Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Them Thar Hills! #2: Time Under Your Feet

“One more picture of the Cat,” Elizabeth warned me the other day, “and that camera goes back to Best Buy for a coffee grinder!”

With those words, off we drove on a cool, cloudless Friday morning after Thanksgiving, up into the Berkeley Hills via broad, snake-winding Claremont
Avenue. At the top of Claremont, at the intersection called “Four Corners,” we turned left onto Grizzly Peak Boulevard and stopped .08 miles further on at the trailhead for Side Hill Trail on the dizzying steep western slope.

About forty people beat us there. Most of them, I suspect, were rockhounds
—amateur geologists—but we were no doubt all of one mind on one issue: Better to expend precious time out in the endless open in relatively cleaner air than to spend Black Friday jostling with the great bargain-desperate mass, unwashed and not, at the mall in search of trinkets whose sparkle would fade the day after the Christmas. Time will always be a greater commodity than money.

This outing was a geology walk hosted by the Claremont Canyon Conservancy down into the same-named canyon. We were tipped off to this event via San Francisco environmental activist Jake Sigg
’s newsletter (jakesigg@earthlink.net). Our articulate guide for the two-hour and about-one-mile stroll through the Claremont Canyon was Doris Sloan, a retired UC Berkeley professor of Geology and author of Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region.

Doris had clearly once been a teacher: She was articulate, bursting with knowledge and passion and even demanding in her crusty way: She fired off occasional pop quizzes as our large group struggled to both keep up and not get too far ahead throughout the walk. I shrank with a subtle embarrassed guilt at how little I knew. Should I raise my hand to ask permission to step into the bushes?

There’s more to the Berkeley Hills than you’d think at first glance, especially if you’re seeing them from the Emeryville
flats. They are a complex, folded and often rugged terrain of canyons and ravines, lumbering north-to-south, a few miles east of San Francisco Bay; hills hiding hills, canyons concealing ravines, many trails weaving about through surprising nooks and crannies. Dozens of varieties of trees grow here, many more than the native oaks and nonnative eucalyptus that are easily identified. Golden meadows sprawl throughout.

Some of the trails aren
’t much wider than a two-by-four. These are my favorites, these are the ones that suddenly sweep a walker out around the ribs of the hills into dizzying panoramas of the East Bay cities below and, the world beyond: San Francisco, the Coast Range rolling south down the San Mateo Peninsula and the Golden Gate. The air was bright and clear enough to see the now oil-stained Farallon Islands, forty miles out in the blue Pacific, clearly visible beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, looking like a sailing ship pushing peacefully south through a calm autumn sea.

My respect for science is vast, though my grasp of it is often shaky, but I can say that there’s tens of millions of years of hidden history in these pretty hills. Only a sliver of of it involves us humans. All of it keeps moving. Once in a great while it moves violently. To geologists worldwide, the Berkeley Hills are a favorite trove of evidence and insight into the ancient, and still profoundly active, forces that have been shaping this little blue home of ours even before
homo sapiens sapiens was a twinkle in the God's Big Eye.

For instance, that bay you see in the photo above: Nine to ten million years ago, it was a mountain range that has long since been shifted by volcanic activity far north to the wine country, over fifty miles away. This movement took place at about the average speed that a fingernail grows, with occasional bursts of several feet caused by the infamous Hayward or San Andreas faults. Several feet doesn
’t sound like much, until you factor in the shift of all that mass and the release of all that power. And the fact that you might be standing on it.

Around that time, the Golden Gate wasn
’t even a gate and it was a long walk to the ocean. The third-highest point in these hills, Round Top, located in the Sibley Volcanic Preserve a few miles south of our location, is an extinct volcano that last saw action millions of years ago and many miles south of its current location. To make it even awesomely stranger, these same tectonic forces have tilted, twisted, folded and finally tipped the now-dormant feature onto its side.

That’s a lot of change for our minds to absorb. And a lot of time. After all, when you look at all that hard, dense rock, it doesn
’t seem to be moving a bit, does it?

But it has. And is.

