One Hand Clapping – February 2004
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
February 1, 2004 — After I finish my coffee this morning and attend to a few other details, I might make a trip to one of the local building supply warehouses to see what they have in the way of portable electric heaters. We had to turn off our gas furnace yesterday, because it seemed to be pumping unburnt natural gas fumes into the house, and because it nearly exploded a couple of times when it was getting ready to cycle on. At least the noises it made sounded like explosions. This is probably due to a partially clogged burner, a small gas leak, or both. And so the house is pretty much an igloo this morning. Still, to prove I am tough — or that I am a basket case, the choice is yours — I am sitting here in a worn-out pair of old athletic trunks, without a shirt. My fingertips and the palms of my hands are cold, and so is everything else, except for the part of me that is in direct contact with the fabric on my chair. I do have the benefit, however, of having taken a hot shower earlier, and of having completed about fifteen minutes of exercise shortly after that. So, other than freezing to death, I’m fine. In fact, if I were living alone, I would likely skip buying a heater altogether. I still might, just so the family can appreciate going without heat for a day or two, or however long it takes to have the furnace fixed. I know it won’t be fixed today, because today is Sunday — and not just any Sunday, but, as the advertisers say, “Super Bowl Sunday.” I just checked my calendar. There is no reference on it to football. There is just an italicized “1” in the first little box in the upper left-hand corner of the page. Someday, though, I imagine Super Bowl Sunday will be an officially recognized holiday, as will the Monday immediately following, which could be called “Super Nauseated Monday,” or, simply, “Recovery Day.” But, back to being cold. The more I think about it, the colder I feel, because now I am reminded of a couple of stories my grandfather used to tell from his childhood. The first happened when he was a small boy in what our family has always referred to as the Old Country. He lived in a three-story house that had a metal railing around the balcony. For some odd reason, once when it was very cold, he decided to touch the frozen railing with his tongue. Instantly, his tongue became attached. When he tried to pull away, it caused great pain. But now I don’t remember what finally happened. He might have left part of his bleeding tongue on the rail, or his mother might have heard him struggling and rescued him by means of a wise Old Country method, or he might have waited for the weather to thaw. Some story, eh? The other one is even less of a story, especially since I tend to mention it every few weeks as an illustration of some point or other. The first place my grandfather lived when he came to this country in 1906 was Troy, New York. Age ten at the time, he lived with his mother and grandmother in an unheated room with ice on the walls. End of story — unless you ask where his father was. His father, my great-grandfather, was dead. He was killed in the Old Country in 1896 shortly before my grandfather was born. He was a victim of fanaticism and ignorance that was encouraged by the government. Sound familiar? Except in this case, he was only one of what eventually became approximately a million and a half Armenians who were herded into the desert or otherwise systematically exterminated. This is all well documented — and by some strange coincidence, this country sits atop a mountain of evidence that it doesn’t officially acknowledge due to its military and business friendship with the current government of the country where the genocide was carried out. Many countries around the world have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, but not the U.S. This, despite the written account of one of its own ambassadors, Henry Morgenthau, who was ambassador to Turkey from 1913 to 1916. His book is called The Murder of a Nation. It is sickening to read, but everyone should read it. And there are many other books that deal with the subject — which, for the life of me, I wish I had not thought of this morning, leave alone brought up. But there you are. Such is life. It’s cold this morning. But it’s far colder where my dear grandfather is, and even colder than that in the hearts and minds of those who deny the truth of what happened. It gives us something to think about between snacks, between complaints, between government excesses and lies.
February 2, 2004 — Who knows why, but this morning I find myself thinking about jackrabbits, vineyards, and dust. These are but a few significant emblems of my childhood, which, rather than ending, gradually became the insanity I labor under today. Polliwogs, crawdads, slow-moving mossy water. The sound of our tractor in the distance, the tractor and my father pursued by a cloud of blackbirds looking for bugs, seeds, and worms. As I look out this morning on our cold, wet street, and at the drops of water clinging to the bare twigs on the maple trees, and at the gray sky above, and at the crows circling the firs one street over, I can’t help wondering what I am doing here. Here. In this chair. In front of this computer screen. Writing incomplete sentences. It’s not that I want to go back. Once was enough, as it is for so many things. But I am grateful for the memories. It’s all very tangled, I know. Much of it can’t be trusted. It happened, but did it really happen as I remember it? Certain things, yes. I played baseball on a team called the Alta Apiaries, and I batted over .400. Once, while running from first to second base, I was hit directly on the left eye by the ball when the second baseman tried to throw out the runner heading to first. It hurt. I kept playing. Later, the white of my eye changed colors. There was no trip to the doctor. The infield was hard dry dirt. A ground ball hit on that surface moved so quickly that an infielder, especially a third baseman, could be instantly handcuffed. You had to be on your toes. It was scary. But did we have a coach? If we did, I don’t remember him. I want to say we coached ourselves, but I can’t be sure. Countless hours spent rattling around the countryside in a big yellow school bus. Riding through the dense valley fog. Riding through the heat, windows down, hollering. Nearing home one early spring afternoon as hail stones pelted the bus. I will say it happened when I was in the fifth grade, but it might have been earlier, or later. And the collective memory: my father, walking from his home on Road 66 to Grandview School every day when he was a kid. His house getting electricity in 1932, when he was nine. His father, herding home a neighbor’s turkeys and sheep after the neighbor lost his property during the Depression. Which neighbor? Which property? How did the animals taste? Were they stringy and tough? Probably. But it was better than starving. In the winter, they had to feed their horses bare brush from the vineyard to keep them from starving. Grapes, raisins, tomatoes, eggplant, mulberry trees, umbrella trees, shovels, hoes, pruning shears, weeds. Old boxcars, with people living inside. You? Me? Everyone?
February 3, 2004 — If the world says no, where will you go? If the world says yes, how will you dress? If the world is mute, whom will you shoot? A flute-playing coot in a suit? Or is the point moot? If the world disappears, then what of your fears? Were they worth it at all, or will they earn only jeers? No one knows. While I was away, the world dropped by and left a note. It said, “You’re missing the point.” And of course the world is right. Many times, I have seen the world running naked through the street, not making any sense at all, knocking on doors, trying to sell magazine subscriptions. And what has been my response? Tap, tap, tap. If that isn’t missing the point, I don’t know what is. While I was away, the world dropped by and left a point. It said, “You’re missing the note.” And so I looked all over, expecting to find some scrap of paper. But I found nothing. Then the telephone rang. It was the world, asking if I could come out and play. “Tap, tap,” I said, “tap, tap, tap.” The world hung up in my ear. I looked out the window. I was amazed by what I saw and what I heard, and by what I didn’t see and what I didn’t hear. But I went on tapping, just the same.
