One Hand Clapping – October 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
October 1, 2003 — This morning I “supervised” while a friendly handyman hung a new back door in my mother’s garage. He even let me sweep up when he was done. Luckily, he was able to paint over the blood I’d smeared near the top of the frame after popping off one of the protective plastic pieces stapled to one of the corners. The slice in my right thumb is only about a sixteenth of an inch long, but it should be enough to keep me from washing dishes for the rest of the day. It isn’t enough, however, to keep from putting in some time here at the keyboard, as the wound is well away from the part of the thumb that strikes the space bar. Then again, I am feeling a bit woozy, so I might have to lie down and rest here in a few minutes, and possibly do a little reading in order to take my mind off the pain. Which reminds me — my library books are due today. More trouble. And the doorbell just rang. . . . It was the guy who comes every few weeks for cans and bottles. After vigorously shaking my hand, he said, “Did you just get out of the shower?” I told him no, and then he said, “I did.” So I told him he looked great, as fresh as a daisy. Then we admired a large brown spider suspended in a web over a bush, and the neighbor’s cat asleep nearby in a bed of pine needles. During that time, I saw the mail truck turn at the corner, so pretty soon I’ll have to go out again and retrieve today’s load of junk. On the other hand, maybe there will be a check. There was the other day, for a short story I wrote that will be published in a magazine soon. It wasn’t much money, though — about enough to pay for a five-minute shopping spree at the grocery store, as long as we don’t rush. But it’s still money, by gum, and I earned it fair and square. And now here’s the mail truck, pulling up in front of the house. . . . I was right. It was all junk — and three bills. So much for our shopping spree.
October 2, 2003 — Yesterday morning when I was leaving to meet the handyman at my mother’s house, I found a friend of our second-oldest son sitting at the edge of our driveway, holding her cell phone. She had just been talking to him, and had, in fact, awakened him from a sound sleep, which I knew, because I had heard him mumbling from behind his closed door. I said, “This is interesting.” She smiled somewhat sheepishly and said, “I guess I woke him up.” I found out later that she was on her way to a new job at a fast-food place nearby and was early, so she had called to relieve her nerves a bit. And I thought, it certainly begins early, doesn’t it — the nerves, the pressure, the need to compete and do well. And then it continues, especially in today’s less than robust economy. Everywhere you turn, rank-and-file employees are enduring pressure from each other and from above, as is each layer of management above that. It seems no one is able to relax anymore. When the money isn’t flowing, people become rude and mean, and for relief they exercise their anger on those around them. In this scenario, those able to maintain their equilibrium and grace assume the role of mediator, entertainer, and go-between. But they feel the pressure all the same. And they still have to go home and convince themselves that they are on the right track, and that things will be better by and by. Whether that happens, of course, remains to be seen. How a person meets the situation makes all the difference. It helps to remember that there are always people whose suffering is far greater, and that they have no power to change the situation they are in. It helps to remember that entire nations have been marched into deserts and killed, and that millions of people are starving or have little to eat. It helps to step back and take a longer view of things. Above all, it helps to look in the mirror and realize how truly ridiculous it is to be alive — how preposterous, thrilling, and insane.
October 3, 2003 — I hate it when a novelist states in an interview that he wrote his latest book because he wanted to “explore” this, that, or the other thing. I am absolutely sick of seeing that word in that context. It’s almost as bad as the phrase, honing one’s craft. My advice to writers who think they are honing their craft is this: Get busy and write, and the craft, if there is one, will take care of itself. This is not to say that an incredible amount of learning doesn’t go on during the process of writing a novel. But the best things learned are things that come as a surprise — things that erupt from uncharted areas of the mind and brain, things about yourself you had no idea existed. Such revelations not only help you understand yourself, they help you understand the tightly interwoven nature of everything going on around you. They also bring life to your writing. Phrases like honing one’s craft and being passionate about writing were spawned in writing workshops. They should have stayed there. There are plenty of writers who have been honing their craft for years and they’re still boring. They’re boring because the time they spent honing could and should have been spent living — which, in my puny mind, includes taking chances. Deciding ahead of time that you are going to explore such and such in a novel is very much like conducting a study or an experiment in the expectation of certain results, with the knowledge that, upon completion, you will be able to continue on just as you were. Take homelessness as an example. Is there really any way to explore homelessness without actually having to live without a home? Even if you go as far as to live on the street for a set period of time as a way of gathering first-hand information, your experiment is polluted because you know it will end at a given time, and that you can walk away from it should things become tougher than you expect or care to endure. In my opinion, it is far more valuable and courageous to try to fully observe who and what you are within your own set of circumstances, and to wonder how those circumstances came about. There is no end to what can be revealed.
