significant to meet with logic, for logic and numbers have long been thrown away.  In many ways, logic and numbers brought us to this point – where, for sake of a seat in office, for sake of identifying with regimes and ideas, for sake of wanting to keep what’s ours, we’ve given up on the idea of charity.  Frankly, this all boils down to politicians and their supporters that refuse to help those in need, by providing a simple basic service, medicare, that might keep someone alive.  Isn’t it incredible? I mean, how can we look at ourselves and say that we’re debating people’s worthiness to live?  That’s what’s going on.  And I don’t know how to feel.

It should be so much more simple than turning on the switch again, and as much as I want someone to do it, it won’t change the void and disillusion I have – this feels like something that should be changing my life, but I feel nothing.  I’m more frustrated from the loneliness, the normality of it all.  While I walk around trying to grab onto people or words or ideas to make sense of what’s happening, the world keeps spinning and in it are people that watch it spin.  As a government employee I should be affected, changed, impacted, much less enraged, but I got paid – one of the few, and I’m still at work, and I’m carrying on, and nothing’s changed, except that my government has failed.  That idea has done more to me than any paycheck ever could.

I can’t accept living in a world so disengaged.  These are acts of tyranny, the times when politicians get drunk on the eve of watching the government die.  But I can’t very well blame them for living within an environment that watched such behavior blossom and become, largely, a mode of acceptable behavior beyond punitive action and free of ridicule; in a sense, everyone was doing it, so what’s the big deal?  That millions of lives worldwide ride on it.  But, like everyone else who keeps checking their smart phones for updates or watching their televisions for sports scores or checking their internet for cat photos, distractions keep us from realizing what’s going on, feeling the gravity of the situation, and knowing for once that we’re in a bad place.  We’re on a slow boat to anarchy.

Decisions are being made for spite.  Real world, heavy decisions are being made for spite.  Ones in particular that shut down a government and make literally zero logical sense other than to enrage voters and chase reelection.  Where are we when this is acceptable political behavior?  And more than what can be done, how did we arrive here?  Has it always been like this?  How should I feel about this?

The arguments are so compellingly strong against the behavior of the few that have made this happen.  The irrational decision to fight a bill that has been signed into law is never one that will make sense, and, as the president has calmly said, “are tactics designed to ransom the government and its people for things that will not change.”  I believe that’s an impeachable offense.  But it’s not important.  I can’t get over the fact that in the 21st Century, this new millennium, we still have people who refuse to help others.

In an argument the other day with a coworker, his reasons for support of such behavior circled around the fact that the many shouldn’t take care of the worthless few.  Never mind that over 40-million working adults can’t afford healthcare, and that 1 in 5 choose to go without, these people are infringing on the capitalist efforts of the few who have.  The few who have earned a little bit, who have something others don’t and don’t want to share.  It didn’t mean anything to him that his own friend, another coworker standing near us who is a father to four children and previously earned less than 30,000$ a year, couldn’t afford health care were he not in the military.  The first man was convinced that “the country’s gangsters” would “abuse Obamacare” to “get things they don’t deserve.” How in the hell is this kind of idea real?  How the fuck can people go on living like this and saying these things?

That to me is a more pressing issue than the government shutdown.  I don’t know what to feel because the issues at hand are not the most important.  Even as millions ignore that it’s even happening, for the few who are paying attention I want to say – look harder.  This is not about politics.  This is about human behavior.  This is about human emotion.  This is feeling.  This is about the ideas of religion and philosophy and the culture of fear.  This is about thinking.  Thinking goddammit, and are we thinking anything at all.

Because if we’ve gotten everything so wrong, it means also that how we think is wrong.  To its worst end, maybe the idea that we should help each other is wrong.  To its illogical conclusion, maybe we should accept that life is a series of births and deaths and attempting to save a life is pointless, nay, harmful.  It’s frightening because it feels so wrong, but that’s what I’m talking about – if everything we think is right is actually wrong, then what about the opposite?  How long before we give it a shot?  How long before we don’t have a choice?

We can’t keep going about things the same way forever.  History is a series of trial and error, a long steady line of mistakes, theories, hypotheses, test and conclusion.  Along the way there have been the romantic few who dared to accelerate the process: Plato, Pythagoras, Copernicus, Newton, Da Vinci, Kant, Bacon, Einstein, Tesla, the ones who through philosophy, mathematics, science, and sheer curiosity dared to dream of a world with answers derived from simply asking questions.  They were the ones who about them saw a world that didn’t work quite the way it was advertised, and they sought (and succeeded) in providing a few more ways to think.

