Monday, January 9, 2017

The Christmas Poisonings, Part One

“So it didn’t come this year: I’ve learned from experience that the fault is usually mine. Look, only when you’re a kid is Christmas given to you. As an adult you have to work at it, or perhaps earn it, even if you don’t have kids. So the failure is mine: I never quite happened on the stable where the blessed Jesus lay. Or perhaps I was too busy to look up in the sky, and the wondrous star burning bright shined for nothing. Anyway, Christmas didn’t come. But it really doesn’t matter, since things were seriously worse for a lot of people. As things have been worse for me, in many years past….”

“How,” asked Lady, “how can Christmas not come?”

“Well, it all started off badly, when Mr. Fernández came home badly poisoned from a staff Christmas party….”


“Can you believe it? Thank God I used to work for Wal-Mart, since Sam Walton was a serious old toad, and realized that cheering drinks were a heavy profit-loss at company events. But at the workplace of Mr. Fernández, no such wisdom prevailed.”

“Dear me….”

“Anyway, whatever it was that they gave him, it caused undue elation, slurring of speech, and a total loss of responsibility for pressing concerns, which in this case was the cooking of the Christmas turkey.”

“Raf had to cook the turkey?”

“Yup, the accursed turkey….”

“’Accursed’ is a word?”

“Seems so, since the computer hasn’t squiggled it. Anyway, the turkey had been a pain ever since it landed a week earlier in my mother-in-law’s cart at Costco. Not that it wasn’t a very big bird at a very good price…. So good, in fact, that Ilia (my mother-in-law) decided to get the biggest bird possible. So they sailed out of the club with 25 pounds of turkey, but then realized that they had no place to put it….”

“Nobody has a freezer in the family?”

“Well yes, but they’re all filled with ice cubes or frozen peas or God knows what. So it’s nine o’clock on the week before Christmas, and all the freezers were full. So that meant that they had to call, and see if the freezer in the Luna Street apartment was available. Since that’s my freezer, that meant that it was up to me to stay up way past my bedtime, awaiting a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law and a frozen bird that I didn’t much want and would, as it turned out, never eat.”

“Somehow, the logic is getting a little skewed in this story,” said Lady, who has chosen not be here, but still is, in my mind.

“You don’t know the family,” I told her, or perhaps told ‘she-who-is-but-isn’t’ (English having no ser / estar distinction). “Anyway, it would be at least two hours from club to Luna Street, since it was a Friday night, and the traffic is always horrible, and especially at Christmas time. So that meant I would have to lose my first sleep cycle—some four hours or so—awaiting family and bird. So I put my foot down, which meant that I turned out going to Luna Street, to hide the key cleverly in the foyer of the building. Then I came home….”

“Right, so the bird was causing trouble, right from the start,” said Lady.

“It was,” I told her, “since we then managed to keep the bird frozen, but then somehow forgot that we weren’t serving frozen turkey for Christmas dinner. So then it was two days before Christmas, and had anyone taken the bird out of my freezer? Of course not, so I had to give Mr. Fernández my keys, and he went before work to set about thawing the turkey. But guess what? Instead of bringing it home, putting it in the aluminum roasting pan in the oven (away from predatory cats), and letting it defrost there, he simply dumped the bird three feet away from my freezer into my kitchen sink. So then, t’was the night before the night before Christmas, as well as the night in which Mr. Fernández suffered his greatest bout with corporate America, at the office Christmas party—a seemingly innocuous affair. So it was 9:30 at night, which is bedtime for little Marc, and Mr. Fernández arrived, filled with cheer, protestations of love, fulsome admiration of my physical charms and, fatally….”

“Fatally, Marc?”

“Christmas brings that on,” I told her. “Anyway, there he was, asking where the hell the turkey was? Then he bolted for the bathroom, very nearly not making it. So I followed him, and the four cats followed me, since they hadn’t been fed, that being Mr. Fernández’s job. So we all stood around, and Mr. Fernández announced that he would cook the turkey, which he colorfully and profanely described. But guess who had to go get it?”

“No, Marc!”

“Well, could I send out a poisoned man to retrieve the turkey? Or leave an entire family unfed on the night before Christmas?”


