One Hand Clapping – June 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
June 1, 2003 — The wind is coming from the northeast — a sure sign of warming weather. Bit by bit, we are reclaiming our backyard and readying areas to plant. This afternoon, if all goes well, we will visit a nursery or two and find a few more things to plant. Like the bees, we are busy making up for lost time. We need to get as much into the ground as soon as we can in order to take advantage of the oncoming heat — and it will be hot, and the heat will make us curse the fact that we don’t have an air conditioner, especially on those nights when the temperature refuses to go down until dawn. Thank goodness there aren’t too many like that, although for me one is too many. We paid our dues in California’s San Joaquin Valley. We did our time. We passed our sleepless nights, sweating all the while, and moved less and less and more slowly during the daylight hours, until we finally reached a crawl and had to park ourselves in the shade and say Enough! Dealing with the heat is something you don’t forget. In fact, I remember one lovely July day back in the 1960s when the temperature hit 114 degrees. The funny thing about that kind of heat is that when you first step out into it, it feels good — for about one minute. And then your arms begin to glisten with sweat, and the band inside your straw hat soaks up moisture from your forehead, and you head straight for the nearest shade and water. But the dragonflies and horned toads loved it, and the black widow spiders and yellow jackets thought they were in heaven.
June 2, 2003 — Today I was driving west on Market Street and had just gone under the freeway overpass when, of all things, a softball rolled across several lanes of traffic and right in front of me. Its leisurely pace made the ball seem sort of like an urban tumbleweed. Luckily, I just missed hitting it. Otherwise, there might have been an explosion that scattered seed everywhere and clogged up people’s windshields. It could have been a disaster involving several insurance companies, attorneys, and doctors’ offices, instead of an unexplained comical event. Half a minute or so later, I came up behind a slowly moving car in the right lane. The car sped up as soon as I tried passing it on the left. When we were alongside each other, the driver looked at me as if I had stolen his softball, then held up a catcher’s mitt in a threatening manner. Realizing he had problems, I stepped on the gas and surged ahead. Instead of doing the same, he drove off the road and up onto the sidewalk, then uprooted a white picket fence, which he dragged the next several hundred feet. I thought of going back when he ran into a power pole, but I had an appointment at the bank and I didn’t want to be late. In the bank parking lot, I was greeted by the friendly old security guard, then we both looked on in wonder as several more softballs sped down the alley. “Well, will you look at that,” he said. “Those balls are going the wrong way.” And, sure enough, he was right. The city had just installed a new one-way sign. I shrugged and went into the bank, only to learn that the person I was supposed to meet was running late. The reason? An invasion of softballs. “I think they’re coming in through the duct work,” the woman said. “Maintenance is on it. Have a seat, and I’ll be with you in just a few minutes.” I thanked her and sat down in the waiting area next to a man who was holding a coffee mug with a softball resting on the rim. He smiled. I smiled back.
June 3, 2003 — It has been eight years since my father left this world. I marked the occasion yesterday by planting three hills of squash and a new parsley bed in his memory, because nothing gave him greater pleasure during his brief sojourn here than planting and growing things. He also considered providing for his wife and family to be his sacred duty, always putting us before his own desires, and willingly sacrificing his health and safety on more than one occasion. I am not the man he was, and I don’t think I ever will be. But some of him rubbed off. I seem to have inherited his understanding of soil and his ability to grow things. He used to admire the way I pruned fruit trees and grapevines, because cut for cut I made the same decisions he did, leaving each plant balanced and ready for another productive season. In fact I have said many times that pruning is a lot like writing, more specifically editing, which of course is an integral part of writing and not a separate thing at all. To write well is to prune well. It means knowing what to keep and what to remove. It also means understanding the long-term aspects and ramifications of what you are doing, as well as the danger inherent in an approach based on greed. Ask too much of your vineyard or orchard in any one year, and you are sure to see a long-lasting decline in quality. The same holds true in the publishing world, where writers who are known money-makers are frequently encouraged by editors to leave everything in as a way of increasing the page count, and therefore the profitability, of a manuscript. But more is only better in the hands of a true master. Stephen King is not Leo Tolstoy. Norman Mailer is not Dostoevsky. Writing short is an art. Writing long requires wisdom. Writing in between, at the very least, is a sign of good manners.
June 4, 2003 — You know you’re working too hard when dying sounds like a good way to get some rest. But the trouble with that is, you never wake up, and so you don’t get to enjoy the results. Last night I ended up with a lousy headache because I continued working well into the evening, which caused my neck to stiffen and my right eye to feel like it was going to pop out of my head. I slept for a couple of hours, then woke up and took some aspirin and went outside for some air. There was certainly a lot of it. And the neighborhood was quiet. There were no arguing voices, no dogs barking, no cars zipping around the corner. After filling my lungs with cool fresh air, I went back to bed — and stayed awake until about three in the morning, after which I dozed until about a quarter after five, occasionally noticing with gratitude that the pain in my eye was subsiding and that my neck muscles were continuing to relax. Now it’s afternoon and my head doesn’t hurt at all. But my shoulders feel like they’ve been carrying around a railroad tie all morning. Still, the work goes on. I have just a few more details to attend to, then I’ll call it quits for the day — except that I also want to do some reading. While I was downtown yesterday afternoon running errands, I managed to duck into a used book store and get a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. I haven’t read that one in a great many years, and think it is high time to see what Mr. Swift has to say.
