by William Michaelian
It’s a strange, strange world we live in — not that my saying so makes any difference. Of course it doesn’t. But the art of triviality is an ancient one. And for those of us with too much time on our hands, meaningless statements bring great pleasure. Why, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’re in a position to recognize the futility of all human endeavor and are thereby free to be boring. Then again, maybe money is the answer. The fact that I have more than I need, while so many other people have none, is proof enough in itself of something or other. If I want to buy a new car, I can go right out and buy it. Or a house. Or a trip around the world. Whatever — to me it’s all the same. And in my case, having always had money, it’s easy for me to sit back and smile at the woes of mankind. Because mankind is a joke — a big, fat joke. A pathetic hiccup in time. If you don’t believe me — and there’s certainly no reason you should — all you have to do is take a ride down the freeway and watch everybody talking on their cell phones: I’m on my way, dear, I lost my job, dear, I’m in love with another man, dear, another woman, dear, I’m not quite sure if he’s a man or a woman, dear, but at least he’s not constipated, so I’ll see you in court. What’s this, if it isn’t proof that mankind is a joke? Send us a plague, I say. Put us away, put us out of our misery, hold our heads under water until the bubbles stop. Then see if the galaxy doesn’t heave one big sigh of relief, as if it was given a giant enema. Still, I know what you’re thinking. What about the Internet? What happens there? I’ll tell you what happens: The Internet disappears right into thin air, along with everything else we’ve been thinking and worrying about since the dawn of time. Don’t you see how foolish it is? Websites are for spiders, not people — though I realize how terrifying that sounds. But try explaining a website to my grandmother. Try telling her how important it is to have a listing in cyberspace. The first thing she’ll want to know is where cyberspace is. What will you say? “Well, you go past heaven about three or four miles, then make a right.” Internet indeed. If I said such a thing, my grandmother would scowl at me and snarl, “For Christ’s sake — all my work, for nothing. The rest of the family is fine. Your brother Danny runs a restaurant. Steve is a pharmacist. So what happened to you?” Except I’ve left out one very important thing: my grandmother is dead. Which proves my point: if we’re wiped off the face of the planet, this Internet business will seem pretty damn silly. If we had any brains at all, we’d pull the plugs on our computers right now, go out, build a huge bonfire, and start singing. But we won’t. No one sings anymore. These days, I’m sorry to say, we are embarrassed to sing, as if our desires and our pain are so precious that we can’t put them aside for a couple of hours. Imagine — something as simple and beautiful and healthful as singing, and we turn our backs on it. It galls me no end. And yet in the name of entertainment, we’re willing to support every dull, pasty, mediocre singer who comes down the pike, as if we only have enough strength left to say, “White bread, please. I’ll have my bologna on white bread.”
My grandmother, whose brittle bones are resting in a quiet cemetery south of Fresno, California, knew how to sing. Of course she did. She was an angry, illiterate Armenian woman who had seen the people of her village slaughtered, and who survived herself by pretending to be dead in a heap of warm, bloody corpses. If that doesn’t make a singer of you, nothing will. You can play those stupid, violent computer games for a hundred years and still emerge the same dull person. Flash, pow, boom. Big deal. Jesus Christ — life isn’t a cartoon. And speaking of Jesus, don’t forget that they nailed the poor guy to a cross. To play it safe, I guess He should have had a cyberministry: iamyoursavior.com.
The word I’m looking for, the word I’m trying hard to remember but can’t, is an Armenian word. My grandmother, whose name was Parantsem, used to say the word all the time. Funny that I can’t come up with it now. Absos — that’s not it. Absos is pity, wrapped in several centuries of regret: absos, as in what a pity it is that I can’t think of the word I want to say. In history the name Parantsem, I believe, belonged to an Armenian queen. Damn it — what is that word? Azadetsav. There we are. Through the ages, whenever someone has suffered a great deal of mental and physical anguish in life, to the point that the only hope left for him is to die, and when he finally does die, the Armenians have always sighed and said, Azadetsav — which, translated loosely, means, He’s free now at last, the poor fool, I’m glad it’s not me, he was a noble jackass, what in the world do you think took him so long? Azadetsav, then, for Jesus, and for all of us who have been given a raw deal in this life, which is just about everybody when you stop and think about it.
I know, I know. You’re absolutely right — I’m rich, so what do I have to complain about? Everything I want or could possibly need I have at my fingertips, so why don’t I just shut up? Inane language lessons are fine when your stomach is full, but the world we live in happens to be full of starving people. If I had any decency at all, I would volunteer my time and money to an organization devoted to curing the ills of the world. Okay, I admit it. In fact, here and now, I’m announcing that my entire fortune is up for grabs. It’s not much in the scheme of things, but still, we’re talking somewhere between six and seven million bucks in loose cash, and a nice pile of real estate. I’ll need to hang onto the real estate, but you’re free to spend the money as you see fit. There’s only one catch: none of it can be used for administrative overhead, or to finance fund-raising efforts. If you can abide by those rules, have at it. I’m not a selfish person. A little odd, maybe, but not selfish.
There. I feel better already. Gosh, I had no idea it could be this easy — and fun. Here I am, Lord, the great philanthropist. Here I am, with a clear conscience at last, able to look the world in the eye. Grand vistas are unfolding before me. People from every land are coming to greet me, to express their abundant joy. Now they’re joining hands, just like in the old Coca-Cola commercials. I’d like to teach the world to sing. How wonderful. How delightful. How benign. How simply real it is, just like an all-expenses-paid trip to Disneyland. And to think that only a few minutes ago, I was a cynic.
