The New and Improving Thomas

A Self-Help Novel

 

Excerpt

 

– 1 –

I had a 12-Point Program to transform my life. I found it distressing that I’d had to resort to such extremes, but the important thing was to achieve my objectives. While I could not be sure that becoming a conformist would entirely remedy my woes, I felt confident that it would be an improvement on where I had been. And having a Program was not so odd. After all, knowing where one stands, how to get what one wants and from whom––these were slippery issues in fluid times. It was difficult to fathom how to be happy, how to feel useful. But I had faith that the crisp delineation of my goals in the form of the Program would guide me through the difficult transition ahead. And the reader should not doubt that I approached this with utmost seriousness. I believed that failure to strictly adhere to the Program would result in my death. The price paid for failure would be the highest price. I would purchase an expensive pistol. 

So there I was, walking down stark and pleasant hallways. I was delivering work orders and special memos to various departments in a large and enormously famous international entertainment corporation. I’d only been there for just under three weeks––I was a temporary administrative assistant––but I already felt like I had embarked upon a real career path (Point 4 in the Program). I am not suggesting that I considered this to be a career, but, for the first time, I intuited certain interior shifts. Since moving back to Los Angeles, the launching pad for my new life, I’d had the opportunity to temporarily fill-in at two other locations: a bank investment firm in Universal City, and a health care corporation in Glendale. Both of these brief positions were strange and new, but my tasks were one notch above chimpanzee. I quickly learned all there was to learn. Now, however, at the Burbank-based Visionist Companies, Inc., I was actually being challenged. I saw myself acquiring skills, developing methods, gaining experience. It felt as though the tools to craft my future were becoming available to me.

These little mail runs, of course, did not fall into the educational category, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. They broke up my day. I got in some exercise. I visited new places. Unfortunately, I still tended to get lost in the seven-story glass building’s labyrinthine network of cubicles, pathways, and hallways. It was surprisingly confusing. But I was doing better. Certain plastic plant formations and movie posters were becoming more familiar, helping to guide me: I must make a right at the poster for the action-adventure blockbuster, then a left after the second perfectly rendered yucca plant. One had to pay attention to details such as these.

At the end of the corridor were steps, which I climbed. I made two lefts and approached the Finance Department. A mild eddy of discomfort passed through me. This was because I always forgot the appropriate color folder in which I was supposed to place the work orders. The other departments did not use a color coding system for mail––just a simple, straightforward “in” or “out.” But things worked differently in the Finance Department. The problem was that both folder colors seemed appropriate. The red one seemed to symbolize “urgent,” and I had been told that work orders were to be considered as such. The other folder was green, which radiated a certain “ready to go” message. So then I thought the red could mean “confidential,” another topic altogether and entirely inappropriate for a work order. Usually I could tell by peeking into the folder and seeing what was already there, but on this occasion both folders were empty. I decided to go for green and hope for the best. I inserted the work order and then replaced the folder precisely in the center of the basket. It was appealing, the way the folder sat evenly along its thin metal rails. I was learning to appreciate such things.

As I turned to backtrack and return to my cubicle I nearly collided with a very large woman. She gave me a strange look, as though she found something disagreeable about me. I immediately began to feel self-conscious and concerned. Was it my clothing? I had not yet acquired a full business attire wardrobe, so I tended to wear the same shirts/pants repeatedly. Or perhaps it was the new haircut––a closely cropped business hairstyle that I still wore uncomfortably. Or maybe it was my face. Yes, that was probably the problem. Since starting at Visionist Companies, Inc., I had been aggressively working on my smile. It was hard for me to get right, as my facial musculature was such that if I did not consciously think about it, my face relaxed into a frown. It was a minor affliction, but it had consequences. People were always asking me what’s wrong, is everything okay? (“You look like your f**king dog just died” as Eddy, my stepfather, liked to put it.) For many years of my young adult life, I considered this default frown desirable. I thought it gave me a useful tortured musician aura. But I no longer wanted to look musically tortured, nor like my dog had just died. I wanted to project a good-natured, happy worldview. Yet I knew my smile still needed some work. It was more difficult to get right than one might expect. Sometimes, when passing by an office window or reflective filing cabinet, I glimpsed my face and realized that my smile was far too extreme, almost a grimace, like a clown who has just stubbed his or her toe. And, judging from the woman’s expression, I was probably in this mode. I decided to do more smile exercises in front of the mirror that night. After all, the goal here was to come across as amiable and approachable, prerequisites for success in the business world, not to appear mentally imbalanced.