February 4, 2004 — Come baaaaack, little Sheba. There. I have no idea what brought that on, but I feel much better now — except for one thing: I can’t get the image of Burt Lancaster out of my head. Wasn’t he in Come Back, Little Sheba? I know Shirley Booth was. Shirley Booth. There’s a name you don’t hear much anymore. Once upon a time, didn’t she star in a weekly show called “Hazel”? If she didn’t, who did? But a program I liked even more was the one with Walter Brennan, in which he said, “No brag, just fact.” That was about 1969 or 1970. “The Guns of Will Sonnett.” And who can forget “The Real McCoys”? Or Walter Brennan’s masterful performance in To Have and to Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall? Wasn’t that Bacall’s first movie? Wasn’t she just nineteen at the time? I’m pretty sure To Have and to Have Not was based on a novel by Hemingway. But maybe I’m thinking of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I haven’t read either one. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps I will after I become fabulously wealthy and am ensconced on a desert island, sipping big flowery drinks — or am locked up in a round, rubber room, whichever comes first. Who cares? What does it matter? How could it matter? But it’s nice to dream. No TV. No radio. No Internet. No newspapers. No politicians. No insurance companies. So, where are the flowery drinks going to come from? What about glasses, for that matter? Or will I be drinking from coconut shells? “Gilligan’s Island.” Isn’t it amazing how the mind works, or doesn’t work? Could it be that my entire view of the world is nothing more than a hodge-podge of old TV shows and movies? “Amos and Andy.” There was a great one. In my opinion, the men who played Kingfish and Andy in the 1950s TV show far outshine the actors of today. So do the Three Stooges. Give me Curly Howard over Tom Cruise any day. Or the Marx Brothers. We used to watch the Marx Brothers in a tiny little theater in Fresno, somewhere around the corner of Cedar and Shields, I believe. The place was called the Bijou. That’s where we saw Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, The Big Store, and, one of my all-time favorites, A Night at the Opera, starring Alan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. After seeing a Marx Brothers movie, we wandered around Fresno in a state of delirium for days. And really, that’s the only way Fresno can be appreciated — or withstood, depending on how you look at it. My suggestion is, don’t look at it at all. If you find yourself driving along the highway and you see a sign that says “Fresno, Next Exit,” pull off the road immediately and shoot yourself. You’ll come out ahead. Ah, Fresno. Gone are the street cars, gone is Armenian Town, gone are the boys shouting headlines on street corners. I wonder if the Basque Hotel is still there on F Street? We ate a pile of lamb chops smothered in garlic there once. What was the occasion? We were alive. We have been alive once or twice since, but there were no Basque restaurants handy so we ate pizza instead. Believe me, it wasn’t the same. Many times, I have told my wife that we should open a restaurant here in Salem and call it the Basque Hotel. I have also told her that I want to sell homemade chili on a downtown street corner. There is a Russian fellow who sells hotdogs that way, so why shouldn’t I sell chili? I think it’s a great idea. Maybe we could combine forces and sell chili dogs. I saw him yesterday, standing under his little umbrella. We could get a big umbrella. But now, suddenly, I’m depressed. It just occurred to me that the business would be a big success. People love hotdogs, and they love chili. Fine. And yet if I tried to sell stories or books on a downtown street corner, people would only laugh. “Look at him,” they’d say. “What does he think he’s doing? Ha-ha-ha!” That’s why I’m depressed. Why should it be easy to sell hotdogs and beans, but hard to sell literature? On the other hand, maybe I’m looking at it in the wrong way. If I did sell hotdogs and beans, I could give customers copies of my books. “Watch the mustard, there, sweetie. You don’t want to muss up your novel.” Before long, there would be bean-stained copies of my work all over town. Trash cans would be overflowing. I can see the headlines now: “City fines street vendor for literary waste.” From there, it would be easy to get on talk shows. The next thing you know: fortune, fame, and the cover of Parade Magazine.
February 5, 2004 — Any minute now, I expect the furnace repairman to arrive with four new burners and a heat exchanger. I was told yesterday that the job will take all morning. There. He just arrived. I’ll be right back. . . . His name is Zane, and he is the same young man who took the furnace apart a few days ago to see what was needed. The house has been cold this week, but not so cold that we had to take extraordinary measures. We found an old electric heater at my mother’s house that’s capable of heating a small area. We also learned that if we use it in this room, and if someone uses a hair dryer in the bathroom, the power goes off in this end of the house. As it is, when we turn the heater on, the lights dim. Zane is a nice guy. The other evening when he was here, an elderly woman pulled up behind him in our driveway, lost. When she had trouble with our directions, Zane offered to lead her to her destination in his van. She was so grateful, it was heartbreaking. When he stopped by the next morning to double-check the furnace’s model number, he said he had had to stop at one point to let her catch up, even though he was going only about fifteen miles an hour. When she did, she drifted to the middle of the street and stopped. Then, as so often happens at times like these, an impatient driver arrived on the scene. The driver leaned on his horn behind her, rattling her further. When she finally figured out how to pull aside, the driver honked again and roared off down the quiet residential street. In spite of all this, Zane managed to get the woman to her destination. But the rude idiot who couldn’t spare fifteen seconds of his precious life is still out there somewhere. I hope he’s happy — though I don’t see how he could be. . . . Now I can hear all sorts of banging through the floor vent. I think I’ll go see how the work is coming along. . . . What a mess. No wonder the job takes so long. For one thing, certain strategic screws are hidden behind metal panels specifically designed to hinder repair. For another, the furnace is in a tight spot, making it impossible for anyone but a nine-year-old girl to fit hands and tools where they need to go. It looks like it will be necessary to remove a portion of the shared wall between the garage and our entry way — or, as the Three Stooges used to say, “We’ll have to blast.” I see Zane is going to the van now. . . . Uh-oh. He’s holding a stick of dynamite. . . .
February 6, 2004 — I found a couple of interesting tidbits in the newspaper this morning. After paging through the usual lies told by the usual liars, I noticed a brief entry on Page 15 of the A section, titled “Bush prays for soldiers, nation.” Here it is: Washington — President Bush on Thursday offered prayers for fallen U.S. soldiers, for troops still serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for “the safety of our nation” in still uncertain times. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, Bush urged residents of all faiths to “recognize our dependence on God and pray with one voice for his blessings on our country. Americans are a prayerful people. . . . We pray for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, that they may live in safety and freedom.” Amazing, isn’t it? With all the blood and oil on that man’s hands, he still has the gall to stand up and say things like that. Of course, as Liar in Chief, he says things like that every day. I found the other tidbit in the letters to the editor. There has been a tremendous amount of attention given to the lewd CBS Super Bowl half time show last Sunday — as if TV hasn’t been littered with such garbage for years. I’ll skip the sensational details. What is revealed or not revealed anatomy-wise hardly matters anymore. The message and intent are loud and clear. Anyway. The letter-writer pointed out that CBS refused to air a thirty-second anti-Bush ad that shows small children doing menial labor, and that ends with the caption, “Guess who is going to pay for President Bush’s one-trillion-dollar deficit?” The reason CBS denied (censored) the ad? It thought it could be too controversial. It’s worth noting that CBS is part of the “media filter” the president was complaining about a few months back — the same media filter that is rapidly passing into the control of a handful of corporate behemoths with the help of the White House.
