One Hand Clapping – November 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
November 1, 2003 — Last year at this time, I had just emerged from a ninety-day story-writing spree that resulted in the seventy stories collectively known as No Time to Cut My Hair. Each story was published on my website as soon as it was completed, and has remained there in its original form ever since. A few have appeared in small magazines, and three that I know of have been mentioned by other people online, in forums and weblogs, otherwise known as “blogs.” During the past year, the number of times the stories have been accessed each month has increased dramatically. Part of the increase is accidental, due to the random nature of Internet searches. But a good number of people read the stories apparently because they want to, and because they have been told by others of their existence. A few have even expressed a desire to see the stories published in book form, which I think is a fine idea. With any luck, this will happen in my lifetime. If it doesn’t, I will still have had the satisfaction of knowing the stories were read — not only in this country, but in many countries around the world. This is something that couldn’t have happened a few years ago. That it is happening now, I am more than willing to take in stride. Life in the twenty-first century does have certain advantages. No longer do we have to be rich, or famous, or powerful, to abuse technology. Unfortunately, it is still the powerful and wealthy who abuse it to the detriment of all humankind, and on a daily basis. That they do so for profit and with the blessing of the law, which they have written themselves for their own benefit, is a sad, disgusting embarrassment to the entire human race. That enough of us don’t say No to their insatiable demands is just as embarrassing.
November 2, 2003 — Another Sunday. I could spend it watching football, but I won’t. I’ll probably watch for twenty minutes or so during lunch, but it’s hard to take much more than that. The blaring advertisements, the shouting announcers, the made-for-television antics of the overpaid players — the whole scene has become incredibly irritating and boring. The recent baseball playoffs and World Series were only slightly easier to take. Luckily, the game itself is slower, and so it’s possible to get a decent dose of baseball between ads. Also, baseball announcers don’t shout nearly as much. But the players are still grossly overpaid, as are basketball players. The logical thing to do is to go outside and play, and leave the millionaires to settle their own meaningless scores. But it’s cold and rainy. Earlier this morning, it even snowed briefly. It happened while I was preparing a big batch of string beans for this evening’s meal. So it looks like we’ll be inside all day. Maybe I should use the time to learn a foreign language. Better yet, I could learn English. Nah, that would be going overboard. Or I could play the piano. I haven’t played the piano for years. I could dig out some of my old sheet music and play Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, or one of Muzio Clementi’s bright and cheerful sonatinas. I’m sure I could make all of my old mistakes, plus a few new ones. I took piano lessons. I had a habit of not practicing enough. But I played other stuff not included in the lesson. One Saturday afternoon, I played for three hours without stopping. It was winter, and my father and grandfather were in the vineyard pruning. So were my older brothers. But not me. I was playing the piano. My mother didn’t mind. She was baking cookies. All afternoon I played. Then my father came to the house and gave me a disgusted look. I guess I should have been helping in the vineyard. But I thought I was supposed to practice. The lives of great artists are so difficult. Eventually the lessons went by the wayside, and I became one of the best pruners in the San Joaquin Valley. My father used to marvel at my pruning ability, though he was the one who taught me how to prune. He loved music, too. And now it’s all mixed up in my mind, as it should be.
November 3, 2003 — What a waste. Sixteen more killed. And now their shattered bodies will be laid to rest along with their unrealized dreams, and the evil monsters benefitting from this war will wave their flags and call them heroes. I call them dead.
November 4, 2003 — Oh, well. Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Madness, says there’ll be days like this. Thanks, Rummy. Thanks for your concern. And President George A.W.O.L. Bush says he mourns every loss. Of course it won’t keep him from flitting about the country to raise campaign money. Don’t forget to wash the blood off your hands before you sit down to your thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners, Mr. President! Oh, and one more thing — while you’re busy mourning every loss, you might take a moment to remember the for-some-odd-reason-unpublicized number of those who have died or been maimed on the “other side.” You know — the ones you call the “enemy.” Yes, I know it’s corny. After all, they’re only your fellow human beings — with homes, families, children, parents, grandparents, cousins, and all that boring stuff. But call me a softie. Actually, you can call me anything you like. I don’t care. I wasn’t raised to think some people are better than others, or that dropping bombs on strangers and taking over their countries is a good way to make friends. And by friends, I don’t mean puppets of your economy. Those may be your kind of friends. But real friends don’t want to kill each other. Real friends respect each other’s differences. They realize there is much to be learned from each other. Real friends defend each other’s right to think and breathe freely. They don’t take turns shoving propaganda down each other’s throats. They don’t say, “We’ll trade you hamburgers, heart disease, and cable TV for your cultural and spiritual well being.” Of course, these are just the kind of little details you don’t have time for. Very well. I can understand that. After all, you are far too busy defending democracy and stealing money from the American people to be worried about such petty concepts. Yes, indeed. Thank goodness someone is looking out for our welfare. Thank goodness someone is willing to put his good name on the line where truth and freedom are concerned. My hat is off to you, sir.
