One Hand Clapping – February 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
February 1, 2005 — The family, the writing, the books, the folly. I could have done worse. I still can, and maybe will someday further down the line, but this looks like the formula I’ll be working with for awhile. And yet, beneath the surface of these placid waters, a wild current runs. This isn’t a threat, or an attempt to gain artistic credibility, it is simply an observation. Ideas rumble in the depths, and loom in the gray turbulence like underwater mountains. It might take years for them to make known the full force of their presence. Then again, one could rise up like a great whale and swallow me whole tomorrow. What then? The beauty lies in not knowing, and perhaps having to forget everything I’ve known until now.
February 2, 2005 — Bills to pay, forms to fill out, telephone calls to make, appointments to keep — it’s ridiculous, time consuming, and so beside the point. Paying bills is inefficient, because it doesn’t stop more from coming. By filling out forms, I invade my own privacy. I hate calling people, because they are rarely there, and then I have to leave a message and wait for them to call back, and when they do I’m in the middle of things and the phone startles me half out of my wits, making it hard for me to remember why I called them in the first place. And if they do answer on my initial try, that’s almost worse, because it means putting off my own work that much longer and having to explain something simple that they could have grasped immediately had they been listening and paying attention. Keeping appointments is an exercise in futility, because I am almost always told upon my timely arrival that so-and-so is “running a little bit behind and would you please have a seat, he’ll be right with you.” This is the same as saying my time is worthless. I know my time is worthless. I need no reminders, and I certainly don’t need to read putrid gossip magazines that everyone in the world has breathed on and handled with their greasy biscuit hooks. Other than that, though, I am pretty well adjusted.
February 3, 2005 — It’s looking more and more like a recording studio around here. There are guitars and guitar cases leaning against the walls, an obstacle course of amplifiers, cords and cables running everywhere, and now, at the heart of it all, there is a new sixteen-track recorder capable of things that would have once made Sixties rockers drool — not that some didn’t drool anyway. To say those two sons of ours have kept up with their music would be an understatement. They have been making steady progress right along, expanding their knowledge and ability, experimenting, and listening to a wide range of music. One plays electric, the other acoustic. From the beginning, they have been on separate musical paths. While one is working his way through Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” the other is strumming his twelve-string in a style reminiscent of folk legend Gordon Lightfoot, or playing blues on his steel resonator. But the thing I really admire is that both spend most of their time improvising. When they play at the same time in rooms only a few feet apart, as frequently happens, it makes for some mighty interesting results. When their not-musically-inclined brother walks in and hears the racket, he invariably asks how we can stand it. I say, “Stand what?” A few minutes later, he roars off in his old muffler-less Lincoln, rattling the neighbors’ windows. Who knows what they think. I know what I think. I think the neighbors deserve it. I also know they are sprawled out on their couches with their TVs blaring and probably don’t even hear him go by. But I could be wrong. They might be studying languages, playing harmonica, or making quilts. I met a guy once who thought he had invented a way to keep dish rags from smelling. He had built a little contraption that kept the rag suspended in such a way that air could circulate around it. Apparently the idea of washing the rag had never occurred to him. But now that I think about it, he didn’t live on our street. I met him somewhere else, and saw him just the one time. I wonder what else he’s invented, or if he’s alive, for that matter.
February 4, 2005 — The time is rapidly approaching when the people of this country will be either very rich or very poor, and when the very poor will greatly outnumber the very rich, and the very rich will hide behind their walls of money, and the very poor will be boiling mad about having to work like slaves and do without decent housing, proper food, and health care, and the very rich will shake their heads at the very poor and say, “Look at them, why do they live that way, why don’t they make something of themselves,” and the very poor will hate the very rich and say, “Look at them, they have everything and they still want more.” Indeed, the time is already here for many — so many that words like “freedom” and “democracy” are stinging insults. People who are free and equal shouldn’t have to do without health care. They shouldn’t be made to wait eight hours to cast their ballots, or be harassed in line by republican party thugs trying to prevent them from voting — if they haven’t left already because they can’t afford to miss another hour’s work at their preposterously low-paying job. They shouldn’t have to breathe poisoned air, or drink polluted water. They shouldn’t be forced to drive high-priced polluting vehicles when there are safer, cleaner alternatives waiting in the wings. The humane government of a free and democratic society wouldn’t dismantle a program like Social Security and leave its people high and dry. It wouldn’t condemn genocide and then commit genocide or pay for it to be committed by others. It wouldn’t complain about civil rights violations in other countries and sanction the use of torture by its own military, or hold people indefinitely without being charged. On the bright side, though, I did see a good bumper sticker the other day. It said, “Bill of Rights: Void Where Prohibited by Law.”
February 5, 2005 — Who the heck is, or was, Benito Lynch? According to the short biographical note about him in the 1947 anthology A World of Great Stories, Lynch was born in Buenos Aires in 1885, and was of Irish-French ancestry. Hmm. I guess that means Lynch was. The note says Lynch possessed “private wealth,” and lived a secluded bachelor life in the university town of La Plata. Here is the first sentence of his short story, “The Sorrel Colt”: Mario was tired of “Tiger,” a game of his own invention, played by pursuing through the tree-tops his brother Leo who was supposed to defend himself bravely by using green figs as projectiles. Clever, eh? Naturally, we assume that Mario and Leo are kids. But what if they aren’t? What if they are adults? What if Mario and Leo are identical twins and are thirty-seven years old? What then? And what if the treetops in question were not in their own yard, and what if the green figs belonged to their neighbor, a demented old man who painted pots, ate crickets, and played the cello? Then Benito Lynch, eminent bachelor and possessor of private wealth, would have had a real story — especially if he had revealed at the end that the old man was in fact Mario and Leo’s father instead of the college professor to whom their mother claimed to be married. Eh? What’s that you said?
