One Hand Clapping – October 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
October 1, 2004 — We watched the first of three presidential “debates” last night, and never laughed harder. Then we cried. The democratic hopeful ran circles around the president-select, while the latter, who looked like Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman minus the intellectual capacity, desperately repeated phrases from his campaign commercials. He had no facts at his command, he made no historical references, he contradicted himself, and, in some cases, he said things that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. The important thing to bear in mind is that both men knew the questions they would be asked in advance. Our sons looked on, amazed and appalled. When John Kerry was speaking and the camera would rest momentarily on his opponent, Bush’s expression seemed that of one bothered by an uncomfortable crease in his shorts. Then, after the debate, the real lying began. With our own ears, we actually heard David Brooks of the New York Times say both men held their own, and that there was clearly no winner, and that nothing that was said would be enough to make a voter change his mind. Then, in this morning’s paper, in an AP article about the debate, a so-called journalist said that Bush “jabbed sarcastically” at his opponent, making him sound as if he had been in command of the situation. This is the news — supposedly educated men and women being paid to write a sanitized version of events, and high-profile editors and columnists who have sold out to the highest bidder, spinning their web of lies. And make no mistake. I am not a democrat, and I am not for John Kerry. I am a human being, and I am for the rest of humanity. Humanity doesn’t win by electing liars, or by choosing the lesser of two evils. Humanity wins when people take responsibility for their own actions. A person who cannot be bothered to hold the door open for someone in public, or to greet people in a pleasant way, or to treat them fairly and honestly in business, and who then turns around and votes based on the garbage that’s passed off as news, is not on the side of humanity. He is on his own side, which is the most limited, destructive side of all. People are dying. They are starving. Yesterday, thirty-five children were killed in Iraq. The casualties continue to mount. People have to do more than vote for the shiniest belt buckle, or the best hairstyle, or whomever they think would make the best drinking or hunting buddy. People have to vote with their own actions, rather than depending on the destructive, self-serving actions of others.
October 2, 2004 — When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, we were still living on the farm in Dinuba, over 800 miles away. When it spewed steam and ash yesterday, we were close enough here in Salem to watch the sky turn brown to our north and east, and to inhale a smell that was distinctly different from that generated by a forest fire or a burning grass seed field. A tiny bit of ash, apparently, found its way to Portland, fifty-five miles south of the volcano. Experts now think another eruption is likely, and that it will be stronger, though not nearly as strong as the one that removed the top of the mountain in 1980 and killed fifty-seven people, including a man named Harry Truman, who chose not to flee to safety. For the last couple of days, the wind has been out of the northeast, which puts us downwind. During the greater part of September, the wind was off the ocean. We’ll see if it turns around in time — or if, indeed, the volcano erupts before our attention is diverted elsewhere — to the World Series, say, or the “presidential election.” Better yet, we’ll see if Homeland Security blames the eruption on terrorists. Red alert, Mr. Sulu — shields up! Scotty, we need that power, now! I’m givin’ it all I got, Captain — any more, and she’ll blow! Never mind that, Scotty. I’ll take full responsibility — I mean, we’ll blame it on Bin Laden. And so ends another episode of Bush Trek. . . . Iraq. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Imperialprise. Its ongoing mission, to seek out and destroy new life. To boldly steal what no man has stolen before. Ah-aaaaaah-ah-aaaah. . . . Oh. Please forgive me. But, you know, I live a strange life, and often can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality. Anymore, what should be fiction is real, and what should be real is fiction, if not pure fantasy. And so it’s understandable that I would go off the deep end occasionally, and then stay there. But if I stay there, how can I go off the deep end occasionally? In all modesty, that is where my talent lies.
October 3, 2004 — Adjacent to the bank parking lot is a small open field full of flowering weeds visited by birds. In business terms, this plot of land is considered “prime real estate.” But it is really an oasis surrounded by oil-soaked pavement and ugly buildings that frown at its effortless self-determination. They are jealous, and would do anything to see the little field destroyed. But they cannot accomplish such a mission on their own. They need people to help them — eager, enthusiastic, obnoxious, selfish, enterprising people, the kind who are forever out to make a buck — the kind who turn corn fields into half-vacant shopping centers and call it development — the kind who worm their way into local governments in order to achieve their financial goals and then move on, leaving the communities they have raped to contend with their mess. At the same time, the communities themselves are in a state of flux. People have a hard time staying put. They move to find work, or to escape family problems. They are here temporarily, and what goes on around them is of little importance. Instead of building parks and libraries, instead of planting trees that will give inspiration and shade to future generations, giant boxes full of cheap merchandise spring up, and people’s hard-earned money is siphoned into distant coffers. It is not a happy formula. It is a numbers game, a game of dueling cash registers that no one wins — especially those who think they are winning, because, contrary to what they have been trained to believe, it is impossible to win at the expense of sanity, simplicity, and decency. Flitting from sale to sale and from theater to drive-up window to video store is no way to live, whether you are driving a $50,000 car or an old cheap used one. A sixty-inch television screen is useless when what appears on it is corporate-sponsored garbage. People would be better off watching a potted plant. When they grow tired of that, they could watch their children, or their parents, or each other. They could listen and learn something, and remember that life is short and something to be treasured.
October 4, 2004 — I learned something important in the book section in yesterday’s paper. I learned that regular people don’t wear berets around the house and eccentric artists do. This news excited me greatly, because I not only wear my new beret while I’m inside, but I alternate between several other hats as well. Occasionally, I even wear more than one at a time. I should probably contact the book editor and ask him if he wants to do a story about me. A few days prior to this discovery, on a local arts show aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting, I learned that writers will do just about anything to put off writing, and that sitting for hours at a typewriter or computer is “drudge work.” I wonder if I should tell them that writing is the only thing I don’t put off, and that my happiest hours are those I spend at the keyboard. Then again, that might make me a little bit too eccentric. The important thing is, the writer they featured was wearing a hat — outdoors, though, not in. So. Let’s see. I wear hats inside, but I don’t put off my work. Where does that leave me? Should I bring home a cat and name it Balzac? Should I walk mumbling through the streets, scribbling on a note pad? That’s what the writer on TV did. Or should I walk scribbling through the streets and mumble on a note pad? Is there a difference? Does it matter? Or am I missing the point, as usual? Ha! At first, instead of typing point, I typed pint. Maybe that’s what I’m missing. I am not only a pointless writer, but a pintless one. Uh-oh. I’m running late. It’s time to change hats.
October 5, 2004 — While staring off into space yesterday afternoon, I had the idea of writing an essay called “How to Write a Story.” But I quickly realized I didn’t have enough material. More specifically, I have an abundance of material, but the material can be summed up in two short sentences: First, decide to write a story. Second, don’t stop until you have written a story. Every day, thousands of would-be writers ignore these two simple steps. Often, they pay good money for the privilege, expecting the secrets of story-writing to be revealed to them by others, who receive a salary for doing so. The sad fact is, some who stick with this approach long enough, and who spend enough time and money, do learn to write stories. But they are pathetic, boring stories, without personality, life, or meaning. This brings me to another essay I thought of writing, called “How to Write a Good Story.” It goes like this: First, decide to write a good story. Second, don’t stop until you have written a good story. A writer unwilling to follow these directions, regardless of the time and effort involved, is either scared, lazy, or not really a writer. The same goes for writing a great story. Here is my essay on the subject: First, decide to write a great story. Second, don’t stop until you have written a great story — or die trying. Indeed, if one isn’t willing to die along the way, and to abandon foolish ideas about himself and the world, there is little point in writing. And of course the same can be said for living, whatever our pursuits. It is absolutely vital to discover the best in ourselves, and the best we have to offer, and to push on from there. It’s either that, or sit in our own muck.
