Nuances - by John Sealander


I'm standing outside the Burlingame station with a suitcase in my hand, looking down the tracks for a CalTrains commuter express to take me into downtown San Francisco. I'm kind of worried that I'm going to be late. There is a brass plaque that says the railroad station has been designated a historic landmark, but the ticket window is closed and the 3PM train that was supposed to wisk me into town over twenty minutes ago has been inexplicably canceled. At mid-afternoon, there are only a few high school kids on skateboards hanging around the station smoking cigarettes and it's easy to imagine that trainsCSOY Nominee don't even stop here anymore. I hesitate to say that I'm lost, but I certainly can't say I know where I am either. This is definitely not an auspicious way to arrive in town for a major awards show that I still have an outside chance of winning in a few hours.

I've been traveling for 21 days. My friend Alison dropped me off at the train station earlier in the afternoon. I haven't seen her in over fifteen years. She picked me up at the San Francisco airport around lunchtime and we attempted, between bites of Pad Thai and crispy shrimp at a local Burlingame restaurant, to catch up on everything that had happened since we drifted apart in Seattle during the mid-seventies. If I close my eyes, Alison's voice and odd little inflections sound exactly the same. I think her life had changed a lot more than mine, however. I don't have two kids, a charcoal grey Volvo and a spouse who is a CFO for a big company anyway. She also seems happier than I am, but maybe it had always been that way. The memory plays strange tricks on you.

As I wait near the tracks for a train to arrive, I strike up a conversation with a young woman who could easily be Alison's next door neighbor. She is pretty and bright and her Dad used to be the mayor of a small California town a few miles East of Berkeley. After a brief discussion about the sad state of California public transportation and some nervous speculation about whether any more trains are headed toward San Francisco today, we start talking about our own lives the way only total strangers can. CalTrains LogoThe woman is telling me how little things can change everything. She used to be a kindergarten teacher. One day when she stooped over to pick up a small box full of plastic children's toys on the classroom floor, her back went out and she was virtually immobile and in constant pain for the next three years.

The woman went from one specialist to the next, and every one would suggest a different way to treat the ruptured disks in her lower spine. Most doctors recommended an extremely invasive type of spinal surgery that involved implanting long stainless steel pins in the spine to prevent further compression and nerve damage. Evidently this surgery wasn't even a permanent fix and often had to be redone in three to five years. Well, one day, almost accidentally, this woman talks to a surgeon who says there is a new procedure that involves implanting bone taken from cadavers in the lower spine and using them as spacers. These threaded pieces of cadaver bone fuse to the existing bone, stabilizing the spine and with any luck at all, the problem is solved. The woman is telling me all this because she decided to try the experimental procedure seven months ago and it worked exactly as promised. Today is the first day she is pain free enough to ride the train into the city again. The ironic thing is that the woman had never meant to see the surgeon who ultimately had the solution. She had gone to the clinic to see someone else, but the doctor she had intended to visit was out.

I'm thinking how similar all this is to a situation I'm currently facing with my dog Spot. He has a ruptured eardrum with an accompanying inner ear infection in his right ear. Four different vets have proposed everything from doing absolutely nothing to the total surgical removal of his entire ear canal. Nobody agrees on anything. Each vet has their own special combination of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to keep the infection in control. We tried them all. Nothing was working very well until we switched from Batril, the antibiotic all the vets said was most effective, to Primor, a similar drug that was much easier for the friends who were taking care of Spot while Janet and I were on vacation to administer. The Primor was only meant to be a two week substitute drug. Surprisingly though, this was the drug that worked. Spot's eardrum is now growing back and he may not need surgery at all, primarily because of a temporary and almost casual change in medication.

It's amazing that little, almost accidental things can make such a big difference. The temperature goes up a few degrees in the Pacific and the weather changes all around the world. You make a joke to some girl at a party and three years later you find yourself married and your life has taken a radically different direction. Almost everything that seems like no big deal at the time can have enormous implications later. The talkative mystery woman and I are on the train now. It arrived over an hour late with no explanations or apologies. I'm still listening to her story and telling her about my dog while wondering about the many accidental things in my own life that changed everything. It really doesn't take much. How did Alison and I wind up traveling in such different directions? It probably was something small and insignificant. And where would the woman sitting beside me on the train be now if she had elected to take one of the other alternatives that had been presented to her? For that matter, where would I be right now if I weren't on this train wanting in the worst way to win a silly writing award?

I've been thinking a lot about nuances lately. Life is a tapestry of nuanced differences and if we aren't observant, we can remain totally oblivious to many of them. I think the future sneaks up on you if you don't watch the little things. Nevertheless, I happen to like subtlety. I like it better than screams and explosions anyway. It can be fun exploring the subtle changes that accompany a blonde's decision to become a redhead. It's not so fun when that blond decides to give up all her earthly possessions, take up channeling and move to the Northwest to follow the teachings of Ramtha instead. Maybe one of the reasons my current relationship has lasted so long is that we stick to subtle changes instead om embarking on roller coaster rides. I speak for myself though. You can never tell about women. Janet might be making plans to quit her job, sell everything and move to India as I speak.