Our walk started at the top, through a field of basalt, a type of shale produced by those volcanic forces mentioned above. Doris Sloan stopped along the way to point out the many features of this material, including dabs of white-streaked red rock that turn out to be the remains of gas bubbles. We stopped at the breaking point between the basalt and an area called the Orinda Formation, where we see several types of rock, indicated by the presences of thousands of stream pebbles. After that, we wound our way to the oldest, most unique ground of all: the Claremont Shale.

Very cool, that Claremont Shale. Bands of white rock, dusted with red, parallel to the ground like layer cake. This shale is not inanimate rock, but something fabulous: a mass of once-living things, known by the delightful word "chert." This formation is made of silica, which are the compressed skeletal remains of sea creatures, millions and million of years old. A couple of hundred feet above the Oakland flats and several miles inland, we were standing on and looking at an old sea bed that continues to rise higher. For this we must thank a process called subduction, which loosely resembles what happens when you try to shove your ultra-thick shag rug under your thin handmade Persian rug.

On the way back up to the top of these hills (which, BTW, are comparatively young), I took a couple of photos (above) of some chevron folds, an especially resistant part of the volcanic layer. Elizabeth remarked on how this brief present-day journey through time past had given her perspective on our place in Life and on Nature’s basic toughness in the face of everything, even our current depredations. Nature always either bounces back or finds her way around. If we fail to take care of what takes care of us, we’re the ones who will be gone. “Nature,” Elizabeth said, “will take care of itself.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

One More Cause for Alarm

. . . when you’re above the law, when you are the law, the phrase about the ends justifying the means has a real meaning . . . .If you felt that the state which you worshipped above your God was endangered by the life of one insignificant man, would hesitate to have him shot? . . . . That’s the danger of Fascism, of state-worship. It supposes . . . an egocentric unit. The idea of the state is not rooted in the masses, it is not of the people. It is an abstract, a God-idea, a psychic dung-hill raised to shore up an economic system that is no longer safe. When you’re on the top of that sort of dung-hill, it doesn’t matter whether the ends are in reality good or bad.
Eric Ambler,
Cause for Alarm (1938)

That quote above (from one of Mr. Ambler’s excellent spy novels of the 1930s) rang a bell in me and led me to ask whether or our country truly, really, seriously, not-playing-the-Hitler-card fallen under the dread shadow of fascism?

Like Mr. Ambler, I’m defining the concept pretty narrowly. Some years ago, I remarked to an office mate about how what passed for the Left in those days (and now) was “agin’ everythin’ and fer nothin’.” The officemate shot me a shriveling look of offense and piously sneered, “What are you? Some kind of fascist?” (Well, heavens to murgatroyd, ah sure don’t want to be accused of that, now do I? Ah, jus’ better shut mah mouth and sit on the QT, and keep my sorry-ass curiosity to myself!)

The word “fascism” has become so debased, it’s come to mean “anything I don’t like” and that can encompass a range of things too numerous for clever examples. Thanks to the debasement that politics brings to language (see George Orwell) fascist has become a lazy solipsistic catch-all slur, the bullet-word of a sort of red-necked leftism: “They’re all the same and you’re probably one of them too!”

Another assumption lurking behind the sneer: the anarchist’s seductive assumption that all power in all of its manifestation is always fundamentally evil, no matter the means, no matter the ends: in this flattened, sentimental Moral Universe, Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler occupy the same space, alongside Social Security and the Holocaust. (An interesting discussion for another interesting day.)

Still, after stripping away the pejorative angle, fascism describes something that actually exists in the human political universe, even though the best historians have a hard time pinning it down exactly. As Eric Ambler demonstrated himself to be sophisticated, thoughtful writer, I’ll take his definition and return to our question:

Is the United States, under the administration of President Richard B. Cheney, becoming a classically fascist state, say in the manner of the original fascisto Benito Mussolini? I have gleaned three or fours bits of evidence, but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll address this one:

Ladies and Gentleman, the President of the United States . . .
"... and those WMDs are wight inside my widdle head!"
(Photo from the White House website!)

