Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December, 2015

Straw Stars cropped

Straw Christmas Star Ornaments, purchased at the Wien Kriskindlmart in Vienna, Austria in 1978 by the Matteson family. Photo Credit; Sam Matteson

Sitting beside my son of thirty-seven years, I bit into the grilled bratwurst and was instantly transported to Vienna, carried there in the same way that Proust was prompted to recall his youth while tasting a Madeleine and tea in Remembrance of Things Past. The salty and smoky taste of the sausage coupled with the tang of the spiced mustard filled me with a sense of inexplicable joy. To me this is the undeniable flavor of the advent season.

A little less than thirty-seven sevens before, a time when I looked very like my child does today, my family and I had completed our sojourn in Budapest, Hungary. The gray days of late November in Communist-era Hungary added an oppressive air to the already gray cityscape. We were well treated by our hosts, who earned our life-long friendship by their kindness, but we longed to return home to the United States, more and more as the months dragged by. At last, the day arrived for our scheduled departure. The day before I had shipped the majority of our clothing to Munich by train.

I experienced firsthand the frustrations of navigating a rigid bureaucratic state that day. Only dollars would be accepted for international shipments I learned after standing in a long queue. The station shipping department could not accept traveler’s checks even if in dollar denominations. That was the job of the bank. At the bank in the station I stood in yet another line to have the checks cashed with a 3% fee, of course. The bank would only dispense the cash in Hungarian Forints, however. “But I need the cash in dollars,” I complained. I was directed to yet another line at the monetary exchange where for a high fee and a highly unfavorable but centrally determined exchange rate, I ultimately obtained the requisite cash to pay for the shipment. After nearly three hours of exasperation this task was accomplished.

I had heard the Hungarian quip that if you see a queue protruding from a shop you should get in the line. There was bound to be something good at the end of it. I also heard that a certain Gabor had been in a line so long that he said to the lady behind him that we was going to go to the ministry of commerce to complain. He left, only to return a few minutes later and reenter the queue with the explanation, “The line at the complaint department is even longer than this line. Mit tudok tenni?” The latter was a phrase meaning “What can I do?” that we heard often both as an offer of help and as a cry of resignation frequently rendered with a shrug. I understood the feeling well and experientially after my time in the shipping department.

 We Had a Plan

On the morning of our departure, we mapped out a plan and then proceeded to execute it. We cleaned the apartment, collected our three children, and packed all the remainder of our belongings into the Simca sedan we had purchased from a friend in Germany a few months before. It was a decent if modest conveyance, even if the floor board was rusting out from too many Bavarian winters and their salt. It would not have passed the TUV the next year, I fear. Since we had no garage, we had left the white car parked out front of the apartment building where it gradually had turned gray, as it acquired a thick coating of Budapest grime. I was concerned once when I came out to the car one morning a few weeks earlier to find a word drawn by a small finger in the dust on the rear window. It read, “PISZKOS.” I asked my host the meaning of this graffiti, to which he replied, “It’s dirty.”

I responded, “It’s okay, Peter, you can tell me what it means, I am a big boy.”

He then laughed and continued, “No! The word is not vulgar. It means, ‘I am dirty,’ you know like ‘Wash me!’ in the US. The school kids on your block were just giving you some advice.” Unfortunately our time was up before I could learn enough Hungarian to have the car washed so we traveled in a piszkos autó.

Our first stop the morning of our departure was to check out with the local police at their neighborhood rendőrőrs (guard house) as required by law for resident aliens such as we. For months we had been aliens all the while I had been a visiting researcher in an exchange between the United States National Science Foundation and the corresponding entity in the Magyar Koztarsasag (Hungarian Republic, what Hungarian call their nation).

