Saturday, November 7, 2015

Anger, Channeled through Texas

Let me tell you the official story: Montalvo committed a crime, and under law, he must either be punished or corrected, since the call that I received came not from a prison but rather a “correction facility.”

But there was something odd about it, and for that oddity I had been prepared by Lady, since it was first she who had received the call.

“It was from some ‘713’ area code, so I looked that up, and it turned out it was Texas somewhere. So I must have gotten like 40 calls from them, and I kept ignoring them. But finally I got tired of it, and I picked up. That’s when I was told that the call was from Montalvo, and from the Bayamón Regional Facility. So I sighed and entered my credit card information, and that’s when I finally got connected to Montalvo.”

So I was prepared, a day or two later, when I got the call from the 713 area code. What wasn’t I prepared to do? Pick it up, since I had no idea what to say to this kid. Anyway, I was doing other things—such as walking to the grocery store—and they seemed of far more urgency than talking to a son in prison.

Sorry, correctional facility.

This morning, in the café, I was ready, but though I picked up, I kept falling out of the branches of the telephone tree.

“You will be charged $2.98 for a fifteen minute call, plus a $5.95 processing fee. For example, a ten-minute call will cost 8 dollars. Press pound if you accept the charges.”

Well, that presented certain problems, since I can never remember what the pound key is. So I have to go through a thought process as contorted as the inner ear—or maybe the maze at Hampton Court—which goes something like this: “well, it’s obviously the button that is not the star key, which anyway is not the star key but an asterisk, but that’s what they call it, but then who decided that the number symbol should be called the pound key?”

So I pressed the pound key—wondering as I did whether I shouldn’t pound it—only to be informed that I had been timed out.

So that left me to my imagination, since the phone did not ring in another forty minutes. So that meant that clearly there was a whole group of prisoners—hey, let’s call them “correctees”—who were talking to their loved ones. In the meantime, I received a separate call from the business that was the intermediary—telephonically speaking—between my son and me. Did I want to establish an account, of which the best option was ninety dollars for 200 hours of time? If so, please have my credit card ready….

Well, that seemed like a good idea, since twenty minutes after the “establish an account” call—any guesses what I chose to do?—I got another call from Montalvo.
Right, so I had my credit card ready, though I did have to wonder—what about people who have no credit cards? Let’s be blunt: The criminals of the financial and ruling classes—and you know who you are, and shame on you!—have plenty of lovely credit cards. Presumably, their only difficulty is choosing with what precious metal to pay: Gold? Platinum? Uranium? Following this analogy, I might well have reached for my Tin Visa to connect with my son.

So everything was going swimmingly, until I got to entering the four-digital expiration date, and pressed 0 instead of 1. Right, so shouldn’t there be a back key on my telephone pad? I look all over for it, but it isn’t there, so I hit a button that has no function, so maybe it’s a wise and omniscient button, which will know exactly what to do. Guess what?

I got disconnected.

So then I had plenty of time to wait for all of the other correctees to finish their calls with their technically savvier relatives—and don’t I have a Master’s degree from a major land grant Midwestern University? Oh wait, that’s Raf—but very occasionally I can trip him up on a date or fact or two, and so I can’t be entirely stupid. Or am I being classist? Sorry—being a prisoner’s relative is a road I haven’t gone down before.

Now what was I saying?

Oh yes, I had time to bump into Lady, who was explaining the history and philosophy of the Poet’s Passage to two new employees, since the gift shop operates as a kind of front for the vice and or crime of poetry. But Lady takes the time to tell me that she had gone to see Montalvo yesterday, and she had told him that that would be the last time she would do so.

Well, I knew what she had gone through, since a fellow worker at the café had told me. How did he know? His son had been in the prison, and so had he, since the cops had picked him up for buying a nickel bag of marijuana.

“It’s not easy: they gotta a dress code for visitors, and sometimes they give people a break, but sometimes they got the big shots from home office, so they gotta do everything by the book. So no sandals, no jeans, they frisk you, they run their fingers through your hair and then they got this dog….”

That was what appalled Lady, since apparently the dog sniffed regions of the body that no Victorian ever dreamt existed. Her word for the experience? Violated.

