One Hand Clapping – September 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
September 1, 2003 — With the exception of family and a small handful of misguided and mentally disturbed friends, very few people are able to tolerate me on a regular, ongoing basis. It’s not that I am particularly obnoxious — in fact, I am really quite considerate. The trouble is, I refuse to give in on certain matters. I am too honest. If someone says nice things about a crook, I don’t go along with it. If a neighbor works for a public utility and takes four-hour lunches at home during which he surfs the Internet, he is pretty well disqualified in my mind, no matter how funny his jokes are. If a popular clergyman is a polished raiser of funds who cares little about the poorer people in his flock, he isn’t likely to receive my praise. Not that he needs it, or cares. It’s just that I have no respect for that sort of person. And yet I have respect for them as people, if that makes any sense. I have respect, because I know how hard life can be, and because I have watched small children have their natural inquisitive enthusiasm systematically drained out of them by their parents and society. I have watched big-eyed, sparkling, talented kids become dull, materialistic drones. In other words, people who don’t care and who are dishonest with themselves and others didn’t get that way overnight. They had a lot of help. Even so, I rarely argue the point. If a person showers praise on a crook, I don’t tell him he’s an idiot. I just give no reassurance. And so he ends up looking for it elsewhere. It should also be mentioned, or pointed out, or admitted, that my honesty is only relative. Over the years, I have done a few things I am not proud of. I remember them still, and it bothers me that there is no way to go back and set things right. Yet, I allow myself to think — foolishly, and quite possibly as a means of mental survival — that I can do just that by writing. I am also aware of the many things that are my responsibility, and that receive my neglect. The word selfishness comes to mind. I can write as much as I want, but that is one bullet I am unable to dodge. I write anyway, but I am bleeding — and still I write. Call it a sickness. Call it whatever you like. I deserve to be treated no differently than the crooks I rail against. I am not immune to the human condition. I am also quite able to laugh at it, at us, and at myself. It’s obvious no one has the answer. Who even knows the question? There doesn’t even have to be one. We’ve built pyramids and railroads, rocket ships and computers. We’ve composed symphonies and painted pictures. We have also destroyed entire cultures and species, and tried to cover up the fact by rewriting history. And yet we cling to the idea that we are civilized. But a civilized person doesn’t wave a flag and fill his tank with gas bought with human blood. A civilized person finds this kind of behavior unacceptable. Changing systems won’t help. It has already been done, countless times. We are the ones who need to change. Politics are nothing but a distraction, an ongoing refusal to face ourselves. If we as individuals are willing to go along with things and refuse to change, why should we expect more of our so-called leaders? And if we do change, if we refuse to have plenty while others have none, if we refuse to kill for the sake of our own convenience, if we refuse to devote our talent, energy, and resources to destruction, what then? It’s a good question. Isn’t it?
September 2, 2003 — The palm closes, then, miraculously, it opens again. Far away, two villagers, an old man and an old woman, warm themselves in the sun. They are the inevitable culmination of the sights, sounds, and smells that surround them — the children laughing, the chickens scratching, the bread baking, the blind neighbor playing his flute. They are also the culmination of each other, as man and wife. Overnight, fully ripened grapes have painted themselves onto the vines climbing over their house. Overnight, grandchildren have sprung up around them, some like weeds, others like flowers, and still others like the wild animals that live in the forest. The palm opens, releasing a riot of color, birds, wind, and song. The palm opens, and life is brought forward, to this very moment as it is being lived. “Look at us,” William Saroyan said in a book title once. “Let’s see.” It was good advice. It still is.
September 3, 2003 — The same villagers would be unable to understand why we do it — why we rush, why we have so many cell phones, TVs, microwaves, and other gadgets — why we sign so many papers, why we look so worried and strained, why we are willing to eat fruits and vegetables that taste like grass instead of having our own gardens — why we want to look like the gloomy stick figures posing in magazines — why we — anyway, enough. They would wonder how such a thing could possibly have come to pass. And it would be a hard thing to explain, or to defend, if you want to look at it that way. Because a great many people wouldn’t have it any other way, despite the fact that the current way is killing them. A great many people want to have the lights on all the time, and to always be walking on pavement, and to be surrounded by tall buildings, and to be immersed in constant noise. They are as at home in this element as the villagers are in theirs — except their faces and guts are strained, and the villagers’ aren’t. The villagers also don’t have credit cards. Poor fools. And they don’t have homeowner’s insurance. If their house burns down, they build another. In the meantime, they move in with relatives. And life goes on. Or, as they say here in Western society, you get what you pay for.