Next we motored through the crowded streets of the capital city, dodging honking Ladas and Vilamos electric trams as well as thousands of pedestrians. We pulled up to the Intourist office and returned our keys to the manager and signed more paperwork.We now were officially homeless. We had also expended almost all of our Hungarian currency and dollars, since we were prohibited from “exporting” currency from the country. Thus, we were nearly penniless. We hoped to replenish our cash reserves by cashing a personal check at the AmEx office in the Austrian capital. This was in the days before international banking and the convenience of widely accepted US credit cards in Europe.

One Last Stop

The Ministry of Culture was our final stop before embarking up Bécsi utca (Vienna Road) for the 250 km (150 mile) trip to Vienna and the approximately three hours of driving (plus one hour at the border station at Hesgeshalom). We were, we had been told, to return our “staying permits” and reclaim our US passports at the ministry offices. Thus, as properly documented aliens we could depart by vehicle. When I was able, after several minutes of futile inquiry, to reach an English speaking official, I was told that the request was supposed to have been made two weeks prior to our departure, a fact nobody had informed us of.

I told the assistant that that was unfortunate, indeed, since we had been informed otherwise and that we now had no apartment, no money, and must drive to Vienna before the American Express Office closed so that we could find accommodations for the night. The image of Carolyn sitting with our three children in the echoing hallway is seared into my memory. I gave my long-suffering wife a hasty brief of our situation, then added “If little Peter [our six month old] starts to cry don’t try too hard to pacify him. You don’t have to pinch him or anything, but the more annoying we are, the more motivated they will be to get us on our way.” Anyway even a communist bureaucrat cannot be unmoved by a crying infant, I reasoned. Whether, our desperate measures were the reason or not, we will never know, but the passports eventually materialized hours later and we were on our way, but well after noon. All that lay between us and Vienna were two hundred fifty kilometers and a heavily armed border.

In the days of preparation before funds were exhausted, snacks and juice had been purchased for the trip at the local fruit stand and at the government-run ABC market at the train station. These victuals fortified us as we sped through town past empty shop windows. I noticed an irony: finally a shop was displaying clothes pins for sale that had been unavailable for the nearly four months of our visit. As we headed out the Vienna Road, I also recalled a story my host had told me. István and Gabor were chatting.

“That is a beautiful coat you have on Gabor. Where did you buy it?” István asked.

Bécsi utca, the Vienna Road.”

“I was out that way yesterday. I saw no coats like that for sale.”

“Ah!” said Gabor, “”You went to the wrong end.”

We were on our way to the other end, now. But the clock was ticking. Would we make it by 1700 hours?  That time, 5:00 p.m., was when we though the American Express Office would close. If we arrived too late. what then? My mind reeled at the potentially awful scenarios.

To Be Taking Picture, Forbidden!

Photo TilosAt the border, the cars lined up waiting to be searched, for what I was never certain. The scene was intimidating. Gray flannel clad soldiers carrying machine guns paced before the barbwire-topped fences. Nearly an hour passed as we incrementally crept forward. We have no photographs of Hegeshalom, by all accounts a lovely village. On the highway were posted signs of cameras with a forbidden slash symbol that we had seen before near Soviet military posts. We learned that this Hungarian phrase Fényképezni Tilos means the taking of pictures forbidden! We complied as quickly and courteously as we could with the instruction to completely unpack the car, then repack it when none of our suspected contraband or our hidden defectors were uncovered.

