Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Chasing Sainthood

“Well, well—it’s really tremendous news,” I told Lady, “since it now develops that I can become a saint. Of course, I may have to systemize a thing or two: just because I always give $5 to Gail, every time I see her, doesn’t really count. Oh, the buck I give to the man trying to get a new liver for his sister—that’s by the wayside, too. No, I really have to start an orphanage, and then a shelter for the dying destitute. Which, by the way, is exactly what she called it, and imagine what that must have felt like, to anyone being taken to it! I mean, many people must have felt that it was just their life: they were born into the slums of Calcutta—sorry, that’s Kolkata, or something or other else now—and they lived in the slums of Calcutta.”

“Marc?”

“There’s actually something nice about it, in the way that she refuses to sugarcoat it. She could, I suppose have come up with something way more euphemistic, or even poetic: The Fading Light Shelter for those in the Twilight of Life! You know, something Evelyn Waugh might have come put with….”

“Is it the long weekend, Marc? Because really, I have no idea…”

“Well, you must have seen the news,” I told her. “And for once, I agree with this very disagreeable pope: I will indeed have trouble referring to her as St. Teresa. Actually, even calling her “Mother” Teresa is a stretch. Even before Christopher Hitchens trashed her, I thought she was a phony….”

“What! Mother Teresa?”

“Well, Hitchens does have a point, though given that he made his atheism into his religion, it might have been more interesting if he had adulated Mother Teresa. But she never really did anything with the destitute dying other than round ‘em up, give them a roof over their head, feed them, dispense the occasional aspirin or two, and confess them before they died. There was the woman’s room—holding fifty or sixty cots placed next to each other in long rows. The men’s room-sorry if it has a lavoratorial sound to it—that was just the same. And oddly, it was remarkably tidy. Have you ever been in a hospital room? For some reason, they have an uncanny ability to clutter up with things: wash basins, urinals, bedpans, books, flowers, cards from people to cheap to send flowers….you know, all that stuff! But as you can see in the video below, the wards are utterly uncluttered. Beautiful, in a Zen sort of way. Until you realize that nobody had, or perhaps was allowed to have, anything.  So there you were, destitute and dying in Calcutta, India, and all you had was your cot, and your death awaiting you….”

“But surely she must have helped….”

“Well, she did. I mean, if it were a choice between dying in the Calcutta gutter or in the Home for the Destitute Dying, of course I’d take the home. Especially since I’d know that I wouldn’t have to see her: she’d be off hobnobbing with Margaret Thatcher, and getting the US Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. Wonderful, how much we know about freedom, isn’t it?”

“But there she was, this pious, hunched-over figure….”

“You know, I often wonder what a real saint would be like, if I were to meet one. And I think, really, that he or she would be utterly impossible. Imagine having that much God in you! You would—however hard the saint tried to hide it—feel completely worthless in comparison. And I think that a saint would have to have huge amounts of anger. I mean, how could they help it? If I were a saint in Calcutta, I’d be snorting fire and brimstone out of every orifice from dawn till dusk. How can any society treat its members in such a fashion? And the first rich person I came across, I’d take him by arm and lead him down the worst alley of the slum. I’d show him every boil and wound and broken bone, and I’d demand to know: how could he, a Christian, live with himself? And what was he going to do about it? In short, I think most saints would be total pains in the ass….”

“Well, didn’t she shake down more than a few people and organizations? I mean, she did win the Nobel Prize, which must have been a pretty penny….”

“It was,” I told her, “but nothing got much better for the destitute dying. I mean, she could have invested in those ugly screens, so that the dying could have done so in relative private. But no, she plowed the money back into establishing more missions in more countries. Interesting question, though—is it better to establish a lot of missions with minimal care all over the world, or focus on only a few, but have top-notch facilities? Well, well, fodder for philosophers, if not theologians….”

“Well, I don’t think you’re quite on the pathway to sainthood,” said Lady, “though you are a good person. And by no means a pain in the ass….”

“Well, I tell you that I can be a saint because my spiritual life exactly mirrors dear Mother Teresa. Which is to say, that neither of us had one. Or rather, she had one, but do you know the amazing thing about our day and age? It’s all, completely all, about marketing. Because probably only one atheist in ten know the real truth about Mother Teresa. And only one in a hundred Catholics know, as well.”

“Why would more atheists know than Catholics?”

“Studies show,” I told her, “that atheists tend to do better on tests of religious knowledge than believers. And that may be true, since I scored 29 out of 30 on the last one I took, by the Pew Foundation. Funny name, when you think of it….”

“OK—so what’s all this about?”

