Pinned to a supporting pillar in my office is the most useless piece of kitsch I own: my
battery-operated 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.
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.
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.