September 4, 2003 — I just listened to part of a radio interview in which a woman with a somewhat forced gift of gab promoted herself and her art by pretending to be outrageous, when she is, in fact, a predictable combination of the labels and stereotypes she claims to abhor, and wears them as badges. But that’s okay. The session was still interesting. Generally speaking, it’s a shame artists either find or feel it necessary to pursue this kind of overt salesmanship. For one thing, it is so frequently out of character. For another, after putting so much energy into their work, which is often accomplished under difficult conditions and circumstances, to have to turn around and sell it can feel like an insult. Artistic creations in whatever medium are a deeply personal thing. Yet they are not complete until they have been experienced and appreciated by others — something that is impossible, if no one knows of their existence. In a distracted world already drowning in information, though, such news has a way of getting lost in the shuffle. The high-stakes players monopolize the media, leaving the low-stakes players to go out and beg. All too often, this begging becomes an all-consuming affair, which results in occasional “opportunities” in which artists are expected to happily discuss and explain their work, when the work is more than capable of explaining itself. Besides being a terrible distraction, this can be awfully wearing, and can have a strong negative effect on an artist’s natural rhythm and output. The sadly ironic thing is, most artists are artists because they are not salesmen. If they were, they could make a heck of a lot more money selling something that a lot more people want or think they need. In a perfect world, art wouldn’t even be for sale. It would be a gift, freely exchanged, for the benefit of all. In a perfect world, artists would be revered, and they wouldn’t be required to jump through flaming hoops. In a perfect world, everyone would be revered, and no one would engage in psychological blackmail as a means to personal gain. The question remains, however, whether anyone, artist or otherwise, is capable of fully imagining such a world. It’s possible that if he did, it might kill him, or lead to his being killed.
September 5, 2003 — It is never a good sign when the president of the most powerful country in the world says “quantrify” when he means “quantify.” It also isn’t a good sign when he uses the opening game of the professional football season as a vehicle for promoting his war in another country. People are being killed in Iraq. Thousands have already died. What does football have to do with it? Football is a sport. Or is that his point?
September 6, 2003 — Yesterday our second-oldest son, who is nineteen, bought his first car. While this brings relief to our household in the transportation department, the really good and important news is that he tested the car and negotiated the deal entirely on his own. He also paid with his own money, which he earned honestly by the sweat of his brow. It is one of the greatest lessons he will ever learn, along with countless others waiting around the bend. And it’s good timing, too. Because I know it won’t be long until he moves out on his own, and fully embraces his unknown future. I see in him the same impatience I felt at his age, and which I still feel. It is the impatience that led me to leave home when I was eighteen, to marry when I was nineteen, and to bypass many a sensible opportunity in favor of doing whatever it was that I wanted to do at the time. Fortunately, I also see in him a trace of common sense, something I never possessed. And so perhaps he will look at me and turn right where I turned left, or stop and think before jumping off a cliff. I hope so. Otherwise, he might end up a raving lunatic like his father, instead of just a regular lunatic. Either way, though, I will be proud of him. I already am.
September 7, 2003 — I was pleased to learn yesterday that a poem of mine was recently translated into French, and that the translation was published on a French-language website. The work was done by Louise Kiffer-Sarian, a writer/translator born in Paris. We are as yet unacquainted. As far as I know, this is the first time something I’ve written has appeared in the French language. “Friends” is a short poem about an old woman sharing a croissant with her dog at a sidewalk table outside a coffee shop. As they warm themselves in the morning sun, it is apparent by their sympathetic ease of communication that they have known each for quite some time. The poem first appeared in a small poetry quarterly called The Synergyst. Later, I added it to my website. That someone read it there, and found it not only enjoyable but worth translating, gives me real joy. As I’ve said many times before, a published piece of writing can live many lives and take on many different meanings. This is but one example. A translation is an open door to other thoughts, other minds. It is a means of recognizing the vastness of our common ground.