The Cheney Administration believes, with transcendent consistency, that they have not, and are not at this time, making any mistakes.

This relates to Mr. Ambler’s notion of the “god-idea.” In a press conference of April 13, 2004, reporters asked President Cheney’s Chief Aide what he thought was his biggest mistake while serving in the Cheney Administration. The Aide, a famously inarticulate Connecticut native, was unable to answer with anymore than a practiced Texas drawl: “I wish you could have given me this written question ahead of time.” (I came up with several snarky responses to that, but, really, I’m dumbfounded this guy is allowed to negotiate with Vladimir Putin.)

Unidentified Cheney Aide on Interview for Next Job

The Aide was not the only one to see himself as floating in such an exquisite state of perfection. The website Think Progress, (Warning: I sometimes don’t) in its summary of responses to this question of Mistakes Made, reports former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez saying he couldn’t think of a single mistake he’d made during his six years in the Cheney White House. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gave essentially the same answer in March 2007 when asked about the war in Iraq: “I don’t know.” Did she mean, “God, we’ve made so many, I don’t know where to start.”? Or is it more like, “What mistakes?” (Then again it could be “Don’t ask me! I just work here!”)

It’s been said by commentators smarter than this space that Cheney and his minions live in a bubble. Mash the word “bubble” together with Mr. Ambler’s “God-idea” and you get something called “The God Bubble.”

I dutifully resist blanket statements, but here’s one that I think can stand the historian’s test: All dictators live in the God Bubble. All those with a drive toward Absolute Power (I’m not counting the kid who just wants to be President—OK, a senator--someday), those laser-minded visionaries who see the humanity and the world as expendable clay, live in this bubble. They float contemptuously apart from the webbed and sticky reality of the world outside. The rest of us live with the consequences of both our own decisions and those of others, but those in the God Bubble see themselves as creators of reality, to paraphrase a former White House aide. The idea, the ideal is all that matters. It is the real reality. The rest is dross, including you and me.

They can never say “Ooops, sorry, screwed up” and change course. Their egos and their ideals are one and transcendent, so all decisions become final. If the scales do fall from their eyes, the God Bubble, pierced suddenly by sharp reality, bursts and down the dreamers fall like stone into the web with the rest of us. (As with people who lose their religion, it would probably drive some of them insane.).

The inhabitants of the God Bubble, I’m talking about, in fact, even seem to ignore the likely fate of their own Republican Party, sacrificing those who still support them in the bitter face of everything they’ve done. Their precious Theory of the Unitary Executive, an abstract idea (besides being inherently fascistic) that so flunks the test of reality and is causing bad consequences that are yet to be realized, matters more simply because of what it is: an Abstract Ideal. The Fate of the Nation be damned. It’s almost . . . treasonous. It’s certainly beyond impeachable.

It’s not pitiful and I don’t at all feel sorry for them, no matter how “sincere” their defenders and apologists claim they are. (Sincerity is an amoral quality, the province of monsters and saints alike; the Nazis were the epitome of it. Every single con artist I’ve ever dealt with oozed it like sap.) We choose our leaders in the rightful expectation that they’ll act like grown-ups, especially in matters of war and peace. The shock of the September 11 attacks was no license to experiment on the world with abstracts or an excuse to react like a squalling infant. We needed tough and cunning leadership, sure, but they also needed to be clear-headed, open-minded, cool, nimble and fiendishly skeptical.

Men and women who lived in the world as it is, not inside the God Bubble. History punishes inhabitants of the God Bubble always. It's time we the people punish them. Impeach the bastards. Now.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Watch the Kitty!

A couple of weeks ago, I turned 53. Some of you are, no doubt, bored and weary with this news. (“What is he? Some kind of show-off, just ‘cause he’s lived longer than most of us and is younger than the rest of us? What’s he want? A medal, Mr. I’m-53-and-You’re-Not?”)

Actually, the point is my wife Elizabeth (age forbidden to be divulged; “Oh? And who does she think she is? Some kinda—“
Oh, shut up!)