June 5, 2003 — Sure sign of summer: A shirtless man with a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip drives by with all four of his windows down. Baby, I’m home! he says. Bring me a beer, willya? Glistening with sweat, he strides manfully across the floor. Baby? Y’hear me? And his baby replies, I’m out here, on the patio. Your mother called. She wants you to fix her sink. And he thinks, what in God’s name can be wrong with a sink? then hollers, Did you tell her I was still outta town? He goes to the refrigerator, takes out a can of beer, and pops it open. Yes, she did, another voice answers. And he strides manfully out to the patio and greets his mother, who is holding her defective sink in her lap. It will only take you a minute, Larry. Please, she says. Then I’ll be on my way. Other sure signs of summer: mental lapses, mirages, and missed opportunities.
June 6, 2003 — While the television meteorologists chatter about the heat in their air-conditioned studios, the rest of us have to sit here and sweat. And while they point out the high pressure areas and air flow patterns on their digital maps and charts, we lowly demographics are left to wonder who chose their wardrobe, did their hair, and applied their mounds of makeup. This is the news, or what’s left of it. Between the air-head weather reports and parade of sports scandals is a nauseating hybrid of facts, half-truths, hyperbole, and blatant advertising that we are expected not only to be grateful for, but to base decisions and form opinions upon. All I can say to that is, ha! . . . This morning at the grocery store, we met a mother and her very young daughter coming in our direction in the open area at the end of the aisles. The mother ignored us, but the little girl, who was pushing a tiny cart and wearing a beautifully serious expression, looked directly at us. She was shopping for groceries, and there were things in her cart to prove it. The woman she was with was a stranger she was merely willing to tolerate — at least until lunch time, or until she fell down and scraped her knee. In the meantime, she was doing for herself, and doing quite well, thank you. Awhile later, while waiting in line at the checkout stand, we saw an old man with a long white beard, and a slightly younger man with a big white mustache that turned up at the ends. They were also doing well, but they were doing it a little more slowly than several of the other people nearby. They were there. And now they’re somewhere else, and there’s a good chance we will never see them again, which is a dirty rotten poetic shame.
June 7, 2003 — It pays to live in the best neighborhoods, as evidenced by a loud argument that took place this morning in the driveway of a house a couple of doors up the street. While I don’t dispute the need to occasionally air one’s problems or concerns, I have never admired or appreciated the people who feel the need to make them public. Let it be a little loud, that’s fine, but why not go inside and close the door behind you instead of shouting in the street and waking up the neighbors, startling their cats and dogs, and scaring their children? Learned behavior is the obvious answer. It all starts in childhood, in what is seen by young eyes and absorbed by young minds. It is also a way of getting attention, a way of saying Look at me, here I am, I exist, and I am unhappy. Years ago, when my wife and I were just starting out — as the life of newlyweds was once commonly referred to — we lived for a short time in a small apartment in my home town. One evening, the young couple next door had a violent argument, which ended with a visit by the local police. Food had been thrown, dishes had been shattered against the wall, and potted plants had been uprooted and scattered around the living room. From this we gathered there had been a disagreement of some kind, which, oddly enough, we were unable to make sense of during the shouting match. There were, however, an abundance of choice four-letter words launched into the warm evening air, proving our neighbors’ love for words and demonstrating their flare for the use of the English language. Their destructive behavior, of course, earned them an eviction. This robbed us of a potential friendship that might have one day turned bloody, thereby earning us an eviction. And so it goes. Our lives are irrevocably altered by vengeful landlords and the outbursts of unhappy neighbors.
June 8, 2003 — As I sit here guzzling coffee and getting ready to face the day, it occurs to me that if I am writing these words, I am already facing the day, whether I am prepared or not. I am further reminded of the many times I have thought I was ready to face the day, only to find out I wasn’t. That’s what happens when you foolishly expect a convenient repetition of events or circumstances, which is another way of saying you’re in a rut. The potential of a new day is directly proportional to one’s eagerness and openness to recognize that potential. If you expect a convenient repetition of events and circumstances, then one of two things will happen: either the events and circumstances will repeat themselves, leaving you comforted, irritated, depressed, or bored, or you will be lucky and something else will take place that will cause you to wake up and take a look around. But if you look at a new day as an adventure, a journey full of challenge and possibility, there is a far better chance that this will turn out to be the case. And I am not ignoring responsibility in this equation, or the reality of busy lives and demanding jobs, all of which have a way of sapping one’s strength, and even, on occasion, one’s will to press on. Certain things can’t be avoided. What’s needed is a presence of mind, an awareness, and a longer view of things. Even if you are doing something you hate — something that is all too often the case — paying attention to nature and the people around you will reveal things you’ve never noticed or imagined — about the world, and about yourself. At the same time, if you are doing something you hate, this must be carefully examined. How did the situation come about? If you hate your work, what would you rather be doing instead? It has been my experience that many people don’t really know. All they know is that they are unhappy, and that they feel they have been hit by life as if they’d been hit by a truck. So if you don’t know, regardless of age or circumstance, it’s important that you find out. I have told our children many times that their real job in life is to find out about themselves and find out what they want to do while they’re here, and then, once they know, to keep on finding out. Of course, when they see the doddering fool that I’ve become, they wisely run in the other direction. But my advice still stands. Better to be a doddering fool who thinks than a doddering fool who doesn’t. Better to be a doddering fool who realizes he’s a doddering fool — though I suppose there’s no sense wallowing in it. Or is there?