 

– 2 –

The mail run complete, I returned to my cubicle. One of the surprises I encountered upon entering the world of interoffice envelops and document templates was that I in fact had a genuine fondness for the modern office cubicle. I was certainly prepared to work toward an appreciation and affection for the cubicle, but I was impressed by how naturally it came to me. In my previous life, cubicles had been much maligned, held up as Exhibit A in the case against the so-called evils of contemporary society. How foolish I had been. How ignorant are those on the other side. This cubicle appeal was one of the many proofs that I had made the right decision. Really, I should have been planted in a cubicle years ago. 

But let me explain. Above all I appreciated the way a cubicle’s partitions shielded me from the sight and sounds of other humans. This is not to say I am anti-human (I am very pro-human), but all of my other jobs had been in the customer service field, and I’d always felt exposed, on parade. Now, however, I enjoyed some real privacy. And I certainly was not completely sealed off from my fellow co-workers. I was just sufficiently separated from them so as to allow me to concentrate on my work and maximize my productivity. Rather than having to hear a co-worker’s complaints about his or her commute to work, I merely heard a muted version of the struggle as I printed out labels or paginated a document. I had quickly come to treasure this workplace solace. Sometimes I saw old movies in which offices had all the desks facing one another in an ocean of such desks. This struck me as grotesque, torturous. 

On a more aesthetic level, the cubicle itself was attractive in its simple utilitarian functionality. Its partition walls, a stress-free beige, were made of a smooth fibrous material, tautly wrapped. Underneath was a thin layer of foam, which doubled as a sound sponge and tack foundation. Above the space for my computer were covered shelves. The covering itself, shaped in a sort of seashell curve, ingeniously retracted upwards with a mild push, as though anticipating my needs. Behind the computer and seating area was a credenza, for mail and sorting and other sundry projects. And finally, the subtle but final crowning achievement of the office cubicle: numerous cubbyholes installed on each side of the computer monitor. Here was everything I needed, well organized and just an arm length away: envelopes, scissors, mail opener, corrective fluid, paper clips (two sizes), binder clips (four sizes), a variety of labels, letter head (first and second page), office supply catalog, glue stick, staplers (three sizes), etc. It was all there, and organized specifically for the role I had to perform. Yes, I adored my cubicle.

I checked email (none) and then moved on to one of my more compelling/challenging tasks. I worked in the international film poster and trailer kit distribution department at Visionist Companies, Inc. The department presumably had a more technical name than that, but this was its basic function. One of my primary tasks was to update and maintain a complicated departmental spreadsheet. The woman I more or less supported, the director of the department, liked to keep all activities organized on a one-page spreadsheet. Considering the various stages of numerous projects, this meant that the spreadsheet was entirely in symbols and initials, the meanings of which were still incomprehensible to me. All I knew was that I must enter the data perfectly, that any error could alter or invert the task described, thus putting her in an embarrassing situation of thinking that a movie poster and trailer kit had been shipped to romantic comedy hungry customers in Singapore, when, in fact, it had not. From what I understood, I’d lasted longer than most temporary employees because I had not made too many errors in this essential aspect of my job. I had not been told this directly, but through tales of previously rejected temporary employees (one must do a great deal of reading between the lines in my position). Certainly it was gratifying to know that I had lasted longer than other, weaker temporary employees. It felt good to be superior in this particular way. It also ballooned my optimism. I was not entirely certain that Visionist Companies, Inc. was the right place for me in the long run, but knowing that I might have the opportunity to get pulled on board permanently was encouraging.