“That’s the way it happens in this family,” I told her. “Anyway, I had first to steer Mr. Fernández to the chair in front of the screen that was YouTube-ing the Messiah, which had gotten to the ‘Shirley’ song….”

“No, Marc, the Messiah can’t have a ‘Shirley’ song….”

“It does if sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the version of the Messiah borne to me by my mother. Anyway, the Mormons updated the choir ‘Surely, he hath borne our griefs’ to ‘Shirley, he hath borne….’”

“Things appear to happen differently at your house,” observed Lady.

“Apparently,” I told her, “since there an envenomed (well, you know what I mean) Mr. Fernández was, shouting ‘Shirley,’ which could be heard all down the street, to which I can attest, since I had left Mr. Fernández safely in the arms of Handel, as well as four unfed cats, who were surrounding the chair, making egress impossible. So I grabbed the damn turkey, and my back instantly registered the fact that it was a 25-pound frozen fowl. And then I sputtered back to the apartment, where I discovered Mr. Fernández sobbing in front of the screen, on which was YouTube-ing ‘Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow….’”

“Marc, you have to be making this up entirely!”

“Well, that may or may not be,” I told her, “but though there were two of us, I can assure you that there’s only one witness!”

“I see that,” she said.

“Anyway, Mr. Fernández roused himself and vowed to march manfully into the kitchen, there to cook the turkey. The fact that he was unlikely to get unguided into the kitchen seemed of lesser importance than the fact that kitchen is a place with knives, which might have done more damage than even the Christmas party did. So I announced that I would cook the damn turkey, and not tonight, since it was now several hours after my bedtime, and even if I could start the cooking process, who was going to be around to see to the end of it? I mean, would the oven turn itself off?”

“So then what happened?”

“So then I assisted Mr. Fernández to bed, and did you know that I’m the most beautiful man in the world?”

“Not unattractive, certainly,” said Lady. “I mean, next to the Elephant Man….”

“First you’re not here, thus refusing to share your burden of this story….”

“Oh, rubbish, Marc! Why do I have to be the straight man in your stupid posts!”

“Well, that’s it,” I told her. “If you want to know what happened, you’ll just have to stick around until tomorrow, since both of us have gone to bed….”

Stay tuned!


Friday, December 30, 2016

Bach, ex-con

“Why Bach?” asked Lady, the owner of the coffee shop, the owner of the adjoining gift shop, and a dear friend.

“In such dissolute days do we live,” I told her. And then I thought of a book I had just read about the Vatican. Since Pope Frances was still unelected, a lot of the book concerned Pope Benedict, who had yet to retire, and was riding his slide into unpopularity or—depending on your ideology—ignominy.”

Well, one of the things that Benedict had done was to get rid of the annual concert that brought together people like Bob Dylan and Beyoncé and whoever was trending hot that year to play or sing for the pope, the cardinals, and the faithful (presumably young enough to know who all these people were, and want to hear them….)

“Well, that’s an idea,” said Lady. “And how did it work?”

“Well, it worked well enough for John Paul II,” I told her. “But Benedict must have felt it was the anteroom to Hell, or at least purgatory. Anyway, it was a place he didn’t want to be, and so he got rid of the whole affair. One of the things, by the way, that I liked about him….”

“You liked Benedict XVI, or whatever number he was?” said Lady. “Marc, how could you?”

“Strange, isn’t it?” I told her. “Because not much of anybody did, especially gentleman of my sort, who were ‘objectively disordered,’ or whatever his phrase was….”

“What’s ‘objectively disordered?’” asked Lady.

“Gay,” I told her, “and you remember that at the end of Benedict’s term, or reign, or I suppose just active papacy, there were all those rumors swirling about the ‘gay mafia’ that had infiltrated the Vatican. Little wonder, of course, since for fashion sense of a certain sort, the Vatican is really the way to go….”

“Ah yes, the pope and his little red satin slippers…” said Lady.

“Anyway, that’s all beside the point. The author of the book described how Benedict seemed stiff, rigid, incapable of joy. Remember the first years of his papacy, when he was trying to smile? He had given up, sensibly, on kissing the foreign soil of every country he journeyed to. Oh, and he wasn’t about to preside over masses that incorporated Hottentot scalp hunters, the way John Paul loved to do.But he did try to look human, for a bit, before he gave that up too. So there Benedict was, this nearly medieval pope stuck at the tag end of the 20th century. And he was making all kinds of gaffes, like non-excommunicating a traditionalist bishop who also denied the reality of the Holocaust. Oh, and pissing off the Muslims by quoting Medieval texts about the savagery of Islam. So as the years went by, Benedict got gloomier and gloomier, poor soul….”