October 4, 2003 — While I was waiting at a light yesterday morning, a truck-and-trailer load of rumpled turkeys passed through the intersection. Last night, I dreamed I was holding a one-pound frozen turkey at the grocery store and showing it to my wife. I asked her, “Isn’t one pound awfully small for a turkey?” The bird itself was deceptively large. My wife looked at the package and said, “Those are just the feathers.” This morning we went to the grocery store, where there was supposedly a sale on turkey breasts at ninety-nine cents a pound. Of course they were sold out. But there were hideous pork chops covered with gristle for three dollars and sixty-nine cents a pound, and ten-ounce boxes of imitation-cheese crackers for three dollars and twenty-nine cents. So we bought a container of salt for fifty-five cents and came home. When we arrived, we discovered several bags of groceries in the van that we had apparently bought while we were distracted by the absent turkey and overpriced junk. We carried the bags inside and found they contained a week’s supply of cheese, milk, bread, butter, eggs, and vegetables. The only frivolous items were ice cream and beer, both of which were on sale. Total cost: $116.99. Tonight’s dream: one pound of turkey feathers for three dollars, plus all the lousy imitation crackers we can eat. Tomorrow’s realization: we can’t eat bread, eggs, and cheese every day, three times a day — unless, perhaps, I make good on my threat to make a lettuce and cucumber omelette. That should cure us of eating altogether. Then we’ll see who has the last laugh — us, or the mega-food moguls.
October 5, 2003 — One of these days, perhaps soon, I will assign myself the task of getting back into shape. I’m not in horrible condition, by any means, but little by little all this sitting is making me weak and flabby. It’s disgusting. Occasional walks aren’t enough. Neither is digging in the garden. What I really need to do is to prune five acres of two- or three-year-old plum or apricot trees, or ten acres of Alicante vines. The wood of young plum and apricot trees is extremely hard, and there are a lot of major cuts to make because at that age the shape of the tree is still being determined. For that reason, pruning five acres of young trees isn’t something one accomplishes overnight. The same goes for pruning ten acres of Alicante vines. Alicantes are a wine grape, also with hard wood. Each vine is a bush that requires dozens or even hundreds of cuts to be pruned, depending on the plant’s age and vigor. Pruning a row of vines that is a quarter-mile long can take as much as six hours. In ten acres, there are twenty-seven quarter-mile rows. Assuming eight-hour work days, that represents about three solid weeks of work and thousands upon thousands of cuts. And of course one of the great things about pruning is, it’s a lot like writing. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Like a story or poem, each vine and tree has its own distinct shape and identity. A good pruner or writer will recognize this, and will not ask the vine, tree, story, or poem to be something it is not by cutting and leaving the wrong canes, words, or branches. The plant-story itself tells the pruner-writer what to do. But he has to be willing to listen. He is free to make suggestions, but ultimately the work of art knows best. And a vine or tree is a work of art, to be known intimately and experienced on its own terms — as is a piece of writing.
October 6, 2003 — Here is here and there is there, but the two are really one and the same. One person’s here is another person’s there, and the there we seek is the here someone else is trying to escape. Even so, most of us don’t want to be here, and would rather be there. We feel sure that there is different than here. And quite often it is, but the differences are superficial. The mountains are higher, the languages and food are different, and so on. But we are the same. I myself have been there. What did I find? An awful lot of people who wanted to be here. And when I returned, I found an awful lot of people who wanted to be there. “How did you like being there?” they said. “It’s better than here, isn’t it?” “Well, to tell you the truth,” I said, “there really isn’t much difference. But the food was good.” “Ah-ha!” they cried. “We knew it! Did you take any pictures?” I told them I had, but that they had made me give them back. It was either that or prison. “I wish I could go there,” they said. “It sounds like fun.” “Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s great fun.” Then I showed them a map. I pointed to a big X on the map and some words below it that said, “You are here.” They gave me a funny look. People always give me funny looks.
October 7, 2003 — I had heard it said that it is good to exercise one’s intelligence. Years ago, I took mine out for a walk. It was such a beautiful day, my intelligence broke its leash. I haven’t seen it since. But I still carry the leash, just in case. On a good day, the foregoing might have been a poem. Today, however, it is merely clever and irritating. Or am I too distracted at the moment to realize how brilliant it really is? Because, now that I think about it, it is really quite Zen-like. A person could meditate upon such a verse for hours. It is as tightly woven as a rock, and as light as a cloud. Maybe I should try another one. I had heard it said that it is intelligent to exercise. Years ago, I took a walk. It was such a beautiful day, I broke my leash. I have been free ever since. But my intelligence still carries the leash, just in case. Yes, yes. I do believe I’m on to something here.