Elizabeth gave me a very cool birthday present: a digital Canon Powershot S5IS, a real camera, with billions of challenging buttons, adjustments and even the ability to shoot movies; a camera that, on one level, is easy to use in the point-and-shoot-way, but also gives me the potential to strike professional fear and envy in the whirring, clicking ghosts of Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell . . . should I ever learn how to properly use it.

“Ahhhh!” you sigh. “You must be experiencing untrammeled joy as you fly about the lovely California countryside snapping beautiful portraits of the gorgeous flora and fauna, the rainbow swirls emanating from those oh-so-pretty oil slicks! We bate our breaths for you to post your work on your elegant posting-site for us to see and sing praise!”

Uh , well, what I’ve actually been doing is taking photos of the Cat. That and nothing but.

It started out so innocently. I thought I was engaged in rational thought. The Cat, I figured, would be the perfect subject for a budding photographer: a pretty, photogenic creature that didn’t move too much and would not dart into the woods the second I zoomed in. Too stupid to even be vain, she would not notice when I left the lens cap on, nor snicker when the photos showed nothing more than a smudge of calico.

Photo #1: Yes . . . it always starts innocently . . . .

It seems that oblivious, dopey look fooled me.

Now, as evidenced here, I am absorbed. Obsessed. I cannot stop taking pictures of Flo. Flo lying on the bed. Flo sitting on the couch. Flo staring out the window from her house. All culminating in my directorial debut feature: the action-packed, ten-second epic
Flo Sitting on the Floor (with an intense performance by your truly as I try to persuade Flo to do something! A cult classic in the making!)

Perhaps, from looking at these photos, the first in the several hundred taken so far, you may gain some insight as to why a sane and sensible post-post modernist, artistically traditional, classical music fan would waste so much precious life force on something so relentlessly, disturbingly . . .

I hate cute. And this cat is an evil manifestation of cuteness: Evil, because Cats Make You Do Things. And the cuter they are, the more Things they make you do. Like eat up your hard drive with endless endless photos of them.

Those of you whose lives are entangled with these creatures know my meaning, right down to your DNA. I, for one, never intended to write what is dismissed by
litterateurs as a “Cat Column,” a form of feuilliton that should have been buried in the cultural landfill with Beatle-reunion rumors. (Even the innocent prefix litter- compels me to spring from my desk to check the Cat Box). When I started this series of online essays, I swore on a stack of E.B. White that I would never dare even think of competing with the world’s greatest (and only) regular Cat Columnist.

Photo #543. . . now you see why!

But while I have betrayed my word and your trust, allow me to mount a defense:

It’s all the Cat's fault. Remember: Cats Make You Do Things. As Jon Carroll and John Hodgman must share a spoon of blame for the existence of this forum, so Flo must bear responsibility on her small furry shoulders for the waste of an expensive camera and your precious time (Note,
in this portrait of Hodgman, the Looming Menace at the bottom! Yes! Hodgman knows!)

Photo #996: "Yeah, I'll watch the goddamn birdie alright . . . . "

This has gone too far, far past the point of feeding, brushing, petting, skritchy-skratching, and baby talk. Already, I have hounded—no mewed at the door of every Bay Area photo gallery for a chance to exhibit my nearly one thousand photos of Flo. (One gallery actually fed me a bowl of milk. Lucky I was thirsty.) Not since the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog has such a ruthlessly innocent and daft creature been the trigger of such bizarre behavior by your distressed correspondent.

This had better stop soon: Like, say, before I die. I can’t say I hold much hope. The way things are going, I may face reincarnation as a scratching post. Or a prized living room carpet. Either way, I hope you have the decency to keep
your puddy's claws well trimmed! Think of me for once, will you?

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Capering of Lost Demons

Beware the Faceless Deadly Sentinel!
“I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up in some way with red pepper which was very good but thirsty . . . . I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl’ . . . I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

-- Bram Stoker, Dracula

This last Wednesday, for the first time in decades, I “did” Halloween.

