One Hand Clapping – May 2003
The purpose of this daily journal is to see if I can find a way to unclench my fist and turn it into an open palm — a palm of generosity, understanding, compassion — and to see if I can capture, in words, the thunderous sound of one hand clapping. To put it another way, it is my publicly insane response to a world gone mad. It is also a way of reminding myself, and anyone willing to listen, that the madness will someday end.
— William Michaelian
Note: Each month of One Hand Clapping has been assigned its own page. Links are provided here, and again at the bottom of each journal page. To go to the beginning of Volume 2, click here.
March 2003 April 2003 May 2003 June 2003 July 2003 August 2003 September 2003
October 2003 November 2003 December 2003 January 2004 February 2004 March 2004
April 2004 May 2004 June 2004 July 2004 August 2004 September 2004
October 2004 November 2004 December 2004 January 2005 February 2005 March 2005
May 1, 2003 — The thing is, they don’t want us to have the time to think. It’s easier to conduct wars and steal our rights if we are distracted and worn out from rushing around and struggling to make ends meet. Add to this the propaganda that passes for news and you’ve got a real formula for disaster. My question is, why would anyone in their right mind accept what the government — any government — tells them as the truth? How many lies, coverups, and self-serving military operations are they willing to ignore? How much environmental degradation in exchange for corporate profit? Has having plenty of hot water, ample groceries, and abundant entertainment stunted our ability to reason? Or do we close our eyes because our everyday behavior is the same as the government’s, but only on a small scale? When I was a kid, one thing that amused my father was how various small-time crooks posing as businessmen would attend church every Sunday. He used to say, “Go to church on Sunday, stab your neighbor in the back on Monday.” It also angered him to see some of the things they got away with. I don’t know. Are people basically rotten? My own observation is that people can be pretty darned decent if given the chance. Expect the worst from someone and you’re much more likely to receive their worst in return. People are decent. We are only rotten as a matter of self-defense. We don’t like to be hurt. Having been hurt, we will do almost anything to avoid being hurt again. Vulnerability is thought of as a weakness. But if we are not vulnerable, then a shell builds up around us that keeps out the bad and the good. But it still boils down to one thing. We don’t have time to think. Or we don’t think we have time. And yet we have time for so many other things. We have time to wave flags and watch wars on television as if they were football games — and then we have time to become bored with it all and go off in search of other entertainment, often while ignoring the very people who live under our own roof. We do have one thing to be thankful for, though. We can be thankful it’s always the other guy.
May 2, 2003 — Too bad the president didn’t make yesterday’s victory speech in downtown Baghdad. Or was he afraid of the greeting he’d receive from the “liberated” Iraqis? . . . For the second day in a row, the sun is out, the temperature is warm, and the sky is blue. And for about the thousandth day in a row, I am sitting at a computer tending to business. It’s not that I’m addicted to work. I just can’t afford to get any further behind. “But Bill, you were born behind. You will always be behind.” Yes. And you forgot to mention how I was also behind the door when the brains were passed out. That’s what really got me into trouble. It happened like this: I had heard there were going to be some brains passed out, but on the appointed day I was busy. At the last possible moment, I raced down to the central brain depot, and, wouldn’t you know it, the brain-dispensing room was so full that I got pinned between the door and the wall just as my name was being called. When I failed to step forward in the allotted five seconds, what would have been my brain was dropped into a stainless steel tube and flushed out to sea. A few days later, my brain was caught by a fisherman, who got his picture in the paper as a result. But by then it was too late. The brain had been partly nibbled away by the tide and various forms of sea life. I claimed the brain anyway, and got my picture in the paper. I’ve been trying to undo the damage ever since.
May 3, 2003 — Today is my cousin’s birthday. Happy birthday, Vahan, wherever you are. Do you still remember climbing the big pine tree in the corner of our front yard in Dinuba? And throwing the frisbee in the open area next to the graveled driveway, by the basketball goal and mulberry tree? One thing you might not know or remember is that the heavy iron rim on the basketball goal was the same one your father and uncle used to play on as kids in Fresno. A fine bit of family history. . . . Once again, I am behind on my reading. I have a couple of new poetry chapbooks I’m dying to get to, but I simply haven’t had the time. But I have enjoyed looking at the covers and reading about the authors in the back, and their widely varied experiences. Both chapbooks are on my work table, a few inches away from my keyboard, atop a pile of correspondence. Next to that is a another pile of books, and behind that is a cardboard file containing a couple dozen more small press publications. There is also a style manual I rarely use, three Armenian-English dictionaries, a hardbound thesaurus, and an old paperback thesaurus. And at the edge of the table is a five-by-seven framed photo of a city known as Bitlis, where my father’s mother’s mother’s people were from. Taken by my brother, the picture is a daily source of inspiration. All of the aforementioned material occupies only about a quarter of the table, though. But the really important thing is that the table is the same table we used to eat around when I was growing up. So every time I sit down to work, I am reminded of all that took place at this table — the conversations, the eating, the noise. So, really, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. And it’s awfully easy to feel lucky — in work, in life, in general.
