One Hand Clapping – December 2003
The purpose of this daily journal is to see if I can find a way to unclench my fist and turn it into an open palm — a palm of generosity, understanding, compassion — and to see if I can capture, in words, the thunderous sound of one hand clapping. To put it another way, it is my publicly insane response to a world gone mad. It is also a way of reminding myself, and anyone willing to listen, that the madness will someday end.
— William Michaelian
Note: Each month of One Hand Clapping has been assigned its own page. Links are provided here, and again at the bottom of each journal page. To go to the beginning of Volume 2, click here.
March 2003 April 2003 May 2003 June 2003 July 2003 August 2003 September 2003
October 2003 November 2003 December 2003 January 2004 February 2004 March 2004
April 2004 May 2004 June 2004 July 2004 August 2004 September 2004
October 2004 November 2004 December 2004 January 2005 February 2005 March 2005
December 1, 2003 — It’s only nine in the morning and it has already been a long day. I have been slaving away for the last two hours, but my list of things to do still contains a dozen items. Number Eleven is a trip to the Portland airport to pick up my brother and his wife, who will be arriving tonight from Armenia. Number Twelve says, “Collapse.” When the time comes, I hope I have the strength. If I don’t, maybe I can find something else to do, such as build a bird house or bake cookies. Or maybe I can teach myself how to do needlework. Then again, it’s high time I began studying the handwriting of Classical composers. Why put it off any longer? Comparative religion also beckons. So it looks like I will just have to delay my collapse until there is more time. I’ll move it to tomorrow’s list, or the next day’s, or next year’s. Better yet, I’ll put off collapsing until my next life, when I come back as a fly on the wall in the White House — swat! Ah. . . .
December 2, 2003 — I didn’t go to the airport after all, because the travelers missed their Washington, D.C., connection and had to stay overnight in the nation’s capital. Instead, they are supposed to arrive this afternoon. On the bright side, a night at the Holiday Inn courtesy of the airline should take at least a small bite out of their jet lag. Although, come to think of it, the last time my wife and I stayed at a Holiday Inn, we were awake all night due to a cast iron bed, a groaning elevator shaft, and an ice maker that made more noise than ice stationed just outside our door. When I complained at the desk the following morning, the girl on duty, armed with a corporate air of irresponsibility, informed me with a straight face that I was the first to ever mention anything negative about that particular room. After I told her they must have been keeping deaf people with rubber skeletons in that room, she agreed to move us to another, and to not charge us for the previous night’s suffering. We were moved several doors down the hall to a charming replica overlooking a small swimming pool lined with pastry wrappers. It was quieter, and the cast iron mattress had been given some sort of teflon coating, so we were able to sleep three or four hours before our spines rebelled and the stabbing pain set in. We checked out as cripples and went on our merry way. The next night, we slept in the gutter. It was a marked improvement.
December 3, 2003 — Yesterday afternoon, instead of meeting my brother and his wife at the airport, I was sitting at a dead stop in three lanes of traffic due to a big accident not far from the airport exit. When I finally arrived, their plane had already landed, and they were nowhere to be found. I checked the luggage area. They weren’t there. I went to the place upstairs where the passengers come out. They weren’t there. I went to the restroom, the magazine shop, the tie store, the bookstore, the barbershop, and half a dozen gift shops. After trying on several wool hats, I went back downstairs to the luggage area. Nothing. Back upstairs. Nothing. After reading the paper and having a drink in one of the bars, I watched an exhausted man being shaken in some sort of vibrating chair for a minute or two, then I went back downstairs. Finally, I heard someone call my name. It was my brother. He was sitting in a tiny phone booth talking to our mother, whom he had called because he wondered where I was. It turned out they had been in the luggage area the whole time, and somehow I had missed seeing them, which I find odd, because there weren’t that many people down there. On the other hand, they didn’t see me either, so I guess it’s all right. We started the hour-long drive home. By then, the accident had been cleared and the northbound traffic was flowing freely again. We found out later that no one had been killed, though two people had to be cut free of the wreckage. They came out of it okay, apparently. But it will give them something to think about and remember for the rest of their lives, assuming they live that long.
December 4, 2003 — Later this morning, someone is supposed to stop by and replace one of the heating elements in our oven. The evening before last, just about two minutes before my wife was going to take out some chicken, we heard an odd buzzing sound. When she opened the oven, the element on the bottom was in flames. She took out the chicken and closed the door. So much for baking a cake. Last night’s supper was a stove-top affair. Among other things, we had a mountain of rice pilaf made with turkey broth left over from Thanksgiving. We also had pomegranate wine from Armenia. The wine was in a container that looked like a pomegranate, though I have never seen one quite that big. So we managed okay. Of course, we would have been fine without the stove entirely, because, as Moe Howard once said in an episode of the Three Stooges, “It can’t be that bad, lady. You can always open a can of beans.” In fact, we still have a little turkey left, so we could have had yet another round of turkey sandwiches. The meat is a bit leathery at this point, but food is food. There is also plenty of dried fruit in the house. What could be better than turkey sandwiches with raisins, prunes, dates, and dried apricots for dessert? A lot of things, obviously. But we’ll leave those for sensible people.