November 5, 2003 — Well, frost is on the pumpkin and everyone’s jack-o-lanterns are beginning to rot. A carved pumpkin is no match for twenty-two-degree nights. An uncarved pumpkin, though, is amazingly resilient. One can draw inspiration from a sleek pumpkin sitting outside on a cold front step, stoically resisting the elements. Equally inspiring is a jack-o-lantern caving in on itself, demented and toothless and full of personality. I remember one such subject that looked very much like a grizzled old tractor driver I knew. This gentleman was a hard worker who laughed at anything and everything, uh-hah-hah-hah, and as he laughed his stubbled face expanded horizontally by several inches, and the top of his head caved in to fill the vacuum. He was a wonderful person, and very entertaining, a proud survivor of Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl.
November 6, 2003 — Downtown Salem was extremely busy this morning and it was almost impossible to find a parking space. Finally, I found one in front of a tattoo and body-piercing parlor. Right away, I could see the strange-looking owners sizing me up through the grimy window. On the sidewalk, a young woman pretending to read a newspaper — an obvious plant — looked up at me and smiled. She had what looked like a small door knob in her left eyebrow, and was sporting several other pieces of hardware, which blended nicely with her purple hair. I nodded and ducked around the corner. When I saw she was following, I stepped into the instant payday check-cashing office a couple of doors down and pretended to wait in line. Outside, she pretended to light a cigarette, then opened her newspaper again and pretended to read. A puff of pretend smoke rose up around her. “May I help you?” the person at the counter said a moment later. “Uh, maybe so,” I said. I glanced nervously out the window. “Could you tell me how this paycheck-advance thing works? I’m in a little short of funds, and I —” Just then, the door opened and the young woman who had been following me came in. She smiled. The person behind the counter also smiled. Then she pressed a button under the counter. A trap-door opened beneath me, and I slid through a highly polished stainless steel tube that led directly into the basement of the tattoo parlor. “We’ve been waiting for you,” the owners said, standing over me. And the room filled with evil laughter. One of them held up a long needle. The other held me in place. As they were about to begin the disfiguring process, I blacked out. Awhile later — I have no idea how long it was — I came to on the sidewalk in front of the tattoo parlor. Again, the young woman with purple hair smiled at me over her newspaper. I got up and dusted myself off, then looked at my reflection in the window. I had become one of them. Quickly, I pulled my trusty note pad out of my coat pocket, and a pen. I wrote down what had happened to me, and while the young woman wasn’t looking, I tore out the page and handed it to a passing derelict, who promptly ate the message. An hour or so later, the young woman wandered off and I managed to escape. When I got home, my wife listened intently to my story. Then, like so many times before, she got out a suitcase and started to pack. . . .
November 7, 2003 — Today’s paper included an article about the president’s ardent desire to spread “democracy” throughout the Middle East. There was also an editorial referring to the military’s search for people to fill vacancies on local draft boards — an interesting coincidence, and a frightening one. Apparently the bad economy and myriad dead ends confronting the nation’s youth haven’t resulted in enough eager volunteers ready and willing to, as one appalling and well known military advertising slogan puts it, “be all you can be.” Strange as it seems, some kids even follow the news, and know a bad deal when they see one. They know that being all you can be includes killing people and winding up maimed or dead yourself. And they have also seen how well surviving veterans are treated. So you were exposed to a little radiation. Big deal. And what are a few unexplained illnesses and undisclosed microbes between friends? We thought you were tougher than that. Boy, were we wrong. Boy, are they. When I asked our son what kids at his high school thought about joining the military, he said, “Most of them think it’s stupid.” It’s an unofficial and unscientific survey, of course. I’m sure Parade Magazine or Reader’s Digest could do much better, and come up with much more patriotic results. After all, isn’t that why they are such treasured gems of the free press?