June 9, 2003 — On my way back to town after watching a leisurely played baseball game in the small town of Amity, Oregon, yesterday afternoon, I realized once again that there have been a great many changes in the Salem area over the past several years. For some reason this made me think of my father, which in turn made me wonder what he’d think if he returned and saw these changes all at once, rather than little by little, as I have. And not just the changes here, but the changes everywhere. He hasn’t been gone so long that he would be overwhelmed, but there is no doubt he’d be surprised by a few things. The biggest changes, though, would be in our own appearances, and, to a certain degree, in our mannerisms and in the way we talk. Then again, maybe he’d be so surprised to be here that he wouldn’t notice anything else. One thing that wouldn’t surprise him, though, is that I have continued in my unorthodox ways and have no more money than I did eight years ago when he bid farewell to this world.
June 10, 2003 — Lying is an addiction. Once a person is hooked, he will go to almost any length to tell his next lie. Temporarily satisfied and distracted by the result, it is then only a matter of time until the next lie must be told. Not to lie is a pain too great to endure — or so it seems to an addicted mind. In this way, lying is like any other addiction. It sets forth its own rules, and, through repetition, the rules are enforced. When a liar comes to believe his own lies is the beginning of his downfall. The habit of lying then strangles his dreams and potential, leaving a corrupt, useless shell where a vital human once was. In this condition, it is very difficult to stop lying, or to even see the necessity. There are no support groups for liars, but there are many profane institutions based on lies that are led by professional liars who are more than willing to pretend. So it has been throughout history. So it is today. Lying is a profitable business. It is also a merciless, self-perpetuating killer.
June 11, 2003 — Today is the last day of school for certain young members of our household and others in the neighborhood. This means tonight there will be noisy celebrations in the street, and a general eruption of pent-up energy that will continue well past dark and probably last until midnight. It’s the same every year, and I don’t blame them. There is nothing more unnatural than kids having to get up at the crack of dawn and sit at a desk for several hours five days a week while teachers posing as adults drone on and on about subjects that could be interesting but usually aren’t because of the way they are presented. School, like television, is full of wasted potential. Both are capable of draining the life out of young people, leaving them dazed and frustrated without really knowing why. That much said, I will also readily admit that there are many teachers who really do care, and who embrace their subjects and their students with enthusiasm. These are the teachers who leave a positive lasting impression on the young people who dwell for a time in their classrooms. At the same time, many are frustrated by having to deal with an overloaded, over-administrated system that is more concerned with institutional legalities and public relations than learning. And so my hat is off — even though I wasn’t wearing one — to the teachers who really are teachers in spite of it all, and to the students who somehow are able to see through the bogus aspects of the whole affair and actually learn something, with or without the help of their parents. My hat is also off to Mr. Goehring, my old much-loved chemistry teacher, who passed away several years ago after spending his entire popular and highly effective career at one school. When I think of most of my other teachers, however, I either feel sorry for them, or for their students, whose lives they sought to destroy. Of course the destruction worked both ways, and thus was achieved a small amount of poetic justice. The rest, as they say, is history.
June 12, 2003 — I’ve never been a big Hemingway fan, which is exactly why I bought a used book containing his letters yesterday. The other reason I bought it is because I was downtown and found myself with a few minutes to spare, and so naturally I paid a visit to the little book store located just inside the main entrance of the Salem Pubic Library. I was in the store no more than two minutes — long enough to find the book, pay three dollars for it, and enter my name in a drawing for a free book. But back to Hemingway. He is supposed to be great, and so a look at his letters seemed like a good way of finding out what made the man tick. Right off the bat, I discovered he had quite a sense of humor, as is illustrated by this brief opening excerpt from a letter “Papa” wrote to poet Archibald MacLeish in 1927: "Dear Archie: If I praise your damn poetry any more you’ll think I’m a fairy or a critic but I thought your poem in the Caravan (which by the way smelled like a caravan that had been forced to shit in a closed room) was wonderful. It was a grand lovely poem and if you want to make Papa happy write like that and then dedicate to me. . . .” Well, this alone makes me think I should give Mr. Hemingway another chance. It’s been years since I’ve read one of his novels or stories. Maybe I’ve grown up enough in the interim to recognize his brilliance — or to be reaffirmed in my current opinion. Either way, it would be worth it. To be perfectly honest — which of course I always am — I would be delighted to be proven wrong, because this would not only give me more reading to do, but bring to light changes that have occurred in my own life and mind.