“Well, for the last 25 years of her life, Mother Teresa was in a state of spiritual dryness. She no longer felt the presence of God. She said stuff like this:”

I utter words of Community prayers–and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give–But my prayer of union is not there any longer–I no longer pray. 

“Or this:”

Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself–for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.'

“Interesting, isn’t it,” I told her. “You have to wonder: she reported that Jesus had spoken to her. Here she is about it:”

You are I know the most incapable person–weak and sinful but just because you are that–I want to use You for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?

“Anyway, you can be sure that’s the real deal, because all of that archaic usage. Which is why, when I receive the message, ‘thou art bidden, most unclean and sinning of men, to bide among the presence of Santana, there to beg, Unholy Wretch, two chocolate cookies’…well, what do I do? I’m right there, reporting the message to Santana. Of course, he’s gotten a message, too….”

“And that is?”

“$5.23….”

“What! For two cookies???”

“Plus the coffee….”

“Well, back to Mother Teresa…”

“You know, I really wonder whether she isn’t a hell of a lot more interesting than we give her credit for. Because the saintly figure does sort of induce the dry heaves. But I think she knew that she had fucked up. She was going around and sucking up to one repressive regime after the other: she got down to Haiti and told the Duvaliers that they were peaches! She spent 25 years becoming a brand name, and the more time she spent at it, the more Jesus and God receded. Interesting to think: if she had stayed a poor nun, ministering to the sick and dying in obscurity, would she have suffered the spiritual desert she was lost in, the last third of her life? And which would have been better, to have died in obscurity but spiritually fulfilled, or to have died having raised millions of dollars for the poor? And spiritually unfulfilled? More fodder for philosophers….”

“How do we know she died spiritually dead,” asked Lady. “Maybe, in the end, she found His presence once more.”

“Who knows,” I told her. “Anyway, I think you and I should do a joint venture into sainthood. You can contribute, as you already do, the site. Norman is sitting, by the way, on a different chair in the Sala Poética, but he’s still very much asleep. So you are sheltering the homeless, and providing every bit as much material goods as Mother Teresa. True, it’s a chair and not a cot, but it’s a very nice chair!”

“Wonderful,” said Lady. “And you? What’s your contribution to the whole affair?”

“Spiritual dryness,” I told her. “And I’ve got Mother Teresa beat like a rug on spring cleaning! Twenty-five years? Hah! I’ve got half a century!”

“Marc….”

“I’m writing to the pope,” I told her, “since after all, as he said so famously, who is he to judge? Well, I thought, of course, that the pope was the person to judge. But if he’s going to be so laissez-faire about homosexuality, well, he can be the same way with sainthood! So we’re shoo-ins! Bam, the only twin saints in history! Saints Lady and Marc. Though, since I thought of the idea, I am pressing for Saints Marc and Lady.”

“You seem to have forgotten,” she told me, “that we’re going to have to cook up two miracles. Oh, and we’re supposed to have to be dead ten years before any of this can happen, though the last three popes have cheated on that. Anyway, who wants to be dead before being declared a saint? And I can’t think of a possible miracle we could do.”

“Easy,” I told her. “Every Tuesday night is a miracle. Somebody gets up, heart racing, palms sweating, mouth dry. And they recite their poetry. Good, bad—who knows? But it touches somebody’s heart, and they applaud, and the poet sits back down. Heart still pounding, but changed. Perhaps miraculously…..”

“And the second miracle?”

I think for a moment.

Does she know?

I tell her.


“That God might speak to me!”           

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Wesolowski--chapter 1

“OK,” I told her. “We might as well face it. Some people are novelists; some people are not. Does it make me a bad person, that I have five or six attempts at a novel—all of which ended with me yawning so hard, I got contractions in my lower jaw? Anyway, what is this mystique of the novel, anyway? Nobody disses Sappho for writing just those fragments, after all….”

“Nonsense,” Lady told me. “They’re only fragments because that’s all we have: the wine or the olive oil or the brine of the olives—anyway, something or other—wore the rest away.”

Lady, owner of the Poet’s Passage café in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a house painter, impresario, and poet. So she knows about these things. 

“Well, the point remains,” I told her. “Some people write novels, others short stories, and others—well, whatever it is they write. So this will be like that book about the orchid….”

“Orchid?”

“You know—the whole point of the book was to find the orchid that didn’t exist (though maybe it did), and to fail to write the book (though in fact he or she did, and it sold a gazillion copies, was translated into languages not yet invented, and allowed the author to win major prizes merely by looking in the directions of New York, Paris, and Moscow.)”

