Derek Johnson Muses

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It's Staring Right at You

It’s Staring Right at You

Recently, I scrolled back through the old notes I’d written on my iPhone (and, a device ago, my iPod touch) over the last three years. Good times. 

Pretty Grain Tower in Northwest Iowa



The grain tower above is somewhere in northwest Iowa, on the diagonal highway that runs from Storm Lake to the I-29-US Highway 30 interchange. It’s backlight because I drove past that area in the early evening sometime last August, heading for a nice dinner in Omaha, hoping to get back to Seward before 9 PM.

Last summer had too many nights were I drove until it was almost dark. Over the last two years, I felt like I told the story of my life on the road for Blue River, and there wasn’t anything new I could find about that those little family restaurants in central Illinois. It’s also why I’m going to take a short vacation this spring before I really get busy. I need perspective.

But hey, there were some good photos right?

Nowhere to Run

Out Here

Out Here

You couldn’t make a show like 24 in the western plains. Not just because terrorist plotting against Ainsworth, Nebraska, or Gillette, Wyoming would make no sense, but the country west of Lincoln and Omaha (and their respective commuter havens), is tall grass prairie, hill shuttle beneath an expansive sky. These plains are not like Illinois or Iowa, where you see wind turbines and corn and soybeans growing, AKA signs of humanity, and well-worn highways connect the towns and population centers. When the cattle-grazing ground begins in abundance, you know that you’re stepping out into the real west, the west as it was.

Tough Row to Hoe

Tough Road to Hoe

These are indeed mysterious lands. Miles between major cities, or even just cities of substance. It’s always fascinating when you drive into a city like Scottsbluff or North Platte and realize just how many people drive 30 miles just for a simple Wal-Mart visit. Every day treats most people get are an ocean away for the people who live out here.


Will it Get You?

Whenever I head west (which happens every so often), I think of the major events: the millions of buffalo that once commanded the hills, the coming of settlers, the 1930’s dust bowls, and the inevitable exodus back to the cities, after the cities themselves stopped having children. They probably are more connected to the big cities now through TV and the internet; online shopping has probably reduced some of their long trips into towns. But life there probably carries on like it always does.

Always the Same, No Matter How Redundant

Always the Same, No Matter How Redundant

I’m not Supposed to Complain, but I will Anyway


So Far Away

In one of my recent posts over on Huskermax, my commenters went off on how negative I was, and I got to thinking: I am kind of a Conan-cynic type.

When things don’t go my way in life, I handle it the way a person is supposed to: by focusing on my failures and setting a low standard that so I can pretend I’m doing fine. Okay, seriously, I should offer real (faked) insight.

As I scrolled down through the post I’ve written since last summer, I saw a lot more of that doom and gloom. I wish I had something to say that was encouraging and that brightened your world, if only for the sake of just being positive. Something like “there’s always a ray of the sunshine in the midst of even the worst storms”, that kind of Hallmark garbage. But I can’t, and honestly I don’t want to.

The truth is, the world is a really hard place, and sometimes you can be the person you are and it’s still not fulfilling. And maybe the point is that life is not supposed to be fulfilling this side of heaven so we don’t stop trying. Feelings can only take you so far; your objective state in life can be so much more.

The Invisible Mound

Pile up at the bottom.

Pile up at the bottom.

I’ve written over 300 blog posts over the past two and a half years, not counting the post I’ve written for other sites. Over the past six to eight months, I’ve thought some about compiling these posts for a book or something, and a few weeks ago, I started dumping them into random files on my computer before I realized that this wasn’t the purpose of why I starting writing this blog to begin with.

I write first and foremost to get out the evil voices in my head that drive me crazy. When I started blogging on WordPress, my head was overflowing with thoughts I hadn’t expressed. I still can’t believe I would post something every day when I started writing, but it eventually slowed down. Eventually, I just ran out of things to say, which I was fine with. But given how many hours I’ve put into this, there is that sense that I should do something with all the words lying around here.