October 6, 2004 — The new neighbors have decorated their front step with tall, arching corn stalks, and pumpkins have replaced the potted chrysanthemums atop the flat-backed swans that flank the walk. The entire yard is as neat as a pin, and framed by a worrisome number of bird baths and statues. The question is, should I attack them now before they unleash their weapons of mass decoration? Or should I first build a coalition of neighbors? Bah, forget the neighbors. I have to act now. I have to do what I know is right. For the good of the neighborhood, I have to fight the terrorists on their own front lawn. I have to spray it with Round-up and sow the seeds of democracy and then break down the front door and free the children being held hostage inside. I will free them from their milk and cookies. I will target their refrigerator and spice cabinet. I will destroy their plumbing. Then I will hire their eternally grateful parents to stand guard while some buddies of mine rebuild the house and install a new landscape. Of course, this will mean sacrifice here at home. I deeply regret having to send the young, able-bodied kids of the neighborhood into harm’s way. I would send my own, but they’re too busy going to parties and trying on clothes. Uh, what I mean is, they are working hard to improve the economy, which is improving, because, uh, you remember the old saying: You can lead a fox to the henhouse, but you can’t make him, uh, drink. Now, let me finish. Sleeping dogs aren’t the only people who lie. The neighbors hate our freedom. That’s why they have corn stalks and statues. That’s why their car has axles of evil. Understand what I’m sayin’? I won’t back down. Not on my watch. Mission accomplished. I mean — well, never mind. I gotta go. I’m late for a fund-raiser.
October 7, 2004 — A boy just rolled by on a skateboard on his way to school. He had no books, no backpack, not even a pencil. At the school, there’s a big parking lot full of skateboards. When I see it I get dizzy, because the white lines that mark the spaces are so close together. There’s a parking lot monitor out there. He wears a baseball cap backwards and a pair of dark oval sunglasses with white rims. I wave at him. He sneers and writes me a ticket. It’s for the school play. Shakespeare. All the actors come in on their skateboards. Romeo! Where’ya at, dude? Wow. Rodney Dangerfield comes in. He’s dead. “I get no respect,” he says. “This morning I see my obituary in the Los Angeles Times. It says I’m dead. Wouldn’t you know it, I said. I’m always the last to know.” His eyes get big and he loosens his tie. “One time,” he says, “I told my wife I had a bad headache. She said, Oh, yeah? Stick your head in a bucket of water three times and pull it out twice. That’ll cure it. The thing is, she was right. I’ll never forgive her for that.” Pretty soon, a cop comes up and starts talking to the parking lot monitor. Right off, I can tell it’s a drug deal. You know how it is these days. Lots of money is changing hands. Big money. Then the cop sees me. To make it look good, he winks at me and then casually chains one of the skateboards to a light pole and staples a red tag to its windshield. Well, it turns out to be the same skateboard I saw the boy on earlier. He and his girlfriend are in the back seat. While his girlfriend tries to get dressed, he stubs out his cigarette and says, “Whoa.” That’s it. That’s all he says. “Whoa.” Like, this is the crowning glory of evolution, this proves once and for all man’s superiority to all other life on earth. “Whoa.” The thing is, this kid is mad. He doesn’t like having his skateboard chained to a light pole. So right away he calls his lawyer on his cell phone. He doesn’t know his mother’s name, but his lawyer is on his speed-dial. He presses one number, I think it’s X, and the lawyer answers. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’m in the neighborhood.” The cop hears this and scatters. The parking lot guy, he hides in the bushes. The girl is fixing her hair and putting on more makeup. The boy is working on a fresh cigarette, looking outraged and sleazy like Marlon Brando. I’m thinking, jeez, junior high school is tough these days. When I was a kid, we rode the bus and ate burritos, then we went home. Nothing ever happened, except for the time two girls got mad at each other and tried to claw each other’s eyes out, or the time some bullies with dented heads wouldn’t let a kid with thick glasses go into the bathroom and pee. Now the bullies work for the same kid, and the kid doesn’t wear glasses because he had laser eyeball surgery, and he won’t let the bullies pee until it’s break time. How cool is that?
October 8, 2004 — In a puddled alley lined with creaking elevators with ugly metal doors, I was approached by an armless man with a pillow case over his head. I was looking for the elevator that went to the second floor. I had already gotten in the wrong elevator and ended up on the fifth. There was no button for the second. I got out and found myself in the alley, and there was the armless man, coming at me. At first I thought he didn’t see me, but then he narrowed the space between himself and the elevators and I ran into a cold metal pillar that had once been painted red. The armless man ignored me and trundled on. My room was on the second floor. I had escaped a rather strange meeting in which an arrogant wealthy man with too much time on his hands was arranging dangerous stunts for people who had sold their souls to the devil. He told me to go to his room and enter certain information on his computer, and then said I should have no trouble with the task if I remembered a set of code words, which he uttered quickly one right after the other. I thoroughly resented his assumption that because he was rich and powerful, I would do his filthy bidding. When he looked the other way, I ran. Next, I found myself waiting in line at a nursery that was out of plants. The man working at the cash register instructed the woman in front of me to use one of the cardboard flats on the table beside us to carry her plants. But she had no plants. She complied anyway. I left the line and looked again for plants. There still weren’t any, only empty tables and bits of bark and planting mix on the ground. Night was falling. I had to get to my room on the second floor. That’s when I ended up in the alley, after getting out on the fifth floor. Earlier, I had been in some kind of hotel. Now I was in a decrepit building with an alley on the fifth floor full of armless men and creaking elevators. And I knew the elevators weren’t suspended by cables, but by ancient, half-rotten ropes. I also knew that if I could only get to my room on the second floor, everything would be all right. But I never made it. I woke up instead. And now I’m thinking about reading the newspaper. But why subject myself to another nightmare?