February 6, 2005 — Next on Ripley’s grotesque political agenda is to clear the way for Hollywood brain stem Arnold Schwarzenegger to become president. Anyone who finds this preposterous needs to look back only as far as Ronald Reagan. That mental giant was born in this country, but the idea of electing a bad actor to the highest office in the land is even more appealing now than it was then. The dazed American public is ripe for such a move. This is to be expected of a nation that has already seen its glory days and fallen into acute mental and physical lethargy. America’s best days are not ahead. The coffers are being systematically drained by the wealthiest and most powerful, the country’s military is an occupying force in Iraq and is meddling constantly elsewhere, the air and water is polluted, the trees are all but chopped down, millions are without decent food and health care, the schools are a fourth-rate babysitting enterprise, the media has traded in its conscience, people are addicted to cheap entertainment, and business diva Martha Stewart is temporarily running her empire from inside prison walls. All that’s left are idiotic bumper stickers and a hideous right-wing version of “family values,” which are simultaneously mocked and ignored by the political monsters who evoke them. So bring on tough-boy Arnie. Let him be the next marionette-elect. He’ll show the world what America is really made of, just like the current Howdy Doody.
February 7, 2005 — And then there’s Horacio Quiroga of Salto, Uruguay, a writer who spent many years in the northern Argentine Paraná jungle, where he kept himself busy by writing nearly a hundred stories about — life in the jungle. Quiroga was born in 1878 — the same year my mother’s father was born in Illinois. Quiroga moved to the jungle. My grandfather moved to Dinuba, and as far as I know wrote no stories about life in the vineyard. He liked to talk though — died in 1954, trumping Quiroga’s 1937. Isn’t it wonderful? Life, I mean. I had a nice letter from a friend yesterday. He said he plans to do some traveling for several weeks this summer, and that upon his return he is going to pull up stakes and move somewhere, he’s not sure where, possibly to an apartment across the street, city, state, or country. In “Three Letters . . . and a Footnote,” Quiroga writes in the voice of a twenty-year-old girl. In the beginning, the girl is talking about riding the bus, and about how easy it is to discern the intentions of the young men who get on. Maybe I’ll go ahead and read the story — later. It doesn’t exactly reach out and grab me by the throat. . . . Excuse me, I need to keep an eye open for the police. A couple of days ago, a policeman left a warning on our daughter’s old red Corolla, stating that the car had been “parked in excess of 72 hrs.” My question is, what else are you supposed to do with a car when you’re not using it? Had the officer tapped on our door — for we were here at the time listed on the warning — I could have told him that we drive the car every so often, and that afterward we park it along the curb facing one of our bedroom windows because it seems to make sense to park it there instead of in front of someone else’s house. My question is, were there that many buses in the Paraná jungle, or was Quiroga writing about the time he spent in Buenos Aires beforehand? My friend uses public transportation — a wise thing, since he lives in a big city. Was that the kind of jungle Quiroga was writing about?
February 8, 2005 — I heard a beautiful little true story yesterday that I would love to repeat, but can’t, for privacy’s sake. Such is life. Now I am obliged to carry the story with me, along with others like it that have and will come my way, until the time is right for it to be revealed. And I don’t know how any of the stories will be revealed, or when, or in what form. Some will find expression in a single word, phrase, or sentence, while others grow and gain force and meaning. Some will merge or swap identities. Others will be forgotten, which might be another way of saying they will be remembered at a deeper level. Still, I wish I could tell the story now. But maybe it is a good thing that I can’t. Maybe I don’t yet fully understand and appreciate it, despite its apparent clarity and simplicity. I feel like I do, and that if I were to tell it now it would make a strong impression. Oh, well. Now, I should also say that the stories and novels I have written are literally teeming with such stories. There is the larger story itself, the one with the title and its own momentum and set of events. But within the larger story there are the smaller ones, the kind I heard yesterday and can’t tell now. The interesting thing is, if I had not written the larger stories, the smaller ones would still be in limbo. At the same time, the larger stories wouldn’t be the stories they are without them. In this way, a story is like a person’s life — a life that is fed by other lives, and which in turn feeds other lives — tiny streams that relentlessly make their way to larger ones, and larger streams that give themselves up to lakes and oceans, which in turn are absorbed by the atmosphere and given back as rain. I am aware of this when I write. Indeed, it is why I write. If I didn’t, what would happen to the stories? What would happen to me?