February 7, 2004 — Since our son, Vahan, just finished the book, and since I have read it only once about sixteen or seventeen years ago, I have decided to take on Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, also known as The Raw Youth. This was Dostoevsky’s next-to-last novel, the last being what is generally considered his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. The book was published in 1875. It is told in the first-person by an illegitimate nineteen-year-old boy with the surname Dolgoruky. The narrator points out immediately that he is by no means related to a royal family of the same name, and that he is not therefore a prince, but “simply Dolgoruky.” This earns him ridicule wherever he goes, as he is shuttled back and forth between relatives, towns, and schools. Finally, he gets tired of telling everyone that he is simply Dolgoruky, which he happens to think is an incredibly stupid name. Upon being asked for the thousandth time if he is a prince, and after answering for the thousandth time, “No, I’m the son of a household servant, a former serf,” he breaks with tradition and instead says, “No, simply Dolgoruky, the illegitimate son of my former master, Mr. Versilov.” This is all explained in great detail within the first few pages of the first chapter. Last night when I began reading, I was overwhelmed once again by Dostoevsky’s brilliant, psychologically revealing prose. The book contains well over 500 pages of small print, and yet each densely packed sentence contributes to the story. And what humor. I have said it before, and I’ll say it here again: I think Dostoevsky is one of the greatest writers who ever lived, if not the greatest. Tolstoy? Great. Cervantes? Great. Victor Hugo? Great. Maupassant? Great. Balzac? Great. And of course there are others I’m forgetting, who are also great. But they’re not as great — though they are most certainly so momentarily. For instance, what are War and Peace and Don Quixote if they are not two of the greatest novels ever written? But not everything Tolstoy wrote measured up nearly as well, in my humble opinion, as everything Dostoevsky wrote. The same can definitely be said of Balzac, whose immense body of work was more uneven and full of windbag digressions — something I am intimately familiar with as a third-rate hack and blowhard. And yet Balzac was brilliant, as was Tolstoy, and as were all the others. What I would like to hammer into everyone’s soul here, too, is how tremendously difficult it is to be a great writer — the amount of suffering that must be endured, the sweat, the toil, the insanity, the incongruity involved with transforming what is seen, experienced, and understood into enduring, life-giving, life-affirming revolutionary art. I know this because it is hard enough to be a third-rate hack, and because the same rules apply, if only on a puny scale. But to be a great writer is to be a human giant and the embodiment of truth and hope. Being a great writer is like being a great mother, or a great father. Being a great anything requires an awareness beyond the simple, obvious consequences. It requires genuine love, even and perhaps especially of oneself — though to the untrained eye that love often appears to be self-hatred or a general hatred for humanity. Another part of what makes a great person great is that he realizes he is great — and that he also realizes it doesn’t matter, because his greatness is only a reflection of the greatness of life itself, which contains all, expresses all, and has no master.
February 8, 2004 — Three or four of us were in a big car, and the car was being driven by the fourteen-year-old neighbor kid from down the street. I knew he was too young and inexperienced, especially since we were on a dangerous mountain road. And then it happened: instead of slowing down, he sped up for a turn; we hit a concrete barrier and hurtled off into space. I said to myself, “Well, okay, this is it.” I could see there was water below. I tried to remember what it is that you’re supposed to do when your car lands in water. Roll down one of the windows? Roll it down an inch? We fell for a long time, much longer, really, than the situation called for. But that’s the way it is in dreams. We fell, and finally we landed — and I found myself alone in a hotel room. I could hear the voices of the others out in the corridor. I don’t know where the car was, or the water, or anything else. Then I noticed the telephone on the table beside the bed. It dawned on me that all I needed to do was to dial 911. I did this, and immediately I heard myself saying in an urgent, hoarse voice that we had been in a terrible accident, and that we were trapped in our car under water. The man on the other end assured me help would arrive soon. I hung up, relieved. Then the others came into the room. Except for our neighbor, I didn’t know who they were, before or after the accident. Now the neighbor was gone, and one or two seemed to have been exchanged with people I had known in high school. As soon as they had shut the door behind them, one asked me in an angry voice why I had called for emergency help. I said I didn’t know for sure, but it had seemed like the right thing to do. “But we’re all fine,” he said in complete disgust. And so it seemed. But I knew better. Apparently, I was the only one who remembered what had happened. The others, for whatever reason, had forgotten. This might have been due to shock, or to the fact that they weren’t the same people who had been with me in the car. The most interesting thing, though, was that I felt totally responsible for what had happened, as well as for what was about to happen, whatever that was. Thank goodness, I never found out.
February 9, 2004 — About all we can hope for, about all we can expect, is — excuse me. Someone is handing me an envelope. Sorry about that. This will only take a moment. (Paper-handling noises.) There appears to be a note inside. (More paper-handling noises.) Ah, yes. Here it is. It says, “Dear Bill: You are a big fat idiot.” Hey, who are you, anyway? Wait a minute! Stop! Come back here, you! I’m not fat! Why, the nerve of some people. Imagine, pulling a stunt like that. The lengths some people will go just to get a little attention — I tell you, it’s sad. Anyway. Now. So. Where was I? Oh, that’s right. I was about to say that all we can hope for, and all we can expect in this day and age, is for people to — huh? You want me to what? I’m sorry, but that would be physically impossible. The keyboard is much to big. But listen. I’ll tell you what. Since you were gracious enough to come back, why don’t you take over? I’ll happily step aside. . . . Oh. Really? You’ll do it? . . . No, of course I wasn’t kidding. I think it’s great. (Chair-shuffling sounds.) Besides, it’s high time we had a little balanced reporting around here. . . . There we go. That’s right. Make yourself comfortable. Relax. Now, lean forward a little. (The sound of a brief struggle, ending with the sound of a head cracking on a hard surface.) Oh! — that’s too bad. You should have been more careful. . . . No, I think you’d better just lie there on the floor for the moment. Better not move. Does it hurt? . . . Really? Not too bad? How about this, then? (The sound of several neatly delivered slaps.) Now. As I was saying. All we can hope for is that we will someday learn how to be more tolerant, more accepting of others. (Noises difficult to describe, but which might involve a knee landing on a throat.) Think about it. If we are unwilling to listen, and unwilling to explore different ways of thinking (noises remarkably similar to those made by a person in extreme pain), and if we are further unwilling to try to see ourselves as others see us (a terrible gurgling sound), then how can we expect there to ever be peace in this world? (A sudden, deafening silence.)
February 10, 2004 — This morning my thoughts are going in every direction at once. Old days, new days, who said what, where, when, and why, narrow country roads, time spent alone in vineyards and orchards, raindrops, telephone calls, empty cigar boxes, bags of marbles, old cemeteries, crazy uncles sipping lemonade, a funny song on the radio: “Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Rex, you killed your pa and married your ma, they don’t even do that in Arkansas.” And so here I sit, awaiting some sort of epiphany, some sort of grand transformation, or even simply a message from on high: “You’re wrong, you’ve always been wrong, and you will remain wrong until further notice.” If my grandfather could see me sitting here, he would wonder why I am not working. And I wouldn’t be able to explain to him that I am. But I would know better than to try. If only there were a shovel handle attached to the computer. “How does this thing work?” he might ask. And I might answer, “It’s simple. You press this button here, and this button here, then you wait a couple of days. Then, when a couple of days have passed, you press this button here, and those over there.” To which he would most certainly reply, “Bah. You’ll never get anything done that way.” Even if I were to have the computer perform a word count on this document alone, he would not be swayed. One hundred thousand and then some. So what? It’s just so much talk. What does it solve? You can’t plow a field with it, or pick grapes with it, or prune a vineyard. I don’t know. Maybe Gramp is right. Or maybe he was right in 1962. But this is 2004, and I don’t have any fields to plow other than those that exist in my mind, or grapes to pick, or vines to prune. Nothing remains the same. In some cases, nothing remains at all. But even then, nothing is something, and what you make of that nothing-something is vitally important, meaningless, and profound. It is all fertile ground. I say, let the seeds fall where they may.