October 9, 2004 — It’s still dark out, but I have the curtain open so I can watch the day break. There is a light on in one of the spitter’s bedrooms across the street, and another shining on the new neighbor’s corn stalks. I can just determine the outline of the maple trees in front of our window. I was up later than usual last night, listening to part of a nine-hour John Lennon birthday special on KBOO radio in Portland. The program began at nine and ran until six this morning. I slept through most of it, but I did enjoy what I heard, which was mostly bootleg recordings and alternate versions of officially released songs. I can see the trees a little better now. The sky is a little lighter. We watched the second of the presidential debates yesterday evening. John Kerry again ran circles around George W. Bush. At one point, after Kerry gave a thoughtful, serious answer to a young woman’s difficult question about abortion and embryonic stem cell research, the president’s first response was, “I’m trying to decipher that.” Over and over again, whining defensively, the man proved how stupid he really is, and how little he knows about world affairs. When his opponent challenged the Bush Administration’s horrible environmental record and referred to the United States’ withdrawal from the meetings on global warming in Kyoto, Bush said he wasn’t going to go to meetings just to “please the halls of Europe.” Then he went on to call himself a good steward of the land. The halls of Europe? Now, daylight has arrived. It’s windy and cloudy. It rained about half an inch yesterday, and judging by the way it sounded last night, probably that much more again. It looks like I won’t be able to do any work outside today. The garden is finished and needs to be dismantled, but it will have to wait. Depending on the weather, it might have to wait until spring. I will be glad when the “election” is over. I hope it isn’t stolen again. Or how did King George W. characterize it? Oh, yes. He called it a mandate from the American people. What a statement. Which reminds me — last night on TV, he promised the people that if he is elected, “there will be no draft during the next four years.” I am mentioning this just in case, because he has said a lot of things and gone on to do the opposite — or, I should say, he has gone on to do what he has been told to do by those who are really in charge, and who are wreaking such havoc in the world. For the man is a puppet in the worst sense. He is a puppet of his own family, whose long-term business goals have caused thousands of deaths. He is a puppet of arms dealers. He is a puppet of giant corporations, chemical companies, and drug companies. Despite this, there are still people in this country who think he is their buddy. They think he is a tough guy. They like his “personality.” Why? It can only be that he represents what they are themselves, or what they want to become. Why does anyone follow another person? Often it’s because they are afraid to think for themselves, or because thinking is too much work, or because something about the person they are following appeals to their ego and makes them feel more important. And so what does their vote really represent? What does it mean? When a grown adult cannot see the connection between his actions and what is going on in the world, and when he thinks his hero or buddy will take care of everything, isn’t he voting in ignorance, and isn’t his vote therefore a dangerous thing? The psychology involved in following is a scary thing. If a so-called leader is decent and reasonably intelligent, following him can seem wise. But wouldn’t it be wiser to question him instead, and to question oneself? Wouldn’t it be wiser to question the systems and beliefs that are the framework for the destruction we bring to the world? Doing so doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life. It doesn’t mean we have to be gloomy and miss all the parties, or that we can’t sit around with friends playing cards, or go to a football game. Is that what people are afraid of? Missing out on the fun? “I’ll vote for the fun candidate. He looks like he knows how to have a good time.” Hee-haw.
October 10, 2004 — I should go out and pick up our Sunday paper, but I think I’ll sit here for awhile instead. Delivery was late today — something I don’t appreciate, because a morning paper isn’t a morning paper unless it arrives early enough to be read first thing in the morning, before the day’s activities begin. And while it is technically still morning — it’s about a quarter after eight, in fact — I have work to do, and I am moving ahead to do it. I might get to the paper later in the day, or I might not. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since it’s pretty much a soap opera anyway. “Kerry blames Bush.” “Bush blames Kerry.” “Blast leaves 36 dead.” “Green tea relieves constipation.” “Relationships suffer under stress.” “Man unable to remove finger from nose, decides to go for record.” On the other hand, this is Sunday, and surely I can afford to put off work for awhile and read the paper. I can do that. No one is telling me not to. I can read the paper all morning if I want, and put off work until the afternoon, or skip work altogether. I can say to hell with it, pour myself a drink, and watch television. But I won’t, and I never do. While it might reasonably be argued that the results aren’t worth it — I have this argument with myself frequently enough — there are other results that are less apparent but every bit as important. For instance, there is the example I set. There is evidence that my strong work ethic is contagious, both here under our own roof and outside in what I sometimes jokingly refer to as the real world. I have encouraged several of my fellow writers into going about their work as if their lives truly depend on it, which, as I know from personal experience, it truly does. And I have encouraged non-writers as well, who have renewed their efforts in their own areas of expertise. I have also made quite a few people mad, though I can remember only one person who bothered to write and tell me so, and even he wasn’t mad, he just considered me a fraud. The reason he thought I was a fraud is because I told him that I write in order to find out what I will write. His response came in the form of an interesting accusation. He said, “No matter what, you can’t hide your commercial aspirations.” Those might not be his exact words, but they are very close to it, and they convey his meaning. My answer was, and remains, “The only commercial aspirations I have is a desire to earn a decent living by the sweat of my brow.” Anyway. I really do write to find out what I will write. The statement hardly needs explanation. The way I feel about it is, if I already knew what I was going to write, there wouldn’t be much reason to write it, unless it was a business letter, and even that job I approach with enthusiasm, because it is, after all, a form of writing. The fact that I am still here writing after all these years, despite being ignored by Corporate Publishing, further weakens my accuser’s argument. Conversely, his argument wouldn’t be strengthened if I were to sign a big contract tomorrow, even if the contract made me a millionaire. I have worked long enough and hard enough for nothing to be able to accept the fact that the law of averages is finally acting in my favor. If he thinks that makes me less of a writer or less of a human being, then I can only wonder what strange rules he lives by. Everyone deserves to live by their honest labor. Certainly, enough live by dishonest labor. Or am I not supposed to mention that?
October 11, 2004 — I just put on a long-sleeved dress shirt. Like me, the shirt has seen better days, but it is a dress shirt, and with the frayed cuffs hidden by my new-old sport coat, I will soon step boldly forth into the world to — what? Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m going anyway. It’s Monday, and I’m going to make an appearance, though not in any grand publicity sense. Very few appearances of that kind take place in Salem — although I hear the former basketball star, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, will soon be at Borders Books to meet fans and sign his new book. Anyway, he’s tall, and that’s what counts — that, and the fact that he’s worth millions — well, he has millions, anyway. That doesn’t mean he’s worth them. He might only be worth a few thousand. Come to think of it, isn’t it kind of an insult to say someone is worth a certain amount of money anyway? Shouldn’t a person’s worth be measured in other terms? “He’s worth a million.” Well, yes, but does that excuse his behavior? Did you see him cut that guy off in traffic? Well, that was his million dollars speaking, not him. He’s a nice guy, really he is. I hear he just got a big tax break for buying a Hummer — not Clyde the Glide, but some other guy. Clyde wouldn’t buy a Hummer. What is a Hummer? It’s one o’ them there military vehicles they drive around in Eye-raq. They’re real handy for buying groceries, or pickin’ up yer kid at school, or for sittin’ in line while u wait fer a burger to be handed to you by someone who works for starvation wages. Yes, sir. I’m gonna get me one o’ them — maybe while I’m out and around this morning, looking dapper. “I will dress in the fashion of a fop,” said the starving young writer in William Saroyan’s story, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Who knows? Maybe today I will find a penny in the gutter. If I do, I will polish it until it shines like the sun — and then donate it to the Leave No Millionaire Behind fund. It’s the least I can do.