“Would there be, by any chance, a point to this digression?” asked Lady, “Because in two or three months, I’ve really got to plan Naïa’s birthday party….”

Naïa is Lady’s daughter.

“So the book asked the question: what was it, if anything, that made Benedict tick? Or turn his crank, as we might say today? I mean, he spent his papacy looking like he needed to get his wisdom teeth extracted. And then, the author got it!”

“OK, and that was?”

“Well, Benedict went off to a little Austrian church, where they had just restored the organ. Not, you would suppose, high on the list of papal duties to attend to, but Benedict got totally into it. He spoke of the organ as the king of instruments—with which I disagree—and said that the organ could express every human emotion, from the subtlest to the grandest. And having finished, Benedict sat down and listened raptly to that hoariest of Bach compositions, the Toccata and Fugue. And Benedict’s face had that look that every lover of music has: concentration, comprehension, and joy. And so the author concluded that Benedict responded to Bach in a way that he could respond to nothing else in our messy, disordered world. It was the only thing that made sense to him….”

“And that’s true for you, too, Marc?”

“Partially,” I told her. “There are, God knows, composers from Monteverdi to Samuel Barber who give my huge pleasure. But in the end, I come back to Bach. He isn’t, perhaps, the man for all moods. Late at night, for example, I might turn to Chopin. In sorrow, I’ll listen to Strauss’ Four Last Songs. But Bach is the basis for all. As a friend once said, Bach is the composer when clarity is needed, and who else needs clarity more than I, just now? Curious, when you think of what we know of the man…..”

“And what’s that?”

“Well, not much, or at least not as much as we’d like. But nothing suggests that he was a particularly easy man to get along with. Early in his career, he seems to have written a devilish part for the bassoon, and then got into a squabble when the bassoonist couldn’t play it. So that lead to insults and denigrations, which lead to a fight, or maybe it was a duel, but anyway, the civil authorities had to do something. So as far as emotional intelligence, Bach might have scored a bit below average. I mean, he must have known the bassoonist was a dog, so why write the part?”

“Wouldn’t his high artistic integrity,” started Lady.

“High artistic integrity was a lot lower then than it is even now,” I told her. “Composers ‘borrowed’ other composers’ work freely, and no one seemed to care if they transcribed a violin concerto into a harpsichord concerto. Or just used something they had written before in another composition, if it fit the bill. So Bach might have been fascinated hearing the Brandenburg concerts played by thirty kazzos.  Or a trio of marimbas….”

“OK, so what else about Bach?”

“Well, he didn’t seem ‘accept supervision well, working closely in teams to create synergies that would benefit the goals of the company,’ as it used to be said on my evaluation form at Wal-Mart….”

I spent seven years pretended to be middle management for the company….


“Yup, Bach once took a powder, as I remember it, and told his boss that he was going off to study with Buxtehude, certainly one of the greatest composers of the time. But that was the problem: he got a month off, but Buxtehude was 200 miles away, and Bach was hoofing it.”

“Bach walked 200 miles to study with what’s-his-name?”

“Buxtehude,” I told her. “And then walked back. But instead of taking just a month, he took several, and might have stayed longer, except—according to rumor—Buxtehude kept dangling the possibility of resigning his post, turning it over to Bach, with, however, one little catch….”

“And that was?”

“That Bach marry Buxtehude’s daughter. So Bach put on his walking shoes, and made it back to wherever he had been. Naturally, his boss—the elector or the squire or the prince or however it was—wasn’t greatly thrilled.”

“So what happened?”

“I once knew,” I told her, “but I’ve forgotten, and this table is in the Wi-Fi dead spot. But that may have been the time Bach got thrown into the hoosegow for a month or so….”

“Bach got thrown in jail?”

“Yup, which would have made him an ex-con, once he was sent free. But anyway, he moved from post to post, always being unsatisfied with something—usually the quality of the musicians. And never afraid to bitch about it….”

“Why don’t they tell us this stuff in school?” said Lady.