May 4, 2003 — Yesterday we enjoyed a visit from my wife’s brother, who lives on the Oregon coast. Unfortunately he was unable to spend the night. He claimed he had to be at work at seven-thirty this morning, but I think the real reason is that he was afraid to face my scrambled eggs. But he did have something interesting to say about running on the beach. Once when he was out jogging, he realized he was about to put his foot down directly into the middle of a dead, rotting seal. Relying on some recently acquired Tai Chi skills, he managed to withdraw his foot in mid-air and to land gracefully and with full mental clarity at a safe distance from the carcass. A trained biologist interested in all manner of decaying life-forms, he stopped to investigate. The seal was teeming with maggots, which turned out to be the only thing allowing the creature to maintain its shape. Luckily for us, we learned of this adventure well before it was time for our evening meal. But we also talked a little about politics and current events, and that nearly ruined our appetite. As the evening wore on, we sprawled in our sitting area adjacent to the table, drank coffee, and talked about everything under the sun. He left a little before midnight to face a drive of over two hours. It was raining again.
May 5, 2003 — The lilacs are in full bloom, as are these words from Whitman: . . . In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-washed palings, / Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, / With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love, / With every leaf a miracle — and from this bush in the dooryard, / With delicate-colored blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green, / A sprig with its flower I break. . . . which place us directly before his lilac bush and no other, and remind us to notice and appreciate our own. Words have undeniable power. We must choose them carefully, respect them, and be amazed — then we must forget them, lest they come between us and what they are meant to describe. Only then can we begin to appreciate their daily resurrection, in the heart, in the mind, and on the tongue.
May 6, 2003 — I’ve long been in the habit of jotting things down on scraps of paper and on the backs of business cards. It’s a good way not to have to remember whatever it is I don’t want to forget — if that makes any sense. At the same time, I’ve found that the very act of jotting things down ensures that I do remember. This is one reason my mind is so cluttered. But there have also been times when I have deliberately not written something down, based on the assumption that if it’s worthwhile, I will be able to remember it later. The trouble with that is, I don’t know whether it works or not, because some of the things I remember don’t seem to be worth remembering. And so I’ve come to rely on my notes. This morning, for example, I unearthed several important reminders: 1) Josh White wrote the famous Animals tune, “House of the Rising Sun,” in 1941; 2) sometime when I’m at the library, I need to check out at least one book by Zora Neale Hurston, and one by Ezra Pound; 3) blues-great John Lee Hooker once recorded with Woodstock phenom Canned Heat, with a microphone attached to his foot; 4) according to an old friend, I need to rent Local Hero, a 1983 movie starring Burt Lancaster; 5) “Under an Old Gray Hat” is a story title of possible merit; 6) the word “rubbage” is not really a word, though it has been used on occasion for “rubbish”; 7) weather is funny, because you can hear rain falling gently on a roof, but you can’t hear the sun beating down; and 8) there are ways other than language to communicate effectively. At times like these, I am especially grateful for that last reminder.
May 7, 2003 — The question is, should I take a break, have a bite to eat, and watch “Perry Mason,” or should I just sit here and listen to my stomach growl? So far today, I haven’t been very productive. I’ve replied to several e-mails and composed and sent some new ones of my own — always an enjoyable task. But I haven’t really settled in to work. I was dazed when I got out of bed at five-thirty this morning, and I’m still dazed. This happens every once in awhile. I have trouble sleeping, because I am worried about not being rich and famous, and about still having to work for a living — “working” and “living” both being abstract terms at best. Of course later on when I am rich and famous, I will probably lose even more sleep, because then I will be worried about hanging onto my money. At least I’ve heard of this possibility. While I’m waiting, I should probably write a story about a person who isn’t rich and famous and who can’t sleep, and who then becomes rich and famous but still can’t sleep. Something tells me I have plenty of time. And now, on to “Perry Mason.” Today’s episode is the one where he loses the case but still somehow manages to win in the end. . . .