June 13, 2003 — During a telephone conversation with a young woman in the insurance office where our automobile policies are on file, I was told that, thanks to a recently launched program, the young drivers in our household could save a percentage of their monthly bill if they watched a video provided by the company and then kept a detailed driving log for a month. But, if they were later issued a ticket or were in an accident that was their fault, the deal would be off and their rates would go back up. When I suggested that this seemed like an awful lot to go through for people who already had perfect driving records, and that the company should give them the discount on that basis, the subject was quickly dropped. Now, it seems to me that if the company can afford giving the discount after putting a person through their meddling little course, then they can also afford giving the discount to someone who has already proven himself to be a responsible driver. In other words, why play games? The official answer, of course, would be that such programs reduce the number of accidents and help save lives — to which the logical official reply would be, “Gee, thanks, I’m touched by your concern.” Because, the only reason an insurance company does anything is to make more money. This includes posing as a friend and neighbor — which gives me a radical new idea: can the advertising, and pass the savings on to the customers.
June 14, 2003 — Always one to lead by example, the man who glibly calls himself the president arrived at his family’s estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, just in time for a Father’s Day round of golf with his dear old dad. It was a touching scene — and suddenly a great sentimental sigh rose up across the land, as millions of Americans looked up from their “news” papers and said, “Aw, shucks, he’s a pretty good guy after all.” It’s interesting. Despite the puny fact that America is broke, Iraq is in shambles, and thousands upon thousands of people won’t be celebrating Father’s Day because they no longer have fathers, the man who calls himself president is taking a break. That’s quite a message he’s sending. In fact, it reminds me of all the “long weekends” Abraham Lincoln took during the Civil War — or the ones my own father took when there was work to do. Gee, whiz. I can hear him now. “The hell with the peaches,” he’d say, “they can pick themselves.” Ah, well. It’s just something great men have in common, I guess. As for the members of the armed forces who are busy doing the president’s dirty work, they can always look forward to having a day off on Christmas — as long as they aren’t too picky about the year.
June 15, 2003 — Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to set aside one’s bitterness and observe a quiet moment of appreciation. . . . There. I’m glad that’s over. But seriously, in my own bitter quest for enlightenment, I have found that even bitterness as natural and bountiful as mine is not sufficient unto itself. For bitterness to be worth anything, it needs a good target. If it doesn’t have a good target, it can devour its host in no time. Luckily, there is an abundance of targets. But not everyone can see this, and so their bitterness turns against them and they become negative and sour, rather than cheerfully sarcastic, like me. And so we find ourselves with an important distinction — that of negative bitterness and positive bitterness. I am positively bitter. Whereas several people I have known were negatively bitter — meaning there was absolutely no light in their lives, and they wanted to make sure that none shone in anyone else’s. My father had a specific name for this type of person. He called them “miserable sonsofbitches.” Sometimes, for the sake of variety, he called them “miserable bastards.” I have faithfully passed these terms along to my children, accompanied by an important explanation: you can say almost anything and get away with it, as long as you say it with a smile. I have also told them that there are times when nothing is more important or more valuable than keeping one’s mouth shut. For some odd reason, that remark has been routinely met with derision.
June 16, 2003 — After attending to several details of a mundane and time-consuming nature, I am finally free to sit down and write. Unfortunately, the mundane details are still circulating in my head. I suppose I could write about them, but I don’t want to. They have taken up enough of my time already. It would be a lot more fun to write about something grand, but I know from experience that when I set out to say something grand, something petty ensues. That’s why I gave up trying to say something grand years ago. I don’t even try to say something memorable, because the same thing happens. On occasion I try to say something coherent, but little by little I think I’m kicking that habit as well. As a general rule, the more trying I do, the more trouble I get into, whether I am writing or not. But this brings up an important question: is there ever really a time when I am not writing? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. I don’t define writing as the act of writing itself. To me, writing and observing can’t be separated. Writing is an around-the-clock thing. A writer is always on duty, even when he appears to be thousands of mental miles from anything remotely related to his literary endeavors, such as when he is on a wild binge of gambling and drinking, or when he is tearing through the countryside in an automobile borrowed from a friend, and recklessly swerving to miss random skunks and boulders. A novelist at a major league baseball game is busy on his current or next novel; a poet chopping wood is attentive to his inner struggles and harmonies. The novelist may appear to be wrapped up in the game, and the poet may be sweating up a storm, but they are both writing. I confess, however, that I have never actually asked a writer about this. Maybe there are writers who don’t write all the time. There certainly must be some who think this is the case. The so-called creative process is hard to pin down. It shouldn’t be pinned down. Neither should creativity be associated with certain times of the day, certain kinds of work, or certain types of people. Real creativity is what happens when we don’t stand in the way of ourselves. It is the first moment incarnate, the source, the fountain, the bubbling spring. Creativity is the vast distance between one thought and the next. It is a foul ball whizzing by a tired novelist’s ear, an open car window and a sunset, a church steeple beckoning swallows.