November 8, 2003 — Sure enough, like clockwork, the president just raked in another million-plus dollars for his next campaign. Isn’t that wonderful? And yet someone had the gall to say in today’s paper that that amount of money could sure buy a lot of food for a lot of hungry people. What a misguided statement that was. After all, everyone knows the president will get around to the hungry people as soon as he’s done spreading “democracy” around the world. Hungry people should learn to be patient. And so should the rest of the unemployed, underpaid, and uninsured people who for no good reason at all don’t like it when their fully insured “representatives” in government give themselves annual pay raises. Oh, well. Some people just don’t understand how lucky they are. And they obviously don’t understand greatness. In fact, I’ll bet that someday the president’s head will appear on a brand-new American coin. They can call it the “bushel.” Hey, buddy, how many bushels does it take to fill up your SUV? It taketh a bushel of bushels, foolish person. And yet I can see, thee haveth none. Begone, vile wretch! You deserveth not a single breath of my heavenly monoxide.
November 9, 2003 — Today for lunch, we will warm up the enchiladas left over from last night, which were made from pinto beans left over from earlier in the week. Along with the warmed-up enchiladas, we will have yesterday’s warmed up boiled potatoes. Later on, we will have leftover heartburn. But really, the enchiladas were quite good. This is something the wife has been making for years. This batch is a little different, though, in that I had cooked the pinto beans, and they weren’t flavored the way my darling bride usually flavors them. We both use plenty of tomato and onion and garlic and salt and pepper, but I also use some celery, bell pepper, dried purple basil, and olive oil. I even threw in a handful of lentils and a handful of pearled barley. The beans were great, but hardly something you’d find in a Mexican restaurant. That’s why, when she was making the enchiladas, I expressed some doubt about the outcome. But she said they would be fine — and they were fine. Somehow or other, she managed to camouflage my Armenian-flavored beans and turn the evening meal into something not only edible, but enjoyable. Amazing. And she’s been doing this for years. This afternoon I plan to make another batch of beans. This time I will use Great Northern beans. Again, there will be tomato, garlic, celery, salt, pepper, basil, and olive oil, but in this recipe I don’t use onions or peppers. Instead, I use carrots, and also two or three or four potatoes, depending on their size. I slice the potatoes crosswise. I’ve been making beans this way for the last couple of years, and no one has complained yet. But I don’t let it go to my head. They’re probably just glad there’s something to eat.
November 10, 2003 — The beans were fine, but, for the time being at least, I think I’m sick of beans. Thank goodness there are only five or six bowls left. In a couple of days, I’ll be able to begin a new bean-free life — although there have been several requests lately that I make a batch of chili. So who knows? Maybe beans are my destiny. What an odd, disturbing thought. Meanwhile, I just finished my first reading of a new Armenian translation of a short story I wrote a few years ago. Certain parts of it, especially in the dialogue, were so funny that I laughed out loud and my eyes watered. All I have to do now is read the piece six or eight more times searching for defects, so I can tell the translator whether or not any changes are necessary before publication. Then he can tell me I’m crazy, and everything will be fine.
November 11, 2003 — Each time the weather changes, something happens to the little plastic button that holds our shower door closed and the door pops open unexpectedly. When the weather turned cold and dry a couple of weeks ago, the door popped open. A couple of days later, it stopped. Then when the atmosphere recently became warm and moist again, the door popped open. It popped open just a minute ago. My wife closed it, and it popped open again. She tried two or three more times, and then finally gave up. We’ve adjusted the thing before, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It could be that the age of the button itself has something to do with it. You’d think a plastic button would last a lot longer than a mere twenty-five years, but there you are.
November 12, 2003 — Now our youngest son is becoming a blowhard in his own right. This is an important milestone, and a wonderful thing for a father to witness. It’s a little harder to take for the boy’s mother, though. And of course she blames me, citing my habit of periodically shattering the calm with deep-voiced nonsense. Even the kid thinks it’s ridiculous. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, he was using his brother’s computer when I walked in and asked in a bogus baritone if he wanted me to make him a big breakfast. After yelling that it was afternoon and that he didn’t want any breakfast, he said that when I talked in low voice I looked like I was picking up a bundle of sticks. Then he got up to demonstrate. “I have to bend like that,” I said in the same low voice. “That’s where I get the strength to talk like this.” Later in the evening, during supper, he made a point of taking exception to most everything the rest of us said. It was a riot. His put-on belligerence was superb. Three or four times he even jumped up in outrage, strode to the sink, and drank a big glass of water. Then he’d come back and say, “I shouldn’t have to put up with this.” Again, his mother found the racket a bit grating on her nerves. It doesn’t help that they sit beside each other at the table, and that every time the kid gets up to leave, he has to walk behind her and always manages to bump her head or shoulders in the process. “It’s all part of growing up,” I reminded her last night while we were outside taking a walk around the block. “You have to admit, he’s funny.” In spite of herself, she agreed. And the cool night air did us both a world of good.