October 12, 2004 — I found no penny, but I wound up in the gutter just the same. Some good-hearted truants tried to pull me out, but the light changed and they let go of me just as a shiny flag-festooned Hummer roared by, and with its rugged tires smashed a discarded burger wrapper and splattered me with secret sauce. The truants ran. A man from Homeland Security appeared from nowhere. “Ah-ha,” he said, thumbing through his Manual of Easily Misconstrued Streetside Occurrences, “assaulting a Hummer. That, my friend, is serious business — very serious. I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me.” He produced a pair of handcuffs — the hard way. I said, “You should see a doctor, friend,” addressing him in a bantering tone. But he didn’t laugh. Not by a long shot. Just a few feet away, a grand piano crashed to the pavement from a window high above the street. He didn’t notice. A swarm of pterodactyls descended on the burger wrapper. He wasn’t interested. Across the street, a bank was robbed, a man was shot, a woman was raped, and several elderly people were relieved of their life savings by con artists posing as friends. But somehow, I was the criminal — I, who had been looking for a penny to donate to the Leave No Millionaire Behind fund, which just happens to be the most ambitiously patriotic program in the nation today. “We’ve been keeping an eye on you,” he said as he fiddled with the handcuffs and tried to get them to open. “Oh, yes, indubitably, sir.” It was then that I realized he was an imposter, because no one working for Homeland Security would ever use a word like “indubitably.” It just isn’t done. And so I leapt up out of the gutter and kneed him in the groin, then delivered a vicious chop to the back of his neck, crippling him, maiming him, and upsetting him. “Ow,” he minced, “what did you have to do that for?” Using both of my fists, I explained to him that it was my duty as a citizen and a lover of freedom. Then I asked him for his library card. I said, “What have you been reading lately, friend?” He looked at me wild-eyed. “Nuh-nuh-nuthin’,” he snurbled. “I cccccccan’t read. Honest.” Sooooo, I thought, he really is from Homeland Security. They’re getting more sophisticated all the time. I returned home, more afraid than ever.
October 13, 2004 — In an AP article in this morning’s paper about tonight’s third and final presidential debate, it was stated as fact that both candidates did well in their second debate, and that the debate was a tie. So the obviously intelligent question to ask is, what’s the use? An even more intelligent question would be, who are you for, the Yankees or the Red Sox? Because the Yankees and Red Sox are also debating tonight, at the same time as Kerry and Bush. To that I say, isn’t America great? If you don’t want to waste an evening watching two guys say what you already know they are going to say and then be told by “expert analysts” what they said and what they meant by what they said and which one of them said it more effectively — well, then! you can watch a couple of great baseball teams playing for all the marbles, not to mention a huge amount of cash. “New polls show candidates in dead heat.” These are polls produced by the same kind of people who stated as fact that both candidates did well and that their debate was a tie. Their debate wasn’t a tie — it was a piece of old rope, and I can feel it tightening around my neck. It amazes me — millions of people don’t know whom to trust or believe. When it comes to basic human observation, they are lost, they are without instinct. They don’t understand body language, they can’t read facial expressions, and worse — they can’t even judge a man by his destructive actions. So again I repeat, what’s the use? Why get up in the morning? Well, I’ll tell you why: to find out what happens, and to be proven wrong, and to be reminded by small children that we are stupid, self-centered, and blind, and to find out if today will be the day that we finally wake up and say, I am a complete ass, which, translated, means, I have really been missing the point, can you ever forgive me, O my lovely fellow human beings, I apologize for — oops! excuse me! I have to take this call.
October 14, 2004 — Did I ever mention the time I met William Saroyan on a bus? It happened in Fresno, not too many streets away from where he was born in 1908. He was larger than life. In fact, his picture covered the whole bus. We were waiting at a light when he rode by. I said, “Look, there’s Willie,” and my wife and her brother stared in wonder as he rumbled through the intersection, framed by an announcement of an annual event called William Saroyan Days, or something to that effect. We were on our way back from visiting the graves of my wife’s parents at a cemetery in the country west of town. Being dead for almost twenty years, the great writer was on his way to nowhere in particular. William Saroyan on a bus, rattling all over town. He used to ride a bicycle, but when a man is dead he often has less energy, and his hearing is also affected, meaning there is always a chance he will be hit by a train or run over by a corporate executive out enjoying his tax breaks. There are many Basques at the cemetery we visited, and the cemetery itself is adjacent to an onion field. The first time I saw the place was a foggy morning in late November of 1978, when my wife’s dear father was laid to rest. Saroyan was still alive then, but he didn’t attend my father-in-law’s funeral, though had he known about it I’m sure he would have, as he was quite a fan of the Basques, and of the Basque language. He was, however, at Phil Manoogian’s funeral in Dinuba in 1976. June it was. Phil, an old family friend, died on Father’s Day. We were gathered at the table when his son Charles called us with the news. And now Charles is gone, a heart attack victim like his father. Willie made an interesting statement at Phil’s funeral. He said, “I’m glad Phil died, because now I get to see everybody.” Ain’t it the truth. When my wife’s father died, we saw dozens of people we haven’t seen since, including his sister, who looked just like him, and who now is also gone. But only Willie ended up riding around on a bus in his afterlife. I wonder if he stops at the Basque-owned Santa Fe Hotel, where a big memorial dinner was served in my father-in-law’s honor, and where we drank wine and ate bleu cheese and everyone was happy for having known such an honest, comical, and unpretending man. Where is Willie now? Where is Phil? Where is everyone?
October 15, 2004 — In Fresno there was also the wild fruit-eating sculptor and artist named Varaz, who happened to be traveling to Finland, Russia, and Armenia with the same group as my brother and mother in 1986. Varaz and Saroyan were friends, or, if not friends, at least good acquaintances who found solace in each other’s comical Armenian behavior. Varaz, though, wasn’t really fit for public consumption, and therefore didn’t end up with his picture on the side of a bus. He was responsible for the statue of David of Sassoun in downtown Fresno, however, and this statue earned such laughs from my father and his Uncle Archie when they saw it that it has never been possible to look at the thing in any sort of serious context. The definitive David of Sassoun statue is in Yerevan, Armenia, and was sculpted many years ago by Yervant Kochar. That is a great work of art. The Fresno version looks like a lunatic on a stolen horse that he has been riding for hours through a vineyard, jumping over wires and smashing grapes. The real David of Sassoun is a powerful expression of the Armenian character, and serves as a reminder to Armenians that they ought to shape up, and that they should definitely not expect legitimate help from countries like the United States, which continue to sniff around in search of a profit and useful real estate. For help is not truly help unless there are no strings attached. Anyway, during the trip to Russia and Armenia in 1986, Varaz jumped into an icy river and took a swim, he scrambled up rocky hillsides, and he devoured most of the fruit in the countryside, creating a short-term famine that is still remembered today. There is a lesson to be learned from this kind of gusto, and that lesson is, don’t hold back, you’ll be dead soon enough. Varaz’s studio was downtown in a tiny remnant of what was once called Armenian Town, pinned beneath a freeway overpass. In his lot was a collection of rubble — sculpted heads with bulging eyes, arms, torsos, and body parts, none of which were really meant for up-close viewing. It is one thing to ponder a cavernous horse’s nostril from a safe distance, but quite another from the artist’s sidewalk. This brings to mind an interesting question: are artists crazy in the first place, or is it their art that makes them so? I happen to know the answer: it is both.
October 16, 2004 — Every so often I think of renting a small storefront downtown and using it as a place to work. When I’m there, people would be free to come and go, and to sit, read, talk, and drink coffee without anyone trying to sell them anything. There would be no sign outside, though I might put my name on the door in simple small letters with the word “welcome” beneath. The rest I would leave to chance and human nature. I would keep regular hours, as I do now, and take interruptions in stride, as I do now. If I felt like taking a break and walking around town for an hour, I would lock up and leave, or let someone keep an eye on the silverware. I would slowly fill the place with books, which visitors could read and examine while they were there. If I did this, I wonder how many visitors I would have? On most days, probably none. But it seems likely that, little by little, a handful of people odd enough to appreciate such a haven would find their way to my door. Some would be writers; some would be bums; some would be writers who are bums; some would be city employees trying to figure out the arrangement; some would be working for the daily paper — that is, if they weren’t too busy chasing down stories meant to please their major advertisers. The point is, most people would walk on by. They might glance in and wonder briefly, but without an explanatory sign or a window full of merchandise marked with half-off sale stickers to captivate them, they would continue on their way. Only the truly curious would stop. Only those unswayed by commerce, and unafraid to discover something new, or to appreciate something old that everyone else thinks has gone out of fashion. Now, the interesting thing about this is, to a great extent I have also described my own writing. Of course, my writing has readers other than writers and bums. Over time, it has attracted all sorts of pleasantly weird people — and by pleasantly weird, I mean people who haven’t given up on living a full life that doesn’t seek guidance from advertising, or depend on religion and politics in their current destructive forms. I know this because a certain number have told me. More typically, though, they just laugh — another sign of my success.