Vienna, At Last

We roared into the Stadt Mitte of Vienna a few minutes after 5:00 p.m. and ran as fast as a couple, two toddlers, and an infant can move to the AmEx office. They were open! Until 1800 hours, thankfully. We cashed a check, learned of where we could book accommodation, and what was happening in the city center that evening. Across the cobble stone square we made reservations for that night at one of the most luxurious hotels of our entire European adventure. All the Mattesons were exhausted by our headlong flight from Eastern Europe and the adults decided that it was foolhardy to ask the children to submit to sitting in a civilized restaurant in our condition.  We strolled the Wien Kriskindlmart (Vienna’s Christ Child Market), a wonderland of glittering lights and Christmas festival foods that runs daily during advent. We marveled at the opulence of objects in the shop windows of Austria’s jeweled city. The lights and the tree shed a soft and welcoming glow across our path. Hot tea and cocoa warmed us. Pretzels, strudel, and cookies satisfied our hunger. Indeed, it was for us Wiener Adventszauber (Viennese Advent Magic). Among the ornate and expensive items we found more humble but equally delightful ones. We selected traditional straw stars that even at this Christmastide adorn our tree. I found my grilled bratwurst and senf (spicy German-style mustard), and it tasted of joy, the joy of freedom, the joy of knowing that we had completed something significant in our lives, and the joy of a faith affirmed that though the way may be hard, by God’s grace we can triumph over hardship. This I feel again every time I taste once more my Viennese Advent. May your advent be filled with joy also.

Vienna Christ Kildl Mart

Vienna Rathaus Kriskindlmart 1978 Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Clock Quartz

A quartz time piece can tell me precisely how late I am to my next appointment. Photo Credit: http://www.clockworks.com

There hangs a clock on my kitchen wall that ticks each second off in crystalline precision. It is not the pendulous kind of clock that fascinated me when I was a child.   It is a thoroughly modern timepiece. Where once the distinguished name of a chronometer’s creator, a proud craftsman, was proclaimed, the name of him who had conceived and executed a device of great intricacy with rasp and skill, with turnings and dexterity, with jewel bearings and ingenuity, with ratchet and pawl, now an anonymous “quartz” is imprinted.

Nevertheless, I can now have time dispensed to me with the accuracy of the Atomic Clock in Boulder, Colorado, where unsuspecting Cesium atoms oscillate at their native frequency of over 9 trillion ticks per second while voyeur technologists watch and listen intently and sound a radio gong at the passing of each second. Now I can know with astonishing precision how late I am to an appointment or how little time I have left to do what I must and would do. But I do not better know how to spend my time now than before.

Only So Many Heatbeats

Graydon Larrabee, a colleague of my Texas Instruments days, dismissed all time invested in exercise as folly, thus: “You have only so many heart beats, I understand. You waste yours grunting and sweating; I will spend mine more pleasurably, here, beside the pool, drinking Margaritas and watching the sunset.” An interesting idea. But if by raising your heart rate to 120 for thirty minutes per day for five days of every week, you could lower your resting heart rate by five beats per minute for the remainder of your life, you would reduce the overall number of cardiac contractions by the equivalent of about five years over a normal life span. So exercise might extend your life by a half decade, if life were as simple as arithmetic. I am the beneficiary of a youth of active exertion so that my resting heart rate is often as low as 45 pulses per minute. Cardiologists call this condition “Bradycardia,” and sometimes show concern. Nevertheless, at that rate I should live to the age of 101. By this logic I reckon that if I can get my heart to stop all together I should expect to live forever.

Indeed, if I were to live to see eighty Februaries I should have expended about two and a half billion seconds, and my heart would have contracted just about as many times. And if I had taken a step with each heat beat, then my journey would be nearly a million miles, two round trips to the moon, or 38 times around the world. Such a trip should take us far from where we began. But as we circumperambulate the globe we may end very near to where we began. It all depends on where and when we stop and how we wander, like laps around a cinder track.

I half resent and half revel in those ticking clicks that are the sounds of seconds evaporating. It is inevitable that time be dispensed in such small and manageable doses. The ocean of time is so immense that we would drown is centuries and millennia if it were not dispensed to us in mouthfuls of seconds. Still seconds often seem to come so fast we invariably spill many of them, never to be recovered. Time wasted is time we will never taste again.