So at last the call came through again, and at this time I had memorized my credit card number, and had sat studiously practicing telephony 101. “Pound,” I told myself, and hovered my finger over the number signal. “Asterisk,” I told myself, and realized that I was committing the first sin of pedagogy: confusing the student.

So I had prepared: I was well up for the challenge of accepting a call from a company in Texas! I entered all the numbers correctly; I pounded and starred with aplomb, and then I got to the final challenge—my zip code.

Should be easy, right? But somehow, though the bill is sent to my mailbox—whose zip code is 00902—the account is registered in my physical zip code. And that’s 00901.

Or was it the other way around?

There were several anxious moments. Then, the machine announced: the transaction had been successfully completed.

Oh yeah? Because I was far from sure whether this transaction—these weekly dinners, these going to the operas, these coachings on poetic meter and rhyme schemes and enjambment had been successfully completed.

“How are you, Papa Dukes?”

“Very, very angry.”

And I know how to use long silences too. You count silently at approximately 60 MM (Maezel’s Metronome—and see the value of a musical training?) and then when you get to 30 you say the next thing. OK, I chose 30 over 60—which I would greatly have preferred—but remember the $2.98 charge and the $5.95 processing fee, plus all of the other applicable state, local, and federal taxes and surcharges that might apply? Silence was certainly golden—but for the company, not for me!

Next statement.

“And I am deeply, deeply disappointed….”

Then it occurred to me, how anemic our society has become! Because my father would have said much more, and he would have struggled to keep what once had been his heart but was now only a plastic-wrapped piece of ground meat—ground prisoner’s father’s heart, 99 cents per pound, expiration…--in his chest. And not out there on the table between us.

There would have been an explosion of moral rectitude, and the words “disgrace” and “shame” and “how-the-hell-could-you-do-this-to-me-and-your-mother?” But to tell Montalvo that, or that my stomach has been bad for a week now, and I vomited a couple of days ago, and Raf is insisting I go to the doctor? To tell Montalvo all that? That would be unthinkable or unproductive, and Montalvo was left to say the only thing left to say. So I hear it: “I’m sorry, Dad, I completely fucked up.”

And I am left to say the only thing I can say, which is, “OK, so going forward?”

Dwelling in the past, as Montalvo told me—and as I very much suspect his therapist taught him—was futile.


My father wouldn’t have thought so. Or my mother, when she sent me to my room for hitting a completely defenseless though absolutely annoying kid who was younger and smaller than I. What did she say?

“You just go to your room, and you think about what you did, and don’t you dare come out until your good and sorry!”

Somehow, I knew that if one sliver of contrition was lacking, my mother would sniff it out—read “blood-hound it out”—instantly.

So we talked, which we had to do, and now a company in Texas is smacking its lips in preparation of charging me half a month’s wages for a five-minute call. And you know, I haven’t had long distance service for years, since I have a cell phone so that means that having to pay, let’s see, what was it? Three cents a minute? Or in the end, did it get down to one cent a minute? So that call to my errant son would have cost me maybe 30 cents—in those quaint days when people used to have land lines. But now, we have figured out a way of capitalizing on criminality, and on the loved ones of criminality, and the politicians have privatized our prison system, and you know what?

I may have reined in my father’s anger at Montalvo, but for the people who have viciously and very avariciously overturned a fundamental structure of our society? I can accept casting away the notion of “correction” and agreeing to a nice, vindictive punishment. But this is criminalizing the poor, corrupting the judicial system, rigging the rules, and figuring out how to squeeze the last dime out of the poorest of the poor. Oh, and charging the taxpayers outrageous sums to do it.

Let me put it more succinctly. I can forgive a kid who smokes dope and steals a parrot and is stupid enough to smoke more dope when he has to piss in bottles. But to the politicians and the capitalists who cooked up these crimes?

Throw away the keys!   



Friday, November 6, 2015

And So?

And so this young man went to prison—well, what of it?

He smoked a drug that makes some people feel good, and makes others act irrationally. Which was certainly the case with him, since the theft of a rare blue macaw requires either a profound if quirky criminality, or a very heady stew of chemicals swirling through the cerebellum. And so this young man, Montalvo, has ended up at last in prison, to be confined there for several weeks.

Again I ask—what of it?