But I had a problem. In fact, I think it began when I started self-consciously noticing that I was finding the simple, repetitive task of entering data deeply satisfying. (I would not classify it as Zen-like, but it did have a distinctly pure appeal, like doing math, minus excessive thought.) And, while I was thinking about how cosmically odd it was that I now found data entry sublime, the spreadsheet suddenly turned completely blank. At first it seemed like no big deal, as they say, a fluke. I immediately hit the “undo” command. This changed nothing. The screen remained malevolently blank. Baffled, I looked more closely. The screen flickered a horrible whiteness, the faintly lined cells empty of data. This spreadsheet, I was told when entrusted with it, represented months of accumulated data. I looked down at the keyboard, trying to recall my exact movements just moments before. There I had been, toiling away, entering data, and then nothing. I certainly may have done some rapid, perhaps even sloppy clicking of the mouse, but nothing to warrant a completely blank spreadsheet. Nothing to justify it all being gone. I certainly had not hit the delete button (I was still an Excel novice, but I knew better than that), and I had not touched any of the more dangerous “F” buttons at the top of the keyboard. So how could all that work vanish like some cruel voodoo? I was truly mystified. I began to perspire. This was the opposite of good. I wanted to moan out loud, but I could not permit myself such a luxury. I felt panicky. The walls seemed to be liquefying, the ceiling now rain––a heavy rain. It was momentarily oppressive. I hoped I was not having an LSD flashback. But then I told myself to focus, to be strong. There had to be a reasonable explanation for the data disappearance. I reminded myself that I had sacrificed too much and worked too hard to have all my aspirations rent asunder by a blank spreadsheet. I would not shatter in defeat so easily.

I looked back at the entrance to my cubicle to make sure no one was sneaking a peek, noting the abnormal blankness on my computer screen. I did this because it felt like there was someone there (I had this uncomfortable feeling often, and I hoped it would pass). But this turned out to be a phantom, as the cubicle entrance was empty. Desperately, yet quietly, I began to click on all available drop-down menus. I tried various actions, but nothing helped. The data appeared to have been eradicated from existence. I knew that I would be terminated immediately if I did not recover this data. I became more frantic, angrier. My respiration was increasing. I now vigorously tapped keys with mysterious, almost cult-like symbols. But that just made matters worse. I hit the escape button. I hit it again. Then I noticed something: at the bottom of the blank spreadsheet were tiny tab-like designs. I saw that some of these tabs had names, a feature of Excel I had not noticed before. I clicked on a tab labeled “Dept-Sum-1stQ” and the hours of painstaking labor flashed onto the screen as quickly as it had disappeared. The mass of data was where it should be. I ducked my head in great relief, like a superhero who has just saved humanity from a villain intent on unleashing a planetary anti-gravity device. I calmed myself. I adjusted my breathing. Everything was under control. I had everything under control.

 

– 3 –

“Thomas, honey, can you get me some coffee?”  

I did not respond. I was still savoring the natural euphoria of disaster averted. I saw all the plans and aspirations that I had been working toward in the last three months orderly fall back into place.

“Thomas!” repeated Linda, much louder this time. “Thomas, can you hear me? Are you there?”

“Yes, my apologies Linda,” I called toward the top of my cubicle. “I will get some right away.” 

I could not resent getting the woman two cubicles down her coffee. She was, after all, disabled. Sometimes, if I was down the hall filing or on my mail runs, Linda would yell my name until either I came over to acknowledge her request, or until one of the other workers in the department’s quadrant of cubicles poked his or her head in and saw that I was not present. But this kind of situation had to be expected. Landing a solid job with a future was a competitive affair. I had to pay my dues, and this meant performing tasks that might be outside the theoretical job description (I quickly discovered that temporary employees rarely get job descriptions, just assurances that it would be fine). For many years I had shunned my dues––even worse, rejected their very validity––so now I had to pay them all the more assiduously.

I saved the data. (Only after finding the tab designations did it occur to me that I could have simply closed out of the file, thus recovering the last saved version of the spreadsheet. My stress management and lucidity of thought during moments of crisis absolutely had to be improved.) I rose from my attractive spring-loaded swivel chair and proceeded toward Linda’s cubicle. As I passed by to gather her World’s Worst Mom coffee mug, she reminded me of her exact cream/sugar ratio requirements. I felt a minor irritating sting, as I thought I had already demonstrated knowledge of this. But I understood that Linda’s coffee refills constituted one of her essential pleasures. I did not take her demeaning instructions personally. 