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown's office metering out them minutes of boredom waiting as his patience. Photo Credit: www.riotgamesmerch.com

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown’s office metering out the minutes of boredom waiting as his patient. Photo Credit: riotgamesmerch.com

My memory is clogged with clocks; the grandfather clock in Dr. Brown’s office. His clock ticked and ticked and ticked interminably, and we waited impatiently an eternity to receive shots or to endure his probing of my sore throat or for an examination of a perennial ear infection. Ma and Pa Moates, too, had a clock, a cuckoo clock that ticked frenetically and, on the hour, hoarsely crowed its wooden heart out. Then there was the mantle clock of my Mother’s sister, Ruth, whom we all called “Aunt Sister,” a name that now seems a strangely ambivalent appellation for a confusing relationship, but in customary use seemed so natural and easy to pronounce. In the culture of my home and family “Aunt Sister,” “Uncle Doc,” and “Miss Mary” were the gentle way of speaking that raised no eyebrows, though we had no “Uncle Bubba” until I married into the Rhodes’ family of Texas. But I digress. There were clocks everywhere ticking, ticking then.

Einstein was right: time is relative. But our sense of time obeys different laws than the clocks or the mechanics he worked out. Time drags its feet when we would hurry toward an event, leaving long parallel grooves on the ground. And time rushes ahead of us as we drawback from the future, it dragging us forward inexorably. In the South we often stop the clock’s pendulum all together when someone dies, just as we cover the mirrors. The clock has stopped for our loved ones to be sure. But perhaps it is good for us to take time out to grieve and to ponder life. Then we return to the frenetic pace of business as usual.

The variability of internal time may explain why I have always had trouble with rhythm. I find it impossible to keep a steady beat. I theorize and excuse my lack of “groove” as a congenital inability to properly subdivide time because of my bradycardia. “I don’t have a rhythm bone,” I insist. My musician son has a different explanation: “Dad, you’re too white, that’s all!”

Sometimes this temporal defect has been simply an embarrassment, but occasionally it has been a sad disability that caused me to shake my head and cluck at myself. I recall the Sergeant’s remark when I was in the Marine Corps, “Matheson (intentionally and precisely mispronouncing my name with a gratuitous “h”) would make an excellent guide if only he could march. He can’t keep a steady cadence.” Many times I have mocked myself by singing in a halting beat, “I’ve got…rhythm….I got music. I got my gal. How could ask for anything more?”

Still Running

I have always been racing the clock, it seems, challenged to keep up. Often this has been true figuratively, but in my teenage years it was most literal. I was a runner. My lanky legs made me ill-suited to short sprints. My lack of long-term stamina precluded any prowess at distance. But my stupidity made me a candidate for the middle distance. The willingness to subject oneself to agony is a prerequisite for such races. The taste for masochism is a distinct asset for the middle distance racer.   The half-mile, the 880 yard run, is the plebian cousin of the more cosmopolitan 800-meter “dash” of international competition. The 800 is a race devised by a sadist. I can hear him exclaiming at the moment of inspiration, rubbing his hands together, “I know! Let’s have these poor chaps run their hearts out for a quarter of a mile, but instead of letting them break the tape then, let’s have them slough out a second lap around the track. What bully fun!”

I always approached the race with anxiety and dread. I was like a skittish dog approaching its master, the one who always cuffed his ears in greeting, making him howl. “Butterflies” they delicately call the sensation of the anticipation of an unwelcome, painful event. My reaction felt more like hornets ominously swarming in my abdomen; at the next moment they may decide to sting in a deadly attack. Perhaps the psychological experience was necessary to prepare me physiologically for the next two minutes of exertion. I could feel the adrenaline pouring into my blood stream. In “fight or flight,” like a deer fleeing the hunter, I started at the sound of “Runners to your mark! . . . Ready!” then an eternal pause, and at last the starter’s pistol retort. It is no accident, I believe, that such races begin with the runners fleeing from the sound of a shot.