“There is,” said Lady, “something about not being able to write a novel that’s warping your character, Marc. You say you’re fine with it, but are you?”

“It’s galling,” I told her. “How can a cellist not write a novel? It’s absolutely the same thing: you get up in the morning, put the cello in front of you, and dog away. Three hours later, you’ve done your scales, arpeggios, etudes, and the Bach suite for the day. Lunch, and off to your part-time. So now, it’s a computer instead of a cello, but the rest is essentially the same. So why should it be so different? Not to mention difficult?”

“Well, you basically have your story, don’t you?”

In fact, I did, and it was a story that had been told, and never told. OK—the man had obsessed me, to the point where nobody around me had wanted to hear any more about it, much less read about it. A Polish papal nuncio, living in the Dominican Republic, had had the habit of drinking beer on the malecón in Santo Domingo. Well—I could relate. After a day of sweltering heat, who wouldn’t want a cold beer while enjoying the sea breezes off the ocean? And then there were….

…well, they were boys who were and boys who were not. Nor, perhaps, were they entirely boys, however firmly their ages suggested that they were. They were victims and victimizers, angels and demons, innocents and the most deeply dyed of cynics.

They were bugarones, though if you had told them that, you’d have been lucky to get a fist instead of a knife in your face. They absolutely were not whores. Instead, they were there as the nuncio was there, and really, there for better reasons.

The nuncio, after all, was pushing 70. He had been born in Poland in the years just after World War II, and grew up in the poverty and chaos of the post-war generation. The country lay in ruins, the people still in shock from the upheavals of the war, there was little certainty except for the Catholic Church.

And there he was lucky—not every priest, at age 24, is ordained by the likes of a Karol Wojtyla. Remember him? If so, you’ll think of the figure standing in the balcony of the palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square. He is old, frail, no longer the athlete who skied in the mountains of Poland, or was goalkeeper in the impromptu games of football. Yes, he would become John Paul II, and he would be loved for some very bad reasons, and hated for others. None of that matters now: but it mattered then.

And so Wesolowski—the Polish nuncio drinking his beer in Santo Domingo—had had a stroke of luck. The man who ordained him was canny, good-looking, politically astute, and knew how to play the game. Yes, he had been conscripted by the Nazis, but that hardly mattered: every young man in Poland had been conscripted by the Nazis. More important, John Paul II hated the Communists, and why shouldn’t he?

And so, the future pope scrambled up the ranks: he played one member of the Curia against another. And in the way of ambitious men everywhere, the nuncio hitched his star to another, far brighter. As the future pope made his way up the ladder, the nuncio never lost contact. And so, even as he served as parish priest in Krakow in southern Poland, he contrived to meet, whenever possible, with John Paul.

Still, his rise was never as meteoric as it should have been. After all, the conclave of cardinals had elevated in 1978: Wesolowski was first made nuncio to Bolivia in late 1999.

The Catholic Church, to those outside but especially to those within, provides endless fascination. And there were those who wondered: why had an old friend of the pope not been promoted earlier, and more steadily? The church moves slowly, putting its men in positions of increasing power and influence. But Wesolowski had catapulted from parish priest to papal nuncio literally overnight.

True, it was hardly a major post: nobody can claim that Bolivia has the importance of France or Germany. Still, the diplomatic service of the Holy See had any number of priests—some young, others older and more seasoned—who had a far greater claim to promotion. These men had shuffled through the position papers, settled the minor ruffled feathers, rescued their superiors when they had had a bit more champagne than was good for them. They had paid their dues, and were quite ready to slip into the next, and higher, position. So who was this upstart, Jozef Wesolowski?

And why, after three years as apostolic nuncio in Bolivia did Wesolowski receive another post—or rather, posts. For in 2002, he became, through the year, first nuncio to Kazakhstan, then Tadjikistan, then Kyrgyzistan, and finally Uzbekistan. Certainly they were not the choicest plums on the diplomatic tree. That would come a decade or so later, when Wesolowski was appointed nuncio for Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. At last, Wesolowski was freed of the vast, landlocked Central Asian states—rich in oil, but with sparse populations and few believers. He had traded the wintry, wind-swept plains for the lush tropics. And where only one in five people in Kazakhstan had been some sort of Christian, nine in ten Dominicans were ardent, or at least steadfast, Catholics. And in Puerto Rico, the situation was much the same.

“So why did we have to share a nuncio with the Dominican Republic?” asked Lady, drifting by and reading this over my shoulder.

“Why else,” I told her, “the political status of Puerto Rico. Since we’re not independent, we don’t get our own nuncio. So we have to slide in under Dominican Republic. Gotta share!”

