Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gone Out, Back Soon

In case you've been coming by and not finding me here, that is because my creative torch has been turned on that guaranteed bestseller of mine Dragon's Ark (formerly titled The Vampire of Alpine Canyon and certain to be re-titled yet again), the end of which composition is at last in sight. I'll be back, I hope soon, to tell you about it.

To sweeten your eye a little, I'm posting the above photo of this murder of crows, taken during a a blue and gray dawn outside of Lone Pine, California.

In the meantime, thank you for your attention!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Them Thar Hills!: Along the Tennessee Valley

Last week, I told about my first visit to Mt Tamalpais in over a year and spun a few memories. I didn’t mention that it was quite warm and humid that day, with only a brush of wind on the high grassy slopes overlooking the plate glass, fog-tabled Pacific. From experience, I knew the thick windless forests of Douglas firs up a piece from where I was were humming with hungry bugs, eager to dine on any hapless hiker who dared enter.

And so I drove back down the mountain to another favorite spot.

The Tennessee Valley (named after a steamship that ran aground here in 1853) is a grassland environment. That day, it was combed by gentle sea breezes. The valley, one of Marin County's most popular hiking spots, sits within the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Compared to Mt. Tam, getting there is easy. From Highway 101, take the same Shoreline Highway 1 exit for Stinson Beach; in less than a mile past a slough, there’s a turnoff to the left (be wary and patient; oncoming traffic provides many opportunities for an accident) onto Tennessee Valley for a winding 2-mile drive; the road ends in a large parking lot at the mouth of the valley.

From there, it’s about a 1.7 walk to the beach. The trail splits about a third of the way in; one loop rises to a long mildly muscle-stretching march above the valley; the other, narrower trail, follows the floor through the marsh, leading to the estuary at the end. I like this one, not because I’m lazy, but for its smaller, more surprising wonders.

The frequent fog banks that roll ashore during the summer turn the valley into something like an English moor, redolent of giant spectral dogs and deerstalker-wearing detectives. I first looked down into it from the top of Wolf Ridge, about 800 feet above to the south, during one of my first “epic” walks in the late 1990s; a heart-pumping climb from Rodeo Beach to the ridge, followed by a knee
splitting descent down a twisting ravine into the valley. Then I turned around climbed all the way back up and finished running downhill on the other side to catch the bus back to San Francisco. (My pal Hal, a loyal reader, questioned my sanity with a deep scowl at Frankie’s that evening. “My beer tastes better than yours,” I retorted, with that sneer that only serious hikers can conjure—exhausted body, boosted ego.)

I didn’t really get to see Tennessee Valley until I went with a friend, Alan Brewer, sometime later. As we walked along, I murmured clichéd variations on “Oh wow at the high misty hills. We came to a small beach that was framed by two towering cliffs; the waves thumped through me as they pounded the shore like fists and their foam hissed around our feet; a plump handsome western seagull squawked greedily nearby as we ate trail mix (we were too big for it to bully) We said little, busily
soaking up the spare beauty and menacing power. Even with all the people around, I felt like a survivor pushed to the haunted edge of the world.

Aside from its atmosphere, another thing I like about the Tennessee Valley is that it’s home, like the rest of Marin Headlands to one of my favorite avians, the redwing blackbird. This bird’s crimson patch is a burst of molten fire in black space; I saw none on last week’s trip, though I occasionally heard the electronic wheeze of their call; as I walked along the lower trail, pair of Moms pushing baby carriages approached me and flushed a red-tail hawk from the tall brush. It briefly flew out of the trail and vanished back into the reeds. The valley is one of Marin’s most popular spots for families.

Here, two springtime’s ago, my wife and I witnessed one of nature’s bursts of brutal spectacle. Just as we were approaching the beach, Elizabeth pointed up the brushy slope to our right. There stood a tall, elegant great blue heron, its long head and pointed bill all set toward the ground, as still as a lawn statue. Seconds after I saw it, it attacked the ground with one short stab and came up with a plump, furry, undoubtedly unhappy, vole. The heron took to the air on its broad wings and swooped over to where the estuary had cut a small shallow stream through the
black sand on its journey to the sea. The heron landed in the middle of the stream. A crowd of beachgoers gathered around. The heron doused the vole in the stream again and again, short brutal stabs, like a knife, until its prey was close enough to dead for swallowing. The birds tipped its head back. The vole disappeared down its gullet, making a brief lump in its predator’s throat. We all murmured, amazed, awed, maybe wondering about that day when we would become the vole.

Last week, I saw no bloody spectacle, only the brown pelican you see below, missed by everyone else as it plodded quietly, unobtrusively up the beach into the lagoon (its unusual behavior indicates it may very well have been ill); in summer, the lagoon retreats inland and loses contact with the ocean waters; I walked over to where the pelican disappeared behind the long grass; as I took my photos and some clumsy video, it seemed to have had enough of my attention and slowly, almost resignedly,
disappeared slowly into the reeds.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Them Thar Hills!: No Other Heaven.

San Francisco from Rock Spring on Mt. Tam

The East Bay Regional Parks are a string of relatively small pleasures. Running north and south, east of San Francisco Bay, many of them consist of golden grasslands, canyons, and mixed forests of oak, madrone, eucalyptus, and some groves of second-growth redwoods. Redwood Regional Park is particularly appealing as are the grassy heights of Briones, (also a working cattle ranch with a Rawhide flavor). Mt. Diablo has a wild majesty when storms blow by or when the springtime flowers bloom. Yet, wherever I go, I sense the grim hum of urban sprawl, like a snoring odorous bear.

In summer, temperatures rise into the 90s by late morning: this area becomes dangerously uncomfortable. That’s when I turn my bootheels west, toward the coast, mostly to my favorite wonderland of all: Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais.

Though not as high as Mt. Diablo, you can see Mt. Tam from almost anywhere in the Bay Area. The 2,571 peak dominates the titular 6,300-acre-state park. It’s a short drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, a few miles past the Golden Gate Headlands. From 101, you take the Highway 1 exit to Stinson Beach for a long snaky drive until the road splits in two; you take the right up onto the Panoramic Highway for a snaky ten miles across the mountain’s south slope. Mt. Tam will loom at you on the first rise like a green tidal wave. Most California coastal mountains run north to south, following the coast and the major fault lines. But Mt. Tam is an exception: it runs west to east.

I briefly sampled Mt. Tam in the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, as I spread into middle-age and my skepticism toward city life deepened, I seized on hiking as the best way to cope with physical change and spiritual entropy. My first hike was to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay; the following weekend, I hopped the Golden Gate Transit bus right by my apartment on Post Street for the 45-minute ride (one transfer) to Mt. Tam’s steep piney slopes.

For over two years I hiked, clambered, climbed, and crawled the 50-miles of trails that braid the landscape, through its delightfully wide variety of ecosystems. Many trails are steep, often rocky, so I started out on short hikes then became more adventurous. The first time I hiked the nearly 3 miles from Stinson Beach up Tolkien-esque Steep Ravine to Pantoll, I raised my fists in triumph but I was really more like a toddler who'd just learned to climb onto daddy's chair.