May 8, 2003 — There is an old Gordon Lightfoot song that begins, I’m on my second cup of coffee, and I still can’t face the day. That’s me. I’m trying to make sense of it all, but can’t. Last night I dreamed that I made a right turn from the left lane, after joining traffic from a hidden route. But I was polite about it, and used my signal before cutting off the driver next to me. After turning, I was alone on the road. And then, once again, I found myself on foot inside an enormous empty building, looking for an exit. Finally, I found one, but the area outside was fenced in with razor-wire. I entered another empty building. There was a small window with light shining in. I opened it. But before I could climb out, a man who looked like the bloated, corrupt executive of an evil corporation floated into view, then up past the window and out of sight. I was dumbfounded when I realized it was the vice-president. Then I woke up. Now I’m dreaming that I am sitting at my work table, typing these words. It’s funny, but it always happens this way. One dream leads to another. I don’t mean to be redundant. I just am. Maybe I should change brands of coffee. But as we have purchased several cans of our regular brand on sale, that remains a remote possibility. Or maybe I should drink more coffee, and change the words of Mr. Lightfoot’s song to, I’m on my second POT of coffee, then go stick my finger in a light socket — ffzzzz! And I still can’t face the day.
May 9, 2003 — The stack of reading material at my bedside is now higher than the lamp. Newspapers, books, and magazines are criss-crossed at every angle as a stabilizing measure, the dust on the lower edges is an inch thick, and yet I go on adding to the pile. Before long, I’ll need a ladder. Behind it all is a radio I can’t get to, and a jar of pennies that could be converted into useful spending money if removing it weren’t so dangerous. One false move and everything could wind up on the floor. But the worst part is knowing there are things scattered throughout the pile that I haven’t finished reading. How am I supposed to get to them? I could dismantle and rearrange everything, but that would ruin the aesthetics. And anyway, the project would take a whole afternoon — time that could be spent writing, reading, and accumulating even more stuff to read. But at least I haven’t done what William Saroyan did. He used old newspapers as tablecloths so he’d always have something to read when he ate, and spread papers on his bathroom floor to read during prolonged visits. Now that’s ridiculous. Or is it?
May 10, 2003 — I’m tempted to say writing is what keeps me sane, but I think we’d better reserve judgment on that. The opposite could easily be true. Writing might be what keeps me insane. Or, my insanity might be what keeps me writing. Then again, it might be my sanity that keeps me writing — though it should also be noted that writing is an insane act — at least according to several sane people I’ve known — who were, in fact, miserable, because their sanity prevented them from seeing how insane they were, and from enjoying the fact. . . . Yesterday after running an errand downtown on Ferry Street, I walked up High Street to State Street, crossed State, continued past the old Grand Theater, which seems to have been redesignated as a church, turned left on Court Street, crossed the alley, and entered a used-book store called The Book Bin. After searching for about one minute, I found the Mother’s Day gift I was looking for: a hardbound copy of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Then, on the shelf behind me, I found a copy of the second series of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. The essays were originally published in 1844. The copy I found was published in 1892 in Philadelphia, by Henry Altemus. I bought both books, then, so as not to retrace my steps entirely, headed up the alley back toward Ferry Street. In the alley I passed a young man and young woman sitting with their backs against the brick wall of the book store. They were deep in conversation. Last night I read the first essay, “The Poet,” from which I quote: . . . For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, an obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. . . . And there you have it — one more reason to go on writing, and to go on being insane. Or, to quote from an as-yet-unwritten poem: He loved her, only to find he had driven her sane. / And wept, for in so doing, had made of her a stranger.
May 11, 2003 — Our garden spot is still a sea of mud, but I have finally managed to prepare a narrow strip of ground next to the house for planting. So far there is room for about six tomato plants — a far cry from last year’s twenty-four. But there is nothing else I can do. With each passing week, there has been just enough rain to keep things from drying out. If all goes according to plan, I will visit the nursery and buy tomato plants today. But I might not plant them until tomorrow, because tomorrow is my grandfather’s birthday, and that’s bound to bring luck. If he were alive, he would be 107. And if I were alive, I would be almost forty-seven. And if he were able to hear what I just said, it wouldn’t make sense to him. I remember once years ago, back in the late 1970s, when a certain young celebrity took his own life, and he remarked, “Huh — what could be so bad?” The answer, of course, is plenty of things. But he also had a point. His father was murdered in Turkey before he was born in 1896, by people who thought Armenians had no business living. He escaped with some of his family to America ten years later. Those who remained behind perished. In Troy, New York, it was so cold where he and his mother and grandmother were living that there was ice on the walls. In Dinuba, California, where I was born, he had to defend his way through school against people who thought Armenians didn’t belong in “their country.” He lost one of his sons in World War II, and, with my father, tamed eighty acres of raw, rolling farm land almost literally with his bare hands. So. What could be so bad? The answer is easy: Everything. And nothing. Over and over and over again.