December 5, 2003 — Late yesterday afternoon, I was called upon to take our sixteen-year-old son and two of his buddies to basketball practice at one of the facilities here in town. Along with a few other comical thugs and blowhards, they have formed a team and will compete against others in their age group in a seven-game season, not counting playoffs. So far their team is nameless, but that’s only a minor detail. They do have a coach, a nice guy in his thirties who realizes the boys are supposed to have fun, so that’s good. When I went after them a couple of hours later, they were steamed up and happy. The windows were instantly fogged over, so I had to turn on the defroster to keep from driving blind. On the way home, I learned that our son’s two pals are half-Portuguese, which of course is fascinating. One is part Norwegian as well, the other part German, and both are a lot of other things in smaller amounts. None of this seemed to be of major importance to them. They were more concerned with homework assignments and class projects. But I imagine their ethnicity is an occasional topic of conversation at home, especially when their grandparents are around. It certainly was when I was growing up. I heard so much about being Armenian from my parents and grandparents that for a long time I thought Armenians were a race separate from human beings. Later on, I found out that this was actually the case — although in time, some Armenians have managed to take on human features and adopt human-like behavior. But humanity shouldn’t be fooled. It would be a good idea to keep an eye on the Armenians, or things could get out of hand.
December 6, 2003 — Sometimes I wonder if we really know what our intentions are. We think we know. But we think we know a lot of things, even though we are frequently reminded that we don’t. We tell ourselves we are doing such and such, for such and such a reason. Then someone comes along and says, “I know why you did that,” and it turns out to be for a completely different reason. And it’s a good reason, in the sense that it is logical and believable. It’s also an upsetting or embarrassing reason, because it reveals a part of ourselves that runs counter to our self-image. To put it another way, we are never as noble as we think we are. But I also believe we are noble in ways we never realize, and that this is what saves us from being the completely selfish monsters we could so easily become. Of course, some of us are completely selfish monsters. And some of us do intend to take advantage of others, or to do away with them altogether. While disgusting, having such people in our midst should also be a reminder to look within. We are all carriers of the same disease. Some of us are in remission. Others are only mildly ill. Others — well, others should be shot before they do anymore damage. But which one of us is qualified to do the shooting? And once we pull the trigger, haven’t we become a bigger part of the problem?
December 7, 2003 — It has been raining for hours, and it looks like there is plenty more where that came from — an easy prediction this time of year here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, where I was “hatched off a flat rock,” as my mother likes to say, it was also easy to predict rain: usually, it didn’t. But where we lived, a day or two before an approaching storm, the atmosphere cleared and the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains were revealed in all their glory. This was an inspiring sight. A great many of the peaks directly east of our home were well in excess of 12,000 feet. While we pruned in the vineyard, they were our silent companions. When the first veil of clouds stretched itself across the sky, and then later as the clouds thickened, the mountains glowed. Often, the first drops of rain were as big as nickels and many inches apart — not like Oregon raindrops, which are much finer and so close together that they seem to blend and overlap. In the San Joaquin, the arrival of rain was a blessing. Not only was it always desperately needed, it was the only way farmers could get a day off. Here the rain is also a blessing. Some people get tired of it because of its abundance. I don’t. I am grateful for every drop. I spent the first thirty-one years of my life waiting for it to rain. I have spent the last sixteen and a half making up for it. It is not always convenient, but neither is suffering through endless polluted summers of extreme heat. That’s why today, like so many other winter days, I look out the window and rejoice. I can breathe.
December 8, 2003 — I haven’t been feeling particularly cheerful lately, and yet I’ve noticed that much of what I have written during the past few days has been cheerful and positive. I’m not sure why this is. Am I cheerful, but don’t know it? Does the act of writing itself make me cheerful? I do feel better when I write, and immediately after I have written. This is true even when I write about serious matters, which is a fair part of the time. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, but when I write about it I feel great. Does this mean I secretly enjoy the world’s misery? I don’t think so. It’s just that I enjoy writing, and saying what I think is true. I am happy to be able to write, but to a great degree my outrage is what keeps me writing. This is probably why I have never been interested in writing purely entertaining fluff, the like of which appears in most major magazines under the guise of fiction, and is sold as paperbacks by the millions in airports and grocery stores. I hate stories and novels that don’t say or mean anything. They’re a waste of time and paper. I do think fiction should be entertaining. The best fiction always is. But without genuine, challenging content, fiction falls flat on its face and is quickly forgotten. Cardboard characters that end up being played by expressionless actors who stage scandals to gain publicity might have a certain monetary value, but they have nothing to do with literature. Reading a good book can change everything. It can change the way you think, the way you live, the way you look at things. A good book can expose lies and shake a society by its roots. This is why so many fine works of literature have been banned over the years. They threaten us by revealing ourselves to ourselves.