How did I “do” Halloween? First, I cooked dinner, the dish noted above, which Jonathan Harker orders in the town of Klausenburgh on the road to Castle Dracula. It turned out to be quite good (I exhumed my recipe from The New York Times cookbook). As we dined, Elizabeth and I enjoyed two fine movies, courtesy of Turner Classics: The Body Snatchers, one of Val Lewton’s great string of horror films from the 1940s with Boris Karloff (who is wonderful here) and Bela Lugosi (who’s not given enough to do); the next was James Whale’s droll, fiercely atmospheric, and little-seen The Old Dark House, from 1932, again with Karloff, plus Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart (who, more than sixty years later, made quite a splash in a little B-picture I missed seeing a few years back, name of Titanic.)

That was it. We left the porch lights off. No costumes, no candy for costumed beggars and no costumed beggars, either. There was a pumpkin, but it sat on our front stoop, uncarved and unlit, like a plump orange paperweight.

For years, for me, Halloween was like St. Patrick’s Day: an occasion for hiding under the bed, out of the deadly swirl of maniacs, amateurs, and amateur maniacs. Am I getting conservative (in the old, non-debased meaning)? Probably. The last Halloween I spent out in public was in the notorious San Francisco Castro neighborhood, probably in 1986, helping to film a low-budget mockumentary. My most vivid memory of that occasion was of chasing a baby-skinned, bashful young blond boy, who wore naught but a body floss-style g-string, down the street through the roistering crowd. As I tried to persuade him to appear in our movie, the look in his eye at my pursuit bespoke terror (though I was fully, sensibly clothed, the Quasi-hippie from Heck). I wondered: What was he doing there in the first place, but to make a spectacle of himself? Good luck on keeping your secret, good buddy. It made the 11 O’clock News!

My only real true fond Halloween memory rises from Mohegan Lake, New York: walking along a country road on the hill high above the house on Red Mill Road, nine or ten years old in my blue nylon-polyester eagle costume; the sharp cold wind skittered the leaves along the dark road while, to the east, over the dark hills, a blood-orange moon stared from behind the bare branches of the trees, as fat and full as Dracula’s eye.

End of nostalgic moment. Maybe I “grew up;” got too self-serious about that kid’s stuff. Turned sensible and rational; or became too self-conscious and prone to embarrassment to rip loose. I made few feeble stabs at dressing like a Certain Gunfighting Movie Star, but no one trembled before my piercing stare, or my shoe-polished mustache and, really, I was just there for the booze, the buzz, and the girls.

But I hear you say: “Pshaw, Burchfield! Pshaw! You love horror fiction and movies! You have bored us numerous times with your geeky exegeses on the genre and have mightily leaped to the castle walls to defend it as a Serious Art Form (when it earns it). You have gathered friends together before flickering fires to read horror stories (at Christmas, no less)! Just last Saturday, while coming in the driveway—and a wee bit in your cups—you came upon some neighbors a-lighting their Halloween
pumpkins. Before you knew it, you had asked them if they have ever seen the Boris Karloff/James Whale Frankenstein. ‘No!’ they said and before another two hours had passed you had filled that need with your characteristic, often irritating, Mickey Rooney enthusiasm. And, once again, you made another convert! Pshaw, we say! Pshaw!”

All true. But ask me to throw on some costume, I don’t care how cheap or expensive, I don’t care how much it makes me look like Christopher Lee or Lee Van Cleef and . . . sorry, gotta read Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell. Session 9 is on. Have a good time! See you when you stagger home in the morning, Mr. Potato Head!

My attitude is a mystery to me, too, as much as why Dracula should fly so powerfully in the imaginations of millions in the first place. One clue: I’m no fan of camp. It’ll be a frosty day on the devil’s lap before I even consider casting a cold eye on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (no link to it, either. I left camp way back at the Soupy Sales Show.) My wild-ranging imagination stops at wearing leotards.