May 12, 2003 — Yesterday afternoon I hauled my shabby carcass into public and bought six tomato plants. Then I stopped at the library and bought two more books at the Friends bookstore. One was Seven Plays, by Bernard Shaw, published in 1951 by Dodd, Mead & Company. The other was Sixteen Famous European Plays, compiled by Bennett A. Cerf and Van H. Cartmell and published as a Modern Library Giant in 1943. So now I can read “The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen, “The Sea Gull,” by Anton Chekhov, and “The Playboy of the Western World,” by John Millington Synge, among others. I’m not sure when I will do this, but I will eventually. Then, yesterday evening, there was a big thunderstorm. It rained so hard the gutters overflowed. And so my tomato-planting will have to be put off a little longer — a disturbing, though familiar, development. But the storm was great. Just as the rain was beginning to fall, we were outside saying farewell to my mother, who had politely endured an evening meal in her honor and was ready to make her escape. The atmosphere was charged with microscopic particles of newly moistened earth, various spores and pollens, and the music of birds. In short, the universe was laughing again.
May 13, 2003 — There are times when the best thing you can do is have a cup of coffee and relax. This is one them. Ahhh. . . . And with that I say farewell to an unproductive morning, and celebrate the beginning of a shining afternoon full of potential. . . . And then the telephone rings . . . a boring discussion ensues . . . my coffee is growing cold . . . wait . . . just . . . a . . . minute. . . . And I hang up and finish my cold coffee. Now. Where was I? Oh, yes. Shining potentials full of promising afternoon interruptions. No, that wasn’t it. Unproductive discussions about cold coffee? Morning celebrations of telephone cups? Ringing farewells to relaxation? Grrrr. . . .
May 14, 2003 — An hour or so ago in the neighboring town of Woodburn, I saw an elderly woman breaking up clods in her garden with an iron rake. The ground was already nice and level, and it seemed to have aired out sufficiently for planting. Had I been on foot, I would have stopped and asked her what she was going to plant. But as I was in a line of traffic approaching a stop light, all I could do was admire her straw hat and the peaceful, gentle scene. A couple of minutes later I was on the freeway, headed back to Salem. And now I am here, though part of me is still in Woodburn, kneeling down to pick up a handful of moist earth to see and smell what the soil is like. And another part of me is remembering the many years I spent on the farm, and the quiet moments alone, walking with a shovel resting over my right shoulder, and listening to the sound of my footsteps. And now I am here again, wondering about all the changes there have been in what, for lack of a better term, I call “my life,” and about all the changes yet to come. It is not hard to imagine myself as an old man, working in a roadside garden. It also is not hard to imagine myself never arriving, bound up instead in the limbo known as death, yet somehow still wondering if I will ever get my tomatoes planted.
May 15, 2003 — I heard on the radio this morning that over seven percent of the children in Iraq are in the process of starving to death — something interesting to think about while filling one’s gas tank, or while idling in line at a fast-food driveup window. About fifteen minutes ago, it hailed briefly. Now it’s mostly sunny. I planted my tomatoes yesterday afternoon. They sustained no damage from the hail. A friend of my father’s called from Fresno today and said he is now a grandfather, and that tomorrow he is going fishing. I remember going fishing with my father. Last night I had a dream in which two doctors told me I had cancer, but that it was in a very early stage. The first treatment they prescribed was a special helmet with a metal finger that pressed firmly against the back of my neck. For the second treatment, they placed me in front of a very bright light. After the treatments were over, they seemed optimistic — probably because they knew their bank accounts had just grown larger. Many other things also happened today. For instance, I bought two packages of corn tortillas, saw someone get stopped for speeding, and had a spearmint cough drop. Of course, these are just a few highlights. I also put on my shoes once and took them off. Pretty soon I will be putting them on again, because I have something I need to do downtown and I don’t like to drive while wearing slippers. When I get back, I will take off my shoes, and, with any luck, be able to leave them off. On the other hand, I could just as easily decide to take a walk, in which case I will need to put my shoes on again. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s what I do when I am overwhelmed with excitement. What I need to do is learn how to calm down and take things one step at a time — and stop thinking about starving children. After all, what’s good enough for the government should be good enough for me, right?
May 16, 2003 — A very important part of my job is to have coffee occasionally with a very good friend of mine who is also a writer, and another friend, who is an artist. Today’s discussion was highly informative. The topics included prickly heat, black widow spiders, the absence of snakes in Hawaii, paintings the size of cigarette packages sold in refurbished cigarette vending machines, and the sleep habits of bullfrogs. As it turns out, at least according to information printed on the inside of a Snapple lid, bullfrogs don’t sleep. They are awake twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. This was a disturbing surprise, so much so that my writer-friend said he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, thinking about millions of wide-awake bullfrogs around the world. Then one of us suggested a scene in which a bullfrog was in bed and unable to sleep, and he turns to his wife and asks, “You awake?” and the wife answers, “I am now,” and the bullfrog says, “Do you think you could make me a sandwich?” And I said, “Poor guy. He can’t sleep even when he croaks.” After that, our conversation drifted on to welding, baseball, and dysentery.
