One Hand Clapping – August 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
August 1, 2003 — Something called a “wish” just floated by my window — “wish” being the word my wife and children have long used to describe the fluffy seed pods produced by dandelions. I have never called them anything myself, although occasionally the word “puff” comes to mind. But I never actually say, “There goes a puff.” To a member of the family I might say something like, “There goes one of your so-called wishes,” or, “It looks like one of your wishes is on the loose.” I don’t know why I don’t just say, “Look, there’s a wish.” I should, because it’s a perfect name for something that’s lighter than air and full of promise. A dandelion wish is a brilliant idea that needs no further work — unlike my own brilliant ideas, which always lead to more and more work — and a lot of wishes. Today, it seems the wishes outnumber the ideas. But that’s not unusual. What would be unusual would be a day without wishes or ideas. In the absence of both, what would a person do? Wait, I suppose. Watch. Think. Wonder. Or simply go back to bed. Go back and dream up a new beginning, then get up and try again.
August 2, 2003 — The first thing I have to do this morning is rectify the mistake I made yesterday by saying that wishes come from dandelions. If I had stopped to think for a moment, I would have remembered that the fluff of a dandelion comes apart in the wind, and that there is consequently no way I could have seen a whole one intact, floating by my window. What I saw was likely the seed pod of a thistle, or possibly some other plant. Or it might have been a message. For I learned very early this morning of a death in the family that occurred yesterday a short while later. I don’t believe in such things, of course. Nor do I ascribe any meaning to the fact that my mother and I both went sleepless the previous night. These are just coincidences that take on significance in light of the facts. When our father died, my brother, who is a research scientist, noted a sudden change in an experiment he was conducting in his lab. I forget the exact details, but his calm assumption was that this was related to the event. The question is, what wavelength are we on? Do we receive information in ways other than those which technology affords? And if so, could this be one reason humans are generally in a state of turmoil? Or are we oblivious to the suffering of our fellow creatures around the globe, and affected only by the suffering that is immediately before our eyes?
. . . She was born in 1947, and was the mother of two fine boys. Her life was claimed by multiple sclerosis. Today’s wish is that her husband, my brother, will find understanding in his sorrow, and that my nephews will find new strength, and with it embrace whatever lies ahead. It is hard to say good-bye when you haven’t finished saying hello. But such is life. Each greeting contains its own farewell, while each farewell bears seed of a new beginning. Grief and comfort walk hand in hand. Wishes rise, then float past an open window. And then, so quickly, they are gone.
August 3, 2003 — Before the day is out I absolutely must buy two new pens — one with blue ink and one with black. This morning during an intense and long delayed bill-paying session, all of my pens quit at once. Now they’re in the wastebasket. I scratched out several checks with two colors of ink, and in varying degrees of legibility. I need a blue pen for making notes. I need a black pen for making drawings. But if I make a note under a drawing, I make it in black ink. And if I make a drawing while I am on the telephone, I make it in blue ink. I sign my name in blue. I also carry a blue pen with me in my shirt pocket wherever I go. If the weather is cold, I carry the pen in a pocket inside my coat. Having a pen is important, because I never know when I might need to make a note of something. I have stacks and stacks of notes. I like paper. I like to see something that has been written down, by me, or by anyone else. Handwriting is fascinating. So are an awful lot of other subjects, which is one reason I make a lot of notes. Even the subject of making notes is fascinating, because there is always the question of what happens to the notes later, if and how they are used, and what they finally come to mean. The same can be said for so-called finished pieces of writing, whether they are published or not. And the same can be said for thoughts in the head. I think. I am also aware that a great many people make no notes at all, or only mental notes. But you have to be pretty organized upstairs for that to be reliable. Or you might be totally bored by everything, in which case nothing will seem worth remembering or writing down, in which case you are not noticing anything in the first place, though it should be mentioned that this condition could also be due to having suffered through a horrible time during which you noticed everything, and that what you noticed caused great and lasting pain, or fear that the pain might return, which is very nearly the same thing. I think. On the other hand, maybe you don’t need to make notes simply because you are content to accept things as they are, when they are, and to leave it at that. Writers, though, are expected to make notes. So rather than to disappoint anyone, we make them. Then, when we die, there are piles and piles of notes to dispose of. In the case of famous writers, the notes are handled with great care and preserved for careful study at a later date, usually by other writers, or by people trying to figure out what makes the writers tick. In the case of writers who aren’t famous, the notes are just one more thing the wife and kids have to pick up and throw away when he is gone, unless they were smart and took off before he did. If the writer was loved by his family, which is doubtful, the notes will be kept another generation and then disposed of by the grandchildren — unless one of them also happens to be a writer, which is something he isn’t likely to admit to anyone for fear of embarrassment. He will, however, mention it in his notes.
August 4, 2003 — The city of Salem is not exactly known for its wild, edgy flamboyance, which is why I have been thinking strongly of buying the biggest cigar available and smoking it on various street corners downtown. As far as I know, this is still legal, although I could be pulled aside by conservative store owners and community enforcement officers and given a severe beating for exhibiting signs of life. But even that would help wake things up a little. Really, though, I love Salem. It’s a fine town in the old Western tradition, and still bears a certain resemblance to its dustier, crustier past. The streets are wide and in some cases lined with trees, and big baskets of flowers are hung at intervals along the sidewalks. The windows of big empty brick buildings where businesses have failed are painted over with cheerful artwork and promotional slogans, making it appear that all is well. Eventually, someone with a huge amount of money will come along and reclaim the decaying carcasses, divide up the space, and lease it to small businesses, many of which will be crushed by the exorbitant rents and forced to vacate, thus creating room for several more Starbucks, whose name might more appropriately be Corporate Coffee. Another thing I could do would be to hurl myself out of an upper window of the Reed Opera House and onto the sidewalk below — splat. I can see the headline now: “Salem writer finally hits bottom.” Or maybe this: “City bills wife of writer for cleanup costs.” Either way, the excitement is bound to wear off about five minutes after the event, when people realize it involved no one of consequence, and instead just another member of Salem’s fringe element. Because the real business here is government — which means, among other things, that barbers and local sign makers have plenty of work to go around. Doughnuts also remain popular, and play an important part in the decision-delaying process. On some news broadcasts, Salem is even on the map, though it tends to move around according to the whim of the graphics department, the members of which, apparently, didn’t major in geography. Either way, though, I am here, and so are a lot of other people. And together we do our best to stifle aspiration and keep things on an even keel, so future generations will have a place to complain about. It’s the least we can do.