February 11, 2004 — Well, another brother has been delivered safely to the airport. In thirty hours or so, after layovers in Washington, D.C., and Vienna, this brother will be back on the streets of Yerevan, wondering if it is all really real. And sometime later today, I will be back on the streets of Salem, wondering the same thing. I think we both know the answer: it is, and it isn’t. It is real in every ounce and fiber of its exaggerated unlikelihood, and it is unreal in its comically pathetic solidity and predictability. But we will keep checking, just to be sure.
February 12, 2004 — Yesterday afternoon I met with the friendly accountant who annually cooks our books. He was tired, and said he was running twenty-eight tax returns behind. When I suggested all he had to do was stay up and work through the night, he said, “I just can’t do it anymore. I work ten-hour days. That’s enough.” He’s right. And if I were in his shoes, I’d only last about ten minutes. On the other hand, if he were in my shoes, he’d be dead already, and darned grateful for it. I don’t know whether he realizes this or not. But he does find it amusing that my son would earn more than me. So do I — especially when you stop and think that we both spend our time sitting in front of computers, which is also what the accountant does. The difference is, the accountant is behind and will have to work overtime to catch up, while I am behind and will never catch up, and my son is ahead and comes home from work with enough energy to play three full-length basketball games. It hardly seems fair. Then again, he is smarter than me, and hard work is what has put him in this position. Hard work has also put me in a position: bent over. But I go on working just the same, even though my hands have been reduced to lame claws. I had to fill out a check yesterday at the drug store, and could barely control my scribble. I told the pharmacist, “Gee, I can almost write.” Unfortunately, he had been counting pills and answering questions all day, and could only manage a blank stare. Finally, he said, “But it’s warm outside today,” meaning, I suppose, that my handwriting problem couldn’t have been the result of cold temperatures. This meant I had to explain, which I absolutely did not want to do, because the spontaneity had been drained out of the situation. But I had to say something, because now he was standing there wearing a pleasantly puzzled expression. He wanted to understand, and I commend him for it, but there was nothing to understand. And so I said, “I’ve been at the computer all day.” This made sense to him. He was satisfied. I wasn’t, but at least I was free to thank him and leave. On my way to the parking lot, I found myself cursing the practical nature of things, and the fact that so many people find nothing wrong with the arrangement. Why is that? I find no comfort at all in putting one foot calmly and sanely after the other. It disturbs and angers me. When I come to a well trodden path, I want to bounce over it with a pogo-stick.
February 13, 2004 — The last couple of days have been clear and relatively warm, about sixty degrees, but now the clouds have returned. This is hardly a surprise. Around here, sudden, spring-like warmth is almost always followed by rain. Even so, the news people will wring their hands in despair and the weather people will give us cloud-by-cloud updates — disgracefully embarrassing behavior in my opinion, not that anyone ever asks. Meanwhile, it was cold enough last night before the clouds moved in that windshields and rooftops are still covered with frost. It’s still more winter than spring in Salem, though I have noticed the green tips of bulbs poking up everywhere. Our daffodils are emerging, as are my mother’s tulips and hyacinths. As far as planting a garden goes, that’s probably a good two months off. For me, this waiting period is an annual torture, because my internal farming clock was set long ago in the San Joaquin Valley, where it is possible to eat fresh tomatoes six months of the year. I might get used to it eventually, but I sort of doubt it. We’ve been here almost seventeen years, and I’m still just as restless as ever. My darling bride feels the same way. The other day, she bought a four-inch pot with a pansy in it and placed it on the window sill by our kitchen sink. Right away, as if by magic, the clouds parted and bright sunlight bathed the plant. This was followed by the arrival of a beautiful little bird, smaller than a sparrow, with bright yellow feathers around its head and neck. Our son told me what kind of bird it was, but I’ve already forgotten the name. He said it was unusual to see them here. Several years ago, Vahan made quite a study of birds, reading up on their habits, examining their pictures, and watching their activities through binoculars. And I daresay he remembers everything he learned — unless he is like me, and has mastered the ability to repeat what little he knows with an air of authority and confidence, thereby giving the illusion of knowledge, which fools no one but himself. Let’s hope not. It’s a lousy way to live. Every now and then, I even try to remedy the situation by reading and paying attention, but I quickly become bogged down. The circuitry is jammed with useless information.
February 14, 2004 — The White House spokesman — I forget his name, Magellan, or McFelon, or something along those lines — thinks it’s shameful for people to question the president’s honor and integrity in any and all matters, but especially in regards his past military service, of which many say he skipped about a year. Actually, it’s highly unlikely that McSwellguy cares, but the show must go on. To that end, he reads his lines and does what he’s told like any other political weasel. For some reason, he has permitted himself to believe that because it’s his job, it is therefore all right to stand up and tell lies every day. When I see people like this in action, I can’t help remembering that they were once little boys and girls running around and playing games, having fun, and filling their pants as if there were no tomorrow. The transformation always amazes me. It’s one of the saddest things there is, if not the saddest. How does an innocent child end up a deformed liar on “Meet the Press”? What must he or she go through, what kind of psychological suffering must he or she endure? But back to the president. He must have been feeling mighty invincible when he made his heroic flight suit landing lo those many months ago. And now, most recently during a special television “interview,” he has called himself a “war president.” So the question of his military service is, in fact, valid. If you are going to ask young people to murder for you, if you are going to send them to their maimings and deaths, if you are going to put their families through hell, it seems only fair that you should account for your own time in the military. Personally, I think anyone who avoids serving in the U.S. military is doing the sane, natural, responsible thing. But the president is not about to come out and say he was scared and didn’t want to get killed, and that his family pulled a few strings and kept him out of danger — even though it’s obvious that this is exactly what happened, and that such things went on all the time. Anyone who lived during the Vietnam era and who wasn’t a child at the time knew it was going on. The sons of the privileged don’t become soldiers. They didn’t then, and they don’t now. So what was that ridiculous flight suit appearance for? Why did he do it? Imagine being a real soldier, a real pilot, and having to watch that sort of insulting nonsense. Who gets to go home at the end of the day, and who winds up in his little White House bed, and who will get up tomorrow in complete safety and be treated to three gourmet squares? The soldier? The pilot? No, of course not. It’s little toy soldier Georgie, the man who posed in Iraq with a plastic Thanksgiving turkey. Meanwhile, the killing goes on, and the shameful lies meant to justify it all. If you are fooled by this, then stop being fooled. See the lies for what they are, and for what they are meant to accomplish: the enrichment of a few, at the expense of everyone else. Add up the lies. They constitute an amazing amount of evidence.