It most often begins well enough, in a civilized fashion. Each runner dashes straight down his assigned lane for the first fifty yards, vying for a slight advantage by the time he reaches the curve, enough advantage to justify his cutting off his nearest challenger at the turn when we all break to the inside. The clock ticks steadily then. Paces come four or five to the second and the grass at the side of the track blurs by. The other runners, arms pumping, are close; you can hear them breathing the first deep breaths they have taken since the start; and at the break they jostle each other. Once a runner only a half step ahead of me at the curve cut in and spiked the muscle above my right knee. A thin red stripe grew down my leg and bathed my black track shoes. I never got the rust color out of the laces although I washed them repeatedly. But Neet’s Foot oil restored the leather of my spiked shoes and kept then supple for years after I had hung them up for good.

The aptly named backstretch is coming, this is the place where we stretch our stride and let our feet eat up the yards. If someone else leads I mustn’t let them get out of reach; if I lead I must carefully measure my expenditure of heart beats, just enough to stay ahead, but not too many to squander myself before the finish. But I have only fifteen seconds more to strategize and to adjust before the first quarter mile is ending.   I see the white line signaling the mid-way point of the race and I hear my coach yelling “49, 50, 51, 52….” He is watching his stopwatch and calling out the seconds as they tick off. His voice is growing louder as I approach: “56, 57, 58, 59, 60…a bell rings as we begin the last lap. “Pretty fast pace,” I note silently as I make the turn. Then the seconds begin to sag like a Salvador Dali painting, hanging limp and long as I am lost in my own disoriented world as the second lap repeats the first. When will this race ever end? I am trapped in the commitment to the people in the stands, to my coach, to myself to run on and finish. Where are the other runners? I can hear them, I think. Are they struggling as am I?   When will they make their final move? When should I make my final kick?

Start Your Kick!

Here it comes, up ahead, the curve. “Now! Start your kick, Sam.” I lean forward slightly and push hard against the ground to spring forward. I accelerate and lean into the curve. It feels good, for a few seconds. Then as I come around the final curve, it hits me. As if a bear had suddenly jumped onto my back, I instantly gain three hundred pounds. The clock speeds up while my motion slows to a viscous pace. I strain to keep up with the world but it is receding. The crowd is roaring as the runners fan out across the lanes for the final eighty yards, but their voices are muted, far away. The only sounds I hear are the sounds of my labored breathing coming in a jagged three-four waltz rhythm, inhale for two beats; exhale explosively for one count. And my heart is beating in my ears like a clock, loud and insistent. I hear the footsteps of my rival, too, who is pulling up to my right. They sound somehow ominous. I dig deeper to run faster. The tape is across the track, and I focus on crossing it in just a few more ticks of the clock, a few more steps, a few more heart beats. The world turns red and my vision tunnels to a small circle centered on the finish. I fling up my arms and lunge across the line. “Did I finish first, second, last? No matter. I finished. What was my time? Good. I beat my personal best.”

The Finish

One of my high school team mates (Alvin Seale, left) makes his final kick to win the relay race in 1965. I still feel as if I am running, myself. Photo Credit: Sam Matteson

I marvel at what I once did not think possible: that one entity can be two contradictory things at once. Time runs simultaneously fast and slow. Time both sprints and ambles. My last race was only yesterday. It was fifty years ago. No, I am still running and wondering about the finish. I wonder if I will have enough to make it in good time. I hope God is running with me and with be there to catch me at the tape. It is taking all the strength that I can muster.

I am ambivalent about ticking clocks. At once they remind me of how inexorably the seconds evaporate, but at the same time, their tiny voices are speaking a reassuring rhythm of faithfulness.

Read Full Post »

Lisa Noelle-3 (left) and Carrie Susan-4 (right) enjoy a ride at Lions’ Park Waco, Texas as Christmas approaches. You can almost hear the carols ringing in the background. (Photo credit Sam Matteson 1976)

Do you hear that? . . . There! In the background. I hear it so often—on every street corner, in the mall, spilling from churches and from offices—that I hum along without even thinking about it. It’s the sound of December, the music heralding the approach of Christmas, like the distant sound of the brass band in the Thanksgiving parade. More than any other season, December has its own joyous accompaniment.

