One Hand Clapping – January 2005
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
January 1, 2005 — According to the Great Arbitrary Calendar Imposed Upon the Universe by man, yesterday was the last day of the year. As a way of acknowledging the Holy Event, I took the time to address some bills that I had been ignoring for quite awhile. I gathered them up and said, “Hello, bills.” Then I put them down again and went on about my business. A little before midnight, there was an embarrassing eruption of gunfire in the neighborhood similar to what we experienced last Fourth of July, but it went on only about half an hour. This morning, the street is strewn with Dick Clark dummies. Poor Dick — the latest victim of Father Time. Alas, poor Dick. We knew him well. Did someone say he suffered a health setback recently? A stroke, was it? There are two things I remember about old Dick. One is that he played the murderer in the last “Perry Mason” episode back in 1966. The other is that in an interview, ex-Beatle George Harrison described him as an unproductive leech who preyed on other people’s talents. I had had that impression long before reading that remark, but I still wouldn’t wish a stroke on Dick, or cancer, or any other of the year’s Top Ten Maladies — just to put it in Dick Clark terms. After all, Dick is our friend. He is an icon. We want our icons to be rich, happy, and forever young, even as we limp along in poverty and grow older and lumpier with each passing minute. Hey, and speaking of public relations, how about this news: the U.S. increased its earthquake relief package to $350 million. Boy, I hope that doesn’t slow the spread of “freedom” and “democracy” in the Middle East. As a proud citizen, I don’t think I could live with that. But I did notice something interesting when the administration trotted out the great Look-You-In-the-Eye-and-Lie Colin Powell to make the announcement. With a completely straight face, he referred to the president as being at the “Crawford White House.” Heck, there’s nothing calculated or strategic about that reference. I wonder what ol’ Georgie is doin’ there on the ranch, in his little ol’ Texas White House. Probably polishin’ his belt buckles, guns, and cowboy boots, ’cause he sure as heck ain’t runnin’ the country — which reminds me of another guy named Dick. But enough of that. Rather than speak of things cheerfully, let us speak of cheerful things. Uh, let’s see. Cheerful. Uh . . . oh, yeah. I woke up again this morning. Imagine my surprise. I tell you, I was tickled pink. The first thing I said to myself was, “You know, Bill, this should be seen as an opportunity and a new beginning.” And I answered, “Don’t bother me until I’ve had a shower and some coffee.” After that, a strange and wondrous thing happened. I haven’t heard from myself since.
January 2, 2005 — It occurs to me that this would be a very good year to make a big pile of money. Last year would also have been a good year, and the year before that and the year before that, but not nearly as good as this year. In fact, as the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that each year has been a better year than the year before in terms of it being an appropriate time and setting for a sudden increase in wealth, to the point that it can safely be declared a trend or pattern. So looking at it an a broad sense, it’s probably lucky the money didn’t pour in sooner. But this time around, I feel certain we are looking at a year that won’t take no for an answer. This is fine with me, as I am tired of dealing with years that refuse to put up a decent fight. For one thing, I plan to have a lot of ideas this year — had a good one earlier this morning while I was combing my still-damp hair, as a matter of fact — so it’s going to take a year with some resilience and gumption to withstand it all. Call it a threat, call it a promise — or just more whistling in the wind, I don’t mind, because even the wind is right this year. I noticed it yesterday, shortly after the clock struck midnight. Of course, I have always had a lot of ideas, but what good are ideas unless you act on them, or at least on those that are most promising? I will even go as far as to say that a less-than-stellar idea, if acted upon with relish and zeal, can out-perform a great idea that is left to fend for itself. I have seen it happen. Therefore it is necessary to concentrate my efforts and energy — not in the sense of lashing my ideas or beating them into submission, but in a way that allows them to bear fruit. To put it another way, I need to become more actively involved with my ideas, and at the same time see that I don’t get in their way.
January 3, 2005 — For the last twenty minutes or so, I have been sitting here thinking — not about what I am going to write, because I have no idea yet what that will turn out to be, but about other things. I have been thinking about writing in general, and the wondrous thing it is when we allow it to be. Writing is a privilege, and not one to be taken lightly. Even if we are writing only for ourselves, we owe the medium and our “reader” our very best effort. If what we write is meant to be read by others, we must be willing to work as hard as other writers who have given us joy with their writing and helped us see, feel, and understand that which has moved them. If we aren’t willing, it is a sign of disrespect not only to our readers, but ourselves. I have also been marveling at the frosty stillness of this first Monday morning in January, and at the fat robin perched atop the neighbor’s pine tree in the bright sunlight. His head is jerking side to side and his tail is jumping as he announces his presence and surveys the frosty rooftops. What a fantastic symbol of Life. I wonder how many ounces of grub he’ll have to muster up to stay alive today? There is a lesson here, but it doesn’t need stating. At the moment, I am more concerned about those of us without a roof over our heads, or who are but a shivering step ahead of homelessness. I am still amazed that there is a roof over my head. For the sake of those I live with, I hope the situation continues.