“Well, that doesn’t make sense,” said Lady. “After all, we get our own Olympic team, don’t we?”

“We certainly do,” I said, thinking of all the sports at which we excel: basketball, baseball and especially boxing being preeminent. And then, of course, there are other sports, for which the phrase is, “well, not so much….” Of which everyone’s favorite is…

…bobsledding!

Yes, for inexplicable reasons, Puerto Rico has a bobsledding team, but has it distinguished itself? Of course, for coming in last, last, and second last in various winter Olympics.

“Anyway, are you still obsessing about that Polish guy? I mean, how long has it been, now, since the guy died?”

In fact, it had been exactly a year that Wesolowski, defrocked and under house arrest in the Vatican, had died. The Vatican had breathed a sigh of relief, the world had moved on, all had been forgotten, but for me?

“I just hate to see the bastards get away with it,” I told Lady.

Which is why, for me, he sits still there on the malecón in Santo Domingo, relishing the ocean breezes, breathing the salt air, hearing the merengue as it lilts through the evening to welcome the night.

Movement…

A boy, surely no more than fourteen or fifteen, walks with unpracticed bravado down the malecón: he fools no one, he’s the new kid in town. Wesolowski, the papal nuncio, smiles.


The night has just gotten interesting….         

Friday, August 19, 2016

Puerto Rico Fights Zika!

“It’s the law of attraction,” said Lady, and I snarled immediately.

“It’s blaming the victim,” I told her, and stalked off.

Lady, it seems, does not get mosquito-borne diseases. Is it because she tends to wear long dresses, long sleeves? Is it because mosquitos find her distasteful? Whatever—two years ago, when everyone in Old San Juan was walking around with Chikungunya, Lady was peering at us through braided coils, wondering what the fuss was about.

“Well, at least you don’t have Ebola,” was the incendiary remark at the time.

And the response?

“Listen, if I had the money and the energy, I would travel to darkest Africa, find the highest concentration of Ebola victims, and share food, lodgings, blood and saliva with them. Oh, and probably cannibalism. Because at the moment, a handy little death from Ebola is vastly preferable….”

Now I have Zika.

It was supposed to be no problem: 80% of the people who contract the disease have no symptoms. OK—80% I can do. 80% on a horse? I’d definitely put my money on it.

And I would have lost….

OK—but it was going to be mild, right? You know, just a little joint pain, a little lethargy, and maybe a rash. Over and done in a couple of days, and life would go on.

Ten days ago, I woke up feeling strange. Was that the day that I was freezing cold at five in the morning? Or was it the day after? In fact, one of the curious features of the disease is that chronology becomes meaningless: I only know that I leapt out of bed, put a full set of clothes on, turned off the fan, and dove under the blanket. I was—in August, in Puerto Rico—shivering uncontrollably.

My doctor would have wanted me to take my temperature. And in days past, I would have, but what was the point? I had joined the long ranks of men and women who had come to the tropics, who had pitted themselves against the climate, the weather, and the fauna. It could have malaria, or yellow fever, or any other known or unknown tropical disease. What mattered was not the exact temperature—though I suspect it was well over 103 degrees—but the thrashing awake to clothes and bedclothes that were soaked with sweat. It’s at this moment that one knows: you are not where you are supposed to be.

You were seduced, as so many had been, by the gentle ocean breezes, by the lull of surf on sand, by the full moon glistening at you through palm fronds. But you were never meant to be here: only you, arriving at the café, are given a paper towel matter-of-factly by the staff. Because you walk quickly, striding purposefully down the street: you are still, somehow, in Wisconsin, charging through the streets to get back home, and sit by the fire. In 25 years, have you learned to stroll, to saunter? Of course not.

So the fever announced the disease: then it was the stomach. “Nausea and vomiting,” you read, in the CDC webpage. All right: double check on those. So now it’s day three or four, and everything is supposed to be clearing up nicely, since this disease can only last seven days, right? I mean, that’s what it says…..

News flash: the disease can do whatever the hell it wants….

Well, now it’s time to call my elder brother, because he has two abilities at the least: he can win Pulitzers, and he can attract the weirdest diseases known or unknown to man. So it was no surprise when my mother, years ago, called to tell me…well, wait, here she is:

“Guess what! Eric is in the hospital with Guillain-Barre!”