October 8, 2003 — Today I need to visit our friendly neighborhood optician to see if he can fix my glasses. Yesterday, I finished reading Poets on the Peaks, a fine book about Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and the summers they spent working at remote fire lookouts in the northern Cascades. When I was done, I closed the book and took off my glasses, only to find that one end of the wire that holds the bottom of the right lens in place was flapping in the breeze. I touched it and the lens fell out. Now I can’t read, at least not for pleasure. I can read words on a computer screen because of the lighting and the size of the letters, but I need my glasses for printed matter. This morning the newspaper was one big blur. It was so bad, in fact, that I could have sworn I read something about California electing yet another bad actor. Of course that can’t be true. No one in his right mind would vote for a guy without first hearing him give a detailed plan on how he is going to improve things. Voters are too smart for that — aren’t they? Uh, yeah. Anyway. I don’t live in California anymore, but news like this still makes me want to move to Kerouac’s lookout on Desolation Peak. For that matter, so do a lot of other things. Luckily, it only hurts when I pay attention. The rest of the time, I’m as happy as a lark.
October 9, 2003 — It took no more than a minute and a half for the optician to fix my glasses. The wire that holds the lens in place is really nothing more than fishing line, which the wily craftsman keeps on spools in his workshop behind a pair of swinging bar-type doors. He pointed to holes in the top part of the frame and said all he had to do was thread the line through them, and then through another hole on the opposite corner, and then cinch up the lens. But I couldn’t see what he was talking about, because I didn’t have my glasses on. Later, my wife and I decided to pay our first visit to the new Goodwill store that opened recently not far from where we live. It was like the other Goodwill stores in town, only a little smaller. The book section was tiny, and most of the books were too generic or popular to be of much interest. But we did find a nice long-sleeved sweater I can wear, for four dollars and ninety-nine cents. A couple more finds like that, plus a used sport coat or two, and I’ll be set for the winter. Not that there’s anything wrong with my old used sport coat. It’s made of wool, and still in great shape. But a little variety is nice. Speaking of variety, the weather so far today has been sunny, rainy, windy, cloudy, and calm. At the moment, it’s sunny, cloudy, breezy, and dry. And cool. But we haven’t turned on our furnace yet, and probably won’t for quite awhile. I tell the family that it’s good to shiver — that way, when it really gets cold, they’ll be toughened up and ready. Then, when mold starts growing on the walls, I know it’s time to buy new filters for the furnace. This takes another two or three weeks. A week or two after that, I install them. A week or so after that, I turn on the furnace and everyone says it smells bad. So I turn off the furnace. By then it’s Christmas. Then there’s a cold snap, so I turn on the furnace. After awhile, it doesn’t smell bad anymore and everyone is happy. A month later, the heating bill comes. I read the amount we owe and turn off the furnace.
October 10, 2003 — More odd dreams. This time I was walking down from the mountains on a wide road of gravel and packed mud. In some places, loose dirt was piled high on each side — so high I couldn’t see over the top. As the terrain flattened out, I began to run. Then I reached a big warehouse and went inside. There were a few idle forklifts, but nothing else, and no one was about. I floated into another room and was immediately discovered by a dog. The dog seemed friendly at first, but it quickly became annoyed with my floating. It started barking, and with each bark it jumped up and tried to bite me. So I guided myself back to the doorway. As I was trying to push the door shut, the dog made a mighty leap and latched onto my left hand. That’s when I discovered I was wearing leather gloves. I thought I was safe. It seemed the best course of action was to let the dog hang there until it got tired, and then to let it drop of its own accord. This is exactly what happened. Then I removed the glove, only to find blood in the area between my thumb and index finger, along with a shallow hole made by the dog’s tooth. I woke up. It was almost four in the morning. My hand didn’t hurt. It still doesn’t. But I will definitely stay away from empty warehouses today, and be careful of where I float.