I recognize the pattern I’m in because I’ve been here before. I start on a project and I feel this rush of energy from the new challenge and experience. But after a while, the energy burns off and I give up and let it go. That’s part of who I am, and some of those project weren’t supposed to work out. But I also recognize that at some point, I may need to take a writing class or read a book on writing, so that I don’t keep churning out material and letting the thoughts wash away in my mind.

I’m back where I started. When I began writing this blog (and taking photos of my time on the road), I felt desperate to have a sense of accomplishment from the miles I spent barreling around the Midwest, nothing to show for it. Now, I want something to show for it again.

Corner in Black River Falls, Wisconsin

Corner in Black River Falls, Wisconsin

What Causes the Happy State (of Mind)

The Empty House

The Empty House

I’ve sat and watched whole TV-on-DVD sets in just a couple of days. I’ve sampled every dessert at a party or an art opening multiple times, and been stuffed afterward. I indulge Starbucks lattes, Husker football games on a whim, and vintage clothes from thrift stores. It all serves the same purpose.

It makes me happy. But in reflection, I remind myself that those things gratify my tastes first and foremost. There’s a big difference.

“Gratification” causes a burn of aestheticism within the walls of the body. Sometimes it does actually lead to lasting happiness, but it lies and leaves one empty just as often. That burst of virtual reality that gives you a short feeling of connectivity while it’s on, only leaving you to go to bed thirsting for real human interactions. Gratification whispers, “There is no yesterday, and no tomorrow. Assume the present will save you.”

As I’ve aged, I’ve come to understand that true happiness depends a lot on what’s in front of you and behind you informing what you do in the present. While I still enjoy my leisure time, I can’t spend vast time in leisure without worrying about my responsibilities with the business, or at home. (It’s funny how a yearly property tax bill can change your perspective.) God’s promise of heaven to Christians enlightens what we should be doing now in time, so how much more should I measure my material possessions and time?

I have days when the business is slow, and I can do whatever I want. I know that sounds great, but after a while, I wish that I was doing something. The slow days pile up, slowly but surely, and over the course of years, they leave holes in your life that you don’t know how to fill. And you feel like you’ve wasted a lot of your life on stuff that doesn’t matter. That’s why I don’t get it when I hear Democrats like Harry Reid talk about “job lock” like it’s a bad thing. A lot of jobs may be boring, but they are just that: jobs. If you weren’t working as much, you’d worry more about your future.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken a few temporary jobs to pass the time when things are slow. They’ve been tough and exhausting, and the pay on some of them has been so low I’ve wondered if they were worth taking to begin with. But, they are jobs, and no matter the outcome, they saved me from time I would have wasted worrying.

(A post that inspired me to think about what causes happiness.)

The Houses that are not Empty

The Houses that are not Empty

Age Without Distinction

Earlier this year, I was jarred a bit when I ran into an acquaintance from growing up who was three grades behind me. This person still appeared very young to me even though said person is now twenty-seven. I felt a gap between myself and this person that I don’t feel between myself and the college students at church, because it was a person I knew from growing up.

I am turning thirty in October, but I don’t freak out about my age, or really have any opinion on it. I feel like I should come up with something to write on the subject, such as what the last decade has meant to me, or what being older signifies to me, but honestly, I can’t think of anything. To me, time just passes the way it passes, which thankfully is out of my control.

I’m grateful for my years and have enjoyed my twenties, but I do wish I had a certain significance to become a thirty year-old man. When I’m at church, or hanging out with my gaming friends who are younger than me, it’s as if we are who we are, without distinction. Man, I can be nonobservant.

Perhaps it’s just the loss of family and community that offer clear distinction and roles to people instead of just a “be anything that you want to be” attitude. Maybe if I had married young and had two kids following me around I would feel differently, and I’d certainly have a lot more experience. I haven’t really done a lot in my life, except take the work that was right in front of me, and read and write a lot.

In What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan V. Last writes about countries that have “youth bulges” of males (currently a problem in Iran), and how it causes political instability when the young men can’t find wives or work. (In a way, such countries go to war to keep the young men from rebelling against their own government.) I see this first hand in my own life, how being without a wife and children has taken its tool on me. I do blame the world (and feminism) for some of it, but even with those things, I’m still responsible for some of it, certainly for my attitude about it.