January 4, 2005 — Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! There. Now that I’ve done my morning exercises, it’s time to get to work. Let’s see, here. What trouble shall I get into today? More to the point, what trouble am I already in, why am I in it, and is there any chance of getting out? Answer: the usual; that’s obvious; not likely. Efficiency — that’s the name of the game. “The Name of the Game” was also the name of a TV show once upon a time. Don’t remember a thing about it, though. No time to remember. Too many things to do today. Too many things “on my plate.” Then again, what about “Room 222” and “The Mod Squad”? And “Amos and Andy,” for that matter. Man, what a shame I don’t have time to remember these things — which reminds me of a guy who years ago ran a manure-spreading business in our part of the good old San Joaquin Valley. He was the busiest man on earth, and every chance he had, he would take half an hour to tell you just how busy he was, and to complain about how he had no time for anything. All the while his tractor would be running, and he would be standing there coated with the fine particles of dairy manure. Gas was cheap in those days. Diesel was sixteen cents a gallon. Even manure was cheap. The thing about manure is, it used to be something the dairy farmers were desperate to get rid of — they were glad when you took it. Later on, though, the tide turned and they started charging big money for it, and the people who hauled it to the farms charged big money, and the people who spread it in the vineyards and orchards charged their fair share, and before you knew it a truckload of manure going down the highway was well worth hijacking, and drivers were held hostage, and a massive terrorist plot ensued, and manure was stockpiled and wired with high explosives, all of which meant a higher price to farmers, who were having a hard enough time as it was. Finally, we bypassed all that and started spreading gold. It was cheaper. Tough on the soil, though. After three or four seasons, the ground wouldn’t take water, and the gold was hard on the equipment as well, and then there were the insurance forms to fill out and the lawsuits to contend with when we ran over prospectors with our tractor. When we told one particularly brazen miner that he was trespassing, he even had the gall to say, “Your place ain’t posted” — as if a man’s property wasn’t a man’s property unless he had a sign out front saying it was his property. And so I distracted him and my father backed over him with the heavy rear tractor tire. “Sorry about that,” Dad said when the tractor reached level ground, “didn’t see ya there.” And I thought, That’ll teach him, or something along those lines. I really don’t remember. Don’t have the time. Sure wish I did, though, because it just might make a difference.
January 5, 2005 — Interesting. Colin Powell is visiting the earthquake-torn area, and is stunned by the devastation, and has “never seen anything like it before.” I guess he means he hasn’t seen anything like it that wasn’t caused by man, or by the kind and gentle government he represents. That kind of devastation he has seen plenty of, and lied about, and tried to cover up, and made excuses for, and called by other names. And now the president’s oil- and blood-soaked daddy and Bill Clinton have been dispatched on his heels. No doubt those classy boys will spend a lot of time working side by side with relief workers — enough time, anyway, to have a few strategic pictures taken. How sad that the “leaders” of this country feel the need to use the disaster to try to improve their image, and to deflect attention from the destruction they are responsible for in Iraq and elsewhere. Meanwhile, real people from around the world are reaching into their pockets and rolling up their sleeves to try to help. This is another example of the good things humans are capable of, and the speed at which those good things can happen. It is also something the political-business monsters of the world don’t understand. They want a return on their investment no matter what. They do not know the meaning of the word gift. The help they offer is really a calculated business wager — this is the way their minds work, and they are incapable of seeing it any other way.
January 6, 2005 — A couple of evenings ago, the kid who dressed as a mustard squeeze bottle and went on a candy hunt with our youngest son and another friend of theirs last Halloween, stopped by and announced that he had decided to work with our son at the iris farm this coming summer. Then he ate two bowls of lamb stew and sprawled out on the couch under a blanket until about nine o’clock. We have known him since he was just a few months old, and was being pushed around by his mother in a stroller. Now he’s six-two and has his learning permit, and drives his mother around town. Stew and bread. That’s what we had for supper that evening. Yesterday my charming bride made a fantastic batch of lasagna, and I made a heavy-duty soup out of eggplant, lamb, tomato, garlic, onion, parsley, potato, salt, pepper, basil, and olive oil. Eggplant and lasagna are great together. And I just remembered, there is one small hunk left of the sourdough we had with the stew. If no one claims it by evening, maybe I’ll have it with the leftover soup come mealtime. But that’s a long way off. Even if the bread survives, I might not, as the twists and turns of my so-called writing life continue to create enormous demands on my system. It’s not just the time I spend here at the keyboard that is wearing, but keeping up with life’s other demands, many of which are complicated and magnified because I refuse to give up and become an insurance salesman — as if anyone would buy insurance from a long-haired wild-man in a black Goodwill sport coat in the first place. Come to think of it, it would be worth trying just to see people’s reaction. But I won’t. I’m not qualified — thank goodness. Then again, I’m not qualified for much else, either. When pressed, I am still able to conduct the ordinary business affairs that pop up in daily life, often to the surprise, I think, of those I am conducting them with. “By God, he doesn’t look like he would make sense, but he does.” Thanks, friend. I’ll have to work on that. We are here, and that is good. I am who I am, and you are who you are, and those people over there are who they are, and that drunk being given a ride home in a cab is who he is, as is the cab driver himself. ’Tis a miracle, friend. Get used to it. In the meantime, I’ll try not to bother you. Oh, by the way. Need any insurance?
January 7, 2005 — I was resting peacefully last night when I was suddenly awakened by a shower of dry clods on the lid of my casket. I jumped and hit my head, then realized it was the telephone I’d heard, not clods. My wife hurried into the room and answered the phone. It was the mustard squeeze bottle, wanting to talk to his Halloween buddy. “What’s going on?” I mumbled after my wife returned from telling our son to pick up the phone in the kitchen. “Man, my tongue is dry.” I looked at the clock by the bed. It was only a quarter to ten. “He wanted to say that he called Schreiner’s for the job,” my wife said — Schreiner’s being the name of the iris-growing outfit our son worked for last summer. “Here, let me close that lid for you.” Before I could thank her, my considerate bride started to nail the lid shut. I tried to tell her that turning off the ringer on the phone would have sufficed, but her cheerful use of the hammer drowned out my voice. A moment later, the hammering stopped, and I experienced the most wonderful silence I’d ever known. But it didn’t last very long. Soon a drop of water landed on my forehead, and another, then another, and still another, until the drops were like rain. Half blind, I found a bar of soap and picked it up. Under the circumstances, I had no choice but to finish my shower.