August 5, 2003 — This morning the dim-watted bulb that is my brain has been preoccupied by a loud thunderstorm that has been rumbling through the area during the last two and a half hours. This is not a typical August morning. A few minutes ago, there was a bright flash of lightning directly north of here, and then less than a second later there was a sharp, window-rattling crack of thunder. This was followed by a brief shower of large raindrops. Then, for thirty seconds or so, the sun broke through and the wet maple trees just outside were bathed in light. Now there are puddles in the street, but the rain has stopped. And, though it is less than poetic, honesty compels me to mention the fact that a diesel-belching garbage truck just stopped in front of the house. Now it’s at the house next door. And now — well, never mind. The really important news is that I finished reading Gulliver’s Travels yesterday evening. This means I am free to begin Revolution in the Head, a book by Ian MacDonald about the Beatles and the Sixties. The book was recommended by an old high school friend who surfaced recently via e-mail after each of us had spent several years assuming the other was dead. But it turns out that we aren’t. At least I know he isn’t. And now — for crying out loud — there is a street sweeper approaching the corner. There it is, it’s in front of our house. What a noisy morning. How is a guy supposed to get any work done around here? To top it off, the garbage truck has made it around the block, and now it’s idling in the street, and — it just emitted a loud hydraulic blast of air. I suppose I could quit, but there it goes, it’s leaving the neighborhood. Very well, then. Where were we? Oh, yes. Revolution in the Head. A couple of days ago, I did sneak a peak at the introduction, and was delighted to read about John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s spontaneous approach to composing music, which arose in great part from their lack of training. Early on, Lennon composed on the guitar. After awhile, though, he switched to the piano because he was less familiar with that instrument, and felt that the change would help keep his music fresh. Well, damn it, this is a point that I have been trying to make for years: more often than not, the less you know about something, the more likely you are to create something vital and new. This is why, when it comes to writing, I am against the idea of advanced educational degrees and workshops. The situation breeds uniformity, and uniformity kills the spirit, which is the source of spontaneity. Now, I know plenty of people will disagree with this statement, but that only makes me glad I uttered it. Learning is fine, as long as you are able to forget what you learned when the time comes for you to sit down and do your work — unless, of course, you work standing up. It should also be noted that this doesn’t apply to surgeons. Basically, it is just a general statement being made on a very noisy morning. And here comes the street sweeper again. And now here’s the recycling truck. Okay, that’s it. I give up.
August 6, 2003 — Two events of roughly equal importance took place in Portland, Oregon, recently. One was the grand opening of a new “Krispy Kreme” factory a few days ago; the other was the appearance of Senator Hillary Clinton, who was in town yesterday afternoon to sign copies of her book. In one case people camped on the sidewalk overnight to buy doughnuts. In the other, people camped on the sidewalk overnight in the hope of receiving a free ticket into Borders and a stab at getting Hillary’s autograph. In both cases, those who persevered got what they deserved: they were relieved of their cash and given something valueless in return. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Someday, history might show how wrong I am. History might show how Krispy Kremes and Hillary’s book formed a great turning point in the evolution of democracy. Future archaeologists might even discover time capsules containing both items, along with other miscellaneous scraps of the early twenty-first century, such as parking tickets, food stamps, and the stubs of unemployment checks. History might also bear no trace of either, proving I was right — another fact history won’t be interested in. In fact, there will likely come a time when history isn’t even interested in itself, having become just another form of advertisement. Or is that day already here? I could say other meaningless things about history, but I won’t. Besides, history isn’t what really happened, it’s what humans claim has happened, or think has happened. Occasionally a little of the truth seeps in, but only inasmuch as it serves those who benefit by it — which makes the truth false. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great deal to be learned by studying history. There is. For instance, we have always messed things up, and we continue to do so. Somehow, though, we refuse to take this message to heart, and are therefore condemned to an existence in which history repeats itself — except now we have cell phones, computers, and cable TV, and are thus able to speed up our mistakes. What this means is that history must work overtime to keep up with our activity. Sooner or later, something will have to give. Probably us.
August 7, 2003 — I watched part of a PBS program about Sparta last night. I don’t think I would have done too well in that environment. Then again, had I been born in those times, I would have been someone else — as Yogi Berra might say if he were in my shoes. Had I survived my upbringing, I certainly would have been in better shape. But I find the idea of throwing weak or otherwise imperfect children off a cliff less than inspiring. The same goes for twelve-year-old boys attacking a mountain of cheese that is protected by people with whips. This seems like an odd way to live, and a lousy way to die. Not that our current existence is anything to write home about. Dear Mom: We learned all about Sparta in school today. We have sure come a long way in our methods of killing each other. Love, Bruce. And who is Bruce, one might ask? Well, I don’t know. But at least he writes to his mother. Too few of us write to our mothers these days. As I understand it, though, Spartan men learned very little in the way of reading and writing, which was fine for them since they didn’t have much of a chance to know their mothers anyway. Dear Mom: I stab Bruce today. Then he stab me. After that, we eat big sheep. Your son, Isosceles. Still, there is something to be said for the idea of people working for the common good — although, how good can it be if it involves slavery on a massive scale? That does seem a bit of a contradiction. On the other hand, somebody had to do the work while the main population kept in shape and practiced killing people. How else do you defend yourself against marauding Persians? And what did they want? They wanted what the Spartans had. They wanted more. And if the Spartans didn’t defend themselves, what would have happened? Would the Persians have said, “Well, shucks, since you guys are so nice, why don’t we just all share what we have and get along?” No, of course not. They would have said, “Idiots,” and then killed everybody. Instead, the Spartans were ready for action, and they and the Persians killed each other. It’s quite poetic, really. Adolph Hitler was certainly inspired by it all. He liked the idea of throwing babies off cliffs. He liked it so much he even extended the idea to include adults — and where there weren’t cliffs, he found other ways. Thank goodness that’s behind us — give or take a few fences, bombs, chemicals, guns, missiles, planes, tanks, and cemeteries.