June 17, 2003 — While driving through town yesterday afternoon, I saw an inspiring sight: a young man playing a guitar on a street corner with a brown paper bag over his head. There were holes for him to see through and to speak and sing through, but his anonymity was secure. And I thought, what a great way to deliver one’s message, whatever it may be. With a bag over your head, all focus is shifted to the content of what is being said or sung — at least once the listener gets used to the idea of the bag. Besides, when we’re in public, don’t we usually try to conceal who we really are? Don’t we try to hide what’s on our minds? Maybe we should all wear bags. One thing I noticed about the bag-wearing guitar player was that his bag made him more approachable. The people around him seemed to enjoy talking to someone they couldn’t see, even though he could see them, which might be considered a disadvantage. Another benefit of wearing a bag on one’s head would be no longer needing to shave or to wear makeup. On the other hand, maybe the fashion industry would respond by selling designer bags, thereby reducing anonymity to yet another petty competition. I don’t know. I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels lately. It occurs to me that a modern version might well contain Gulliver’s journey to the Land of Bags. The natives would study Gulliver in amazement, and wonder at a strange culture that would condone running around bagless. Gulliver, meanwhile, would do what he always does: learn their language in record time and then talk himself into the good graces of the ruling clan, only to become mired in some sort of scandal or intrigue instigated by a jealous member of the court. “Where I come from, we recycle our bags,” he would say at his trial. And everyone would look on in horror.
June 18, 2003 — I see in the paper that the smirking spokesman of those who rape the planet and want to control its resources is now gearing up to raise money for his next presidential campaign. This reminds me of something funny I found in the book of Hemingway’s letters I bought a few days ago. In his introduction, editor Carlos Baker said Hemingway “often echoed a phrase about the gradual downfall of mankind into modern times, which he said he had picked up from an actual old Indian: ‘Long time ago good, now heap shit.’”
June 19, 2003 — Nearly 300 years after writing Gulliver’s Travels, the words that flowed from Jonathan Swift’s satiric pen might just as well have been directed at today’s governments and society in general. During Gulliver’s stay in the kingdom of Brobdingnag, where every living thing was many times larger than it is here in our own world, he took it upon himself to explain English society in great detail to the king. According to Gulliver, the king “was perfectly astonished with the historical account I gave him of our affairs during the last century, protesting it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice or ambition could produce.” By putting these words into the king’s mouth, Swift kept a brilliant, artistic distance from such delightfully acidic observations, as well as those made by the king shortly thereafter: “. . . you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country,” the king said; “you have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness, and vice, may be sometimes the only ingredients for qualifying a legislator; that laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interests and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some lines of an institution, which in its original might have been tolerable, but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions. . . . by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Inspiring words, indeed. If I thought the president capable of reading anything other than a financial statement, I would suggest he read this book. Then again, why bother? To benefit at all, he would have to care about the people living in the country he professes to lead, as well as those living — and dying — in the countries he pretends to be concerned about.
June 20, 2003 — The best thing about writing yourself into a corner is that it gives you the opportunity to write yourself out again. And quite often, the result is some very good writing. The same can be said about living. Living yourself into a corner is a great way to find out more about life. And it stands to reason that a writer who lives himself into a corner will be all the better at writing himself out of a corner. If a writer gambles away everything he owns, for instance, chances are his writing will become more daring. His characters will be real people instead of conventional cardboard cut-outs, because he will understand what makes them desperate and what drives them to ruin. And there is also a point where a writer’s life itself becomes a work of art, though this is something he might not be aware of. In a sense, he becomes a character in the novel he has been living. In other words, his eccentricity is genuine, and not a publicity stunt. Then the writing moves forward of its own accord, with little or no interference from the writer himself. Great literature is the result. And a writer of great literature justly outlives his own death, thus writing himself out of yet another corner. It must not be forgotten by young writers, though, that dead is dead, and that it is their turn to recreate the world. It is, in fact, their sacred duty.
June 21, 2003 — The sudden realization that you are happy can sneak up on you at any time. Usually it is something you can shake, but there are instances when the happiness is of such great magnitude that all you can do is hang on and ride it out. The important thing is to continually remind yourself that your misery will return, that it is not really gone, but only taking a holiday. It’s the only way to survive. And for prolonged bouts of happiness, it is comforting to know there are many drugs on the market that will help restore that gloomy outlook and frown. In fact, studies show that it is best to take these drugs before happiness sets in. Happy attacks are a leading cause of pleasant behavior, which is contagious and must be monitored carefully to keep it from spreading. The best way to prevent happiness is to visit your doctor regularly. Doctors understand the danger of being happy, and how closely happiness is related to good physical health. My recommendation is to see your doctor at least once a month. Between visits, be sure not to engage in any physical or mental exercise. And whatever you do, don’t open any windows. Fresh air is a killer. So is sunlight. Most importantly, if anyone smiles, get up and leave the room immediately. Follow these simple rules, and the next time you see your doctor, he or she will be amazed. And be sure to take the free samples your doctor gives you. Don’t even wait until you get home. Swallow them at the water fountain on your way out of the office. With any luck, you will pick up a disease or two from the last person who used it. This will help ensure the cycle of misery. Then, with perseverance and a little luck, we can abolish happiness in our lifetime.