October 11, 2003 — When I first sat down a few minutes ago, I was going to write about what it’s like to write in a corner. But I’ve decided against it. I write in a corner. So what? I belong in a corner. Anyway, there is more than one kind of corner. There is the physical kind, where two walls meet to form a right angle, and there is the mental kind, where multiple walls of exaggerated proportions collide and form a sanity-challenging maze. Like most mortals, I am familiar with both. I have also written in both, am presently writing in both, and will no doubt continue to do so. In fact, Corners would be a good name for a story or novel. Hmm. I’ll have to remember that. Another thing I’ll have to remember is to count the corners here in the house where we live. I wonder why I haven’t done that already? Isn’t that strange? The thought never occurred to me. Bathrooms, closets, hallways — there are a lot of corners in this place. A frightening number, I’ll bet. Corners filled with animosity and lint. Corners, hushed and expectant. Fallow corners, waiting for a fall rain. Corners I have lived with, but have failed to explore. It’s almost more than I can stand.
October 12, 2003 — Yesterday afternoon, I watched several multi-millionaires in uniforms and caps and funny socks argue and try to hit each other on television. In one instance, a man in his early seventies tried to attack another man in his thirties. To defend himself, the younger man tossed the older man aside, and the older man rolled on the ground like a lumpy gray potato. Awhile later, though, the older man was smiling, so I guess he was proud of the incident. It was all very strange. Also, for several minutes, a small group of the multi-millionaires were engaged in a heated debate mediated by three or four other men wearing black clothes. One of the men had padding beneath his clothes and held some sort of mask. Apparently, he had expected violence, and had come prepared. The entire production was supported by advertising, and by millions of people called fanatics, or “fans,” for short. In other, unrelated, news, the multi-millionaires in charge of the war in Iraq have been busy trying to convince people that the war is a good thing, even while violence in the region continues to spread. There has been some shuffling of important skirts and suits recently, based on the assumption that if different people tell the lies for awhile, the lies will be taken as the truth. And of course they’re still angling for their eighty-seven billion dollars. I don’t know. It all seems pretty transparent. And yet millions of fans — er, I mean voters, seem unable to see and understand what’s going on. Luckily, there are also millions who are able. And as soon as the baseball playoffs are over, and after that the “World” Series, they just might work up the energy to do something about it — the ones who aren’t homeless or out of work, that is. But of course they don’t count anyway. Besides, as I was saying — oops! look at the time. I’d better get in there and turn on the TV. The game’s about to start.
October 13, 2003 — I lost track at fifty-four corners. I’m pretty sure I missed some, and that I counted others twice. Also, I didn’t get around to counting the corners in cabinets and under sinks. In a couple of instances, where two walls met and didn’t form right angles, I didn’t count the spots as corners. But maybe I should have. I had no idea it would be necessary to define corners so precisely. But I did find a few spider webs, and some daddy-long-legs. Why do they call them “daddy,” though? I don’t know. I saw blobs of spattered paint, known in the building trade as “texturing.” Dust. Shadows. Onions. Well, not really. But wouldn’t it have been something if there had been onions? And so, these are the results thus far. The next step, the logical step, is to revisit the corners and conduct a thorough study of each. I need to find out not only what they contain, but what they mean. It will require keeping an open mind, and spending long hours on my hands and knees, and climbing on stools, and making extensive notes. But I am up to the task. Oh, yes! And I pity the person who says I am not.
October 14, 2003 — I finished reading Faces of Photography, the book about famous twentieth century photographers by Tina Ruisinger. I enjoyed the pictures of the people who took and, in some cases, still take, pictures. It was a good idea. Also included were excerpts from the photographer/author’s interviews with her subjects. They were on the repetitive side, and some of the translations from German were a bit rough, but some of the photographers’ answers were still interesting. Often the encounters were too brief to allow much depth. A handful of photographers even refused to meet with Ruisinger. Richard Avedon was one. To express her disapproval, Ruisinger took a picture of his studio door and said that she had expected more of him. In my opinion, she should have left him out altogether, because her statement really said more about her than it did about him. But maybe she was afraid people would think she had overlooked an important photographer. That would be understandable. Even so, why not give a brief listing in the front or back of the book of those who were contacted but refused to participate or didn’t respond, rather than using valuable pages of the book itself? Oh, well. No one asked me. And no one is likely to ask me what I think of Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry, which I am now attempting to read. He certainly wrote a lot of it. I guess that’s what happens when a guy keeps pecking away at it. And pecking away at it is really what counts — staying with it, week in and week out, year after year. Tina Ruisinger is young yet, in her early thirties. Her book about photographers is just one step of many that she will take. Kenneth Rexroth is dead. He took all his steps, and then time ran out. Then some brilliant dope like me comes along and says, “How about that?” And then my time will run out, and someone else will say, “Thank goodness.” If anything is said at all.