February 15, 2004 — I’ve been feeling lately that it is about time once again to undertake a major work. This might be due to the approach of spring, though historically I have done my major writing during the summer and autumn months. I don’t know why that is, and I have never bothered to think about it for more than fifteen seconds at a stretch. But maybe I should. And while I’m at it, maybe I should question my use of the word “major.” By major, I mean, or at least I think I mean, something along the lines of a novel. Granted, the novels I have written so far may one day come to be thought of as minor, if they haven’t already; and the novels I will write may come to be thought of as major. For instance, Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk isn’t usually thought of as being one of his major works, whereas Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov definitely are. There is also the very real possibility — one might even say likelihood — that none of my works will be considered major. But this is all beside the point. The point is, I have been feeling the urge lately to undertake a big writing project. It’s the same feeling I used to have when I was ten or twelve, and I would walk outside on a glorious summer morning with the burning desire to build something. This usually meant hunting around for scraps of old lumber, a hammer, a saw, and a coffee can full of rusty nails. Then the banging began. Or, if patience and resources were limited, I could always fall back on putting together a wooden marble game. All that was needed was a flat piece of wood or plywood, a few nails and rubber bands, and marbles, and in no time I had a miniature pinball setup. If I used enough nails and they were strategically placed, it would take several seconds for a marble to bounce its way from the top of the board to the bottom through the pathways formed by the rubber bands, which were stretched from nail to nail. As the marble bounced its way down the board, it also made a satisfying plinking noise whenever it hit one of the nails. Now, for some reason, I can’t imagine kids doing this today, or being satisfied by a simple plinking noise. But I did, and was. I was also only too happy to spend hours digging holes — I have mentioned this before — and here again, we see a direct correlation to writing. What is writing if not the digging of holes, both in a literary and economic sense? But again, I digress. At the moment, the urge to write is what I want to write about. I was saying that I feel now as I used to feel when I was ten or twelve. This is true. I still feel the restless need to make something, regardless of what it is, or of what it turns out to be. Then, I had no worries and boundless energy. Now, I have boundless worries and no energy. But even here, I need to stop myself. What I just wrote sounded clever, but it wasn’t really true. I do have energy, though it is no longer boundless, and I do have what I will call certain concerns, but these concerns, rather than keeping me from my work, tend to be a motivating factor. I also recognize that almost everything I have said is inaccurate, or, at the very least, incomplete. How can I say, for instance, that my energy isn’t boundless? I do get tired, and I often wake up nearly as tired as when I lie down, but I never feel like quitting. I look forward to seeing what the next day brings, in terms of both living and writing. So my energy in that dimension is boundless — except that it isn’t, because it can only last as long as I last — an assumption that should also be questioned, because it can be argued that this sort of energy is a shared, cosmic force that is used and reused and replenished and refreshed, just like water. Who can say how old water is? When we drink a glass of water, we tend to think of it as a fresh, new thing, which it is. But isn’t it also ancient? And after we have used it, doesn’t it reappear again later as rain, and doesn’t it come bubbling up once again from underground? Well, it seems to me that the energy that is our life-force, so to speak, is of the same nature. I realize this is a clumsy way to put it, or to go about putting it, but it seems the best I can do at the moment. Maybe I will do a better job later on, and the result will be what can truly be called a major work. And if I do, and if it is, the result will be a better understanding of the fact that the creation is more important than the creator, who is really just an instrument through which energy flows — and of the even more important fact that the energy is there for one and all, and not just a chosen or self-appointed few.
February 16, 2004 — I have noticed many times, and am noticing here now once again, that the act of putting down the day’s first words seems to cause a rush of chemicals in the brain, and that this in turn leads to an exhilarating feeling of fright and delight — as if one had just jumped into an icy river, or set off on a great adventure into the unknown. Such is the pleasure I feel in resuming my work. But there is an even greater pleasure in seeing where that work leads. What will I discover as a result? What further trouble will I cause myself? How angry will I become, how tenderhearted, how foolish? How low will I sink, and how little of my own putrid ignorance will I be able to accept or recognize? These are important questions — questions that accompany and haunt me throughout the day. Writers say they write for many reasons, some of them so precious that I wonder how they keep a straight face: In this book, I wanted to explore this or that trite or boring notion. Oh, did you, now? It seems to me that if you really wanted to explore something, you might try something you haven’t already made up your mind about. After all, you can always achieve the desired results if you conduct the right experiments. And while you’re at it, stop whining, and stop being so deliberate and gentle. How bitter, how sarcastic, will I be? How intolerant, how brazen? I understand as well as the next writer, perhaps even better, that a book must be printed and sold if it is to earn its author even part of a living. But does that mean the author must misrepresent himself, and convince himself that he is fascinated about things which in truth bore him to death? And if this is not so, then why are there so many utterly boring books for sale? Why are such books conceived, and why do they come into being? Fear is the one-word answer. The three-word answer is, mediocrity and fear. The four-word answer is, mediocrity caused by fear. How belligerent, how arrogant, how narrow-minded, will I be? How lucky?
February 17, 2004 — I was so tired last night that the first few times I fell asleep, I awakened myself shortly thereafter with a loud snort. Even under the circumstances, I was aware of the comedy of the situation. But after half a dozen snorts, the joke was wearing thin. Finally, the snorting subsided and I drifted off, though I did wake up several times during the night after this or that odd dream. I got up at five-twenty in a state of puzzled exhaustion, glanced at the paper, squeezed an orange, and made our youngest son breakfast. Then I took a hot shower, which felt great, but also revealed a nearly desperate need for coffee. While the coffee was being made, I signed onto the Internet to see if I had any e-mail. I did. There were two notes from my brother in Armenia, a couple of unsolicited drug ads, and a daily subscription installment I receive from a website called “Today in Literature.” While reading my e-mail and making my replies, I started sipping my first cup of coffee. Then I signed off. Awhile later, I realized I had been staring at the computer screen for about ten minutes, and that my cup was already half-empty. So I wouldn’t slip away again, I started writing. A sentence or two ago, I finished my coffee and went to the kitchen for a second cup, and what will be my last until later today after lunch, when I will have another. So. There you have it. This is my list of accomplishments so far today. Somewhere along the line, I will probably wake up enough to get dressed and put my best foot forward. I might even venture forth into the public. And I fully expect to be inspired, if I’m not already. Is it the coffee? Is it working? I think I can feel something.