September 8, 2003 — Last night on TV, the president of the United States said he needs another eighty-seven billion dollars to continue his glorious battle against evil. As for how the money would be used, he offered few specifics. One thing is certain, though: later on, he will say that it turned out not to be enough. Or, to put it another way, can you imagine him announcing that terrorism has been defeated, and that from now on the government’s focus will be on the needs of its own people?
September 9, 2003 — I am gazing out upon a gray misty morn, quietly rejoicing in a sudden change to cool fall weather. It even rained last night. It’s good to breathe fresh air again. The lack of it has always been my biggest gripe about summer. I can stand the sunlight, I can stand wearing short sleeves and eating fresh local produce, but I hate dirty air, and I hate having to dig solid chunks of it out of the corners of my eyes. And yet the air we breathe during the summer here in Salem is immaculate compared to the nasty soup we lived in in the good old San Joaquin Valley. I can’t count the number of times we watched the dark-red sun setting in the filth, and how it disappeared well before it reached the horizon. For weeks at a time, we were unable to take a deep breath. Headaches were ongoing. In addition to the smog created by traffic and industry, our bodies also had to filter out a steady onslaught of agricultural chemicals. I was even adept at identifying various pesticides and herbicides by their smell as they floated in on the breeze. Still, when I told people we were leaving, many of them thought it was ridiculous, and insisted that things weren’t that bad. What they were really saying, though, is that their incomes were more important than their health and the health of their children. And I don’t blame them. Money always looms large. It has certainly loomed large in my life, as a direct result of our move. But I’ve never regretted it — especially since the area we left behind has become worse each year. How much residue remains in our bodies, though, is another question. Who knows what evil is gnawing at our tissues and bones?
September 10, 2003 — This morning during an eighteen-minute trip to the library, I checked out four books from the new book section near the main entrance. The first is an oversized book called Faces of Photography — Encounters with 50 Master Photographers of the 20th Century. The book contains portraits of the photographers and interviews conducted by Tina Ruisinger. The second is titled Poets on the Peaks — Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades. This volume features text and photos by John Suiter. Book number three is The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Last but not least is Sixpence House — Lost in a Town of Books, by Paul Collins, about the author’s adventures in the village of Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh countryside. Apparently Hay-on-Wye, not to be confused with ham on rye, is home to 1,500 people and 40 antiquarian bookstores. Sounds like a fun place to visit, and probably safer than Disneyland, where someone died recently. Not that people don’t die in Hay-on-Wye — sigh. But I’d rather die among books than mouse ears and ticket stubs any day.
September 11, 2003 — Exactly one year ago, I wrote a short story called “The Death of a Tiny Bird.” Part of my collection, No Time to Cut My Hair, the story was my response to the mainstream media’s rallying cry for the war on Iraq then being planned by the White House. In it, a tiny bird is killed in the act of singing by a stray bullet resulting from a parade-turned-war that takes place in what is normally a quiet neighborhood of maple trees and cul de sacs. A surreal tale of suburban carnage, the story is a tragedy narrated by an eyewitness who struggles to maintain his objectivity and sense of humor, but who ultimately fails due to what he has seen or imagined. It is a burden I am sure he still carries, because, sadly, the events of the past year have only proved the story’s pertinence, necessity, and truth. We are another year older, but are we any wiser? If we are, then why do we keep making the same mistakes? Why do successive generations believe their governments’ lies and go to war? Is it really necessary to see the results first-hand before understanding how insane war is?
September 12, 2003 — So far I’ve read seven chapters of John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, one of my most recent used book purchases. And, unless the author somehow forgot how to write halfway through, I would have to say this is one of his finest works. If he were still alive, I would write him a letter and congratulate him on his first seven chapters. The writing is fluid, and full of sadness, humor, and insight. His characters are noble insects caught in the sticky web of human folly. If they would think first, rather than struggle, they just might be able to break free. Of course if they did, then Steinbeck would have been known as a writer of fantasy. I have read that Steinbeck cared deeply about what he wrote, suffered over it, and held himself to very high standards. Such is evident in this work, as it is in The Grapes of Wrath. He wanted his writing to make a difference. I believe it did, and that it still does, even to those who have never read a word of it. Real writers don’t write for readers only. They write for everyone, and about everyone. But they do rely on readers to help bring their message to the world, and thereby keep poetry and decency alive.