June 22, 2003 — Journalists always seem curious about how writers survive financially. In interview after interview, they probe their subjects about their so-called day jobs, even though such matters are no one’s business and have nothing to do with the writers themselves or the books they have written. The important thing is that the writers have survived, and that they are doing their work. Everyone has to make a living somehow. Whether a writer pays his bills by teaching, driving a taxi, or digging holes in people’s yards is something that should be kept between him, his family, and his closest friends. Personally, I believe any writer who is willing to work hard, and who is willing to try to create something new to give to the world, should be able to earn at least a modest living by doing so. Certainly he makes more of a contribution to the general welfare of humankind than the corporate thieves who accumulate wealth by stealing the fruits of other people’s labors. The only time a writer should be expected to discuss his means to a livelihood is when those means have a direct bearing on what he has written. If an author has spent several years working as a war photographer, for instance, and has written a book about his experiences, then learning about his job will help shed light on his writing. But if a writer has spent several years mowing lawns just to put food on the table and finally has a novel coming out, the focus should be on the novel, the writer’s insights, his message, and so on. Making him talk about how hard it is to write when he is forced to spend most of his time doing something else that he hates is disrespectful, pointless, and cruel. Let him be the writer he is. Let him be the writer he has suffered to become. Let him talk about his real work.
June 23, 2003 — A couple of days ago, I was following a car with a Pennsylvania license plate. But instead of a catchy phrase or slogan meant to capture that state’s spirit, pride, and glory, the address of their official website was given. So I guess it’s come to this. Needless to say, I didn’t race home and call up their propaganda. I did remember, though, how the members of my sixth grade class and I undertook the project of writing down every state license plate we saw while we were being hauled around by our parents. I never did see all fifty, but I did come close. And many years later, one of our own kids got in the habit of writing down license plate numbers, filling whole notebooks with them. “There’s a good one,” he’d say, picking a license plate out of the crowd. I haven’t asked, but I’m sure he still has his old notebooks tucked away somewhere. Another thing we used to do when I was a kid and our family was on its way to San Francisco to visit relatives, was to pick the letters of the alphabet out of road signs in consecutive order. The rule was, you couldn’t move on to the next letter until you’d seen the one that immediately preceded it. When the excitement of this game wore off, we’d get out our deck of cards and play Battle, or War, as it is often called. By the time we were bored with card games, we had usually reached the town of Los Banos, which was exactly ninety-nine miles from Dinuba, and home to alfalfa fields and millions of insects, as proven by our bug-spattered windshield. From here we would push onward into Pacheco Pass, one of the rumored hideouts of Joaquin Murietta. I used to love gazing out the window and up at the rocky crags covered with oaks, and to dream of caves and campfires and long starlit nights. I still do.
June 24, 2003 — It is never alarming to sit down and discover that I have no idea where to begin. I have been writing under exactly these circumstances for years. It can also be said that I no longer have to begin, and that all I need to do is to continue from where I left off. There is a rhythm to my days, even when they are almost wholly given over to the chores, duties, and responsibilities of family life, and I am left with hardly any time in which to write. The rhythm comes from knowing that I will write when the first opportunity presents itself. In time, I have learned to take advantage of writing opportunities many people might not even recognize. I don’t wait until conditions are perfect. I don’t wait until everything is quiet, or until I am well rested, or until I know that I will have several uninterrupted hours at my disposal. If I did, I would never get any writing done. For example, just a few seconds ago, there were three people here in the room with me: my wife, our second-oldest son, and our youngest son. Our second-oldest son needed money because he wants to go and buy car-washing soap. Our youngest son heard us talking, so he came in while he was brushing his teeth. And my wife came in to get a load of clothes that need to be washed. Now the commotion is over, and I am temporarily alone. Someday, when I am older, maybe I will be like Zola and have a huge desk in a huge study, and I will be able to write and smoke cigars for hours on end. But at the moment I don’t even have time for a cigarette — which is fine, because I don’t smoke cigarettes anyway, despite the fact that not smoking is bad for my image. And I am drinking coffee instead of Scotch, which is yet another embarrassment. Every once in awhile, though, I announce at the dinner table that I plan to spend the whole night writing, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigarettes. Then I fall asleep at nine o’clock. What no one realizes, though, is that I often get up again in the middle of the night and sneak off to wild parties.