August 8, 2003 — A square piece of land the sides of which measure a quarter of a mile contains forty acres. If you walk around the square, you have walked one mile. If you walk from one side to the other and back, you have walked half a mile. If you walk that distance over and over and over again while concentrating on other things, you eventually lose track of how far you have walked. But if you lose track of how far you have walked, it doesn’t matter, because you will have still walked the same distance. In fact, by that point, it is probably best that you don’t know how far you have walked — otherwise you might get discouraged and stop walking altogether. Still, it is interesting sometimes to stop and figure out how far you have walked. It is nice at the end of the day to be able to say, “I walked twelve miles today,” even though you didn’t get anywhere, because, instead of continuing on in the same direction, you kept turning around each time you walked from one side of your forty acres to the other. This is a pretty fair description of farming, minus a few details. For instance, sometimes you don’t walk and you drive a tractor instead. And sometimes you walk very little, because most of your time is spent standing in one spot, as is the case in the winter when you are pruning in your orchard or vineyard. And sometimes you get mad or disgusted and go fishing instead, or you go to town and get a haircut, or you go to the bank and ask the manager for another loan because you are even more broke than last year. If he gives you the money you need, you go back and walk some more. If he doesn’t, you do the same thing, only you are more nervous and have a bitter taste in your mouth. Then something either happens or it doesn’t. It rains, or it hails, or there is a drought. The crop is good, or bad, or mediocre. At supper time, you eat like a horse because you have worked like one all day, and you smile at your children, who also eat like horses, because they have been playing and growing all day. Your wife, though, doesn’t eat like a horse, because she is the only one with manners. She eats like a delicate bird with colorful plumage, except that instead of pecking her plate with her nose she uses a fork and a spoon. Then she flutters off to do the dishes while you saw logs in your worn-out chair, and while the kids make themselves scarce. A few months later, a check arrives in the mail. The amount written on it represents what you have earned for your year’s labor. There will also be a note with the check that says the money is for so many boxes of peaches, or so many tons of grapes, or bales of cotton, or whatever it is you have been growing on your farm, not counting the weeds. The very same afternoon, after making some painful calculations, you go to the bank and deposit the check. Then you go home and work some more, grateful for your independence, and even feeling a little defiant. You say to yourself, “Let them try to take this away from me,” and you look around with a crazy glint in your eye. And then you notice the sun and the sky, and the clouds and the breeze, and the birds darting about, and the lizards doing pushups on the woodpile by your barn. Then you notice your very own footprints in the dust, and you think of all the times you have walked up and down, back and forth, and over and across this place that is your home, knowing full well that you would be lost without it. And then you wake up one day and find yourself sitting at a table and facing a computer screen, and you notice that for some strange reason words are appearing on the screen. You read the words. And as you read them, it occurs to you that they are your words, and that they very nearly make sense. And you get up and walk from one side of the room to the other, back and forth, again and again, like the farmer you once were. You know there is no turning back. You know that what once was, can never be again. You are glad about it and sad about it and mad about it. You rejoice, you lament, you moan, you sigh, you laugh — just like before, like always.
August 9, 2003 — Today at the grocery store my wife and I bought two grotesque plums that looked like apples. They’re huge. The skin is light and flecked with color, and the flesh is red. After lunch I washed one and cut it up and we tasted it. It was okay and it tasted like a plum, but there was nothing distinctive about it — as is often the case with new stone fruit varieties. Give me an old Santa Rosa plum any day, or a Kelsey. All during my growing-up years, my mother made spectacular jelly from Santa Rosas. We ate jars and jars of the stuff, along with boysenberry jam, fig jam, and apricot jam. She also canned huge quantities of peaches and apricots, which we had for dessert throughout the winter. And we consumed a ton of oranges, raisins, and walnuts, all of which were homegrown. While we were at the store we also saw some white-fleshed nectarines, but they didn’t look appealing. This was a shame, because they were packed by a very familiar outfit located in Dinuba, California, our old hometown. Another thing we saw were plastic-wrapped packages of enormous white eggs, with ten eggs to the package. They were being presented as something very special, despite the fact that they must have come from ancient arthritic hens that died while laying them. The white of one egg would have no doubt filled an entire frying pan, spreading itself aimlessly in a thin layer around a yolk as big as the setting sun. We also saw baloney at the special sale price of three dollars a pound, and various brands of bacon priced between four dollars and five dollars a pound. And so we bought a thirty-one-pound watermelon for twenty-five cents a pound and came home.
August 10, 2003 — In my latest strange dream I was coming in for a landing at the airport — literally. My arms were tired, and at the last moment I watched myself become a jet, which attached itself to another jet that was landing ahead of it. The next thing I knew, I was first in line at some sort of departure counter. The young man in charge was friendly and familiar. There was a form on the counter with my name on it, waiting to be stamped. But instead of stamping it, the young man said, “That will be another ninety-two dollars.” And I said, “Ninety-two dollars? I already paid 600. Why should I give you anymore?” To which he replied, “The plane was several minutes late. We have to make it up somehow.” This, of course, made me angry. “I have news for you,” I said. “There is no way I am going to give you ninety-two dollars.” And then I said, “How many passengers were on that flight? Two hundred and fifty? Are you going to charge everybody ninety-two dollars?” When he said he was, I turned to the gathering crowd of my fellow passengers and yelled, “He’s going to charge us $600,000! They’re criminals!” I knew full well my math couldn’t have been right, but at the moment it didn’t matter. The crowd was bristling. Even so, the young man wouldn’t budge. “Ninety-two dollars,” he said, “or you don’t get your luggage.” Well, that did it. I had to have my luggage. I had no idea what was in it, but the thought of losing it was more than I could stand. I quickly pulled out a credit card. “You and I could have been friends,” I said. “But not anymore. I hope this makes you happy.” Judging by the young man’s smile, though, it did make him happy. After signing my name on the credit slip and having my form stamped, I went ahead to the luggage department. But instead of a suitcase, I was handed several small cardboard boxes full of books and papers. Comforted by their appearance, I put them onto a cart and pushed the cart through two wide swinging doors. One of my brothers was waiting for me on the other side. He, too, seemed happy. And then — as writers who have written themselves into a corner like to say — I woke up.