September 13, 2003 — I read in the paper this morning that at one point in his life, Johnny Cash crawled into a cave and waited to die. But even in the depths of his confusion and despair, the part of him that wanted to go on living intervened, and so out he crawled again into the sordid-brilliant light of day, to survive along with his own grieving personality. Now the long period of survival is over and he is gone. The face was true, as was the deep, mournful voice, neither of which is possible to arrive at without a great deal of suffering, some self-inflicted, some not. Johnny Cash was not the empty cowboy hat that passes for so much of today’s country music. The music came first, then the money, and not the other way around. When the money came flooding in, and with it the fame, his music helped him survive in that awkward dimension. For no one really needs a huge amount of money, and certainly not the fame. All that’s needed is an honest opportunity to feed, clothe, and shelter oneself and one’s family. While in today’s so-called economy the amount needed to do so is a lot of money, the principle doesn’t change. Meanwhile, it seems fame is inevitable for some people, even when they don’t want it.
September 14, 2003 — I cleaned my work area, dusted everything, and vacuumed the rug this morning. Now everything looks strange, even though I returned the various piles of books and papers to their former locations. I also wound my father’s old watch again, set it for the correct time, held it to my ear, and listened to it tick. It’s Sunday. I have no big plans, writing or otherwise. Late yesterday afternoon, I called a writer in upstate New York I have been corresponding with for several years, to see what was on his mind. He told me Mencken, which I thought sounded reasonable. In the evening I read another chapter of The Winter of Our Discontent, but my eyes were too tired to continue, so I went outside and looked around instead. I saw spiders. Dust. Blades of grass. I went back inside. Everyone was preoccupied and doing fine without me. As a matter of fact, I would have been fine without me too, but everywhere I went, there I was. A couple of hours later, I fell asleep. But I woke up enough times during the night to know I was still there, and that the condition would probably carry through until morning. I was right, but I’m not quite sure what it means.
September 15, 2003 — Today or tomorrow, I need to spend some time going over a new Armenian translation of one of my stories, to see if it makes sense and all is in order. This will probably involve looking up a few words in a couple of Armenian-English dictionaries I keep handy, and result in more questions than answers. Fortunately, the story itself is on the short side and fairly straightforward. But there is also a certain poetic element to it, and it is important that this be preserved. While I am by no means accomplished in the Armenian language, I have a good enough ear to recognize when something is missing in a translation, or where something has gone wrong. Someday, I would like to learn Armenian well enough to do my own translations, or even to write a story or poem in that language. But that is still many years off, and would require a major change in gears, if not lifestyle. For now, I must limp along with the little I know, and use it as efficiently as possible — which, come to think of it, is exactly what I do in English.
September 16, 2003 — At the moment, I am waiting for an e-mail response on a certain business matter, and I am annoyed because it should have come no later than yesterday. A brief note is all that’s required — unless there is something crooked going on, in which case the delay makes perfect sense. And if there is something crooked going on, what I will do about it depends on how blatantly crooked it is. I can live with a certain degree of dishonesty. In fact, it is impossible to go through life without coming into contact with all sorts of crooks and crooked dealings. With a little practice, though, one can usually avoid serious problems. Unfortunately, the only way to be entirely safe is to do absolutely nothing, go nowhere, and take no chances of any kind. The trouble with that is, it makes crooks of everyone, and life is hardly worth living. It is better and healthier to venture forth. In this particular case, if I am up against crooked behavior, it will have extremely interesting consequences. If I’m not, the results will be every bit as interesting, but in another, slightly more predictable dimension. This time around, I would prefer the latter, because it would make life a lot simpler. Besides, I hate telling crooks they’re crooks. They know it already.