June 25, 2003 — Well, how about that? Last night’s wild party consisted of a strange dream in which my mother and I were sitting in the back row of an Armenian church covered to our necks by a large blanket. While waiting for the priest to enter and for the service to begin, non-liturgical music emanated from speakers in the ceiling. At one point dance music was played, and several young members of the congregation, none of whom we recognized, stood up and began waving their arms as if they were at a rock concert. From this I got the feeling that something was amiss, so I asked a man sitting nearby if he knew what was going on. “Where is the priest?” I said, to which he replied with a most serious expression, “He finally hit bottom.” When I asked him for clarification, he stood up and went outside. My mother and I followed him into a field. But instead of talking about what happened to the priest, he launched into the topic of farming. After trying several times to get him back on our original subject and failing, I woke up. It would be interesting to know the meaning of all this, if there indeed is one. Another interesting thing that happened last night was that while I was lying there not sleeping, I heard an acoustic guitar being strummed. I looked at the clock. It was 1:00 a.m. The music consisted of several random, pleasant chords. As it turned out, our youngest son, who is teaching himself to play the guitar, decided to practice a bit before going to bed. Much to my disappointment, he stopped after only a few minutes. About half an hour later, I drifted off to sleep, wherein once again my mind took up a dozen pressing questions, none of which were answered by the time I awoke again at 5:30.
June 26, 2003 — Now that most newspapers charge a fee to run obituaries and wedding notices, I think the time is ripe for launching a paper that publishes that information exclusively, and which also expands a bit on each story. The paper would be a great service to the community, and could be funded by subscriptions, advertising, or both. The regular newspapers, meanwhile, can continue slighting the public record, counting their pennies, and laughing all the way to the bank. With any luck, my paper will go broke in about six months — especially since I have no money to get it rolling in the first place. I suppose I could talk to bankers and investors, but they would never understand the importance of keeping this sort of community record. So people get buried and married — so what? Besides, they’d take one look at my shabby appearance and know I wouldn’t be safe to deal with. I’ve been getting those kinds of looks for years — the kind that say, I’m sorry, but you aren’t adequately insured. The same looks are accompanied by a nervous shuffling of the conscience, and the petrified hope that I will quickly show myself to the door. Of course, on the way out, I always bump into something or knock something over. Clumsy me.
June 27, 2003 — One possibility I’ve been considering lately is to begin writing the day’s journal entry the moment I get up in the morning and to not stop until I go to bed at night. If I were to write steadily for seventeen or eighteen hours, there’s no telling what would be revealed — besides being an idiot, I mean. I don’t need to write to reveal that, although it helps, because I can reach more people that way. The truth is, I am thinking big thoughts this morning. For some odd reason, I feel like something great is about to happen. Last night was horrible. I was up most of the night with a rotten headache, which had its beginnings early yesterday afternoon. It’s hot again, so that didn’t help. Last night the house was like an oven. And being that it’s light until very late, there is so much noise in the street that going to sleep isn’t easy. At about midnight, a loud motorcycle roared by our street-facing bedroom window, nearly scaring us to death. This was followed a few minutes later by a loud pickup playing an even louder radio. All this brings to mind an intriguing question: why are we here, instead of in a secluded cabin in the mountains situated at 7,000 feet? Why are we here, and not in a little shack about a quarter-mile from the Pacific Ocean? In short, why are we here? Maybe because if we leave, there will be no one to water my tomato plants. That could be it. Or no one to keep our son’s cat, Joe, company. Joe is very sensitive. He needs to be reassured, otherwise he will only eat two or three bowls of cat food instead of the usual five or six. And what if, while we’re away, the mailman brings one of those huge checks I’ve been waiting for all my life? I think the answer is pretty obvious. He’ll keep it, just like he’s kept all the others. Ah, well. Every year, this happens. It gets hot, and I get disgusted. Then, in the fall, it cools off and I stay disgusted. In the winter, it gets cold and rainy, and everyone else gets disgusted. That’s when I cheer up. I feed off of other people’s disgust — which is disgusting. Which brings to mind yet another question: how on earth did I end up being such a small-minded person? I didn’t learn it from my parents. Did I learn it in school? Did I learn it second grade when I was coerced into saluting the flag for which it stands, and into singing oh beautiful for space age skies, and amber waves of pain? Did I learn it when I was standing in line in the cafeteria, waiting for my five-cent carton of milk? Did I learn it when a kid I hardly knew pulled my chair out from under me when I was about to sit down, causing my tray of food to wind up in my lap? If I did, that would be a shame, since I don’t even remember who he was or what he looked like. And what did he learn? Or is he also disgusted? I hope he is, because he deserves it. But enough about that. Enough, because I am thinking big thoughts this morning. Something great is about to happen. Something important. And now, here it is. . . . no, that’s not it. Maybe it’s this: . . . nope, that’s not it either. Hmm. A complete blank. Late last night, while lying in a pool of sweat, I told my wife that I wondered if I’d actually wake up in the morning. She didn’t appreciate the remark, even though I was only trying to cheer myself up. And now, here I am. I think. Or is it a dream? Or a nightmare? The birds are singing in the trees, the sky is blue, a soft breeze is blowing in through the open window. The innocent have rested, and have now gone off to resume their graceful, humanity-saving toils. I am alone, wrestling with my conscience. A small-minded perpetrator of evil. A complainer who hates politicians. But I am a good driver. Does that count for anything? It should, but something tells me it won’t. Or is it that my thoughts today are so big that they cannot be described or explained? Because, at the moment, it feels as if they are bumping into each other like great, rumbling clouds. Flashes of lightning illuminate a dark mental sky. The lonely roads that bind the earth teem with the living dead. Remember, they say. It is not too late. More wishful thinking? Or is there really hope? Let there be light. Now, there’s a statement that will go down in history. How about this one? Let there be peace. Or this one: Fresh watermelon for everybody. The important thing is that we mean what we say. Because, whether we realize it or not, what we really mean ends up being said anyway. The only ones fooled are fools themselves — everyone, in other words. Especially yours truly.