Radically more daunting was the trudge up steep Willow Camp Fire Road (over 1,500 feet in 3 miles) to the Coast Trail, then over to McKennan Gulch Trail for a 2-mile trip back down, then a long loop back to Stinson where I found the path blocked by a gi-normous eucalyptus that had toppled across the fire road. I bushwhacked up a steep bank on my hands and knees to get around it. I was grateful to learn that I’m not especially sensitive to poison oak.

One Saturday, I started out from Pantoll (park headquarters and the start of most of the main trailheads) and hiked all the way around Mt. Tam’s north side: 8 miles in around 5 or 6 hours. Near the end, I stopped at the top of Wheeler Trail on the northeast slope and checked the map: it seemed to promise a quick trot down to the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail. “Easy,” I sneered and damn near broke my ankles on what turned out to be a rock-jumbled stream bed that would have made a snake weep. At the bottom, I collapsed and was mistaken for dead by several passing hikers. Another memory from that day: the taste of cold beer and watching the afternoon fog pour up over the ridge and down into Muir Canyon. (If you’re up for a truly Gothic experience, nothing beats hiking Mt. Tam in the summertime coastal fog.)

I took risks, but I took them prepared: map, first-aid kit, some food, compass, Swiss Army knife and always always more water than I needed. In those two years I spent most weekends on Mt. Tam, but I only got lost once. It happened like this.

I was single then and joining a hiking group seemed to be a good way to meet chicks. The Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association sponsors two kinds of hiking groups: nature lovers and power hikers. I tried the nature lovers’ Saturday hike first but it felt a little slow to me. The following Sunday, I joined the power hikers. And that was how I got lost.

Ten minutes into the hike, I knew I’d never want to go power hiking again. I may walk faster than the Saturday crowd, but I’m still a dawdler, a “oh-gee-what’s that-flower” kind of guy; sometimes I’ll lie down for a nap.

It was when we were stumbling along the foot of the very steep north side of the mountain, that our power hike leader stopped and turned: “Hey! I think we’re lost!” Not long after, as we fought our way back up through thick brush in the heat, she took a look at my beety face and asked, “Say, do you have high blood pressure?”

. . . which of course, did nothing for my blood pressure . . .

I left the
group at that point and was led out on a shorter, alternate route by a forgiving veteran who eased my embarrassment with tales of his own stumbles into danger: “It happens to us all, even old-timers.”

The view from O'Rourke's Bench

For a year, I worked for the association as their volunteer publicist. Not long after, I met Elizabeth (I wanted to stage our wedding here, but it was unworkable). Now that we live in Emeryville, Mt. Tam is a circuitous hour-long drive away. A week ago Friday was the last time I’d visited in over a year. I drove to my favorite area, the west end around Rock Spring. A half mile southwest, overlooking the Pacific you’ll find the bench pictured below. Dad O’Rourke’s words are more eloquent than mine.

(All photos by author)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

THE EMBRACE: BEYOND CATEGORY (Last--Thank God--In a Series

There are two kinds of music in the world: good music and the other kind.” --attributed to Duke Ellington.

When Elizabeth replied to my profile on some dating site or other in early 2002, she mentioned that she’d been a classical pianist. According to my memory, that, more than anything else, inspired me to respond positively.

From the end of the Swing Scene to that time, I didn’t listen to much. The only music from that really lit me up was the (now semi-retired) English duo known as Everything But the Girl. I was hanging out at Frankie’s Bohemian Cafe, a Czech-style beer hall on the same-named street in San Francisco, where well-known local musicians like Jonathan Roniger, Max Bran and record producer David Hampp congregated.

But mostly, I’d stare at my beer and ask wither popular music (including rock n’ roll)? Maybe, as a non-musician and not much of an expert, I should shut up . . . but Elvis Costello is wrong. I’m the audience. Allow me to talk back for once.

And what about you? How many post-pop fans among you hands please thank you! When you hear about the new Coldplay album, do you shrug: “Oh, that’s nice. They’re making a living . . . what U-2 is still around? Hooray, The Beatles never reunited, hooray! Stones take note! There's more sacrilege where that came from!")

Maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m an Old Person (ewwwww!) Who Hates New Things Like Old People (ewwwww!) Always Do. But I insist: This is about more than shaking our canes and clacking our dentures while croaking “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

When my parents and grandparents (born in the early half of the 1900s) heard the Beatles for the first time O the shrieking, foaming and sputtering! They were appalled, frightened, threatened, offended, disgusted, repulsed and disturbed by that . . . that . . . racket.

Move ahead 40-plus years. Now I’m my parents. But when I hear the music of You Young People Today (watch me wag my bony warlock finger), I do something much much worse:

yawn . . . mmmmm . . . nap time!

These new songs aren’t bad, either. They’re well-written, superbly performed (though nobody seems to belt it like Elvis and his Spawn much anymore), have catchy melodies . . . what’s not to like? Trouble is, I spend too much time being reminded of the Old Masters who inspired you: “Oh, Elvis/Dylan/The Beatles/The Ramones/Pink Floyd/ did that lick/melody/lyric twenty/thirty/forty years ago in This Tune on That Album.”

Nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from Old Masters, but I hear nothing new spinning on the CD player, either. That jubilant explosion that started in the mid-1960s sounds absent. I may be deeply wrong, but something tells me even Sir Paul McCartney may have reached a somewhat similar conclusion: there’s only so much a bloke can do with three chords, three guitars and a drum set, even after adding keyboard, synthesizer and 100-piece orchestra. Popular music may promote a deceptive freedom, because, musically, it truly is the most rigid form there is. There may be no color left in the old paint box.

Returning to Elizabeth and Self:

Among our first dates was an Oakland East Bay Symphony concert at that incredible Art Deco palace, the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, for a program of Giuseppi Verdi, Marco Beltrami, J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt and Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Six years later, classical music is what I listen to most: we’ve collected hundreds of hours of music encompassing a thousand years, pouring from thousands of minds from so many corners of so many rooms, so many dimensions, an endless effusion of sounds bright and baffling. If the amount of work, both big and small, wasn’t so great, I could become an obsessive like Phil Schaap. Hardly a week passes where I don’t hear something entirely new to me, or something familiar that sounds so new, it takes a minute to remember. You don't hear me say "Oh, just another Bach cantata."

Like all general interest writers, I’m stumped about how to tell you what it is I’m hearing so you’ll take in a concert, buy a CD or link to some of the countless radio stations that broadcast online. (Classical makes up less than 3% of the buying market, but in live venues and online, it thrives like never before. I usually read Alex Ross of The New Yorker for help.)

Classical music is often called “elitist,” meaning it’s only accessible to wealthy snobs who kick their servants while taking their $300 seats; it’s not “real people’s” music.

(So, what am I? An android? This is the reverse snobbery of those “Ha! I Eat Feces and You Don’t!” social critics--for which the classical industry does bear some responsibility.)