Upon my return I was told: “I’ve got you trained well, don’t I?” Linda laughed to herself as I sat down her coffee, its milk chocolate color meeting with her satisfaction. “Thank you so much, honey.”

I summoned my best positive smile. “My pleasure.”

“They’re going to find me passed out at my computer if I don’t get some caffeine in me. These people in Manila, I tell you, I wonder if they’ve got their head screwed on straight. This is the third time I’ve had to do this shipment.”

“Really?” I arched my eyebrows, concerned about what the people in Manila did as it related to Linda’s particular administrative task.

“Oh yes. I tell you, once you’ve been here for awhile and they do the same thing wrong over and over again, it can drive a girl to drink.”

Linda was a curious creature, and I wished to know her ways. While I did not want to become an overweight middle-aged woman who wore floral-patterned shirts and a prodigious amount of wrongly scented perfume, I did aspire to finding my slot in the world, and enjoying it. As far as I could tell, Linda had found just that: joy and purpose in her functionary position. She seemed to feel useful in her role (a specialist of sorts) and appeared content in her own upbeat grumpy way to serve in such a post. The Visionist Companies, Inc. offices were otherwise crawling with aspiring artists, including actors, set designers, screenwriters, painters, musicians, more actors. For instance, the person who worked in the cubicle adjacent to my own, a person named Jonathan, often chatted loudly on the phone about acting auditions, about opportunities for his “big break.” These people, naturally, had ulterior motives for working at a company like Visionist Companies, Inc. It was at least in their field, so to speak. I found these other creative people bothersome and I did not want to know anything more about them outside their administrative roles. They reminded me of my own recently excised artistic inclinations, and I did not wish to be reminded of such things. Although mostly healed, the wound still itched. In fact, I was originally going to forego the temporary employment position at Visionist Companies, Inc. exactly for this reason. But, fortunately, I was informed that I would be working in one of the less attractive administrative catacombs, far from the evil talons of self-expression and creativity. 

And that was what fascinated me about Linda. She did not talk of this or that audition, nor dream of fame, glory, recognition. In the brief time I had been stationed two cubicles down from her, she spoke of her job (true, she did complain more often than not) or about dinner, her daughter, a movie she had seen, vacation plans, etc. In short, she talked about everyday life. She was a woman just living her life, and finding meaning or justification for her life not in what she creatively produced, but in her life itself. And she clearly enjoyed performing her highly specialized tasks. I longed for this marriage of function and purpose. I’d had my youthful frolics––or had attempted to––and now, my twenties nearly over, it was time to get down to the business of manufacturing a useful, worthwhile life. What I wanted was to belong to something (and, eventually, someone). I wanted to be a tiny cog in a great product- or services-manufacturing apparatus. I wanted to know exactly what was expected of me and be rewarded based on how well I conformed to those expectations. All in all, I wished to submit so that I might find some peace and happiness. This was my expanding dream.

I lingered a moment at Linda’s desk. As though reading my thoughts she said: “You’re going to stick around for awhile, I hope. We always have new faces at that desk.”

“I plan to. That is, I would like it a great deal if I was permitted to stick around, as you say. But I am not certain that they are looking to hire someone permanently in the position I now occupy.”

“Oh, honey, they don’t even know what they want. They’re regular schizophrenics! Ever since that Y2K scare they’ve been acting like hiring new people is rocket science. I know Maxine wants a perm at that desk. You just keep doing a good job and things will work out. Besides, we can’t control what the people upstairs do, now can we? Heavens no. Trust me on that one. I see a lot of things from my desk here. My hip isn’t too hot, but I’ve eyes and ears that work just fine.”

“How long have you been here, if I may ask?”

“Oh dear, too long, way too long. Let’s put it this way, Reagan was running for reelection when I got my first job here at VCI.”

“Indeed, that is a long time,” I said. I tried to imagine such an impossibility. Never in my life had I worked longer than one year at the same job. Such a thought bent my mind. This was my future. It was intimidating, yet thrilling.

“Don’t remind me. Please. So, you said you were from San Francisco, honey? That’s a lovely city. I don’t know how people can live there all bunched up like that, but it’s so nice to visit. My daughter lives in Manhattan and I just don’t know how she does it. But to each his own, I guess.”