February 9, 2005 — It would also be a shame not to mention Gabriel Miro of Alicante, Spain, whose short story, “The Woman of Samaria,” I have not read. Years ago, we raised Alicante grapes on our farm. The Alicante is a seeded grape prized for its red juice and the color it imparts to wine. For a time in Fresno, I worked at a nursery with a young man from Japan. He knew something about making wine, and was quite interested when I told him about our Alicantes. When the grapes were ripe, I arranged for him to have some. My father picked them himself and brought them to Fresno. Unfortunately, not long after that, I left the nursery in search of thornier roses, and the young man and I fell out of touch. I don’t know how the wine turned out. Gabriel Miro studied law at the universities of Valencia and Granada. William Saroyan begins his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, thus: “My name is Wesley Jackson, I’m nineteen years old, and my favorite song is Valencia.” And then Wesley says he likes the way the fellow hollers at the top of his voice: Valencia! In my dreams it always seems I hear you softly calling me! Valencia! Dat tarrata Dat tarrata Dat tarrata, dat ta ta! Gabriel Miro worked on a “sacred encyclopedia” in Barcelona and wrote many novels. Two of the best known are Our Father San Daniel and El Obispo Leproso. I myself have been to San Luis Obispo, in California. Miro was born in 1879. He died in 1930. Did he finish his sacred encyclopedia? Or did it finish him? It is easy to imagine him surrounded with books and papers and notes and candles and bottles of fine Spanish wine stopped with fine Spanish cork, working away on his encyclopedia, wondering what was really sacred and what wasn’t, and becoming angry when he realized he’d mixed up the two. Had he lived a long time, say another eternity or two, he might finally have figured it out. Was he married, I wonder? Did he have children and grandchildren? If so, they were probably the only encyclopedia he really needed. But it is easy for a man to become distracted by seemingly sacred things, and to miss perfectly good home-cooked meals trying to put them into some kind of meaningful order. Next to Christ, for instance, you would have chrysalis and chrysanthemum. On the same page as Aquinas, you would have alto saxophone and apple. Under God, you would have I’m hungry — for everything.
February 10, 2005 — Due to “ballot irregularities,” the results of the Iraq election won’t be known for a few days yet. But of course the results are already known: the U.S. is still an occupying force and people are still being killed — twenty or thirty a day is the officially confessed number. They’ll stick with that for awhile until the propaganda consumers get used to it, then raise it a dozen or so a week until they are able to take that in stride, hold it there for a few weeks, and then — but what am I saying? It’s almost as if I don’t believe in — but that can’t be true, because Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld and Powell are good, honest, upstanding Christians who believe in peace, freedom, and democracy. But enough about that. Yesterday, our son Lev gave me a ride in his car — not his roaring Lincoln, but his everyday practical mobile — and for entertainment tapped on his horn, which emitted a feeble little mouse-squeak that no one else on the road could hear. “That’s pitiful,” I said, and he agreed, saying the car had “poor tootage.” I said, “Did you say tutelage?” And he said, “No, tootage.” The fact is, tootage is an excellent word, and I strongly encourage its use. Imagine being at a used car lot and asking a salesman about a particular model’s tootage. Hah? Dateline 2005: Due to “bowel irregularities,” the results of the U.S. election will be ignored until further notice. Not until the nation has switched entirely to a diet of mad cow and chemically laden, biologically manipulated corn will the real results be released. Immediately thereafter, they will be shot down like skeet at a Texas-style mad cow barbecue, at which time the price of skeet repellent will triple and everyone will be issued a bible with all pertinent passages crossed out — otherwise known as a campaign brochure.
February 11, 2005 — I hadn’t seen the girl at the corner gas station in quite some time, so when she hurried over to clean my windshield I asked her where she’d been. With a big smile, she said, “On an adventure.” I said, “Really? Where did you go?” She said Berkeley, and I said there are a lot of good book stores in Berkeley, and she said there was also a good library, and a place where they feed the homeless so no one goes hungry. I gathered from her expression and tone of voice that she had been among their number. She had hitchhiked from Salem to Berkeley with two of her friends. I asked her how many rides it had taken. “Four. But one of them was on something. He drove the speed limit, but he was all over the road.” She made a swooping path with her hand. “But the last person took us right where we wanted to be.” By the sound of it, the return trip a week later had taken at least two dozen rides and many long hours. The girl said she wanted to hitchhike at least once in her life, and was afraid if she waited any longer she would never do it. She looks about twenty or twenty-one. She also meant to find work in Berkeley, but nothing turned up. Then there was an opening at the gas station, so she came back to her old job. The attendant putting gas in the van stood by and listened to our conversation. About ten years the girl’s senior, he had heard her story before. He smiled when I paid him, but his smile was different than the girl’s. It’s only a guess, but I think he was wondering why he had never done what she had done. Or, maybe he had, and was glad and amazed that she had made it back alive. I thanked them both, said good-bye, and drove away, feeling happy and sad for everyone beneath the strange and miraculous blue sky.