October 17, 2004 — When I told my mother yesterday afternoon that our old family friend Simon Ketenjian had died, she said, “Ohhh . . . ohhh,” immediately recalling the countless hours Simon had spent in our kitchen talking about mutual acquaintances, farming, money, politics, current affairs, and philosophy in an entertaining, blissful way that involved pack after pack of cigarettes and no small number of four-letter words. Simon and my father were friends back in their high school days. Their friendship included things like getting drunk and having an impromptu boxing match in Simon’s father’s barn and mischievously draining a drum of oil onto the dirt floor — an incident that nearly got them killed by the old man, who wasn’t old then and had a knack for solving problems with his fists. Then there was the afternoon they rode bicycles naked on a ditch bank in front of a Japanese couple bent over working in their vegetables. As they rode by howling, the husband scowled and his wife tried not to look — until her husband returned to his work — then she looked. Life is funny. Life is sad. Simon was a farmer. I drove tractor for him a few times, and made boxes for his grape-packing operation. Simon kept peculiar hours for a farmer. It was not unusual to drop by his place for a visit at two in the afternoon and find him just waking up. As far as we could tell, he spent most of the 1970s sitting at his kitchen table, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone. When I was in high school, he called my father almost every morning sometime before seven-thirty, and the two would say the same things they had been saying for the last several months. In the summer of 1960, Simon raised a patch of watermelons around the corner on what had been my great-grandparents’ farm, which was still owned by their son, who had since moved to San Francisco. Every day for weeks on end, Simon and his son Russell came to our house for lunch, after which Simon and my father would take a nap on the floor. What I am getting at, I suppose, is that Simon was a natural part of our lives for years and years, and though we hadn’t seen him for some time, life being the strangely relentless thing that it is, knowing now that he is gone forever feels like something has been uprooted. In my own case, it is like driving down a country road and discovering that a favorite old vineyard has been pulled out and burned. Simon is gone. The smoke is still rising. Where do we go from here? He was far from perfect, he had his faults, he made his mistakes and had his blind spots, but who doesn’t? His personality was his own, and he lived his life as only Simon could live it, paying the price as he went, paying it with his steadily eroding health, and with the disappointments that come when desire and reality collide. What more can you ask of a man?
October 18, 2004 — This is perhaps a good time to emphasize the importance of personality in daily life — not personality in any complicated psychological sense, but in terms of one’s ability to observe and apprehend the moment, and to turn it into something meaningful and entertaining. One might also refer to this quality as having native intelligence, but unless intelligence is combined with a sense of humor, more often than not it is a bore. It would even be appropriate to ask if intelligence can exist where humor is absent. At the same time, we might say that humor is intelligence, or a manifestation of intelligence. To put it another way, dull people are not as much fun to be around as people with real personalities. The times themselves also come into play. We are not living in hopeful or optimistic times. Today, if a couple of high school boys were to take off their clothes and ride their bikes in front of someone on a ditch bank, there is a good chance they would be arrested and forced into counseling. Far too many people take delight in being offended, and in going to court, and in airing their gripes on the local television news. A case in point: one summer night several years ago, one of our sons and a girl from down the street pulled out the already-loose wooden street sign post that’s in our corner flower bed and turned it so the names of the streets were switched. About ten minutes later, they returned the sign to its original position. In that amount of time, though there is little traffic in our neighborhood, a woman who lives several houses away called the police and reported their “crime.” The police arrived to find everything in order, yet they were compelled to “take names” and “issue a warning,” when they could in fact have been patrolling a tough neighborhood or drinking coffee at Starbucks. This is a pathetic way to live. Humor is being drained from our lives at an astonishing rate, and replaced with sitcom laugh tracks, the abrasive noise of advertising, and other related forms of secondhand behavior that render people unable to function in the moment. Instead of being glad to see some kids showing signs of life and joining in their laughter, a woman used her “intelligence” to remind them that society doesn’t appreciate people who step out of line — unless, of course, they happen to be designated personalities, such as movie stars, professional athletes, and war mongers. Those people can do whatever they want, whenever they want. They can siphon the last cent out of our pockets and millions will thank them for it. Talk about being dull.
October 19, 2004 — What does it mean when you walk around swearing in an empty house, your voice echoing, the windows rattling, the cat running for cover? In my case, it means I am vigorously pursuing my work, and that I have chosen to add an active, physical dimension to what is a dangerously sedentary occupation. I look at it this way: I am crippled enough as it is. Long hours at the keyboard have taken their toll. Since I am in this for the long haul, I have to find a way to keep myself physically and mentally fit. With time always at a premium, what better way than to exercise and write at the same time? True, I am sitting here now, but thanks to my recent trip through the house shouting and waving my arms, my heart and lungs are sending vital messages throughout my body, which, on good days, includes my head, which in turn houses my brain pan, wherein sloshes my clump of gray, tired noodles. . . . Excuse me. What I just said made me laugh so hard that I had to get up again and walk down the hall and into the room that faces the backyard, where I laughed some more and exclaimed, again in full vocal force, “Man, you are a dumb son of a bitch.” Now, I tend to swear very little when I write, keeping four-letter words in reserve, as it were, for the right moment. But I think it’s important here for the sake of clarity and accuracy to repeat exactly what I said after I got up laughing and walked down the hall and into the other room. This information will benefit someone somewhere, I’m sure. And if doesn’t — well, I’m sorry. Like anyone else, I can do only so much.
October 20, 2004 — All at once, the geese have begun honking again, and masses of the birds have been stirred by nature and instinct to flap around like mad, even though many of them live here twelve months of the year. But geese are geese, by golly, and if they don’t get their honking in now, people are likely to write them off as failures. We have little enough patience with nature as it is. I just checked my watch — no geese. Where are they? What’s the matter with those birds? Never mind, I’ll watch television. Yawn. Hey, the Red Sox won again. That’s three in a row, after falling behind three games to none to the Yankees — those gentle souls who play not for money but for love of the game. Well, maybe their third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, plays for the money. It certainly showed last night when he was running to first base and hacked the covering pitcher’s arm, knocking the ball loose and the glove off the pitcher’s hand as the pitcher tried to tag him on the baseline. After a big conference, the umpires called Rodriguez out for interference. Though replays clearly showed what he had done, he raised his arms and put his hands on his head in utter disbelief, feigning surprise and innocence, and acting as if the rule had just been invented. Shortly thereafter, police in riot gear were called out and the fans were told to stop throwing things on the field. My thought: where are those geese when you need them?