His misfortune was to be young, imprudent, poor, and slightly darker in skin tone than the ruling class. And all of that condemned him. But was it any different for him than for me? Because I too was thrust into jail, in the year 1717, and for reasons every bit as inane as the reasons that catapulted Montalvo into prison.

My crime?

I had grown weary of the bickering that lead to a feud between two powerful dukes: William Ernest and his nephew Ernest August. And however bitter it might have been, was there any question of who would win? Even before Ernest August became one of the two dukes ruling Weimar, William Ernest had seized all the power, as well as the purse strings.

And so there were two competing households, and the musicians of one were forbidden to make music, or indeed even to befriend, the musicians of the other. That might have been endured, but soon the politicking grew even more heated. For the enfeebled Kapellmeister, whose work I had mostly done for some years, at last succumbed and died.

Had I been happy in Weimar?

Yes, reasonably so. Because while the rulers of the small nations and duchies all warred to gain ascendency over each other, I was left to my own devices. Yes, I had many duties, but it was in those years that I composed most of my organ works, and a great deal of my secular works. The Brandenburg Concerti, the cello suites, the violin sonatas and partitas—all stemmed from those years.

Nor was Weimar in any way a backwater: it attracted some of the best minds and thinkers of the era. Here, I could meet the great scholar Johann Matthias Gesner; here also I was exposed to the Italian style of composition, in particular the works of Vivaldi. And so I was able, by in large, to ignore the rift between the two reigning dukes; all that, however, was to change with the death of the Kapellmeister.

The letter that I wrote was polite, almost fawning, since my beloved María Barbara had flatly insisted: the original letter, she felt, was far too demanding.

“How can you say, Sebastian, that you have no doubt that the appointment is to be yours? And to ask what pay you will receive? That will infuriate the duke!”

“But it is the truth. I have undertaken the work of the doddering old fool for years now, without a single pfennig being given to me! Isn’t it just that I now be given the appointment, and that at last I be compensated for the work I have done, and am to do?”

“Yes, Sebastian, but will the duke see that? Won’t he feel that you are demanding—presumptuous, even? Do you expect the duke to take orders from one of his servants?”

I protested, of course, since who but I was more qualified for the position? Had I not proved myself? Throughout Europe, my fame as an organist, and especially as an improviser, had grown; once, visiting Dresden, I had been invited to compete against the greatest French organist of the day, Louis Marchand. And what had he done? He had crept into the church as I was playing, and then promptly left town! My position was solidified: was it not right that I should be given this title of Kapellmeister?

We argued and argued, and at last compromised, but what did the Duke do? He chose to appoint the son of the old Kapellmeister to his father’s old post, and I was left with the humiliation of being cast aside.

Would any man of spirit accept such a stinging insult? Was I to go like a kicked dog through the streets, through the halls of the castle, only to hear the whispers and the jeers behind my back? For I well knew my worth, and never did I fail to let the world know it. The “musicians” who sawed and tooted and warbled away—did I fail to note their deficiencies? Of course not, why should I? I had struggled, I had done the work, I had made myself the greatest musician of my time. Must I bow down or curtsey to those lesser than I?

Yes, I had done what this young man, Montalvo, had not. For I don’t understand these children, who think that fame and fortune are as easy to obtain as plucking an apple from the tree! Not a day went by when I hadn’t striven to improve myself, no nightfall arrived without my repairing to bed exhausted! I worked until I could work no more, and even then on most days I pushed myself further. But this boy, now in a savage prison, ruled by brutes and peopled with brutes? Has he done the work?

We had, perhaps, the drugs that were good for us: a hearty beer and a pipeful of tobacco. Yes, we knew of the opium takers of the Turks and their neighbors, but it would only be a century later that the drug would be given to our own women to calm their nerves. But all we had was beer, and we may have been better off for it.

And it was over a beer that I approached my other employer, Duke Ernest August, and it was through him that I learned that the position of Kapellmeister was available at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen. And it was then that the Duke William Ernest revealed how petty and despicable he could be. Yes, for nearly a month, I was jailed in the ducal prison for having “too insistently pressed for his release from service!”

My friends—the few men of worth who could appreciate who I was—rallied in my defense. But for long weeks I stared at the bars, and wondered at my fate. But very soon I realized: I could compose anywhere. I began to compose what would be the greatest treatise on tuning, and some of the greatest music ever composed: The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Like everywhere else, I put my time to work, as had so many others before me. For prison can be a sort of freedom, if there are pen and paper at hand, and the time to use them. The great Cervantes, after all, wrote the first modern novel, Don Quixote, from a prison cell.