“Well, it’s true that Bach never trashed hotel rooms, or got hauled in for possession of cocaine,” I said. “But yes, he was human, and also, in some ways, a tragic figure….”

“How so?”

“Well, he lost nine of his 20 children before he died. His first wife died while he was away on a journey, and he came home a widower. And for some reason, the children of his first marriage didn’t seem to like his second wife all that much.”

“Right—not easy.”

“No, not easy,” I told her. “But the sheer volume of what Bach wrote staggers the imagination. Masterpiece after masterpiece, and the sad thing is that we’ve probably lost half of what he even wrote. But you know what Carl Sagan—or somebody or other—said when asked what he would send on a spaceship to introduce our civilization to whatever alien civilization came across it?”

“No clue,” said Lady.

“’I would send the complete work of Johann Sebastian Bach,’” I told her, “’but that would be boasting….’”  


Cantata for the second Sunday of Advent

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Into, as always, the dark

Maybe we all live by narrative. Maybe narratives are the tissues and the sinews that bind all the organs of our life together. We sit--or at least I sat—at the computer and studied the screen. The news of the last year—2016—hardly seemed altogether explicable: there were terrorist attacks all over Europe, and that made, in a way, perfect sense because….

But wait, did it make sense? There were days I wondered about that, and so I decided to embark on a challenge, to see if there was one corner of Western civilization that was going along as it ought. And so I settled on Johann Sebastian Bach. He had, after all, written one or two or even sometimes three cantatas for chamber orchestra, soloists and chorus for each week of the calendar year. Surely, surely, if the greatest composer of this or any time had gone to the trouble of doing it—well OK, he was being paid—I could listen to all of them. It would take a year, of course, but I had the time. I would sit in a café in Old San Juan; I would listen to BWV-whatever (a good blogger could explain what BWV actually means—all I can say is that it’s the cataloguing system of Bach’s work. Oh, and by the way, the cantatas occupy the first 225 or so BWV numbers.)

The idea, as I remember it, was to put a bit of order into a world that seemed less and less ordered. The whole enterprise was founded, in fact, by the Lutheran Liturgical year. Not, of course, that I knew anything much about the church year—Lutheran or otherwise. But it seemed like a thing to do.

Right, so I looked it up, and was unsurprised to find that the who thing began with Advent, which is roughly the four Sundays before Christmas. OK—that was vaguely familiar, since I remember Advent calendars, with their little windows that you would open each day (or was it each Sunday?) as a sort of incredibly low-tech advertisement for Christmas. The idea, I realized, was to get everybody ready—Christ is coming, the savior is soon to be born, and we’re all about to rollercoaster through his life until we get to the Resurrection.

Did it matter that I have no religious faith whatsoever? A person—I could hardly call him a friend—had suggested that I develop a spiritual life, and suggested his own exit ramp from isolation and despair: the Jehovah's Witnesses.

I had checked into this group, in fact, and discovered quite a story about them. And hadn’t they had one of the most bizarre history of all the bizarre 19th Century religions? Because I seemed to remember: whoever their founder was had predicted no less that three “ends-of-the-world.” The first two had gone more or less swimmingly: true, the world didn’t end, but a very satisfying number of followers had thought it might, and had gone so far as to refuse to plant their spring crops, and even to sell their land. (Though one wonders--why? Had they found a way, after all, to take it with them? Was it truly useful to have some pocket change in the after life? Or did it just satisfy a need to wrap things up, leave their affairs in order?) Anyway, as I remember, the founder of the religion, being none too bright, decided to announce a THIRD end of the world. And guess what? That one came and went as well, and that left the founder with a conundrum. Either announcing the end of the world was going to have to turn into an annual event, or we had to do some really good theological hocus-pocus here. And so we got a great explanation: the third end-of-the-world had indeed occurred! It was just that we couldn’t see it! Oh, and the second coming of Christ was very much upon, but also very much invisible.

The Internet has had perhaps too much Christmas cheer and is sleeping off in cyberspace—and so I can neither confirm nor deny all of this. But does it matter? If I wanted to, I could do low-tech, and run out to the plaza just outside the café, where to Jehovah's Witnesses are ready to tell men what the Bible really says, and trust me, they would have the full story. But I didn’t want that.