September 17, 2003 — This afternoon several items not related to writing require my attention. My plan is to put them off as long as possible, then do them all in rapid-fire succession and collapse. Most people I know don’t plan to collapse. I think this is a mistake. Unplanned collapses often lead to head and elbow injuries, which in turn necessitate long periods of recovery. On the other hand, if you know you are going to collapse, and also when and where, you can avoid injury. Even better, no one will really notice. At the most they will think you are taking a nap, or suffering from indigestion. Whatever they think, they will soon be bored and leave you alone. Not so with an unplanned collapse. As soon as you fall and hit your head, well-meaning people come out of the woodwork. They call an ambulance, and while they’re waiting for it to come they ask you your name and how many fingers they’re holding up. Often they will have eaten a truckload of onions and will knock you out a second time by breathing all over you. By the time the ambulance finally arrives, a huge crowd will have gathered, made up of curious onlookers, all wanting to know what happened. “I don’t know,” you’ll hear someone say. “He just collapsed.” And so my advice is, don’t be trapped. Collapse regularly, and do so at a time and place that’s convenient for you. You owe it to yourself, and to those you love.
September 18, 2003 — Where do I go from here? How many choices do I have, really? Do I have any at all? One choice would be to stop writing and find something sensible to do — or at least something not so abstract. For the life of me, though, I don’t know what it would be. I’ve done sensible things before, but they were always out of character. Not only didn’t I belong, everyone knew I didn’t belong. The same is true now, of course. I’m not really sure I’ve ever belonged anywhere. Where do I belong? I’m a human being, so I guess I belong on the earth. The earth is a nice place. I like the earth. In fact, when I was in the fifth grade at Grandview School, I did a report on the earth. But when I began to gather information, I didn’t like what I found. I didn’t want to say that the earth was part of the solar system, and that it rotated on its axis, and that it was comprised of various elements, and so on. That missed the point entirely. I was far more interested in what it felt like to walk barefoot on jagged clods on a 100-degree day, and in the smell of the mossy irrigation water moving lazily in the ditch by the eucalyptus grove near the place where my great-grandparents used to live. To me, that was the earth. The earth was a garden. It was a place to roam and be free. It was a pleasing pattern of narrow country roads, vineyards, orchards, old unpainted pump houses, power poles, and jackrabbits. But at the time I was only eleven years old, and I didn’t know how to put this knowledge into a report, and so my report was a failure. It was a failure because I did say the earth was part of the solar system, and that it rotated on its miserable axis, and so on and so forth. In other words, I betrayed my vision. And this happened many more times, until, little by little, I became better at expressing what I know, or at least what I think I know, and what I wish could be. Another thing I remember from the fifth grade is a class discussion during which one of my friends was making a point that no one seemed to understand. Frustrated, I jumped up and said, “I know exactly what he means.” Without waiting to be asked, I hurried to the front of the class and proudly explained what my friend had said. When I was finished, he said, “That’s not what I mean at all.” Then everyone laughed and I sat down. I have never forgotten the lesson I learned that day. I learned that, to hide their embarrassment, people — even close friends — will say anything to make you look stupid.
September 19, 2003 — Let us consider for a moment what is taking place in the street outside my window. Just a few feet away, there is a pleasant-looking bald man in his upper fifties out for a walk with his two tiny grandsons. One of the boys is riding, or trying to ride, a squeaky tricycle. The other is picking up leaves and pieces of gravel and showing them to his grandfather, expecting some sort of explanation, which the grandfather is only too happy to give. Now they are moving on. The grandfather is enjoying himself, but he has no intention of letting the walk take all morning. In fact, it already looks like the smallest and youngest of his grandsons, the one with the leaves, has a problem with his pants. Judging by the way he’s walking, they contain more than just his legs. And if the grandfather’s relaxed expression means anything, I would say the boy’s mother or grandmother is at home. This means that while the ladies take care of business, he will be safe outside, cleaning the windshield and checking the oil in his car. And now they are gone, like sweet ghosts of early autumn.