December 9, 2003 — Yesterday I read in an Armenian newspaper that Leo Hamalian, one of the first editors to accept and publish one of my stories, died on the eighth day of November at the age of eighty-three. That very same day, I had written to thank him for publishing a story in the most recent issue of Ararat, and to ask about some poems of mine he was going to include in a future issue of the quarterly magazine. Now I know why he didn’t answer. . . . Leo and I never met. He lived and worked in New York. He was the magazine’s editor for about thirty years. We knew each other only through letters, and through our writing. His letters were short, especially during the last two or three years, due to his battle with Parkinson’s Disease. His handwriting was difficult to read, and sometimes it took a day or two to completely decipher what he had said. It will be interesting to see how Ararat changes now that Leo is gone. It will take time to sort through his correspondence, and to act on some of the things he had planned with various authors. Some of those things might not happen, or will happen differently. It is not the job of a new editor, necessarily, to do things exactly as they have been done before. But it is his job to remember the past, and allow the best parts of it to illuminate the present.
December 10, 2003 — Many years ago, I read in The Gulag Archipelago that while he was a prisoner in Russia’s frozen north, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn devised a way of writing and memorizing poems without using pen and paper. If I remember correctly, he counted pebbles in his pocket to a set cadence while reciting first the lines of poems, then later as he got the hang of it, whole stanzas, in his head. This allowed him to compose new work and cling to his sanity while his camp mates were dying all around him. I think writers who whine about not being able to get their work done would be wise to remember this the next time they put off writing because they are tired, or poor, or busy, or under the gun for various stressful reasons. Life and its circumstances may indeed slow a writer down, but if he is to be able to live with himself he must press on by keeping his work at the forefront of his mind. If he allows days, weeks, and months to pass without writing, it becomes more and more difficult for him to get started again. When he finally does start, the practical, negative side of his brain tells him his work isn’t good enough, or that he should wait for a more opportune moment, or for inspiration, etc. The best thing a writer can do is to not stop writing — ever. The next best thing a writer can do is to start writing again if he has stopped. The third best thing a writer can do is to admit to himself that he is not a writer if he spends all his time making excuses for not writing. Either that, or he should write out his excuses, and make that his new beginning.
December 11, 2003 — If you think you’re stuck, then it’s possible you aren’t. If you don’t think you’re stuck, then there’s a good chance you are. If you know you’re stuck, then you are well on your way to becoming unstuck. If you think being stuck is beneath you, and that it’s something that happens only to other people, then it’s quite likely you are so stuck that you can’t see straight. You are also probably pigheaded and arrogant, and the kind of driver who takes out his frustrations on the road, or on children and pets. If you think I’m stuck, you are right — in more ways than one. If you think I am pigheaded and arrogant, you are also right. But I am an excellent driver, and I have the record to prove it. And while children don’t exactly flock around me, they don’t avoid me, either. The neighborhood cats, though, are another story. For some odd reason, they will walk several blocks just to rub against my leg and flop over at my feet, looking for attention. Don’t these creatures understand how much I despise them? Or do they find my long hair and beard irresistible? Do they see me as some sort of leader? Maybe someday I will play a flute and lead them over a precipice. Then they will be stuck, and I will be free at last.
December 12, 2003 — For quite some time now, I have been sitting here in an absolute daze, sipping coffee. Though I have already been up for over three hours, I have yet to gain a head of steam. Rather than being the engine that could, I am the engine that was derailed. I am the engine stuck in the mud and overgrown with weeds, a handy resting place for birds, a quaint artifact from a bygone era, an amusing reminder of what might have been had the world stopped in 1934, before television, before computers, before the brilliant intellectual and technological advancement and progress that has made modern man the superior being he is. My great iron body is rusted right down to my soul. I am a dilapidated carcass of disbelief, an elbow in the gut, a half-chewed blade of grass hanging from a cow’s lip. I am what was and what will never be again. Even so, my glorious decay will live on in people’s hearts and minds, and in the lint that collects behind their refrigerators. Future generations will yearn for what I represent, even though, like me, they will have no idea what that is. Suffice it to say, I will have fallen like a rotten tomato upon the stage of history, and someone else — someone equally pointless and brilliant — will have to clean up the mess — or, if that doesn’t work, build a new stage.