I paused, considering my response. “I should clarify and say that I am more accurately from this region. I was living in San Francisco for about six years. Now I am back.”

“Oh, so are you here to make it big like the rest of them?” Linda sipped contemplatively from her mug. She had a strange sparkle in her eyes, as though she loved the improbable stories of star search temporary employees.

“No, I am not interested in art. I am here only to make a living.”

It is difficult for me to express how delicious that phrase tasted in my mouth. Or, to change senses, one might better describe it as nothing less than music in my ears. Back in San Francisco my entire life had been centered around a creative lifestyle. It had defined me to an extreme degree. In fact, as far back as I could remember, creativity had always been encouraged, especially by my mother. But no longer. 

Linda laughed. “Well, I’m not sure we make art here at VCI. At least my daughter wouldn’t think so. She’s about your age, I think. She does theater work. I wouldn’t be able to shut her if I used the word ‘art’ and ‘VCI’ in the same sentence. She’s kinda highbrow, that girl.”

“I mean I am not creative,” I offered in clarification. “This is simply a job for me. When I moved back, working as a temporary employee seemed like a good way to feel out the market, as they say. I just happened to get this assignment. I am trying to keep my options open.” 

“Well, that’s a smart way to go. I’m sure things will work out for you.”

At that, Linda grabbed a stack of work orders, clearly indicating she had to get back to her primary tasks. I returned to my cubicle. I felt pleased, almost buoyant. Things were going exceptionally well. The Program was in excellent shape. I only wished it would move along more quickly. Soon I might not even recognize the person I used to be. Like a snake’s old skin, I was sloughing off my dried and dead scales for new ones that were smooth, shiny, undeniably healthy.

 

– 4 –

My Program for self-transformation was ambitious. Sometimes I worried that it was too comprehensive. I thought I might be setting myself up for total failure because of its broad-reaching (interdepartmental, one might say) agenda. But then I realized that this was just my perennial indecision: What sort of violence had to befall me so that I might stop finding alternatives and excuses? What forces within me always conspired to undermine my resolve? I knew my lifestyle and attitude adjustments had to be total and complete if it was going to work. And, more importantly, I saw the different aspects of my mind and body that I wanted to change as fundamentally contingent. In order to successfully change one aspect of myself, I had to change everything. And this, really, was the motivation in writing down the Program. How else could I keep track? Converting myself from an underground musician living for the immediate, sensual moment, into a career-minded conformist would not be an easy endeavor. A Program that had defined, achievable goals was clearly the most practical option. 

The whole enterprise came to me during several caffeinated moments of lucidity back in San Francisco. It had been around 3 am, another sleepless and lonely night among the rising live-work lofts in South of Market. I decided to wander up to the Tenderloin for some mint-flavored coffee and donuts. I knew that my rotund physique hardly needed to be augmented with any further donut products, but my hunger was ravenous that night, even though I’d had a substantial dinner. Once there, I purchased three donuts, including an apparently life-size bear claw. I found a small seat in the brightly lit shop. As I sat and ate, I looked around and saw that the other three men in the shop were all middle aged. Each of them also sat alone, looking glum. I was reminded of some Old West survivalist movie where the men lived to work, drink, defend their honor with their Smith & Wessons, and pass the time pining for the arrival of a pretty new face at Casa del Brothel. For some reason I felt old. I felt like I was already middle aged, that my life was already half over. I stared at the other men and wondered: Was this my future?

A certain despair overcame me. I began to reflect. My glazed twist, which had started so sweet and soft, was now Play-doh in my mouth. I spit it out. It suddenly became apparent that my life was a slow disaster. It was time-delayed poison. What was going on? I began to assess the facets of the existence I had made for myself. The latest in an impressive series of unsuccessful rock-n-roll musical groups (I was a bassist/lyricist) had disbanded. It had more or less fallen the way of the others: bickering, poor turnouts at infrequent shows, accusations by rival bands that we had stolen their riffs. It culminated with the guitarist checking himself into a house for those committed to aggressive substance abuse rehabilitation. It was just as well. I did not like the guitarist. Besides, as a band we strove for mediocrity.