October 15, 2003 — Now the president is whining that the media isn’t giving Americans the truth about Iraq. What he means, of course, is his truth, not the truth. But the media has no interest in the latter. If people knew what was really happening, and the history of why it was happening, they would storm the White House and demand the president’s head. Thus far, the media has helped keep this from happening, just as it was instrumental in helping convince enough people that invading Iraq was the thing to do. And so, in saying that the media isn’t giving Americans the truth, the president is actually telling the truth. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
October 16, 2003 — Well, well, well. I see in this morning’s newspaper that the president of our great nation visited Dinuba, California, my old hometown. In fact, according to an article filed by the Associated Press, he was at Ruiz Foods, which is only a few hundred yards from where I learned how to prune vines and drive a tractor. Ruiz Foods is one of this country’s largest producers of frozen Mexican foods. After the president was “greeted warmly in the bright sunshine in Dinuba,” he said, “For a man who loves burritos, I am in heaven.” So, there you have it. Dinuba is heaven — unless we question the president’s sincerity, which of course we won’t do, because that would be unpatriotic. If the president says Dinuba is heaven, then, by gum, Dinuba is heaven. And we have Ruiz Foods and their frozen burritos to thank.
October 17, 2003 — I have two letters I need to answer, but I can’t answer them until I receive an answer to a third letter I wrote to someone else, because both answers would be incomplete if I didn’t say something about the answer I received to the third letter. And so I am waiting for an answer to the third letter. As soon as it arrives, I will answer the other two letters. I should also mention that it doesn’t really matter what the answer to the third letter is. Whatever it is, I will make the answer known in my answers to the other two letters. After that, I will wait for answers to my answers — but not until I have answered the answer to my third letter. In fact, it is highly likely that I will answer the answer to the third letter before I answer the first two letters, even though the people who wrote those letters have been waiting longer for an answer. At least I assume they are waiting. On the other hand, it is possible that both have a life, in which case the delay has not even been perceived as such, and therefore exists only in my mind. Once they receive my answers, though, they will realize how foolish they were — to write in the first place. And now I’ve thought of something else. Depending on the answer I receive to the third letter, and my answer to that answer, there is the very real possibility that I will have to wait for an answer to that answer before answering the first two letters. I sincerely hope that is not what happens. The pressure is killing me.
October 18, 2003 — Once upon a time, a man died and entered heaven. He knew it was heaven, because the first thing he saw was a sign that said, Dinuba, California, Home of Frozen Burritos. “Looks like I finally made it,” he said with tears of joy streaming down his face. “Looks like I’ll finally get to meet God.” The man continued on. He was nearly hit by a long black limousine on Alta Avenue, but he was too happy to be frightened. “I’ll bet that’s God now,” he said, trembling in awe. The limousine turned right at the light. Like a dazed pilgrim, the man followed it into a parking lot. Suddenly, the smell of burritos filled the air. God got out of the car. “Where the hell are we?” he said to one of his bodyguards. “Dinuba,” the bodyguard replied. “Smells like a grease fire,” God said. “Let’s make it quick. We still gotta get to San Berna’dino so I can get Arnold’s autograph.” The man couldn’t believe his ears. Then a crowd gathered and God began to speak. But instead of talking about a peaceful life in heaven, God talked about money and war, and said all sorts of things that didn’t make sense. Sitting alone on a burrito wrapper at the edge of the crowd, the man’s joy turned to sorrow, then fear. After listening for a few more minutes, he knew he hadn’t entered heaven after all, but a life of eternal suffering.
October 19, 2003 — I have been busy all day, writing a poem without any words. So far, the work is going quite well. I have used several sheets of paper, and all are perfectly blank. Perfectly. Blank.
October 20, 2003 — About thirty years ago, on a warm night near the university in Fresno, a friend and I were sprawled out on the lawn at his apartment, enjoying a quiet conversation. We were talking about the future, and about how much money we wanted to make — not from the vantage point of greed, but of need. I said twenty thousand dollars a year. His figure was higher, somewhere near forty thousand. He said he was sure that twenty thousand wouldn’t be enough to live on, or to raise a family. And of course he turned out to be right. But at the time, rent was cheap, gas was fifty cents a gallon, and a twenty-dollar bill bought a lot of groceries. Twenty thousand dollars seemed like a lot of money. To me it still does, except that I know it really isn’t, unless you happen to need twenty thousand dollars, as I always do. Now my friend earns more than forty thousand, but he doesn’t have money to burn. He has a house he bought years ago, before home prices became completely obscene, and a family to look after. He has bills to pay, clothing and food to buy, and a house and vehicles to insure and maintain. And he works hard to make sure his bases are covered. I work just as hard, possibly even harder, and yet my bases are rarely covered. Or, to put it another way, all of them are rarely covered at the same time. Covering one or two bases usually means leaving another one exposed. It’s an interesting, challenging way to live. Some people would call it stupid. And they would be right — although, when I see what some of them spend their money on, and the desperate way they go about it, I know I’m not alone in the stupidity department.