May 17, 2003 — More rain. But at least I don’t have to water my tomato plants. At the rate it’s going, I may never have to. And I’m thinking of hiring a professional grain-harvesting outfit to get our lawn back under control. I say that only because I know the neighbors would be less alarmed seeing a combine in our yard than half a dozen goats. Ah, the price we pay for calling ourselves “civilized.” Personally, I miss the goats we used to have years ago when we lived on the farm. Goats are wonderful, clean animals, and great entertainment. One we had, a Nubian, liked to go with us on walks. It also permitted a chicken to ride on its back. She had a tremendous personality — the goat, not the chicken. But this is not to say chickens don’t have personalities. That would be unfair to “Hop-along,” our old red hen that hobbled around the yard on its one good leg, the other having been stepped on by our goat. And then there was “Bent Comb Hen,” whose comb was so big that it flopped over on one side and covered its eye. Talk about demented.
May 18, 2003 — Today we joined the herd and bought a cart-load of supplies at one of those huge chain stores that have reduced human need to something that closely resembles a cattle drive. What a scene: narrow aisles full of wrung-out, poverty-stricken consumers dejectedly shoveling merchandise into grimy baskets laden with germs. Really, it’s hard to beat. We saved tons of money, and all we lost was our self-respect. Fortunately, we have three or four weeks to regain it, then we’ll go back and lose it all over again. I call it participating in the American Experiment. Dipped into the broth of commerce by evil corporate thieves, we stay immersed until our skin turns blue, then pop up and wash it all down with artificial cookies and cheap soda pop. That’s living, boy — so much so, that you can’t help feeling a little sorry for the criminally overpaid and overfed, reading the Wall Street Journal and suffering aboard their yachts. On the way home, when we passed a church parking lot full of cars, I remarked to my loving bride that the people inside the church would probably go into shock if they knew what Jesus really looked like. Not that it matters, of course. Because, as we all know, looks don’t mean a thing. Ask any publicist, or anyone else waiting in line to buy tickets for the next big show.
May 19, 2003 — It might seem strange, or even a little sick, but I really am doing exactly what I want to be doing. This includes the present moment, which finds me slumped with tired eyes and a sore neck at an old computer. It is the culmination of years of refusal: I have refused, passionately and sytematically, to give in to the notion that a person can always do what he wants, later. I have seen what happens to people who wait. At the same time, I am fully aware of what it costs not to wait. Having tasted the results of both, I would choose my brand of suffering anytime. It’s better to suffer in joy than in frustration — less than poetic advice, perhaps, but sound nonetheless.
May 20, 2003 — Today is my birthday, and also the birthday of Honoré de Balzac, whom I haven’t seen since his untimely death in 1850. And we still had so much to talk about — not that I was really surprised by his exit, because, by and large, writers are an unreliable lot. I suppose I should have told him to slow down and take it easy on the coffee, but in those days life was a hurry-up affair, and not the peaceful thing it is now, owing to thousands of modern conveniences. I remember the time well. The promenade was jammed with carriages, and the horse fumes were awful. It took hours just to get across town, and even then you had to do battle for a place to park. It didn’t help that everyone spoke French, either. When I returned to Paris with my brother in 1982, the Armenian driver in charge of showing us the sights that late fall evening stopped and asked half a dozen policemen where to find 74 rue Taitbout, which is where William Saroyan lived while in Paris. They all pointed in a different direction, then returned to their idle chatter. What six policemen were doing on an abandoned Paris street corner in the middle of the night was anyone’s guess. Needless to say, we never did find Saroyan’s apartment — or anything else, for that matter. But we did see several youths operating some sort of mechanical pigeons in front of dozens of wide steps leading up to an imposing edifice that might have been a government building. Just as well, because Saroyan was dead anyway. I guess Paris just does something to writers — although my long life would seem a contradiction. I also knew Guy de Maupassant, the Goncourt brothers, and Émile Zola, but as this is not their birthday, I will discuss our experiences and fallings out at another time.
