One Hand Clapping – November 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
November 1, 2004 — Oooooooh, tomorrow is Election Day, otherwise known as Halloween Revisited. And in a few days, weeks, or months, when “democracy” triumphs once again and the results are finally processed, the candidates will remove their masks and the next round of promises will be broken. Bush: I honestly cain’t remember saying there’d be no draft. Kerry: When I said I’d build a coalition, I meant I would build an ition out of coal. I’m sorry if anyone misunderstood. The people: Wah. You said. I’m gonna tell my mommy. Political talk show hosts: Oink, oink. Blut. Last night our seventeen-year-old son went trick-or-treating with two fifteen-year-old friends, a boy and a girl. Our son wore a long black wig parted in the middle and an old pair of almost-round sunglasses of mine that I had filed in our kitchen junk drawer years ago. He looked exactly like “shock jock” Howard Stern of radio fame. The girl wore a white wedding dress and tennis shoes. The other boy, who is thin and already six feet two inches tall, went as a bright-yellow plastic mustard squeeze bottle. They had great fun. People gave them candy. Now it’s Monday, and they’re stunned by the good fortune of finding themselves in school. Monday, Monday. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, but I don’t care — by which I mean I care so much it hoits. But what the heck can I do? Don’t worry, Bill, you’ve done enough already. Thank you. . . . Hey, wait. How do you mean that? Duh. Snort. What’s wrong with me this morning? I know — I ate no candy last night. None. Zero. Why? I forgot. I became distracted. I was busy thinking ahead. “What lies ahead?” I asked myself whilst sitting in a crumpled heap and staring at the wall. “Is it really November, or something else, something no one expects? I’ve got to get a leg up on this. People are depending on me to tell them.” We are lost without you, O Great One. Where do we go from here? That’s easy. We’re going back to Square One. We need to start over. Everything we have done to this point has been a mistake. Look at me, for instance. There are over 200,000 words in this journal, and I still speak the same gibberish. Maybe I should stop this journal and start another. I could include all of the things I’ve thought about during the last twenty-odd months — and I do mean odd — but didn’t write down. Why didn’t I write them down? Well, for one thing, if I had, this journal would be six times the size with half the meaning. That’s only a rough estimate, of course. I’ve never been good at math. Another reason is that I — oh, who am I trying to fool? I have no other reason. I have an affliction. A disease. It’s called hope.
November 2, 2004 — A wild southwest wind is roaring through the valley, promising a wet day ahead. A cow just flew by, a fence post, a milking barn, and a farmer on his tractor. An uprooted apple tree is rolling down the street with the dexterity of a tumbleweed. And there goes a ballot box. My, my. And look! Why, it’s the president on a broom stick. Say, is that snow I see? No, those are falling chads. Well, so much for the Election Day weather report. Now, a message from our sponsor: Has this campaign left you feeling worn-out and depressed? Ask your doctor if QuickExit is right for you. Known side effects may include one or more of the following: regret, sudden realizations of past mistakes, desperation, and permanent drowsiness. Do not take with other medications unless you really want to or have nothing better to do. Do not attempt to use a pen, typewriter, guitar, paint brush, carving knife, or other means of self-expression while using . . . while using . . .
while . . .
November 3, 2004 — I almost hate to begin this entry, since it must inevitably be about politics, a grim subject I truly despise. At the same time, I am eager to begin. I am always eager to begin. Starting anew is a weakness of mine, a silly habit that often gets me into trouble I can only get out of by writing. In other words, I write my way into trouble, and I write my way out. But I can’t always tell the difference between being in and out of trouble. Am I in trouble already, for instance? Or am I permanently in trouble? Well, of course I am. I am alive — I think. Scribble, scribble. I confess I slept almost none last night. When I fell into bed around midnight, the election wasn’t decided. It was “too close to call,” although the incumbent was “confident of a victory.” When I got up at five this morning after enduring several nightmares, I saw on television that the incumbent had amassed 254 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win, and the challenger 252. This time around, it seems the election hinges on the state of Ohio and its “provisional” ballots — ballots cast by people whose registration either didn’t appear on the voter rolls, or whose eligibility was challenged prior to voting by decent, God-fearing republican lawyers who were dispatched enmasse to discourage or trip up voters they thought might vote the wrong way. This is America. Thank goodness we have decent, God-fearing republican lawyers to protect our rights. My question is, does anyone really trust the election results? Naturally, if the incumbent wins, most of the people who voted for him — I’m sorry, I can’t even bear to write the candidates’ names this morning — will think everything is hunky-dory. (Is that how you spell hunky-dory? I’ll be darned. I’ve been alive all these years, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever written hunky-dory. I hope I have it right. Anyway. You see I still have my sense of humor. Har-har. Weep.) Personally, I don’t see how the results can be trusted. There is simply too much at stake for the monsters in power to leave things to chance. They don’t operate that way — at least they haven’t during the last four years, during which they have turned the world upside down for their own benefit and the benefit of their cruel, wealthy buddies. And that’s what amazes me about voters. Whether the election is honest or not, whether in the end the incumbent wins or the challenger wins, tens of millions of people will have voted to keep a regime that is bleeding them economically dry, that is raping and impoverishing the planet, and that is responsible for murdering thousands and thousands of people — and those are just the highlights. To top it off, the man the regime has chosen as its puppet-mouthpiece is a blatant moron who can’t talk, and who was soundly beaten by his opponent in three televised debates. And still — and still — tens of millions of people said, Yes, he is the man for me. They said, I will follow him. What could be sadder? And what does this mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that happy days are here again. At the moment, I am assuming the incumbent will win. I have always assumed that if it were a close race, that he would be allowed to continue as president. Everyone remembers what happened in Florida four years ago, and how that race was decided not by the voters, but by the Supreme Court. Why expect any different? Still, I could be wrong. But there is one thing I am not wrong about. People need to wake up and stop trusting politicians with their lives, and their children and grandchildren’s lives. We don’t need a president. We need an honest moment alone, in the dark. We need to step away from our bibles and cash registers long enough to remember that we all belong to the human race, and that we are alive on a planet floating in space, and that there are millions of other planets, all in a universe we know next to nothing about. Ka-ching. Oh, sir — wait! You forgot your change.