January 8, 2005 — I suppose it’s rather cruel of me, but I haven’t responded to the president’s last several letters. I am trying to teach him the alphabet, you see. I send him a letter — R, for instance — and he hunts for an R in his pile of plastic letter cards. When he finds the R, or a letter he thinks looks like an R, he has a member of his staff put the corresponding card in an envelope and mail it to me. Of course the staff member has to address the card, but I suspect the president himself is the one who seals the envelope, because there are usually bloody fingerprints on it when it arrives. But the bloody fingerprints aren’t the reason I haven’t been responding to the president’s letters. I really want him to learn the alphabet, because then he might be able to learn to read, and if he learns to read, he might at least begin to learn about the world he uses as his doormat, and if he learns about the world he uses as his doormat, then it might occur to him that the people living under that doormat have better things to do with their time than hate him and go hungry. This is not a project with much promise, I’ll grant you, but the man is the president, whether he was properly elected or not. No. The reason I haven’t responded to the president’s letters is that I have been feeling mean. Also, I have run out of stamps. I need to replenish my supply before I send him any more letters — he has gotten three of them right, by the way. Three out of fourteen so far. In one case, I sent him the letter W, thinking he’d be sure to get it, but he sent me an M. Anyway. Stamps are one thing, but meanness is another. I’m not sure why I’ve been feeling mean. But I think it might be because I can’t afford the stamps. Also, I have gotten the feeling lately that he doesn’t really care about the alphabet, or learning to read, or about anything else that doesn’t have a dollar sign attached. By lately, I mean since about 1967. Now, if someone were to walk up to me and say, “Hold on a minute, the president knows how to read, he reads speeches, doesn’t he?” I would smile and say, “No, reading speeches doesn’t count. Speeches are just laundry lists of lies,” or something like that. I don’t know. I might say something else. Or I might just laugh. In which case the other person might start laughing as well, and we could side-step the subject of the president altogether — as I might have done myself several minutes ago, had I had the sense to start laughing then, instead of now, but you know what they say, better late than never. “Had I had.” That’s a good one. I like the sound of that.
January 9, 2005 — Yesterday in Iraq, the U.S. military “missed its intended target” and accidentally dropped a 500-pound bomb on a home nearby, killing the people inside. The good news: the military “deeply regrets the loss of possibly innocent lives.” Well, heck, if they were only possibly innocent, then don’t worry about it. And since they’re dead now and can’t explain how they were accidentally born in the wrong place at the wrong time and how they foolishly stayed where they were because they thought it was their home and had nowhere else to go, that lets you off the hook. As I said, don’t worry about it. You guys are heroes, so go right ahead with your killing. You are helping spread freedom and democracy, so keep your chins up — and remember, above all, to ignore that silly little voice in your head that keeps saying, “This is wrong, I am a murderer.” Real men don’t listen to little voices. Real men drop bombs, and go on to live confused, angry, haunted lives in a society that would rather buy useless junk and watch TV than worry about little things like the loss of possibly innocent lives. Forty years from now, a hundred years from now, the relatives and descendants of the people killed yesterday will still remember what happened to their family. Multiply that by the thousands and thousands already killed and wounded and tortured and starved and poisoned in Iraq and the future looks rosy indeed. What a sad, sad time this is. What a sad, sad time it will be. The future is here, now. We are creating it and living it and passing it on to our children. We are the unborn children of the already murdered future, living in the mad delirium of assumed intelligence and superiority — and if that isn’t sad, nothing is.
January 10, 2005 — Today my dear bride and I are celebrating our twenty-ninth year of wedded bliss. But the truth is, we have celebrated a little each day since our twenty-eighth, and our twenty-seventh, and all the way back to our first. I say a little because most days we haven’t had the time or energy to celebrate a lot. But even that is cause for celebration, because our time and energy have been devoted to raising a family, while seeing to it that the kids don’t end up like me. Here is another reason to celebrate: my brother will be arriving from Armenia late tonight for a visit. Well, we can celebrate the visit part, anyway. The late part will be a bit of a challenge, since I rolled out of bed around five this morning, as usual. But I’ll manage. I’ll get my second wind along about nine o’clock while I’m on my way to the airport. Then, at about one in the morning, I’ll go to bed and be wide awake, knowing that just a few hours later, I’ll be up at five again, making our youngest son a big breakfast before he goes off to school. This is what we do. I suppose we could rely on boxes of cereal, but my mother and father always got up at the crack of dawn and made my brothers and me big breakfasts, and I believe it is a tradition that should be continued. I can always rest later — and if later never comes, there is always the cemetery.