October 21, 2003 — Telling the truth is easier than some people realize. So is telling lies. Living with the results is where things become interesting. It is far easier to live with the results of having told the truth than it is to live with the results of having lied. One lie is bad enough. But since one lie usually leads to the next, living with the results grows increasingly complicated. More and more lies are needed to keep the liar afloat. Telling the truth seems impossible. Things become tangled in the liar’s mind. Finally, the liar gives up on the truth completely. In time, this is recorded upon the liar’s face. Or, to put it another way, the truth is there for everyone to see.
October 22, 2003 — We are out of apples, pears, and eggs, but we have plenty of potatoes. In fact, we have approximately thirty-five pounds of potatoes on hand, because potatoes have been on sale recently. We would have apples, pears, and eggs too, but a huge event at our neighborhood produce stand last Saturday prevented our visit. When we arrived, the building was surrounded by a sea of cars, and people were milling about all over the grounds and feeling their way through a nearby corn maze. There were also mountains of pumpkins swarmed by children, and vans from a local TV station. Other than that, the place was quiet. Today, assuming the sky doesn’t fall, we will return and catch up on our pear and egg shopping. The Bosc pears are in. I have already eaten several, and I plan to eat dozens more while they’re available. I like them better than Bartletts — and you can quote me on that. Then again, that’s a pretty bad joke, so you’d better not. I also like pears better than apples, or at least the waxed generic breeds currently being shoved down our throats by Corporate Food and Agriculture. But I do like some of the smaller crisp local apple varieties that are picked and sold without being waxed. And of course fresh real apple cider is also a treat.
October 23, 2003 — For awhile this morning, I sat in a waiting room while the oil was being changed in our van. The TV was on, blaring away. A young woman was glued to the set. She was watching several well known (i.e., highly publicized) rich women sitting around a table, engaged in cheap gossip and dirty talk in front of an audience of women who shrieked with laughter — convulsions on cue. I tried to read a newspaper, and succeeded for a time, but the ignorant racket finally pierced my inner calm. I was about to get up and leave when the young woman watching TV suddenly changed the station to a popular medical soap opera that featured more screaming, with the added benefit of spurting blood. I went outside. The sky was clear and blue, just as it is now, and the air fresh. A few minutes later, the van was done, I paid for the job, and then drove home. But I can still hear that ignorant shrieking. It is chilling, frightening, sad.
October 24, 2003 — This morning I made French toast. Our youngest son had three pieces, I had two. I used four violently beaten eggs and several drops of vanilla extract. The kid poured molasses on his breakfast. I poured honey on mine. Now he’s at school and I’m drinking coffee. I showered awhile ago, and despite the chilly temperature this morning I have yet to don a shirt. But we did buy new furnace filters a few days ago. They are still in the package. While I was making our breakfast, the kid said, “It’s ten degrees in here.” He was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood, and the hood was pulled over his head. I told him what I tell him every morning — to toughen up. “Eat hearty,” I said. “You’ll warm up in no time.” In a brief show of defiance, he made his teeth chatter. “Great,” I said. “That works too. How many pieces of French toast do you want? Ten?” A groan. I remember my father making French toast. Every once in awhile, he called it havgit hatz — havgit being the Armenian word for egg, and hatz meaning bread. So we had egg bread. The “i” in havgit has a long “e” sound. The “a” should be pronounced “ah.” And the standard response to this sort of information should be “Oh,” as in “Oh, really?” In a pinch, however, “I see” would suffice. But under no circumstances should you say “So what?” because that would simply be rude. After all, I am doing my best. And I mean no harm. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be talking about French toast in the first place.