But with these foundations for thinking having been laid down for thousands of years, our contemporary state seems scripted.  In a way, the greatest thinkers and doers have been said to answer humanity’s greatest scientific and moral dilemmas.  We know that humans should persevere to help other humans, and we are left to figure out how.  We know that electricity can stimulate particles to create energy, and if harnessed properly, can compute equations at a percentile of the human brain’s capacity, and we are left to figure out its greatest use.  We know that particle physics can dissemble the known universe, and we’re left to figure out how to make it possible.  We know that people shouldn’t die young, and we’re left to figure out why it’s still happening.  It’s like putting together an existential puzzle where the factions of the earth each have a piece don’t believe that other pieces are needed.  If only these factions could cooperate.  More exciting still, is that there is more thinking to be done.  Look no further than the perilous state of things to know that we haven’t gotten most anything figured out.

I’m not the first, lord no, not the first to have this idea.  If I’m lucky I’ll have even a fraction of the success those before me had with it.  In the 18th Century, Immanuel Kant became fed up with the way things were presented.  Having seen a recorded history of the world and its moral dilemmas decided by faith, Kant proposed a way of thinking that stated directly why humans felt such moral gravity and how such faith failed to answer the implications.  It was revolutionary: “Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but … let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition” (Critique of Pure Reason).  Essentially, the way we perceived our experiences is a consequence of our predisposed ideas, or, we get what we want from things.  Kant was raised in the church (big surprise) and a stern home education focusing on the use of Latin and classic theologies.  In short order, a boiling point for the thinking man.  And while it is important to notice the things he was able to conjure, the beautiful and mystic moral questions he was able to transcribe, it is most important to evaluate his positive assertion for the necessity of thinking – our experiences conform to our ideas, or the way we want them.  And he didn’t want to be like that.  Everything he was taught to believe didn’t seem entirely right because, as he correctly hypothesized, it was a result of scatological heresy passed down in the form of history to be taught as truth.  He didn’t know what truth was out there – he just knew that what he was being told was wrong.  And for his efforts we have the greatest works on Moral Metaphysics ever assembled, paving the way for why the human brain seeks cognitively to search for the best emotional solution.

This is of great consequence in the modern day.

The Age of Information after all is pummeling us like a steamroller from hell.  Life is advancing at such a speed that profits are proportionately related to the amount of technology used in production (I just came up with that, but fuck, isn’t it true?).  The trickle-down effect of this relationship affects you, the user and consumer and producer, in the market economy of “slave wages,” for lack of a better term.  Basically, you need money to survive; in order to make money you need a job; in order to keep a job you have to operate within the confines of the jobs demands; the job will remain present and profitable in so long as it is within the curve of advancing technology; you, personally, therefore must stay within the curve of advancing technology.  And so begins a life connected infinitely to the radio waves of the internet, radio, television, and cellular life.  As much as I have removed television from life (I have not one, do not watch more than an hour each month in public spaces), and as much as I try to refrain from other modes of consumption, I have to keep my e-mail updated to receive important communications from coworkers and my employer.  As a resident of Europe for a couple of years now, the easiest method by which I can contact anyone, sadly, is Facebook.  This relationship with technology can vary in degrees, but the necessity to operate in the modern has us crippled.  Instead of thinking, we’re consuming.  Instead of running ahead, we’re catching up.  Reactive, not proactive.  And while we know that we shouldn’t be so easily directed by the flow of traffic, we know also that we should be able to answer life’s simple questions of survival – food, shelter, family, in that order, thank you Maslow – and in the Age of Information we can do that.  It isn’t until that process is interrupted that we will realize the true order of chaos around us.

Because, truly, what have we gotten from this modern world?  We’re too afraid to believe that the things we own, all the total sum of the products, emotions, and ideas that we possess within our mind, could be as strong as the house built on the sand, to use a well-known analogy.  It’s frightening that everything we know is wrong.  Frightening, absolutely shaking.  So while the government goes into shutdown, while our government is failing, we sit back and watch the television and focus our time on distractions to make it seem less real.

The failure of government is a real and shocking truth in this country that no one yet is fully conceptualizing.  Just imagine now – think of all the times you’ve heard the battle cry, “it’s unconstitutional.”  The indictment on any unjust action as “unconstitutional” is as strong or stronger in this country of ours than any previous moral judgment ever used, biblical or otherwise.  It’s a way of life here, in the blood.  The Constitution is our bible, our religious document.  Invoking its charges, we’ve been led to believe that only be the words of Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers (just men, mind you) we’ve been able to forge out a world of peace, freedom, and liberty through a system of government we call democracy.  For nearly 250 years it has been the calling card to successes large and small.  And now it’s wrong.  It doesn’t work.

I’m telling you that democracy isn’t working.