August 11, 2003 — One thing I hope to try one of these years is traveling around the country and writing a book at the same time. I think that would be fun. The idea would be to write different parts or chapters in many different places, and to have the places and the people in them become part of the book. I think this might be called travel writing — although most of the travel books I have read tend to have been written after the journey, not during. But I like the idea of leaving empty-handed, so to speak, and then coming home with a finished manuscript. It would be interesting to see the kind of writing that would come out of the experience — especially since I would approach the project in my usual fashion, meaning without plans. I doubt the finished result would fit in the travel category, but it might. Or it could end up being the first book in an entirely new category — forgetting for a moment the oft-repeated verse about there being no new thing under the sun, which may or may not be true, especially when you consider that there was a time before our sun, and that there will most certainly be a time after. In fact, a few million years from now — otherwise known as tomorrow — some wise writer could easily say that everything is new under the sun, because he will be talking about a whole new sun and a whole new set of circumstances. Of course, a wise writer could also say it now, and it would be just as true.
August 12, 2003 — I was going to write about the new girl in the neighborhood who screams every evening, but have decided against it. I’m not going to write about her brother who spits, either. As for their parents, whom I have never seen, it appears I don’t have to. There is an old saying, but it doesn’t apply here, so I won’t utter it. Neither will I utter anything else that isn’t pertinent and to the point. Saying something often gives whatever you’ve said undeserved credibility — especially if what is said is said with conviction. I don’t want to fall into that trap. I want to live a clean life, and I want to go down fighting. And what am I fighting for? Clarity. Meaning. Laughter. Money. The past, present, and future. Macaroni and cheese. Fountains full of splashing children. Youth. Old age. Beer. And while I’m at it, everything else. What am I fighting against? Ignorance. Primarily my own. That I have made this fight public shows two things: my sincerity and my stupidity — a potent, dangerous combination.
August 13, 2003 — Yesterday I read that the eighteenth century British poet, William Blake, was buried nine feet deep in an unmarked grave on top of three other people, and that four others were later added above him. This seems like a terrible way to treat the body of the man who wrote the lines, Tiger! Tiger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? On the other hand, according to some accounts, the poet was far less interested in this life than he was in the next, and where his body ended up mattered little to him, if at all. Still, it is a statement about his times, and about the poverty he endured. It is also a statement about our own times, because there is still no shortage of starving poets and writers. With a little luck and the aid of local burial laws, however, we usually end up in our own private grave, where we suffer the weekly roar of commercial landscape maintenance. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. One mark of progress, I think, would be the creation of poet and writer cemeteries, where the weeds are allowed to grow and nature is allowed to assert itself. It could be that if literary toilers were buried together, their sheer mass would make people stop and think. Visitors could spend hours walking over the rough ground and reading the inscriptions. And the natural setting would help bring them closer to those who labored long in silence and were ignored.
August 14, 2003 — Dear Mr. President: Thank you very much for the check. It was so nice of you to return some of the money you extracted from me under threat of imprisonment. Don’t worry about the rest, or about the interest you owe me. Go ahead and use it to finance your wars. I don’t mind. Oh, and before I forget, I like the way you hijacked the U.S. Treasury checks for promotional and campaign purposes. That was nifty. “Tax relief for America’s families” is a powerful, meaningful message to find printed on an official government document. Doing so certainly gives you a leg up in the next “election.” Which reminds me — will you still be calling it that next time around, or will there no longer be any need? In addition to the media, I imagine you have the balloting technology firmly in hand by now, and will be able to avoid any more close calls. Either way, you can count on my unwavering support. In fact, with the money you sent me, I intend to jump-start the local economy by buying some of the groceries I couldn’t afford last week. The dental work, though, will have to wait. But don’t worry, I can make due with the teeth I have left. Your faithful servant, Ima Voter.
August 15, 2003 — Someone told me yesterday that the people holding signs asking for money at one of the freeway entrances south of town were making $600 a day for their efforts, and that some in Portland were making as much as $1,000. Since he was so proud to relay this enlightening tidbit, I didn’t bother to ask where he got his information. And while I certainly don’t believe that every person engaged in this form of livelihood is honest, the figures did seem a bit high. Of course, I don’t know for sure. Maybe they are making that kind of money. And if so, maybe that’s what I should be doing. The implication, though, is what I resented: If you are homeless, if you are out begging and panhandling, you are low-life scum and are doing so purely by choice. By and large, I have found that such condemnations are uttered by people with jobs and bank accounts. Again, I am well aware that there are plenty of evil and aggressive panhandlers out there — just as there is an overabundance of evil and aggressive businessmen and politicians gouging us at every turn. The big difference is, the businessmen wear ties, and the politicians were elected. In one case, well dressed evil-doers rape the planet and steal billions of dollars; in the other, poorly dressed evil-doers make a few hundred dollars begging at freeway entrances. Which is more evil? Does it matter? No. What matters is that evil exists in the first place, and that enough of us choose to go along with it.
August 16, 2003 — Habitually out of step, I am mostly unaware of what is going on in the so-called literary world, as well as any writing movements that might currently be under way. If I were, I doubt it would make much difference, because I am too busy writing and living to spend much time hashing over other writers’ ideas. I suppose I should go to New York, but I have no idea what I would do once I got there. Meet with my colleagues, I suppose. Have drinks and go out to dinner. Make acquaintances, form alliances, use people, step on them, and claw my way to the top. The trouble with that is, it sounds awfully boring. I have nothing against New York, per se, and nothing against my fellow scribes, but it seems 3,000 miles is a long way to go just to talk. If they want to come here, fine. If they knock on my door, I won’t turn them away. There’s a good chance I won’t answer the door, but that’s something else entirely. If I’m busy and don’t feel like being bothered, I have no qualms about letting the telephone or doorbell ring. On the other hand, there have been times I have talked an hour with salesmen. In fact, a year or so ago, after telling a vacuum cleaner salesman that I had absolutely no intention of buying one of his machines, he insisted that was all right with him and came in anyway, just to give me a “quick demonstration.” Several attachments and half a clean rug later, he asked if I was interested in making a purchase. I told him no. This surprised him. But it didn’t surprise my wife or any of our children, who were watching and listening from a safe distance. My view of the literary world is almost as simple. I am very interested in what is being written. Some of it is good, and some of it is bad. I read as much as I can, always wishing I could read more. I read a certain number of book reviews, both for what they contain, and for what they reveal about the reviewers. Usually, though, I just write. For as long as I can remember, I have been able to find out more about myself and the world by writing. If I am part of a movement, I don’t know it. If I am a cheap reflection of my times, I don’t know that either. I am deeply interested in what people think, but in specific terms rather than general. I want to know what you think. But finding out takes more than just bumping into each other on the street. It is necessary to stop and have coffee somewhere, or to take a long walk in a park. It is necessary to listen. It is necessary to realize that the project will take years, not hours or days. Finding out what I think, though, is relatively easy. All you have to do is read what I’ve written. It’s all there, in one form or another. I am not trying to hide anything, except that which is my personal business and mine alone. I value my privacy, in other words, the same as you. On a celebrity scale of one to ten, I am a zero. To be famous is not my goal. To earn a living doing what I love is. But I also want to contribute. What is the use of living if one doesn’t contribute?