November 13, 2003 — A few days ago, I borrowed my mother’s copy of Doctor Zhivago — the book, not the movie. I read it once several years ago, but decided it was time for another go-around. One thing is certain: there is no doubt that the author, Boris Pasternak, was a poet. His descriptions are beautiful. This, for instance: In one corner the piano tuner struck the same chord dozens of times and scattered arpeggios like handfuls of beads. I looked up “arpeggio” in the dictionary. An arpeggio is the playing of the tones of a chord in rapid succession rather than simultaneously. But before I found the word, I stumbled across “Armentières,” a city of northern France west-northwest of Lille, which became known through the World War I song “Mademoiselle from Armentières.” But back to Zhivago. This time through, I find that I am reading the novel with more than the usual appreciation of Pasternak’s story and language. Having seen the movie several times, I have also become preoccupied with trying to figure out how the screenwriter managed the daunting task of retelling the story while leaving out some of the people and events in the book. One thing he did was to change the sequence of certain scenes and events. He also combined others, and made some things happen to the characters when they were at a different age than they were when the things happened in the book. It’s really quite fascinating. I’ve only read seventy-some-odd pages so far, so maybe I will learn something. Down the road, I might even look at a few real screenplays to see how they’re put together.
November 14, 2003 — I was unable to continue my reading of Doctor Zhivago yesterday. There were just too many things going on, mostly related to the business end of my wretched existence. I did have a little time in the evening, but by then my eyes were too tired and I was a physical and mental wreck. There was a local arts program on the PBS station, one segment of which was a boring repeat. My wife was reading on the couch. Our youngest son wandered in. Since he is quite interested in music and is teaching himself to play the guitar, I mentioned to him how many groups there were in the area, playing at various coffeehouses and pubs — bluegrass, folk, blues, and so on. Then I told him that one of these days he’d have to get one of those things Bob Dylan and Donovan used to wear that held their harmonicas near their mouth so they could play harmonica and keep their hands free to play their guitars. Right away, he was curious about harmonicas. And it just so happens that we have two nice ones that used to belong to my father, so I brought them out. He tooted on one, I tooted on the other. And the cat, which was in at the time, nearly went through the ceiling. Served it right, the ridiculous creature. The kid quickly discovered, though, how easy it is to make music with a harmonica. So I entrusted him with both. Now we’ll see where that leads.
November 15, 2003 — When a professional liar posing as a businessman has been exposed and is forced to tell the truth in order to avoid being sued or to stay out of jail, it is important to remember that the truth he has been forced to tell is also a lie, because it has been said not as a result of some inner revelation, but with resentment and malice. And it makes no difference if the momentary truth is told with fake warmth and sincerity. Those are a liar’s tools, and they are used to set up his next victim. The best approach when dealing with such people — as all of us at one time or another are forced to do — is to give them plenty of rope. At the same time, one must be vigilant against feeling a sense of victory, importance, or accomplishment in having exposed the liar at his game. By keeping you occupied, the liar has succeeded in wasting your time, and in making you think the way he does. Liars, whether they are exposed or not, feed on this activity. It gives them a sense of purpose — one definitely not worth sharing.
November 16, 2003 — It’s mid-November, so it makes perfect sense to look out the window and find the street plastered with wet yellow maple leaves, pine needles, and miscellaneous natural and man-made debris. At this very moment, the sky is completely gray, it’s raining, and a strong wind from the southwest is shredding the trees. The funny thing about the maples is, the seed pods remain glued to the branches all winter. Then in the spring, they jump ship and twirl to the ground, where they sprout almost immediately upon contact. To me, this is a heartening miracle that flies in the face of the big chemical companies, which in their advertising portray Suburban Man as a rugged sprayer-toting individual out to protect his property from unsanctioned, unfertilized growth that has, coincidentally, been developed by the same companies to be resistant to the chemicals they have to sell. Meanwhile, on a far bigger and more dangerous scale, they are monkeying with the environment by developing food crops that are resistant to evil potions such as Roundup — and I hope they will pardon me for not using the little registered trademark symbol here — thereby furthering our dependence on their poisons. Or so they hope and think. Inevitably, though, nature steps in, the wind blows, bearing seeds and pollen, and before they know it they have weird hybrids on their hands that threaten to take over the crop they were trying to grow, and the hybrids are also resistant to their poisons. But the chemical companies are blinded by their mentally ill pursuit of profit, and continue on. They ignore the fact that a man and a hoe are a powerful, if not sacred, combination.