February 12, 2005 — There was once a beautiful young girl who had never been kissed. One day, the girl confessed this awful secret to her mother, saying, “There must be something wrong with me, but I don’t know what it is.” Her mother listened patiently, then told her daughter not to worry. “The reason you haven’t been kissed,” she said, “is that your true love is still far away. But do not be afraid. He hears your voice, and is on his way.” The girl thought about this, then laughed. “Mama,” she said. “That’s silly. Life isn’t a fairy tale. If my true love hears me from so great a distance, he must have big ugly ears.” She laughed again, and this time her mother joined her. Afterward, for a time, the girl felt better — not because her true love was far away and probably even riding a big white horse, but because she knew how much her mother loved her. In time, though, she began to worry again. She looked at herself in the mirror, but did not see how beautiful she really was, how clean her skin, how noble her brow, how innocent her expression. When her mother saw her standing at the mirror, she said, “If you are not too busy, dear, I’d like you to help me scrub the floor. Your father has been breaking his back for us all day. The least we can do is break our backs for him.” And together they scrubbed the floor, even though it was clean from being scrubbed the day before, and the day before that. Awhile later, the girl’s father came home. The first thing he did was to take the girl’s mother in his arms and kiss her. It was a wonderful thing to behold, but it also reminded the girl of her problem. “We scrubbed the floor, Papa,” she said. “Isn’t it nice?” Her father smiled and said, “It’s beautiful.” The girl waited for him to say something more, to acknowledge, perhaps, the effort that had gone into making the floor so clean. But he didn’t. The girl looked at her mother. She seemed to have forgotten about the floor altogether. One thing, though, was certain: her mother was tremendously happy, and so was her father. She was the only person in the house who wasn’t happy . . . the only person who hadn’t been kissed. . . . Late that night, in the girl’s dreams, she saw a young man riding a big white horse. She tried to call out to him, but her tongue wouldn’t obey. In desperation, she flung herself into the horse’s path. Expecting, almost hoping, to be killed, she closed her eyes, clenched her fists, and waited. Suddenly, there was silence. She opened her eyes. In the distance, still coming toward her, she saw the young man and the horse. Confused, she left her bed and ran in the young man’s direction. After what seemed an eternity, they met in a beautiful green meadow. The young man drew up his horse, jumped down, and took the girl in his arms. “Just between you and me,” he said with a glint of fiery laughter in his eyes, “that is just about the dumbest horse I’ve ever met.” Then he kissed the girl, and she kissed him. . . . The following morning, the girl’s mother noticed immediately how her daughter had changed, and how happy she looked. “I know what happened,” she said. “Tell me. How did you like your first kiss?” To hide her embarrassment, the girl replied, “Mama, don’t you think we should scrub the floor now? Papa will be home again in a few hours.” This made both of them laugh. Outside, a young man walked by, leading a white horse. “Eh,” he said. “You dumb beast. Thanks to you, I am lost again.” The horse nodded its head and snorted, then the two continued on their way.
February 13, 2005 — I need to do something with the phrase “ideas leaking out of his head.” Imagine a person being so revolutionary a thinker that even as he goes about his everyday mundane business, you can see ideas leaking out of his head. And he has so many of them that he doesn’t even notice. When he goes out to get the paper, ideas run down the arms of his pajama sleeves and land on the sidewalk. Within seconds, little weeds of thought sprout in the cracks, and by the time he’s dressed and ready for work the whole sidewalk is in bloom. But does a person like this really get dressed and go to work? What office would tolerate such a nut? “Ned is an idea man. A little peculiar, but handy to have around.” And then there was the time Ned sought medical help for the strange unwarranted seepage. By the time his turn came to see the doctor, the philodendron in the waiting room had blossomed into a jungle, complete with monkeys and its own rain cycle. No one else saw it, of course. Everyone in the room was preoccupied with their own list of disorders, and thought philodendrons had always been house plants. “I’m referring you to a psychiatrist,” the doctor told Ned after a cursory examination of his ears and other portals. “He’ll know what to do.” Ned put his shirt back on. Within seconds, it was literally soaked with ideas. He smiled at the doctor and gave a helpless little shrug. Later that afternoon, he went to see a Dr. Zoozle, who had been curious enough to make room for Ned in his busy schedule. Shortly after Ned’s arrival, there had been a massive explosion in the parking lot across the street from Dr. Zoozle’s fifth-floor office. Bored by what he assumed was gang warfare, Dr. Zoozle never dreamt that the explosion was Ned — or, rather, one of Ned’s ideas. When Ned entered the office, his hair was several feet long and tied in braids, and he looked like an ancient wise man from Nepal. Dr. Zoozle, of course, didn’t notice. His walls were lined with diplomas and certificates of distinction and he wore his little glasses way down on the end of his nose and wryly hummed Puccini arias. But none of this meant a thing when it came to diagnosing Ned. Ned was the diagnosis. Ned was the spirit wandering in the void and the creator of vast worlds of startling beauty. That was Ned. Dr. Zoozle was educated — so educated, in fact, that not one of his thoughts was truly his own. He was in essence a dead man, albeit with a very nice office and a dandy income. None of this was lost on Ned, who like a raging Viking took a mental bite out of the good doctor’s polished desk, leaving it with three corners. The doctor didn’t notice the missing corner. He thought Ned was the one with problems, and wasn’t even aware that the entire building had been moved to another planet. This amused Ned. At one point, just to see the doctor’s reaction, he said, “You know, I think you might be right. I never thought of it that way.” Completely unaware that his nose had been transformed into the beak of a toucan, Dr. Zoozle leaned forward eagerly and said, “It will take time, of course. Perhaps a year, maybe two. But if we work together, I’m sure we will be able to . . . ” But Ned was no longer listening. He had just had another idea. This one brought an end to war.