February 18, 2004 — There is a pair of adult-sized tennis shoes dangling by their laces from a heavy power line that spans two busy lanes of traffic on Commercial Street a few blocks north of downtown Salem. They were probably tied to the wire during the night when traffic was sparse, but the line is well beyond the reach of a conventional ladder, so perhaps it was a professional job, perpetrated by a utility crew or a batch of city employees — unless it was the work of a talented squirrel. I have seen many squirrels dashing across similar power lines. None were wearing shoes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have them. That’s why I think the case would be a good one for a new reporter coming up. Writing a story about squirrels and mystery tennis shoes would be a great way to make a name for oneself. In fact, maybe I’ll do the story and submit it to the local paper, which, of course, is only local in name, but owned by Gannett, the same outfit that publishes the hideous paper known as USA Today. I still remember when the latter publication emerged many years ago, awash with color, and in all its cheap-looking glory. I thought, how could anyone take a paper like this seriously? And then it seemed to turn up everywhere — in barber shops and waiting rooms, and on the doorsteps of motel rooms. “Get that thing away from me!” I cried on more than one occasion, stomping my feet. But it was impossible. The papers spread like a disease. Soon, real newspapers were adopting Gannett’s technique of putting less and less information on the front page, and more and more childish graphics and self-praise: “We won an award — never mind which award, we won it, and so we’re great.” A few years after that, the standard broadsheet was trimmed down in size, making it more difficult to hide from hecklers at bus stops — something I find particularly annoying. After all, why does one buy a newspaper these days? It certainly can’t be for the news, which is pre-chewed and spit into readers’ mouths by Uncle Sam. (This is a grotesque image, when you think about it.) For example, the president is supposedly popular with people who like to race cars. There is your news. Or this: the president telling hand-selected “supporters” that he will fight terrorism until the threat is gone, while “journalists” busily write down his every word, and photographers stand around taking his picture for the umpteenth time. This means something? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it does. And what it means is very sad and very ugly — and very, very dangerous.
February 19, 2004 — As it happens, my wife and I had occasion yesterday to drive under the dangling tennis shoes on Commercial Street. And as usual, even in something as simple as this, she was able to remind me of what a dense fool I am. With a single glance, she was able to determine that the lace of one shoe had been tied to the lace of the other, making it necessary only to throw the shoes up from the ground and let them drape themselves over the wire. It might have taken a few tries, but no special equipment would have been needed, and certainly no squirrels had been involved. I said, “Well, there you are, then. I’ve done it again. Instead of seeing the obvious, I assumed the most difficult. Why do I do that?” She said she didn’t know, but that that was indeed what I always did. This probably explains why I’ve made such a mess of things over the years. When confronted with simplicity, I see it as something convoluted, with a dark, mysterious background. I suppose this is why I write, and why I am unable to make my way through this world in any sort of practical fashion. But I don’t care — by which I mean, I’m not worried about it — by which I also mean, I’ve made it this far — and by which I further mean, maybe there is still hope. But even if there is no hope, I’m not worried about that, either — by which I mean, it’s quite possible that I’ve already given up. In fact, the more I think about it, the more obvious it is that I have given up, and that this is what allows me to believe I am spending my time in a worthwhile way, when it couldn’t be more plain that I am a burden to myself, my family, and most everyone I meet — except that they laugh. Why do they do that? Is it because I brighten their day somehow, or is it because they are glad they aren’t me? If I were them, I would be. I think. But I’m not them. I’m me. And yet this is preposterous. How can I be me? Was I always me? Was I me when I was born, or did I only become me after several years of trial and error, with an emphasis on the error? Maybe I’m still not me. Maybe I won’t be me until I’m dead, and then it will be too late. And then others will say, who was he, and did he really mean all those crazy things he said? Well, that I can answer here and now: Yes. I meant every single word, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept repeating myself all the time. I mean what I say, though I don’t always say what I mean — but I mean to, and that’s what counts. You have to read between the lines. Saying what you mean isn’t easy, especially when what you mean keeps changing. And it’s not that I’m trying to confuse things. They are already confused. At the same time, I think I have a certain knack for clearing things up. I realize this sounds like a contradiction. But even as I confuse things that are simple, I untangle things that are complicated. I am able to do this because the complicated things aren’t really complicated, but simple. Yes, yes. I know. But think about it. The tennis shoe incident, because of its simplicity, deserves to be complicated; whereas, on the other hand, the dangerous assumptions we make and the outlandish things we believe and accept and which clearly cause us sorrow and pain, stem from basic fear, ignorance, and insecurity. In short, our problems are simple, but are in desperate need of clarification. We are afraid because we are insecure, and we remain ignorant because we are willing to follow any foolish notion that makes us feel physically and mentally safe. Down through the ages, politicians and religious leaders have understood and made excellent use of this. Yet they too have died, in fear and ignorance. For some odd reason, knowing this always cheers me up.
February 20, 2004 — A couple of days ago, a writer-friend of mine passed along a library copy of the 2004 edition of Writer’s Market, which, according to a front-cover quote taken from the Tampa Tribune, is “the Bible for scribes trying to get paid for their work in today’s fast-paced, competitive market.” It’s been quite a while since I’ve looked at a Writer’s Market. I’ve never really cared for the publication, though it is useful to a certain degree because it contains publishers’ addresses and editors’ names and so on. What I hate are the inspiring how-to articles, which sound as if they were all written by the same person, and which are blatantly rehashed year after year. A copy of Writer’s Market costs one penny less than thirty dollars. Writer’s Digest Books publishes an updated edition each and every year, as well as several other annual directories that focus on different parts of the so-called writing market, such as fiction and poetry. So they have a pretty good racket going. Anyway. One thing I did find interesting in the book is a section called “Publishers and Their Imprints.” Many of the old familiar publishing names are there, such as Knopf and Random House, etc., but nowadays these are names only, which are strategically maintained by their corporate owners to give the book-buying public the impression that it has a choice. It doesn’t, really — unless you subscribe to the notion that there is a difference between eating at McDonald’s and Burger King. Here are just a few of the highlights: Viacom owns Simon & Schuster, not to mention Scribner, Pocket Books, and Atheneum. News Corp. owns HarperCollins, as well as Avon, Ecco, and William Morrow. Bertelsmann AG owns Random House, under which operate the following “publishing groups,” each with their own familiar imprints: Ballantine; Bantam Dell; Crown; Doubleday; and Knopf. Penguin Group (USA) publishes Dutton, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Viking, Dial, Grosset & Dunlap, and Philomel. Again, these are just a few major selections. AOL Time Warner? Little, Brown and Co., just to name one. And finally, an outfit from Germany named Holtzbrinck Publishers is doing business as St. Martin’s Press, Henry Holt, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Faber and Faber (and here a Faber, there a Faber, and everywhere a Faber Faber). Keep in mind, meanwhile, that the same thing is happening in all other major business sectors. The result is something we are already living with, and will go on living with for a long time to come: namely, you can have any kind of apple you want as long as it is Red Delicious, and you can buy any kind of book you want as long as it is generic, mainstream drivel. Coincidentally, I heard a while back that many university book stores are owned by the big chain book sellers. By focusing on heavily promoted and financially tried and true titles, the stores help narrow students’ perspectives rather than encouraging and feeding eclectic interests — which, as we all know, ha-ha, school is really all about.
