Friday, April 13, 2012

Switzerland: Even Paradise Breaks a Child

20090829 MG 3206

The piano.
That is what I remember most about my childhood. I was only ten. About to be sent to boarding school in Gstaad, Switzerland. A lady in the lobby of the Palace Hotel in Gstaad played a beautiful song on the piano.

And in the solitude of a broken hour that night, I found myself humming this sweet sonata, this music of the hotel which accompanied me to sleep before I enrolled for school the next day. I imagined mother playing these notes with her musical fingers. Like the lady in the hotel, I dreamed of her swaying from side to side, and singing with that same light, honey voice.

The spectral notes would drift through our imaginary house, carried by a grand piano which I pictured standing in father’s smoking room, just like in the movies. The harmony was savagely beautiful, heightened by the hour of midnight, the hour of passion. And then father would walk in and give her a kiss. She would stop playing, and stand up. Tenderly, mother reached for his hand, and they would go to the bedroom like people who loved one another did.

But then a bomb exploded in my chest. An emotion so hurtful its pain came in degrees of color; blues, reds, and yellows. And I cried myself to sleep. I wished it all away, wishing to remember nothing the next day. Such is the life of children whose dreams are broken by parents' divorce.

It was Gstaad which mothered me. And it's people who fathered me. Gstaad is a splendid painting drawn by the hand of God, beset by large titans: glacial mountains that eclipsed all in a show of majestic might, where beauty’s onslaught conquered man’s technology. In the midst of this resplendent grandeur lay this small village, which had the charm of a gingerbread town with its crystal-glazed streets and snow-caked rooftops. A place which many a visitor would call Paradise.

The air was smooth, cold and crisp–not harsh, as many would imagine, but rather subdued, every lungful an aroma of peace, a refreshing taste of heaven. The streets were seldom crowded, and tourists travelled from all four corners of the world to share in its delightful charm and fabulous skiing. They could be found strolling along the streets, passing under the dim, ornamental streetlamps—father hugging daughter, husband and wife, all arm in arm, occasionally gasping excitedly as they rushed to one of the boutique windows upon finding an object of marvel.

Sitting on a park bench, eating a piece of candy, I would look down the street at the happy families and the small boutiques. The shops of Gstaad were old as centuries, their bucolic rooms harboring items of rarity or works of flair seldom found anywhere else. And I would watch. A schoolboy far from his parents. All along, the music of the piano played against the backdrop of this paradise.

But every once in a while, when the moon rose and the wolves of sleep circled, the music would stop. It would come to a standstill. It was followed by a sharp, cutting sadness as I remembered the families earlier that day. Memories of happy children and their parents which this paradise flung in my face.

And the quiet played its counter-melody, slowly encroaching upon me. Shunning me. Opening its great, big mouth and swallowing everything in my world.

I remember one thing from my youth, one thing which altered the course of my growth. One thing which I vividly remember to this day.

That even paradise breaks a child.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mad Matt and the Frisco Charm

San Francisco, over the years, has become a favorite city of mine. However, I can’t say this was the case on my first impression. The first time I strolled into San Francisco was on a road trip and I clearly remember my first thought.  This place is just a rock with concrete on it. I really wasn’t much of a fan.  Actually my genuine appreciation for the Bay area didn’t really come until I lived there. Frisco for me was like the girl you meet, that at first really isn’t much to look at, but over time you notice all the things she truly has to offer.  It’s her personality, or the way her eyes sparkle when the light’s just right, it’s the mellow attitude and calm she exudes, or the long draping hair that outlines and falls over her rolling shoulders, so many unique attributes that for some reason you didn’t notice the first few times you met.  San Francisco was that girl to me.

It’s not just what the city has to offer and it certainly offers quite a lot. Whether it’s North Beach and its Italian dining, or my favorite China Town with the occasional roof that must have been stolen from the Forbidden City, it offers everything any major American metropolis would.  However, it does it with its own personality and stunning views.  After some time, I realized San Francisco is like New York on Prozac, and I still stand by that claim.  But what San Francisco really offers, that many others do not, is the diversity of its surrounding environment.  There are multitudes of microclimates and varying ecosystems all within arm’s reach.  Even on the edge of the city in Presidio where I lived, you were surrounded by woods and cliff side trails that meandered around to the Golden Gate Bridge, or down to Baker Beach, that faced the Pacific reaching its way deep into the continent. As a note of caution for beach goers however, my first day at the beach was a little more than expected.  With towels in hand and a vigorous excitement for a day in the sun, I eventually noticed something quite unique about Baker Beach.  It is primarily a nude gay beach.  The first naked guy I saw jog past me was like being at Central Park and seeing a giraffe stroll by.  I rubbed my eyes to confirm what I saw and then looked around to see if anybody else just witnessed the unexpected anomaly I had.  Looking around I saw two naked men sunning in the warm afternoon sun.  Then another get up and run into the ocean.