But it was not only the band. It was my whole lifestyle. Owing to the necessity of providing time/energy for my music-making activities, I had to have an undemanding, and thus low paying, job. This job as a grocery store clerk was miserable and would not become less so in the future. The only option for some kind of change would be to go into a supervisory role, the thought of which burdened me with severe headaches. And rising rent costs were getting difficult to manage. I was forced to live in unpleasant roommate situations in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, many of which were unstable, compelling me to move around the city often. On the romantic front, I did not have a girlfriend––even worse, I did not have a single romantic prospect dangling before me and motivating me through my days and nights.

How did I get here? Did it have to be this way?

As I pondered these questions a panhandler staggered into the Ellis Street donut shop. He smelled like death. He grumbled something about change, putting out his grime-encrusted hand. I could see that the webbing where his thumb joined his palm had been badly cut, leaving his thumb to hang a bit too loosely. But there was no blood, just a thin reddish coating of the exposed skin. It looked like some cosmic chef had sliced into him to see if he was done cooking yet.

“You should get that checked out,” I said as he moved the wound closer to my face. He seemed to be saying, look I’m cut and you’re not; you have money and I don’t; give me some or you’ll feel guilty like the cruel money-having person that you are.

“It’s fine, captain,” he said. “Got any change?”

“No.” I looked at the gigantic bear claw on the yellow table. I had entirely lost my appetite at this point. “Here you go.”

“All right, then,” he said, taking it and immediately biting, as though he was concerned I might snatch it back. For a moment I was worried that the weight of the stylish donut might rip his thumb right off, but it was more resilient than it appeared. “Thanks, captain. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you.”

Reflexively, I almost went off on one of my usual combative sallies about the non-existence of god, I didn’t sneeze, did I?, etc., but I let it pass. The man made his rounds, and then left, although his odor lingered. This minor exchange, however, proved pivotal. It got me to thinking about the broader question as to why I so stridently aligned myself with all things anti-mainstream. Was I so wise in dismissing basic conformist suggestions? Non-belief in a benevolent, afterlife-assuring god was one thing, but this was indicative of my larger general contentiousness. After all, that was why I had come to San Francisco, the extreme dropping off point for those who found the traditional life-course in our country thoroughly unpalatable. 

But was that true? What was so bad about the basic life progression that had been valid for so many others: getting a college degree, finding a career, seeking and gaining a wife, producing children? I had difficulty recalling the exact events which had propelled me onto a path blind to the eventualities of needing to pay the bills, of having long-term relationships, of losing my youth. In fact, as I thought about it, I recognized that my move to San Francisco was actually a conformist act of its own, as it were. Only, instead of embracing mainstream society standards, I had followed in the anti-establishment, off-the-beaten-path footsteps of my parents. I saw Mother’s repudiation of her lower-middle-class New England Catholic upbringing, my biological father’s prison experience and subsequent narcotics efforts, our move to California as refuge from what was ritualistically described in my household as the oppressive mainstream society. How could I have not seen it? Was not this exactly the same kind of thinking that had inspired me to move from suburban Los Angeles to San Francisco in the first place? And how could I not see the inevitable future? After all, I grew up with it: living paycheck to paycheck, substance abuse, relationshipia dementia. Well, I’m an artist, I rationalized. I’m creative. Creative people follow a different, special path.

But wait. It came to me like a boot in the face: I wasn’t an artist at all! In fact, had I ever had an original thought in my life? Wasn’t I just playing the game of art and creativity, miscast in a role ill-suited, in fact deadly? After all, I certainly did not understand music. I simply mimicked and experimented, with only a crude understanding of the nuts and bolts of musical composition. I took the lifestyle seriously enough to let it define me, but I was not a bona fide musician (I always talked about taking classes, learning how to read sheet music, etc., but had never gotten around to it). It was as though I secretly believed that only through art could I become an individual, someone unique and worthwhile. But the problem here was that I was just your average Joe, as they say. I simply was not special.