I wanted something comfortably obscured, if not eroded and smoothed, by the long passage of time. True, Martin Luther had his share of nuttiness, too: he took shelter in a castle / monastery, if memory serves, for a year while he was translating the Bible into German. So there he was, locked up in one room, and the walnut tree outside began to shed its nuts, and dropping them loudly on the roof. You or I, perhaps, might venture to the window, see the tree, notice the autumn foliage, and curse under our breath. Luther, apparently, thought that the devil was throwing rocks at the roof.

Anyway, no one remembers any of this, perhaps because it isn’t true. But the point is that the Lutherans got together a nice little scheme. The year would start with Advent, progress to Christmas, then venture on to Lent, then stumble on to Pentecost (think that’s how it works, since I have looked up Pentecost every year of my atheist life, and if I’m right, it’s when the spirit and teaching of Christ comes down and smacks the believers in the head). Then we sort of go along—for some reason—to Trinity, which I can’t understand, and which no one else can understand either. But not to worry, because a very good friend of mine says that the Trinity is a basic mess, so much so that senior ministers leave town on Trinity Sunday and leave the adjunct ministers to minister on it.

After all this strenuous activity, one sits back and goes golfing, presumably, because the year has ended, and now all we have to do is wait for Advent again. True, there may not be too many surprises when the Liturgical year begins again, but isn’t that the point? Isn’t there something reassuring about knowing the end of this story? True, there have been years when for me Christmas did not come, when Christ died stillborn in the manger, when the shepherds took a wrong turn, or followed the wrong star, or simply got a changeling—it isn’t always easy to see the heavenly host. And Easter? Yes, for me, there had been years when the boulder had refused to budge, when Christ languished in that tomb, and never ascended.

And as I said to that man, “neither God nor Christ speaks to me.”

This, as Handel would said in Messiah, was laughed unto derision.

“Oh yes they do!” said the group. “You’re just not listening!”

Well, I thought I had. I had spent hours meditating, I had prayed in Christian churches, I had gone on a retreat in a Catholic monastery, and I….well, had done as much as most. And no, Christ nor God nor the Holy Spirit had much to say to me. Spiritually speaking, I had neither road map nor GPS. I did, though, often admire the scenery.

So it was time, I thought, to hitch a ride with someone altogether greater than I, both musically and spiritually. Bach was my man: I would listen to all of the Bach cantatas of the entire year. Yup—all 225 of them, and who knew? If God still chose not to speak to me, at least Bach would have, and that would be no lessor thing. And perhaps, at the end, I could find the narrative again.

The narrative—remember the narrative? The thing that we all—especially writers—live by? I started out Advent of 2015 confused: by Advent 2016, I would be shining with clarity!

How wrong I was….



The Cantata for the first week of Advent--and a stunner!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Farewell to Hillary Clinton, Satanist

Well, I could have spent my morning more profitably, it has to be said, starting shortly before 3 AM, when I awoke from a restless sleep.

It’s been that way since the election: the dreams have turned dark and anxious. Two days ago, I dreamt I was back working the job I held four years ago, in a town 20 miles or so from San Juan. Getting there in the morning was a breeze: it was returning that held the terror. After all, if for some reason the little público (or minivan) didn’t come in the morning, it was a sure sign that I was meant to go home, call my supervisor, leave a message on her machine, and then return to the pleasures of bed and sleep.

But getting back to Old San Juan from the country outside of Caguas was a dicey affair. There was the yellow bus, the last one of which was supposed to depart at 5:30 from Caguas. But it was never quite that simple: at times, the bus suffered a mishap. It could be anything: a flat tire, a mysterious engine fire, ennui, or a chronic feeling of being misunderstood and underappreciated. Or maybe it had rained, which could be troublesome, since the bus leaked from the roof. And that meant that those not-in-the know would sit down in a very wet seat, and then have steady drips fall upon you.