August 17, 2003 — One night when I was about sixteen or seventeen, an old lumberyard burned down in Dinuba, California, the sleepy little farm town where I sort of grew up. It was a tremendous blaze that drew quite a number of onlookers, myself and several friends included. We were out carousing anyway, so the event was easily added to our busy slate of activities. One thing I remember is that as we stood watching from a short but safe distance, I was smoking a cheap cigar, and that the others found this amusing. So did I. I was already smoking the cigar when we arrived, but if I hadn’t been, I probably would have lit up in honor of the occasion. As I said, Dinuba is where I sort of grew up. At the time I hadn’t made an incredible amount of progress, though I suppose I might have been trying without really knowing it. Anyway. The lumberyard burned to the ground, and in its place the owner built a new one, along with a nice little hardware store out front. Before long, a grand opening was held, and the local folks dropped by to have a look and to offer their congratulations. My father was one of them. When he greeted the owner, however, the man surprised him by saying, “Maybe we should spread a little manure around the store so you farmers will feel more at home.” As soon as he had made this remark, the owner knew he was in trouble. My father left the store. He went home and got a shovel and a five-gallon bucket, then went to a nearby pasture and filled the bucket with fresh Holstein — uh, leavings. He put the bucket into the back of his pickup and returned to the store. Then he took the bucket in, spotted the owner, and said, “Where do you want it?” The owner apologized for the next fifteen minutes. During the years that followed, he treated my father extraordinarily well each time he came to the store. They had known each other before the incident, and continued on friendly terms thereafter. But that was one joke that backfired.
August 18, 2003 — A dog with a big deep voice is barking somewhere in the neighborhood, begging for its freedom. And for some unknown reason, as I sit here listening to it, I find myself thinking, What if I died now and this were the last thing I heard? It’s a poetic thought, full of potential, and might well be the seed for a future story, or for an individual scene in a story, a story perhaps not unlike the one I am living now.
August 19, 2003 — Tomorrow the Commander-in-Chief of the Alarmed Forces of the Occupied States of Generica will be in Oregon to raise campaign funds and promote his forest destruction policy. Since most of the state’s workers are unemployed and on the hungry side, a large turnout is expected. This means the police will have their hands full, and that newspapers will be able to blab for days on end about how the men and women in blue handled the affair. On the other hand, maybe the police department should hire California’s top gubernatorial recall contender and let him beat up all the evil protesters. Coincidentally, today’s issue of the Oregonian contained a full page about A.S., complete with a picture of him flexing his muscles in 1976. It’s interesting that the other candidates don’t rate similar coverage, but, as they say, that’s show biz. Turning to household news, my plan to stay awake and drink coffee last night in honor of the anniversary of Honoré de Balzac’s death fell through due to a complete lack of energy. The spirit was willing, but, after a long day spent trying to solve the world’s problems, nothing else was. The funny thing is, I fell asleep in our hot bedroom with the window and curtain open, only to be awakened later by a cool breeze shredding everything. After that, I swooned in and out of consciousness, noting each voice, passing footstep, and car, until about four in the morning when the car bearing the neighbor’s newspaper creaked to halt in front of our house, announcing the beginning of a new day. After that I managed to doze for about five minutes, then the car that brings our newspaper roared up, sounding like an automatic pop-gun. Resolved to get at least some rest, I went into the kitchen and made coffee. But by then it was too late to celebrate Balzac’s departure, which took place in Paris in 1850. And so I decided to celebrate my own, before everyone else does.
August 20, 2003 — The good news is that I have finally realized today is Wednesday, not Thursday, and that yesterday, therefore, was Tuesday. I really am going to have to see about getting a little more rest — although, last night I was pretty successful in the sleep department, having had only one brief nightmare. But now I’m having trouble remembering what happened. Oh, yes. I was driving on a four-lane highway through hilly terrain, and something was wrong with my eyesight. Suddenly my vision became blurred, and I was unable to keep the car in my lane. I woke up just as I collided with a car next to me in the right lane. . . . Meanwhile, it is a lovely cool morning, and fall is definitely in the air. Yesterday evening, we picked five small tomatoes from our plants in the backyard — the first of the season. But the plants already look like one would expect them to look in October. Many of the leaves have turned yellow, and the foliage has lost its crispness and vigor. No doubt this is due to the roller coaster temperatures we have experienced this summer. It also explains, at least partially, why I am so wilted myself. . . . Something else worth mentioning is that yesterday evening, and again this morning, I have had a very strange feeling that something major is about to happen that might well alter the way I approach my daily activities. I realize this sounds vague, but I feel fairly certain that change is in the wind — not that I haven’t felt this way before, only to have nothing come of it.