February 14, 2005 — Here is the beginning of Pio y Nessi Baroja’s short story, “Blasa’s Tavern”: Some nights Manuel would hear Leandro tossing about in his bed and heaving sighs as deep as a bull’s roar. “Things are going rotten with him,” thought Manuel. Ah. Well, then. “Blasa’s Tavern” looks like another story I’ll have to read. All the more so, because a quick scan of the piece reveals a character named Valencia, and another named Lechuguino. Baroja was born at San Sebastian in 1872, and earned a medical degree from the University of Madrid. Two years later, he gave up his practice and worked solely at writing. There have been quite a few doctor-writers over the years. There was Doctor Zhivago — oops. I forgot. He was a fictional character. There was Anton Chekhov the Russian playwright and master of the short story, and Morton Thompson, who wrote the novel Not as a Stranger. And of course there was James Herriot, the veterinarian, as well as many others if I were to take the time to think about it, which I won’t, because what’s the point? Writers have emerged from all walks of life. And they have retreated from writing into any number of preposterous professions — preposterous because writers have no business pursuing them, unless you count their quaint desire to survive. Survival can come in handy if you plan to do any writing later on. But, all too often, later never comes, and time that should have been spent writing is spent pressing the grimy button that makes the dry cleaning rack go around until the requested article of clothing has been spotted — excuse me, a little joke — identified as the one belonging to the customer, who doesn’t care or want to know that the button-presser is a writer. That’s just one example. It is just as unlikely that a patient in the hospital will find comfort in the knowledge that his doctor is a writer. In fact, it would, and probably should, scare him to death. Manuel, following the example of the bully, had made his escape by the back door. That’s how Pio Baroja’s story ends. The story of the writer working at the dry cleaning shop, though, ended long ago. He was fired for burning a hole into the governor’s pants.
February 15, 2005 — The young tree was magnificent. It had started from a nut. The nut had fallen, like its sisters and brothers, beneath its wise, ancient mother. But then something miraculous happened. A bird saw the nut, found it more appealing than the others, and carried it off in its beak. Quite by accident, the bird dropped the nut while it was flying over a lake. And, quite by accident, the nut landed not in the water, but in a small boat in which there sat a lone fisherman. When the nut landed in the bottom of the boat, the fisherman looked at the nut and then up at the sky. He saw the bird flying away. The fisherman looked at the nut again, then forgot all about it. He also forgot about the bird. He had seen many nuts and many birds in his lifetime, and wasn’t about to worry himself over them now. The nut enjoyed the ride. It was a new experience for him, as anything would have been, but this he knew was extraordinary. The fisherman was an amazing being with strong arms and hands. He wore a grim expression on his sunburned face as he fiddled with his bait and tackle. There were no fish in the boat, but the nut wouldn’t have known what a fish was anyway, or what the fisherman was failing to accomplish with his small assemblage of gear. When after a long interval of silence the fisherman finally exclaimed, “Bah! What’s the use?” and threw his gear overboard, the nut sensed the fisherman’s despair. The fisherman grabbed his oars and rowed the boat ashore. Feeling angry and sorry for himself, he picked up the nut and walked home, where he found his wife waiting for him to bring some fish to cook for their supper. He gave her the nut and said bitterly, “This is the sum total of my efforts. Everything else I threw into the lake.” The nut felt himself leave the rough hand of the fisherman and enter the rough but gentle hand of the fisherman’s wife. As the warmth of her hand penetrated his shell, the nut gradually became aware of a change taking place deep inside him. The woman said, “Well, no matter. We still have a handful of flour and three potatoes. We won’t starve.” As she spoke, she caressed the nut in her toil-worn hand. “What is this you have brought me?” she asked in a kind, rhetorical voice. “It’s beautiful.” She opened her hand and together husband and wife looked at the nut. “I don’t know,” the fisherman said. “It looks like some kind of nut.” His wife smiled. “It is much more than a nut,” she said. “Here. Look carefully.” The fisherman studied the nut. “More than a nut?” he said. “I don’t know what you mean.” He took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly on the nut. Again, the nut felt something stir within him. “It is a sign of good luck,” the fisherman’s wife said. “Take it outside and plant it.” The fisherman laughed. “You’re as crazy as I am,” he said. “What good will planting a nut do? Even if it sprouts, it will take years to turn into a real tree. We’ll both be dead of hunger long before then.” His wife didn’t answer. Instead, she closed her hand around the nut and with a great sense of resolve carried it outside. Her husband followed. He watched as his wife planted the nut, and then moistened the earth around it. After that, they went back inside and the fisherman’s wife prepared their very last morsels of food. The next morning, they had nothing to eat. The fisherman sat dumbly, staring at the fire. Seeing this, his wife said, “Why are you sitting here? Aren’t you going fishing today?” When the fisherman reminded her that he had thrown his gear into the lake, she said, “I still think you should go fishing. Remember the nut? Today you will have good luck.” To make his wife happy, and because he didn’t know what else to do, the fisherman put on his shoes and walked to the lake. Along the way, he stopped at the place where the nut had been planted. “Before long I will join you,” he said to the ground. Then he continued on. He came to the boat. Much to his surprise, it was full of fish. While he was trying to understand this miracle, a shiny fish jumped out of the water and landed in the boat. This was followed by another, and then another. The fisherman called to his wife. She came running. It took them several hours to carry all the fish home. From that day on, they were never hungry. The fisherman rowed his boat out onto the lake and fish jumped into the boat. Some days there were only a few, and some days there were none. But they never ran out of fish. One day the following spring, when they were visiting the place where the nut was planted, they saw something green poking up out of the ground. Together, the three rejoiced.
