One Hand Clapping – May 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
May 1, 2004 — It has been a year since George Flight Suit Bush swooped in for a spectacular landing aboard an aircraft carrier and announced the end to major combat in Iraq beneath a big sign that said “Mission Accomplished.” Yes, this really happened. A real, live president of the United States did this. Hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded soldiers later, this country is hated by millions, and seen, quite understandably, as root of the world’s evil. It isn’t, of course. The world’s evil was in full swing long before the United States was around. It’s just that at this moment in history, more of it seems to be concentrated here than anywhere else. I don’t mean to slight other countries, however. If the U.S. hasn’t bled them dry or blown them all up first, their turn will come, and the evil monsters in their midst will hold sway. Mission Accomplished. What a strange thing to say. How many Iraqis have died since then? How many have been crippled, disfigured, wounded? How many Iraqi children have been neglected in the years since the last Bush go-around, when George Read My Lips Bush drew his infamous “line in the sand”? What a nightmare to visit upon a nation. And what was in the minds of the people who stood by and cheered the younger Bush’s stage production a year ago? What are they thinking now? What is anyone thinking, who still believes this country has a right, and is right, to do what it is doing? How can they think that occupying a country and killing thousands of people can lead to a positive outcome? What kind of dream world are they living in? The ghosts of this war, which is still gaining momentum, will haunt this country especially, and the world for years. They will haunt the minds of those who participated and survived; they will haunt the minds of those whose loved ones were lost; they will haunt the collective mind in subtle, destructive ways that will not be understood, and for which there will be no name. Each generation inherits the pain wrought by the previous ones. A truly good life cannot be built upon graves. It has yet to be done. People may prosper in material ways and call it a good life, but where is their happiness? Who can honestly say after a war, It is good that we killed? We know the arguments. It might be convenient to say something like Hitler had to be stopped, but there would have been no Hitler to stop if people had refused to go along with his madness in the first place. The evil madmen of the world acquire the power they do only because they are bold enough to act out the madness the people carry inside them. We need to understand the power of the word No. We need to listen to that other part of us that still remembers what it means to be a child who is in love with life and in love with the world and the people in it. It is just as real as the part of us that hates, and the part of us that wants more than we need or what someone else has. Goodness can spread as rapidly as evil, if only we are unafraid to embrace it.
May 2, 2004 — “Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot.” So read a sign at a peaceful May Day gathering yesterday in Portland, Oregon. The police made no arrests. But they were ready, in case the displeasure of the city’s tired, unemployed, underemployed, uninsured workers got out of hand. As it is, everyone in Portland is on edge these days, since every so often the police shoot or beat someone during a routine traffic stop. Most recently, a rugged member of the force who is also an ex-Marine found it necessary to shoot and kill an unarmed black man within twenty-four seconds of pulling him over because he thought his car was too nice for the neighborhood. There was another officer with him. For some reason, they were unable to simply grab and hold the driver, who, according to the murdering officer’s testimony, was fishing in his pocket for something he assumed was a gun. He said he was digging in his pocket furiously, or something to that effect. This sounded a bit odd to me. If a person has a gun in his front pants pocket, how furiously would he have to dig for it, considering the fact that the gun would almost fill the pocket? Also, the driver was wearing a seat belt. Where was he going to go? Anyway, after the driver had been murdered, they found out that all he had in his pocket was some change. He also had some illegal drugs in his mouth — proving, once again, the validity of the Portland Police Department’s unofficial slogan, “It pays to profile,” which is a nicely updated version of “Shoot now and ask questions later.” At any rate, it is pretty much agreed by everyone that the inquest this past week left many questions unanswered, the main one being, why should a muscle-bound, thick-necked ex-Marine who is twice as big as a dopey guy restrained by a seat belt be unable to handle a situation like that without killing him, especially with another officer leaning in from the other side of the car? The officer stated that everything about the situation told him something was wrong, and that the driver had a gun, and that he responded exactly as he was trained to respond. So, without realizing it, he admitted that his judgment is unsound and that he should be fired from the police force. But there is still the little problem of the murder he committed, or, rather, that his training had him commit. To hear the officer talk about it, you would think the guy isn’t dead. His family and friends, though, know otherwise. Of course, killing people in a war isn’t considered murder either. It is honorable to kill someone in the line of duty. To be a hero, all you have to do is put on a uniform, have yourself shipped off to someone else’s country, and kill complete strangers because society says it’s okay. Ironically, though, the mistreatment of prisoners is a big no-no. This is currently big news, as both American and British troops have been accused of using all sorts of violent and humiliating tactics against prisoners of war. Bush and Blair, the greatest comedy team of our time, have both said they are appalled. Investigations have been launched. It’s okay to take over a country and to blow up buildings and kill people, but the idea of hurting a prisoner — why that’s terrible. What will the world think? Meanwhile, maybe the police officer who killed an unarmed man ought to rejoin the Marines. It sounds like he is missing his calling.
May 3, 2004 — What writer or writers working today will have the combination of talent, energy, and luck to rise up and change the way people think, or at least to start them thinking in new directions? There are small successes, partial or momentary successes, but no one, it seems, has gripped, or has been allowed by commercial forces to grip, the imagination of the general public. Or is the imagination still there to grab? Have television and the entertainment industry killed it? Is reading too much work? Would people really rather stare at a screen and have their thinking done for them? And has growing up and living amid the constant barrage of electronic nonsense drained the creative life out of writers as well? Much of today’s fiction seems rooted in television. The writing is poor, the dialogue is cheap, the characters are contrived, and the work is without purpose or conviction. And yet some of these books sell by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. This is possible because they are served up by a powerful publicity machine to an undemanding public that is conditioned to respond. Meanwhile, writers who try to challenge readers with intelligent, thought-provoking work are expected to dance like puppets on a string before the altar of Commerce. They are expected to beg to be heard, and to be grateful when they are granted fifteen minutes of the distracted public’s precious time, and asked all sorts of stupid questions about how and why they wrote their book and what they have been doing all these years to survive financially. And many writers, desperate for any sort of progress and recognition, throw themselves into unnatural, performance-based public speaking, hoping against hope that they will be the next Twain or Dickens. So-and-So will read from his novel. Why? Can’t the people read it themselves? It’s an accepted form, I know. These days, writers are expected to turn up at book stores and read from their novels. It is a convenient way to sell a few books. But if a writer happens to be uncomfortable in a room full of people, it can also be tremendously embarrassing and humiliating. He knows he is going to be judged on his presentation, rather than on his writing. As far as I’m concerned, a writer shouldn’t be put into that situation, unless public speaking is something that comes naturally to him and is what he really wants to do. If carpenters aren’t expected to appear at lumberyards, show slides, and sign scraps from their latest remodeling job, then why should writers have to do the equivalent in book stores? What can be done to overcome the unwillingness of Corporate Publishing to promote writers who truly have something to say, and, with a little help and encouragement, will be around to say it for many years? Are there enough people left who are willing to vote with their dollars, so to speak? Corporate Publishing, like all of its big business counterparts, wants a sure thing. When people buy garbage, Corporate Publishing will immediately serve up more garbage. Of course the writers, too, are at fault. We have to work harder and write better. We have to continue working whether we are paid or not. We must also remember that good things can happen only if good things are expected. It’s a lot to ask, I know. That’s why, above all, being crazy helps.