May 21, 2003 — Like Balzac, I drank too much coffee yesterday, but it was necessary if I was going to get any work done. At 5:30 a.m. I crawled out of bed looking like a stunned gopher, got dressed, and made my way to the kitchen, where I proceeded to make breakfast for our youngest son, who crawled out of bed looking like a stunned gopher half an hour later. While we ate our bacon and scrambled eggs, he read the comics and I stared at, but made no sense of, the sports page. Then he went to catch the bus for school and I took a shower. Still dazed, I got dressed and put on some coffee — and almost fell asleep here at my work table while I waited for it to be done. It’s pathetic, I know. But after drinking a cup of good strong brew, I felt my energy level rise. So I had another cup and really got to work. A few hours later, I made the mistake of having two slices of bread topped with peanut butter and honey. Almost immediately, I was back at square one, and so it was necessary to make some more coffee. Then I picked up steam again. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was that I did yesterday afternoon. I wrote something or other, talked to our eldest son about something or other, wrote some more, signed on to the Internet and visited a couple of websites I can’t remember a thing about, and then went downtown. When a policeman woke me up on a bus stop bench, I knew I was in trouble. My van was gone, my mind was gone, and with it any trace of information that might get me home again. When he asked me my name, I pointed at a nearby street sign. “Very funny,” he said. “Do you have a wallet?” I gave him my wallet, and then he fished out my driver’s license. “Okay, Mr. Mishelayleaon,” he said. “I see you live here in town.” He showed me my license. “Is that me?” I said. “The guy in the picture has short hair. My hair is long.” The officer studied my appearance, then smiled. “So it is,” he said. “So it is. But I’m sure this is you. Why? Don’t you remember?” “No,” I said. “Not a thing.” . . . And then I finished my day’s work and we celebrated my birthday with a beautiful carrot cake my wife made — and more coffee. Late last night, I went to bed and couldn’t sleep. This morning, I crawled out of bed looking like a stunned gopher, got dressed, and — oh, my. This is sounding awfully familiar.
May 22, 2003 — Images of the road: This morning I was driving alongside a young family in a shiny red Lexus with fancy chrome wheels. The car moved to the center turn lane, then entered a McDonald’s parking lot, proving the real value of money. Awhile later I saw a huge truck. The name on the truck was United Salad. I’m not sure what this proves. Probably the same thing. The other day, I saw a bumper sticker that said “I poke badgers with spoons.” An interesting thought. At the corner of Edgewater Street and Wallace Road in West Salem this morning, a gravel truck with a long trailer ran a completely red light while turning right from Wallace onto Edgewater, driving over the curb and sidewalk in the process. No pedestrians were killed. Downtown I saw two youths, a boy and a girl, dressed in black leather and with dyed black hair, chained to each other. Their expressions were so sad as they crossed the street. And a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Rock Salt and Electric Secretary were playing at one of the local taverns. I made it to neither show, choosing instead to stay home and perfect my insanity, which has been a bit rusty lately.
May 23, 2003 — Early this morning, my ten-year-old computer monitor gave up the ghost. At the moment I’m using a monitor “harvested” from our youngest son’s computer. But the thing is small and has poor resolution — and occasionally, as happened at just this moment, the picture shrinks, then expands. Not a good situation, although such problems are to be expected from nineteen-dollar monitors purchased at Goodwill. So this afternoon I need to find a real monitor — either that, or buy a new computer. Because, as it happens, my computer is the same age as my dead monitor. But I hate to give up on it, because it has been — oops, there goes the picture again — a good and faithful friend. Also, about three years ago, I put in a new power supply. My main fear now is the hard drive. How long will it last? As I understand it, sometimes an old hard drive will go without warning. Then where will I be? My old Royal typewriter doesn’t have a disk drive. Not only that, the ribbon needs to be changed. Oh, well. Like everything else, we’ll see where it leads. . . .
May 24, 2003 — I am now staring at a brand new monitor. It’s far better than my old one, at a fraction of the cost. But I didn’t buy a new computer. That will have to wait until the next disaster, or until I crack up completely, both of which could happen at any moment. The salesman was nice, though. He wasn’t on commission, and therefore wasn’t too worked up about my purchase — or about anything else, for that matter. But he did have this to say: “How do you know when a salesman is lying? When his lips are moving.” I thought that was pretty funny, even though I’ve met a salesperson here and there who didn’t lie in order to make a sale. I’ve met a lot of the other kind, too, but dealing with liars can be very entertaining, and keeps a guy on his toes. Here’s another good thing that came out of my monitor problem: I moved everything and dusted my work table. It only took about half an hour. In the process, I found a few interesting drawings I had made, and a ton of scribbled notes that no longer mean what they used to and so are extremely valuable. I used to clean up every couple of weeks, but this time it has been months. I think I may be on to something here.