February 16, 2005 — As much as I hate reporting things like this, it turned out not to be a tree, but a stupid lump of moss. Then came a drought and the lake dried up. The starry-eyed couple noticed that the fish weren’t nearly as tasty when they had been dead for a month before cooking. After a time, the fisherman made a plow out of a stump. It took quite a bit of hacking and carving. His first few attempts ended up looking like strange modern sculptures, pleasing in their own way, but useless. He eventually succeeded and began to farm the lake bottom. He raised bottle caps, mostly, and old rubber boots, fishing gear — some of it his own, he noted with irony — pieces of driftwood, tires, batteries, nets, transistor radios, radiators, gas tanks, sludge-filled beer cans, and other agricultural products too numerous to mention. His wife sold their inventory to tourists up along the main road, eight miles away. It was a good life, not the life they had imagined when they first started out as newlyweds — her father had actually fired a few shots at his future son-in-law, “just to see what he was made of” — but a good life nonetheless. What happened to the nut? Well, the nut was fine. The truth is, the fisherman and his wife had forgotten exactly where it had been planted. It did sprout, and it did turn into a lovely tree, though it was a bit spindly in its early years, due to the drought. But then the rains returned and the tree flourished. And the lake filled with water again, and the fisherman went back to fishing — he had kept some of the finest lake-bottom gear for himself — and then he finally hired out his vessel for cruises, and by and by was lost in a violent storm, leaving his wife a happy widow. She is gathering nuts to this day.
February 17, 2005 — I happened to be in the vicinity of the used book store in West Salem yesterday, so I stopped for a quick glance through a couple of cardboard boxes of books they were giving away. There was one hardbound volume in the lot — a book called Dry Guillotine, by René Belbenoit, who, for fifteen years between the first and second world wars, was Prisoner No. 46635 at Devil’s Island in French Guiana. After four failed attempts to escape, Belbenoit tried one last time and succeeded, along with five other Frenchmen twice his size. Belbenoit was about five feet tall, toothless, and weighed ninety pounds. Clutched in his hands was his thirty-six-pound manuscript detailing the cruel life endured by prisoners at Devil’s Island. Belbenoit eventually made it to this country with his manuscript, mostly on foot. For several months in Panama, he lived in a remote Chakoi village, and also collected butterflies to sell to tourists. When the book was finally published, it helped blow the lid off Devil’s Island. When I told her about the book, my darling bride said she remembered reading one very similar called Papillon, which was made into a movie with Steve McQueen around 1970. Papillon means butterfly. Dry Guillotine also contains drawings made by an unnamed fellow prisoner. This particular volume was once part of the U.S. Navy Library at Treasure Island, San Francisco, where it was “Copy 10.” In my opinion, the image of an escaped prisoner carrying a heavy manuscript would make a terrific logo for a book publisher. In fact, it makes me want to become a book publisher myself. I already have the manuscripts, so I guess I’m about two percent of the way there. Anyone have a few million dollars they can lend me?
February 18, 2005 — My, oh my. The “president” doesn’t like the way Syria and Iran are behaving. But he is not issuing any threats. Being the good man he is, he prefers “diplomacy.” Of course, if “our ally,” Israel, is threatened, he will do “whatever is necessary.” This means there are more happy days ahead, boys and girls! Oh, he has tried so hard to solve things peacefully. He is a peace-loving man, gentle and wise. But the world is full of bad men, boys and girls, and good men like our “president” must be vigilant at all times and ready to make a stand. In our next lesson, boys and girls, we will talk about the Ten Commandments, and about how good men are above moral law. Until then, read your little newspapers and watch your little news broadcasts and believe everything you see and hear. Remember, you must believe. If you don’t, then bad things will happen — to the ones who want you to believe.
February 19, 2005 — A random selection from Dry Guillotine, near the top of Page 121: “Another convict got up and snatched the small sack the dead man kept his possessions in . . . an Arab took the eggs which lay on his table . . . his neighbor, across on the other side from me, found the tobacco again and kept it for himself.” A prisoner has just died; life goes on. No material thing is wasted; those who survive melt or harden according to their character and constitution. This includes the reader, alive in another century, sitting at his work table, or riding the bus, or waiting for his one true love at the train station, lost in thought, in memory, in himself, lost as only a human being can be lost, sad beyond knowing, happy beyond deserving, full of wisdom and regret and expectation. He cannot escape feeling what the dead man felt, the despair of his final moments while vultures waited. He cannot, because he is the vulture, and he is the carrion. Blessed man, blessed woman, thou art exalted and deranged, the childish seeker of an unknown purpose.
February 20, 2005 — It is still winter, but the springtime earth has begun to stir. The green shoots of bulbs are breaking through the crust. Buds on bushes and trees are fattening, and the crocuses are already in bloom. Awhile ago, I heard what sounded like a nestful of baby birds chirping under the eaves. It has been dry here in the valley for weeks. This year, California has cornered the market on rain and snow. In the southern part of that state, there have been destructive mudslides. Here we have had brilliant blue skies with excellent visibility. On a trip to nearby Woodburn recently, four snow-covered volcanoes could be seen at once — Jefferson, Hood, Adams, and the smoldering Mount St. Helen. It’s interesting, and perhaps indicative of the times, that we have an angry saint in our midst. I’m warning you. But no one seems to be listening. When the old blowhard thwarted local newscasters a few months back, she lost credibility. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Meanwhile, in other news, a high school coach has run off with one of his underaged students. At eleven, see our exclusive on what YOU can do to keep your child safe from predators, while learning the latest fashion tips. . . . Uh, yeah. Oh, by the way — about ninety people were killed in Iraq during the last two days. There will be no spring for them, no baby birds, no today, no tomorrow.