June 28, 2003 — Yesterday evening at the table, we were laughing about some of the ridiculous shows on television, so many of which involve fast cars, fast women, and bad dialogue. Then I said I had come up with a good idea for a summer replacement, called “The Inflamed and the Embalmed.” The show features a hip crime-fighting duo. One is disease-ridden and the other is dead — conditions they frequently discuss and use to their advantage. “I had to laugh,” the embalmed says to the inflamed in one scene. “Did you see the look on his face?” And the inflamed answers, “Whoa, like, you are way out of context, dude.” The girls, though, flock around these guys, ignoring the health risks. “The Inflamed and the Embalmed” would also be a good title for a soap opera — as well as an accurate description of many veteran soap actors who would be perfect for the show. Another good soap title is “The Trite and the Troubled.” Or how about “Misery Hospital,” in which people who can’t afford health care are forced to take care of each other? On the other hand, this would probably work better as a documentary.
June 29, 2003 — It was ninety-seven degrees yesterday, and in the evening a layer of clouds drifted in, raising the humidity and trapping the heat. We slept — quite unsuccessfully — with our curtain and window open, but there was no breeze. At three in the morning, it rained for about five minutes. Since I was awake anyway, I got up, went to the window, and inhaled the great smell. Now a strong breeze is blowing from the west — cool ocean air is on its way. Tomorrow it will probably be thirty degrees cooler than it was yesterday. To celebrate, I made a small pan of soup, using a few pieces of lamb stew meat, two tomatoes, an onion, three large cloves of garlic, a handful of parsley, four potatoes, and a pound of frozen cut okra. I added plenty of salt and pepper, and also quite a bit of dry purple basil. The last thing I did was to squeeze the juice of half a small lemon over the whole concoction. We’ll have the soup this evening, among other things, once we’ve decided on a menu. And now it’s time to see what the rest of the day holds. Maybe I’ll even take a nap. But the house is heating up again, so this may not be in the cards. Either way, something will happen. It always does.
June 30, 2003 — What I would really like to do is plant some trees. But there isn’t any room. We already have several big pine trees and a fir tree. But if I could, here is what I would plant: two poplar trees, side by side. One apricot tree. One fig tree. One lemon tree. One olive tree. One pomegranate tree. One peach tree. One cherry tree. One plum tree. If I had a lot of room, I would plant several of each. I would also plant several kinds of grapes, but not the varieties that are sold in stores, because those are generally lousy, the seeds and flavor having been bred out of them to suit current marketing trends. But there is another problem. Summers here aren’t hot enough and long enough to grow some of the things I want to plant. I don’t know what to do about this. It isn’t always convenient to drive 735 miles to our old stomping grounds for a bunch of grapes. It isn’t cost effective, either, although, why should money enter into it? Grapes are sacred — as are olives and pomegranates. And when pomegranates are in bloom, the blossoms attract hummingbirds. You can’t have a better arrangement than that. My mother has a small fig tree, but it is overshadowed by her neighbor’s fir trees and doesn’t produce any fruit. The leaves are beautiful, though. Seeing the tree reminds me of the Black Mission fig my father and grandfather planted almost sixty years ago. The tree was enormous, and its smell was intoxicating. Once, when I was sitting in the crown of the tree enjoying the shade and listening to sparrows, I saw a completely white spider. I was about eight years old at the time. I had never seen a white spider before, and I haven’t seen one since. Now I’m not eight years old. Or am I? I still feel the same about the tree and the spider, and many other similarly important things. I know that planting a cutting from a vine or fig tree is a sacred act, a bringing forward of everything that life has been and meant from the beginning of time. It is a way of remembering your loved ones. It is a promise made to those yet to come. Do this in remembrance of me. Many have said those words. But the story is still being written. Jesus should have grown grapes. It would have changed his outlook. For the real religion is the earth we are all anchored in, growing out of, returning to — it is the fruit we bear, or choose not to — and even when we can no longer remember, it is there, painted upon our brow.
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Also by William Michaelian
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Another Song I Know
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