November 4, 2004 — Well, the nightmare continues. The man who stole the presidency in 2000 has been “re-elected.” Many are referring to the coming four years as his second term. I call it a countdown to conscription. Ye shall see, my dearies, what thou hast done. Meanwhile, let us all embrace the mighty W’s new health care plan, which is doing jumping jacks while waiting in the unemployment line. And you other nations, beware. If you don’t behave properly, we might decide to liberate you, too. Now. Let us wash the blood from our hands and return to the glorious subject of life. This morning here in Salem, Oregon, we are experiencing our first fall frost. The sky is clear, the air is still, and the rooftops are completely white. Yesterday afternoon, I journeyed with our youngest son, sans wig, sans spectacles, to the local Goodwill store to retrieve a five-dollar one-string ukelele he had seen there a few days earlier. It was gone. He was horribly shaken. I did my best to console him, of course. But, good father that I am, I also gave him some important advice. I said, “That’ll teach you to pass up a good deal.” He was about to bite my arm when I said, “Nicht hier,” suddenly lapsing into German for no accountable reason. Incidentally, the first time I heard those words was almost twenty years ago when our family was visiting the General Sherman tree in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Fresno. For many decades, the giant redwoods have attracted people from all over the world. On that particular day, it had attracted a young family from Germany. Whenever his little blond son got to scampering about and enjoying himself, his father would say, “Nicht hier.” My question is, if not hier, where? We left the store. But instead of heading home, I suggested we make a trip to the little book store at the library. While there, we picked up several nice, inexpensive books — mostly poetry this time, and mostly old stuff no one is interested in anymore, except for a few people in colleges, who are still trying to snuff the life out of literature by explaining it to death to young people who would be better off frolicking in the sunlight, or, better yet, writing their own poetry. Nicht hier. At any rate, sometime during the next ten years, I plan to read “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” by James Russell Lowell. Ten years after that, I will make a brief attempt at finding out who James Russell Lowell is, or was. Well, let’s say is. I like is. Just because someone dies, that doesn’t mean he becomes someone else. James Russell Lowell is still James Russell Lowell. Death didn’t turn him into Samuel Coleridge. We bought a beautiful hardbound edition of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, complete with the illustrations that appeared in the 1883 edition. Price: three dollars. A bit extravagant, to be sure, but I was willing to do anything to help put the ukelele incident behind us. One must move forward in life. One must be bold and daring, and then go home for supper. But before we did that, we stopped at my mother’s house. You see, I had known since early morning that it would freeze today. There had been a big storm the day before, and now it was foggy and the air had — well, suffice it to say I knew. I wasn’t a farmer all those years for nothing. So we stopped at my mother’s house, and we dragged her enormous potted jade plant into her garage to keep it from freezing. “Do you really think it will freeze tomorrow?” she said, and I said, “I don’t think it will freeze, I know it will freeze. There’s a big difference.” And now, look: it’s frozen outside. Naturally, if it hadn’t frozen, I would have left out this entire story.
November 5, 2004 — I’ll never figure out politics. The president says he opposes gay marriage, then he goes out and gets a mandate. Isn’t that a bit contradictory? What message will that send to the morally upright masses who voted to keep him in office? For it is important to remember what Jesus said so long ago: “We gotta liberate them Eye-rackees, before they liberate us.” (Bush 2, Verse 3, the Upended Edition.) Another frozen morning — I’m tempted to call it a frozen day in hell, but actually things are quite pleasant as long as you don’t turn on the television or read the newspapers. The future? Well, who knows what the future will bring? We know it will be bad, but, hey, we’re used to it. Can’t afford to go to the doctor? Don’t worry about it. Can’t afford to heat your home this winter or put gas in your car? Ditto. Tired of dirty air and dirty water? Toughen up. Unemployment? Soon a thing of the past. We have war, and that takes care of everything. Never mind that members of the armed forces in Iraq are padding out their Humvees with plywood and calling them cardboard coffins. That’s a minor detail. Death is a minor detail. One hundred thousand Iraqis are dead, but we don’t care, because “freedom is on the march.” Listen. I think I can hear freedom now. No, I’m sorry. Those are tanks, guns, and helicopters. And crying mothers and children. But I’m sure freedom is out there somewhere. Oh, yes. There she is. Listen. Can you hear her weeping?
November 6, 2004 — It isn’t a surprise that the merchants of death and oppression are shown in a positive light, now that a handful of giant corporations own the media and derive benefit from their laws and policies. At the same time, the merchants of smut and crass materialism are also given free reign, since this helps keep the masses distracted — or perhaps stunned would be a better word. But it all amounts to the same thing: unhappiness, frustration, ignorance. The thing to do, of course, is to walk away from it and live. After all, someone has to keep the ancient art alive. It might as well be you.
November 7, 2004 — Yesterday a friend in San Francisco told me November is National Novel Writing Month, or National Writing Month, or something similar, and that to celebrate he is trying to write a complete novel by month’s end. I think I did see a short “article” about it in the paper a few days ago, but I tend to dismiss such things. At any rate, I have always encouraged my fellow rotters — I mean writers — to take on that sort of project. There is nothing like writing against a deadline to stir up the creative bile. In fact, I rarely take on a new work without first imposing a time limit. While this approach might not be for every writer, I do believe every writer should try it at least a time or two, provided he is willing to keep to the bargain he has made. If he says he is going to write a story in a three-hour sitting, then he must not take longer than that. He can’t allow the reasonable side of his brain to convince him that what he is doing is ridiculous, or that the results won’t be as good as they would if he took a week, and so on. In other words, he can’t make excuses. Years ago in an interview, William Saroyan said that all that is needed to write a novel is thirty days, a ream of paper, and a typewriter. These days, many writers feel threatened by a statement like that, having been told since the first grade that the first order of business is to write a rough draft, and then to go back over what they have written a dozen or two dozen times until they hate the piece enough to call it done. What teachers should be telling their young students is that they shouldn’t be afraid to trust their instincts, and that if they stay alert while they work, the writing itself will tell them what comes next. And isn’t that the point of writing in the first place? One of the scariest things about taking an overly careful approach to writing is that the writer can get into the habit of not trusting himself. This is a terrible way to proceed. If a writer doesn’t trust himself, why should he expect his eighth draft to be better than his first, third, or fifth? Now, for some strange reason, I am reminded of something the Spanish pianist and conductor José Iturbi said to Keenan Wynn in Mario Lanza’s first movie, That Midnight Kiss. In one scene, when truck driver Keenan Wynn is hammering out a melody on the piano as if he were banging on a load of scrap iron, Iturbi says, “Play it, my boy, don’t beat it to death.”