February 21, 2005 — Today is Presidents’ Day — that special Monday in February when schools, banks, and government offices are closed so more people can go shopping in honor of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and have a three-day weekend. A few weeks ago, people shopped in honor of Martin Luther King. But it was tough between holidays, when they had to shop before and after work and on their regular days off. In a situation like that, shoppers fall desperately behind. Holidays are needed to restore the balance. When I was little, I had the silly notion that holidays were days set aside to remember and acknowledge the contributions of those whose names were being recognized. Hence, on February 12, I would go around thinking that Honest Abe was quite a guy, and, on February 22, that George Washington was the father of our country despite his wooden teeth. Now I know better. A holiday isn’t a holiday. It is a day to boost the economy. And when you think about it, nothing could be more patriotic — or disgusting. Meanwhile, it turns out that George Washington wasn’t the father of our country at all. This country didn’t have a father, or a mother. This country is stolen property built on lies and genocide. Oh, there were some good moments. But they were systematically obliterated by greed. A poet named Walt Whitman remembered Lincoln brilliantly and unforgettably. He also did more for life and letters than the next freight car load of time-honored politicians and warmongers, and yet there is no Walt Whitman Day, just as there is no Mark Twain Day, or John Steinbeck Day. Who decides these things? Sadly, it is the people who decide. Always, the people.
February 22, 2005 — No doubt about it, the current president felon to his job quite by accident. Had he been born to an everyday working family, he might have been killed in Vietnam. Or, if he had dodged that bullet, he’d be quaking in his drawers about outsourcing, unaffordable health care, and the rape of Social Security. What’re we gonna do, Laura? We got bills to pay and no money to pay ’em. That’s all right, George. We can write rubber checks, like the government does. Oh, by the way — on your way home from your job washing cars, could you pick us up a bag o’ them deep-fried moth balls? The girls’re hungry again. Why, you betcha, honey bunch. . . . Oh, what a sorry waste of time. All of this while I should be talking about the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson, “gonzo journalist.” The trouble is, I have nothing to say about it, or him, or “gonzo journalism.” I read part of something by him a number of years ago, but I don’t remember what it was. All I remember is that I didn’t care enough to finish it. And now he’s dead. There was an editorial cartoon in this morning’s paper mocking him, so I guess his talents weren’t appreciated by the current media regime. Hmm. That probably means I should try reading him again.
February 23, 2005 — I need to look at some paintings. Nothing special — some Van Gogh and Renoir will do, and maybe some Rembrandt, and — what was that guy’s name? — Michelangelo? Da Vinci had some talent too. Of course he was disorganized and jumped around a lot, and couldn’t settle on any one thing — very immature. I have in my possession a book called Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750, a Penguin-Pelican book I bought in Fresno in the early Eighties. There are some interesting paintings in there. Let’s see. Here’s one by an artist named Morazzone, painted in 1615: St. Francis in Ecstasy. And here’s another St. Francis in Ecstasy right beside it, painted in 1630 by Francesco del Cairo. Wow. St. Francis in Agony would be more like it, or maybe St. Francis Full of Green Onions and Wine. Here’s something: Giambattista Tiepolo’s etching from Varj Cappricj. A bunch of guys are looking with a great deal of apprehension at a partially clothed skeleton sitting upright on a piece of rumpled canvas. The skeleton is looking back at them. There is a skinny dog with its back arched in fear. Man, I wonder what this one is all about. Maybe the text will shed some light. “The Villa Valmarana frescoes also reveal the extent to which Tiepolo abides by the classical compositional patterns of monumental painting. One finds a distinct emphasis on triangles and basic diagonals and, while this may not be so obvious in multi-figured works, a close study shows that even in these each figure is clearly defined by a network of significant compositional relationships.” Hmm. That sort of misses the point, doesn’t it? What I want to know is, what was ailing that boy? Man, these little triangle things are a bear. I wish they’d just let me paint. Or, Dear Ma — Here’s that picture of Uncle Giovanni I promised. I had to work a lot from memory, but I think it turned out okay. By the way — could you send me more socks? Yours, G.T.
February 24, 2005 — Come to think of it, I wish someone would compile a book of letters from writers to their mothers. It would make fascinating reading. A good companion volume would be letters from writers to their fathers, though I would guess far fewer of that type have been written, since mothers are generally more sympathetic to a foolish son’s woes. Not that there aren’t plenty of mothers who would be embarrassed or disgusted to have a writer for a son — unless, of course, he has hit the financial big time. But with that attitude, they can hardly call themselves mothers. Managers would be more like it. Books that contain a well known writer’s letters are common, and are generally as interesting as the writer’s other works. Some are dull, some read like novels. Dostoevsky’s letters can be desperate and frantic; almost all are entertaining and revealing. Some books do contain letters writers have sent to their mothers. Often, though, the letters were written when the writers were six or eight years old and on their first sea cruise or train ride. Their presence seldom serves much purpose, unless the writer died at a very early age, or was a literary Mozart. Meanwhile, some writers refuse to say anything worthwhile or important in their letters. They write as if they are afraid of giving away one of their precious ideas, or are worried that their letters might return to haunt them one day and show them in an unfavorable light. Others write as if their lives depend on each and very word, and as if holding anything back would cause them pain. But all this brings to mind another question. Generally speaking, are women writers more likely to write to their mothers or their fathers? It might depend partly on whether they are mothers themselves. I don’t know if any research has been done in this area, but there is probably a lot of anecdotal evidence floating around — which, not being a scientist, is my favorite kind.