October 25, 2003 — The Friends of the Salem Public Library are conducting their annual book sale this weekend. With any luck, I will stop by and help them along by purchasing another batch of books that I will suddenly find I desperately need. In fact I need them now, and I haven’t even seen them. The one thing I won’t do, however, is become a member of their organization. I’ve never been a member of anything. Or maybe I should say I have never belonged. That would probably be more accurate. I’m not a “joiner.” When I was a freshman in high school, I was approached by a couple of my fellow students who wanted me to become a junior member of the Kiwanis Club. I asked them what my membership would entail, and they said it would mostly involve city cleanup and beautification projects. “In Dinuba?” I said. “This place isn’t meant to be beautiful. Count me out.” In high school, I took German for a couple of years — from an Armenian teacher, no less, whose advice to me upon graduation was, “Get the hell out of Dinuba as soon as possible,” which is exactly what he did shortly thereafter. I think he moved to Oakland, but I could be mistaken. Anyway, being in the German class meant I was an automatic member of the German Club. What did the German Club do? Hardly a thing, except we tried to sell sausages in the park once, behind the city library. Of course other clubs were trying to sell other things, so no one thought a thing of it. Otherwise we would have been shot. If I remember correctly, and I probably don’t, we also sold foil-wrapped baked potatoes at one of the football games. If we didn’t sell them, someone did. The spuds were popular because they served as hand-warmers. But I don’t remember actually helping in that endeavor. Who knows? Maybe it didn’t happen at all. Not only that, but I took German for two years and came away knowing how to say only two things. One was, Wir gehen ins kino, or, We’re going to the movies. The other was, Ich trinke bier an den see, or, I drink beer on the lake. Wouldn’t my old teacher be proud of me now, seeing how much I have retained?
October 26, 2003 — To entertain the inmates, I have made a point lately of speaking in a loud, deep voice several times a day when it is least expected. The boys have responded in kind, so now there is no telling when someone is likely to erupt with a tidbit of useless information delivered in an overblown, exaggerated voice. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, I asked our youngest son if he had been eating a daily handful of the fresh raisins we purchased recently. Luckily, he was sitting at the time. “They’re wonderful!” I hollered at him. “Best thing in the world!” When he said he hadn’t gotten around to eating any yet, I lowered my voice a bit more and in an accusatory tone said, “Why? I thought you liked raisins,” which of course he does, though he tends to eat less when he thinks I am forcing them on him. Isn’t that just like a kid, though? It has to be his idea. I remember being exactly like that. As a matter of fact, I still am. And yet I go on telling the family, “I’ll do the thinking around here,” even though it was proven long ago that I am unreliable leader, and that the mother in this outfit is the one who does the real thinking. I tell her, “You know, it’s a pity, but you’ve made only one mistake in your life, and that was marrying me. Too bad I was so irresistible.” That usually gets a laugh. At the same time, though, she doesn’t disagree with the first part. “Furthermore,” I say, “I have done only one thing right in my life, and that was marrying you. Without you, I’d be nothing — even less.” This time, she does agree. And, like magic, I feel ready to face the world once more.
October 27, 2003 — I did make it to the Friends’ book sale yesterday afternoon, but I was far too late to find anything worth bringing home. I was there for about three minutes — long enough to see several tired volunteers, and half a dozen glassy-eyed book buyers picking through the few remaining books like dazed vultures. It was a pretty discouraging sight. Also, the sale wasn’t held in the library basement as in past years, but in a vacant store downtown where an outfit used to sell typewriters and the like — not the best of atmospheres. And the place didn’t smell right. It didn’t smell like books, but more like an overheated gymnasium during a sock-hop. I don’t know why the sale wasn’t held in the library basement. Maybe a string quartet moved in several weeks ago, then became angry and refused to leave. Then again, if I bothered to read the library newsletters, I would probably know why. But it doesn’t matter. I like my version better.
October 28, 2003 — Being a writer of serious drivel and universal humor is no easy job. Humor is everywhere, but profundity doesn’t grow on trees. If anything, it is more of a root crop. You have to dig for it. But unless you know your way around and are good with a shovel, you’re just as likely to dig in the wrong places and come up with something trite. But the trite stuff isn’t useless by any means. It fills daily newspapers and news broadcasts, and is the substance of many a political speech. This is another way of saying that humor is everywhere. Trite stuff is especially humorous when it is treated as if it were profound — with gravity, as it were. What could be more ridiculous than two newscasters trading sentences and looking at each other as if they were listening to the Sermon on the Mount? — or a respected national news anchor standing in front of a picture of a swimming pool and telling parents to not let their kids fall in? — or the fact that they call this type of thing journalism? But, as I said, the real stuff, the stuff with substance, requires more effort. It requires attention and an inquiring mind. Is it true, or isn’t it? Is all of it true, or is it just so much more advertising? Does it even matter? The other day, my wife and I attended our youngest son’s parent-teacher conferences at our neighborhood high school. Talk about ridiculous. Held in the school cafeteria and the area between the cafeteria and auditorium, the noise level was so high that it was impossible to hear ourselves think, let alone have a decent conversation with a teacher. Ten minutes were budgeted for each “conference.” Each teacher had his own table and a time schedule for parents to sign. Every ten minutes a buzzer sounded, and everyone jumped up, shook hands, and scampered off to another table. Most of the time, there were other parents standing nearby, hoping for a brief word between meetings. I shouted at one teacher, “The least they could have done was give us megaphones.” Then we smiled at each other through our headaches. This is education?