November 8, 2004 — A lot can happen between now and the presidential inauguration in January, but it seems likely the event will draw massive protests, not only in this country but around the world. In recent days, there have been protests in Portland and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. As usual, the incidents were played down in the news. But this morning on an independent Portland radio station, one witness said that an unlucky woman who wasn’t even a protester was dragged by her hair and then restrained by four police officers and arrested. The bystander’s response to this treatment was, “I’m a protester now.” During the same broadcast, there was also mention of an AP article that told of a single Ohio precinct in which around 600 votes were cast on electronic voting machines furnished by Diebold. The results: 4,200 votes recorded for Bush. The article disappeared within about ten minutes. One can only assume it didn’t meet the news industry’s rigorous standards for spin and suppression. To be sure, there is a very frightening aspect to this whole situation. If people’s votes are not being counted and results are being otherwise manipulated — in other words, if the results of an election cannot be trusted — then people will be forced to find other ways to make their voices heard. In other words, they will resort to violence. Already, the administration has shown its true colors by the way it conducted itself during the campaign, by allowing only staunch supporters to attend its rallies, and by suppressing all forms of dissent. Under the circumstances, it is not about to address the subject of fair elections, or the anger and doubt felt by the millions of people it has already betrayed many times over. This is not a recipe for a happy four years. Back in March 2003, the media was trying to sell the idea that the war in Iraq would be quick and neat. Since then, the man in the White House has proclaimed “Mission Accomplished,” made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad in which he stood before the troops with a plastic turkey, and changed his story many times about his reasons for going to war. Now Iraq is going up in flames, and has become a rallying point for great numbers of people who hate what this country has come to represent and want it out of the region. Knowing this, the media has the gall to say the recent election was decided on the president’s stand on “moral values.” Moral values, of all things.
November 9, 2004 — With the news camera pointed at him, the young soldier described how he was feeling at that moment. He said, “Anger. That’s all I feel. I just want to find the person who did this.” His face was distorted by ignorance and fear. A couple of years ago, he was in high school, goofing off in class and trying to impress the girls. Now he is thousands of miles from home and wants to find a stranger and kill him. Why? Because this is war. Because a soldier is not trained to think for himself. Because he is trained to follow orders and kill, and along the way, he is taught to believe that killing is not murder. But it is murder, and deep down he and every other human being knows it is murder. Now U.S. forces are storming the town of Fallujah, thirty miles west of Baghdad. As if they were referring to a new video game, the government has named the assault Operation Phantom Fury. Is it not troubling to know that grown men are the ones who come up with these names?
November 10, 2004 — My sleep has been so lousy lately that I have to get up and work just to rest. In fact, I can’t rest unless I am working. Take now, for instance. I have typed just a few words, but I can already feel the tension beginning to subside. What kind of tension? Well, there is muscular tension, and there is psychological tension. Both are the result of stupidity. What I need, most likely, is a long, solitary walk in the woods. Oh! But don’t you know? They chopped the woods down long ago. There’s a big mall there now. Everyone looks at me strangely. Are you new around here, by any chance? No. Well, yes. I am new. I’ve lived here for seventeen years. Isn’t that new? No answer. Ha-ha. Well, this happens all the time. I try to make a little conversation, and then people walk away. Now. Where was I? Ah, yes. A long walk in the woods. I like the sound of that. Hoooooooot, says the wise old owl. Chick-chick-chick, says the bushy-tailed squirrel. Ridi Pagliacci, says the weeping tenor. I love you very muchee, says Groucho Marx. Ha-ha-ha-ha. . . . Jeez. And yet, and yet, I can feel myself relaxing. Really. I feel much better now than I did just a few crippled sentences ago. Isn’t that interesting? Or is it merely sad? Am I recovering from something I didn’t know I had? Am I afflicted with something I am aware of but refuse to acknowledge? These are not idle questions. In all likelihood, these are the questions that keep me up at night. There is no rest for the wicked. Great. Now you want to talk. Ridi Pagliacci . . .
November 11, 2004 — It is amazing how often I feel I am about to step off a glorious precipice, and how exhilarating that feeling is. I am speaking in a literary sense, as it applies to sudden revelations about works in progress, and ideas for new works that only a moment earlier did not exist. I am also speaking of my life itself, which I also regard as a work in progress, lumpy, disorganized, and hum-drum though it may be, and obviously in need of several re-writes before it reaches the big screen. For instance, at this moment, I feel as excited as a small boy who is beholding for the first time the wonders of a freshly peeled orange. Could there be anything more grand? Well, possibly. Waiting for an elevator before an important meeting at the U.N., the president could be greeted by an avalanche of ping-pong balls when the door opens, or two tons of dry pinto beans. We might call this “terrorism with a sense of humor.” Imagine. When a terrorist strikes, no one is hurt, they are merely startled by the perpetrator’s devious sense of humor. These random acts of humor will not go unpunished, the president warned after several beans had been removed from his ears and shoes. Hey! What’s this in my coffee? Those? Why, sire, those are the crusty toenails of shade-grown peasants. Fruits of the World Trade Agreement, you might say. Oh. Well, that’s all right, then. There is a bowl of oranges on a sunny breakfast table in a faraway land, beckoning. There is a knife with which to perform the sacrifice, and ancient dishes made of bone. A priest enters, wearing a beautiful apron made by his mother. It’s nice to have a day off, he says. Those rituals have a way of wearing you down. He bows to his guests, then to the oranges, and begins a long prayer. While he prays, a small boy grabs one of the oranges and rapidly peels it in the middle of the kitchen floor. When the fragrance of the orange reaches the nostrils of the assembled throng, there is a mighty commotion. The priest blathers on. The boy eats the orange. Everyone gets up to dance. While they dance, the dishes are broken, and the ancient bones ground to dust. Someone stabs the priest with the knife, then strangles him with his apron strings. As quietly as I can, I leave the room. These people are nuts. Still, I grab an orange before I go.