January 11, 2005 — My brother’s plane was only half an hour late from Los Angeles, but that was enough time for me to enjoy a small Mexican family sitting next to me in the waiting area. The young man and his even younger wife are just starting out together, and are the proud parents of a little girl who looks just like a Mayan doll. The child has recently learned to walk, and spent a good deal of time staggering around the area with her mother, who was obviously enjoying herself. Once, her daughter came up to me and studied me with a serious expression. When I smiled, she smiled, and her mother and father smiled, and at that moment I was sure we were the four luckiest, happiest people in the airport. The couple spoke Spanish. I could tell by their tone of voice how much they loved and respected each other, and how they were still surprised and delighted to find themselves together, and how they thought their daughter was the best thing that had ever happened. And when she dropped a little plastic container full of cereal, and the pieces of cereal scattered over the carpet, we all laughed. And two minutes later, when an airport employee with a grim expression came along with a toy-sized carpet sweeper and made the cereal disappear, we watched and smiled to ourselves. The family left before I did. When they got up and walked away, I said good-bye, good-bye, but they didn’t hear me.
January 12, 2005 — The beautifully strange and poetic thing about it is, twenty years from now, the little girl I saw in the airport the other night could meet and marry our grandson — assuming we have a grandson someday — and we would never know it was the same person. And when we met our new in-laws, those same twenty years would likely have erased the memory of the first time they and I were together. Or there might remain a glimmer, a hint of recognition that one of us might decide to bring up. I guess it is all pretty unlikely, though. And yet, is it any more unlikely than anything else? I have been married twenty-nine years and I still marvel at the luck of meeting the amazing girl who would be my bride. It didn’t have to happen, but it did. Or did it have to happen? Had it already happened, thus making our meeting a mere formality? I don’t know. But it is happening still, to this day, along with the surprise of it, and the wonder.
January 13, 2005 — It’s time to go back to the book store. I need more books. I have bought no books this year, and the year is already over twelve days old. Never mind that I have piles of books I’ve yet to read, and other piles I am currently working on. I want more piles, bigger piles, stacks, mounds, walls, shelves, fortresses of books. I am ashamed by how few books I have, embarrassed, sickened, mortified, dejected, worried, bothered, disgusted, disturbed by the paltry number I possess. Why, I have so few that they would fit in a freight car and still leave room for a couple of hoboes. That is sad. When I think of my poor books rattling across the nation in the company of hoboes who haven’t washed their hands, it makes me weep. There they go, up the grade, through the meadows, past the grain elevators and small towns, winding through the factory and warehouse districts, moaning at lonely crossings in the middle of the night. And the hoboes aren’t doing so well themselves. No. This situation must be remedied. I must not fail. I must push onward, ever onward!
January 14, 2005 — It’s hard to explain, but I feel much better now that I’ve read the first two acts of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night — all the more so since I had no immediate plans to read the play, and didn’t have a copy until yesterday afternoon. That’s what a trip to the library book store will do for you. Besides the O’Neill play — a nice hardbound volume for a dollar and a half — I found Gentlemen, Scholars and Scoundrels, a hefty collection of work that appeared in Harper’s from its beginning in 1850 to 1959. That book cost two dollars. I had read before that O’Neill had given instructions that his play not be published until twenty-five years after his death, which was in 1953, and that it never be performed. His wife, Carlotta, however, decided otherwise, and Long Day’s Journey into Night was published by Yale University Press in 1956 and performed in Sweden not long afterward, and then in the U.S. a few months after that. It was said that playgoers were reduced to tears by O’Neill’s deeply personal drama. In the dedication to his wife, he referred to writing the play as “facing my dead at last.” Of course, the playwright meant something very specific by that statement. But it can also be said that a work of art cannot come about unless the artist faces his dead — his dead past, his dead selves. This reminds me of a short parable by Kahlil Gibran, which can be found in his book, The Madman. It’s called “The Grave-digger,” and it goes like this: Once, as I was burying one of my dead selves, the grave-digger came by and said to me, “Of all those who come here to bury, you alone I like.” / Said I, “You please me exceedingly, but why do you like me?” / “Because,” said he, “They come weeping and go weeping — you only come laughing and go laughing.” It is the laughter of the self-burying artist that we hear in great literature and great music, and witness in the great paintings and other art-forms. And everything is art where such laughter is present.
January 15, 2005 — So much for Eugene O’Neill — for now, anyway. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a good play. There is nothing at all cheerful about it, though there are painful, laughless moments of humor, as if O’Neill had squeezed a ripe literary lemon over his autobiographical misery to help bring out the flavor. In any case, it’s easy to see why he felt better after writing the play. Not only did it help explain him to himself, it helped explain him to others. His father was a handsome stage actor who betrayed his talent for easy money, his mother was a profoundly disappointed woman addicted to morphine, and his brother was an alcoholic who as a child passed a lethal dose of the measles to their infant baby brother. Add to this his own bout with consumption and you have the perfect formula for fine drama, not to mention a life of torment. And a tormented life needs to be explained if it is to be endured, and especially if it is to be understood. That an explanation of such a personal nature can also be made into an enduring work of art shows how we are all tormented in one way or another — by ourselves, and by circumstances beyond our control. How we each explain it in our turn, and how we act as members of the audience, makes all the difference.