December 13, 2003 — An impromptu stop at the library bookstore yesterday afternoon led to an expenditure of $279.50. Unfortunately, only nine dollars and fifty cents of that went toward the purchase of books. The rest will go to pay for the installation of a new “idle air control valve” on our van. The gadget gave up the ghost when I emerged from the library delighted with my purchase and tried to start the engine. Over and over, it said, “So much for your fun.” Two or three times, I managed to get the engine started, and to keep it running through violent pedal-action, but as soon as I let up, the thing died. I was in the lower level of the library parking structure. When I got out of the van, the place was filled with vile fumes. I trudged back into the library and called one of our friendly neighborhood towing companies. A rig was dispatched in my direction. It arrived forty-five minutes later. An obvious expert, the driver had no trouble latching onto the van in the tight space. We were off to the mechanic’s in about ten minutes. But my question is, would this have happened if I hadn’t stopped at the library? I don’t know what makes an idle air control valve stop working. Maybe its time had come. I didn’t ask the mechanic. . . . Now I’m looking at the books. One contains four plays by Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People; A Doll’s House; Ghosts; and John Gabriel Borkman. Another is the third printing of Nana, by Émile Zola, published in 1925 by Knopf. This is joined by a copy of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, and, finally, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder. All four are beautiful hardbound volumes. Eugénie Grandet even comes in its own case and has illustrations. The Wilder book is also illustrated. The mere thought of owning these books has me in a state of mild agitation. Then again, it might be the cup of Armenian coffee I just finished. Or just life itself, which seems intent lately on slapping me around. And of course there is no way to get even with life. Life is always in charge, and it has a wicked sense of humor. A perfect example of this is what happened to the novel of mine that was supposed to be published recently. For two and a half years, I thought, okay, this is good, I have a novel coming out, and people are going to be able to go into bookstores and buy it, and they are going to be able to discover what a wonderful writer I am. Then the publisher turns out to be a lying thief, and now, no book, no bookstores, no discoveries, no checks in the mail. Instead, the van dies, and my check is in the mail. But that’s fine. I don’t really know what life has to gain by this, but I’m willing to go along with it. What else can I do — file a protest with the Universal Life Association saying I’ve been mistreated, and demand justice? A lot of good that will do. As it is, the organization is probably trying to cash in on the war in Iraq. Your call is important to us. To reach our body-bag division, press 1. To reach our fuel price gouging division, press 2. If you would like to talk to an operator, he’s busy posing with a turkey. No, obviously, that won’t work. I have to be smarter than that — meaning, of course, that there is a first time for everything.
December 14, 2003 — I really do need a good long rest. A few years ago, this meant taking a couple of days off, then pretty soon it meant a week, and then a month started to sound about right. But I know now that a month won’t begin to be enough, and that, realistically, I need about six months to a year of rest if I am to be able to carry on without turning into a complete physical and mental wreck. As it is, I have already moved a long way in that direction. But I think I can stop, if not reverse, the process by taking a year or two off, or maybe five. During that time, I would set for myself several important goals. One goal would be to learn how to sleep without thrashing around and yelling, and how to rise without needing to be immersed in scalding water in order to recover my ability to move. Another goal would be to do some strenuous physical exercise each day. This doesn’t count the taking of long off-pavement walks, which is another goal. Yet another goal is to read to my heart’s content. To do that, though, I will probably have to rest my eyes for the first month or two by reading nothing at all. Last night I read for awhile, and then when I got up to stretch and walk around, I was so bleary-eyed I kept running into the walls. So I think my eyes are trying to tell me something. I also want to live without a clock, telephone, radio, or television. I have had enough of those contraptions to last me several lifetimes. I am tired of being yelled at and told what to buy. I am tired of being interrupted by imbeciles. And I am tired of knowing what time it is, and being expected to think that it matters, when it really doesn’t and can’t. Given the age of the universe and the accidental nature of our existence, nothing is more ridiculous than the concept of being late or early. Even the concept of being sounds a bit silly. On the other hand, it could be that our being here isn’t an accident at all. Either way, I know this: It will be impossible to find out if there are TVs and radios and telephone and clocks around to do my thinking for me. And this brings to mind my most important goal of all. While I am taking my five or ten years off, I want to do absolutely no thinking. I want my head to be the empty vessel everyone thinks it is, instead of the tired sponge it has become. I have long been convinced that thought is the enemy of self-understanding, and that the very word, thought, is dangerous and misleading. Many of the “great thinkers” written about in history books may well have been great thinkers, but an awful lot of them seem also to have been morons who missed the point by trying to reduce things to a system. And of course many of them managed this long before there were TVs and radios around to distract them, so what was their excuse? The same as mine, I imagine: faulty wiring and limited ability, combined with self-centered stupidity. In fact, let us consider — no. In fact, let us not consider. Let us keep our mouths shut and behold the miracle that is life, and leave it at that.
December 15, 2003 — Well, well, well. This is interesting, indeed. Saddam Hussein has been “caught like a rat” and “humiliated” after being found “hiding in a hole,” and now he will have to “face justice.” This is even more exciting than the staged toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue before a hand-picked crowd of cheering onlookers. One thing you can say about this country: when it fires an old employee, it really fires him. Now the war-weary world can rejoice — although it will be difficult to forget the many lies told by Bush — you pick the Bush, there are plenty from which to choose — the excuses and fabrications, the photo opportunities, the stolen 2000 presidential election, the ravaged environment, the protected status of drug companies, and, of course, the thousands of people who have died so a foothold could be secured in that part of the world, and who have starved, and who have been and still are exposed to health-destroying compounds. Yes, we will forget it all, because “the tyrant has been toppled.” And we will gladly accept the continued U.S. occupation with the help of a few bought-off, economically threatened “leaders” who contributed men and women to the “coalition forces” despite the overwhelming opposition of their own people. We will gladly accept the fact that the good old U.S.A. can do what it wants when it wants while other countries can’t, and, while we are at it, we will celebrate the triumph of the gasoline-powered engine. Wahoo. I’m so happy, I think I’ll go out today and help the economy by spending beyond my means.