August 21, 2003 — Not counting one very late sleeper, the children are off wreaking havoc on the world in their capacity as young adults and job-holders. This makes for a quiet house. So far in this silence I have taken a shower, imbibed two cups of strong coffee, written and sent several e-mails, looked at several new photographs sent by my brother in Armenia, e-mailed a column to a monthly newspaper, and eaten a fresh local “Elegant Lady” peach. With these details out of the way, I am finally ready to begin my day’s work — which is good, because I am eager to find out what it is. Or, more accurately, I am eager to find out what the result will be. The most important thing, though, is that when the end of the day comes, I need to be able to look at myself honestly and say the day was not wasted. Like most everyone else, I have wasted my share of time, and I don’t like it. I also realize that time thought of as wasted might not really be wasted at all, if we learn from the experience. I am also not foolish enough to think that a little time spent relaxing with friends and family is a bad thing, or that getting away from work for awhile means one is failing in the line of duty. In fact, it is often easiest to waste time by working too hard and too long, which is something I have been known to do. In this way writing is a lot like drinking: it feels good, so you keep going until you are drunk or bleary-eyed. But this, too, can be a good thing, as both are valid forms of experience — which begs the question, are there invalid forms of experience, or is experience experience no matter what? Now I am looking at the repeated word, “experience,” in the previous sentence, and feel compelled to ask, how does one experience experience? For instance, there is the initial experiencing of experience, and the subsequent experience of experiencing experience, through memory, and through the sudden, direct realization that our experience reveals us for what we really are — inexperienced. There is also the experience that is said to come with age, which is often accompanied by the feeling that the last thing we need is to experience more experiences. But experience them we do, and we go on experiencing them until we experience the final experience, which is a lot like the first experience in that neither experience is remembered — though it might be argued that even these experiences are part of our collective memory, or collective experience, and therefore take their place within the vast realm of What We Do Not Know or Would Rather Choose to Ignore.
August 22, 2003 — Yesterday in Oregon, the president kissed a baby and collected a million dollars. Then he flew off into the sunset, leaving the real people to live out his nightmare. It’s a funny business, politics. Really funny. Ha-ha-ha. I say, let him kiss the babies whose parents have been killed in his war, or kiss the parents whose babies have been killed. The sad part is, if he thought he could profit by it, he would. For what else motivates him and the slime ball businesses he truly represents? Compassion? Concern? Mom? Apple pie? . . . This morning while I was waiting at a light, I noticed a small sign on a gas station wall. On the sign were a well known and often published portrait of Beethoven and the words, “We’re gasoline virtuosos.” Gasoline virtuosos? Gasoline virtuosos. All I can say is, Ludwig, old buddy, you’re lucky you ain’t here. . . . But there is a bright spot. Yesterday, the young man who comes by every month or so to collect cans and bottles for their nickel deposit knocked on our door. He was wearing a bright-yellow cap, and carrying a large plastic trash bag that was already over half full. We shook hands and he said, “You’re looking good,” and I said, “No, I’m looking like a pile of you know what.” Then I told him his cap was on backwards, and he turned it around so the bill would be facing forward. “That’s better,” I said. “Before, I couldn’t tell which way you were going.” Then I gave him the cans and bottles we had accumulated since his last visit. This person is always friendly, and always very neat about his work. He has been coming for the last couple of years. We have seen him elsewhere in the general area, lugging one, two, and as many as three or four bags of cans and bottles. He walks. He does his work every day, repeating his various routes like clockwork. He has his list of regular “customers,” and takes good care of them. I have no idea how much he earns by doing this, but I am happy to contribute, because he sticks to it and makes a lot of complaining people who earn tons of money look sick. Dear Mr. President: Too bad you didn’t meet our can collector while you were here, and accompany him on his route. You might have learned something. Sincerely, Ima Cashcow.
August 23, 2003 — It’s an inspiring fall morning, with a low temperature of fifty degrees or a little less — the kind of morning that makes me want to jump and shout and take off on my bicycle for another grand tour of the world. What will I find? Bugs; worms; slug tracks; dead birds with their little feet in the air; the first fallen leaves; cracks in the sidewalk full of ants; cherry pits; dandelions; acorns dropped by birds; discarded gum wrappers, cigarette butts, and sports cards; and a thousand other miscellaneous items, feelings, and perceptions. Days like today aren’t meant for writing — ask any kid whose mind hasn’t been completely destroyed by television. They are meant to be lived, and then written about later — or not written about, but remembered — or not remembered, but recorded on our faces. Not that writing isn’t living. Writing is an intense form of living. It is also a way of life — a foolish, unrealistic way, perhaps, but a way nonetheless. A way for those not encumbered by common sense. A way for those whose largest burdens are self-made and unnecessary. A way that keeps one’s demons, if not at bay, at least distracted and entertained.
August 24, 2003 — Today is Sunday and it’s almost noon. The house is empty. Everyone in the family but a son who is working has gone to the zoo in Portland, leaving me alone to pace in my cage. I could have gone, but they all know I’m not a big fan of zoos. Hmm. The plural of zoo looks funny. Maybe it should be zooes. No, that doesn’t look right either — although it does remind me of Zeus, so at least there’s that. I wonder if the old boy is alone on Mount Olympus, pacing in his cage? Or maybe he is surrounded by a bevy of goddesses who are feeding him grapes and trying to comb the tangles out of his hair. Anyway. Where was I? Nowhere, it seems. Here? Wait. Let me take a deep breath. Ah. Yes. I am here. And now I hear a train approaching. It’s coming from the south, and just sounded its horn at the crossing about a quarter-mile away. Now it’s rumbling past the little clump of mobile homes that snuggle up against the track near the next crossing, which is protected only by a stop sign. So far, no one I know of has been killed there. But I have known of several crossings where people have been killed, and this was followed by the installation of flashing lights and guards that come down when a train draws near. The train is gone now. But I am still here. I missed the train. The train went on without me. But that’s okay. I did ride on a train once. It was in California, in the mountains somewhere around Yosemite. I was also there when my father and mother took my mother’s Aunt Mildred to catch the train in Fresno. And I was there when Aunt Mildred showed me her teeth in a glass in our bathroom. And I have met people at the train depot here in Salem — my brother, my father’s sister, and the daughter of an old family friend. I like train depots. Many years ago, the one in Dinuba was converted into an A&W; drive-in. A couple of times each summer, my father would take us there, and he would roll down the window to the right height and a girl with her hair tied back would hang a tray on the edge of the glass, and we would sit there and drink root beer. That was fun. The railroad tracks were just behind the building. Later on, the depot was moved to a spot where it could be appreciated for its historical value. I had no trouble appreciating its historical value where it was, where it belonged, next to the railroad tracks. I wonder what is there now?