November 17, 2003 — Speaking of a man and a hoe, I just remembered that the cover of my Penguin Classic edition of Zola’s novel, The Earth, features a beautiful detail of “Man with a Hoe,” a painting by Millet. And while I could easily pretend to know who Millet is, I won’t. I don’t know a thing about him, other than what is revealed in his painting. Standing upon the rugged, stony earth is a large man bent in exhaustion, his mouth open to catch his breath. With all his weight, he is leaning with one hand upon the other against the end of a short, crude hoe handle that resembles a club. The blade is twice as large as the blade on a modern hoe, and much thicker. His feet are encased in heavy shoes a fairy tale giant might wear. He is alone, and, judging by the terrain, his work will never be done. One can easily imagine him collapsing at the end of the day, after removing his shoes and devouring some coarse bread and stew. Removing the shoes — that’s the key. Let them sit and breathe, preferably somewhere away from the table. Let them be revitalized by the night air. . . . Then, all too soon, daylight returns. It is time to work once again, time to inhale the sweet scent of soil, grass, and dew, time to wonder about nature’s design, and whether it is a blessing or a curse.
November 18, 2003 — Well, curiosity finally got the best of me. It took me almost twenty years, but yesterday I finally got around to looking up Millet. Jean-François Millet was a French draftsman and painter born in 1814. He began studying art when he was eighteen, and lived most of his life in poverty in Barbizon in the Fontainebleau forest. He died in 1875. He was intimate with farms and fields, and his portrayal of the hardships endured by common laborers led many to think of him as a Socialist revolutionary. As it turns out, “Man with a Hoe” caused an uproar when it was first shown in 1863. Apparently, the man pictured was too brutish for the classy, sophisticated folks in Paris. Amid the Industrial Revolution, the painting was seen as a social protest of the peasants’ plight. This led Millet to write, “To tell the truth, the peasant subjects suit my temperament best; for I must confess, even if you think me a socialist, that the human side of art is what touches me most.” And there you have it, in ultra-condensed form. I suppose I should really look up things like this more often. Maybe then I could begin to chip away at this ignorance of mine.
November 19, 2003 — President-select George W. Soundbite is in London, whooping it up with his buddy, Tony Baloney Blair, and defending the ongoing destruction of life and culture in Iraq — proof once again that small minds stink alike. Both men assure us that their actions are necessary to keep the world safe from . . . uh, to keep the world safe from . . . uh, the very things they are doing, but which they call by other names. Following the usual blood-stained script, they say the good guys must fight the bad guys or we will all perish. Well, we are perishing. We are perishing on the battlefield. We are perishing at home. We are perishing around the world. And while we are perishing, utter mediocrities like Bush and Blair spout their evil nonsense in order to protect the profits and future profits of those who see war as a lucrative, self-perpetuating business. Around the world, millions have protested. They don’t like war, and are sick and tired of it. They want to raise their children and grandchildren in peace. They want to keep them healthy, and to give them a proper education. And so they take to the streets. And they are ignored. The government says, We know what’s best for you, you miserable bastards. To hell with your schools, to hell with your old people, to hell with your medicine. Stop squawking and watch your sitcoms. Then they invent more lies and create more dire situations specifically designed to horrify the world. And the world is horrified.
November 20, 2003 — The violence continues. While I was checking my e-mail this morning, I noticed a news article about a bombing in Istanbul — the second this week. The targets were a London-based bank and the British consulate. More than two dozen people were killed, and hundreds were injured. And so more fuel has been added to the fire. More bombs will be dropped, more people will be killed, more anger will erupt, more grief will permeate the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the president plans to spread “democracy” throughout the Middle East. Presumably, he will accomplish this by tank and by air. This will create long-term instability (good for the arms business, good for the winners of no-bid contracts) and violence for decades to come. For this there can be no political answer. Politics, by its very nature, is a lie. The only hope is for human beings to recognize, one at a time and each in his or her own mind, that violence only begets violence. The only hope is for human beings to decide that enough is enough. We have to examine and understand our own daily behavior, and see how it influences others and makes them react, and how that in turn becomes part of the larger human psyche. I’ve said this before. There is a direct connection between our seemingly small actions and the horrible things that are going on in the world. If you cheat in business, or physically and/or mentally terrorize your wife, husband, and children, you are in fact waging war, and you are contributing to the climate that creates war on a large scale. It does no good to complain about war, or to protest against it, if you are at war with yourself and those around you. Abusing a clerk because a store doesn’t have your size or color is an act of war. Expecting an endless array of products to drop into your hands at the expense of terrorized, sweatshop labor is an act of war. Driving an oversized gas-guzzling fume-belching vehicle when a smaller, less harmful one will do is an act of war. Where does gas come from? Oil. Where does oil come from? (Oooh, that’s a toughie.) Where does it go once it has been burned? The answer is in the air we breathe, and in the color of our lungs. Anyway. I could go on and on. In fact, I already have. And it makes me sick.