But how different things are now! Will Montalvo do as I did? Will he be given the chance? And when he comes out, in nearly as many days as I spent, will he be changed?


Monday, November 2, 2015

Montalvo Perdu

It hadn’t been a good day, nor is it ever a good thing when a dear friend calls you and asks immediately if you’re sitting down.

“Yes,” I told Lady, “and what is it?”

It was the call that I had feared, since I knew perfectly well that Montalvo, who alone could have conceived the theft of a rare blue macaw—it was variably pining on his shoulder as Montalvo walked home. Second explanation: Montalvo, greatly aided by chemicals legal in only a few states, had formed a mystical connection with the bird. After paying homage to the moment—selfies were taken—the united pair repaired to La Perla. (Sorry about all that alliteration….) Since the bird was not unattached—the owner was nearby, though apparently distracted—the police intervened.

A judge decided—wisely—that Puerto Rico’s prison population was already burdened enough, and could anyone take a parrot rustler seriously? Please! So Montalvo got probation, which came along with counseling, a curfew, and drug testing.

Know where this is going?

I did and I didn’t. Because the first time he tested positive, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach by a horse. Yes, I was literally reeled over in the café, so sure was I that this kid—who calls me Dad—was going to go before the judge. And what had the judge told him? That he was running out of options, and one strike was all it would take to un-suspend the seven-year sentence. (Was it seven years? It hardly matters, because Montalvo, though strong and street savvy, is at least a hundred pounds lighter than most of the guys in La Regional—the “correctional facility” to which he would be sent.)

I am a pessimist by nature—show me a swimming pool and I’ll throw in the drowned child, and the fact that I still have two feet? Due only to my father, of a dye darker than I, who could not help telling me to be careful, when mowing the lawn, never to mow backwards. Each Saturday, in the living room, he would act out the scenario: the unheeding Marc, illicitly mowing backwards, the mower moving over the—probably barefoot—foot, and the moment the furious blades slashed into the foot. The agony, the shout, the fall to the ground as I lay bleeding to death….

The point of this vignette? The judge would send Montalvo to jail, and what would face him there? Rape? Murder? Both have been known to happen in Puerto Rican jails. Oh, and also in the states.

It turned out Montalvo knew the system very well. He told me exactly how it would play out: his counselor would sit him down, stay very quiet for an intentionally uncomfortable few minutes, and then ask him, “Montalvo, is there anything you need to tell me?”

“Man, I hate it when they ask that question!”

“Then why do you put yourself in a position…”

Right, he hated that one too….

And that’s how it played out. So the fact that I had utterly crumpled, and was sobbing as I listened to the saddest aria ever written—Piangero la Sorte Mia—was all quite irrelevant. Montalvo had to go more often to therapy, and piss more often in bottles, but prison was avoided. And then, it became apparent over the months that—from time to time—Montalvo would slip up.


Who can say? My best guess is that he was bored and frustrated, since he had had and lost several jobs in rapid succession.

“I don’t think they’ll have me back,” he admitted about one restaurant job. True, the restaurant had closed for the slow season, but that had hardly been a problem. And also true, the customers had loved him, and left sizable tips. The problem? Montalvo, instead of quietly stuffing the money in his pocket, had very visibly and audibly displayed it. His word for it?

“I guess I was kind of cocky….”

It was in vain to tell him: many an incompetent worker goes on to get that gold watch. Who gets fired? The pains in the asses. So Montalvo had time on his hands, and he was bored, and he was pissed, because why was life hitting him so hard? And how was he going to pay his rent? And how does a kid deal with all of that?

Now you know why I had to be sitting, when Lady called, and why, for most of the weekend, I was uttered dejected.

I only know that I will see him. I also know that he will be wearing an orange prison suit, and will have been shorn military style, for “security” reasons. And I know the people who will be there, because for years I rode in the same minivan with them. They were, in fact, mostly quite cheerful, and they consisted of girlfriends and wives and mothers. Off hand, I can recall no fathers.

So Lady and I will go, this Friday, to see him. And that is what I don’t know: what will I say to him? I thought about it all weekend, picturing and more often hearing my father.