November 12, 2004 — I sat on a dock on a faraway bay, peeling my orange, which was just an orange until I claimed it as my own. But the rind, I reasoned, remained just a rind, so I dropped it into the water. Suddenly, a turbulence commenced, sending waves over the dock, moistening me a great deal and dumping the rind in my lap. “All right,” I said, “I’ll look at the rind,” and I turned the rind over in my wet hands. This caused me to drop the inner part of the orange, the part I had planned to eat. Plop! it went, right into the water. Much to my surprise, this time, the water remained calm. The bay was very deep, but the water was very clear. I could see the orange on the bottom. It winked at me. I looked at the rind in my hand. Thoughtlessly, I threw it back in the water, and waves crashed over me again. “Well,” I said, noticing that the rind had been returned to my lap, “it looks like this might go on all day.” The water was calm once again. I looked for the orange on the bottom, but it was gone. I looked at the rind. I ate the rind. It was quite good, really, better than I had expected a rind to be. I smiled to myself. As I sat smiling, the sun began to set. But it was not really the sun. It was the orange, in all its juicy glory. And as I sat on a dock on a faraway bay, I pondered the lesson I had learned that day.
November 13, 2004 — What I learned — among a great many other things — is this: even the sun deserves a holiday. We take it for granted, you know, the sun. And yet it is the key to our existence. Well, it’s there, isn’t it? So why worry about it? I’m not worried, I am simply making an observation. The sun is the key to our existence. Without it, we’re finished, whether it dies tomorrow or forty billion years from now. Now, the government will tell you it doesn’t matter. The government will tell you it believes firmly in science, but that in this particular case, there are too many variables, or not enough facts to go on, or something along those lines. The government will tell you that the best thing you can do is to go out and buy stuff you don’t need, and watch as many videos as you can get your hands on, and let it worry about the sun. In other words, it will tell you the same thing it does about global warming. But if the sun does die tomorrow, and is replaced by a big juicy orange, then what? Well, in the beginning, most people won’t even notice — most adults, anyway. Small children will notice — at least the ones not forcibly strapped to television screens. They will say, “Oh!” and it will make perfect sense to them. One day the sun, the next day a big orange, tomorrow, a lavender apricot and a side order of French toast. The poets, too, will notice. Right away, they will call a big meeting, by which I mean several hundred thousand small meetings held simultaneously, because, after all, poets aren’t the most organized people in the world, except in matters of extreme importance, such as coffee and cigarettes. Ah! you say, but isn’t that just a silly stereotype? Are poets really all smokers and coffee drinkers? The answer: of course not. Most poets can’t afford coffee and cigarettes. That’s why it’s a matter of extreme importance. And what will the poets say about such a momentous thing as the sun being replaced by an orange? They will say, “I don’t think it looks like an orange. It looks more like a raging bull dragging an island across the horizon.” They will say, “The bull I can see — and how, brother — but the island, you’re making up.” And an argument will ensue. But no one but the poets will know it’s an argument, because contrasting views will appear only in obscure literary magazines, and only when the editors have enough money to publish them. Still, there will be an argument, and this will slowly become a movement, and the movement will eventually die a natural death without having solved a thing, because most of the original poets will have died of poverty and societal neglect and new poets unaware of the nuances of the original argument will have taken their place and be more concerned about advancing their careers than they are about suns, oranges, bulls, islands, and horizons. “What we need,” they will proclaim in highly unoriginal language in journals that go widely unread, “is coffee and cigarettes.” Thus preoccupied, they won’t realize that it is quite possible that the sun was really an orange all along. Should this seem hard to swallow, er, ah, uhm, it is only necessary to see the universe as a child sees it, or a playful god: suns, suns, everywhere suns, all on the tree of life! isn’t it grand, I could pick them an eat them like an orange!
November 14, 2004 — One book I’m not reading at the moment, but have been on the verge of beginning for quite some time — it’s right here, no more than six inches from my keyboard, beneath a couple of other books — is an international twentieth century short story anthology I bought quite a few months ago for three dollars and fifty cents at the library book store. It’s called A World of Great Stories, and was published in 1947 by Avenel Books. I mentioned the book here when I first brought it home, read two or three of the stories, and then became distracted by other books. But now it appears it might be its turn to do the distracting. First, though, I will have to finish Mark Twain’s wonderful Life on the Mississippi, about half of which I have read so far. At the same time, I have been pondering a rather frightening idea that came to me a few weeks ago while I was brushing my teeth. Like most of my ideas, this one, if undertaken, threatens to further undermine my health and sanity — which is what makes it so appealing. The idea is this, and it is really quite simple: to read a story in the book, and then, immediately afterward, to write a story of my own, and to continue that way one by one through the entire book, until 115 stories have been read and 115 stories have been written. I confess that I felt a strong flush of excitement when the idea first popped into my head. This was followed by a wave of nausea, which made it necessary for me to abbreviate my oral care. Despite that, I bravely took the book off the shelf, paged through it thoughtfully, and then left it on my work table, where it has taunted me ever since. Such are the days of my life. Now, it’s quite possible that there are other, better books to use as a springboard for this kind of project. I don’t know. But I really don’t think it matters. In my mind, a story read is a good thing, and a story written is a good thing. Also, I like the idea of listening to voices from around the world, though I realize how un-American that sounds. In fact, the way things are going these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if such books are banned by the Bush regime as it relentlessly tightens the noose. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone in the Bush regime reads anything other than duck-hunting or golfing manuals. In matters of repression, their lawyers do the reading. Suffice it to say, time is of the essence — as usual, as it has always been. Oh! There it goes again. I do wish that book would stop looking at me like that.