May 4, 2004 — In spare moments during the last couple of days, I have been reading a little of the used book I picked up several months ago that contains seven plays by George Bernard Shaw, as well as some interesting prefaces he wrote. The great thing about Shaw is that he was unafraid to speak his mind. In the first preface I read, which was written in 1898, he tore the Censorship and the society that made it possible to shreds, with logic, humor, and sarcasm. Early on, he calls the Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays “a gentleman who robs, insults, and suppresses me as irresistibly as if he were the Tsar of Russia and I the meanest of his subjects,” and continues, “the robbery takes form of making me pay him two guineas for reading every play of mine that exceeds one act in length. I do not want him to read it (at least officially: personally he is welcome): on the contrary, I strenuously resent that impertinence on his part. But I must submit in order to obtain from him an insolent and insufferable document, which I cannot read without boiling of the blood, certifying that in his opinion — his opinion! — my play ‘does not in its general tendency contain anything immoral or otherwise improper for the stage,’ and that the Lord Chamberlain therefore ‘allows’ its performance (confound his impudence!). In spite of this certificate he still retains the right, as an ordinary citizen, to prosecute me, or to instigate some other citizen to prosecute me, for an outrage on public morals if he should change his mind later on.” And so on. Then I started reading one of the plays the Lord Chamberlain found offensive, Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Mrs. Warren has been very successful in what has been called the world’s oldest profession. Shaw’s argument was that women were driven into that kind of work by a society that did not value them, and left them the choice of scraping by on menial jobs that paid starvation wages or marrying for money. I have read two acts so far, and the only “offensive” thing is that Shaw made plain the hypocrisy of his characters, men especially. There is one character in particular, an elderly clergyman who hides behind his station, afraid anyone will find out that once upon a time, he, too, was one of Mrs. Warren’s “clients.” Anyway. As I said, it’s quite interesting, and very well written. The characters do a lot more blabbing than do Henrik Ibsen’s in A Doll’s House and Ghosts, intelligent plays Shaw points out as also having been targets of censorship. These days, it is almost impossible to shock people, because we have seen and heard it all, or because we are bored and dazed by what passes for the Good Life, or worn out by trying to achieve it. And yet ironically, as in Shaw’s time, many of us still don’t know whether we are shocked or not until someone employed in some official capacity tells us. When they do, we are outraged. Witness the burning of an American flag — the same flag murdering leaders wrap themselves in and wave under everyone’s nose each time they want to further erode what the flag supposedly represents. To those who are offended, I offer this thought and reminder: the shallower we become, the more desperately we cling to outward symbols.
May 5, 2004 — We have seen many a cloud in recent weeks, but scarcely a drop of rain has come out of them. It has been dry and warmer than usual. But it is cloudy and cool this morning, as another weak band of moisture has dragged itself inland from the ocean, apologetic and lacking conviction. Our young tomato plants are happy, and have already tripled in size. When I looked at them yesterday evening, they were coated with pollen from the nearby pine trees, making them look like they had been dipped in sulfur. It’s no wonder so many people have been clawing at their eyes lately, ourselves included. Allergy season here in the Willamette Valley is no laughing matter. People suffer. Newcomers think it odd at first, but often after they’ve been here for a few years they find that they, too, are among the afflicted. At a certain point, the body decides it has had enough, and it works overtime trying to banish the offending particles of mold and pollen, leaving the immune system in an uproar. Even people who have never suffered from allergies end up with symptoms. But it passes. A nice rain helps. And luckily, most people aren’t allergic to everything, but to just a few, or even only one or two, things, so it’s a matter of outlasting the source. In the meantime, we look kindly upon one another’s red noses and bulging, bloodshot eyes and sniff our way through pleasantries, hoping we don’t look as bad ourselves.
May 6, 2004 — The two-dollar hard-bound volume of Michel de Montaigne’s essays I picked up at the Friends of the Salem Library book store recently has provided an interesting change of pace. Montaigne’s writing isn’t something one rushes through. The thoughts are deep, and the sentences are long, with phrases marked by many commas and semi-colons; the author was obviously taking his time; he wanted to be sure that what he was saying, being the fruit of many years of living and observation, was an accurate representation of what he meant. This might sound boring, but it isn’t, because not only does Montaigne make a lot of sense, it turns out he is a delightful skeptic with a sense of humor. It is also nice to know that he wrote his essays surrounded by books in the many-windowed room of a tower he called his “solitarium.” There simply aren’t many writers writing in towers these days. Most writers, myself included, write in bedrooms. We have books. We also have windows. But the window sills are covered with dust and dead flies and spiders, and the view outside tends to be of other bedroom windows. But Montaigne did have the advantage of living in the sixteenth century, when towers were more in vogue. He was born in 1533; he died in 1592. Despite this, his thoughts on the medical profession are surprisingly appropriate today. When it came to sickness, he strongly believed in letting nature take its course, rather than taking cures upon which no three doctors could agree. He said the surest way to lose one’s health was to place oneself in the care of a physician; then he listed many examples of people who were victims of the medical profession, and of doctors who blamed their failures on other doctors, or on the patients themselves. While reading, I couldn’t help but think of how willingly so many people take pills today without trying to find out the underlying cause for their distress, and how this leads them away from, rather than to, any lasting relief. Trained by technology and advertising to expect instant results, they are consumed by their short-term anguish, and will pay good money to escape. And there is always a doctor handy who is willing to prescribe the latest pill, instead of telling the patient it would be far better to examine his or her daily habits and lifestyle and see what changes can be made. The result: a society hooked on anti-depressants, pain relievers, and whatever else the evil drug companies can create a bogus demand for and sell. Montaigne said, ’Tis the fear of death and of pain, impatience of disease, and violent and indiscreet desire of a present cure, that so blind us; ’tis pure cowardice that makes our belief so pliable and easy to be imposed upon: and yet most men do not so much believe as they acquiesce and permit; for I hear them find fault and complain as well as we; but they resolve at last, “What should I do then?” As if impatience were of itself a better remedy than patience. Is there any one of those who have suffered themselves to be persuaded into this miserable subjection, who does not equally surrender himself to the mercy of whoever has the impudence to promise him a cure? He also pointed out that we do not easily accept the medicine we understand, no more than we do the drugs we ourselves gather, and said, if the nations whence we fetch our guaiacum, sarsaparilla, and China wood, have physicians, how great a value must we imagine, by the same recommendation of strangeness, rarity, and dear purchase, do they set upon our cabbage and parsley? for who would dare to contemn things so far fetched, and sought out at the hazard of so long and dangerous a voyage? These words were written over 400 years ago. They lead, I believe, in many interesting directions.