Parantsem hated missionaries.
“We were already Christians,” she said bitterly. “But they tried to convert us anyway.”
“Didn’t they help the refugees?” I said.
“Of course. But at what price?”
“Still,” I said, “it doesn’t make sense. Why try to convert someone if they already believe?”
Parantsem swatted a fly. “First of all,” she said, “they were going to preach to the Turks. This should tell you how intelligent they were. But when the Turks showed them their swords, they turned on us instead. It’s that simple.”
“They sound like vultures.”
“That’s what they were. Listen. We were weak, hungry. Our entire nation was bleeding. They brought us food and bandages, and so we were grateful. Of course we were. Then they said, give up your hocus-pocus, give up your incense, give up your water-blessings, give up your long ceremonies, and become true Christians like us. And we bowed our heads, like lambs.”
“I have my pride.”
“The Old Church is still going strong.”
“No it isn’t. The Church is an empty shell. We’re watered down. What the Turks couldn’t finish, we are doing ourselves.”
“We still have Armenia.”
“A stupid pile of rocks.”
“It’s a country, though.”
“For the time being, anyway.”
“I suppose it would help if we had oil.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Vye — vye, vye, vye.”
Woe — woe, woe, woe.
Oh, Lord, why did you have to take her? Why did you have to take our dear, beloved Parantsem, of all people, the queen of Armenians? I know we all have to die, but it isn’t fair that you would take her, and leave someone as shallow and two-faced as Myra Jensen, who appears nightly on the local news. Does she know how to cook? to sing? to be? Why take a woman the caliber of my grandmother, and leave behind someone whose head is enlarged by forty pounds of makeup?
I know, I know — Azadetsav. Well, up yours. Up yours, because, this time, you’re wrong.
I’d like to teach the world to sing. Not like in the commercial, though. I have nothing to sell. Since I’m rich, since I don’t have to work, since I have all this time on my hands, I’d like to teach the world to sing. I’ve already given away my millions, so it’s my right. If I want to teach the world to sing, I may do so. Because what we need now, most of all, what we need desperately — is to sing. It’s our only hope. We need to relax our face muscles and stop spending so much time worrying in front of our mirrors. We need to let our guard down. While we’re at it, a little wine wouldn’t hurt. Yes — more wine for everybody!
In the old country, people sang every day. They sang in the fields, they sang to the birds and sky, and to the oxen pulling the plow. They sang to their big-eyed children. They sang about love, and about their legendary heroes. In the old country, by God, there was plenty to sing about. In the old country, people didn’t sit around at night watching sitcoms. After sweating all day, after devouring a hearty meal, everyone sat around the table and sang. If they didn’t have a table, they sat on the floor. Some of the men fell asleep and snored, but this was to be expected, and, as it turned out, the snoring provided a necessary rhythm anyway.
When was the last time you sang? I don’t mean in your car, or in the shower, but with your kids and with your friends — looking them right in the eye. Really. When was the last time you opened up? Have you ever opened up? Because it’s one thing to be sung at by someone in the singing business, but something else entirely to say, “This is my life, God damn it. This is my life, and I’m not going to live it second-hand.”
So be it, then. The time has come for us to sing. We can put it off no longer. That way, even if the world should end tomorrow, we will have met our end with dignity and with joy. And who knows? Maybe our song will survive. Maybe it will float off into space to distant worlds, and benefit the universe in ways we can’t even imagine.
In her prime, Parantsem was five feet tall. She weighed 180 pounds. Every fall she worked like a slave in the raisins, along with her husband and their three sons, the youngest being my father. No one could keep up with her. No one. She was a human dynamo. While everyone else was gasping for breath in the hot afternoon sun, their shirts plastered to their backs and their faces and arms blackened with dirt, she would throw her head back and laugh. Of course the work was hard. Hell — it wasn’t merely hard — it was agony. But compared to the life she left behind, what better privilege could there be than lifting wooden trays loaded with freshly dried raisins and dumping the raisins into boxes? Is this so hard to understand? I don’t know. Maybe. Nowadays, we have carpal tunnel syndrome. We have dishwashers and microwaves and mowers and blowers and car washes and automatic this, that, and the other thing. And yet, like martyrs, we still complain. We’ve become a nation of people who couldn’t grow a tomato or milk a cow if our lives depended on it. Yes, milk really does come from cows. Yes, tomatoes do grow on plants. Raisins are dried grapes. Grapes grow on vines. Do I have to explain everything?
So, the old country went to hell in a hand basket. Over a million of Parantsem’s people died. The skulls were piled everywhere.
But the song I want the world to sing is a happy song, not a sad one. There has been enough misery in the world already. Enough sadness. Parantsem’s second son was killed in World War II. Shot down. These things continue still. The trick will be whether or not we are able to let go of the past, and whether or not we are willing to let go of our petty future long enough for the song to take root. For a song is much like a flower. Given the proper soil and nourishment, it will flourish. And its seed will bear testimony through the ages.
Come, now. Sing with me. Lay down your burden. Forget who you are. Throw yourself upon life. It will sustain you. Sing with me. Sing for your children, and for everyone alive. Sing for Parantsem, the queen of Armenians. Sing for the raisins, and for the sun and rain. Sing for Jesus, Mohammed, and Marilyn Monroe. Sing for the evil tobacco companies, and for the politicians, and for the Pope and his lawyers. Sing for me, one of the biggest fools and hypocrites alive. But, most of all, sing for yourselves, because it is the most lovely, human thing there is to do, and because life is too damn short not to.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.