So it was my habit to catch the second to last bus. That meant sneaking out of the  building before five PM (management was supposed to leave at 5:30) and then standing at the bus stop—should have been easy, right? In fact, it was unnerving, since I was standing essentially on the shoulder of a highway. It induced a sort of melancholy terror: I stood craning my head, peering for the flash of yellow to appear around the bend. The cars roared past me, in good weather it was only the constant, seemingly-amplified, whoosh and the fog of exhaust that I breathed in. But in bad weather, there was always the likelihood that I would be splashed, usually by someone driving a Mercedes-Benz minivan. So rainy days involved a complex scanning for the bus, scrutinizing which driver was likely to be indifferent to or perhaps enjoy drenching a gringo waiting for the bus, and jumping back when necessary. It wasn’t uncommon for the bus to be arriving right behind the speeding Mercedes-Benz minivan, which meant that everyone on the bus then enjoyed the sight of me getting drenched. I would step into the bus accompanied by gales of laughter, commentary, the odd sympathetic comment, and suggestions. I would bow sheepishly: the driver would turn up the air conditioning.

I tell you all this because two nights ago, I dreamt that I was back there, at that bus stop and did the bus come? It may have, but it wasn’t the right bus, or I got off at the wrong stop, and then I had to try to get back, so I took another bus, which of course got me further off track…..

I woke in a sweat, since I had determined to get off at some stop or other, and then had my bag spill out all of its contents, which rolled under seats. And so there I was, trying to collect things, on my knees, and shouting to the bus driver—a deaf-mute—to wait until I could get out….

Right—so I told all this to Jeanne, my sister-in-law, who told me that my brother, too, is having bad dreams. In fact, everybody is having lousy dreams, since Donald Trump is wasting no time putting his boot-stamp on the nation. We now have a white supremacist leading the transition team, and the promise of an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice. Oh, and then we’ll get right down to the business of overturning Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security, lowering taxes on the rich, and turning what used to be a democracy into a police state.

So my sister-in-law had 14 people over on the night of the election, and there they were, chilling the champagne, when….

…so everybody was in shock, and now is probably a great time for me to visit New York, since there must be quite a lot of very good champagne at my brother’s house.

Both my brother and sister-in-law are in shock: they also joined 15,000 like-minded souls in protesting a few days later. They did it because they read The New York Times, and so they can ponder curious policy statement, such as the fact that a substantial portion of the American public hates Obamacare. And that’s strange, because a large majority of that same American public strongly supports the Affordable Care Act. And given the fact that the two things are the same….

So they missed the big story, and I might have too, if a very nice woman who was very good to me at that job I lost hadn’t posted it in Facebook. So had my brother bothered to call me before that march, I could have told him: yes, Hillary is a Satanist. At least, that’s what my friend’s post said, though curiously, the mainstream news…. But that’s hardly surprising, since we know that The New York Times is also infested by Satanists, so you can be sure that my friend’s post was the real deal. 

Well, well—terrible news, but at least Satanism doesn’t run on party lines, since George H. W. Bush is also a Satanist. Or at least a pederast, and how far away can that be from Satanism?  

I could tell you this all definitively if I weren’t in the Internet-darkest corner of the café, since the corner is also the Pandora-deafest. And since Pandora’s box has opened to Puerto Rican Christmas carols—I’ve chosen silence over Internet. But it really doesn’t matter, because you, Dear Reader, can easily travel down those conspiracy lanes.

And who’s to know, since I myself may unwittingly have gone down a few of those highways myself. A friend posted on Facebook that the exit polls in a number of states—including my home state of Wisconsin—reported immediately after the voters left the polling stations reported a Clinton win. But then, the exit polls got changed, to reflect the “actual” results. And those results, need I tell you? Well, if you believe them, then you’d believe anything! Such as Hillary being a Satanist!

Ooops, wait….

So I’m really not doing so well, since my sleep is filled with missing busses, and my mornings are filled with nightmares more real and also more terrifying. Which is why I had to turn to Marina  Abramovich, about whom I knew nothing, but you know the odd thing about YouTube? Like the most seasoned teacher, like the most trusted friend, YouTube reads your mood and your inclinations, and always gives you the clip you need to watch. And though I knew I wasn’t doing well—I mean, how bad is it if you can’t get off a bus?—I really didn’t think I was that far gone.

So here she is, in her Russian mystic best, and what did I need to learn?

Well, it was the only thing I did all morning, but now I know! Whee! And so will you, if you care to delve into the ultimate reality, the reality so much more real, lasting, eternal, luminescent, sublime, ethereal and visceral and spiritual and materialist…

Yes, you too can know….

…how to drink a glass of water!