October 21, 2004 — When the Boston Red Sox made sports history last night by winning a fourth consecutive game to defeat the New York Yankees in their seven-game series and claim the American League pennant, one could just picture Yankees owner George Steinbrenner turning over in his grave. What? He’s not dead? That’s funny. The last time I saw him, he looked dead. But never mind. I bought a fascinating used book yesterday. Actually, I bought two. I bought The Mysteries of Honoré de Balzac, which is the tenth volume of the Classics of Mystery series published by Juniper Press in New York. The book contains three stories: The Gondreville Mystery, “The Grand Bretêche,” and Ferragus, which is subtitled “Chief of the Dévorants.” The other book — the book I was thinking of when I brought up books in the first place — is The Reader’s Encyclopedia, “An Encyclopedia of World Literature and the Arts” edited by William Rose Benét and published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company in 1948. As the third and fourth entries under the letter A plainly show, this book is sure to bring hours of enjoyment: Aagesen, Svend (ca.1185). First historian of Denmark, author of Compendiosa Historia Regum Daniae (300 to 1185 A.D.); Aani. In Egyptian mythology, the dog-headed ape sacred to the god Thoth. Each of the book’s 1,200-plus pages is littered with similar entries about authors, words, phrases, famous characters in literature, and other intriguing, invaluable tidbits. My intention now is to read at least a page a day, and to make a special effort to absorb as much of the information as I can, with a three-year goal of becoming an interesting person. I think this is reasonable, and certainly a goal well worth pursuing. Hello, Mr. Jones. How are you today? Did you know that in Arthurian legend, Broceliande was a magic forest in Brittany, where Merlin was enchanted by Vivian? Oh? You did? No, I didn’t see that movie. Well, I’ll be darned. Then let me tell you about Michel Fokine, the great Russian choreographer. Did you know that — hey! Where are you going? Hmm. Jealousy. That’s one thing I didn’t take into account.
October 22, 2004 — A couple of days ago at a local camera shop, a clerk with very thin lips said he liked my beard and long hair. Then he mumbled something about a Santa Claus project and asked if I would like to pose as one of his Santas. “All you’d have to do,” he said, “is dye your beard.” I told him, “Not now, maybe in a few years.” When he asked why, I explained that I was too miserable to be a Santa Claus. “No,” he said. “That can’t be true.” I replied, “You’re right. I didn’t mean miserable, I meant bitter. But here’s another idea. If you want, I could be the centerfold for a bitter Santa Claus calendar.” He graciously declined my offer. After finishing our business, I was already at the door when he called out sarcastically, “Happy holidays.” I answered with a bitter “Ha-ha-ha” that was definitely too loud for the situation, then stepped out the door, thinking, What an irritating idiot, though I was also amused by his sense of humor, and by the realization that my fake laughter had startled some pigeons on the eaves and sent them flying. As I wandered up the sidewalk, I was amazed by the sudden clarity of the moment, and of the moments that followed. Though I was surrounded by thousands of my own kind, I was nonetheless wonderfully alone, breathing, listening, watching. The very pavement was alive, the walls, the bricks, the parked cars, as if the differences between metal and bone had ceased to exist. Everything hummed, vibrated. Slowly, I made my way home. I took the long way.
October 23, 2004 — Will the upcoming presidential election be decided fairly? Will the votes be properly counted? Will there be no shenanigans, no intimidation, no violence? It seems unlikely, given what happened in 2000 in Florida, and what is at stake for the evil monsters who benefit from having Captain Zero in the White House. And if the election is stolen, then what? Well, that’s simple: Captain Zero and his loyal cadets will step up their campaign to spread “freedom and democracy around the world,” while systematically impoverishing those who weren’t smart enough to be born into wealthy families. In other words, it will be the same, only worse. And if Kerry wins? It will be the same, only not quite as bad. When he says “I will hunt down the terrorists and kill them,” it makes my skin crawl. It bothers me when a grown man says he will hunt down and kill people, especially when he knows full well that the people he kills will be immediately replaced. Of course this is just tough talk, designed to make voters think he will keep them safe. Both candidates talk tough, and act as if they spend their spare time wrestling bears and building log cabins, when all they really do is play golf and ride fancy bicycles. Apparently they think real men want a real man in the White House, not some guy who goes around thinking all the time. As for real women, our daughter, who meets dozens daily where she works, has witnessed a consistent hatred for the hunter-killer currently in office. The other day, in fact, she told us that some of these women are visibly angry at the thought that anyone could vote for Bush. Granted, this is an informal poll, with no plus or minus given for error. And this is Oregon, after all, otherwise known as the Unemployment State. Naturally, you can’t expect a bunch of broke women to think clearly, especially when they are surrounded by broke men who want a good drinking buddy for president. But let us not trivialize what is happening. Anyway, there is no need — the candidates are doing it for us. Let us instead pick up our axes and chop down all the trees before the president can get them. Let us refill our gas tanks as quickly and often as we can, because the sooner we run out of oil, the better. Let us close the schools, turn the criminals into the streets, abandon the elderly, and steal anything that isn’t nailed down. In other words, let us embrace the kind of democracy that we finance in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. If it’s good enough for them, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?
October 24, 2004 — It isn’t difficult to imagine myself a shabby old nut wandering along the sidewalk, because, to a surprising degree, that is what I have become. I dress neatly enough, but not in such a way that I would be eyed by a savvy business executive as potential board room material, or even a worthwhile client. Quite frankly, I am well aware that my appearance and demeanor suggest that I am playing by a different set of rules. They do more than suggest, they convince. This is not an image I set out to project. Rather, it is one that has developed as a natural consequence of my work, and my absolute dedication to it. Now it has reached the point that I could wear even the most stylish clothes, drive the most stylish automobile, and be seen in the most stylish places, and still look completely out of place. Granted, for a short time people would pay attention to me because they thought I had money, but they would quickly sense that I was an imposter, which in fact I would be. The reason I bring this up is that yesterday morning, I again found myself walking around downtown, having purposely arrived a few minutes early to have coffee with a small, relatively normal-looking group of friends and acquaintances. By normal-looking, I mean they are at least employable, and appear to pose no immediate threat. To begin with, I felt a bit strange, because on the sidewalk on the north side of State Street, between Commercial Street and Liberty Street, I was greeted by a scent that immediately transported me to Armenia in 1982. I was unable to identify it, but for several seconds I half-expected an old woman to emerge from the alley with lavash draped over her arm — lavash being the large, thin, round, flexible bread that is indispensable to Armenians in the same way tortillas are to Mexicans. When this didn’t happen I wasn’t surprised, but I was still disappointed, because for a poetically charged moment it seemed possible. After that, I couldn’t help noticing my reflection in various shop windows, one of which, ironically, belonged to a small barbershop. Had I walked in there, the barber would either have licked his chops or passed out and hit his head on the sink behind his chair, perhaps knocking over his bottle of Barbicide and creating a terrible mess. Barbicide is a name I’ve always liked. The stuff might be good for killing germs on combs, but with a name like that it could just as easily be used to kill barbers or their customers — both parties driven by raw emotions that do indeed frequently arise in haircutting establishments. But back to the windows. Seeing one’s reflection in a store window is much different than seeing it at home in a bathroom mirror, because when a person is in public he is also part of the public, and therefore better able to see himself as others see him. That is my theory, anyway. On the other hand, the opposite might also be true, because our general tendency is to be more critical of our public image. This in turn magnifies what we perceive as our physical shortcomings and imperfections — unless we happen to be alone, as in my case, and which, I might add, is almost always the case, even when I am with someone, as contradictory as that sounds, although there are exceptions even here. The other day, for instance — don’t worry, this will only take a moment — my wife and I were at the mall looking for shirts when I chanced to see ourselves in a department store mirror. My wife looked normal and wonderful in every way, but I was about four feet tall and had aged significantly. But not so yesterday. Yesterday I saw myself as I really am: a grizzled caricature acutely in step with his hopes and dreams, and out of step with everything else. When I finally reached the coffee shop, a man a few years older than me with a small gray ponytail looked up at me through the window and smiled almost as if he recognized me. The fact is, I have seen him several times before, and always in the same coffee shop, but we have never spoken to each other and this was the first time he had more than casually glanced in my direction. What did he see? Why did he smile? And why, a few minutes later after I entered the shop with the first arrival of our group, did he study me once again as he went to the counter for a clean spoon? He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans, and had a cell phone clasped to his belt. Is that significant? I was wearing my new sport coat and a black wool sweater. Did he wonder why I was dressed so warmly? By then I was wondering the same thing, but before I had left the house it had seemed cold, and so I had dressed accordingly. Or had he seen me as I had just seen myself? For that matter, who am I, and where does this kind of thinking lead?