May 7, 2004 — It finally rained a little last night, not enough to water our recent plantings of flowers and vegetables, but enough to tide them over for a couple of days if it doesn’t rain anymore. It’s nice to see the ground dark and moist again. The change has put me in a reflective mood, which in turn has caused, or allowed, my mind to wander back to my growing up years in the San Joaquin Valley, where rain was scarce and the big drops seemed to fall several inches apart. During the long, hot summers we made our own rain by turning on the hose and spraying water over the dusty ground around the house and yard. It not only settled the dust, but was a comforting way to spend a few minutes, a way to feel cool and imagine the end of summer. The smell rising from the settled dust was always, and still remains, one of my very favorite smells. My father loved it too; it was something we mentioned to each other several times a year. We loved that smell, and the smell of grapes drying on the ground, on their way to becoming raisins. We loved them as one loves his home and family, because they were a part of both, and seemed to express the sorrow and joy of living. When a boy suddenly finds himself a man, and then a husband and a father, the best thing he can do is turn on the hose and settle the dust in his yard. For he needs to think, and to try to figure out the meaning of the children running through his dream, and the wife who is a willing accomplice in it all. He needs to understand his place, his moment, his truth, and the eager helplessness that sustains and guides him. Those were the days. These are the days — unfolding as one, unbroken yet impossible to put together again, for there is no way to assemble the many witnesses who carried off their part of the story with them, forever lost, forever gained, tragically misunderstood, sternly rebuked for the innocent conspiracy of their birth, joyously received into Wise Earth’s mothering embrace, mistakes forgiven, dreams silently recorded, and then, when it is least expected, reborn in drops of sweet spring rain.
May 8, 2004 — The feigned surprise and outrage of so-called top government officials like Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, along with various generals, congressmen, and news anchors, over the torture of Iraqi prisoners of war is as transparent as the war itself. But far more disgusting is their implication that the war is a lawful, honorable enterprise, and that war, if conducted according to certain accepted rules (which they have ignored and rewritten anyway), is a legitimate form of behavior. Hence, we have a term like “war crimes,” when in fact war is a crime itself. When after a long delay the news was finally allowed to break, the president said, with the best furrowed brow he could muster, that the behavior of the men and women accused of torturing prisoners does not represent the American people. But when I see Americans charging up and down the road in their flag-bedecked Hummers and SUVs, and observe their conduct in business, and their insatiable appetite for things they don’t need, and their willingness to waste food and energy at the world’s expense, and the way they physically and psychologically dominate their children at the expense of their natural talents and gifts, then the actions of the armed forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the world seem an apt reflection indeed. It is a shame more people don’t see this connection, and don’t realize, or refuse to realize, that the way we live our daily lives has a direct bearing on what goes on in the world. Without that understanding, war, and the horrible suffering it brings, is sure to continue.
May 9, 2004 — A couple of days ago, when I suggested making a batch of chili for Mother’s Day, I had meant it as a joke. But it turns out that everyone took me seriously. And so early this morning I washed two pounds of pinto beans and put them in a big pan to soak. This afternoon, while they are in the early stages of cooking, I will get the rest of the ingredients together: tomato, onion, bell pepper, jalapeño, garlic, ground beef, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, cayenne, and chili powder. These will be simmered together in a frying pan and added to the beans when they are roughly halfway done. It isn’t the most glamorous thing to serve on such an occasion; then again, how formal does one need to be? Unlike some families, we don’t wait for a commercial holiday to acknowledge the desperate shape we’d be in without our mothers. Likewise concerning Father’s Day, no one waits to acknowledge the mess we are in because of me, and how there is no argument when it comes to my hard-earned title, Designated Jackass. So beans it is. Now, as I sit here, I am wondering if there isn’t some sort of clever literary spin I can put on all this. The trouble is, beans are beans. It is hard to talk about them in a serious way. And yet where would we be without them? Writers have written about bread in poetic and powerful ways that have served as a call for justice or to revolution. But beans? In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo caused his hero, Jean Valjean, to be cast into prison for stealing a loaf of bread. To my knowledge, no character in literature was ever imprisoned because he stole a dish of beans. If beans are mentioned at all, it is likely within a Western context. I don’t remember specifically, but it isn’t hard to imagine Zane Grey assembling some rough-and-tumble horsemen around a lonely campfire in Riders on the Purple Sage, and having them eat beans out of dented pie pans. Although, it occurs to me that a realist like Émile Zola might have used beans as a way to illustrate the poverty and drudgery of the nineteenth century French working class. A dish of beans thrown in violent anger against a dingy, grease-stained wall would have helped get his point across. This area of literature should be thoroughly explored. Possibly, it has already. Nineteenth century Russian literature is full of cabbage soup and cockroaches. Perhaps twenty-first century American literature will come to be known for its many references to beans. If things continue in the current sad direction, beans might be the only food the average person in this country will be able to afford. Enough have reached that point already.
May 10, 2004 — After reading the fifth chapter of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which the bank-owned tractors first begin to push over their Dust Bowl tenants’ shacks while the tenants look on in paralyzed disbelief, I have to ask myself in all seriousness if I have yet written, or ever will write, a work that makes as powerful a statement and difference as this novel has. It is my arrogant and possibly misguided belief that Stephen Monroe, the main character in my novel,
A Listening Thing, represents and speaks for millions of people who are trying to find a measure of inner peace and a better, more honest way to live. But am I right? Or am I blinded by my desire for this to be true? I also wonder how Steinbeck and some of the other late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers whose work is considered great would respond to today’s world of corporate-controlled, safe-bet, celebrity-driven publishing. Would they be able to break in? Would they have websites like mine, into which they would pour their efforts and energy? It is certainly hard to imagine them attending workshops and conferences for writers and getting masters degrees in creative writing, and then going on to teach writing to herds of other aspiring writers. In my mind, this widely accepted and embraced facet of the current literary scene completely contradicts what should be a writer’s fiercely protected independence, his drive to express himself in his own way and to do justice to what he understands, and to make something of real value. Why pretend to teach others to write when one could and should be writing himself? If the answer is “Because it pays,” then perhaps it would be better to think of oneself not as a writer, but as one who trades on the hopes and aspirations of others while leading them down a blind path. At least it would be more accurate. On the other hand, if a person has the courage to admit something like that, maybe he is a writer after all.
May 11, 2004 — Our neighbor, dressed for work, came outside this morning and picked a small bunch of roses from the bushes that line the narrow sidewalk in front of his house. When he was done, he paused to study the plants, then held the roses briefly to his nose and went into his garage. A couple of minutes later, he backed his van into the driveway, closed the garage door by pressing a button in his van, and drove away. Now the house will remain empty for hours, the front blinds closed, the clocks ticking, the faucets dripping, the dust mites rummaging around in the upholstery, the pictures staring blankly from the wall, crucified and forlorn, the refrigerator humming periodically and blowing its warmth on the kitchen floor, sighing through great wads of lint while breakfast stains harden on the counters and the telephone goes unanswered in an unheard symphony of stagnation and stale air. All the while, outside, the surviving roses will whisper secrets and add their scent to the fresh spring air.