Even though I don’t feel it, I know my youth is slipping away. I hope on the day that I wake up and feel old, that I still know what to do to move  forward.

Fade to Grey...

Fade to Grey…

Introspection: Write Well, Not Just Often

When I started writing this blog, I was overflowing with thoughts. For the first few months, I gutted posts out without forethought, and somehow, managed to put up a post or two a day during the mild winter of 2012 (don’t ask me how). Gradually, I saw how it was self-defeating to push my work into the archives so quickly and pulled back, going closer to a post every two to four days. Since May of 2012, I’ve averaged about 10 to 11 a month, which seems about right.

But through all this, I’ve wondered what my long term goals should be. Yes, I love to write and I’m sharing about topics that I care about, but it’s weighed on me as to how many productive hours to sink into this venture. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life, it’s that you can stay at the beginner to average level for a long time if you don’t do anything to improve.

That’s why I don’t write about sports or TV as much as I used, only when it comes out easily, and I don’t take the time to polish it as I would a piece about travel that I might republish. But still, the more I write, the more I ask myself: am I getting better at this, or do I make the same mistakes in every post? Can I use what I’m putting up here in a book down the line? Will a publication read this stuff and want to hire me?

Last week, I went back to the travel posts I wrote last summer and pasted all of them into a single word document. It covered twenty single-spaced pages. I have read part of it and have tweaked two pages of it. I’m grateful that I wrote all of this stuff down, and when I reread it, I can flesh out the details and improve the flow. Here’s to making it the best it can be.

Random shot of downtown Lincoln

Random shot of downtown Lincoln

What I Mused on Labor Day Weekend

This was the third year in a row I’ve spent on Lake Michigan with my family. The weekend came up at the perfect time: I finished my biggest month of work for Blue River (silage harvest) and for photography (show at the Civic Center). I went from the one of the longest work days I may ever have straight to an Amtrak train to Chicago and then to our lake house for the weekend. I celebrating by watching Nebraska win big, finishing a book that I said I would finish this summer (The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell), and of course, writing. But the best personal progress I made was in some thoughtful self-evaluation.

My Writing Spot on the Sunned-in Porch

Saturday morning, I went down to the beach. If I had learned anything from the last month, it was that I had a limited amount of time, and that if I was going to accomplish the goals I had, I had to set my priorities. To that end, I sat down on the beach and wrote out a set of goals that I wanted to accomplish that day and that weekend in terms of writing and people to contact. I didn’t accomplish all of them, but at least they were there, a reminder of untouched items needing my hand.

After everything I went through this month, I realized that if I’m going to accomplish the goals I want to, namely writing a novel and publishing my photographs, I’m going to have to have better organizational skills. I’m not a good organizer. If you would have looked at my life five years ago, you would have said I was anti-organizational. Likely, details and planning will never be my strengths, but I know that I can accomplish something through them.

Labor Day Weekend in southwest Michigan is a busy time. Lazy country roads are overpopulated, not unlike college game day in towns like Lincoln or Ames. There are usually two types: families on one last summer get-away, middle-aged-to-older couples in pleated shorts and polos. You walk the roads at your own peril, but the place goes dead quite late Monday night.

Our Beach House

Hitting the beaches and walking in the waves, I contemplated what I wanted my life to look like in a few year. The Tipping Point said that the human brain can handle only so many relationships at once, and I was pondering who I wanted to choose as friends. Too often, I operated from a low self-esteem position when it came to people and thus welcomed into my life people who were charming but had little beneath that charm. Even though I’ll never be as popular as I would have liked to be in high school, I still needed to seek out smart people to be around and learn from.

SW Michigan Shoreline

I had a good conversation with my sister that weekend too when she took me to get on the train at New Buffalo. She’s in a new position in her job, and it was great to swap stories over dealing with personnel issues. As my train rolled into Chicago, I openly wondered, If I lived in this city, who would I be? Would it be the right place for me?