February 21, 2004 — The mail we’ve been receiving lately is so worthless that I’ve been tempted to tell our carrier not to bother. Instead, I went out yesterday afternoon at precisely 2:35 and asked him how his official jalopy was holding up. About a month and a half ago, his square delivery vehicle died in the intersection near our house. He almost got it started three or four times, but finally he had to take me up on my offer to push it through the resulting cloud of noxious black fumes to a safer spot. Then he called the main office to tell them he was stalled, and that he would need another vehicle to finish his route. “I’d be dead without this cell phone,” he said after he’d hung up. He repeated this statement yesterday, after confessing that he’d been stranded several more times since. He said the post office mechanics weren’t the best in the world, and that this was compounded by their use of cheap, lousy parts. At the same time, I could see he didn’t really care. If he breaks down somewhere, he makes his call, straightens things out in his little truck, and then reads someone’s paper or magazine until help arrives. This sort of thing would drive me crazy, but, as I have been told many times, I don’t have far to go. He handed me five envelopes. Only one was of legitimate concern. The others I tore up and tossed into our big blue recycling bin. As usual, I thought of telling the mailman that he looked a lot like a certain violinist in the Irish musical group, The Chieftains, but I didn’t.
February 22, 2004 — Today I mourn the loss of the president’s dog, Spot, a.k.a. “Spotty,” which was kindly and gently “put to sleep” at the age of fourteen by what I assume was an accredited physician. I am surprised and saddened by the First Family’s decision to end Spot’s life instead of trusting their bosom friend to God’s infinite wisdom and beneficent care, confirmed by previous court rulings affecting humans. But perhaps the experience has reminded them of how people feel when they must watch their loved ones suffer in medically prolonged agony. Then again, probably not. And now I am reminded of the day Cisco died. Cisco was a dog we had back there in the good old days, otherwise known as the Sixties. To paraphrase, if you don’t remember the Sixties, then you were probably there. And good old days they were. There was a war going on. There were body bags, burnt draft cards, drugs, protests, campus riots, shootings, speeches, and assassinations. Then the Sixties became the Seventies, the Beatles broke up, and there were more body bags, more protests, more drugs, and so on. It was a great time. Thank goodness those days are gone, except, of course, for the body bags, the protests, the drugs, the speeches, and the war against civil rights. Anyway. It was a Thursday, in the summer, in the evening, at about nine o’clock. I was sitting on the couch enjoying a root beer float when someone drove into our yard. My father got up to open the door. It was a man we knew, a man named Jack Day. Dad invited him in. But Jack didn’t sit down. Instead, he told us he had some bad news. He said he had just seen our dog, Cisco, dead a quarter of a mile away on Alta Avenue. Cisco had been hit by a car. Jack felt terrible. He knew how Dad felt about dogs, and how we all felt. He left. Dad followed him outside and thanked him, then came back and put on his shoes on got the keys to our pickup so he could go get Cisco and bring him home. Burying a pet is no fun. Over the years, our vineyard became a veritable cemetery for loyal hounds. That night in bed, I thought about Cisco, and how he had learned to play tetherball, and how for hours he trotted up and down the vineyard rows beside our tractor. Cisco was a good friend, as I am sure Spot was. And that is the wonder of animals. They don’t judge. Little did Spot know what his master is capable of. Little did he know that the news of his passing would be published in papers across the country, while the news of American and Iraqi deaths, numbering in the thousands, goes untold. How nice it would be if everyone killed in the name of obscene profit could have their names published in American newspapers. Farewell, Spot. You were a good dog.
February 23, 2004 — The writing of Fyodor Dostoevsky never ceases to amaze me. I am now nearly 300 pages into his novel, The Adolescent, and I am not exaggerating when I say that this man’s writing has kept me under a spell. I almost said trance, but that would be carrying it too far — not because I haven’t been in a trance, but only because the trance hasn’t been continual, whereas the spell has. I have been able to eat when reminded, and to utter the occasional incoherent sentence. I have also been able to write, which amounts pretty much to the same thing. Through it all, I have been desperately happy, but, as I don’t deserve such happiness, I have also been tormented by guilt, which in turn has left me in a state of abject despair. Such is the power of Dostoevsky, at least over simple minds. On the practical side, I have enjoyed his use of a certain storytelling device that he employed so well — that of grabbing you by the throat with some new absurd development, and then going back and telling just how such a strange and contradictory thing could have come to pass. He wasn’t the first or last to use this device, but his use of it was brilliant. As for the device itself, I understand that it was originally made of stone, then bronze; later it was extremely popular in its highly polished wooden form; now it is commonly made of plastic, and it wears out the day after the warranty is up.
February 24, 2004 — It’s hard to believe that I have added to this strange, meandering piece of writing every day now for almost a year. When I mentioned this to my wife a couple of days ago and asked her if she thought I should quit when the year was up, her answer was a definite no. When I asked her why, she said, “Because it’s interesting, and because it’s a record of the times.” Then I said, “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But the real question is, isn’t it also kind of boring? I mean, is there any point in listening to someone who is just going on and on?” She confessed she is used to that, and that nearly thirty years of marriage have possibly conditioned her a bit. “Ah-ha!” I cried. “I knew it. When the year is over, I’m going to quit. In fact, I’ll quit right now.” But she said I couldn’t quit. She said didn’t want me to. And so there you have it. Counting today, I will have been clapping with one hand for 345 consecutive days. During that time, nothing has been solved. I am a little older, dumber, and creakier, and so is the country in which we live. Things haven’t gotten better, here or abroad. They have gotten worse. I take no particular pleasure in saying such a thing; I am saying it simply because I believe it is so. During the months ahead, we will be swimming in lies — even more so than we are now, since this is an “election” year. The politicians will play their games. The news people will play theirs. The killing will continue. At the same time, I believe it is entirely possible to be cheerful and happy in one’s own daily, anonymous existence. And I believe, in fact, know, that it is possible to be disgusted and angry at the same time. I also think it’s necessary. As for this journal, it will either end after a year or it won’t. I have never been one to plan that far ahead. For me, two or three weeks are an eternity. As for it being a record of the times, so are the stories I have written and published on my website and elsewhere, and so is my novel, A Listening Thing, and so is another finished novel I have waiting in the wings which is every bit as good if not better, The Smiling Eyes of Children. Another possibility is that I will continue with One Hand Clapping, but that it will take on a new form. Still another possibility is that I will continue with the journal as it is, and at the same time begin work on yet another novel, or some other desperately futile piece of writing that is sure to leave me irritable, exhausted, and blind. Whatever I do is bound to be the result of some foolish impulse, as well as some unrecognized or misinterpreted undercurrent in my thinking. I almost said “subconscious mind,” but “thinking” is already stretching it far enough. And now it’s raining. Hard.