May 12, 2004 — Thanks to a lousy bug that has invaded our house, I have had a sore throat going on three days now. It feels as if I’ve been up all night drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I know, because this is something I’ve actually done a few times, though the last was about twenty years ago. It happened in Fresno, which is such a polluted place that a little smoking isn’t likely to make much difference to one’s already withered and coated lungs — not a very sensitive thing to say, but almost true nonetheless. The real truth is far worse: little kids growing up in filthy brown air with compromised lungs and respiratory systems. A friend of mine, who had spent several years in the Armenian seminary of St. James in Jerusalem and who didn’t go on to become a priest, and I used to get together every so often to compare notes on our personal philosophies and experiences, and also to discuss the state of the world. At the time, he sold carpet in a store on Blackstone Avenue. Our meetings usually began there, then moved on after the store closed later in the evening. One afternoon, I arrived with a big watermelon, which he cut open on top of his desk, juice spilling everywhere. On another occasion, we feasted on several fresh Armenian cucumbers I had found at a corner fruit stand in the country between Dinuba and Fresno. These weren’t quite as messy, but we did manage to sprinkle salt over his catalogues and contracts. On still another occasion, we were sitting in the store talking when an earthquake jolted the building, rolling us around wide-eyed in our chairs. The temblor, as I believe they’re called, was centered near the small town of Coalinga, which is southwest of Fresno quite a few miles and underwent a lot of damage. On each visit, we would eventually wind up in the smoking section of a coffee shop, eating pie, drinking coffee, and sharing a pack of filterless Camels until two in the morning. Then I would drive home in a highly agitated state, go to bed, and stare at the ceiling until dawn while my loving bride slumbered peacefully. Those were great times. It has been years since I have seen this particular friend — sixteen, or thereabout. Sadly, we have fallen out of touch. I have heard through the grapevine that he is married now, and a father. But I’m pretty sure we’ll meet again — someday. And when we do, there will be a lot to remember, a lot to catch up on, and a lot of unsaid things to wonder about — probably enough to last another sixteen years, should either of us make it that far.
May 13, 2004 — The wise and wondrous politicians are in an uproar over the increasing number of photos showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the Americans. Who do we blame? they want to know. Whose fault is it? And how are we going to placate the people and still get ourselves reelected? How ironic, since these are the same “leaders” who gave the green light to the occupation in the first place. What principles. What courage. What a joke. Meanwhile, the right-wing lunatics on talk radio fan the flames, spewing their ugly, ignorant hatred over the air waves. It’s the liberals’ fault! Squawk! We’ve got a job to do in Iraq! Squawk! We can’t cut and run! Squawk! We need to bring democracy to the Middle East! Squawk! Jeez. No doubt their sons and daughters are all in uniform and fighting on the front lines. And what do these people have to gain by spouting their garbage? Only two things: their bloated egos are fed, and they benefit by Bush’s tax laws. Imagine making it your life’s work to help people like Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney take over other countries and steal their oil. Now that’s a real calling. Imagine telling your grandchildren that you promoted an ongoing blood bath in the name of Greed and Profit. Imagine them looking deep into your eyes and saying, But I thought killing was bad, Grandpa. I thought if you killed someone, you had to go to jail. What would you say? Would you say it was your duty as an American and give them a dollar and distract them with ice cream? Or would you admit the truth that shines brightly in their eyes?
May 14, 2004 — In our neighborhood, a gallon of regular gas now costs two dollars and twenty-two cents; premium is twenty cents more. In some parts of town, the price is four or five cents higher. The price of fuel is also being passed on in everything else one buys. This is especially apparent at the grocery store, where costs have been rising steadily. For example, basic so-called lunch meat, which in reality is garbage, goes for four dollars or four and a half dollars a pound unless it’s on sale, when it is still overpriced at three dollars. Bacon is three, four, or five dollars a pound. A forty-eight-ounce plastic jug of cooking oil is routinely three or three and a half dollars. A big jar of sugared-up name brand peanut butter goes for seven-plus dollars. A jar of pickles is almost four dollars. Bread is obscene. And the list goes on. Even a diet restricted to the leanest and meanest of staples results in cash register shock. Meanwhile, according to an article in the business section of today’s paper, the number of those admitted into Oregon hospitals without health insurance increased by thirty-nine percent during the past year alone. The number of people who wind up in hospitals because they can’t afford their prescriptions has also surged. To make up for it, the price of medical care and insurance will go even higher, meaning, the people who can afford it now might not be able to afford it a year from now. And of course Oregon is not alone. One way to deal with this would be to become a politician and live off the people’s sweat, while selling one’s vote to the highest corporate bidder. But what am I thinking? It takes big money to become a politician. People who can’t afford to pay for insurance, leave alone food, wouldn’t get too far in a run for office. It would be more like a limp, then a stumble, followed by a splat.
May 15, 2004 — O Blank Page, have mercy upon me, your poor servant; forgive my fits of triumph and arrogance; they are but passing things born of ignorance, while Your wisdom is infinite and eternal. For well I know that yesterday’s words are at the heart of today’s suffering; yea, and just as surely do they form the knot on tomorrow’s noose. There is a scourge upon the land, O Blank Page, and it speaks in righteous, seductive tongues; lo, even the serpent hides himself in shame. The idol of Commerce is worshipped at every board and altar; misery, death, and hunger are exchanged freely for pieces of silver; fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and in-laws scurry like rats beneath the angry bristled broom of Commerce. Lo, and they know not when they have been gored and squashed; crippled and bleeding they lie, begging to be treated yet more cruelly, as if their suffering were a great privilege. Yea, and their faces are like defiled temple ruins, and are hardened masks against the bright light of Truth. O Blank Page, the world is full of sorrow and wonder. Might I not inscribe at least one or two words upon Your shimmering countenance and hope that they have meaning, and that a small kernel of joy might be found within?