November 21, 2003 — I would say thank goodness it’s Friday, but saintly martyr that I am, I follow the same basic schedule seven days a week, so it doesn’t really matter what day it is. Instead, I think it’s more fitting to say thank goodness I’m alive, and then in the evening, thank goodness I survived another day, and then drag myself off to bed and collapse in a heap. There were times, though, when I celebrated the arrival of Friday for the pending freedom it represented — from school, from hateful forms of employment, from pointless activities that sopped up my time and burrowed into my soul, leaving me frustrated and angry and in the mood for wild, reckless fun. Now I am never frustrated and angry, and I have wild, reckless fun all the time — though it might not appear so to a casual observer. A casual observer, or even an intense one, for that matter, might get the idea that I am always frustrated and angry. And of course he would be right, except that I enjoy it so much it seems like wild, reckless fun. This is just another of those contradictions that are a part of my nature, and which to me make perfect sense — until I try to explain them, as I am doing now. First of all, I heartily subscribe to the notion that if you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. Second, I see no reason to be undermined by the world’s ever-growing misery. I am still convinced that we are here to be happy, and that happiness exists in the tiny miracles that are always taking place in us and around us. Happiness cannot be achieved. We are happy when we are receptive to life. If we notice we are happy and then try to hang onto that happiness, it quickly slips away. To put it in the simplest of terms, we are unhappy when we think only of ourselves. Third, we are accompanied through life by the strange, silent knowledge that our time here is limited. Depending on our experiences, our health, and many other factors, our relentlessly approaching death is feared, ignored, or welcomed. For me, death has been, and still is, a kind of companion that is alternately silent, taunting, friendly, and humorous. So far, we have gotten along well. I think this is because neither of us has yet overstepped our bounds by claiming supremacy over the other. I need death as much as death needs me. My willingness to accept death’s talent for renewal seems to coincide with death’s willingness to accept my need to understand and make a fool of myself. We have both made our share of mistakes and poor choices — though I must admit I am a bit jealous of death’s monopoly on having the last laugh. On the other hand, for death, it is quite possible that also might be a source of loneliness. If it is, I hereby extend to death my deepest sympathy.
November 22, 2003 — Being off my rocker, I occasionally dream of a world in which people can be found reading on every street corner and in every coffee shop, and overheard having animated discussions about life and the far-reaching influences of art, music, and literature. I dream of a world that appreciates the contributions made by artists and writers, and that recognizes what a shallow world it would be without them. Then I wake up in a place like Wal-Mart, and behold the grim psychological tragedy that is America, that is modern society, or at least a very large part of it. And I wonder, is this mess too large and too overwhelming, even for writers? Are we failing society, or is society failing us? While there is no question that society is failing its writers, I also feel that far too many writers fail to provide the intellectual spark society so desperately needs. Not only do more writers need to step forward and tell the truth, they have to do so in a far more compelling fashion. They have to rejuvenate old forms or invent entirely new ones, or do whatever is necessary to breathe life into their work and make it an undeniable force. I also feel that that is what everyone else needs to do. As long as we are content to merely connect the dots and color inside the lines, we will remain perfect prey for the entertainment industry, politicians, and the purveyors of cheap, casual religion who promise psychological comfort in exchange for money. In short, we all have some thinking to do.
November 23, 2003 — Again I bless coffee, that miraculous substance without which I might well be unable to simulate the living. Last night on the Internet, I read that not only did Balzac consume great amounts, but also Voltaire, who apparently imbibed between fifty and seventy cups a day. I also learned that Beethoven loved coffee, and insisted that the best cup of coffee contained exactly sixty beans. He based this on years of painstaking research. Then I stopped reading about coffee and its famous proponents, because the few cups I had enjoyed earlier in the day had long since worn off and I was exhausted. After reading a few pages of Doctor Zhivago, which I am enjoying immensely, I brushed my teeth and went to bed. Tired as I was, I stayed awake for most of the night. Whenever I did manage to drop off, I was ravaged by disturbing dreams. Finally, I crawled out of bed this morning at five-thirty in a crippled state, my neck twisted, my shoulder paralyzed, my toes numb, and my very existence in the grip of some evil force that was using me to sharpen its claws. But now, thanks to a warm shower and a cup of hot coffee, I feel at least ten years younger, which I’d say puts me at about ninety-five. But just wait until I’ve had my second cup. Then I’ll be unstoppable. Or at least I’ll feel human for a few hours, and muster enough strength to take a nap.