December 16, 2003 — Tonight an interview with the president will be shown on TV, as Bush of Arabia wastes no time in making political hay. This is what campaigning has come to — even though he was quoted in the news as saying “Forget politics” when asked about the coming election. Forget politics? Well, okay. But it won’t be easy, especially with the media “filter” the president complained about serving up its predictably safe, trite-phrased reports on Hussein’s capture, while ignoring everything else. For instance, there are evil, heartless, murdering dictators all over the world who have scarcely earned a wink or a nod from the White House. I wonder why that is? Could it be that those countries are poor in natural resources and have little to steal, or that their location offers no military or strategic advantage?
December 17, 2003 — On the other hand, maybe I should just let it go. For as long as humans have existed, there have been liars and criminals. Why go on repeating the obvious? Why not smile and be happy? Millions have been killed and millions have been tortured and starved, and the killing, torturing, and starving continue. So what? Why be upset just because a few ruthless, low-grade donkeys are draining the life and hope out of millions of poor, defenseless people? After all, business is business, right? It’s their fault for being poor and defenseless anyway. If they don’t want to be poor and defenseless, they should do something about it. They should emulate the president. They should get a hold of a few oil wells and steal when others aren’t looking. They should create events and manipulate them for their own purpose, and then smirk about it on television. Then maybe they’d earn some respect. But this won’t happen until they learn to appreciate the American way of life, the fast food, the stress, and the heart disease that are the hallmarks of our society. Without such an appreciation, they will never begin to make true progress.
December 18, 2003 — The guitar-playing continues in our house. Our youngest son plays an acoustic guitar; our oldest plays an electric. Both are teaching themselves and making good progress. Last night at about eleven, our oldest son was running through various combinations, working on his fingering. His door was closed and his amplifier was turned down, but the music could be heard all over the house. It wasn’t loud by any means, just noticeable. I love it. I’ve told both boys that they should feel free to play whenever the mood strikes them, even if it’s in the middle of the night. So far, only our youngest has taken me up on the offer. Several times, I’ve heard him strumming at three a.m. Music is a wonderful thing at that hour. And of course he plays differently — not because he is afraid of waking us, but because it is night, and the house is dark, and the streets are quiet and empty, and because of a thousand other mysterious and sorrowful things that remain hidden during the day. Night music is different than day music, just as night writing is different than day writing, and winter writing is different than summer writing, and so on. Just as we are different. And what better way to find this out than by playing a guitar in the middle of the night, or by reading, or writing, or simply sitting alone in the dark?
December 19, 2003 — I spent far too much time and energy yesterday wrestling with my laser printer. Almost thirteen years old, it has sustained a bit of wear and tear. It still prints beautifully, but more and more often lately, the finished pages have been getting jammed in the final set of rollers. As a temporary measure, I have been able to hold down the revolving plastic pieces beneath the rollers and coax the paper through, but it requires letting go at exactly the right moment, otherwise there will still be a jam. Yesterday, though, even that didn’t work. I looked in the telephone book hoping to find someone who could replace the rollers, only to discover that there are next to no printer repair people in town. I called the only one that looked hopeful, and was greeted by a sleazy-sounding young man who was sure they could “take care of my problem.” Then he informed me that he would have to ask either So-and-So or So-and-So, and then one of them would give me a call. This was at one o’clock in the afternoon. Of course, no one called. In the meantime, I resorted to dabbing a tiny bit of rubbing alcohol on the rollers with a cotton swab. By doing this I was able to clean off some of the toner that had built up over the years. Later on, our oldest son, Vahan, who is our resident computer wizard, told me that alcohol is bad for the rollers because it dries them out. I said that I was aware of that, but was at wits’ end and really had no choice. Also, it worked. I even managed to get a few sheets through without holding down the plastic pieces under the rollers. Whether that luck will continue today remains to be seen. But I won’t even try until I’ve finished my coffee. That way, if the printer jams, I will have enough energy to throw it out the window.
December 20, 2003 — A small formation of geese just flew by, headed east, and two sparrows flitted by the window. It makes me wonder — where do bumble bees spend the winter? In the summer, I have seen them burrow into the ground or spend the night in flowers, but where are they now? Two crows just flew over, headed north. A car drove by. Now I can hear a small bird of some kind cheeping, or peeping, I’m not sure which. A few minutes ago, I removed a dust-encrusted spider web from the lamp on my table with the pointy end of a black-handled pair of scissors. The web was dangling, and the light on the specks of dust made them shine. Do they contain gold? Probably not. As far as I know, the web wasn’t there yesterday. It must have been hidden under the shade, possibly for months, or even years. And I have disposed of it thoughtlessly, with no regard for its glorious past, just like an evil government. (Is there any other kind? I do not know. But a book could be written on the subject. A book could be written on any subject — but that’s another subject. I think.) Another question that should be asked, and that should probably have been asked long ago, is this: Am I a fraud? I mean, I know I am, and have known it for some time, but am I really? Or am I just a bogus character? And if so, is that better than being a fraud? Frauds, I believe, are more dangerous. Most bogus people I have known have been fairly harmless. It is the frauds who cause all the trouble. And yet I myself have caused trouble. The only difference is, I haven’t gained anything by it. Frauds usually manage to come out ahead. I always come out behind. So, no, I don’t think I’m a fraud after all. But I still feel it was important to ask the question. I also feel it is important to point out that frauds are losers. They might get away with their fraudery (is that a word?) for years and appear to benefit by it, but ultimately they are caught up with. And here is yet another question: Do frauds die peacefully in their sleep? I have read that this does in fact happen, but such information is usually given by other frauds, who seek to gain by the dead fraud’s fraudism. (That must be a word.) Still, some frauds probably do die peacefully, just as some of the nicest people on earth die in pain and anguish. But I would say it is best not to dwell on such things. It would be better to dwell on the fact that some people live in pain and anguish, and that some people spend their lives causing pain and anguish. Although, I must admit, even dwelling on this for too long is bound to make you miserable. Better to dwell on the birds, which bring us joy, and on the bare branches of trees, which are silent in their strength, and on the habits of bumble bees, which are seldom guilty of fraudulent behavior.