February 25, 2005 — For the last couple of weeks, the doves have been hoo-hooing in the pre-dawn hours, calling to each other in the eerie light of a February moon. They are a bit ahead of schedule, but the clear, dry, and fairly warm weather we’ve been having seems to have touched their spirits, as it has their feathered cousins and all the other creatures, save the adults of the human species. These are preoccupied as usual and hanging their heads, and seem not to have noticed the prelude to spring. A walk through the neighborhood in the evening is like a walk through a cemetery, without the pleasant atmosphere. The drapes and blinds are drawn; blue light flickers at the seams. Here and there on the street surface are the bold chalk marks that define children’s games, along with colorful hearts, names, and other flourishes. Cars and pickups, creaking, smelling, dripping, settling in for a long night in the gutter. The artificial scent of fabric softener issuing from softly moaning dryer vents. In the distance, the numb roar of traffic beneath a dome of garish light, burning always to show the way, and to beguile those who are bored and have money to spend. A train rumbles by. Its horn sounds at the crossings. No one knows where it is going or where it has been. It is just another expression of eternal restless night.
February 26, 2005 — I wonder how many writers there are in this country per square mile. How many musicians, artists, sculptors, basket weavers? How many insurance agents, real estate agents, teachers, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, construction workers, dairy hands, dentists, toy makers, midwives, cheese tasters, coffee grinders, concession stand operators, utility workers, dream interpreters, movie producers, stunt men, politicians, impressionists, cauliflower growers, tortilla bakers, bunion removers, horse race announcers, barbers, ice carvers, furniture polishers, tilers, mechanics, welders, launderers, inventors, magicians, clergymen, accountants, hotel clerks, librarians, policemen, firemen, computer programmers, undertakers, drug addicts, scientists, homeless people, janitors, printers, architects, crop dusters, pharmacists, pimps, prostitutes, gas station attendants, talk show hosts, newspaper reporters, hog callers, security guards, moonshine distillers, prisoners? And yet there is only one president in the entire land, and look at who and what he is. One president for hundreds of millions of people, a man who can’t speak intelligently, sensibly, or clearly off a script, a man who ran business after business into the ground, who skated by in college, who took drugs, who went AWOL, who lied in order to occupy another country in which thousands of people have suffered and died, who pretends to be a Christian, who is a willing accomplice and spokesman for the drug companies, chemical companies, arms dealers, and his fellow oil men — this one man is the president. Doesn’t it make you wonder, especially about the rest of us?
February 27, 2005 — One thing a member of the medical profession isn’t likely to tell you is that you suffer from a disease called Laziness or Selfishness. The diagnosis is too simple and requires no tests or return visits. “You would feel better if you did something helpful and productive, instead of waiting for someone else.” No, a doctor’s job is to complicate things by dispensing unproven medication and probing areas of the anatomy that do not respond well to being probed. Common sense says, “Back off. If it’s that hard to get to, there is a reason for it.” Still, the probing continues, and all sorts of strange things appear on the computer screen. “Why, this man is dead already. What on earth is he doing here? More important, what will my other patients think? Quick — take him out the back way.” Yes, he’s dead. You killed him slowly with your pills and scopes, tortured him until he became a stranger to himself and to his family, until he hated everything including Life itself. “I’m sorry. We did all we could.” And then comes the bill, and the We turns out to be an I, pay up or else. But what about the good doctors, the real doctors? Aren’t they wonderful? Yes, they are, because they help you understand something about yourself during your time with them. Some happen to be bus drivers and bartenders, gardeners, teachers, and clerks. Some are even trained physicians who have moved beyond the stultifying roles of Doctor and Patient. They know we are all in this together, traveling on the same road, and that true healing happens to the degree a person understands himself. They don’t necessarily know it in these exact words, but they know it. Being around them is a cure in itself, and can make a healer of anyone.
February 28, 2005 — The little piece of fishing line that holds the left lens of my glasses in place broke yesterday afternoon, so now I’m left with a double-framed monocle. Luckily, I need my glasses only for reading, not for writing. I can see the words on the computer screen well enough. But I have trouble focusing on the print on government forms, contracts, business cards, food labels, disclaimers of any kind, and junk mail, so I could end up in all sorts of trouble before the day is over. I would zip over to our friendly neighborhood optician’s office for repair, but as these words are being written, a tow truck is hauling our glorious hardboiled egg to the garage because something has happened that prevents it from being taken out of park. It can be tricked out of park by turning the key in tiny increments until a magic spot triggers the release of the shifter. And it can be driven, but due to the problem there are also no brake lights, so I wasn’t about to drive the thing through morning traffic and have someone run into me from behind because they couldn’t tell I was about to stop. The good news is, the tow truck driver is the same one who hauled us down out of the mountains last summer when the van’s ignition went bad. It was nice to see him again. I said, “You look familiar,” and he said, “I do?” and then the light of recognition dawned on his face and he smiled. When he was filling out the paperwork, I told him about my glasses, and he confided that his own were three years old and that he could tell it was time for a new prescription. It was a pleasant reunion. We rolled the van out of the driveway and into the street. He had everything hooked up and ready to go within a few minutes. Who knows when, or if, we’ll meet again. I guess it depends on the van more than anything — unless we have the same eye doctor.
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Also by William Michaelian
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