Many things I anticipate with pleasure as December approaches, but the music—Ah! the music—cheers me most. Carols, impatient as children, begin in the last weeks of November like the overture before the real symphony. We know that it’s really December when the winter middle school band concerts happen all over town. The presentation must always include a rendition of Jingle Bells performed by the gaggle of Christmas geese, the seventh grade clarinet players, who have studied the wicked reed for only twelve weeks. Their merry approximation of the tune fills the gym and makes us smile (or grimace):

“Honk, honk, honk!
Honk, honk, honk!
Squawk, honk, squeak, honk, squawk!”

Sweet Carols in Memory

"Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views" by Godofbiscuits - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

“Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views” by Godofbiscuits – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons – https://commons. wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

But not all the sounds of the holidays are strident. Hark how the bells, the sweet silver hand bells, resound in my heart! In a long ago December bell concert my wife (eight months pregnant and great with our first child) worried that she would be delivered on stage, red robed and white gloved even as she was. Baby Carrie was moved as well—in utero—by the stirring melody and responded with her own lively dance.

I, too, have loved music from childhood. I can still recall singing in the “cherub choir” on Christmas Eve. The candle light, the stained glass of “big church,” the smiling faces of the people are colored with crayons in my memory. What I most recall, though, is my fascination with the starched surplice and red bow that hung beneath my chin as if I were a Christmas present. The white fabric made a delightful crackle as I flapped my arms like angel wings. The director was not amused, however.

Perhaps it was then that I began to be persuaded that the human voice can be the most glorious instrument in all of the world. As I grew older I looked forward to December, when I again could be transported by making music myself. And what more majestic piece in which to be immersed than Handel’s Messiah? And so it came to pass that in those days my wife and I joined the choir. Every Wednesday evening after work, from Thanksgiving to Christmas week, we practiced the trills and runs of the grand baroque oratorio, while our sweet toddlers, Carrie, and her younger sister Lisa Noelle played and colored Xeroxed line drawings of the manger and wise men under the watchful eyes of “Granny” Slade.

Afterward, homeward bound to baths, story books, and bed the girls were parceled to each parent for some quality one-on-one time. So it was that Lisa Noelle rode with Daddy in the old blue Volkswagen. After placing my almost three-year-old— clad in corduroy overalls and lady-bug-and-flower sneakers—into her seat, I climbed in and started the car. I could not restrain the music that only minutes before had swelled from a giant choir. A rousing chorus of the oratorio spilled from my mouth:

“And He shall purify.
And He shall puri-fi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-y the sons of Levi.”
Lisa looked puzzled as she studied my face. Then she held up her tiny hand as if to say “Stop!” Her brow wrinkled and she admonished me in a tone that I had never heard before.

“Daddy! Your mouth is scribbling!”

I pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. It is difficult to drive when you are doubled over in laugher. Decades later, I cannot hear the strains of Handel’s masterpiece without thinking of my little one. I smile at the memory and at the irony of the woman she has become—a wife, a mother, a school teacher and a classically trained soprano who knows well the scribbles and curlicues of bel canto.

Joyfully Seeking the Messiah

So I soak it all in, all the music of December. I note the Messiah performances at the Schermerhorn and at area churches. I am disappointed to find that the Messiah Sing-Along, (note: BYOS, that is, bring your own score) is sold out already despite my preparation. I absorb all the music I can in December because it must last me the rest of the year. For come Boxing Day, the carols will be silenced, put away with the tinsel and the tree. But I for one will still be singing, well outside the lines, joyfully scribbling in my heart:

“Unto us a child is born.
Unto us a son is given . . . .
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah, indeed!

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300x168.jpg

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300×168.jpg

Read Full Post »