May 16, 2004 — The illness that began a week ago as a sore throat is still lingering. The sore throat itself is gone, but there have been many ups and downs marked by aches and pains and sinus pressure and even, as recently as yesterday evening, a fever. This morning, I feel tired and weak. That’s another lousy thing about this bug — it saps the energy. And yet I did manage to mow the lawn yesterday afternoon. I thought about letting it go, but as I had already let it go, I decided it was better to tackle the job while it was still possible by ordinary means. Then again, it has been years since I’ve used a scythe — which reminds me of an old Russian I met once years ago when I was working at a place called Yosemite Nursery in Fresno. He was in with his children, and while I was helping them get a few plants together, he reminisced about working in vast grain fields in Russia when he was a kid. He was proud of how hard he had worked — proud in the same Old Country way as my grandparents, from whom I’d heard many similar stories. Yosemite Nursery was owned by an elderly Japanese couple who lived in a house on the nursery grounds. The nursery occupied five acres of prime real estate on Blackstone Avenue, not far from the little post office branch where, if I’m not mistaken, William Saroyan picked up his mail. Now I wonder where I get this notion; I never saw him at the post office — or did I? And yet, I must have known it at one time. Saroyan owned two small tract homes west of there. The houses were side by side and overgrown with weeds. There were fruit trees in various decaying conditions all around and an olive tree. I’m not sure what became of the houses after he died; I seem to recall they became part of some sort of foundation bearing the author’s name. But I do know this: if they cleared out the weeds and cleaned up the two yards and put up a sign, it would have been contrary to his wishes. When he was still alive, there was talk of naming a school after him, but he opposed that sort of thing. Then, after he died, Fresno named a large downtown auditorium after him: the William Saroyan Theater. There was a program in his honor there, and in the lobby they had his old bicycle and typewriter, which was interesting to see, if a bit out of context. At Yosemite Nursery, I was paid two dollars and fifty cents an hour. Is this important?
May 17, 2004 — I need to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles by Thursday, or else risk the chance of driving without a current license. I received a notice over a month ago that said they want to take my picture. That and payment of their fee will keep me in their good graces for another eight years, unless I start breaking traffic laws left and right or commit a rash of crimes — or at least the wrong kind of crimes. For instance, it is possible to crush whole villages with a tank without losing your driver’s license, and to send young people to their deaths and take over other countries. In fact, it is possible to do those sorts of things and to not receive any punishment at all. Still, I don’t mind complying when it comes to my license. Let them take my picture if they want. Let them see what’s happened to me during the past eight years. It will give them a good laugh. I just wish it didn’t take so long. Every time I’ve been to the local DMV, I’ve spent at least an hour surrounded by coughing people while their children race around and play hide-and-seek behind the plastic chairs. Actually, it’s pretty darned entertaining. You see all sorts of people and hear them speaking Spanish, Russian, and English in various interesting combinations, and you get to observe what’s left of their customs before life in this country has turned the kids into advertising parrots, imitation rappers, and sitcom wannabes. This is a slight exaggeration, of course. Some families are resilient enough to withstand the forces of assimilation for a generation or two, though change is inevitable in any case. Wherever they go, humans imitate each other, and the behavior of the majority always wins — but not, thankfully, without absorbing at least some of the behavior of the various minorities. And so you have all sorts of people who think they are in the majority, who now behave in ways in which they did not formerly behave, even though the behavior was learned from minorities they once claimed or still claim to despise. This, too, is entertaining, not to mention disgusting. When thousands upon thousands of people poured into California from Oklahoma in the 1930s, they were treated like animals, even though they were just as “American” as the “Americans” who were already living there — who were there, coincidentally, because someone else had stolen the land from someone else long before. And the same thing happened to every new group of people that arrived. They’re animals. They don’t think like us. Why would they live that way? Well, my dear righteous and superior fellow, they live that way because they don’t have much choice at the moment, and because they have their time-honored customs which you refuse to acknowledge or understand. And while we’re at it, just what have you done lately that gives you the right to think you’re so much better? I was here first. Ah, yes. Yes, you were. Congratulations. That’s quite a distinction. I’m sure it will be meaningful once they’ve hauled you to the cemetery.
May 18, 2004 — What a night. For what seemed like hours, I walked the strange streets of a grim city in my own personal Twilight Zone — in my dream I thought the scene was being filmed — confronted time and again by faces haunted by anguish and torment, into which I peered intently, searching for clues. In some the sorrow and pain were so great that I thought their owners had been crucified, but that their crucifixions had somehow failed, and that this had condemned them to reliving what should have been their final moments on earth. I was angered by this, but the person responsible for the cruel film was nowhere about — though I was aware of a mocking, antagonizing presence. I woke up once. It was warm and stuffy in the room, and my neck was twisted in an awkward position. In the evening yesterday there was a thunderstorm and a good, strong rain; now the house was enveloped in humidity and silence. I straightened my neck and tried to relax, then fell back asleep. The dream resumed. There were more faces. I endured it awhile longer, then woke up again, to find my neck twisted as before. This time I kept my eyes open. I didn’t bother trying for more sleep. I was already worn out enough by the sleep I had had. Now, five hours later, I still haven’t shaken the dream. It makes me wonder if I am really awake, and if I am really here at all.
May 19, 2004 — Every now and then I get the urge to do something really worthwhile, but I always end up writing instead. It’s much easier, despite the fact that writing is the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Meanwhile, I tell myself there is still a small chance that what I write might end up having value, if not immediately after it is done, then later on, when I am dead — something I’d rather not put to the test. Most every day, I read about one dead writer or another whose work was spurned or ignored during his lifetime, and is now published in beautiful editions. I read about their bravery and poverty, and the difficulties they had with evil governments, small-minded censors, and crooked publishers. Most, it seems, were ahead of their times — which is another way of saying that people in general refused or were afraid to open their minds and think. Now, in the Glorious Present, it is obvious that nothing has really changed. We have technology, but we are just as stupid as when we used clubs and stones to stake our claims. We are especially stupid because we think we are smart — whereas only a person of intelligence is able to recognize his own stupidity. Writers, though, fall into an even smaller and stranger category, because not only do we recognize our own stupidity, we flaunt it in print. No wonder we get no sympathy and are expected to keep to ourselves.
May 20, 2004 — On the surface of things, my forty-eighth year turned out to be quite a bit like my forty-seventh year, which was close to a mirror image of my forty-sixth. But underneath, life has been a steaming cauldron of revelation, inspiration, victory, disappointment, and setback. In other words, my forty-eighth year was a lot like my forty-seventh, and so on. What can I say? Today is my birthday. I have a new driver’s license, and my picture makes me look like a mangy thug. Yesterday, members of the U.S. armed forces bombed a wedding party and killed at least forty people. There is nothing like a few murdered children to test the old public relations skills. But I mustn’t dwell on that. Today is my birthday. I woke up this morning, and there I was, thrilled to be alive. And now here I am, thrilled to be alive. And I do have some fun things lined up for the day. Today I am going to visit the Friends book store at the library and treat myself to one of their delightfully inexpensive used books. I am looking forward to this, especially since Oregon held its primary election this week, which means there won’t be any obnoxious people sitting at tables by the library entrance trying to get patrons to sign their petitions. At the risk of revealing what a small-minded and selfish person I am (something I have never done), I must say that I despise those people. I have yet to meet a signature gatherer I have liked — not that I’ve given them much of a chance. But that goes both ways. I don’t like it when someone I’ve never met tries to tell me what to think in fifteen seconds. Crimony, let’s at least have a few beers first, or a few cups of coffee. How about a walk in the park? How do you feel about oak trees and squirrels, my friend, and the music of the birds overhead? Bah, anyway. Another thing I am thinking seriously of doing is stopping off at Goodwill. A shirt I bought there many months ago for four dollars and that I have worn dozens of times with great enjoyment since has finally disintegrated, so a replacement is in order. Or maybe I am the one who has disintegrated, and the one who should be replaced. I’d ask my darling bride, but why take any chances? Besides, I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize having a birthday cake.