August 25, 2003 — Late yesterday evening, I was sitting in a dazed condition when I suddenly remembered that the train depot in Dinuba wasn’t turned into an A&W;, and that the A&W; was in its own little building. The train depot was several yards up the track. And so, once again, the mind has failed at its task, and I am left to pick up the pieces. The next thing you know, I’ll be remembering the time James Arness, of “Gunsmoke” fame, came to Dinuba and ordered a side of bacon at Mom’s Cafe. This really happened. If I remember correctly — and I probably don’t — he owned property somewhere in the vicinity — or it might have been up in the hills. Well, never mind. He was there, and the incident was recorded in the local paper. And if I’m dreaming this, maybe some gentle soul from Dinuba will read this and set me straight someday. Dear Mr. Michaelian: When I knew you, everybody called you Bill. What happened? Oh, by the way — there was never any train depot in Dinuba, because Dinuba didn’t have any train tracks. Just kidding. As you know, Dinuba became a thriving city when the railroad went in back in the 1880s, leaving the nearby town of Traver to dry up and blow away. This resulted in many of Traver’s buildings being moved to Dinuba. Sincerely, Ima Fromthere. Dear Ima: Thank you for your kind letter. Sorry, but your name doesn’t ring a bell. Have we met? Is Fromthere your married name or maiden name? All the best, William “Bill” Michaelian. Dear Billiam: I’m surprised you don’t remember me, because we went steady for eight years. Not only that, we were about to be married when something “sudden” came up and you disappeared. Love, Ima. Ima: I remember disappearing, but nothing else. Are you sure it was me? Villiam. Dear Vill: Oh, it was you all right. But don’t worry, I finally got over it — after several years of primal scream therapy. Ima. Ima: I’m so glad everything worked out for you. And now, if you don’t mind, I need to get back to whatever it is I am supposed to be doing. With warm wishes, James Arness.
August 26, 2003 — Now I’m wondering if a person is born with a distinct identity, or if identity is an acquired thing. Do we become who we are through experience, or is there a blueprint already in place? As every parent knows, a child’s personality is readily observable from the beginning. But is that the same thing? I don’t think so. Our personality definitely plays a part, though, in how we see the world and react to it. Through an ongoing string of events, the world leaves its imprint. Something happens, and it is recorded, and little by little we become who we are. Soon, there are enough standard reference points that we feel safe in the knowledge of ourselves as ourselves. But as we live and age, things keep happening and we keep changing. Few of us are the same person at thirty that we were at seventeen, and so on. Accordingly, we adjust our perception of ourselves. It’s a very gradual process, one that allows us to believe we are who we are, and who we always have been. And yet, who among us wouldn’t be surprised if, at the age of sixteen, say, we were suddenly permitted to see ourselves as we will be when we are fifty or sixty? We would be in shock. Look at that doddering fool. That can’t be me. That isn’t me. It’s someone else — I hope. Conversely, we don’t seem to be able to see ourselves accurately as we once were. We remember ourselves and the past according to our current needs and desires, and through the filter of added experience, some of it pleasant, some not. While we know now what we didn’t know then, this knowledge often prevents us from knowing what we knew then. And yet we think we know. We are absolutely certain that we know — much to the bewildered amusement of our children, who are equally sure of the same thing when it comes to themselves, and of the opposite when it comes to us. It’s all very interesting.
August 27, 2003 — I heard through the grapevine today that Armenian translations of three of my poems were published this summer in Garoon, a magazine in Armenia. Garoon means spring. So the poems were published this summer in spring — another fine example of putting the cart before the horse — as is the fact that the poems have yet to appear in their original language, or tongue, as we hifalutin’ literary people like to say. But I am told that’s also supposed to happen one of these days — which I know could turn out to be months or years, as is so often the case in the publishing world. Writers do an awful lot of waiting. This is unfortunate, because it gives them time to imagine all sorts of bad things about themselves and their work, very little of which can possibly be true. The best thing a writer can do is write, not wait. What is written is written. Acknowledging this, it is time to move on. And yet it’s all easier said than done, especially when the reception of any given work of writing can bode extremely well or ill for a writer’s “career.” I put that word in quotes because it is one of the most comically inappropriate descriptions of a writer’s life and work there is. The word career has too many stiff and sensible connotations. One can have a career in real estate or insurance, but not writing — with the obvious exceptions of technical writing, advertising, and so on. Novelists and poets don’t have careers. We have sore necks and mental problems. We have unreasonable hopes and soaring dreams, many of which sound pretty darned silly when spoken aloud. So we keep it to ourselves, or we write about them in ways that are less likely to engender ridicule. When we are ridiculed anyway, we rely on what is called a thick skin, otherwise known as the ability to not cry in public. The toughest of our number learn the art of laughter, which we use for the benefit of others and our own survival. The most fortunate, though, are those who never forget how to laugh in the first place, and who recognize that laughter is one of the things that made them start writing — and tears — and injustice, bitterness, anger, outrage, compassion, the luck of the draw, and all the rest.
August 28, 2003 — When I was seventeen and working in a packing house in the tiny town of Sultana, California, one of my fellow workers got his long carrot-red hair caught in a box-making machine and had part of it ripped from his scalp. When he returned to work a few days later, he had covered the hairless area by combing over some of the hair from the other side. I wonder what he is doing now? And what about the old guy who stacked boxes, and who bathed once a week and wore the same clothes every day? I imagine he’s long gone. I remember him saying how he wanted to retire, and that when he did, he was going to get a cart and sell peanuts on the street. I wonder if he ever did that? I also wonder who those old men were who used to wear striped overalls and stand and talk for hours by the entrance of the Bank of America building in Dinuba back in the Sixties. How old were they, really? And who were the old ladies who used to drive their silent little carts at five miles an hour past Don’s Shoe Store on L Street, looking for an open parking space? Were they real, or am I just imagining things? And where is the little farm boy who used to look at them in wonder? Was that really me? Was that the sound of my footsteps echoing along the sidewalk under the awnings? They might have been voices. They seem to be voices now.