May 25, 2003 — My latest brilliant idea is to write a collection of great story endings, but without the story. This would be an intriguing challenge, and might give birth to a whole new art form. Each ending would have to be the natural and inevitable result of everything that could have happened, but didn’t. Another interesting possibility would be to write stories from end to beginning, rather than beginning to end. The trick would be in the patient subtraction of events and the simultaneous devolvement of the characters. Otherwise, one could end up with more at the beginning than at the end, when the obvious purpose of “unwriting” a story is to reach the point where there is nothing at all to talk about, thus leaving the reader free to take a walk or make a sandwich.
May 26, 2003 — Who and what we remember on Memorial Day varies from person to person, but one thing is certain: we are defined as much by what we have lost as by what we have gained. Also, much of what we gain during our lifetime comes through loss, or as a result of loss. Wisdom is one good example. It is hard to imagine becoming wise through unremitting success. To be sure, there is a great deal to be learned from success, but, as in all things, there must be a balance. Success wouldn’t have much meaning without failure — just as failure can cease to be failure and become a way of life where there is a prolonged absence of success. Remembrance itself is a balm. It can also be an instrument of torture as real and as damaging as that which is recalled. Memory defines us. Setting aside a day to remember is a good thing, if we make proper use of it. It is a day that can be likened to the Lenten period observed in the orthodox churches, where introspection is the rule. It reminds us of who we are and from where we’ve come. It helps us see our mistakes, and what we need to do better if we are to live life more fully and gracefully. It also reveals the wickedness of government propaganda, and the futility of war. Today the news, so firmly in the hands of the government, is being used to glorify our most recent spate of killing in the name of democracy, the very thing it is seeking to destroy. In this way, the government uses the day to further its own destructive aims. This, too, is worth remembering — today, and every day.
May 27, 2003 — I am pretty excited about my new shirt. Its wild pattern and 1960s design is a definite departure for me. Between that and my uncut hair, I look like a Haight-Ashbury retread. All the shirt needs now is a few miles on it, and a few stains of questionable origin. Then we won’t be able to tell where the shirt leaves off and I begin. Later today, after our second-oldest son replaces the battery in his camera, my darling bride is going to snap a few pictures. With any luck, one will be good enough to use with my interview in the second edition of the collected Barbaric Yawp interviews, which, according to editor John Berbrich, will be out later this summer. In other news, I’ve been enjoying the Kingston Trio’s greatest hits, featured on a CD borrowed from a friend of mine who played folk music during the Sixties at a coffee house called the Hollow Lemon. Unfortunately, the collection doesn’t include two of my favorites, “Take Her Out of Pity” and “Raspberries, Strawberries.” Come a landsman, a pinsman, a tinker, or a tailor / doctor, a lawyer, a soldier, or a sailor / rich man, a poor man, a fool, or a witty / don’t let her die an old maid, but take her out of pity. Amazing. They just don’t write songs like that anymore — though I have heard some pretty decent-recent folk music lately on KBOO. Thank goodness, because it’s needed now, more than ever. Rap only went so far — too far. And, typical of most movements, it was unaware of its own demise. Not that this bothers the recording companies, who are unaware of almost everything except money. But it’s a business. They’re supposed to make money. Yes, they are. But over the years, money has also been made selling things of good quality and lasting value. So, there.
May 28, 2003 — Yesterday afternoon a water main broke downtown, filling several businesses, basements, and an underground parking area with water. Five o’clock traffic was snarled for miles in all directions, and I was out there in it. What would normally have been a fifteen-minute drive took me over an hour as I zigged and zagged my way across town and away from the trouble. People on narrow streets in old residential areas watched the parade of vehicles from their porches and yards. A couple of them even waved, which I found rather touching in a silly, sentimental sort of way. After all, people don’t do much waving these days. Whereas when I was a kid, waving was quite common, just as was nodding and saying hello to strangers one met on the sidewalk. As a general rule, people didn’t look the other way, or right through you, the way they do now. Being trapped in traffic also gave me time to listen to my new George Harrison CD, Brainwashed. His sarcastic, humorous, serious words of wisdom and fine guitar-playing helped me keep relaxed and calm. Excellent work from a dedicated musician. I remember reading when he died that when he was fourteen and teaching himself to play the guitar, he would keep at it until his fingers bled — a statement of character, and a reminder to the rest of us that you can take out of something only what you are willing to put in. And speaking of taking something out, when I finally made it home I promptly emptied a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer — called “PBR” by stylish college students and members of the jet set — into a tall beer glass I bought at Goodwill a couple of years ago for ninety-nine cents. It was eighty-five degrees out and very muggy. I was tired and glad to be home, even though I don’t know where home really is. Everywhere, I guess.