But on a strictly human, emotional level the vast majority of it is remarkably tuneful and even rocking (the opening of Beethoven’s
Eroica; the final movement of Schubert’s Quintet D. 956.) Like a great nature trip, it cleans your soul of modern life’s garbage. Its fans will swear to you: it can take you the edge of God and Eternity like nothing else.

Classical music is elitist and non-democratic in one sense: I mean, do you really want to hear me play the violin? All the best music, pop, jazz, and classical is performed by elitists from Ringo Starr to Benny Goodman to Marc-Andre Hamelin, plus the snob in the last photo. They damn well better be better than the rest of us at what they do.

Elite means the best. In art, that’s how it should be. Mediocrity kills beauty like bug spray.

A concluding point: In an early draft of this series, I wrote that I bought the notion that music doesn’t build hospitals, cure disease or inspire people to sign up for Al Gore’s Climate Challenge. This recent “60 Minutes” report below hints I was right to delete that.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Embrace: The Most Fun I Had (Second in a series)

1982: By the time I’d arrived in San Francisco I’d gone tone deaf again. My music craving, lasting from the late ‘70s to maybe 1981, faded with Punk. 1980s New Wave went in one ear and out the other; its preprogrammed plodding drumbeats and thin vocals left me feeling sterile. There were tunes, now and then, that I liked (none come to mind now . . . “One Night in Bangkok”? Sigh . . . .). I was profoundly peripatetic and had no room in the suitcase for a stereo. At one point, I became practically homeless; even my unique and admired Morricone collection had to be stored in the home of an appreciative fellow fan.

1990: I safely landed in an apartment in a Haight Victorian. One of my roommates, Judith from Germany, delighted me by turning out to be world class drummer for a fine rock-ska band called The Offbeats and they happily tuned up my ears for awhile. But I was still drinking in dive bars with drunkards whose outlook was prunier than mine.

Sunday afternoon, late 1992: I’d wearied of hoisting toasts to nihilism and walked down the dreary Haight among the lost and their pretenders. I decided to have one more at a bar I’d only stopped at once before some years back: Its green tile front sported an art-deco-lettered sign: CLUB DELUXE.

Tiny picture, big memories
I ordered a beer from a bald guy who looked like Telly Savalas, but had one talent Telly didn’t: In thirty seconds, I was doing spit takes and toppling off the stool in laughter. I hadn’t met such a funny bartender since . . . ever.

He called himself Vise Grip. I was back next Sunday and every weekend after for the next six years. (Honestly, Vise was God's slowest bartender. Typical conversation: “Burchfield! Wanna beer?” “Nah, gotta leave in a couple of hours.”)

Vise had another talent: he was a musician. In fact, the Deluxe was a musicians’ bar. Not only that, it was the gravity point for a new robust pop music movement, what is known now as the Retro-Swing scene.

What I knew about Jazz and Swing could’ve fit into my ear (even now I’m not particularly smart about it), so I found myself subject to a great musical education, plus one other important lesson. If you want to hang out at bar, hang where the musicians hang.

Musicians, aspiring and pro, are like sharks—gotta keep moving, keep hustling for gigs, keep making music. If you want to even sit with them for a drink, you’d better be moving on something, too, whether it’s a protest movement or a bricklaying business. Otherwise, you will bore them, I promise.

The Deluxe was a magnet for all sorts of people, all of whom had one (often only one) thing in common—they wanted do more than pickle their brains (though, honestly, there was plenty of that; more than one habitué drank himself into a corner and into treatment.) Nor did everyone like each other—there were enough feuds and spats to worry the Hatfields and McCoys, but no one slumped at the bar feeling sorry for his besotted bedeviled self. Those that did, didn’t last and no one had to show the poor bastard the door, either. If misery loves company, the Club Deluxe crowd was the worst company possible. There, my quest for nothingness ended.

As it turned out, like me, most of the musicians—Vise included--were refugees from Punk, alienated from soulless 1980s music and its flat-faced post-modern ‘tude. Retro Swing drew its fire from the Swing Era (roughly the 1920s to the late 1940s, the time of Ellington, Goodman, Cab Calloway and many more); others, like Vise Grip rescued gems from the bridge period between the fading of Swing and the rise of Rock n’ Roll, the time of a style known as Jump Swing, the province of artists like Louis Jordan.

These new bands did more than play their parents’ records: They brought eclectic modernity in terms of energy, color and edge. One of the bands from that era—and one of the only ones still standing—“The New Morty Show” (featuring Vise Grip) had the could swing from Goodman through Jordan and robustly into that great Ramones’ anthem “I Wanna Be Sedated” with amazing grace.

The New Morty Show

Thanks to the Deluxe’s ingenious manager, Dutch Pennfield and owner Jay Johnson, an incredible parade of talent poured through the door onto the tiny stage: St. Vitus Dance (featuring Vise Grip and called “The Sex Pistols of Swing”); The Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Blue Plate Special; Timmie Hesla’s Big Band (the very first of them), Mr. Lucky, the Ambassadors of Swing (. . . featuring Vise Grip). Most of the musicians were younger than me, but some had played with greats like Count Basie and Ellington. The crowds spanned the world and generations, uniting the young and old like never before.

Their music brought something very important to life, probably the most important quality that any art brings: joy.

For many it was more than the music: it was the revival of a lost (and unfairly maligned) culture of elegance, sophistication, sharp dress great dancing and high manners. This, I stood somewhat apart from (though Michael Moss, publisher of
Swing Time Magazine a niche publication that was born in the Deluxe and lasted for 14 issues, made a gift of a fine 1920s-vintage suit for which I really need to shed a few pounds to fit in again; V. Vale’s book Swing! The New Retro Renaissance is a valuable reference tool for much of this). I was an indifferent dancer and an early-to-bed type.

Susan Lake and Michael Moss, Editors & Publisher of Swing Time, 1995
It was one of the best times I had . . . but like all good times, it ended. In 1998, the Deluxe no longer featured Vise Grip behind the bar; and Frank Sinatra passed away. But I walked out with a whistle and good feelings for one and all, my ears as tuned up as they’d ever been and a budding Duke Ellington collection, open for the Next Beautiful Thing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Embrace: First Sour Notes

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

According to Google, that quote originated with Elvis Costello. It’s funny, but possibly unfair in the way those kinds of quips often are: It douses further conversation, as if it were our duty to dutifully listen, nod in meek approval and go silently home. What do you know about Music, miserable Worms!

True, I know so little about music at its technical level that I approach the subject shrouded in a blanket of mute. As I write this, J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor BMV 232 plays on my computer . . . but how can I ever tell you what it’s like, aside from it’s like sitting in the most beautiful church ever with choruses all around? As clever as we all think I am, the kind of notes I write—words—fail to ever capture the deep experience of music. The best I can hope to do—now—is convey my experience on the outskirts of this universal language that exists in the realm beyond words.

My first—and really last—instrument I picked up was the acoustic guitar. Like so many circa-nine-year-old boys circa the mid-1960s, I was inspired by The Beatles, but that glib parroting passion was all I had and it lasted mere months. The Fab Four made it look fabulously easy, but my hardest lesson was that learning an instrument—even to play three-chord rock n’ roll—was hard, tedious and required a focused obsession I lacked.

