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]