November 15, 2004 — Oregon lost another 3,200 jobs in the month of October, once again hindering the president’s economic recovery. One would think this state would cheerfully join the rest of the nation as it makes rapid strides toward higher standards of freedom and prosperity, but, no, it would rather attract attention by deliberately failing to squeeze blood out of its collective turnip. This negative thinking is hard to understand. Here we have a compassionate president working hard to give us all jobs at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, and we thumb our noses at him. Talk about ungrateful. The least we could do while we wait for more Wal-Marts and McDonald’s to be built is to meet him halfway by joining the military. Of course, many here already have. An interesting coincidence, that. From the halls of Umatilla, to the fields of Amity, we fight our nation’s battles, on the sand for little fee. I love a rousing war tune, don’t you? What? What did you say? I can’t hear you over the shooting. Oh, really? You say we killed 1,600 “insurgents” in Fallujah in just one week? Say, how about that? That’s what I call democracy in round numbers. It’s nice to know the Iraqi people are embracing their newly granted freedom. For awhile there, I was afraid they didn’t appreciate all we we’ve been doing for them.
November 16, 2004 — If we peel away the hair and skin to reveal the skull, and then crack open the skull with a special mallet and chisel made for that purpose, we are pretty sure to find the brain. Like toes, eyeballs, and fingernails, brains are quite similar in appearance, though experts, of course, will notice differences that the rest of us miss. But for all practical purposes, brains are alike. For instance, if we were to remove the brains of everyone in the Bush administration and put them in jars and line the jars up on a table, it would be impossible to tell which brain belonged to the president and which to his newly appointed Secretary of State, the gentle Miss Condoleeza Rice, or to any of the other noble servants of our great nation — though it might be reasoned that since the president hasn’t used his brain, that brain might be in better condition — but, then again, my guess is that his combined alcohol and cocaine abuse nullifies that advantage. Anyway, the point being, here are several dozen brains in jars lined up on a table, and here we are, looking at them, and wondering how in the world these coiled lumps of gray matter could have done so much harm. And yet, if we were to perform our hypothetical operation on a group of sweet, cookie-baking grandmothers, and if we were to mix the grannies’ brains with the politicians’, we would still not be able to tell the brains apart. I don’t know. I find this very upsetting. We should be able to tell. I say this because, for some odd reason, many of us are unable to differentiate between a genuinely nice person and a corrupt, evil person, even side by side while they are alive. Some people think the president is a good, kind man. There are even good, kind cookie-baking grandmothers who think this. How can this be, you ask? Well, one thing is certain: if we crack the grandmothers’ heads open like an egg, and drop their brains in a frying pan, and scramble them in olive oil with just a touch of garlic, we will not only be no closer to the answer, we will also be put in jail, even if we promise the world that we were only joking. My advice is, therefore, to scramble only the brains of politicians. After all, turnabout is fair play.
November 17, 2004 — How about that? I have already been contacted by the SGA, otherwise known as the Squeamish Grandmothers Association. Now, calm down ladies. If you will take the time to read back over the last several hundred entries, you will find that I have what is called a wicked — oh, all right, sick — sense of humor. But if you read between the lines, you will realize that it isn’t my fault, but, rather, the fault of your kind, gentle, compassionate, God-fearing, murdering, cocaine-snorting president. Humor is a survival instinct. I would never really crack a grandmother’s head open and scramble her brain in olive oil with a touch of garlic — while your morally upright “family values” president has signed off on the deaths of tens of thousands, to mention but one highlight of his career. Seen in that perspective, I think my sense of humor is a valuable, praiseworthy thing. Besides, my frying pan is only big enough to handle a couple of brains — hardly worth the effort with a hungry family to feed. Oops. There I go again. What I’m trying to say — and you can read this at your next meeting — is that you should stop hiding behind your cookies and start paying attention to what is going on, because the adorable kids you are baking cookies for will soon be old enough to put on a uniform and have their brains scrambled by Mr. Blood-On-His Hands in the White House. And believe me, he isn’t joking.
November 18, 2004 — It’s a beautiful morning here in the good old USA, land of the blissfully unaware and home of the electronic voting machine with proprietary code and no paper trail. Outside, a gentle literary rain is falling — the very type of rain that Mark Twain eschewed, because he thought writing about the weather was taking the easy way out, unless said weather could be proved to have a direct effect on character or story development. And since only a fool would disagree with a writer as great as Mark Twain, it seems I must now prove that my mention of the weather is necessary, and not mere window-dressing. Very well. I will do just that, beginning with the canoes jostling for position against the foundation of the house, and the foul language violently erupting from the mouths of their drivers. Alas, the good folks in our neighborhood have little experience with canoes, SUVs being better suited to their busy lifestyle. I don’t own a canoe myself. Being a bit old-fashioned, I would much rather remain in the ark and wait for the waters to recede than join in the general panic. In that way, I guess I am like Noah, give or take a cubit. The neighbors, though, are quite afraid to miss even half a day’s scurrying and shopping. Quite simply, they deem it a waste of good caffeine to stay at home. And so out come their canoes, and up they wash upon our lawn, and bang they go against our foundation, where they remain tangled for hours amongst our rhododendrons. Everyone is angry about the rain. They are more than angry: they are personally offended, and they take it out on our foundation. They also take it out on me. Often, those able to free themselves from the wreckage crawl up the side of the house like spring peepers and look in our windows. Others come to our door and ring the bell, and shout obscenities when I don’t answer. The most persistent and business-minded among them want to sell me an insurance policy, or real estate, or satellite television service, or caustic liquids with which to spray our kitchen counter. Between assaults, I open the door and maliciously collect their business cards. That way they know I know what they have to sell, and they know I am inside knowing it, and they think they know that I am calling their competition, which of course I’m not, because I hate their competition as much as I hate them and their stupid canoes. But I am not always this evil. There are times when my heart overflows with compassion for these wretched souls, and I want to reach out to them. When I feel this way, I usually have a quick snort. If the feeling persists, I have another snort for good measure, and then I go to one of the windows facing the street, slide back the glass, and call out in my most amiable voice, “How’s the weather out there?” This drives them wild.