September 20, 2003 — If I had a nickel for every time I’ve decided to drop everything and go in another direction, I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d have quite a few nickels. And if I had a nickel for every time a new direction turned out to be nothing but the old direction in disguise, I’d have nearly twice as many nickels. Once in awhile, though, a new direction really turns out to be a new direction, as when we packed up and left California sixteen years ago and settled here in Oregon. That was a major change. But even within the scope of this change, I continued my old habit of dropping everything and changing directions. That much said, I think it is also true that I have never changed directions, because the only true direction is the one that began when I was born and that will continue until I die. Call it fate, call it whatever you want, I just don’t think I have that much to say about it. I used to think so, but not anymore. Why else would I have systematically rejected so many practical solutions and opportunities in favor of what I am doing now? While I might argue that for me, such solutions and opportunities were impractical and unsuitable, a sane person would surely disagree. And he would be right — for him. I see sane people every day, busy keeping their ducks in a row, busy minimizing their losses and adding to their possessions, and I think, “That’s insane. Why would anyone want to live that way?” And yet here I am, a shaggy fool seemingly intent on writing his way to an early grave. Why would anyone want to live this way? Well, there’s no easy answer. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from putting up with myself all these years, it’s this: one way is as good as another, as long as a person is honest with himself and honest with others. If you’re a liar in either dimension, then your way is no different or better than any other liar’s, whether you think it is or not.
September 21, 2003 — I finished reading Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Unfortunately, the last several chapters degenerated into confusion and the ending was a failure. After many chapters of very good writing, the author simply asked the wrong things of his main characters. He asked them eloquently, but this still put him in the awkward position of having to tie up several loose ends that shouldn’t have been loose in the first place. But it was still a very good book. I have since read some harsh criticism of the novel, leveled by people who apparently think Mr. Steinbeck had no right to change or grow older after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, or, for that matter, to have had marital problems or suffered a stroke. I can only assume they are equally incapable of recognizing the same kinds of changes or pressures in their own enlightened existence. At least the author tried. He tried to capture what he saw as the cheapening of America in 1960. In retropsect, it’s obvious he was on to something. In challenging the integrity and honesty of his main character, Ethan Allen Hawley, a poor, proud man caught up in a strangely coincidental vortex of fate, he was asking people to take a careful look at themselves and at their motivations. The Winter of Our Discontent was his way of saying, “Be careful what you wish for, because not only might it come true, it might well create a spiritual or psychological debt you will be unable to pay.” The advice is still valid.
September 22, 2003 — Well, it’s been one of those days. First, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “It’s called thinking. You should try it sometime.” So I did. It hurt. And then I saw another one that said, “Don’t tailgate me or I’ll flick a booger on your windshield.” The message was in small type — so small, in fact, that when I read it, the driver made good on his threat. Somehow, that hardly seemed fair. Finally, I came up beside an old VW van smothered in anti-establishment stickers from days gone by. The stickers were as faded and peeled as the driver, who was peering through small round spectacles at what looked like a prescription windshield. While waiting for several dozen heavily pierced and tattooed teens to cross the street in front of us, I gave the driver a wave. He didn’t see me. I got out and tapped on his window. It cracked. He looked at me and smiled. Then he cracked. The light changed. The van died. The driver died. The tattooed teens looked back and cheered — something one never sees. A few minutes later, I had to wait for a train. I have been waiting ever since. No telling who or what will be in the caboose. But you can bet I am going to wave. After all, one doesn’t stop being friendly just because things aren’t going right.
September 23, 2003 — While the big bullies fight to control what’s left of the world’s oil and other resources, it would be wise for the rest of us little people to get used to the idea of doing without those resources. At the present rapid rate of consumption, that day is certainly coming. In the meantime, many more people will be sacrificed to starvation and war, because the world economy is based on such short-sighted ignorance, arrogance, and greed. Military adventures like the one in Iraq aren’t fought for freedom, or against terrorism, or for democracy, or for human rights, or for any of the other fine, noble ideas the bought-off politicians claim. That’s just sales talk. What we’re witnessing is simply business on a giant scale. Without realizing it, young people who think they are fighting for their country are in fact fighting against their own future by helping further the bullies’ aims. In the process, yet another generation’s life and character will be defined by having participated in the destruction. It’s a lot to live with. Eighty-year-old veterans who survived the horrors of World War II still cry, and their voices still tremble, while the families of those who didn’t survive were permanently altered. The other day on the radio, I heard some Vietnam veterans say they had great respect for those who had refused to fight, and who had gone to prison instead or fled the country. The people they don’t respect, they said, are the ones whose wealth and favor kept them from serving, and who now order young people to kill and be killed. They regard it as criminal behavior.