January 16, 2005 — The fruitless search for “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq has officially and quietly ended. But the U.S. military occupation of that country has not, and won’t for a long time to come. This week, George Sorry He Said “Bring ’Em On” Bush will be sworn in for another four-year term as president. The ceremony will take about a minute. The antics surrounding the event will cost forty million dollars — money that could have paid for food, or medicine, or shelter, or books for someone, somewhere. By a strange coincidence, the glorious and wonderful Parade magazine that is stuffed into Sunday newspapers nationwide features a picture of the president’s wife on the cover today, and contains an article about how that glazed, embalmed-looking woman will be working hard on behalf of the nation’s boys. Yes, she is suddenly worried about our lonely, aimless, misguided role model-less boys — the same boys her husband and his buddies want to eventually grind up in their bloody death mill. It seems to me that wife and hubby are working at cross purposes here — not that either cares, since every move they make is scripted, staged, and timed for its public relations value. Welcome to America 2005. Kind of reminds me of America 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000 — blast off! Oops. Sorry. Got a little carried away there. But someday — today, tomorrow, a thousand years from now — I hope someone will find this message in a bottle and be amazed by how stupid people were back in this Dark Age. If the bottle survives, that is, and if there is anyone left who can read. And if someone finds it and is not amazed, I hope he, she, or it is living a happy generic life, and driving a big gas-guzzler, and is the proud parent of a fine, patriotic soldier. Dear Future Person: You might not know it, but you are missing the point. That sunshine on your back? It isn’t yours. It doesn’t belong to you. And neither does the earth you are walking on, or the innocent child whose head you are stuffing with filth and nonsense. Granted, mine is a voice from a Dark Age. Back in my time, the main subjects taught in school were Poor Diet, Cosmetics, and Fashions and Accessories. What are they teaching now? Anything? Do you even have schools, or are your children surgically extracted and placed in military incubators? Oh, well. I don’t expect you to answer. After all, I am dead and you are busy, which amounts to the same thing.
January 17, 2005 — What seems like a hundred painful years ago to those of us who rudely survive, the “president” landed aboard an aircraft carrier and proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” to the assembled troops and stalwart members of Team Media USA — my new name for the media. For those who have forgotten, George Braveheart Bush wore a flight suit that day and pretended to be “one of the enlisted men.” Yesterday, however, he refused to give a time-table for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, saying they would “leave as soon as possible” but stay “until our mission is complete.” No doubt this will take several decades, because the military was never trained to complete a mission that has already been accomplished, especially when they don’t know what that mission is. Also, missions have a way of changing. Or, as the great Donald Rumsfeld might say, “You go to war with the mission you have, not the mission you wished you had.” I try to draw comfort from the knowledge that these monsters will be dead someday, but it isn’t quite enough to go on. Even if they were struck down by a poetic bolt of lightning on the eve of the inauguration, another batch of monsters would rush in to take their place. World domination is a lucrative business that attracts the very best minds.
January 18, 2005 — The thing about writing is, there are always plenty of reasons to quit — financial ranking highest among them — and so few to keep going. Many writers in fact do quit, but without admitting it to themselves. Some even continue to write long after they have quit, with pitiful results. Of course, the same can be said for a number of writers whose words have brought them wealth. The reasons to continue, on the other hand, though few in number, are so good that quitting, in my mind, at least, amounts to tragedy, embarrassment, and failure. And what are the reasons to continue? Sanity. Fulfillment of one’s contract with life and nature — for the person who denies his talents and abilities must inevitably live as a ghost in this world. And the simple truth that one must. These are all really expressions of the same thing. One cannot be truly sane if he denies his talent; one must do his work if he is not to live as a ghost. This is true even if for a time it is necessary to postpone one’s work in order to survive. The trick in that situation is to keep the work alive, to keep it present in one’s mind, and to know that the situation is only temporary, even if it persists for many years. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. It must be done. Quitting is a disease. It takes hold during apparent good health. A quitter in the early stages can seem robust and on top of the world, but within a few short years the effects of the disease will be noticeable in his face, his eyes, his voice, his work. The disease is incurable. Once a person has quit, he cannot begin again. Quitting isn’t a temporary condition, it is final.
January 19, 2005 — I was just thinking how effective it would be to end this journal today with the following two-word entry: I quit. Now that would be a funny way to go out. It also occurs to me that saying I am going to quit in the near future might be a good way to build an enthusiastic readership. “Did you hear the good news? He’s finally going to quit. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” I should have thought of it sooner. In fact, I probably would have if I hadn’t been so busy not quitting. The trouble is, I don’t know how to quit. I’ve seen others do it, but I could never get the hang of it myself. How does one go about it? At the same time, I have witnessed other writers — rank amateurs, really — who have tried to begin by telling everyone how important writing is to them, and how dedicated they are to their so-called craft, in words borrowed from other would-be writers trying to convince themselves of the same thing. Many live in this la-la land for years, where they spend their precious time reading how-to articles aimed directly at their egos and meant to substantiate and encourage their fear, thus creating the need for more articles, classes, workshops, and lifeless support groups. My advice to them: Quit while you’re behind and find a more productive way to spend your time.
January 20, 2005 — Last night I decided to switch dramatic gears and read Anton Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard. A dozen or so years ago, I picked it up in a one-dollar Dover Thrift Edition, but never got around to reading it. On the same trip, I bought Dover editions of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I read Dubliners right away, and The Call of the Wild right after that, but every time I try to read Heart of Darkness, I can’t summon the will to move beyond the first page. I don’t know. Maybe I should start on Page 2, or read the book backwards. The Cherry Orchard was first produced by the Moscow Art Theater on Chekhov’s last birthday, January 17, 1904. So it says on the back cover. Imagine. That was 101 years ago. Chekhov was born in 1860, and died a victim of tuberculosis, or consumption, as it used to be called. He was a physician. My eyes were tired, so I read only the first act. But even that was enough to make me feel I was visiting with an old friend. Chekhov has a great sense of timing and humor:
YASHA. [handing a box to MADAME RANEVSKY]. Perhaps you’ll take your pills now.
PISHTCHIK. You oughtn’t to take medicine, dear lady. It does you neither good nor harm. Give them here, my friend. [He empties all the pills into the palm of his hand, blows on them, puts them in his mouth and swallows them down with a draught of quass.] There!