(And then there was Mom, who told laughing sad tales about her own “tone deafness” as she tried to learn the violin as a teenager and how we all probably inherited it, which made the situation so 100% hopeless that I should quit anyway and spare the family anymore humiliation and that awful music and you’re getting a haircut I don’t care if every kid in school’s tucking his hair in his socks . . . !)

Until I was eleven, I liked the same music the other kids around Mohegan Lake, New York did—rock n’ roll and British Invasion. We used to stand in circles around the gym during recess belting out Beatles tunes a Capella (I was John, Cool, eh?) Tagging after an older brother, I also dug Johnny Cash.

I also heard classical music on the record player (hand-cranked, of course) and even remember, (probably—I hope—when I was six) air-conducting Beethoven using uncooked spaghetti as a baton while standing on a dining room chair wearing only a pajama top and Fruit o’ the Looms (thank God, no video then.)

But when I was moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1966, I seemed to really go tone deaf. I stopped listening to pop and rock n’ roll (maybe it made me homesick); I failed to fit in with the scene in that dreary place so completely, that my idea of rebelling against the gray crushing forces surrounding me was listening to the music of (I’m cringing as I write this) Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass! (Yeah, you with the complete John Denver collection, wipe that smirk off!)

I stood in this perversely anti-anti-establishment stance for quite awhile; I deepened my alienation by falling for the film scores of Ennio Morricone (and so launched myself way too far ahead of the crowd by twenty years!).

I knew this old dude was cool waayy before you did nyah-nyah!

I drifted back toward the mainstream by becoming a Gordon Lightfoot fan during the terrible awful despairing ghastly infuriating embarrassing depressing paralyzing dumbfounding Late Teens Era—maybe an echo of Johnny Cash past—but this only intensified the acidic scorn and lofty sneers from the vastly-more-sophisticated fans of this Lightfoot-loving legend.

In my early twenties, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and, eventually, into an apartment in south Minneapolis with two fun-loving, dudes, Steve and Greg (who is a reader of these very pages). I immediately fell back in love with the Beatles. One day Steve, admiring my small collection of Morricone scores, said: “You should get all of them” and—

. . . uh anyway, one evening in the summer of 1978, I emerged fragrantly bleary-eyed (a common state at that time) from my bedroom. As I entered the living room, the roar of a chain saw blasted from a pair of giant speakers amplified past 10 followed by a roaring rolling snowball of guitar chords and a solid, thumping dinosaur stomp of drums.

I scurried back to my room and under the futon. When I later emerged, I learned that Greg was not lurking in ambush to make stew out of me, but was listening to a tune called—big surprise--“Chainsaw” by what was, in Minneapolis, a new band: The Ramones.

From there, I started listening to bands like The Clash, The Dead Boys, The Replacements, The Suicide Commandos, Devo, and, maybe my favorite all, a local band called The Suburbs. Great days of sweaty, stoned, beer-soaked nights at Jay’s Longhorn Bar (ground zero in the Minneapolis punk scene) and First Avenue, where I saw the Ramones late in 1981. I went to see The Clash (but had to leave when I got sick; one of the few times I dropped acid, an experience I found mostly boring and vile). I even got to see The Who, though it was years after Keith MoonLake Michigan.
and I sat so far back that saying I “saw” them has as much weight as saying I saw Barack Obama from across

Of course, I was still listening to Dear Gordon (always far from the eardrums of my betters) and my Morricone collection slowly grew (Greg became a fan after I turned him on to Exorcist II and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage both of which put him in mind of Frank Zappa’s music).

But in the spring of 1982, family duty called me to California. Like it or not, I had to go. I went tone deaf again. What happened next will be related . . . next.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Keep the Change

Pinned to a supporting pillar in my office is the most useless piece of kitsch I own: my
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly wall clock (Second most useless? My The Good, the Bad & the Ugly wastepaper basket).

Here’s why the clock is number one: not long after I threw money away on it while visiting the Autry Center in Los Angeles, the hands stopped moving. It kept ticking. It’s ticking right now, stuck forever at 9:29:52, the second hand poignantly straining to reach that next second, as though banging on the locked door of an empty house.

If I stand in front of this clock long enough I might convince myself that my darling wife and I will be 53 forever; that Cody’s bookstore (and other bookstores, new and used) will always stay open; that the global climate will stop changing.

$24.95 worth of metaphysics

This also means that the massive condo construction project a dozen feet behind me will continue its pound and buzz forever; that the fires that are burning down Northern California will not increase . . . but they won’t burn out.

And that we’ll always have the Cheney Administration to kick around.

The clock is our ultimate change organizer with its tight little divisions of seconds, minutes and hours. And change is a fundamental—and amoral—force, a basic foundation of existence that happens apart from our vital moral considerations. From something as meaningless as the changing of fashion to the most banal, but meaningful, change of all-- the clock’s ticking second hand--change is merciless, implacable.

Even my cheap, dopey clock changed—from telling time to only telling it accurately twice a day. We say that something “hasn’t changed” but that only means that change has slowed to imperceptibility. Some dedicate their lives fighting it. Think of poor deluded Bill Buckley standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” Trying to freeze change. But his dream was always illusion. When you think you’ve stopped something is when the change called “decay” sets in.

“Change” is a big buzzy word right now. Cable pundit twaddle treats it like newly minted coin, though it’s about as useful as today’s penny. Bill Clinton hectored us about it way back in 1992: “The American people want change” as if we had a desperate itch that needed constant fierce scratching down to blood and bone. It’s a bad idea to scratch too much as doctors will tell you (Click here to learn how it can cause your brains to fall out).

So much are we dismayed, displeased and horrified by change; too much, too little, or of the wrong kind; good for the other guy, but not for me. Necessary in times of crises and in the stress of boredom. It’s the only thing that never stops changing.

Changing from the Cheney Administration will provide some relief, but no matter how much we like their successors and wish them our patriotic best, it is certain that climate change, for example, will roar on—a change no can like, except nihilists and certain hotheaded Millenarians.

Some change I gracefully accept: Ten years ago—about the time of Frank Sinatra’s passing--a sub-culture I was a part of, the Retro Swing Scene, a revival of a larger older American subculture, quietly changed to something smaller. I had a swell time with a swell bunch of folks, but I sensed it was time for new things and new scenes. It is, I reminded anyone within earshot along the bar, a big and deeply interesting life, so long as you remain passionately, seriously curious. (PS: I took Duke Ellington with me).

The passing of the famous East Bay bookstore Cody’s is an example, on a small scale, of a change I mourn but find almost pointless to rage against. You could hear the sigh across the stacks . . . but not everyone minds that much:

“Who needs an ancient musty bookstore in the Age of Amazon/Alibris/Abebooks?” (That kind of question always comes with a sneer, as if I were advocating horse-drawn ambulances).

True: online shopping is convenient and may save fuel. But connections, community, just a friendly knowledgeable face on the other side of the cash register, a chance to flirt with a fellow bibliophile, all that is lost. I made friends in bookstores.