October 25, 2004 — I don’t know. Wherever I go, I see people plowing along, being imbeciles. Quite often, it’s possible to stand right behind them or next to them without their knowing it, so oblivious they are of their surroundings. They clog the grocery store aisles, gawking at overpriced cardboard boxes of prepared “food,” just as if they were making an important decision, when in reality they are buying a three-dollar packet of nutritionless flakes. Ah, but they are “party flakes.” They are “instant.” Finally, they snort and lurch two or three feet further down the aisle, their mouths open, their noses running, their children whining and handling everything. All the while, I am there, losing my mind. There it goes. There goes my mind. Oh, well. I wasn’t using it anyway. I was only trying to find an affordable alternative to eating. I tried staying in bed, but I ended up with a backache. So I got up, and the next thing I knew, I was hungry. I went to the store. Everything, no matter what it is, costs twelve dollars a pound. I can’t afford twelve dollars a pound. Two items, and I’m over my budget. I barely have strength to push the cart. And then, there they are, clogging the aisle, thinking they are intelligent, when they don’t even know they have opposable thumbs — or are they disposable thumbs? “When you’re at the store,” his wife said, “remember to get a box of disposable thumbs.” Yes, dear. Thumbs. It’s right here on my list, next to the pressurized “Cheese Squiggle.” I still remember a special unadvertised event called “The Great Cracker Sale.” Two people died in the ensuing stampede, their heads crushed like overripe melons. It reminded me of something else on my list: “Any kind of fruit or vegetable that hasn’t been gassed or coated with wax.” I struck out again. The only thing unwaxed was a pile of dilapidated mushrooms. But they were on sale! I was so excited, I slipped and fell and hit my head. During the few seconds I was out, I dreamt an ambulance came, and that I was loaded onto a stretcher and hauled into the parking lot where it was raining pumpkins. The ambulance was an armored car. The smell of cash revived me. “So this is where my money is,” I said. “Where are we going?” The armored attendants said they were taking me to the cemetery, where I belonged. One of them said, “It’s okay, champ. Ya done good.” Then he jabbed a needle into my arm and started pumping me full of on-sale apple juice from concentrate, product of China. Another deal! I was so happy. Then I really came to, and found the store manager leaning over me, mumbling something about liability insurance. Then he said, “Have a nice day,” and melted into a pool of grease. The only thing left was his name tag. “Spill in produce!” a voice cried over the loudspeaker. “And don’t forget to visit our deli! For the next hour only, all bouts of food poisoning are absolutely free, or your money back!” They say dead men tell no tales. How wrong they are. How wrong they have always been. I am living proof of that.
October 26, 2004 — Sane, insane — what’s the difference? Who cares? If I’m mad, I’m mad. So what should I do? Take a pill? Report for treatment? Give some other nut the satisfaction of thinking he’s okay and I’m not, and pay him for the pleasure? Calling Doctor Labcoat. Calling Doctor Labcoat. Room 12 in need of assistance. It doesn’t matter. There is no one in Room 12. Can’t you get that through your head? No one but us mice. Squeak. The corridors are long in this place. Exceedingly long. The doors weigh a ton, and they have little windows full of wire. Yes, yes, we will break the windows if there is no wire. This is what we think about, day in and day out. We think about breaking wireless windows with our pale fists and slithering through the six-inch space like snakes, or pouring through the jagged opening like cartoon spiders with big knobby knees. During the night we think about other things. We think about how lonely we are, and we wonder if it is hunger we feel or something else. Other than that, everything is fine. Other than that, we don’t know whether we are out or in, off or on, down or up, or dead or alive. We wait for Doctor Labcoat to tell us. Good old Doctor Labcoat. He knows. We don’t know how he knows — the man is truly a marvel. He jumps from room to room on his big funny pogo stick, bouncing down the long corridor that leads from one town to the next, bouncing under streets and over railroad tracks when necessary, smiling all the while, his freshly laundered Ph.D. fluttering gaily in the breeze. He even helps direct traffic. Stop. Go. Wait. Okay, now it’s your turn. By the way, how often do you experience these feelings of uncontrollable rage? Really? You do? Well, don’t worry, because I know a place, a place, a place . . . you can go where everything will be all right. Calling Doctor Labcoat. Calling Doctor Labcoat. Room 12 in need of assistance. Again? Oh, very well. Have him do his writing exercises until I get there. That always calms him down.
October 27, 2004 — Today looks like a good day to replace the turn signal light bulb on the front left side of our van, assuming a dead bulb is what’s causing the signal to flash double-time in the back while doing nothing at all in the front. The right side works, so chances are the signal lever itself is not the problem. Once several years ago, the lever had to be replaced, and it cost over a hundred dollars. Levers are complicated these days. They operate the windshield wipers, the windshield washing mechanism, the turn signals, the radio, the hair-dryer, the map-folder, the cowcatcher, the shaver, the toothbrush, and half a dozen other things a person simply can’t do without. And to think there was a time we signalled with our arms — after we had rolled down the window by hand, of all embarrassing things. Most people thought the other person was waving, and so waved back, after which there was a low-speed collision that no one was too worried about because things like that happened so often. “Didn’t you see my signal?” “No. I thought you were waving.” “Really? I’ll be darned. Say, why don’t you stop by for supper tonight? I’d like you to meet the wife.” “Thanks. I’d be delighted.” And so on. Of course we haven’t dispensed with all hand signals, as any trip down the road will prove. And guns have made a comeback, giving drivers another way to express themselves in these stressful times. And stressful they are, since so many people are unemployed, and most others are living from paycheck to paycheck while hoping disaster doesn’t strike in the form of a repair bill or medical bill, either of which can push them over the edge and into insolvency. Which reminds me — the other day, after waiting over two years to buy a new shirt, I went to the bank to sign the necessary papers and take out a loan. Since it was for so much, the loan was refused, so I went to one of those brightly painted places that lends money against car titles. When I realized the shirt was going to cost more than the van was worth, I reconsidered, telling myself that in the grand scheme of things, shirts were not that important. Yes. It’s a grand scheme, all right. First you give up on shirts, then socks, then underwear, and then, finally, pants. Then someone calls you for a survey. They want to know if you are better off now than you were four years ago. When you tell them that four years ago you had a shirt and a pair of pants and then break down in tears, they quickly move on to the next question: which of the presidential candidates makes you feel safer? And you sputter, “They both have pants. I hate them. Now please leave me alone.” And then Election Day finally arrives. You are in the polling booth when you discover yet another hole in your old pants. This one is rather unfortunately placed, so you stay in the booth, hoping not to be discovered. The polls close. They find you dead in the booth, your ballot clutched in your hand. As it turns out, yours is the deciding vote. But you died before you voted, so it’s a tie, which can mean only one thing: the campaign starts all over again, and both candidates run on a new platform, promising shirts and pants for the masses. This revives you — at this point, why not? You sew up your most recent hole, then you plot and you plan until your big chance finally arrives, and then you shoot both candidates during one of their debates — and steal their pants. Immediately, you are declared the winner of the debate and elected president for life, after which you give a proud acceptance speech, and then die a second time. This time you stay dead. But you are happy, because you are buried not in one pair of pants, but two. The End.