September 24, 2003 — I received a traffic warning from a city policeman yesterday. The violation? “Improper positioning.” But he wasn’t referring to my posture. Rather, I had parked our van next to the curb in front of my mother’s house and left it facing the wrong way, against traffic — except that there is no traffic on my mother’s street. Mom lives in one of the quietest neighborhoods on earth. Days and days go by during which you wonder if the neighbors are dead or alive. Even when they emerge from their tidy dwellings, you still don’t know for sure. To top it off, I have been parking the van almost daily in exactly the same manner for the last eight years. But I’m not complaining. It’s nice to know the police are out there watching. It makes me feel safe. And it certainly makes sense for a highly paid officer to take the time to run a DMV check on a boring white minivan and write out a warning instead of cruising through one of the tougher neighborhoods, where real crimes are committed on an hourly basis. That way, he can feel safe too.
September 25, 2003 — Sometimes I think I should take a few years off and tend sheep in the Armenian highlands. The trouble is, I might not want to come back. Or when I did, I might find myself so at odds with life here in the American lowlands that I wouldn’t be able to function. Hmm. To tend sheep, or be one — that’s the question. I can see it now. Shortly after my return, I will be arrested for trying to herd a flock of sheep through the drive-up lane of a fast-food restaurant. Then, with the news cameras rolling, I will say that I was just trying to make a point. Any further questions would be answered with Bah, which would no doubt anger the local authorities. But my answer to that would be, you can’t have it both ways. If I am not free to make my social statements, then I must be free to act like a sheep, and vice-versa.
September 26, 2003 — Here I am — not exactly who I was, where I was yesterday, but similar to a frightening, appalling degree. Day, then night, then day again. Hours. Minutes. All very deceiving. Convenient, certainly. But absurd. We call them “days,” and draw comfort from the fact that they end, and that new ones begin. But we are fooling ourselves. Measuring something doesn’t change what it is. It only limits our understanding. We need clocks so we can catch the bus and show up at work on time. We need them in order to commit mayhem in a profitable, efficient manner. The other animals don’t need clocks. They simply live. Why can’t we? Is it because we know our stay here is limited? If so, what sense does it make to count the hours? Wouldn’t we be better off just living? Why count something that doesn’t really exist? Why not accept life on its own relentless, continuous terms?
September 27, 2003 — Perhaps an apt new slogan for the U.S. would be, “Poverty. It’s what we do.” According to the latest “findings,” 34.6 million people in this country now live below the poverty line. For a single person, the poverty line is an annual income of $9,359. For a family of four, it is $18,244. So, let’s see. That means if you are single and you take home at least $779.92 each month, you should be okay — if you live in your car, if you even have a car. If you don’t, and you feel funny about living on the street, you can always rent an apartment with three or four other people who also aren’t living in poverty. You will, of course, be taking the bus to your high-paying and personally satisfying job, and have no money for medicine should you become ill. But, hey, it’s only your health. Toughen up. Or, as the president would say, “Bring ’em on.” Of course, this reminds me of the additional $87 billion he and his cronies want to siphon out of the country. I wonder how the people living in poverty feel about that? I wonder how the elderly who have to choose between medicine and food feel about it. And what happens when they realize, if they haven’t already, that the robbery won’t end there? But back to those income figures — what they really mean is that far more than 34.6 million people live in poverty, and that even more are barely scraping by, and are living under all sorts of daily, ongoing pressure. And they do so while the president plays golf and jets around the country raising millions of dollars for the next “election.” The thing to remember is, rich people who give him money don’t do it because they think he’s a nice guy. They give him money because of the financial benefits they expect in return. At whose ultimate expense, I wonder?