I find little of that online at all; if I hadn’t met Ramsey Campbell and John Hodgman--in fuddy-duddy bookstores like Borderlands and Cody’s--I could believe them both to be no more real than Lara Croft. With no wrinkles, no acne scars, no foul tempers, no belching, they both become
Ideal Human Beings. Unchanging. Here, online, I can present myself as Ideal Human Being. Unchanging. Only my wife has to smell my BO and watch my hair turn gray as it jumps off my head. Ain’t you all lucky? My how things don’t change.

(Someday I’ll pass from this world and somebody’ll say: “Burchfield!? Dead!? Why, I just e-commerced with him the other day and he seemed fine!”)

These days, change changes faster than ever and seems to lead only to increased anxiety. In response, I feel less inclined to “keep up,” especially with the latest culture fads and techno doo-hickeys.

I am impatient with impatience. Maybe that’s why I’ve embraced classical music and dream of entering the slower stream of rural life. At my age, I'm gaining that sinking awareness that mortality is no longer something that happens elsewhere: It really is the biggest change of all. The more you do, the faster times moves and . . . and . . . .

But while I slow down, human civilization keeps burning its candle at both ends anyway, don't pay me no mind: The air gets harder to breath, the climate more unstable. The huge populations of India and China seem, from here, to itch for change to where they’re willing to put their own survival at risk, never mind the rest of us.

At least someone is sticking around . . . .

Meanwhile, my stupid clock stays 9:29:52 forever. But when I awake tomorrow, the clock on my nightstand, that’ll have ticked away another day, goddamnit.

The time, it keeps a-changing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Guest Blogger Hugh Lafferty: My Secret Agenda!

As I’m extremely busy again, I thought I’d let my upstairs neighbor, Hugh Lafferty, sit in this week. You can also read this and other pieces, over on Hugh’s own blog, “Thank You for Your Help.”

And, as you will see below, Hugh does need quite a bit of help, so be kind to him, please. He scares easily.

Congress and the President did a very wise and brave thing the other day by setting spies on me. I can now rest assured that we are all safer, especially from me.

I need watching. I cannot be trusted. I might be a terrorist. How do I know I am not?

“Uh Hugh, what makes you think you are a terrorist?” my wife Gladys asks with that habitual clench of her teeth I so adore.

What makes you think I am not?

Yeah, right. I was born in this country of western European descent.

But so was John Walker Lindh!

Sure, I attended middle-class schools, populated mostly by other European-Americans.

That is a very suspicious hyphenate! Already, my loyalties seem less than pure. It is but a short step from hyphenates to IEDs; from collecting thousands of Euro-Pop CDs (while forcing innocent American ears to listen to them) and jokes about being unable to type the President’s name to launching an unprecedented rain of destruction!

Right now, unbeknownst to even me, I might be plotting a terrorist attack!

Gladys’ eyebrows disappear into her hair. “And just um, who would you plot against?”

Whom,” I riposte, waving at the phone book. Lots of choices, right there! Full of people I could be out to get. If your name is in the phone book, believe me, I bear watching!

Just because I am paranoid does not mean I am not out to get you.

Hey, people fool themselves all the time! Take, for instance, my love for all the girls that I really believed loved me back; or who would somehow get around to it if I just slept on their doorsteps long enough and ran around screaming my head off.

I was crushingly mistaken. And if I am mistaken about things like that, how do I know I am not mistaken about being a loyal American?

At this point, Gladys is tapping her foot, her hands on her hips, staring at the attic ceiling: “Hugh, you are
not doing anything illegal! What are you so worried about?”

That is a very
very silly question. If you were all paying very close attention to me, you would see signposts to deadly danger all along the way! Consider the following clues:

When I was young, I once got a speeding ticket. I went drunk driving a couple of times. Or was it more? Maybe I drove drunkenly every night, but was too drunk to remember! Or I repressed the memories! Maybe I buried bodies in the basement of every house I’ve ever lived in! I just forgot! I could not handle the truth (as Jack Nicholson said to me once. Really! He did! Right there in the theater!)! Repressed Memory Syndrome! A-HA!

I cannot even be trusted to recall whether I went on a drunken rampage! The heart is a deceitful thing! The Bible says so and all things that are said—not just in the Bible—must be considered true until 100%-plus proven false. Consider the following piece of perfect logic:

You cannot prove the Earth is not flat! It might become flat tomorrow!

(The bold font represents my sincere, passionately jabbing finger, the guaranteed clincher to all arguments.)

What a just world it would be if all astronomy and physics textbooks devoted a full 50% of their text to the Flat Earth Controversy! Do not forget, I am only promoting standards of fairness in a democratic society’s marketplace of ideas. But until that rosy day, we will just have to subject the scientists to enhanced interrogation until they confess their lies.

What? It is logically impossible to prove a negative? Like, that is a serious argument? Remember! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!

There is always more than we can see. All you have to say is “Barack Obama is a Muslim” and he becomes one. Saying things makes them true. Saying them again makes them more true. (No, sorry, saying things are
not true makes them proven incontrovertible facts!)

Even if you lived with Obama 24/7, even if you followed him into the bathroom and the shower and slept right between him and Michelle,
you will never be able to prove he is not thinking Secret Muslim Thoughts!

Scott McClellan is fomenting a new plot to bomb America. How do we tell? Because he wrote that book about President . . . President . . . he wrote that book. This leads us to the following True Exact Formula:

McClellan Betrays President > McClellan Betrays Country = McClellan Plots Terrorist Attacks.

A little math goes a long way!

Another significant clue pointing to my future evil-doing: Osama bin Laden and I both have the hots for Whitney Houston!

Unable to counter my arguments, Gladys has crawled out on the roof for some fresh air: “
Why do you hate crackpots so much?” I call after her.

I will now conclude my argument with quotes from Two Great Thinkers Who Will Prove My Point:

Ernest Hemingway: “I know now that there is no one thing that is true—it is all true.”

The Amazing Criswell: “Can you prove that it didn’t happen!?”

Excuse me while I wipe the dust of your feeble arguments from the palms of my hands.

Call Homeland Security! Call Sean Hannity! I have to warn someone about My Secret Agenda, and it might as well be him because everyone (yes, you) believes Sean Hannity!

That will put a stop to me! Once and for all!

Thank you for your help.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

War? What War? Oh! THAT War!

Apologies for my abrupt and lengthy absence, but a tsunami of work and Another Large Matter crashed across my desk and washed me into faraway eldritch lands, far from consideration of these weekly musings.

Let’s take memory’s time machine back to Monday, May 26th 2008: Elizabeth and I attended the Memorial Day service at the golden grassy slope across from the Lafayette, California, BART station, an area that has been dedicated as an informal memorial to those American soldiers who have died in the Iraq War, which seems to have winked off the national radar. Amazing, considering what it’s costing now and what it will continue to cost for a long time.

(Full disclosure: I am personally connected to the matter, having married into the suburb of the family surrounding Johnson and Louise Clark, the owners of the property upon which the memorial was built by local volunteers lead by antiwar activist Jeff Heaton . . .