May 21, 2004 — There was only one person accosting patrons at the library entrance yesterday morning. She sat behind a little table, to the front of which was taped a sign that had three or four words on it, one of them being “malpractice.” She was involved with a victim as I approached, so I was able to slip inside without any sort of confrontation. I bought three books at the Friends store: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne, a beautiful hardbound edition published in 1935 and in perfect condition; Sixes and Sevens, a collection of short stories by O. Henry, published in 1925; and Remembrance Rock, by Carl Sandburg, published in 1948. Total investment: eight dollars. As I was leaving the library, another visitor was headed toward the entrance. Paralyzed by a sense of decency and insecurity, she seemed drawn to the malpractice table by strange, magnetic forces. For a moment I thought she had broken her neck, or pulled a muscle in her shoulder, so crippled she was by the situation. I briefly considered leaping to her defense and thrashing the malpractice woman, but something told me the former would have screamed and called the police and the latter would have enjoyed it. And so once again I made my escape, passing into the city like a dumb shadow, a shaggy stranger clutching his Tristram Shandy as if it were salvation, which it very well might be.
May 22, 2004 — If making war is not a choice, if it is, rather, a natural, integral part of our makeup and wiring, then why do those members of the human race so intent on propagating it feel the need to make excuses for their actions? Their enemies hate them no matter what they say; indeed, they hate them more because of what they say. So why not simply have at it? Or are we changing? Is our ability to reason slowly winning out over our bloody heritage? And if so, doesn’t this lend further support to what I have said many times, that war will continue as long as we are waging it within ourselves? It is highly unlikely that we will see an end to war in our lifetime, newborn children included. Too many terrible things have been set in motion, and they will have to play out first. There are too many sick and hungry people in the world; too many of us are being used by the more powerful among us as a means to increase and maintain that power. The earth is strung with visible and invisible fences. Every day that passes is a lost opportunity. And yet somewhere, even at this very moment, I am sure someone is finding the courage to understand this ugly part of ourselves, and making the decision to help bring it to an end. They see the ugliness and ignorance that manifests itself in the faces and actions of people like Bush and Rumsfeld, who are so consumed by greed and an arrogant sense of invincibility derived from money and power that they are only able to hide their true motives from people infected by the same disease. At the same time, Bush and Rumsfeld are truly a dime a dozen, and are being used by people even more powerful; both will be discarded when they no longer serve their purpose, and quickly and easily replaced with clones. They are mediocre puppets, satisfied with puny material rewards. They are the dregs of humanity, with humanity’s blood on their hands. But I hope I am wrong about war not ending in our lifetime. Maybe we are closer than I think; or maybe enough of us will recognize what needs to be done, and the balance will suddenly shift, making politicians and their lies obsolete. The amazing thing is — the beautiful and tragic thing — that we are so much closer than most of us realize. I wonder, though: is real peace and cooperation too frightening a prospect?
May 23, 2004 — I’ve read around fifty pages of Tristram Shandy. Laurence Sterne’s circuitous sentences and humorous digressions are not something to be rushed through. The author says as much himself, taking time out to encourage the reader to play along, addressing him as “your worship,” and her as “madam.” Sterne, who lived in the eighteenth century, promises rewards that never seem to come; and yet, for some odd reason, the book is enjoyable, quite possibly because it takes such delight in its own aimless existence. That, I suspect, is the reward Sterne really has in mind. I myself have considered writing such a book for some time — a book that quite literally goes nowhere, but which isn’t boring because it is already there, in the sense that there is everywhere and therefore here. I realize that to a large extent, this journal meets the foregoing description, except, perhaps, for the part about not being boring. And yet, if you are reading today’s entry, it’s possible that I could be mistaken in that area — which only means that I could mistaken in other areas as well. That all of which I now believe might have been built upon a foundation of wretched misunderstanding is a possibility that has not escaped me. And while I have taken it upon myself many times to go back to the beginning and try to find out where I went wrong, I have failed so consistently that it now seems wise to turn my gaze forward — which in my case, it could fairly be argued, might be considered an act of the utmost bravery. I don’t mean for this to sound noble in any way; each of us must do whatever it is we feel we must do; that we do it is brave; that we pretend we are doing it because we want to, rather than because we don’t know what else to do, is where the humor lies. In other words, the joke is on us and always has been, but it is the proud telling of it that makes all the difference.
May 24, 2004 — It isn’t easy. It’s crazy — especially in its relentless sanity, which I find amusing: for it is so: but just that and no more, save the puzzle of its existence, which does not matter, or perhaps no longer matters the way we long thought it mattered — but which is, or has become, a matter of convenience. But I digress. I go nowhere. I begin where I started: by saying it isn’t easy, and that it is crazy: not that I am complaining; but I am trying to express myself despite my limitations: the carpenter without a hammer or saw, the bricklayer without a trowel, the captain of a ship on dry land: to wit: why should a man be expected to carry the weight of centuries upon his back? and who made that decision for him: I told you so: but you didn’t, whomever you are, and why don’t you come out of hiding? But let us say that the decision was not made for him: let us say that he made it himself: what then? Does it change anything? I certainly refuse to wait for clarification from the pope, who is too busy with politics to notice the pickle I am in: or for a modern-day Moses to come down from the mount with a recycled tablet: here we go, children, if you don’t believe me, ask Him. No, I refuse to wait. I have waited long enough: the time has come to act: but, as I said in the beginning, it isn’t easy: as it is diligently and faithfully misunderstood by the collective mind — for lack of a better term — taking action is an admission of mental instability: it is a compliment, in other words: you, my friend, are crazy: while I, my friend, am not: see me not being crazy? — see how easy it is to win approval? but you, I fear for you, courting precipices — for I have heard, though I have not been there myself and have no desire to go, that the fall lasts for days, and in some cases even entire lifetimes, and ends upon a tiny sponge in a bath tub: if you land on the sponge, then all is well: but if you miss and your head hits the faucet or tub, which is what happens ninety-nine times out of a hundred — splat. So why would you want to take that chance? Why would you want to provoke your insurance agent, who has worked so hard lo these many years on your behalf, that you may go forth knowing you are covered? Their faces are on billboards: see us? we are smiling: we are your friends: but don’t cross us, lest we withdraw your coverage: at the very least, your rates will go up: fool! the statisticians are on our side: their columns of numbers are your prison bars. But thank you for calling, and have a nice day. Oh, woe is me: woe, woe, and more woe: so close have I come to making sense, that one day I fear I will be understood altogether. And when that day comes, it will be time for me to move on.