MADAME RANEVSKY. [alarmed]. Have you gone off your head?
PISHTCHIK I’ve taken all the pills.
LOPAKHIN. Greedy fellow! [Everyone laughs.]
FIRS. [mumbling.] They were here in Easter week and finished off a gallon of pickled gherkins.
MADAME RANEVSKY. What’s he talking about?
BARBARA. He’s been mumbling like that these three years. We’ve got used to it.
YASHA. Advancing age.
Pishtchik’s comment on the uselessness of medicine is far more than just a passing remark. It is Chekhov himself speaking from the vantage point of experience and fully aware of his pending death. Six months after the premiere, he was gone.
January 21, 2005 — The $40,000,000 coronation of King George II took place yesterday as planned. Caught up in the festive atmosphere, one protester in Portland carried a sign that asked, “Who do we bomb into democracy next?” A grandmother said, “I am here first of all to show my grandchildren that they have the right to protest.” She went on to say that she was marching because she feared for their lives, and also for her own future, referring to the administration’s rush to dismantle Social Security. My own simple view is that those young enough to have missed the Great Depression won’t have to wait much longer to find out what those days were like — except this time around there is a much larger population, a rampant drug culture, and widespread weaponry to contend with. I could be wrong, of course. But if you look at the way money has been systematically siphoned out of the people’s pockets to support a few evil families and corporations and a long-term occupation and war, and if you look at the employment and health insurance situation, and the steadily rising costs of everyday goods, it seems the formula for depression is in place. I know I’m depressed. But that’s natural for me, so it doesn’t count. What does count is what I see when I am out in public. I see what people are buying and what they are not buying, and I see and hear about the things they are doing without, and about how close to insolvency they live. Indeed, for many, the Depression is already here. But their voices aren’t being heard. Or, more accurately, they are being heard, but ignored. This has happened so many times before that no one should be surprised it is happening now. Those who have much, want more. Those who have little or nothing, suffer and wait while the Mighty Dunce ascends his throne.
January 22, 2005 — The monsters are already talking about Iran. Iran is on their list. After all, if you’re in Iraq, you might as well be in Iran too, right? Right — especially if you don’t have to be the one to do the bleeding and dying. Bleeding and dying is something the people of Iraq and Iran have long been accustomed to. For most Americans, bleeding and dying is something that happens on television. Bang, bang. You’re dead. For the president and vice-president, bleeding and dying is what happens to the animals they kill on their manly hunting trips. Bleeding and dying. Bleeding and dying. Has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Is that a cash register I hear? Watch out, young people. The Great White Hunters have you in their sights.
January 23, 2005 — I put in a longer, more strenuous day yesterday than planned. As it turned out, several things had to be written. First, there was a poem that couldn’t wait. In fact, I was awakened by it the night before at about two a.m. In the quiet dark I said, “So, it’s you. Okay — tomorrow.” Just to be sure, the poem waited and watched for awhile at my bedside — not the words of it, but the spirit. We exchanged smiles, then I drifted back to sleep. When I got up about three hours later, I remembered the poem before my feet hit the floor. But I could tell the poem was intact, so I went on with my morning rituals of cat feeding, newspaper reading, showering, and coffee making. I wrote the day’s entry for One Hand Clapping, then turned to the poem. I was mostly finished with it when I had to tend to some website chores. This led to some unexpected work in that realm, the writing of which I began to factor into my thinking alongside the poem. Soon thereafter, I left with my darling bride for our Saturday grocery shopping. We were gone for an hour and a half. Then I returned to the poem, and to the other work that was forming in my mind, fine-tuning the first, and preparing to write the latter. I finished the poem, had some leftover scalloped potatoes, and started in on the day’s third piece of writing, which ended up running several hundred words. But before I finished it, I sent the new poem to a publisher I have been working with lately, because I thought there was a good chance she would be willing to present it on her website. Within a couple of hours, she had done exactly that. By then, I had finished the addition to my own website and “uploaded the file.” After some more website work, I rested for about five minutes while reading some new e-mail. By then, it was time for us to go to my mother’s house, where we gathered for the evening meal, which my bride had prepared while I was doing what I was doing. That’s when I realized how tired I was. For some reason, we got on the subject of composers, and I tried to remember as many of their names as I could: Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Schubert — Tchaikovsky is one I didn’t think of, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov — Liszt, Wagner, the Strauss boys, the Gershwin brothers, Stephen Foster, Muzio Clementi — and then we got onto the opera names, like Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti, and so on and so on. We left at about nine o’clock, or maybe a little sooner. Back at home, I found some more interesting e-mail, and spent another bleary-eyed half hour at the computer. I ended up too tired to sleep, tossed and turned most of the night, and woke up with a stiff neck and a broken back, but the pain has mostly subsided, thanks to another hot shower. But even as this was being written, it was necessary for me to break away and pick up our second-oldest son, who had dropped off a U-Haul truck a few miles away and needed a ride to his new apartment. He switched apartments yesterday, so there was a lot of commotion here that involved his two brothers and another girl he works with, who helped him move. In the process, they wrestled our old couch out of the house. After that, the boys got up a basketball game outside that ended at dark. There are probably a few other things I’m forgetting, but that’s enough for one day. Where the rest of this day will lead remains to be seen.