. . . in fact, I'll step aside so Louise Clark herself can share her part in the story of the Crosses of Lafayette:

John and I were on an "Inland Passage" cruise from Charleston to Jacksonville with our friends the Martinezes and Heatons, starting a few days before March 19, 2003.

After dinner on March 19, the Captain invited all 100 passengers to the lounge to hear a radio address by our President. It was Bush announcing that he had just started bombing the hell out of Baghdad, the beginning of five years of "Shock and Awe" for the hapless inhabitants of their sand over our oil. There was silence after the President's announcement. I stood up and protested: "The Iraqis had nothing to do with the destruction of our world trade center! We are bombing the wrong country!"

I sat down. Nothing else was said publicly, but a big burly guy walked over and snarled: "I'm a Vietnam Vet and I'm going to nail your ass." He walked away and I never saw him again. I heard no more remarks about the war or what we were doing over there for the rest of the two-week trip.

A few days after returning home, the Heaton's son, Jeff, came over. He wanted permission to erect some crosses on our visibly prominent hillside. John and I immediately agreed. Jeff constructed, painted and planted three crosses. The next day they were gone. Jeff made and installed some more. They met the same fate. Jeff gave up.

Three and a half years later with the death count was sky rocketing, Jeff came back and said he just had to start again. I suggested that this time he bring in peace groups to help. Jeff called the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center of the Walnut Creek, the Unitarian Church, the Rossmoor Grandparents for Peace, and the Lamorinda Peace Group. They came out in such great numbers that the vandals could not keep up. Over 100 people have helped saw, pound, paint, and plant the crosses. National media publicized the site. NPR, CNN Headline News and New York Times Sunday Edition all covered the Crosses of Lafayette. I had a phone call from a woman in Pittsburg who wanted to come help. I was giving her directions until I realized that she was calling from Pennsylvania.

(More full disclosure: I am not a pacifist, not even especially progressive in my outlook. I fully supported the Afghanistan invasion but rejected the Iraq War almost out of hand. Note that we seem to be losing both wars now. That should tell us something.)

This Memorial Day Service lasted about an hour and was attended by, according to my inexpert estimate over 100 people, plus media reps from KRON and (I believe) Telemundo. There was no counter demonstration, though we met an elderly lady, plumply wrapped in a soft brown coat and who wore eyeglasses whose frames were as black as her hair. She told us she’d lived under Nazi occupation in Greece during World War II. She expressed bewilderment over what she may have perceived as an unwillingness on the part of this crowd to take up arms against an evil force. My attention (and camera) wandered elsewhere, so when I looked for her again—maybe to persuade her that it was an issue of when to pick your fights and that maybe we'd picked a real bad one this time—she had vanished, maybe feeling intimidated and out of place.

There were speeches and there were songs. There was a handout with a list of songs to be sung (including one of the more insipid post-Beatle tunes Imagine, which, thankfully, was not given voice). My laryngitis sometimes kicks in at sing-a-longs, so I kept busy with the camera, though I still missed a shot of a trio of deer who sometimes wander among the crosses on a regular basis; Louise Clark has a huge blowup photo of them in her living room. The effect is grimly poignant. Louise was there too, her posterior, not surprisingly, still un-nailed. (Johnson, I am sad to say, was not in attendance; the World War II veteran passed away last year.)

All (non) religions are represented from Judaism to Christianity to Islam to None and other God-points between. There nothing mocking about this despite what one counter-protestor (disingenuous in his own way) has claimed on his Web site. Jeff Heaton claims he means nothing political by this and points to the removal of signs that specifically targeted President—ow my hands cramp whenever I try to type that name--as evidence of his impartiality. (And you have to wonder about a site called "Zombietime.")

Of course, this is political, as all human wars are, but I do believe what he meant to say is that the memorial is non-partisan in the sense that we’re all touched by, in a few cases, directly yoked to, this latest conflagration, no matter our party affiliations or ideological or philosophical leanings. Only deluded and slothful authoritarianists—who poll around an alarming 30%--can believe we’re gaining a damn thing out of this and none of us can call ourselves patriotic Americans and act like nothing’s happening. It’s our duty, warrior, semi-warrior and pacifist alike--to give it sober attention. We owe it to those who have been maimed and killed and those yet to be. We’re far far from out of this thing, no matter who takes the oath in January 2009.

Sometimes the silence is enough to make me shout: “Bring Back the Draft! That’ll Get Their Attention!”

On that day the sign at the top of the hill read 4084 for the total number of dead American soldiers. The Iraqi dead—estimates run to a hundred thousand—are not listed here. Crosses are still being added and the grounds kept up by a core group of volunteers, what happens there’s no more room? The numbers will still keep rising.

[Photos by author; updated 6/16/08]

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Drunken Sleeping Master

Last week, a high pressure system enveloped the San Francisco Bay Area like a massive slab of steam-heated cat fur. In these parts, three days of this equals three years in a hot box in Brazil wrapped in bacon. If we still used old-time thermometers, geysers of globby mercury would’ve shot into the air, adding to the poison already in our systems via too many tuna sandwiches. Each night I baked awake in bed, my brain cooking with insomnia not even melatonin could cool.

On the third afternoon of the heat wave, work done, my jaw ligaments snapping, my mouth like a cargo bay, I turned on my biggest—and only—fan, a 26-inch, 3-speed Lasko and sunk down on my bed. As the cooling fan wind flushed over me, I kidded myself: 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 . . . 90.

I awoke asleep. According to Wikipedia—unless someone’s making mischief again; last time, it was instructions on how to hunt grizzly armed with a butter knife and assurances that cooking with anthrax is perfectly safe and delicious--I had made mistakenly slipped across the door sill from “Power Nap” into the room signed with the sinister appellation “Slow Wave Sleep.”

“Slow Wave Sleep.” Say that out loud. Behold the bulb-headed saucer-eyed aliens in lab coats, thick, two-foot syringes twinkling in their bony long-fingered hands, standing around your bed with their Peter Lorre lisps: “We’re only putting you down you into 'Slow Wave Sleep!'” But why are you laughing!?

By napping too long, I had entered into Slow Wave Sleep and then broken it too early to my detriment. From Normal Sleep I awoke to Abnormal Consciousness, or "Sleep Inertia." My skull felt like a bowl of liquid rust that had bored a hole in the bottom and then seeped blood-like throughout my body; a rust that crusted on my nerves, my arteries and veins, and every cell muscle. If the police had come to my door, I would not have been able to think fast enough to identify myself. And then they would have shot me.

I wandered zombie-like through the house. If I am a zombie, my mind droned, then I must go out and eat some brains. Luckily, my wife arrived home just then and the next door neighbor escaped unharmed.

Some weeks earlier, I had bought tickets for a benefit concert for that night as a birthday present for my wife—in my decrepit stupor, I recalled only that her name was something like “Mrs. B.” After some desultory conversation, I finally grasped that we were scheduled to attend the “Mozart for Mutts and Meows” benefit for the Berkeley/East Bay Humane Society. Five minutes of patient explaining and hot coffee poured over my barren skull alerted me that it would not be Mozart as performed by dogs and cats (or, as the cat constantly reminds me, “cats and dogs”). In fact, no pets would be attending at all. I said I thought it unfair to exclude the animals, but my wife, sensing that I was unable to grasp complicated explanations, simply said “The animals don’t have any money, so they can’t afford the tickets.”