October 28, 2004 — Now is as good a time as any, I suppose, to apologize. In doing my best to make something out of nothing, I have accidentally made nothing out of everything. This was never my intention, and still isn’t, though the opposite might seem to be true. And of course it is true, if that is what you happen to believe. I happen to believe otherwise. And anyone willing to stop and think the matter through, despite its apparent unimportance, will recognize the validity of my belief. Why would I labor long and hard with the goal of making nothing and going nowhere? I have a good sense of humor, but not that good. Besides, hasn’t television already cornered that market? No, I am honestly trying to make something out of nothing, which is really just another way of saying that I am trying to make something out of everything. Or, still more accurately, I am trying to make everything easier to endure and to understand, while trying to endure and understand it myself. Is it any wonder, then, that I fail? You’re just tired. Why don’t you relax and take a break? Well, I am tired. Of course I’m tired. I am the father of four children, the husband of one wife, the son of one mother, and a full-time dope. These things all require energy. But there are an awful lot of people expending far more energy than I am, who are without food, without family, or without hope, all because people like me are too selfish or lazy to recognize that we aren’t the center of the universe. Some of them — both the lazy and the distraught — live right here in our neighborhood, which really isn’t a neighborhood, but a place where people go to hide at night while they recover from a grueling day doing something they hate in order to survive, only to turn around and face it all again tomorrow. I’ve been here long enough to see them come and go, to hear them fight and argue, and even for one man to commit suicide by hanging. And yet the area appears peaceful, and even desirable. This is not to say that no one here is productive and happy. I only wish to point out that there is much more than meets the eye, not only here but everywhere, and that if more of us would take a moment to recognize that fact and look into things more deeply, we would all be better off. At any rate, we would be less likely to live as strangers, which we most certainly do, now more than ever. I find it extremely interesting and extremely sad that the more there are of us, the more isolated we become. We are isolated by fear. We are isolated by new technology. We are isolated by our desire for more, when we don’t even know what to do with what we have. In that way, we have all made nothing out of something. In part, at least, I guess that is what I am writing about.
October 29, 2004 — The clock is ticking. Quiet, you. Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m busy? I have far too many things to do today. Far too many. My mind keeps racing ahead. I can’t concentrate on the task at hand. Tick, tick, tick. Tickety-tick. Yes, I will get to it. But not now. I have to finish what I am doing first. Tickety. Tick? No. Not that either. Not now. Tickety-tock? What? That too? I’d forgotten about that. Well, I’m afraid that will have to wait as well. Now why don’t you — tick, tick — stop that confounded ticking and let me get my work done? Now, where was I? Oh, yes. ’Twas a misty morn, and the leaves were fallin’ down. Tick. And lo, tick, the lazy river was windin’ tickety-tick through the valley. ’Twas lappin’ at the murky shores, tick-tock, tick-tock, and singin’ a sad lullaby to the farms’n fields. TICK. The brown cows with their smudged white faces and dreamin’ eyes tock pressed their heads against the fence, and OUT came the maid with her TICK-TOCK pail. Tweedle-dee, she sang, tweedle-dum, how are my ladies this tockety-tickety morn? Did ye sleep well, or has the tickin’ kept ye awake? Ah! So loud it is, louder e’en than my master’s snorin’, the old goat. Well, this will only tick a moment, she said, then we will be done, and I will tock you out to the field. No. This isn’t working. This is a mess. All right. You win — this time. But I will get even. You can count on that.
October 30, 2004 — Like all war, the war in Iraq, still far from over, has done more than kill people and sap the economy. It has passed the lust for revenge to the next generation. Meanwhile, people who live in this country are already suffering grave moral, psychological consequences. Whether an individual’s response to the war and the propaganda that drives it is silence, acquiescence, outrage, or affirmation, that response exacts a toll. And the toll is collective. A nation cannot be healthy and happy with war on its conscience. Even people who do not think about war are affected by it. They are part of the body. The body is sick. If the head hurts, the rest of the body is forced to adjust until the pain subsides. If the cause of the pain isn’t treated and the pain continues, the body and not just the head will inevitably be compromised. When a person believes what he wants to believe instead of facing what really is, he is helping to perpetuate the illness, both in himself and in the collective conscience. This is why it is imperative that we learn to think for ourselves, and to know ourselves. As long as we allow others to think and act in our place, we will be unhappy tools of destruction. As long as we believe in the things that keep human beings apart, war, injustice, poverty, and hunger will continue. No politician, no form of legislation, no doctrine or dogma can bring about the necessary change. Only we can decide, one at a time. Until we do, our suffering and the suffering we cause will continue. Even if we try and fail as individuals, our collective positive effort can take us in the right direction. Doing nothing is what is killing us. Silence is murder. Ignorance is grief. Acquiescence is blood on our hands.
October 31, 2004 — And so we come limping to the end of October, weary from summer’s chase. The maples are yellow, the fields are brown, and pumpkins have taken center stage. I’m not referring to the various political candidates, most of whom are first class jackass-o-lanterns, but to real pumpkins. A friend called this morning a few minutes after seven, having forgotten to set back his clock. He was doing his laundry, or, as he calls it, tending to his fruit of the looms, getting ready to face a new week. He said his twenty-three-year-old son has a new job near Portland, a new apartment, and a new car. Poor kid. He’ll learn. Hey, maybe he can get me a job. I’m still pretty good with a shovel. Maybe I can clean up after the elephants in the parking lot. In situations like this it pays to know someone, since there will probably be 3,000 applicants. Who rides elephants these days? Lots of people — former SUV owners, mostly, people who feel they need something just a little bigger. I have already seen several elephant lanes at drive-through java joints. Little bigger — I like that word combination. Little bugger is another good one. Say, your little bugger is a little bigger. What’re you feedin’ him? Oh, we feed him bugle corn and slats. Well, no wonder. Yes. No wonder — except when it comes to apples. Yesterday I had a fantastic apple. It was a Fuji apple, grown in an orchard not far from here. It was very crisp and very sweet. So, things are wonderful in the apple department. And by now my friend’s laundry is done, and he has changed his clocks, and maybe even his socks. Isn’t life grand? No? Well, would you settle for a little bigger?
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
Also by William Michaelian
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Another Song I Know
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