Monday, March 31, 2008

Virtual Vacation: San Francisco - Alcatraz


As the boat pulled away from Pier 33 I felt the same shiver that thousands of prisoners must have gotten arriving for the first time, staring down the incontrovertible prospect of coming here; its imminence imbues the moment with immanence, as what seems like a tiny speck out in the water grows ever larger, until suddenly its cliffs loom above you, letting you know who is the more powerful in no uncertain terms. Yet as big as the rock is, even as big as is the sea, the sky is even more so; after a day of witnessing it in slivers, I am suddenly aware only of its size. For as big as we imagine ourselves to be, the smallest mountain is bigger than our biggest building, and even the mightiest mountain is but a speck of dust beneath the sky.

Following a brief orientation at the visitor's centre (to help further put me in my place) we are free to explore what we can by ourselves, so I decide to make the obligatory trek uphill to the cell block, snapping pictures as I go. Being here - predictably, I guess - has me thinking about the prisons in which we find ourselves. Mine (like those of many others, I suspect) is a voluntary incarceration, no matter how externally imposed it may feel. In some ways, this may be another reason why we travel, since when we do we are both out of our comfort zone as well as out of our routine; it's not too outlandish to suggest using a vacation as a means to escape from our various mental prisons as well.

The fact that I had to come to a penitentiary for that insight is not lost on me as I reach the bleak building at the windswept top of a place they call The Rock, leaving me - not for the first time - literally between a rock and a hard place. While peering into the tiny cells I'm aware only of the cramped space I've prepared for myself by my own self-loathing, and looking into the even darker cells of solitary confinement I get a horrifying glimpse of what my life might be like if I dared to risk flouting the authority that I've imagined has put me there.

Like the sea around this virtually impregnable fortress, all kinds of forces larger than I am seem to conspire to keep me incarcerated: swirling eddies of doubt, riptides of prejudice, and choppy currents of culture. It's just not that easy to make a run for it, as those men who'd tried to escape this place discovered, to their peril - none of them were ever seen again. As well there are the jailers who while, in my case at least, are entirely imaginary are no less menacing for it. So completely have I swallowed the necessary bunkum about what it means to be a gay man that I've forgotten what's more important: the necessary truth about what it means to be a human. So well have I imagined not only their tyranny but the hold I've given it over me that it never occurs to me how easy it might be to throw off my shackles; after all, since I put them on myself it wouldn't be physically possible for me to lock them as well.

When your life is at an end, it doesn't matter what your BMI was or how chiselled your features were; what matters is that you were kind to people, what you managed to learn, and how much of what you learned you were able to impart. The body of Gyllenhaal is downright dangerous if it's paired with the social skills of Ted Bundy; so too is the brain of Einstein when paired with the thoughts of Charles Manson.

It's not lost on me that for my first virtual vacation I came to what - for many - represents the capital city of gay, one of the first places gay men were able to come in droves to throw off their own shackles, in this case of heterosexism and religious dogma. My own difficult life among my fellow gay men - gleaned from a preponderance of bad experiences first in Kelowna and then in Vancouver - all comes down to me, and how badly I handled them when they occurred, how willing I was to turn an unfair insult into a home truth. My escape from them, then, ought to be as easy as my submission to them was in the first place.

After three hours of exploring (both the site and the psyche) and with a fresh perspective on both myself and the city I returned to the jetty, made the obligatory pass through the gift shop, and caught a few more images of the birds who are the island's only inhabitants now. I find it amusing that Nature's most free creatures now inhabit a place once deemed fit only for her least free. Images and insights from my lunch with Marc are still swirling about in my head as I begin to endlessly nitpick my earlier performance: Was I charming enough? Was I too negative? Did I interrupt him? Fortunately I'm able to keep my hands busy as the boat returns to the city, which action generally succeeds in calming my mind. One phase of my virtual vacation now virtually over, I turn my mind to the next destination, the only one which seems logical now...
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