We left the house, my wife by the front door, I by falling through the living room window. “Grrrhhgg,” I growled as I waved my arms at all four points of the compass when my wife asked me for directions to our destination. We detoured through Martinez and it was very very nice, but it makes for a long drive to Berkeley, unless you’re trying to run your Normal Sleep Cycle like I was. I managed to doze through all of Walnut Creek, both directions.

We finally arrived in Berkeley with enough time left to annoy the staff at Moe’s Books by my insistence that somewhere in the world there was a first edition of Moby Dick by Dean Koontz. I then caught another five sprawled face down across the remainder table. I paid for the books I drooled on, among them, one called Spelunking for the Claustrophobic.

I snatched another five minutes on the walk to the Berkeley City Club, a journey made perilous my inability to discern the difference between sidewalk and street and the desire to lie down on both. In the lobby of the club, I glimpsed a sign that said “Bed and Breakfast.” But before I could get a bed for the night, my wife steered me toward a broad staircase laid with the softest, most comfortable-looking carpet. And so I stole another five minutes of Normal Sleep Cycle curled up on the second floor landing.

I am told the Berkeley City Club was designed by architect Julia Morgan, but it could have been Mies Van der Rohe for all I knew. The second floor was filled with hundreds of people. I bounced from body to body like a pin ball rolling from post to post, until I rolled in front of a bar and figured that a scotch and water was just the pick-me-up I needed. Five minutes later, I was sprawled face down across a comfy platter of smoked salmon where I happily snoozed until show time.

The concert, performed by members of the Mozart Midsummer Festival, consisted of a reduction of Die Zauberflote (KV620, arranged by Johann Wendt) and the Quartet in G Minor (KV 478). I am sure the performances were fine, but I remember not one note.

I did, however, receive compliments for the performance that I was unaware I had given. “My word! The Magic Flute sounds so evanescent when accompanied by loud snoring!” piped up a fellow concert goer as we shuffled out of the hall.

“Do I detect a note of sarcasm in that remark?” I riposted, arching a sleep-ruffled eyebrow.

“Not at all!” she cried, rhythmically thumping me on the head with her fist. “Next-time-just- re-mem-ber-it’s-the-Quar-tet-in-G-not-C!”

My wife hurried me home. By the time we got there, my sleep cycle was completed. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, chipper and ready for action! “Wanna go somewhere!?” I chirruped like a bird, happily bouncing up and down on the bed.

“Oh shut up,” Elizabeth grumbled and stuffed the pillow over her face. She still hasn’t told me what she was so sore about.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Gun Man and the Arsonist

Right after I hoisted Don Quixote back to the bookcase, I sprinted to my homely orange paperback shelf and grabbed Gun Man (Fawcett/Ballentine, 1985) by genre veteran Loren D. Estleman. Estleman is known mostly for his crime novels set in Detroit, but he also writes excellent historical western novels that work as both ripping old-style entertainment and historically acute, tough-minded, observant and funny novels with a contemporary edge. His own shelves sag with many awards and he’s even been nominated for a National Book Award (now the American Books Award) for The High Rocks.

Gun Man’s protagonist, John “Killer” Miller, is drawn from the brutal myths of numerous notorious Old West gunfighters, Will Bill Hickok likely among them. His story is bristling, grim, and tersely told. My copy is only 212 pages but, like all the best genre novels, there’s always a sense that here’s more going on beyond the page count. Readers will find a pungent, sophisticated portrayal of the culture and politics of the American Midwest before, during, and after the Civil War, that bloody ground that was the mulch so many murderous American myths (like Jesse James). Action fans will soak up the gunplay; history and political buffs will find plenty to ponder.

But a good novel is more than the tale; it’s also the telling. Estleman, like another genre master
Donald Westlake, rarely puts a word wrong and makes it all seem fresh. Each chapter opens with song lyrics—written by the author—that set the yarn-spinning tone of what follows:

His pa he worked the dirt and dust
a-strainin in the sun;
But John he let the plow grow rust
And practiced with his gun.

Estleman’s stir of history and biography cooks up a bitter, ironic campfire yarn, full of character
and incident. The gun battles are written a terseness that conveys a hard and bleak pity for all
those involved, killer and, in the following passage, victim alike:

“There was no surprise on his face, only a sudden knowing, and in the black eyes a flatness that
was more flat than the flatness that preceded it.”

You can smell the death intertwined with the gunsmoke. This is a tale of a how twisted brutal world creates a twisted mythic life. I’ve liked all of Estleman’s novels that I’ve read so far. He hasn’t done me wrong yet.


Yes, I do I hate it when swell ideas wind up down the tubes. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007) sounds like um surefire stuff: a lonely geeky teenager accidentally burns down the home of American poet Emily Dickinson’s, killing two people.

Years later, out of prison, he creates a new respectable life for himself and thinks he’s buried
his past . . . then one day the son of his victims shows up at his door. Not long after, a series
of sudden mysterious blazes consume the homes of other famous New England writers, poet Robert Frost among them (Odd coincidence: Frost’s home was actually recently vandalized by a bunch of dissolute teenagers).

From the typewriter of Donald Westlake, Arsonist’s Guide would have been an ingenious, fast-paced, whooping farce of obsessed, addle-brained characters bumbling their winding way to hell and back. A reader would also be the recipient of witty and graceful insights on the fate of books and literature in a post-literate world where some fear that, as related in a recent New Yorker article, reading may someday become an “arcane skill.”

Unfortunately, we are not in the hands of Mr. Westlake, but of a writer named Brock Clarke of whom I know little and, guessing from this, will likely not learn much more.

The protagonist is a self-admitted, chronic bumbler named Sam Pulsifer. Sam is also a self-obsessed ditherer, which may be why this story never seems to really catch fire, like the houses. Though accused of heinous crimes he didn’t commit, Sam seems more interested in other aspects of his life—namely his tortured relationship with his parents and his nonrelationship with his wife and children--even when taking the wrong action. It’s not that he bumbles the quest to prove his innocence and save his reputation--in a comic novel, he darn well better bumble it—but that this goal seems to be almost a distraction. A bumbler has to bumble like his life depended on it. The idea of being accused of burning down our monuments to our national literature strikes me as a blazing metaphor for something, but that’s not where this book seems to be headed.

Instead, we get long strings of such non-insightful insights as this one:

“Because this is also what it means to be in a family: to have two of its members break the family
and then wait around for a third to make it whole again.”

OK, I guess so . . . but it’s one of many insights that float around in the narrative with no
place to nestle in to. All the characters appear to be listless and poorly motivated. In the end, Sam is revealed to be so disconnected and indifferent to his own guilt or innocence and to the fate of literature that he makes, what strikes me as a pointless unbelievable act of self-sacrifice. If family is what this novel is really about, why burn down Robert Frost’s house to make the point?