Now first of all, I have no problem with nudity, but as I learned that day, nude beaches really aren’t my thing.  I also have no problem with homosexuality, the gay community has my unbridled support and appreciation for the diversity it brings to our societies, but I care not to ever again see so many things swinging around like “Baywatch” in some alternate universe.  I didn’t care for it in the locker room, or anywhere else for that matter.  Also, a quick point to many of the bathers there, jumping into near 60 degree water nude, as a man, is probably not the most prudent idea. I hope to only see that many wieners again around a camp fire, with Oscar Meyer being the only package lying around.  But for those that enjoy it, when you hit the beach go right, for the rest go left.

From Baker Beach you can leave San Francisco and in 45 minutes be deep in a valley, dwarfed by redwoods and soothed by running streams.  Then it’s only a short journey to the Pelican Inn, where you can enjoy a pint at the quaint bar that will convincingly have you believe you’re sitting in the Cotswolds.  Afterward, it’s merely a couple of cartwheels to Mount Tamalpais to rise above the clouds and sit under a solemn tree, surrounded by mountains of gold, and stunning vistas of the vast and deep pacific. When you get bored, pack up and head to the Napa and Sonoma appellations to stroll through the vineyards and taste some of the world’s finest wines.  This is what makes San Francisco so special, its variety and diversity in just about every measure.  There is something for everyone, from a major city, to rural countryside, and endless small villages all with their own unique style and flare. It was in one of these small villages that I first met Mad Matt, and gained so much from such a small piece of his story.

Mad Matt:  It’s funny how little I drink coffee, yet often times I find myself in Starbucks in Lafayette, just outside San Francisco.  I see a man here sometimes named Matt.  Matt is legally blind and has seizures.  Matt also talks to himself and the average passerby thinks Matt’s crazy.  He can be seen walking down the street with his searching cane, rapidly engaged in a conversation with Casper, or some other friendly ghost from his childhood.  Matt has also been hit twice by a car on a couple of these random walks.  One broke his hip and the other was a hit and run. He explained to me that as they drove off he yelled, “Just be that way then”.  And they were that way then.  I’ve talked to Matt on several occasions, and after I write this I will once again fill in for the ghost of Matt’s conversations.  When I talked to Matt I learned he wasn’t crazy, I also learned he had a seizure once when he heard George Bush give a speech.  In light of the current state of foreign affairs I might be inclined to lie down and gyrate with him.  Certainly my fist would shake back and forth a little.  So what do I think Matt feels between conversations and seizures?  I think Matt feels trapped inside himself and feels brutally alone.  Strolling through public venues and talking to himself helps assuage the feelings of isolation, and pass the leopard sentence life has awarded him.

With a glance of thought, I also have an idea why people avoid him.  Not because they think he is dangerous.  It’s similar to reasons as to why many people are able turn their backs on tragedies like Darfur and Rawanda.  I think self-conversationalists like Matt and regions like Darfur ultimately scare the shit out of people.  It reminds us how such a grand dominant animal as ourselves, are so entirely vulnerable.  How we can be so removed from control and how humanity and life can be so blindly cruel.  I’m part of the masses, the sheep that such a wolf when creeping around makes my hair stand on end.  That’s why I need Matt, so I can listen to him rattle off to my timid soul and afterwards contemplate the words of FDR, “Only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”.

I have learned over the years that fear is undoubtedly humanity’s cancer.  A chronic illness that debilitates the individual and humanity, and one we often only occupy ourselves with treating the symptoms. At least Matt and I both feel a bit freer after our conversations.  All the deep sadness I have for him begins to melt, and I thank God for that.  I thank him for that moment of valor that others would perceive as a relentless squander. Carrying on with his life, being as normal as normal will afford him, and making the best of the tools he’s been left with. His attitude is something I admire and have worked to emulate ever since. It really is just a simple moment between Matt and me. As Kurt Vonnegut may have said, “So it goes”!