John Adams, of a few people, said as much: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.” (letter to John Tyler, April 15, 1814, The Collected Works of John Adams)

It is not without any sense of irony that we should also discuss the exact mechanics at work for this failure: in the attempt to make irrelevant the voting power of the republic collective, Federalists relegated the proportionality system of delegates (equal in proportion to population) used in the House of Representatives to the lower tier of the legislative branch, one not responsible for creation of law.  It is however, as part of a bicameral legislature, while not able to create much, capable of at least saying “no” once in a while, as it has and is right now and goddamn it you fools.

Just reading over the words in the above paragraph seem to place the government (which is after all, a group of men getting together, and nothing more) in the same lofty levels as the heavens, the after life, and the karmic truth.  But it is just a group of men entrusted to make decisions for the majority.  It is a tool of voice, a tool no different than the microwave, the refrigerator, the latex condom (less effective, in fact).

What have these tools, these inventions, these governments given us that in any way solves the problems we’ve raised and known to be quarrelsome?  For all the things we’ve created, how then can we not solve something as simple as war with an answer as simple as peace?

It means to me that the entire way of thinking is wrong.  Everything.  All of it.  Peace as we know it is a false concept.  Death as we know it is a false concept.  War, government, politics, state borders, all false.  Sex, reproduction, gods and love are all in the mind, as are feelings of esteem, courtesy, jealousy, pride, anger, frustration, and accomplishment.  Charity, benevolence, kindness, sympathy, and compassion are as equally useless and hollow as hate, violence, prejudice, and intolerance.  We feel and believe all of these things as a result of what we’ve been told.  None of it is true.

It means that my feelings of disillusion, too, are misplaced.  It means I shouldn’t feel that the anarchy is slowing creeping our way, because I should not expect anarchy to be weighted proximally by equal feelings of remorse, regret, fear, and anxiety, as I’ve been taught to believe.

It means I should sit back and welcome the chaos like the warm rising tide that swells in the night with the weight of a dark, burning moon glowing lowly over the horizon never to spin its face the other way because it knows like we know that change is violent and it takes all the power of the sun and stars to make a giant transform its way of life.

 

END OF ARTICLE

 

…But I really cannot articulate enough, over and over again, this sentences:

How do we live in a world still filled with people who think its okay to operate with hate in their hearts?

How do we still live in a country that operates on blatant and unreal racism and bigotry?

Why do people continue to refuse to help other people?

What is it about personal possessions that is much more gratifying than charity?

I mean, seriously. What do you have that you can’t live without that makes affordable healthcare for people in need an impracticality?

There are a lot of things that can be written in political science journals about the shifts happening right now, and I think the strongest is this – this government shutdown is proof that the two-party system is largely institutionalized beyond a point of referendum, as seen in the power of the radical Tea Party (side note: I’m glad that some outlets are finally labeling the Tea Party as “radical”).  Or, essentially, because of the fear engrained in the historical ideology of the antebellum South and the corporate donations made to the Republican Party on behalf of the gentrified companies that are run by people with such ideology, the Republican Party as a whole must pander to its ideas and wishes rather than dissemble or realign.  I mean, for fuck’s sake, they call themselves the Tea Party – they want things they way they were hundreds of years ago, you know, before a black man took over the presidency.

Which leaves me with two questions:

1)   How do these people survive in this world?

2)   Why aren’t we working harder to eradicate their antiquated beliefs?

Whatever.  Just go post something about #shutdownLOL on tumblr while you order your Pumpkin Spice Latte because that’s all you wanted when fall season rolled around because the movies are still on and its NFL Sunday and I’ve got to work tomorrow and the fall premiere season has started on television and gas prices haven’t gone up and my baby boy brought home his first homework assignment from kindergarten today about the alphabet and isn’t it cute when we get to dress him up for Sunday service? and next week we’ll go to grandma’s and eat that casserole she loves to make but I’ll take my hat off at the table this time even though you know I love to wear it everywhere I mean how often do you see me without it and a can of Bud Light because that’s what a man is supposed to wear even if he’s in the club, just like getting out the muddin’ truck it just feels good speaking of which where are the boys going this weekend? I need plans for Halloween something to do after watching the football game but let’s keep it cheap ‘cause we have to start saving up for Christmas time you know the boys want a new video game system this year the fancy one that everyone else has because I don’t want to him cry about it you know I’m not good with this but I wasn’t out too late I just needed a day to get away there are so many things going on right now I just needed to relieve some stress yes I’ll pay the bills and it’s your turn to walk the dog and I don’t care I just like my coffee black I’ll get it for you after the next paycheck and no I’m not worried about the government shutdown because it doesn’t have anything to do with me #LOLlolololololololol