November 19, 2004 — The hardest thing about writing is not writing, but recognizing and accepting the fact that writing is a solitary pursuit. Until this is understood, writing will be more difficult than it should be. It is not possible to write by committee. A writer might feel comforted by discussing a work in progress with others, but it is this very feeling that cripples him and keeps him from discovering his natural style and voice. If a writer feels the need to discuss anything, he should discuss it with himself, in his own head and on paper. He should refrain from sharing work that isn’t done, or that he feels might still need improvement. When one shares a piece of writing or anything else, it should be the best he has to offer. What prevents a writer from moving forward in this fashion is fear — fear of himself; fear of being alone; fear of not being accepted by others. For writers, and for everyone else, fear is the great stumbling block. Fear has to be faced.
November 20, 2004 — I have always reserved the right to drop from sight without notice, but at the moment I can remember no time when I “exercised the option,” as they like to say in the financial world. But this is probably because I have never really been in sight. For instance, I have little trouble with autograph hounds, and have yet to be the subject of tabloid gossip. My formula is simple: I am a stable family man and I drive an old minivan that looks like a hard-boiled egg. Well, I’m a family man, anyway. Stable I’m not. Loyal and predictable, yes. But to get back to the subject, which I admit doesn’t really exist, I do seriously cling to my right to drop from sight without notice. What circumstances would lead to such a move? First and foremost would be a threat to our family’s safety and well-being. Second would be needing to work on a major project but not having the time. I almost said “not having the peace of mind,” but I didn’t because I rarely have that anyway — or, more accurately, I have it in some dimensions but not others — and it doesn’t keep me from writing. In fact, not having peace of mind might be why I write in the first place. It’s hard to tell. Either way, it certainly has a profound effect on what I write. This is not to say I am a tortured soul, though I reserve the right to become one should the need arise. Now, I will contradict myself by admitting that I do occasionally drop from sight, but only for short times. Sometimes I drop from sight for an hour; sometimes for a day, sometimes for three or four days. This hardly qualifies as dropping from sight, but for someone who prides himself on being readily available, it is a major thing. These short-term disappearances almost always have to do with my work. Now and again it is because I don’t feel like talking to anyone, which is another way of saying two things: one, I don’t feel like listening to myself blab, and two, I have temporarily lost the will to drag others down to my level. Those who have known me for any length of time are aware of this, and I am sure appreciate the break. Those who don’t know me, but who think they do, take offense. To them I say, fine, if being offended somehow makes you feel better, than go right ahead. It beats putting yourself in my shoes, and is therefore healthier and safer for you psychologically.
November 21, 2004 — My brother called from Armenia last night. He calls most nights, but this time he used the telephone, so we had what amounted to a conversation, more of which I could hear, apparently, than he. At one point he said, “How does my voice sound?” and I said, “a little thin, but clear.” After a brief silence, he told me he could barely hear me, and I said, “I’m already shouting at the top of my lungs,” which was true, much to the amusement of everyone in the house. Then, in the background, I heard his wife say, “Tell him to come for coffee.” I said I would rather have a glass of Hasmik wine. Hasmik is my brother’s wife’s name. When they were here briefly last April, Hasmik brought a bottle of dessert wine with delightful Muscat overtones, and the label said “Hasmik 1980.” In other words, it had been bottled when Armenia was still a Soviet republic, and when Brezhnev was alive. This was even before my brother and I had traveled to Armenia for the first time in 1982, when Hasmik (the girl, not the wine) was still a mysterious dream floating across the night sky. There was an early snowstorm while we were there in 1982, and then Brezhnev died. I don’t think he died because of the snow, but the nation was plunged into official mourning, and somber music was played on TV for hours on end. Then the sun came out, the snow melted, comrade Brezhnev was salted away, and life resumed. I lit an Armenian cigarette and listened to the mechanics shouting below the window of my room, thinking, Well, here I am, now what? There was water in a pitcher on a table near the bed, and near the water were several ripe pears and a knife. It was a beautiful scene, very poetic and very lonely, so I sat down and made some notes to that effect, none of which survive, thank goodness. The last thing I need right now is to be haunted by notes that are twenty-two years old. I am haunted enough by the ones that are two years old, and five, and ten. And later on, no doubt I will be haunted by these, especially since they are already part of the public Internet record, and since I have every intention of defying common sense and shepherding them into print. Then again, that might be left to my literary executor, a person I pity even now. In the meantime, I still wonder about those shouting mechanics. What are they doing now? What is everyone doing whom I saw from the great vantage point of youthful ignorance, love, and confusion? They are living, of course, and blissfully unaware of my ramblings. And to those who have died, I offer a belated farewell. I kneel at your graves, and light incense there, and go humbly among your shadows.
November 22, 2004 — This morning I am pleased to see that real leaves have begun to fall from the two poplar trees printed on the Armenian postcard I keep here on my work table. Such is the power of memory. Before the trees a river runs, and behind them looms the majestic twin peaks of Ararat, known to Armenians as Massis. I inhale the aroma of the sticky poplars, and marvel at how the leaves have partially covered my papers and books, as if to soften the edges of my grief and madness. I will not brush them away. Instead, I will spend the morning watching the river, and wait until its pulse merges with mine. Only yesterday, there was no one in the picture. Today, there is. And perhaps as soon as tomorrow, the poplars will have gone bare, and winter will have arrived. My winter. The mythic winter of truth and folly finally revealed, while the trees, like two silent brothers, watch over me.
November 23, 2004 — Where our old Alicante vineyard should have been, there were ten acres of grotesque tomato plants. My father pointed to a large ripe tomato that was as wide as a dinner plate. I went to it and said, “This one?” and he said, “no, that one,” directing me to a tomato beside it that was even larger. It was a big tomato, all right, far too big to be appealing. Then we abruptly turned our attention to the neighbor’s Thompson vineyard. It was a mess, as usual, full of weeds and broken grape stakes, and the soil was in horrible condition. My father and I exchanged a few remarks on the subject, but they seemed rather pointless, since our own vineyard had disappeared and a freak tomato patch had taken its place. And that’s as far as the dream went. But it is the second night in a row that I have dreamed I was talking to my father. The first night, the situation was more practical, and had to do with some sort of work on the farm. I can’t remember the details. What I remember is my father’s presence, and his obvious concern about whatever it was we were talking about. Dreams like these make for some interesting days. It takes awhile for the spell to lift in the morning. It’s always nice to see my father, but it’s sad, too, because even during the dreams I know he is gone, and has been gone for over nine years, and isn’t likely to return — unless, of course, he isn’t really gone, and this is just his way of saying so.