December 21, 2003 — It is my sincere belief that even if we were to improve nothing but our posture, the world would be a far better and happier place. The energy and attention required to keep our spines straight and heads held high is the same energy and attention that brings mental clarity and a healthier outlook. If this seems silly, then I would suggest trying it yourself. I would also suggest that you get into the habit of eating a lot of apples and oranges, or whatever fruit happens to be in season. Eating apples while maintaining good posture is a holy act. Sometimes, when I eat an apple, I imagine I am a monk, and that I am looking out the window of my monastery cell upon snowy mountaintops. It helps if the neighbor’s roof is covered with frost, but even if it isn’t, the apple and the posture are enough to complete the image. The most important thing to remember is that our posture is something we can control. Think about it. And once we are in control of our posture, we can move on to other things. That’s why good posture is discouraged by the government. The last thing the government wants to see is a nation full of people with straight, healthy spines, breathing deeply and walking around with pride. The government wants the population to be couch potatoes, entertained out of their minds. If people feel good and have good posture, they will begin to ask questions, and to focus on things like reading and education. This means they will pose a threat. If enough people have good posture, there might even be a revolution. Also, farmers will benefit. Junk food sales will plummet, and produce stands will spring up everywhere to satisfy the new hunger for fresh fruits and vegetables. As good posture continues to spread, our life here on earth will enter a new, glorious phase. War will cease, and public servants will be held accountable for their actions. Poverty and greed will melt away, and we will all be as one. There will be no borders, and no demarcation between the spirit and the senses. Our daily existence will be a celebration. At long last, we will be free.
December 22, 2003 — Last night when I tasted my wife’s fudge, I nearly lost my mind, or what’s left of it. She made two batches — one with walnuts, one without. The fudge without walnuts is great, and puts other fudges to shame. But eating the fudge with walnuts is a life-changing experience. I’m at a loss to understand how anything can taste so good, and how it can be so emotionally upsetting. She has baked some other things recently as well: molasses cookies; chocolate chip cookies; cookies with jelly in the center, an Armenian cookie called shakarish; and some intensely sweet apple bars, which have a glaze and are more like pastry. Much has been given away, and of course the children are the ones who eat most of the rest. I try not to overdo, and usually allow myself only one treat at a time — about every ten minutes. In between, I stagger about, clutching my stomach and babbling nonsense.
December 23, 2003 — Last night I read the first few pages of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. It seemed only right, as I had read earlier on the Internet that the play was first performed on December 22 in 1879. And then this morning, I read that on December 23, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off part of his ear, and that when he wrote to his brother about it later, he ascribed it to “an artist’s fit.” Henrik Ibsen had curly hair and enormous sideburns. I mention this because, if he were seen now on a street somewhere, people would think he was dressed up for a play, or that he was making a public appearance to promote a PBS production of Masterpiece Theater. And speaking of PBS, I am pretty sure I remember seeing a production of A Doll’s House around ten or twelve years ago. But the details are sketchy. It was Christmas in Denmark and very cold outside, but it was even colder inside, despite a warm setting that included the prominent presence of a stove. The main characters were a husband who didn’t understand his wife, and a wife who was just learning to understand herself. And of course the husband didn’t understand himself, either. If he had, he might have realized that his wife was a real person, and not a “twittering lark” or “little squirrel” incapable of adult reason and behavior. While this might sound dull to a modern audience trained to slobber in front of exploding movie screens, it should be mentioned that A Doll’s House caused quite an uproar back in 1879. How could a woman act independently of a man, or do without altogether? Poor Mr. Ibsen was publicly roasted for being an agent of evil — and also heralded as a perceptive genius. Meanwhile, Vincent Van Gogh was listening to the voices in his head, and no one was arguing about him at all. And yet now, we cannot imagine our world without him. Such is the power of art, and the power of those who create it, so often, if not always, at their own expense.