January 24, 2005 — Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was a treat. What a gift he had for leaving out all but the most necessary. Rummaging through my book shelf last night, I found another play of his, The Sea Gull, in a collection called Sixteen Famous European Plays, a book I mentioned many moons ago. I almost started reading it, but read the first act of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author instead. I don’t know anything about Luigi Pirandello, except that he is a dead Italian writer. I read a few of his short stories many years ago and enjoyed them, but I couldn’t tell you what they were about. I just remember liking them, but not enough, apparently, to turn the library upside down to get at the rest of his work. And yet, over the years, his name has popped into my mind perhaps two or three dozen times, along with the nagging thought that I should read more of his stuff. The play is good — quite entertaining and well done, really, with a good sense of humor. The characters don’t have names. The curtain is open from the beginning and the stage is empty, then several actors walk on and begin to rehearse a Pirandello play called Mixing it Up. The manager is giving directions to everybody — you do this, you stand there, we need more light over here, and so on — and after a couple of minutes six “characters” come onto the stage and interrupt the proceedings. When the manager impatiently asks what they are doing there, one of them says they are looking for an author. The manager says, “There is no author here, we are not rehearsing a new piece,” and basically tells them to get out and let them do their work. But the characters are persistent, and claim they have a right to be there, because they have an important story to tell, which immediately begins to leak out here and there in provocative, tempting tidbits. Eventually, the manager decides he and his cast should hear them out. With a little luck, I’ll be able to read on later today, and find out what happens to the six characters — that is, if I’m not too busy acting in my own play, which closed years ago but continues on in a private run out here in the formerly wild West, way off Broadway.
January 25, 2005 — Shall I tell how it ends? No, that wouldn’t be right. On the other hand, since I have said nothing about how it begins, or what happens as it goes along — or even what it is, for that matter — revealing the ending might not be such a bad thing after all. In fact, if the ending is good enough, then we could go back to the beginning and find out what led up to it. But the real question is, how, if we know nothing about the beginning and subsequent events, is it possible to know the ending? That’s simple. We make it up. People make up endings every day. We imagine what it is that we want to happen, and then try to make it happen by saying and doing things we think will lead to the desired conclusion. Our failure is called experience. Our success is called accomplishment. That’s why it’s so important to imagine the right kind of ending. Because all too often, we accomplish our goal to the detriment of others. But we still call it success, and even receive praise for it, sometimes from the people we have harmed — which, I can’t help thinking, is rather stupid. It’s stupid because they are praising the ones who have harmed them, and it’s stupid because they had similar goals in mind — otherwise they wouldn’t be praising them. They praise them in order to stay in the game. They still think the ending they have imagined is worthwhile. They don’t realize it is rotten to the core, and that the success they have been pursuing and praising is really failure. So in a sense, they have failed from the beginning by imagining the wrong kind of ending, and have, in fact, ended where they began. This means they have really ended up behind — as did those who crushed them on their way to the top — the miserable, egotistical pea-brains. The lesson in all this is that we must imagine the right kind of ending, or imagine no ending at all. This would be a true beginning. The End.
January 26, 2005 — When a man who knows as much as ABC news anchor Peter Jennings stands up before millions and with a straight face says that Iraq is having a “genuine election,” you know how well the monsters in power have succeeded in their takeover of the media. You also know that poor Mr. Jennings has long since traded in his humanity. He is but one of many, of course. I don’t mean to imply that Peter Jennings is less of a person than the great John Brokaw, or the late-great Dan Rather, or any of the other pompous puppets pretending to be journalists while collecting millions of dollars each year for their glib, misleading performances. Lies are lies. If you tell them, you’re a liar. And when a highly respected professional liar lies to sanitize and legitimize one country’s military occupation of another, he is helping to maintain the ignorance and arrogance that leads to untold grief, suffering, and bloodshed. Peter Jennings isn’t stupid. He has simply made a choice — as everyone must. The sad thing is, he has made an informed choice.
January 27, 2005 — Late yesterday evening I spent a good twenty minutes roaming from room to room with a book in my hand that I couldn’t find the inspiration to read. Every so often, I would return to my shelf and select another volume, with the same results. Finally, our son Vahan took pity on me. When he saw me standing in his doorway looking forlorn, he said, “Do you want to read my Bob Dylan book?” He was referring to Chronicles, the first volume of Dylan’s autobiography, which came out last year. I said, “I suppose I could. Should, probably.” I put down Pinocchio and picked up Chronicles and read the first few lines. It was Dylan, all right. I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a try. It’s bound to be entertaining. Shall I leave Pinocchio with you?” Vahan smiled and said it wouldn’t be necessary. So I settled in and read the first forty-five or so pages of the book. It starts when Dylan first arrives in New York City as a confident young folk singer, and takes off from there with the same kind of rambling street-level observations one finds in his songs. When something pops into his mind or reminds him of something else, he satisfies the impulse to blab about it right then and there. All of what I’ve read so far has been interesting, both culturally and musically, and well written besides. Here and there is a line that could easily be used in a poem or song. He knows it, too. He knows what he’s doing, and what he has to do, and what people have long expected and still expect him to do, and what he expects of himself. Life, apparently, is a game he still finds appealing and worth playing, though perhaps a little more by habit than back in the glory days of the early Sixties when a new age was seeping up through the cracked pavement and rising through the grates and manhole covers and leaving steamed bloody fingerprints on the walls of decayed institutions. But that’s okay. Dylan is no saint, but he will remain an inseparable part of the history of that time as a poet and songwriter, not a filthy politician.