November 24, 2004 — It is amazing how far people will go to avoid facing themselves, and how often it involves behaving in a way that is unnatural and put on, and how these same people eagerly congregate with others who conform to the same pattern, while they suffer under the delusion that they are remarkable individuals. If only there were a psychological hammer one could use to break the shells that surround these poor souls. Of course if there were, I would use it on myself first to be sure it worked — crack — peep! peep! — oops. Wrong hammer. Seriously, though, self-expression is a wonderful thing, especially because it is so rare. Unfortunately, our insecurity prevents self-expression. It is insecurity that makes us follow prescribed modes of living, in all their religious, political, and other earnestly and blindly embraced manifestations. Some modes we stick with all our lives; others we use until we are bored, only to discard and replace them in a cycle of weary unproductive enthusiasm that keeps us distracted. All the while, we talk alike, act alike, and fret alike, according to the wise path of comfort we have chosen — a path which might also be called the path of least resistance, though this rarely turns out to be the case. But I’m a real person. An individual. Of course you are. And if you would just relax a moment and let down your guard, you might discover what an exciting thing that really is. And just who do you think you are, talking to me that way? Well, that’s hard to say. At the moment, I am the voice in your head. But any second now, I will likely revert to my natural state — that of a dope in the same boat — which I reserve the right to rock, especially if it means falling out.
November 25, 2004 — I was sitting on a bench on the sunrise side of the ancient cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin when an old man came up and asked me in Eastern Armenian where I was from. In crippled Western Armenian, I did my best to tell him I was from California, near Fresno, aware that all Armenians know Fresno to be the birthplace of the author William Saroyan. The old man was genuinely pleased, and said he was sure I would learn to speak Armenian very quickly — which I most certainly would have done, had I stayed in Armenia instead of going home four weeks later where everyone spoke English and Spanish. The old man ambled off. A minute or two later, I was approached by a small group of children who were openly curious about my appearance, as well as the small cigar I was puffing on at the time, which I had bought on the French airplane before landing in Moscow. Had I been puffing on a cigarette, they would have thought nothing of it. I was also wearing Levi blue jeans at the time. I found out later that Levi jeans were a coveted black market item and that, had I not needed the pants myself, I could have sold them for an outrageous amount of money — even more than they cost here now, twenty-two years later, which is an insulting amount indeed. Now, here is more evidence of my lack of business acumen. When I say I needed the pants, that wasn’t exactly true. I needed some pants — any pants would have done. I could have sold my two pairs of jeans and replaced them with inexpensive and quite serviceable Soviet slacks — one pair at a time, of course, otherwise I would have had to have done my shopping in my underwear. No doubt I could have conducted the deal right then and there with those marvelous villains, or with the villains’ older brothers, who were probably somewhere nearby, operating their own rubles-for-dollars exchange. But it took them only a minute or two to realize I was hopeless, a mere novelty descended from the skies for their momentary entertainment. Once again, I was left alone to absorb the moment and ponder my life’s journey thus far. This is what we do when we are far from home — or, rather, far from the place we normally live. For I felt quite at home sitting on that bench. And really, what else can one do but ponder and absorb when he is in a new place, and knows no one, and hasn’t the slightest idea what might happen in the next few minutes? That is the beauty of being somewhere far away, even though, at that moment, I was here. I wasn’t thinking, “I am far away.” I was thinking, “I am here.” Actually, I was thinking nothing of the sort. I was thinking, “This is wonderful, it is very much like a door has just opened, and all I need is to walk through that door and a new life will begin.” But even that isn’t accurate. I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling. The words came much later. On another day, a priest who had served in London told my brother and me in perfect English that it might be wise if we didn’t drink the water. We told him that we had been drinking it for a week already, with no ill effect. The funny thing is, we never once stopped to think that the local water might harbor microbes that our systems weren’t used to. All we knew was that we were in Armenia, and that we were thirsty from eating so many onions and so much bread and cheese. The priest was quite happy to hear our news, and it was immediately apparent that he had little respect for anyone who was so weak that he couldn’t drink Armenian water without getting sick. The priest was wry, but in a slightly calculating sort of way, and had a funny little twinkle that reminded me of certain pictures of George Bernard Shaw. Maybe it was the eyebrows.
November 26, 2004 — In an important, carefully researched news story yesterday, a man in his fifties said he planned to spend today shopping, because “it beats sitting at home and watching TV.” The man wore an expression of resignation and pride indicative of a life that is going exactly nowhere. And I thought, “There’s a cultural statement for you.” The idea of spending a free day watching TV or going shopping makes me cringe, especially when I think of the idiotic merchandise that gluts store shelves this time of year, and the desperate way people go after it, and paw through it, and mindlessly stuff it into their carts, all the while thinking they are getting somewhere. “Look at this. I’ve never seen one of these before. Isn’t it cute? I don’t know what it is, but it’s going in my cart. I can give it to someone.” All I can say is, don’t do it. Give your friend an orange. Give him a lemon. Give him a bowl of hot soup. And if he is not your friend, he soon will be, because what you have given him is not a silly gadget, but something real. If he doesn’t understand, if he resents your gift or takes it as an insult, then smile and remove him from next year’s list. Go out and collect some leaves, twigs, rocks, and curled-up sow bugs, and arrange them nicely on a dish. Next, fill a glass of water, then place it beside the dish, so that the sunlight spilling in the window will shine through the glass and make a rainbow on the dish. Now watch as the dish comes to life. Voila! And you thought you had to watch TV or go shopping. It isn’t true, my friends. It isn’t true.