November 24, 2003 — When it comes to vegetables, our neighborhood chain grocery stores deal mostly in corporate-farmed, pesticide-soaked greens that are at least a week old by the time they’re put on display. They specialize in rotten eggplant, tired celery, withered peppers, and mushrooms well on their way out. It’s frustrating, especially since they charge exorbitant prices for the stuff and pretend that it’s good. To top it off, they repeatedly soak their produce with water, because someone somewhere a long time ago discovered that a bit of moisture makes vegetables look fresher than they really are and therefore more appealing. The truth is, the water annoys customers and helps things rot faster. Then, these same customers go home, and where vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and canning cellars should be, there are over-fertilized lawns and pointless shrubs, and where there isn’t, there is cement. I have nothing against flowers and ornamental horticulture, but why do yourself in completely and eat lousy produce? Well, of course, no one has the time. Instead, hours are spent waiting in traffic, waiting in lines at fast-food driveups, and watching TV. When people get home from work they are either angry, exhausted, or both. In many cases, meals are an after-thought. The sad part is, nothing could be better or healthier under such circumstances than changing clothes and spending time working in the garden. It is an important thing missing in modern life. When I drive by fancy churches and apartment complexes surrounded by huge parking lots and lawns, I am always struck by the waste of growing space. Why not establish community gardens, or gardens for people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? Why not raise a few chickens and enjoy fresh eggs, instead of the ancient ones in the stores that have been wrung out of tortured, overcrowded hens? I realize only a portion of one’s food could be supplied this way, but isn’t something better than nothing? Wouldn’t it be better to live a healthier life and remember where food really comes from?
November 25, 2003 — The cat has put me in a strange mood this morning. As usual, Joe came in for a bite to eat. But after he was done, instead of cleaning himself quietly or going back outside, he started wandering around the house and yowling like a lost soul. Every so often, he would stop yowling long enough to look out one of the windows at the rain, which has been coming down in buckets for the past several hours. When I asked him what he was yowling about, he looked at me and yowled some more. Because I know how much he likes it, I scratched the left side of his head with the toe of the slipper on my left foot. He seemed to enjoy the attention, but he was too distracted to relax completely. I stopped scratching him, then he wandered off down the hall and began yowling at the closed bathroom door, behind which our oldest son was shaving and getting ready for work. A couple of minutes later, I found Joe at the front door, looking like he was ready to go out. He wasn’t. Then he went to the door that leads into the garage. I opened it and this time he left, though still without direction or purpose. And now I’m sitting here in much the same state, watching and listening to the beautiful, melancholy rain. And I feel like yowling — for the strange, sad world we live in, for the people living and dying like frightened animals half a world away, for the lonely men and women roaming our city streets, some of them hungry, others made repulsive by greed. It’s enough to break one’s heart. And yet, oddly enough, I find it inspiring, too. I find it so because in these quiet moments I am also aware of the many good things going on — the attention being lavished on the elderly and sick by the handful of caregivers who haven’t forgotten their calling despite being underpaid and overworked; the listening ear offered by the insightful girl working at the cosmetic counter to women whose marriages have fallen apart; the friendly treatment given by city bus drivers to passengers who are obviously down on their luck. And I think, there is purpose after all. Maybe I should go outside, find Joe, and tell him.
November 26, 2003 — I am ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I allowed a grueling round of sordid business affairs to eclipse an important date on our annual household calendar. Twenty-five years ago yesterday, my wife’s father passed away in Fresno. But I haven’t forgotten that today was my mother-in-law’s birthday. And as I remember them both, I am grateful to have known them. I am especially grateful for the wonderful daughter they raised, and who eventually became my wife. I know it was hard for them to let her go, though we really didn’t go anywhere and visited often. I will never forget how much fun it was to sit at their table. In fact, early on, I earned my father-in-law’s acceptance in part because I was relaxed and unafraid to eat my fill. He had a great sense of humor, as did his four sons. To put it simply, we carried on like noisy jackasses. And then, just a couple of years later, cancer claimed the man who, decades earlier, had left his home in the French Pyrenees to start a new life in this country, and to eventually earn enough money to send for my wife’s mother to become his bride. As a sheepherder and newcomer, he knew what work was, and loneliness. As a father, he was unafraid of sacrifice. We still miss him. And we miss his bride, who joined him a little over two and a half years ago as part of our rich family history.