Indeed he was, and Eric being Eric, he had gotten the disease bass-akwards. Or maybe bass-downwards, since instead of getting the paralysis from the feet going up, Eric had gotten the paralysis from the face going down. This, in fact, was hardly good news, because paralysis is no big deal, really, until it afflicts your chest muscles. These contract, 20 or so times a minute, causing air to flow into your lungs. And so for us long-legged Newhouses, you can take a Hawaiian vacation from the onset of foot paralysis to the day of getting ready for the iron lung. But there isn’t that much time—or distance-–from the face to the chest….

“At least you’re not pregnant,” said Eric to me, and that rang a little bell, since remember, “at least you don’t have Ebola?”

No, I’m not pregnant, but I might as well be, since I am nauseated 24 / 7, have no energy, am sweating in the coolest nights and shivering through the hottest days. Oh, and I had gone off to an art gallery, and then thought to go to CVS, since I was waking up in the middle of the night, and then unable to get back to sleep. So I bought some Benadryl, and the pharmacist commented, “is that for your rash?”

Rash?

So yes, there it is, a maculopapular rash, which was all over by arms, and then my chest, and then my back, and then—unbelievably—in places where body hair would seem to make a rash unlikely, if not impossible. And that meant that I was itching unbearably even in my two arm pits, as well as in….well, I leave it to you to imagine the third area….

So that meant a trip to the pharmacy, since the pharmacies in Puerto Rico are looser, more generous, less anal. Which means that while they may not give you heroin—you have to cross the plaza for that—they will give you hydrocortisone cream, without the need for that fussy little piece of paper. Though in fact, the pharmacist recommended calamine lotion, which, if nothing else, would take you back to your childhood. Remember that? A time when mosquitos bit—OK, that’s fair—but never left you clinging onto the ledge between life and death.

That’s not fair.

So I buy two bottles, and the calamine seems to have changed, since it is no longer pink, and no longer smells. So is it psychological, my belief that the stuff is useless? Because I am itching like crazy now, and I am seriously contemplating: for a couple of months, I suffered agony from a broken back. Movement was torture, and so I lay in bed and counted my breaths up to ten, and then back again. It was hell, but was it worse than this constant itching? As long as I didn’t move, my back was only throbbing. But the itching is fierce, and constant.

“Have you been seeing a lot of these rashes?” I ask the pharmacist, because the world is definitely, well…diverse. Obama has, a couple weeks ago, gotten on the airwaves with a special message to Puerto Rico: take it seriously, guys. Lather up on the mosquito repellent, and empty those flowerpots after each rain. So I’ve done my utterly scientific polling to see if the message is getting through: I have walked through the café and asked everybody if they are wearing insect repellent.

Blank stares….

But wait, Lady did have a response: “I don’t intend to get pregnant….”

Oh, and then there was Jack: “think this has to do with the Fiscal Control Board…”

Zika has, in fact, proven itself able to spark the conspiracist theorists in us all. Montalvo posted on Facebook: Zika doesn’t come from mosquitos, it comes from a substance from…wait, I ran over to Snopes to check it out:

But now a medical organization is challenging that connection, saying that the chemical larvicide Pyriproxyfen is instead to blame.

Snopes pooh-poohs the whole idea, but who knows? And then it was Gary, who sent me this:

DEET is just one part of a binary chemical weapon system that is right now being deployed against the American people... a weapon system engineered to cause mass fear and confusion while even achieving a "behavior modifying" effect as you'll soon see.


And so here I sit, busy trying not to scratch, and contemplating the fact that health authorities are telling pregnant women to avoid a 1.5 mile stretch of Miami, since a fearsome five cases of Zika have been detected there. That’s interesting, since two cruise ships are in the harbor, and that means at least 5,000 passengers and God knows how many crew are strolling an area considerably smaller than 1.5 miles. And then it occurred to me: what’s happening elsewhere in the Caribbean? So here it is, from NBC:

The U.S. is interested in how Cuba responds to medical emergencies like Zika. Two new cases have been reported in Cuba since March. Two thousand cases have been reported in the past week in nearby Puerto Rico.

Cuba, you see, knew just what to do. To start with, the got the “neighborhood committees" out to turn over the flowerpots and ditch the used tires. The neighborhood committees—remember those? Those committed ideologues, working in secret but very effectively, that ensured political correctness and homogeneity for all those decades! And then they got the military out, to lend a hand as well.

Well, it was a pretty picture: all of those neighbors cleaning up the ‘hood, as the Cuba military trained the AR-15’s on them. And presumably, just to keep up the ánimo, they were singing the Internationale and Guantanamera as well!

But we’ve hardly lagged behind, because here, from the head of the Manejo de Emergencias y Administración de Desastres (Aemead) (Emergency Management and Disaster Administration) comes this!


I rest my case….