Now that I’m back here in the thick of things, I realize how much lists matter and how much goals matter. Last night, it was 8:30 when I came back to the house from retrieving my mother’s phone. I played video games, but it kept nagging me that I hadn’t sent any e-mails out to potential employers. I realized that an extra half-an-hour in the evening doing little things was more important than another game of Call of Duty Zombies.

Concordia: The Open Road Back

After I finished my tour of our Wisconsin Test Plots, I took a swing by my alma mater, Concordia University Wisconsin. I attended there from 2003 to 2005 and never quite felt that I grafted in. Since my graduation, I had returned the campus twice before, both times in the spring; once in 2007, while I was on a pleasure trip with my friend Tom, and again in 2008, when I was on a business trip, I walked campus one night among the students. I don’t really get sentimental about my school or consider it my personal height, but college is a time that enters my dreams frequently, and I relish the chance to kindle old memories

They now make you get a permit at a guard booth at the turnoff into campus, if you just want to go down and look at the bluff. The campus itself requires an access card to get inside, but after my walk on the lakeshore and around campus, I found a propped door and walked the hallways I once did as a student. In contrast to the new buildings, the halls are still lined with grossly obvious mosaic tile. The whole building is really just a contrast between shiny new buildings and un-updated doors, floors, and what have you. When I unwittingly ascended the fire-well of my old dorm, I saw the doors of the Augusburgh rooms remained the same pale shells with privacy glass they’d always been.

The dorm I lived four semesters in.

After I’d strolled my old stomping grounds, I took a seat by the bluff and wrote the following:

I’m sitting here overlooking the bluff at CUW. Beautiful summer day. This is like San Francisco in that there’s a huge structure next to a body of water.
Nine years ago in the fall, I came here to study to be a pastor. I’m not that guy any more, but a part of me never left here. The boy that was here was praying by a thread that he’d make it through seminary, that he could hold his mind together that long. (In retrospect, that boy never died). In the spring of 2005, I declared the enterprise a failure. Everyone around me had friends, and I would leave here with no social life to speak of. The embarrassment was unbearable; in the years that followed, I realized a lot of that was because I didn’t have the support structure a lot of people here had in terms of family. (Upon further reflection, there are two ways I didn’t have support. One, from my family, and two, I acted like a snob when I got on campus, not recognizing how getting to know people was important to personal development.)
I wish I would have taken more time here to get to know people and impact their lives. I do hope over the years I can reconnect with some of the people from that time, just to see how things have changed with them, and may be remember a good part of myself I lost.
It’s odd how much has changed here at CUW. When I went to school here, there were two buildings that looked semi-modern, Regents Hall and the athletic center. Now there’s the pharmacy school and the Center for Environmental Stewardship that has replaced the Peace Center dorm, the last rustic CUW building. New Coburg dominate the skyline. (The new buildings make the campus feel likes it’s a campus for a digital world, leaping off a crystal clear screen.)  I was shocked by the money they put into the baseball stadium, plus the soccer field (although I really shouldn’t be). But the only thing I wish I could have enjoyed in my day is the restored bluff leading down to Lake Michigan. Things are moving fast here, as well they should.
But the one place where the majority of my memories reside are in the Rogate Chapel. Today, I went in there and prayed for strength of faith until death. If that the only thing I learned here, it was worth it.


The hard part for me now, as I alluded to above, was the fact that I was studying to be a pastor and decided February of my senior year, that it wasn’t worth it. The decision not to go to seminary was a hard one: I was a very successful student in Greek and Hebrew, and everyone expected that I would go on to a doctoral program. But a lack of social support combined with a personal breakdown lead me off the course I was on.

It was over five years until I really felt like I had accomplished something outside of CUW. When my Dad gave me a lot of responsibility with testing seeds and I pulled through on it, I knew I really could do something right. That was a point in my life I found a self outside of my college self and began to realize that my life now was about what I had become.

Going back to my alma mater is hard, but making something out of that history into what I am is daunting. Because that place is part of what I am.


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