December 24, 2003 — When I was a child, I knew Santa Claus entered houses through their chimneys, so I used to worry about the fire in our fireplace. My father’s answer: Santa will use the front door. This was not exactly picturesque, but it made sense. And I knew that Santa did come, because not only did he leave us all presents, he ate the cookies my mother set out for him on my behalf. We had a tree, of course, with lights and ornaments and tinsel. And my parents exchanged so many Christmas cards that my mother used to set them up in huge displays in the dining room. I think they must have exchanged cards with everyone they had ever known, including friends they had made during World War II. For years and years, there was always a card from “Cotton and Polly.” I never saw Cotton and Polly, but Christmas wouldn’t have been the same without them. Other things I associate with Christmas are oranges, foggy nights, bare vineyards, muddy work shoes, and stacks of firewood on the front porch. Christmas was a great time, at once happy and solemn, although the solemnity was something I didn’t really appreciate until later years. And then there was the time my wife and I went to a tree farm by the Kings River west of Dinuba on Christmas Eve, and cut down a tree to take home. That tree stayed up until after our son’s birthday on February 19. We really got our money’s worth that year. But we didn’t have a fireplace. Instead, we had a big woodstove. So once again, Santa had to use the front door. But he could barely squeeze in, because by then he had put on quite a few more pounds. Trying hard not to laugh, I used a crowbar to pry the old boy loose. He collapsed in a sweaty heap on my favorite chair. My wife brought him cookies, which he ate with a martyred expression — the same expression, in fact, that he wears when obnoxious little kids pull his whiskers and nose at the mall. Let go, ya little runt. Ah, Santa. Ah, Christmas. And now we return you to our regularly scheduled advertisement.
December 25, 2003 — It’s eight o’clock, Christmas morning. There was a time when the kids would have been up hours ago, anxious to see if Santa Claus had paid us a visit. Now that they’re older, they’re still in bed, sawing logs. Two of them don’t even live here anymore. They have moved out on their own. But there is little doubt that they are sawing logs as well. Meanwhile, the wife is in the kitchen baking a cake, and I just finished putting together a pan of string beans to go with the leg of lamb we are having for our Christmas meal. Hopefully it is free of mad lamb disease. On the other hand, that could be what we have been suffering from lo these many years. Either way, judging by the headlines, it looks like the American beef industry is in for some rough times. Since an animal was found to be infected a few days ago in nearby Washington State, there have been product recalls, and several countries have banned the importation of beef from this country. It is amazing just how important beef is to this economy. For instance, if the problem worsens, what will happen to the fast food business? Fast food is the heart and soul of America. Well, maybe not the heart and soul. Maybe it’s just the gut. But even the gut of America isn’t something to joke about. Or is it? Before I seriously begin to ponder this, I think I’d better go check on my beans. After that, I also need to take a shower and make myself presentable for the day ahead. By then, I will have forgotten what it was I was going to ponder. I have relied on this approach for years. It has never let me down.
December 26, 2003 — My wife knows I like hats, and yesterday she gave me one for Christmas. It’s made of wool, and it’s dark-gray, almost black. When I put it on, everybody said I looked great, but I could tell by their smiles that I really looked ridiculous. I looked ridiculous before I put it on. How could I not look ridiculous after? The hat fits perfectly and is very comfortable, with a nice lining. It’s the kind of hat one should wear in the winter to keep his thoughts from escaping through the top of his head and into the cold air, where they might really do some damage. The trouble is, my hair is so long now that the hat makes me look like a recently exhumed rock star ready to set out on another tour. And so I wonder — is the new hat my wife’s way of saying she has given up, and expects me to go on looking like a nut? I would ask her, but I’m pretty sure I know the answer.
December 27, 2003 — The coffee is a stronger than usual this morning, because we were close to finishing a can and I didn’t want to leave the remainder for next time. When we make coffee later again today, we will start with a fresh, newly opened can, and experience the joy that brings. I have loved the smell of fresh coffee since I was a child. Even when I was five, I knew that I would grow up to be a coffee-drinker. I also knew I would have a mustache. My father had a mustache, and his uncles had mustaches, therefore I would have one. In fact, I have had a mustache for the last twenty-nine years. But my father and uncles trimmed theirs. As I have mentioned before a hundred times or so, I don’t, except for the occasional wild hair that springs up and tickles my nose, or that pokes me in the eye. Also, they used to shave theirs off every few years, and then start a new one. This is something I refuse to do. I have had my mustache since 1974, and not once have I been tempted to cut it off. I will be buried with this mustache, and I expect it to keep me warm during the next life — though I might not need it where I’m going. Then again, it can’t be much hotter “down there” than it is where I started my mustache in the San Joaquin Valley, which, according to old friends, now outdoes Hell in many respects. Still, I haven’t seen any brochures from Hell lately. Maybe it’s keeping pace with the competition — unless, as I have long suspected, Hell — and Heaven — are right here on earth. In fact, they must be, since that’s where we are, and since there is no real need for them anywhere else. Then again, I shouldn’t rule out other “advanced” life-forms experiencing similar problems in other parts of the universe. Gad. What a thought. Soap operas in space.