May 25, 2004 — Yesterday afternoon I drove a carless friend to the little town of Dallas, which is a dozen or so miles west of Salem. Dallas is also the seat of Polk County. The part of Salem that is on the west side of the Willamette River, which, incidentally, flows north instead of south, is in Polk County. The part on the east side is in Marion County. The seat of Marion County is Salem. Our destination was the Polk County courthouse, located in the heart of “historic downtown Dallas.” Across the street from the courthouse there is a tanning parlor, a jewelry store, an antique store, a title company, and one or two other places that might or might not have been open for business. Adjacent to the courthouse on one side is a small movie theater, where something called Mean Girls is showing. Adjacent on the other side is the office of the local weekly newspaper, the Itemizer-Observer, and next to that is a bar. Around the corner is the Dallas Public Library. I went into the library for a few minutes while my friend was in the courthouse. Their collection is small, but as the library is part of the Salem system, it is possible to request anything the system offers. Behind the courthouse is the Polk County jail. For quite awhile, I sat on a wooden bench in the shade in front of the courthouse, near the main entrance a few feet away from a set of mill stones that were given to the Indians as part of a treaty that granted them the privilege of living on a reservation. The stones now belong to the Polk County Historical Society. It was windy, but the air was fresh and pleasant. As I sat there, I watched people enter and leave the courthouse. At one point, a young woman emerged in tears; she came down the steps accompanied by two high school-aged girls followed by a very large deputy, who remained at the top of the steps. The women walked across the courthouse lawn, got into their car, and drove away. A couple of minutes later, a young man with a cell phone came outside and announced into the phone that he had won custody, and would therefore need a couple of beds. Time passed. My friend came out; there were delays, he said, and so it was necessary to wait a little longer. Twenty minutes later he came out again; there were more delays; somebody who was supposed to be there wasn’t, though he was thought to be in the building. I waited some more. He came out again, shrugged, and said the whole thing was getting ridiculous. Finally, I had to leave him there and drive back to Salem due to prior arrangements; then I returned and found him sitting on the same bench, relieved and finally able to go. What should have taken fifteen minutes had eaten up two and a half hours, thus ensuring the job security of those employed at the courthouse. Later in the evening, my friend called to thank me again for the ride. I told him that I was happy to help, but that something was bothering me, and that was the absence of old men on the benches at the courthouse. What is this world coming to, I said, when old men stay at home and watch TV instead of sitting in the park? There are no tables, either. Maybe that’s the problem. If there were tables, it would be easier to play cards or dominoes. I only hope there is another park somewhere in Dallas where old men are welcome and treated like human beings. Or have old men here grown tired of sitting in parks? In Armenia, for instance, there are always old men sitting around, talking and playing backgammon. No church or monument is without its old men, sitting and passing the time of day. What’s going on here? Are old men reminiscing by e-mail? Have they taken themselves out of the game, or is society keeping them out of it?
May 26, 2004 — It’s possible, I suppose, that old men are busy being vital go-getters in keeping with the good wishes of the AARP (Arrogant Armenian Raisin Packers). Personally speaking, I’d much rather sit in a park and play cards than take trendy drugs, burn gas, work on my tan, and talk about my portfolio. Have I mentioned that I despise Modern Maturity? Advocates my eye. Instead of telling the elderly to eat a handful of raisins every day for their health, they pack their magazine full of corrupt advertising. Oh, it’s perfectly legal, but it’s corrupt all the same. Be this, be that, look like this, feel like this — express yourself, for God’s sake — it will only cost you several hundred dollars a month and you, too, will be a movie star. Why would you want to sit in a park and enjoy the fresh air and make conversation when you could be fantastic, darling? Oh, and by the way, we have all of these wonderful insurance opportunities for you — not that we have anything to gain by it, or are in business for ourselves, mind you. We just want you to be mature the modern way — wild-eyed and panic-stricken all the days of your life, a frantic stranger to yourself and to the universe.
May 27, 2004 — In the heart of downtown Salem — in the left ventricle, to be exact — a massive structure is rising that will consume a great deal of skyline and every inch of an entire block. This will be the city’s new convention center. Once completed, all that will be needed is some fancy advertising and a commercial airport — unless convention-goers are expected to arrive by crop duster or helicopter. No doubt the city of Portland, forty-five minutes up the road, is fretting mightily over this. It won’t be long until the floods of business people who land daily at Portland International Airport will be hopping into buses and limos and heading for Salem. They won’t want to miss the view of the abandoned International House of Pancakes restaurant across the street on one side of the new convention center, or the fire station on the other, or the Boise Cascade building and parking lot on the other, or Magoo’s tavern and satellite dish, or the small government-run liquor store next door, or the stained Liberty Street parking structure around the corner. It’s exciting. Thanks to the city fathers and mothers, who knew better than to put the convention center to a vote, Salem is poised to reap a twenty-first century harvest of gold. Tear down them hitchin’ posts, Ned, we have finally arrived. From here on in, them hayseeds is gonna have to park their horses ’round back. Oh, yeah? Where you headin’? Me? I’m goin’ to the ’vestment semeenar. Gonna learn how ta make real money. Wheeeeee doggies!
May 28, 2004 — I hear a train coming. The crows are riled up this morning, and are yelling at each other from the treetops. It rained a little earlier, but not enough to make the ground wet under the trees. The street is quiet. I just heard a sparrow. The clock is ticking by the bed. It’s breezy outside. The sky keeps changing: white clouds, gray clouds, sunlit clouds, patches of dark-blue. The cat is asleep in his box in the garage. I don’t have to look to know. I just looked anyway. He is in his box, but not asleep, because I woke him up when I opened the door. By now, though, he is probably asleep again. He is not particularly interested in what I do, unless he is hungry. For instance, he has seen me sitting here before, and was not impressed. To him, what I do while sitting here has no connection to food. For the most part he is right, except that sitting here never fails to make me hungry, because sitting here is work. If it wasn’t work, I would be sitting somewhere else that is more comfortable. But while one is working, it’s best if he isn’t too comfortable, otherwise he might soon find that he is no longer working, but just sitting — not that this is a crime, but — well, never mind. It doesn’t need explaining. Very few things do, really, or at least they shouldn’t. One of these days, I will explain why.