February 25, 2004 — Last night, a short time before I went to bed, I scribbled these words on a small scrap of paper: “I will explain something, even though no one asked. . . .” I am looking at them now, trying to remember what they meant. I see what they could mean. For instance, they are a pretty apt description of the work at hand. But that’s not what I had in mind. Or is it? Wait. Now I remember. I was thinking of these words as the possible beginning of a story. The “I” wasn’t me. The “I” was an inconsiderate bore interested only in the sound of his own voice. I repeat, the “I” wasn’t me. I am a considerate bore. And while I am interested in the sound of my own voice, I am also interested in the sound of other voices — which reminds me: several years ago, I’m pretty sure I had a story rejected by a magazine called Other Voices. I know there was a magazine by that name. I think it might have been published by a university. And since I have had stories rejected by almost every magazine in the country, it seems likely that I had a story rejected by that one as well. Oddly enough, a story I wrote that wasn’t rejected was called “Voices.” That story was published in Barbaric Yawp. It was about a son who was crazy, a father who was crazy, and a mother who was really crazy. The story was told by the son, who, though he was the sanest of the bunch, heard voices coming from the bottom of a hole. But he wasn’t the only one who heard them. His father heard them too. Anyway, as I said, these people were nuts. They were nuts not because they couldn’t relate, but because they understood far too much — except for the mother, who was independently nuts, not unlike those who are independently wealthy, in that they just sort of sprout up without rhyme or reason, with the definite conviction that they should be there, though they are unable to produce a shred of proof. For some reason, it is up to everyone else to prove that they shouldn’t be there — a hopeless task, and a dangerous one as well, because usually, along the way, what is proven is that they are in no better shape than those they are trying to expose, or certify. As for myself, I know better than to try to prove someone is crazy. I couldn’t do it without revealing and proving my own insanity.
February 26, 2004 — The latest news on the financial front is that Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan says the government needs to cut back on the size of Social Security payments for future retirees. He says this is necessary because of our rapidly changing demographics. Simply put, when the so-called baby boomers reach retirement age, there won’t be enough dough to go around. He thinks changes need to be made very soon to avoid disaster and, to paraphrase, so people can “make other plans.” For years now, my wife and I have assumed there will be no Social Security left when we are no longer fit to pursue the great American Dream. And judging by several quotes in this morning’s paper, there are quite a few people who share that opinion. And of course it makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is Mr. Greenspan’s unspoken acknowledgement of the fact that our pockets will continue to be drained to pay for resource-grabbing, empire-building wars, while the remainder goes to the wealthy owners of giant corporations that decimate the environment and use people like cattle. But I take that back. It does make sense. It makes perfect sense, because he is part of the system, and because he knows full well that this is what’s going to happen. It’s a pity someone like him can’t simply stand up and say, “Look, why don’t we quit spending money on killing people and destroying the planet, and instead use it to help people live a decent life?” Come to think of it, I have heard none of the men running for president say it either. They say safe things, which in the long run they know will prove to be entirely meaningless. They are meaningless now. And just what does Mr. Greenspan think our other retirement plans should consist of, when millions of people are already struggling to survive? Once a week, shall we put a nickel in a jar?
February 27, 2004 — A few minutes ago, the telephone rang and it nearly scared me to death. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I didn’t answer. Now I’m looking at the phone, wondering if it’s going to ring again. Had I answered the first time, I wouldn’t have had to wonder. But if I had answered, then I would have had to talk to someone. Why should I talk to someone if I don’t feel like it? If I don’t feel like it, isn’t the other party likely to take notice and be offended? No, it’s better not to answer. Let the person call again later. Maybe I’ll answer then. And if he or she doesn’t call later, that proves it wasn’t important in the first place. Either that, or it proves the exact opposite, and he or she is now dead, or possibly crawling out into the street for help. I probably should have answered. Why didn’t I? What am I doing that’s so important that it can’t be interrupted for a moment? Maybe it was a friend, wanting to talk. Maybe it was a radio station wanting to ask me a silly question as part of a big giveaway. No, it was definitely somebody who wanted me to give them money. Have you heard about our this, that, or the other thing? We know you’re interested, otherwise you wouldn’t have answered the phone. Pardon me, but my tea kettle is whistling. I am making tea for the queen. That’s great. Maybe the queen would be interested. No, I don’t think so. The queen is interested in one thing, and one thing only: tea. And I think she’s entitled. When you’ve lived as long as the queen has, and have weathered as many scandals, tea is hardly too much to ask. But aren’t you interested in saving money? Of course I’m interested! Are you going to send me a check? Wait a minute. Hold on. . . . Yes, yes. The tea’s right there. Get it yourself, you old battle axe. Can’t you see I’m on the phone? . . . Oh. No check, eh. I thought so. You are not going to send me money. I am going to send you money. Yes, master. Yes. I hear, and I obey. I . . . will . . . write a . . . big . . . check. Will . . . give you . . . my . . . credit card number. . . . Seriously, the queen and I get along quite well. She stays in her palace, and I sit here in my squalid corner. She doesn’t tell me how to run my business, I don’t tell her how to run hers. Once a day, I invite her for tea, and once a day she politely ignores my offer. That way, we both get what we want. We drink our bloody tea alone, thank you.
February 28, 2004 — It might sound corny, but last night it was so clear that the stars shone like lamps in the heavens. Distant suns, planets, constellations, endlessly unfolding, the blackness between, unfathomable. Measure it if you like, call it what you will, divide it into little squares, break it down according to books and tables, explain its origin in religious terms — but don’t forget how little you truly know, and how insignificant that knowledge really is. And don’t forget that even if you were to know everything, in the grand scheme of things it would still be less than nothing. There is an old proverb . . . well, not really. I mean there is, but I have forgotten it completely. There is also an old fable that was passed down through the ages and which finally took the form of a beautifully sculptured stone near a shimmering pond, and this I haven’t forgotten. It is about a young man and an old man who quarreled over why and how the universe came to be, and how in the end they were unable even to define the term, and how both were content to merely argue, and to be impressed by their own illogic. How such a paltry fable could take the form of a beautifully sculptured stone is, of course, the real fable. The shame of it is, the quarrel continues to this day, while the stone and the pond are ignored.
February 29, 2004 — I didn’t have time to read The Adolescent yesterday. I am now on Page 400, and am set to begin Chapter Four of Part Three, which is the third and final part. Not counting the notes at the back of the book and the chronology in front, I have 164 pages to go. Here is the first sentence of Chapter Four: Now I’m approaching the final catastrophe, which concludes my notes. I have no doubt that the final catastrophe will be the catastrophe of catastrophes. Judging by the catastrophes so far, it is inevitable and fitting. There have been suicides, wild gambling sprees, financially ruined princes, hidden documents, conceptions out of wedlock, fevers, deliriums, challenges to duels, revelations, manipulations, intrigues, and counter-intrigues. The beauty of it all is, none of this comes across as gratuitous or forced; the characters are desperately and poetically true to themselves. Now, on to something else. In recent days, the Hollywood publicity machine has created a media circus to coincide with its release of a new Jesus movie. The Passion of the Christ, directed by a well known actor of middling talent who, we are told, is a devout Catholic, hauled in nearly thirty million dollars the day it was released. Thanks to Hollywood, and to the public’s gullibility, the violent and bloody R-rated film has become “controversial.” Curious individuals and entire church congregations have already visited theaters and paid good money to see for themselves. Meanwhile, the media dutifully ask, is this good for Christianity? is it the duty of Christians to see this film? is it anti-Semitic, etc., etc. — as if suddenly now, after thousands of years, humankind has reached a crossroads. My humble suggestion is, if you are paying to find out, it probably hasn’t, and it probably doesn’t matter. If you see the movie because you like to see movies, fine. If you enjoy it, fine. If you don’t, fine. If it is thought-provoking, fine. If it is too violent for you to stand, fine. The director says he wants people to realize just what it means to be crucified. It is my contention that anyone who stops and thinks for a moment can figure this out for himself.
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Also by William Michaelian
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