For you writers who read this blog, John Hodgman, the guy you root for in those Apple v. PC commercials and who appears on the Daily Show viewers, also blogs on this service too, and has provided a link to this You Tube video by a Minneapolis writer named Dennis Cass that provides a hilarious illustration of the perils of the literary fame I so cravenly crave. Mr. Cass has published a book called Head Case. Judging by the video, I will probably buy it as soon as certain ships dock. But I will not stop my vain and ruthless quest to get you all to buy my book.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Don Quixote, No Broadway Tears


My New Year’s resolution for 2008 was to start reading one great classic novel a year. Reading and writing genre fiction is no excuse not to seek insight and inspiration from writers in different worlds than mine. Done wrong, of course, this can lead to creative paralysis (“Oh God, I’m never gonna write Moby Dick!”) or a warped and pompous ambition (“I’ll show the bastards! I’ll be the next Herman Melville!”). But done right, it may make me a better writer, maybe a more interesting person at certain cocktail parties.

And so I’ve read my Great Book for 2008: Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. Like so many old canon classics, this novel is more remembered than read. Our image of it these days seems mostly to derive from the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh, a celebration of the romantic liberal idealistic knight errant tilting at the windmill, which represents the unjust, corrupt, cynical and ignorant world. The song "The Impossible Dream" is now an annoying standard. The musical is stapled on the marquees of community theaters across the United States. I saw the 1972 movie starring Peter O’Toole, James Coco and Sophia Loren. Even as a love-struck college student, my heart remained unmelted, except for the scenes where Ms. Loren bends over.

Nevertheless my lazy memory of the musical and lazier assumptions about the book were more or less one: the novel would be a long-winded exercise in gauzy gooey bathos. Then a couple of years ago, a New Yorker review of the most recent translation (by Edith Grossman, Ecco, 2003) strongly indicated that this opinion might be like the old Don’s vision of the windmills that are the book’s central metaphor—a delusion.

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha was first published in Spain in 1605. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Miguel Cervantes (1547—1616) was a frustrated playwright and poet, a soldier who lost an arm fighting real battles for the Spanish Armada and then later became a POW. Late in the 1500s, he became a tax collector for the Spanish crown and was jailed for apparent discrepancies in his accounts. It was while in jail that he first conjured the idea for what would be both his masterpiece and a founding work of modern western literature.

Judging from his life and this novel, Cervantes appears to have a been a man who knew how the world worked. Don Quixote is called the first “modern” novel: Among other innovations, it overthrew the traditional novels of its day, which were chivalric novels: romantic, heroic and non-realistic tales of dashing medieval knights and their loyal assistants (or squires) battling dragons and rescuing damsels. L’Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory is a most illustrious example. Chivalric novels are still very much with us in such volumes as The Mists of Avalon. (You could write a decent essay about the link between novels of chivalry and the modern hard-boiled detective novel, too). By the time Cervantes, soldier and prisoner, came along, the genre had crumbles into piles of cliché.

So Don Quixote, on its surface, is a spoof and is considered to be the first “comic novel.” Its humor and satire rips the armor off the chivalric novel and shows people as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. The errant knight is not a selfless hero, but a vain, egotistical, hypocritical fool. In one episode, he saves a young peasant from a savage beating by his master, only to blithely gallop away leaving the young man to suffer an even worse beating from his boss. It’s like watching The Lone Ranger and Tonto break up a bank robbery, only to neglect to jail the robbers, leaving them free to burn down the rest of the town. Not strong on follow through.

Here's another signal that this is a “modern novel”: More than one author is employed in the telling of this “history” and they’re a mysterious and slippery gang, grossly impressed with their own sagacity rather than the Don’s fruitless sacrifices, another sure sign that we are in modern literature's world of often unreliable narrators. Cervantes also inserts novels within the novel: One is a fairly straightforward and exciting fictionalized account of his own adventure as a POW.

Still, the experience of actually reading Don Quixote doesn't always feel modern. This is sixteenth-century Spain, after all. The literate class of that time was also a leisure class with more time on their hands and fewer distractions (they must also have been shocked to find themselves drawn into a world so earthy, gritty and boisterous). Like other works of its time, this is a long book. Twenty-first century readers with two-second attention spans may still find it long-winded and extremely dense. If there’s a way for a character to say something more than once—especially if it’s Sancho Panza—then it shall be said. The Don delivers many lectures on points of chivalry—some of which actually do contain wisdom. Meanwhile, Sancho Panza (who might be a distant ancestor of Gabby Hayes') speaks a delightful stew of old folk wisdom, much of it irrelevant, much of which has found its way into our modern vernacular.

On the other hand, the book's many chapters are all short. And Don Quixote is packed with as much violent slapstick as a Road Runner cartoon. No matter how often the old Don and his squire are splattered over the plains of Spain, they always peel themselves off the ground (or the floor, or the rock, or a wall) like Wile E. Coyote to fight on. In the gallery of great comic archetypes, Don Quixote (like Stephen Colbert) is the Man Who’s Completely Confident . . . and (Almost) Completely Wrong.

At the same time, though, this big, baggy novel, is as arch, witty and pointed as anything written by Noel Coward. It’s observations of the broken society through which the Don and Sancho ride ring true and are extremely pointed. Don Quixote not only satirizes romantic novels, but skewers the whole idea of romantic love. Like the bones of the dead, broken hearts litter this landscape, many done in by violence and death. A stark episode, near the beginning, tells the tale of a lovesick shepherd who dies of longing for a beautiful, but allegedly heartless, shepherd girl. At his funeral, she appears and rises to her own eloquent defense:

. . .but I cannot grasp why, because it is loved, the thing loved for its beauty is obliged to love the one that loves it. . . . . Why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me?

Episode after episode, brings to mind that J. Geils song: “Love Stinks.” And with it comes the whiff of tragicomedy.

Vladimir Nabokov, who published a whole series of lectures on the novel, believed Don Quixote to be a “crude old book full of peculiarly Spanish cruelty.” I know relatively little of Spain, but I agree on this: Cervantes’ novel really is full of peculiar cruelty. Four hundred years cannot hide the sense that there’s hardly a sentimental bone in its dense body. Reality, not only in the sense of the physical world, but of the people—peasants and lords, priests and criminals alike—beats hell out of Don Quixote and his squire. Even Sancho’s minor victory, when he’s fraudulently given the governorship he spends most of the novel yearning for, ends in farcical heartbreak.

The odd thing though, that while treating his characters with such mind-boggling cruelty, Cervantes' comic wizardry creates an alchemy that ends up making the poor foolish Don sympathetic. In a bitter ironic sense, he does become heroic even when he finally surrenders to reality. In the end, we understand that he was one with his dreams. Without them, he’s forced to renounce Chivalry. And without that faith—and I think faith is an important idea here—he dies. I was left with the feeling that a life without faith, in a fallen world, just might be impossible to live for many, if not all of us.

In its bland reassurances, the Broadway musical drains all this away, leaving marshmallow. No wonder I don't like the damned thing.