January 28, 2005 — Thanks to an impromptu visit to the library bookstore yesterday afternoon, another exciting reading assignment has come my way. This time it’s The Oresteia, by Aeschylus. It says in the introduction that the drama was first performed in Athens in the spring of 458 B.C., two years before the poet’s death. The volume itself is a beautiful oversized hardbound affair published in 1961 by the Heritage Press in New York. The type is large, the margins are generous, and there are striking full-page illustrations by Michael Ayrton scattered throughout. Cost: three dollars. Meanwhile, I read around fifty more pages of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Unless he makes a drastic wrong turn somewhere, I will definitely finish the book. There is no way of knowing what he is leaving out, of course, or if it matters, but his observations on his artistic development are well worth reading. As it is, and as I have mentioned before, the whole business of autobiography is fascinating. There is a natural and not always productive tendency for the writer writing about himself to make himself the hero of his own work — I know this from personal experience — and to edit past events to his own benefit. In Dylan’s case, too, there are bound to be legal considerations. But there are also things better not remembered in print — things which, though true, might prove hurtful to someone. Every writer faces this dilemma. Sometimes it’s necessary to keep quiet until long after certain characters in his drama have died. And if the writer dies first — well, then, there you are with a hole in his story. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, didn’t wait. He couldn’t. He wrote about his family and acquaintances, and stayed away from them for two years after his book, Look Homeward, Angel, was published. The saving grace was that he was as harsh on himself as he was on them. He was also brilliant, and had a literary calling to fulfill — as many of us nutty writer-types think or believe we have. Some of us even know it. We are the most dangerous of all, especially to ourselves, and to those we love, and to those appointed by Fate to love us.
January 29, 2005 — Months and months ago, I said I liked the idea of going forth armed with nothing but a guitar. It sounds more poetic than being armed with a laptop computer, which is what I would probably go forth armed with, if I were to go forth. I could go forth armed with a pen and notebook, but then I would have to retype everything later — very inefficient. While I was forth, I would always be thinking about going back to catch up on my typing, which would dilute the impact of my being forth. I guess I could find typewriters and computers in libraries along the way and type up my notes there, but I hate using public machines. They are dirty, for one thing, and for another, there is always someone obnoxious sitting nearby chewing gum and popping it in your ear. Writing is hard enough without putting up with that kind of nonsense. Not that I’m not forth right now. The fact is, I have been forth so long that it seems like I’m back. Some might think that it is impossible to go forth without leaving one’s room, but they would be wrong, especially in light of current technology. This is not to say that I am an advocate for staying home, or that I think there isn’t great value to be had in going physically forth. It has a lot to do with how a person is wired, and what kind of work he is involved in. There are also times when going physically forth is absolutely necessary if one is to continue going mentally forth — and vice-versa. And there are times when going physically and mentally forth are one and the same thing. A fine example of this is Ross Freeman, the main character in my second novel, The Smiling Eyes of Children. Freeman is a writer who not only goes forth in both dimensions, he lives forth. And, I might add, he takes his old manual typewriter with him everywhere, lugging it through hotel lobbies and parking lots to the amusement of bystanders. His typewriter is a physical burden, but it is the key to his freedom. Not many are swift enough to understand this. If he were carrying a guitar case, people would say, “Look, isn’t that wonderful? There goes a free man.” But what do they know of freedom? What do they know of its price? The rebels and outcasts they worship pay dearly for their freedom, and will go on paying. Still, this gives me an idea for a social experiment. Why not borrow one of my sons’ guitar cases and start lugging it around, but with no guitar in it?
January 30, 2005 — Two low-flying ducks with outstretched necks just streaked by, barely clearing the treetops. Where would ducks be going in such a hurry this early on a Sunday morning? I don’t know. But I can guess what they will say to each other when they arrive: “That was great. I’ll race you back.” Ducks, speaking English. Lately, I have been doing a lot of quacking around the house — as an expression of excitement, outrage, skepticism, confusion, wonder — you name it, I quack. I look at it this way: a guy can’t bark all the time. It’s good to mix things up. A little quacking does a lot to lighten everyone’s load — though in this case I am the load. I know it and I admit it. Quack? I also realize that by quacking in print I am probably ruining my chances to be thought of and remembered as a “serious writer.” One minute I’m grappling with the troubling themes and issues of my time, and the next I’m quacking. Did Tolstoy quack? Perhaps. He had a large estate, and thirty or forty children. If that doesn’t get a guy quacking, nothing will.
January 31, 2005 — What a nuisance. The newspaper was so full of lies this morning that it burst into flames on our kitchen table. Luckily the cat was handy, or I would never have been able to put it out. I grabbed him and — Joe turned on the faucet and I held the hose. Afterward I told him it was time he started earning his kibbles anyway. And you know what? He agreed — picked up a broom, started sweeping up his stray wads of fur, and the pine needles he drags in. Poured himself a cup of coffee, asked me if I’d seen who won the game before the paper exploded. I said nope, I’m tired of whining millionaires, I don’t even look at the sports section anymore. Well, I look at it, otherwise I wouldn’t know which section I was ignoring. I’m particular that way. Then Joe says he had some money down on a few of the games, so if I didn’t mind, would I give him a ride to the corner for a fresh paper. I told him what do I look like, a taxi? Take the bus. He smiled, then stood up the broom in the corner. Right away the broom starts crying, you’re leaving me, I might have known, blah-blah. Sickening. On second thought, I says to Joe, I could use a little ride. Let me get my shoes on. By the time my shoes were on, Joe had the van started and was backing out of the driveway. This hero thing had gone right to his head. But you know what? He turned out to be a pretty good driver. Don’t know how he’d do with a standard transmission, but if I know Joe, he’d figure out a way.
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Also by William Michaelian
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Another Song I Know
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