November 27, 2003 — It’s Thanksgiving Day and we are still here. Others are not. They have died because it was their time, or they been killed because someone else decided it was their time. And so we are sad. We are also happy, miserable, gloating, lonely, frightened, worried, vexed, and quietly pleased. We are what we are wherever we are, all in our own good time, just like any other day, except that this is a national holiday, which means more of us than usual have the day off, even though it’s Thursday. Some of us who usually have Thursday off feel cheated. Some of us would rather work. Some of us don’t care either way. Some of us care desperately, to the point of distraction or despair. Some of us will spend the holiday drunk. Some will spend it cursing church leaders or politicians. Some will beg for money or something to eat or drink. Some will clip the coupons from advertisements. Many grandmothers will be working hard in the kitchen, though it is high time for someone else to do the cooking. There will be large gatherings, and enough food consumed to last us a week. There will be physical and moral starvation, football games, board games, and boring games. There will be stories of the old days told by old people, even as stories of the new days are being written. There will be smiles and eruptions of laughter, cold and disapproving glares, arguments, celebrations, declarations, and tribulations. Babies will be born. Hello, Ma, hello, Pa — I’m here. What’s for supper? And the day will be remembered and cherished, or forgotten and brushed aside — so much like all other days that it will be hardly distinguishable, except in its dazzling, precious, elusive reality.
November 28, 2003 — Under an expensive veil of secrecy, George Photo-op Bush descended on the “free” land of Iraq yesterday to pose with a turkey and several hundred bodyguards. It’s too bad the twenty-five million people he “freed” weren’t able to meet him at the airport and offer him their best wishes. It’s too bad the dead couldn’t rise up and thank him for cleansing their country of evil and replacing it with order and good old American values. It’s too bad the maimed couldn’t have been carried before him on stretchers, their line reaching the horizon. It’s too bad the orphans, the sick, and the hungry couldn’t have had a slice of that ceremonial turkey — the one on the platter, not the one in the exercise jacket with the military patch. But, that’s the way it goes. There is never a wishbone when you need one.
November 29, 2003 — Another month is just about gone. I have written thousands of words during that time, littering my cage, as it were, with at least a partial record of my puny existence. I have also done many other things. I have risen early and made breakfast for our youngest son before he trudged off to school in the rain. I have made a few interesting concoctions in the kitchen that turned out to be edible. I helped with the dishes and the laundry. I walked around the block. I brought in the mail. I dropped by and said hello to my mother. I had coffee with friends. I made weekly trips to the grocery store with my wife. I took a shower and shaved, though it hardly shows. I did some reading. I read longer works, and I read short bits and pieces. I wrote a passel of letters. Some were about pleasant things, others were not. November will go down as the month that I finally pulled the plug on a lying, cheating publisher, making it necessary to publish the novel he left high and dry myself. I have no idea whether he thinks he won or lost as a result, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I told the truth every step of the way, and that he did exactly the opposite. Now he can tell himself any story he pleases, and justify his actions until the cows come home. As a liar, that is part of his job description. As a writer and semi-conscious human being, I have my own work to do. I have a family to enjoy; I have books to read; I have writing to tend to. I have a thousand reasons to rejoice. And I will rejoice, even if it kills me. I will die eventually in any case. Or maybe I already have, and this is heaven. Wouldn’t that be something? Yikes.
November 30, 2003 — I am very near the end of Doctor Zhivago, but I don’t know whether I will finish the book today or not, because I am buried in work. And when I say I’m near the end, that doesn’t count the twenty-four poems of Zhivago that are presented after the story. Of course, they aren’t really the poems of Zhivago, but those of the author, Boris Pasternak. The last several years of Zhivago’s life were just as amazing as those he spent surviving the Russian Revolution. Their relative tameness was a natural outcome of the physical and mental exhaustion brought on by the suffering he endured. His eccentric life in Moscow, where he stood out like a sore thumb in appearance and thought, bore testimony to man’s hunger for meaning and purpose. While those around him were content to spout currently acceptable and government-mandated phrases about life and politics, he went on living and speaking as before. During and after the revolution, he marveled at the endless number of petty decrees issued by the many temporary governments seeking control of various areas of the country. He marveled at the blindness of people who could issue one decree one day, and then abolish it as foolish nonsense the next by replacing it with another. On an almost daily basis, the absolute truth gave way to the absolute truth — and it was all uttered with a straight face under threat of imprisonment or death. The spirit of the revolution was forgotten. Many of the people who had helped to bring it about felt lost when there was nothing left to destroy. And so they destroyed each other.
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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