David Skal, in his book Death Makes a Holiday, suggests that this unruly, extra-legal holiday, from its origins as pagan holiday, through its awkward absorption by Christianity, has entirely floated away from its spiritual and mystical roots to morph into a completely secular bacchanalia of dis-inhibition, always tinselly and tawdry; whatever fear it does provoke it does by being sometimes actually dangerous to life and limb. Maybe it shares Christmas’ tragic fate to be kept true to its roots only by a comparatively small group of believers. It’s no longer about our relationship with Death, even for those who dress up as a ghoul (and especially for those who flounce about as Mrs. Potato Head).

Like all our traditional holidays (and our religions, too), Halloween’s origins were rural and now that so many of us are non-rural, it has become urbanized, floating free from its roots and dissolving, I hate to say it, into self-referential post-modernism. Just a joke, folks! Ha. Ha. Ho. Ho. Wink. Wink. Boo.

While Halloween seems to stir plenty of paranoia and indignant moralism, for the huge majority, at least in this country, it’s about switching the boundaries of identity, or at least blurring them. Geek-boy gets to become Spiderman; the Bookworm gets to be Elvira, (though s/he may need a set of serious Super Falsies, while Spiderman better get himself into a girdle and then find a way to hide the panty line). Some pretend to transgress the Rules, but no one really does, except for real criminals, who hardly need a holiday.

I take fear, in the artistic sense, seriously and I want it served up that way. Consider that UFO poster that hung in Fox Mulder’s office in The X-Files that cried: “I Want to Believe!”

And so do I, though I must emphasize I do not believe in the physical existence of supernatural phenomena or UFOs (Furthermore, I’m not voting for Dennis Kucinich.) As I’ve said elsewhere, very few horror artists and writers possess any standard transcendent faith at all; most seem to be agnostics or atheists, H.P. Lovecraft being the most famous example, Russell Kirk, a famous rare exception.

What I do mean is I want to be hypnotized and seduced into believing, for a time, into that unique world of anticipation, dread and awe. I crave that sense of standing on the edge of a dark chasm, surrounded by the dangerous mystique of something unfathomable, perversely sweet, dangerous to both body and—especially—sanity. And eternally mysterious, like life and death themselves.

Except for comedy, no genre is easier to film, or write, badly, but I believe that horror, in the hands of poets, in art, beyond its immediate shivers, can also give us perspective on the human condition. A real frightening experience, for instance an act of violence or, or an accident, has never permitted me perspective—in my own moments, I am in pure survival mode, all lizard brain. I’m not wondering or mystified about anything. When I escape I’m grateful to be alive. My only questions revolve around Dirty Harry fantasies. I might angrily ask why—or maybe why not—me? And
will it happen again?

Some examples of what I mean by horror that works: the anguished loneliness of Eleanor Lance, as she succumbs to the perverse architecture of Hill House in both the book and first film version of The Haunting; the crumbling of Miss Giddins’ spinster’s psyche as she finds her own secret guilty dreams staring back at her from the fog-shadowed landscape of The Innocents (based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James); the four old men of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story who tremble as militant demons attack their privileged white male bourgeois ground, demons they themselves have roused from their own hidden souls. “I am you,” one ghost tells them. Truer words . . truer words . . . .

And there are those extravagant, wonderful archetypes: Boris Karloff’s sense of childlike and brute alienation as the Frankenstein Monster is as beautiful a piece of acting as any in the history of the medium and survives, like the monster itself, all the parodies that lumber after it. Lon Chaney Jr. may not have been a great actor, but in addition to its atmospheric style, what stays with us in The Wolf Man is the despair in Larry Talbot’s dog-like eyes he realizes his safe, proper upbringing has done little to save him, or those he loves, from the violence within. And even Bela Lugosi, as Dracula, moldy and slow as that film mostly is, brings perfect mystique to the amoral, capering freedom of the sociopath (and he doesn’t fly around in underpants like Superman).

So, I’ve opened my door to them and to Halloween, invited the holiday into my cultural life again, though in my own stubborn eccentric way. As indicated above, it turned out to be a good idea. I’ll do it again, too. I might even invite you next year, dear and patient reader.

I only ask one thing: save your money, retain your dignity, and leave the Scooby-Doo costume at home.