November 27, 2004 — Once upon a time, when I was a fuzzy, round-headed little boy standing alone in right field, another boy hit a high fly ball in my direction. When I tried to move under the ball to catch it, the ball sailed over my open glove. It hit the ground behind me and rolled, and rolled . . . and I ran after it, frantic with failure, shame, and embarrassment, my heart pounding in my ears. It was my first night game, and the bright lights bore down on me and my mistake. As the ball continued to roll, it picked up speed. That was when I discovered that the entire playing field was tilted drastically toward the right field fence, and that the fence itself was not 330 feet away, but 330 yards. When I finally caught up with the ball, it was on the neighboring school grounds, in front of the door of the room where I attended the fourth grade. I picked it up, turned around, and tried to find home plate, but during my long absence the game had ended and everyone had gone home. I was walking home in despair when I heard a familiar voice in the darkness. It was my voice. It said, “Throw the ball, stupid.” I looked at the ball in my hand. It was stained and ragged from its journey and still warm. I looked back in the direction of home plate. By some miracle, the lights were on again, and I was much closer to the infield than I had thought. I threw the ball to the second baseman. The batter was already on third, dusting himself off and wearing a big grin. Then I heard another voice. This voice was also familiar. The voice said, “It’s all right, Bill. You’ll get ’em next time.” After that, I never missed a fly ball again. These days, I still hear voices — my own, and those of other people whom, like the coach who knew the value of encouragement, were great human beings without knowing it, and have since passed on.
November 28, 2004 — Like it or not, everything one says and does is open to interpretation. Even the simplest statements and actions can be understood to mean something entirely different from what was originally intended. At the same time, it is important to recognize the possibility that everyone is right, at least to some degree, despite our wishful, eager assumptions and unconscious manipulation of the facts at hand. I say this because, as human beings, there is ample evidence that we also travel at a deeper level than we ordinarily recognize or are willing or courageous enough to acknowledge. However, this does not give us the right to ignore or stop trying to understand each other’s original intentions, because when we do, we effectively close the door on deeper communication and replace the other person’s needs, wants, and desires with our own. The word superimpose comes to mind. To put it another way, real understanding can only arise between equals who have moved beyond persuasion and the need to be right. A person unwilling to accept the fact that he might be wrong, no matter how right he feels, places himself above others, and even above Life itself. His rightness comes at a terrible price, because he denies other possibilities. People and things are only what he thinks they are, and no more. And yet somehow, he sees himself apart, because he knows. But there is a difference between knowing, and knowing everything. In my mind, even the assumption that humans are more intelligent than rocks, or are superior to them, is dangerously suspect. It is a petty, self-serving notion, and a narrow interpretation of intelligence. How can a rock be less of a miracle than a human being? Human beings are nothing without the rest of the universe and all that is in it. For that matter, why do we feel such a need to differentiate in the first place? Is it because, relatively speaking, we are newcomers, and are still trying to stake our claim?
November 29, 2004 — This commercial culture of ours is really beginning to bother me. Yesterday my loving bride and I saw some stereos that actually looked like armor-plated meat grinders. On top there was an ugly chrome trough where you put the meat, and then down below, beside a flashing screen, was a two-inch mesh-covered hole where the ground meat was supposed to come out. Besides costing too much, these machines were so hideous that neither of us would have allowed one in the house. They seemed hostile and arrogant, and more appropriate for mounting on a Humvee. About this time, a young man with an incredible amount of grease in his short, colored hair appeared at my side, wanting to know if I was “finding what I was looking for.” I told him I had found far more than I was looking for — a statement he took as a compliment. My wife said, “Why don’t we look at the new TVs while we’re here? I’d kind of like to see what they’re like now.” We looked. We saw “plasma” TVs, and “LCD” TVs, all of which were flat and shaped like miniature movie screens, and had a wonderful picture. I said, “Look, this one costs only 348 dollars. That’s a pretty good deal.” And my wife said, “No, that’s 348 dollars a month. The TV costs 6,000 dollars.” She pointed at the tag. I said, “That’s ridiculous. In 1964, a house on Golden Way only cost 2,000 dollars.” Golden Way was a little street in Dinuba, not far from the railroad tracks on College Avenue, near the courthouse on the south side of town. The houses on Golden Way weren’t fancy by any means, but they could keep you a lot drier and warmer during the winter than a stupid 6,000-dollar TV. We moved on. The cheapest TV we saw was about 1,200 dollars — roughly the price of a used car that might or might not last a year. Just then, another store employee rushed over, wanting to know if everything was all right. Out of politeness, I pulled the gun away from my head and said, “Sure, everything’s great.” Then I pointed the gun at him and fired. He clutched at his heart, but I was shocked when I realized the blood on his shirt was not really blood, but some sort of digital molasses. I looked at my wife. She shrugged. We left the store, amidst a hail of “Have a nice days” that still ring in our ears.
November 30, 2004 — Mr. President? May I ask you a quick question? No? I didn’t think so. How about you, Mr. Vice-president? Or are you too busy counting your money? Uh-huh. I see. Well, sure. Don’t worry about it. I just thought that since you gentlemen were public servants and all, that we might be able to sit down and — wait a minute. Why are you laughing? Did that public servant part get you? Ha-ha-ha-ha! It’s a good one, all right. That one gets everybody. Hey — wanna hear another one? Elected officials. Wheeeee-ha-ha-ha! Oh, man, I don’t know how I come up with these. Hold on. Listen. What about this one: leaders of the free world. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Guardians of democracy. Gurgle. Snort. Blat. By the way, while we’re on the subject of freedom and democracy, I noticed in the paper this morning that the death count — your death count — jumped from 1,237 to 1,255, just since yesterday. Of course, those were just American military personnel. Who knows how many died on the “other side,” the poor misguided fools. That’s died, as in
D-E-A-D, just in case you’re wondering. But you’re not, are you? No. Of course not. You plan to live forever. Well, I hope you do. May you find yourself in the mad, eternal embrace of the gruesome god you’ve created in your own image and tried to shove down everyone’s throats. He’s waiting for you, boys. Run home to papa.
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
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
80 pages. Paper.
Signed copies available
A Listening Thing
Among the Living
No Time to Cut My Hair
One Hand Clapping
Songs and Letters
Early Short Stories
Cosmopsis Print Editions
News and Reviews
Favorite Books & Authors
E-mail & Parting Thoughts
Flippantly Answered Questions