August 29, 2003 — I am still reading Revolution in the Head, the book about the Beatles’ recordings and the Sixties. But I haven’t reached the part yet where John Lennon tells the group’s producer, George Martin, that he wants a particular piece of music to sound like an orange. I know about it because our oldest son, Vahan, read the book before me. I love that statement, because it meant that Lennon knew what an orange sounded like. Or at least he thought he did. Either way, I know he listened. And listening is what really counts.
August 30, 2003 — All of a sudden, having the door open when I work is starting to bother me. I have worked this way for the last several weeks, because when I close the door the room gets too hot and there is insufficient circulation. For quite awhile, it was fun to sit here and write amidst the swirl of family activity. Now it isn’t. And yet if I close the door, I am bound to regret it. I suppose I could stop writing and wait for cooler weather, but after about ten minutes I would regret that too. What did I do last summer? I worked with the door closed — and sweated. And once the room was heated, it stayed that way long after I had opened the door and quit for the day. What was I working on last year at this time? Short stories. In fact, I wrote a total of seventy stories in a period of ninety days, beginning in August and ending in October. And what was I doing the summer before that? I was writing a novel — and sweating with the door closed. That one took me fifty-six days. And the summer before that? Another novel. And before that? Stories. But what about the autumns, winters, and springs in between? What was I doing then? More of the same — but without the sweat. So, maybe it is time for a vacation. Or maybe it’s time to close the door. I can’t tell which. And here’s something else: I’ve never thought about the effect the open door might be having on the others. Depending on my mood, they probably find it disgusting or discouraging — or entertaining. So, then. It’s come to this?
August 31, 2003 — I am sitting here in the sacred cool of the early morning, gazing in wonder at the rapidly accumulating debris of my life. My life itself is debris, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about stuff. I’m talking about books, papers, and dust. I’m talking about stacks of bills needing to be paid, shelves needing to be cleaned and reorganized, and weeds needing to be pulled. I’m talking about at least a thousand other items that need my attention if they are ever to be entered into that holy column under the heading of Finally Taken Care Of — which, oddly enough, sounds like an inscription on a tombstone. It’s not that I put things off, either. I just can’t get around to them. I write instead. Time is a finite resource. The days are already scattered and involved enough as it is. When the opportunity presents itself, I can’t let it get away. But I’ve talked about this before. And talked and talked and talked. And here I am, saying it again. But show me a person who doesn’t repeat himself, and I’ll show you someone who really has been Finally Taken Care Of. The truth is — and I say that all the time as well — I am tired of being mundane, mediocre, and melodramatic. But I don’t know what to do about it. So I sit here and write. The truth is — there I go again — I am talking about the fact that my life itself is debris. Who am I trying to kid? Flotsam and jetsam — I just looked that up in an old paperback dictionary I got from who knows where: The wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on the sea. A pretty apt description, when you get right down to it. On a good day, I might be considered a note in a bottle. But what news do I bear? Gloom and doom, mostly. The world’s at war, blah-blah, the president is a jackass, etc., etc., look both ways before you cross the philosophical street. Who needs it? People are hungry, or they are tired, or disappointed, or busy, or they don’t give a damn, or they are on their way to a football game, and I respond by saying John Lennon wanted a piece of music to sound like an orange. Isn’t that lame? Isn’t that silly? What good is that supposed to do? John Lennon is dead. The idiot who killed him is in prison. And during the intervening twenty-plus years, an equal number of orange crops have ripened and been harvested, and no one in the recording industry has cared a fig about music that sounds like oranges, they have cared only about money. And to this day, people still buy the latest cheap image that’s served up. Still, who cares? Why should I bother anyone about that? You either know it already, because it’s painfully obvious, or you — but that’s not quite true either, is it? You might be on the fence. For the first time in your life, you might be waking to the realization that you are sick of things being the way they are, and that you are sick of yourself. You might be just like me, sitting in the sacred cool of the morning, looking around and disgusted as hell with the pack of lies you just read in the Sunday morning paper. Oh, they are so glib — the so-called journalists, the editorial writers, the book reviewers — all of them. So few are willing to rock the boat — though several pretend to rock the boat. Anyway. Enough of that, even. I need to shut up. Don’t I? Or shall I go on? Shall I sit here all day and spout my nonsense? Is that what I should do? Shall I mention the fact that I bought two more used books yesterday, even though I am nowhere near finishing the pile of books sitting on my work table? Shall I mention that today is William Saroyan’s birthday, and that if he were still alive he would be ninety-five? Shall I mention that I am hungry because I haven’t eaten breakfast? Shall I mention that I am writing these words with a smile because I am really pulling your leg? Shall I mention that I am not pulling your leg, but that I am smiling anyway? Both are true. Both are false. Oh, yes, I could go on. But at some point even I would get sick of it — and I could still go on. But I won’t. And I am not sick of it. Not yet. And I realize the pointlessness of what I am doing, and of what I am saying. And I realize that admitting it doesn’t let me off the hook. The truth is — I said it again! — I realize a lot of things. I realize that what I say can’t possibly make a difference. I realize that what I say can. I realize it won’t, I realize it will, I realize it has, and I realize it doesn’t matter, and I realize it does. I realize everything — and nothing. I also realize that I don’t know what I’m talking about, with one very important exception — I do know what I’m talking about. I just have a strange way of proving it, that’s all. The truth is — heh, heh — a piece of music can sound like an orange, and an orange can sound like a piece of music. An orange is music. It is an orange, certainly, but it doesn’t stop there. Nothing does. Just because an orange is an orange, that doesn’t mean it isn’t something — everything — else. An orange is willing to pretend it’s an orange out of kindness, and for the sake of convenience. Oranges grow on trees, because if they issued from the clouds as rainfall everyone would be confused. And yet, as children, we have the wisdom to say, Listen to my orange. We have the ability to hear trees talking to us and to one another. We know that everything is made of the same stuff, and that we are made of the same stuff, and so we rejoice — until we starve to death, or are beaten, or killed, or manipulated, or taught to be something we are not because it happens to pay a better salary then being something we are — unless we are lucky and are encouraged by wise parents, and allowed to breathe, and allowed to make our own glorious, perfect mistakes, in which case it is entirely possible to remain in harmony with the oranges, as well as the cucumbers, grapes, melons, and bananas of our sad and beautiful existence.
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Also by William Michaelian
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Another Song I Know
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