May 29, 2004 — Perhaps it is foolish of me to be sitting here at 7:22 on a Saturday morning when I could still be in bed, but, to state it quite simply, I feel that I must. It is also what I want to be doing, which makes the situation ideal. If a person wants to do what he must do, it stands to reason that he will enjoy doing what he’s doing. But it’s also possible to convince oneself that he wants to do what he must do; indeed, at times there is no other way to survive, physically or mentally. There is the real risk, however, that the person who lives his life thus will find himself gradually undermined by his own efforts, poisoned, as it were, by the ongoing denial of what he really wants to do and must do, assuming, of course, he knows what that is. To a great extent, this is what my novel,
A Listening Thing, is about. The narrator, Stephen Monroe, knows he is undermined, and is finally beginning to realize that he is the true source of the problem. The world is the corrupt, rude, rotten, strangely wonderful thing that it is; how he has reacted to it over the years is what has gotten him into trouble. By acknowledging this, he opens the door to self-understanding. It is a small opening, but an opening nonetheless. With the gracious help of Mary, an intelligent woman who is also his ex-wife, he gains the courage to push the door open a little further. It is tempting to go on, but I won’t, in case you haven’t read the book, which I recognize is a distinct possibility. Now, this brings to mind something that bothers me a lot, and that is the current state of the publishing business. I have mentioned before how the publishing houses of old exist today in name only, and how they are treated as brands in the same fashion as toothpaste or dish soap by their monstrous, faceless corporate owners. Books are merchandise — a concept I understand and am willing to live with to a certain practical extent. But by definition, corporate economics demand maximum profit in the shortest possible time. In the case of publishing, this means printing that which is deemed most likely to sell according to a strict schedule directly tied to quarterly accounting reports — hence the big-name gossip that crowds book displays, and the rest of the petty garbage that is available. The illiterate accountants who run these organizations care nothing about literature; they don’t know what it is; what they are after is predictability; without it, they stand to lose their jobs. On the other side of the equation, the media apparatus used to publicize these unbearable Kennedy and Princess Di books is often owned by the same corporations that are shoving the tripe down our throats. And so when one opens the book section of a newspaper, or one of the major book reviews, he is faced with what amounts to advertisements for the foregoing garbage. The same can be said for music. Take “American Idol,” for instance, in which the contestants on the TV show, who despite their courage all look and sound alike, and are simultaneously laughed at, used, and ultimately discarded by the advertisers and the accountants who run the music business. While this is going on, while little girls and boys are “voting” for their favorite “idol,” there are countless musicians of genuine ability who are busy making music across the country, and who are playing it either for free or for a pittance in bars and clubs, selling self-published and unpublicized CDs whenever and wherever they can. A similar fate is shared by writers, who, barred from the mainstream, must beg to give their work away. And because nothing is said about these writers, or musicians, or artists, in the media, they don’t even exist in the public’s mind. At best, they exist as a kind of shadow, or, if you will, even a form of conscience. Occasionally, the accountants let down their guard and someone slips through. But this slippage, which is more or less an accident, is not enough to remedy the situation. What becomes of the rest of the writers, artists, and musicians and the work they create, as well as the work they are unable to create, because they are too busy starving? And what becomes of society? Will it cease even to recognize art when it sees it? Will it be content to live without literature and music that was created out of a genuine desire to understand, and to live instead on an advertising formula? Those who create art can’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to do everything. When it comes to making the world a better place, everyone is responsible.
May 30, 2004 — One of my tomato plants is a freak. It is just as green and healthy as all the others, but the leaves are distorted and grotesque. I’ve seen this kind of plant before. It will produce far fewer tomatoes than it should, and the fruit will look like the back of Frankenstein’s head — meaning, of course, Frankenstein’s monster and not Frankenstein himself. Or was it Frank N. Stein? No matter. As soon as possible, I must find a new small plant at the nursery/grocery store/department store, and then yank the freakenstein plant and replace it. The new plant will be later than the others, but it least it won’t antagonize them. As it is, the other plants are already growing away from the freak. I have seen this before as well. The freak draws nourishment from this negative form of attention and grows even stronger. I must act soon or lose my entire crop. I must fight back before my beautiful garden is suffocated by exaggeration, even if it costs seventy-five cents to do it. For that is what I paid for each of the eighteen plants I planted. The plants were in two-inch containers. It’s getting harder each year to find them in little six-packs. And gone completely are the days when they came in flats. One of my favorite spring rituals as a kid was going with my father to Dinuba Feed and Seed, across from Smith Auto Parts, to buy tomato and pepper plants, and watching Ray Rose cut however many Dad wanted out of the wooden flats with his pointed trowel. I loved the scene, the situation, the smell — everything. In a strange way, I even loved Ray Rose, though I knew nothing about him and rarely saw him anywhere else. Dinuba Feed and Seed was full of sacks of fertilizer and chemicals, and lined with shovels and various other implements and items of use in a small farming community. It was simple. It was a real place. You went there because you needed something you knew they had, and you didn’t have to wade through forty million unrelated items to get it. And after you left, you knew you had been somewhere. This afforded you a brief moment of satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment. Then, if you were really lucky, you had to go to another place that sold another specific kind of merchandise, like staples and vineyard wire, or shoes, or cigars. Now you go to one place where you are ignored by uniformed customer service elves who are puzzled when, out of desperation, you finally tackle them and ask them a question — that is, after you have held a small mirror under their nose to see if they are really alive. Mirrors? You’ll find those on the top shelf on Aisle 24B. Just climb the ladder, then grab the rope and pull yourself the rest of the way up. Soap, paper, sweat shirts, candy, CDs, cameras, auto lubricants, bobble-head dolls, bicycles, meat, unassembled furniture, doughnuts — that’s all in Aisle 999A, right next to the tire shop and popcorn machine. But you’ll need the store shuttle to get there. Say, here comes one now. Oh, too bad, that one’s full. But don’t worry, the next will be along in fifteen minutes.
May 31, 2004 — I surprised myself yesterday by writing a poem, “Reading Tristram Shandy.” When it happened, I had been sitting here minding my own business, looking over some old poems, and sipping a cup of Armenian coffee. This was later in the morning after I’d had two cups of regular coffee, which, for some odd reason, didn’t have the usual desired effect. The Armenian coffee was excellent; it was made from an extra-potent blend — #3 as opposed to #5, which I usually drink — brought by my brother and his wife from Armenia when they visited this past winter. Finding nothing of any particular interest — I have looked at these poems dozens of times — I put them away and typed in three or four lines without thinking, and knew instantly that I had a poem on my hands. The next dozen or so lines followed effortlessly, and then the telephone rang. It was the friend I drove to the Polk County courthouse several days ago. We talked about sports for an hour, spending most of the time on baseball, which we agreed has changed far less than basketball, which has become almost impossible to watch because players are allowed to travel with the ball, palm the ball, steal tips, step in the key too soon during free throws, and draw offensive fouls by flopping over shamelessly on their backs. As soon as we’d finished our conversation, I returned to the poem and picked up where I left off. In another twenty minutes or so, I was done. There were sixty-five lines in all. Just then, my loving bride and our oldest son came in, so I read them the poem. Vahan laughed — an appropriate response. His mother smiled and said the poem was amazing, or something along those lines, which I knew meant, “So, it’s come to this.” — even though it came to this years and years ago, and was apparent from the very beginning of our blissful journey together. Later in the afternoon, I added the poem to my website with a short introduction, thereby proving once again how dangerous technology can be when it falls into the wrong hands. Then again, “Reading Tristram Shandy” won’t kill anybody. I can’t help feeling a little proud of that.
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Also by William Michaelian
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
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A Listening Thing
Among the Living
No Time to Cut My Hair
One Hand Clapping
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