No son of mine has ever gone to jail….

This had better be the LAST time I see you in this place.

The day my mother died? That’s about how bad this day is.

Lady is more pragmatic.

“You knew this was coming, right? OK, but the good news is that he’s accepting responsibility for being there, and says it’s where he needs to be. And he’ll be out in three weeks….”

I don’t tell her what I’m thinking, which is…

…yeah, and how long will he be in the next time? 


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Slacking away at Religion

“Who would have thought you a slacker,” said Lady, imaginatively passing by my tables, “since I see you writing here all the time? But where is the parable for last week? You know, the one about the king’s son’s wedding? Though to preserve the Biblical flavor, perhaps we should eschew the Saxon Genitive, and call it the wedding of the son of the king.”

“That does sound better,” I told her. “And really, inventing this religion is much more of a bother than I could have imagined. I see now why Jesus is so completely inadequate, when it comes to the miracles and the parables. This week, for example, the readings are drawn from Ephesians and from John. So I checked that out, and got the usual adjurations about putting on the shield of God, since the devil…OK, let’s bring on the King Jame’s…”

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

“How prescient of the Bible to foresee the presidencies of George W. Bush,” said Lady. “OK—got that message. Now then, moving on to John?”

“Well, the reading—John 4: 46-54, with which I’m sure you’re intimately familiar….”

“I believe I was discussing the passage the other day with Elaine Pagels,” Lady replied.

“Yeah? The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton?”

“Yes, she calls, once in a while, when a particularly knotty problem presents itself….”

“Good of you to help out,” I said. “Anyway, you undoubtedly remember that Jesus, fresh from turning water into wine—a really superior miracle, by the way—now sets about healing the nobleman’s son. This he does telepathically, since the son is some distance away. Anyway, the nobleman returns home and finds his son was healed at the seventh hour of the previous day, which was just when the nobleman was talking to Jesus. So bam! It’s legit!”

“Good news indeed. So now you’re a parable and a miracle behind. Get to work!”

“You know, I begin to despair, which is a grave sin indeed. Because not only do I have to produce miracles and parables, I’ve also had to listen to three of the darkest cantatas ever written. And here, courtesy of the, is just a teaser….”

By Jesus' grace alone will there be
     comfort before us, and forgiveness,
     for due to Satan's deceit and cunning
     the entire life of humanity
     is a sinful abomination before God.

Lovely,” said Lady. “Nothing like that old time religion!”

“The problem is that Bach is all over the place, emotionally. There are four cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, and two or three of them are musical incitements to suicide.  Cantata BWV 38 is particularly bad, being drawn—again!—from the psalm ‘out of the depths I cry to you,’ though here it’s ‘out of deep agony I cry to you.’”

“Very nice,” said Lady. “Throwing in the word ‘agony’ does lighten the picture, doesn’t it?”

“Then there’s BWV 109, which is just as bad. In fact, it takes its inspiration from Mark 9:24, which, since you hobnob with the glitteriest of biblical scholars…”

“’I believe Lord; help me in my disbelief,’” finishes Lady.

“Well, you as a poet should understand that, and it may be that I do as well. But anyway, the first three or four movements are all about spiritual crisis, doubt, and lack of faith. And boy, is the music grim! Bach, when he wants to be, can be completely nasty! But then the alto sails in, and sweeps that all away, saying that God never fails anyone, no matter how dark that night of the soul is. Of course, what he doesn’t say is precisely when he will step in and give succor to the unbelieving. In my case, he’s waited for decades.”

“You have to persevere,” said Lady. “And perhaps do some mortification of the flesh. You know, you might fast for forty days and nights. Or have you considered self flagellation?”

“I refuse to consider it,” I told her. “Though I have contemplated doing a pilgrimage from Arnstadt to Lübeck—walking it as Bach did, when he went to see Buxtehude.”

“Excellent idea,” said Lady. “We could crowd-fund it—you can count on me for a generous contribution. But how long would it take?”

“Maybe ten days,” I told her. “Unless, of course, I choose to do it on my knees, which is getting a bit extreme, don’t you think? But the real question is what I do when, at the end of the journey, I arrive in Lübeck just as infidel as I started.”

“Very easy,” said Lady, “Walk back to Arnstadt again!”