May 29, 2003 — A few days ago I received a subscription solicitation from a literary magazine produced by a university. It came in the form of a small glossy booklet stapled together, with a postage-paid payment envelope tucked into the pages. Inside, there were short excerpts taken from the magazine, the obvious assumption being that the writing is so good that only an uneducated fool could resist sending in his money. I read several of the excerpts this morning, however, and was bored silly. One, having to do with the death of a child, was marred by the glib, well-fed tone of voice that has become all too familiar in much that is being written today. In the space of just a few words, it was obvious that the writer had no real mental investment in what she was writing about. The story simply didn’t matter to her, although I’m sure she thought it did. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the story is really great and I am too dumb to realize it. Maybe it gets going a few pages later. But if that’s the case, why didn’t the editor choose a better excerpt? Or it could be that he was more intent on producing his direct mail piece and spending money that was in his annual budget. I don’t know. But over the years I have received many similar solicitations, and have suffered through enough issues of venerable literary journals to know that something is lacking. What is lacking is content. What is lacking is risk. For every good story out there that really matters, hundreds and hundreds are published that reek of self-satisfaction and tritely predictable turns of phrase learned in workshops and writing courses. That this is condoned and encouraged by editors I find abominable. Are they so concerned with their résumés that they are unable to see what’s happening? Or has mediocrity simply become a way of life? If literature really matters to them, as they claim it does, they would dynamite their magazines and start over.
May 30, 2003 — The first chance I get, I am going to reread Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I read it three or four years ago, along with Dharma Bums and a couple of others. The idea of writing a book in two or three weeks on a continuous roll of paper as Kerouac did appeals to me, as I myself have always been one to write quickly. But I’m not comfortable with popping pills in order to stay awake the whole time. I certainly don’t condemn the act. It’s just something I don’t want to do. Nor would it fit in too well with the family lifestyle, which I happen to think is a pretty worthwhile and enjoyable thing. But even without pills, I have managed some pretty fast writing. I have written novels and book-length works of nonfiction in as little as thirty days, and never more than ninety. And there is also the collection of seventy short stories I wrote last fall, also completed in a ninety-day period. Why do I write so fast? The short answer is, it is a natural, comfortable pace. The long answer, though, is a bit more complicated. Actually, I don’t know what the long answer is. But I think it has something to do with an eagerness to see the finished product, and an eagerness to find out what happens in any given work. Perhaps if I were the kind of writer who maps things out beforehand and knows exactly where he is going, I would feel free to take my time. But I prefer to begin where the reader begins, and to remain as much a reader as I am a writer during the entire writing process. In fact, I have read many stories where it is obvious that the writer hasn’t really read his work at all, and hasn’t listened to it to be sure it makes sense and falls naturally, so to speak, from the tongue. My theory is, if it isn’t easy to say, then it won’t be easy to read. And reading should be easy. Words shouldn’t get in the way. Words should be effortless, and should help the reader realize what he already knows, but perhaps has forgotten. And they should be musical as well. Anyway. As I said, the long answer is a bit more complicated. This is another thing that keeps me writing, and keeps me reading.
May 31, 2003 — The assumption that everything will be all right is comforting, yet dangerous. It too easily leads to acceptance of things as they are. To be sure, things are what they are, and this is a fact that must be recognized. But it is the fact itself that demands action, just as awakening from a night’s sleep demands that we get out of bed and get on with things. Meanwhile, there are no real indications that everything will be all right. There is hope everywhere, but this often goes unnoticed or is ignored, and is therefore wasted. There is hope in every genuine smile — by which I mean a smile without any strings attached — and there is hope each time a baby is born. And there is an abundance of other examples. There are also ample reasons to think the end is near, or that it might as well be. We have ravaged the planet, upset its ecology, poisoned our air, food, and water, killed countless millions of our own kind, caused the extinction of other species, and invented television. We have deliberately tortured and starved one another, and proven our ignorance by voting for insane and corrupt politicians, while turning our backs on history, culture, and common sense. Personal responsibility is at an all-time low. We take what we can when we can, and in so doing tell our children’s children’s children to go to hell. But it’s not too late. We are still here. We all have it in us to be better and to do better. We are carriers of excellence, dreams, decency, and accomplishment. We are tragically ugly, but we are also beautiful. The world is at war because there is war within ourselves. And then a clean, clear drop of water falls upon a leaf, and we remember something ancient and good and timeless that will one day be again, if we permit it: unconditional love. And we will realize that it was there all along, that it was always within our grasp, and that those who clean the gutter are not inferior to those who cure disease, that those who compose music are not superior to those who mop floors in hospitals, and that those who cannot take care of themselves are a gift and not to be abandoned. We will realize it is now, not later, not before, that is our moment. And we will rejoice. But to assume it is dangerous. It won’t happen by itself.
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Also by William Michaelian
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