For the moment though, it's the little things that remain the most interesting. We ignore the evening news and focus on the trivial. That's one of the joys of travel. Even the most insignificant things become metaphors for what our life has become. Less than a week ago we were sitting in the piano bar at the Condes de Barcelona hotel speculating about bartenders. Every evening around midnight, we would have a Manhattan or two before turning in for the night. It's a nice ritual. It didn't take long to notice that although we always ordered the same thing, each round of drinks had a personality all its own. Some evenings the drinks were served in heavy crystal highball glasses. Other times, in the slender stemware usually reserved for Martinis. Just like the veterinarians who have been trying to diagnose Spot's ear problems, each of the Barcelona bartenders had their own private formula for the perfect Manhattan. Some used ice, while others didn't. One bartender might add a little extra Vermouth or bitters and serve the drinks on the rocks with a fresh cherry. The next evening there might be a blueberry at the bottom of a slender stem glass instead. One particular barman always added an extra blueberry each time you ordered a new round of drinks. All the drinks were excellent, even though each was slightly different than the next. I find these strange little nuances fascinating. Especially since each bartender thought he was making the drink exactly the way it should be. Apparently in life, even a simple mixture of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters can have endless variations.

By the time we arrive at the 4th. Street Terminal, the woman on the train has told me everything about her life except her name. We gather our bags and go off in opposite directions. As I wait for one of San Francosco's less than abundant cabs to appear, I'm wishing I could have stayed in Barcelona a little longer. There's something about the place that makes you appreciate nuances. Janet and I spent our time in the city ensconced in a wonderful old hotel located directly across the street from Antoni Barcelona,  SpainGaudí's ornate and organic looking Pedrera apartment building. From this vantage point, squarely in the center of the architecturally rich Eixample district, it was easy to see how many surprising twists and turns something familiar can take. This sprawling expansion to the old city was conceived by Ildefons Cerdà in the late 1800's as an absolutely rigid gridwork bisected by a few broad boulevards and yet every block is original and different. Like our nightly Manhattans, the buildings within the Eixample were constrained by a definite set of rules, but still managed to exude their own quirky personality.

I like the subtle chaos that Gaudí and other proponents of the Spanish Modernisme movement created when they salt and peppered their quirky art nouveau facades among the area's neo-classic palaces and government buildings. Every building made its own statement, but all seem to fit quite comfortably within Ildefons Cerdà's gridlike master plan. This feeling of harmony that unites Barcelona's jumble of architectural styles is lost when I glance up the street toward downtown San Francisco to hail an approaching cab and catch a glimpse of the glaringly disruptive Transamarica pyramid.

I like finely nuanced differences. I'm not so fond of discord. Some might find this type of subtlety boring, but it seems to me that this is still the best way to live. You need enough similarity to create a comfort level and just enough difference to hold boredom at bay. These types of nuances were abundant in Europe. You just had to open your eyes and ears. The Italian I heard spoken several weeks ago in Rome didn't feel all that different than the Spanish I heard a little later in Barcelona. Architectural, cultural and culinary influences wove every country together in a complex pastiche of styles that openly acknowledged differences, yet made it easy to see who was influencing whom. Europe has never claimed to be a great melting pot like the United States. Even so, I sometimes think it's much easier to find similarities between Barcelona and Rome than between Boston and Houston.

As the cab takes me up Geary street toward my hotel, I'm thinking that San Francisco feels like a European city in many ways. If I don't look up at the steel and glass skyscrapers that tower overhead, it's easy to imagine I'm back in Rome. Hotel Diva, San FranciscoI'm staying at the Hotel Diva in the theater district. This small, high-tech establishment is remarkably similar to the Hotel Borromini that anchored the other end of this transcontinental journey when it began 21 days ago in Italy. There are subtle differences of course between San Francisco and Europe. In Southern France, young men prop open the doors of punctual commuter trains with their feet to catch the sea breeze between Nice and Cannes. In Burlingame, young men skateboard through the station and smoke marijuana alongside the tracks while waiting for trains that often don't arrive at all. In Rome you put your hotel card/key into a slot hear the door to keep the electricity on while you're in your room. In California you can get your horoscope by pressing a white button on your hotel telephone.

Perhaps I should have read my horoscope before making this final leg of my journey. Maybe it was silly to fly all this way for an awards ceremony that in my heart I know is every bit as bogus as the legions of commercially motivated advertising award shows I have attended throughout my career. Nevertheless, I'll take any kind of affirmation I can get. Janet decides to end her journey in Dallas. I continue West.