December 28, 2003 — Today in the Sunday Oregonian, pictures of the 471 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq since March 19, 2003, were published, along with miniature biographies. Unfortunately, those who died after press time will have to wait for the paper’s next shrewdly calculated display of patriotic gratitude. With a few exceptions, the faces of the dead belonged to children. Sadly, this is in keeping with tradition. Also in keeping with tradition is the omission of the names of the soldiers who escaped death, but with shattered minds and bodies — not to mention those foolish enough to have been born on the “other side,” whose pictures and biographies would fill many newspapers. March 19, 2003, is, of course, a convenient date to begin one’s tally. But the violence was going on long before then, and this country played a major part in it. By pretending otherwise, newspapers reveal the true motivation behind their editorial decisions, as does the government with the lies it tells. But as long as enough people are content to believe that one and one makes three, it will go on. If only it were possible to publish the pictures of everyone whose life has been destroyed by war — the young widows and their children, the parents and grandparents, the friends. Maybe then, people would see. Maybe they would understand, or begin to understand.
December 29, 2003 — It has been raining a lot lately, but this morning at about one, the rain turned into snow. Now there is about six inches of “white stuff” on the ground, the wind is blowing, and there are tiny flakes falling. The storm looks as if it’s beginning to wear itself out, though. And there are several little kids playing outside, screaming as they sled down the tiny slope at the neighbor’s house on one corner. They look to be about six to eight years old. Just now, one of their mothers came out to check on them. She was bundled up and holding a tall paper cup with her gloved hands. The snow is already melting, but I doubt it will all disappear before the air freezes again. This means the roads will probably be icy tonight and in the morning. I’ve already driven downtown once today, but it wasn’t too bad. It isn’t that hard to drive in snow and slush, as long as you make no sudden moves and follow the ruts made by the traffic. Ice, though, is something else. Even backing out of the driveway can be a dangerous undertaking. Now, this reminds me of a time several years ago when I was on my way to the Portland airport. It wasn’t snowing or raining, but there was such a strong wind blowing from east to west out of the Columbia River Gorge that it was almost impossible to stay in one’s lane. Fortunately, everyone was giving each other plenty of room. At the time, I was driving our 1979 Buick Riviera, which was a fairly heavy car. Despite this, I was hit with one gust so hard that it literally moved me from one lane into the next. That was an interesting moment. But I eventually made it to the airport — at least I guess I did, because now I can’t remember who it was I had gone to pick up. Nor do I remember the drive back. How strange. Oh, well. Maybe it will come to me later.
December 30, 2003 — Solid ice. In general, Salem had six to eight inches of snow, but from the hilly areas there were reports of snow as deep as nineteen inches. Travel yesterday afternoon was fairly easy; this morning, it shouldn’t be attempted. And yet somehow or other, our newspaper arrived, almost at the usual time. Outside, the tires rolling on the ice and frozen snow sounded like miniature explosions. A moment ago, someone walking a big furry dog with a curled tail skidded by on the sidewalk across the street, puffing steam. The sidewalk on that side of the street is in a little better shape, because it faced yesterday afternoon’s sun. The sidewalk on our side is a frozen mess. All of this snow and ice makes me think today would be a good day to read some of Jack London’s stories of the frozen north. There is one in particular I especially like, called “To Build a Fire.” In it, a man is caught out in the cold and tries desperately to get a fire started. When he finally succeeds, the heat melts the snow on a tree branch overhead, and a big blob of snow falls off and extinguishes the fire, and with it, the man’s last hope for survival. Brrrr.
December 31, 2003 — Well, here I am at the end of another year, and nothing has been solved. In fact, it seems there are more unanswered questions now than there were when the year began. So I guess I must be doing something right. At least I am alive, and still in the game, which is more than can be said for one of our new neighbors several houses down. Just a few weeks ago, a family moved into a house that had been vacant for quite some time. We never met them, or even saw them, except from an abstract distance. Then, just a few days ago, two ambulances and two police cars raced up to the house with their sirens blaring. We found out yesterday that the husband had hung himself in the garage, apparently after arguing with his wife and drinking. . . . And then the beautiful silent snow fell. . . . Last night, my wife and I listened to a new CD that contains twenty-four short gospel songs sung by Johnny Cash. The songs were from the late Fifties and early Sixties. All of them were good; some were even humorous; but a few were sublimely moving and mournful. In my opinion, what a person believes or doesn’t believe about life and our place in it doesn’t even enter into it. Johnny Cash’s voice communicates something profound. It reminds us that not only are our joys and travails our common bond, they are what gives us our strength and character. And these days, we need all the strength and character we can muster, otherwise we run the risk of believing that there is no hope, and therefore no reason to continue on. The question of continuing on is a uniquely human one, I think. The birds in the bare trees outside my window don’t ask it. They just live, from moment to moment, until Nature declares an end to their activity. Whereas we — the noble ones who suffer nobly and wreak havoc around the world — fight against the laws of Nature every step of the way. We fight against ourselves. I don’t know. Maybe as individuals, we are simply here for too long, and so we can’t help finding fault with everything. Or maybe we are Nature’s supreme joke, and are merely Her puppets on a string. Maybe, maybe, maybe. What do I know, really? Only that I am here, and that I am glad, and that I am as dumb as all get-out — but also smart, at least on some days — and, most importantly, that I am a complete fool and jackass. And it is this glorious combination of traits that allows me to look forward to next year, and to expect it to be the brightest and best ever. May it be so for all of us. This is my wish.
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Also by William Michaelian
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