October 29, 2003 — This afternoon we need to move my mother’s huge potted jade plant from its spot outside into her garage — either that, or we let it freeze. For the last several years, the plant has spent the coldest part of the winter in the sunniest room of her house, not far from the ancient oak dining table my father used to sit under when he was a kid and the table belonged to his grandparents. The jade plant looks good inside, but this past winter especially, it suffered from the dry air. By the time we wheeled it out on a hand-truck, it looked like it might not survive. A couple of months later, though, it picked up steam and started growing. Now it’s bigger than ever and, for the first time, it’s getting ready to bloom. We’ve never seen a jade plant bloom. I’ve seen philodendrons bloom, and a few other plants that aren’t known or cultivated for their flowers, but not a jade plant. With the onset of colder weather, though, it’s quite possible the blooms won’t develop. And I wonder if we will even be able to haul the thing back inside this year. It might not fit through the doorway. In other news, I wrote a poem this morning. It’s called “The Pilgrim’s Way.” It took less than an hour.
October 30, 2003 — This bright day is meant for joy and madness. Leaves swirl in the icy wind. They gather by the door, where they whisper and wait to come in. This is not quite what we had in mind. And the old neighbor’s garden by the field, by the road, framed by unpainted outbuildings — brown folds of expired growth, spires of weeds, bright-yellow chrysanthemums — is a poem unto itself. Thus ends morbid caution, for a time, for a time. The harsh lines of sanity are erased — the roads, the sidewalks, the precise lawns, the accidents of beauty never allowed to happen, for fear of happiness or loss of control. The voices are many. The ghosts are near. They gather by the door, where they whisper and wait to come in. How I have longed for their return.
October 31, 2003 — I am sipping coffee now, and I will be sipping coffee later this morning when I meet a friend of mine at one of the steamy old coffee joints downtown. It is certainly coffee-drinking weather. Several summers ago, the two of us took sweet red onions, fresh cucumbers, a knife, salt, and beer, and spent the afternoon in a quiet shady spot in the country on the west bank of the Willamette River. If we did that today we’d be frozen solid. So we’ll stick with the coffee. I find it strange, though, that we’ve yet to return to the riverbank. More than strange, sad. Because I know why we haven’t. It’s easier to steal an hour for coffee in a convenient central location than it is to steal an entire afternoon that involves a drive several miles out of town. As it is, stealing an hour for coffee has become more and more difficult. Both of us prize our freedom, but we seem to have less of it these days — or I do, at any rate. Much of it is self-inflicted, as I tend to write more than is logical, especially considering the sketchy financial returns. But if I don’t do my writing, who will? Not that I don’t feel free when I write. When I write, I couldn’t be freer. It’s when I’m not writing that the walls begin to close in. And yet this, too, is a form of freedom I am not willing to trade. As a rule, I am most miserable when my time belongs to someone else. It is an unnatural state of being, and contrary to my wiring. When I do work for others, as anyone I’ve worked for we’ll tell you — assuming they are still alive — I go all-out. Nothing is held back. I do the work as if I were doing it for myself. It’s the way I was taught, and it’s the way I am. And so inevitably in those situations, my own work suffers. I don’t know how to save my energy for later. From this, conflict arises. Like millions of other people, I hear the clock ticking. But unlike millions of other people, I am less capable of ignoring the sound, or of pretending it isn’t there. I am too resentful of the fact that a person can’t always do what he wants to do, and what he feels he must do if he is to remain reasonably sane. I am only able to accept it for short periods of time. Of course, that isn’t really acceptance. It just shows that there are still a few responsible bones left in my body.
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
Also by William Michaelian
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
80 pages. Paper.
Signed copies available
A Listening Thing
Among the Living
No Time to Cut My Hair
One Hand Clapping
Songs and Letters
Early Short Stories
Cosmopsis Print Editions
News and Reviews
Favorite Books & Authors
E-mail & Parting Thoughts
Flippantly Answered Questions