I finally meet Laura. For three years Laura has been continually kidding me about my materialistic nature. At first I didn't think she'd be interested in this sort of thing, but I'm glad she will be joining me for the the show this evening. For someone who enjoys nuanced differences as much as I do, Laura has got to be some sort of paragon. A blonde while in Japan this Summer, she is now a saucy redhead. We meet about an hour before the show, still uncertain about what to wear. CSOY NomineeIn less than five minutes her conversation jumps from shopping for shoes at Bloomingdales, to seeing Southern Culture on the Skids at the Great American Music Hall, to the academic paper she is preparing for The American Vacuum Society meeting. Maybe all Stanford chemists are like this, but somehow I doubt it. Neither of us will know anybody at this event. We hardly know each other. Nevertheless, we decide to wear our finest and go drink lots of Cosmopolitans afterwards. In my light wool Ralph Lauren tux and her slinky black dress, you'd never dream we often led dull predictable lives. As we leave the hotel to hail a cab to the theater, the girl at the front desk says we both look stunning this evening.

I'd like to say that this awards show was the high point in a long and convoluted journey that took me from Rome to Florence, Portofino, Cannes, Monte Carlo and Barcelona before this final stop in San Francisco. It wasn't of course. I lost. As luck would have it, my own personal epiphany came inside the walls of Saint Peters Basilica early on a Sunday morning during the second day of the trip. It is supremely ironic that the first church I have set foot inside in more than ten years happens to be the mother church itself. The sweet smell of incense, the drone of wizened old priests reciting the mass in vulgate Latin and the sound of a huge and ornate pipe organ reverberating in the immense space around me were almost overpowering. I briefly wanted to elbow my way through the throng of worshipers and take communion from one of the ancient priests in green surplice handing out wafers to the faithful. It would be nice to have something to believe in. I've always thought it would be nice to have something to believe in.

I remember other thoughts that quickly push these daydreams aside. As the sun comes from behind a cloud, an intense shaft of light pierces the cathedral diagonally, running all the way from a window in the cupola of Michelangelo's spectacular dome to the crypt of Saint Peter far below. I watch a continual stream of people stuff bills into offering receptacles strategically placed throughout the church. As I observe the smoky beams of light cut like lasers through the incense filled air, it becomes apparent to me that all religions are nothing more than nuances. Budda. Jesus. Wotan. When you get right down to it, it isn't all that different than the choice of a blueberry or a cherry in bottom of my Manhattan glass. All these myriad denominations and sects are just different ways of expressing that we as humans are weak and still afraid of the dark.

There is something grand and terribly melancholy about the Basilica. A slow and stately procession of over a dozen stooped and arthritic priests, followed by a phalanx of angelic looking alter boys and a single cardinal in his red miter seem to sum up the state of the church today. As the liturgy continues, I start hearing other music in my head. For some reason I start humming the lyrics to a popular song softly to myself. The chorus goes something like "I'm only happy when it rains" over and over again. I know I've heard this song many times, but I can't for the life of me remember the name or who recorded it. I ask several people later in the day, and many more later in the month, but nobody else can remember either.

After the awards show is over and we are having drinks in the Grand Cafe down the street from my hotel, I ask Laura the same question. Without hesitation she tells me that Garbage did the song and starts telling me all about the band. This is the right answer and I am suitably impressed, but it is about twenty years too late. It's not too late for Laura of course, just for me. We talk some more, have a final drink and then say our goodbys while there is still enough sobriety between us to get us safely back to the boring worlds of physical chemistry and writing ads for technology companies.

The next morning I get up early and kill a couple of hours wandering around the city at dawn before catching a cab to the airport. I love the feel of cities before they fill up with people. The store windows are bright with promise and the only people you see are part of the infrastructure. I watch a couple of old men turn an empty cable car around at the end of Powell Street. Maids and busboys exit the main BART terminal and scurry up escalators to their morning shifts in nearby hotels. I notice that a film production company is shooting a new episode of Nash Bridges a block from the hotel. I catch a glimpse of Don Johnson through the window of a production company trailer as a makeup artist touches up his face before the first scene of the day. In another nearby trailer, a crew member is passing out dozens of San Francisco police uniforms to extras. Somehow it all seems appropriate as I drink my Starbucks coffee from a paper cup in the chill pre-dawn air. These days television has become part of the infrastructure too. The film crew I'm watching is not all that different than the street sweepers and delivery trucks that compete for curb space with the show's assortment of grip trucks, mobile dressing rooms and power generators.

I return to the hotel to pay my bill and leave. I spot a condom in the small safe in my room as I take out my travelers checks and whatnot to return them to my wallet for the flight home. The foil package inside the safe is printed with the hotel logo and the words, "Have a safe stay in San Francisco." As clever as this little marketing ploy is, I decide to leave the condom for someone who can actually use it.

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