September 28, 2003 — Two or three days ago at a nearby produce stand, my wife and I noticed a small pile of fresh leeks for sale. Inspired, we brought an enormous one home. This morning it is simmering in lamb broth and a little olive oil, along with several cloves of garlic, a tomato, lots of carrots and celery, and about ten potatoes — my rather crude contribution to our Sunday evening meal. On the same visit, we also picked up seven or eight yellow peppers we thought would be mild, but which turned out to be fiery. We roasted them in the oven that same evening. I ate two, and my darling bride ate one. The next day for lunch, I had the rest in a sandwich. My motto when eating such things is, “It will either cure you or kill you.” In this case it killed me. But I finally seem to be making a comeback. And I will surely make the same mistake again, because I have been doing just that for years. Although, I do remember a time when my father and I planted hot peppers in our garden that turned out to be so hot, even touching them was painful. Wicked from the start, they grew upside down. They were quite beautiful, really, bright-yellow, shiny, and about three inches long. But we didn’t know what to do with them. Then one day Dad’s Uncle Archie stopped by for a visit. Archie loved hot peppers. When we showed him our crop and told him it was too hot to eat, he plucked one off a plant, bit off half of it, chewed, laughed, and proclaimed it “mild.” Then he took off his hat and we filled it with fresh hot peppers for him to take home.
September 29, 2003 — Believe it or not, some people think it’s silly to be excited about fruits and vegetables. But this is because they’ve never raised a garden or lived on a farm, or in a small farm town, and have only eaten the imitation produce found in grocery stores. Fresh produce is an experience. When I was a kid, I used to take great pleasure in picking peppers in the garden with my father, and in bringing them inside to wash in our big laundry tray next to the washing machine. There is nothing quite like washing a five-gallon bucketful of fresh green and yellow peppers. They squeak when you rub them, they smell great, and you never fail to find one here and there that looks like the nose of an elderly, cantankerous family member. Another important facet of gardening in the San Joaquin Valley is having to deal with tomato worms, or tomato horn worms, as I believe they are officially called. We’ve lived in Salem for years, but have yet to see a tomato worm. But in Dinuba, we harvested them from the plants by the dozen. Like most worms, they are easiest to find in the morning. But when they’re fully grown, they’re easy to find any time of day. Once, when we noticed some extensive damage, we plucked forty-four enormous worms off our plants and tossed them into a coffee can. I’ll leave out what happened next. On another occasion, Dad found a huge worm and dropped it on the ground. Using his shoe, he covered it with dirt, then stepped on it. Despite his careful intentions, the worm’s innards squirted out and landed on my arm. I was standing about six feet away. And then there was the year that the tomato plants grew and grew and grew, but produced hardly a tomato. They were over eight feet tall, and we had to add extensions to the stakes and tie up the plants while standing on a ladder. We never did figure out why this happened. It was hardly due to inexperience, since my father had been growing tomatoes since the 1930s. Anyway. These are just some of things I like to think about and remember. No wonder I feel emotional when I see a pile of onions at the local fruit stand, or fresh apples and pears just in from the field. It’s like my life flashing before my eyes.
September 30, 2003 — A few days ago, we had a record-setting ninety-eight degrees. Yesterday it was overcast and cool, and this morning it was foggy. At the moment there are several crows shouting at each other in the nearby treetops. The air is heavy and moist, and the leaves aren’t moving at all. The telephone just rang. It was someone calling from a local building supply store, asking for Jeff. I told him there was no Jeff here and that he had the wrong number. He apologized, I told him that it was quite all right, and we both hung up. I just finished a cup of Armenian coffee. The two cups of regular coffee I had earlier this morning didn’t quite do the job. I feel better already. In fact, maybe I should go out and look for Jeff. He might even live in the neighborhood. I could knock on doors and ask everyone I meet, “Have you seen Jeff?” But before I go, I should probably put on a pair of pants. It’s important to remember things like that. Venturing forth without pants can dilute one’s message. It can also give the wrong message, or an unintended one. Really, there is so much to think about and to be aware of that sometimes I find it safer just to sit here and wait and hope for the best. Poor Jeff. I hope he understands.
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
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Also by William Michaelian
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