I spasmed in the Tenderloin shop, my leg indiscreetly flying out from under the table. One of the middle-aged men looked at me suspiciously. I realized that I had been brainwashed, believing that the only way to give meaning to my life was to create art. Furthermore, I recognized that there was nothing wrong with conforming to society rather than resisting it. Sure, there may be details here or there I could not agree with, but I would just have to accept these. Certainly this was no reason not to plod along the earth as most others did. I could be normal. No, I would be normal! I would aspire to averageness. I felt a great wave of liberation and self-empowerment. My face flushed with what almost felt like a religious experience. Then, in an inspired brain-burst, the Program came to me. I would systematically––no, mechanically––change my life. I would eliminate my resistance and join. How could I have been so blind?

I rushed up to the counter and, after several rephrasings and elaborate hand gestures, was able to procure a pen from the Vietnamese sandwich maker and provider of donuts. I opened up a napkin so that it was large, something of tableau. And then I composed the Program. My spine tingled as I wrote. Everything became clear to me.

 

(1) Remove yourself from this city of dreams and deferments. You have become vapor. Your body moves through matter, and not in a good way. You will never be happy in San Francisco. Simply leave. Do not come back.

(2) You are not an artist. You are not special. What you think of as passion is, in fact, only anxiety. Calm down and buckle down. You will no longer pursue any sort of creative endeavor. Perhaps, in time, you can pick up a hobby (stamp collecting?). But from this point hence you are no longer a creative person. Become another brick in the wall.

(3) You must also rid yourself of the insidious influence of music. Do not buy a CD for at least one year. Do not go to any live performances of music for at least one year. After that, retain a deep wariness of rock-n-roll music.

(4) You will no longer ignore the fact that you must make a career for yourself. Mindless jobs have made you mindless. Do you want to end up like your parents, living paycheck to paycheck for the rest of your life? Form a career. Make a living. Get a life.

(5) No more profanity. Profanity is the ice cream of the weak and inarticulate. And no more lyricism either. You are no poet. In fact, it would be comical that you thought you were something of a poet if not for the trash heap it has made of your life. Common, simple, practical use of language is preferable.

(6) Reduce your pathetically lumpy body. Become lean. Eliminate this weak and meandering fat from your person. Do you want to die? Do you want to die? I said, do you want to die? Stop eating that dog food! No less than 30 pounds must be removed. 

(7)These are forbidden foods: Fig Newtons, McDonald’s, Mission District burritos, cheap mounds of Chinese food, fast-food, donuts, pizzas, the entire Hostess family, etc. Show restraint and nourish yourself in a manner that treats your body as a temple, not a cave.

(8) Find a long-term relationship. Whatever it takes. Think in terms of family. A future with children.

(9) Avoid cheap thrills, strip clubs, one-night stands. See woman first romantically. Also, forsake pornography––you must seek love and companionship, not anatomy lessons. Dramatically reduce toweling with the goal of someday forsaking it altogether. Self-love is a lie. Only love with another will suffice.

(10) Improve wardrobe. No longer be proud of how cheap your clothing is or that you purchased it at a thrift store.

(11) Smile more. Happiness is an attitude and it has to begin somewhere. Smiles are your friends. Also, stop using sordid family stories to impress your friends. It is merely a crutch for your own defeatism, for the meaningless mess of a life you have made for yourself.

(12) Respect authority. 

 

I was entirely giddy as I walked back to my apartment. I thought about where I would move. For about two blocks I entertained returning to my small hometown in the mountains of Southern California––really, that would be the ultimate conformist statement. But it did not take long for me to dismiss this option. That would be too much. I hated that town. Besides, this was not about making statements, but becoming statements. I did not want to go back, but forward. Then I considered somewhere more exotic, like New York City. This, however, simply seemed too daunting. After all, I had a lot of work to do. I did not need to make it harder on myself than it already would be. Then the answer became obvious: I would return to Los Angeles. It was clearly the most practical option: (1) I already knew it fairly well; (2) there were unlimited career opportunities, regardless of the field I chose; and (3) housing was much more affordable. And, anyway, it was really the influence of Los Angeles and not the mountains that had dominated my early life and anti-conformist alignments. What better place to make a new start, to flip over my life? It was time for Tom to be over. I would become Thomas, aspiring conformist, enemy of individualist conceits and the cruel myths of creativity.

 

The New and Improving Thomas is out of print, but second-hand copies can be found online. Goodreads has some listings.