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….”


“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…


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.


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?”


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…. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Miami Girl Wins Gold

Is it just me, or are we living increasingly more in the land of narrative?

I’m not against narrative: what writer could be? But there is something about the intersection of sports and narrative that I don’t get.

If you don’t know, Mónica or Monica Puig succeeded in getting a tennis ball over the net fractionally more often than her opponent. She went on to win a gold medal, the first gold medal by a player representing Puerto Rico. That’s a crucial difference: Gigi Fernández, who won two gold medals in women’s doubles tennis, was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but represented the United States.

“So tell me about that again,” I asked Mr. Fernández—no relation to Gigi, but definitely related to me (he’s my husband).

“Well, she got some flak at the time, but she said she wanted to represent Puerto Rico, but there was no one for her to partner with…”

Is that true?

I have no idea.

OK—back to Mónica / Monica. No one can deny her personal triumph, and no one can deny that tennis is a superbly difficult game. That she was not expected to win, and that she did, is a gripping story. And even I, as the game was playing out, and Mr. Fernández was cooking dinner, guiltily snuck onto ESPN—quite a novel experience—to check in on how things were going for Monica.

Or Mónica….

Then dinner was served, and one does not, in Mr. Fernández’s house, engage with electronics at table. Fortunately, though, there were people engaged with electronics, since the cigar bar across the road had both the doors open and the game on the large screen. So every time Fernández scored, the street erupted. Sometime just before the end of dinner, the crescendo peaked, and it became clear—the crowd outside was going crazy.

“Well, either Monica won, or Dayanara won the Miss Universe contest again,” I said to Mr. Fernández. Dayanara Torres was the Miss Universe of 1993, and her win was announced by similar street fanfare.

So I checked in, and sure enough, Monica Puig was there , standing on the center and highest dais; the Puerto Rican flag was rising higher than the two others, La Borinquena was playing.  And then Monica Puig was tweeting. Well, after getting the medal, of course. And what was she tweeting?


“We did it, Puerto Rico,” is a poor translation. “We achieved it,” is literal but equally  poor. So maybe it’s best to say that Monica was saying, “this is Puerto Rico’s win.”

This is the gracious thing to say. It is also emotionally true, since Puerto Ricans, whether living on the island or living elsewhere, feel an amazing connectedness to home.

But is it true in any real sense? Did everybody on the island take turns driving Monica to her tennis lessons? Work a second job to get her the best coach? Hold her hand when it was needed, and tell her to keep her dream alive? Or were we smoking cigars and watching her win, and celebrating our victory?

To some degree, any individual achievement in any endeavor belongs to the community which fosters that achievement. A Puerto Rican singing at the Metropolitan Opera—Ana Martínez—was raised on the island, studied for a time on the island, and then went off to the Boston Conservatory and Juilliard. But still, Puerto Rico has some claim to her. But what about Monica Puig?

Although the 22-year-old moved to Miami as a baby, has spent virtually all of her life living and training in South Florida, and sheepishly admitted she doesn’t know the words to the Puerto Rican anthem, she was overwhelmed with Puerto Rican pride during and after the match. She said she considers herself a true “Boricua” (Puerto Rican) and was energized by the many Puerto Rican fans in the stands who chanted “Si se puede!” (yes you can) throughout the match.

She says more:

I still have family in Puerto Rico. It’s my favorite place to go when I just want to go to the beach and be with family. That island has given me so much love and support my whole career. I just owe this one to them.”

I totally believe her. But take note: she comes to the beach, she visits her family, and
“that” island has given her so much support….

What isn’t Monica experiencing? Well, she isn’t waiting for her tax refund, which the local paper has just announced isn’t coming any time soon. She wasn’t the victim of a murder on a court in a community center at 8:50 PM in the small town of Las Piedras. But there is good news, according to today’s paper: the medical evacuation by helicopter service, which had stopped providing service when the government stopped providing funds, is now up and running again!

I have nothing but praise for Monica Puig. I admire her fidelity to her roots, I applaud her huge personal achievements, I salute her grace in thanking Puerto Rico.

So what’s my problem?

There are things—many things—that Puerto Rico can be proud of. Consider the fact that the students of the engineering school of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez routinely win first place in national and international competitions. In fact, the school is ranked number four nationwide.

So when a student or graduate of the university goes on to work for Boeing as a senior engineer responsible for “all electrical wire design, integration and equipment installations on the 747 and 767 programs, including the new 747-8 and the 767 Refueling Tanker Programs”—well, we can be proud. We built and maintained that university, recruited the faculty, nurtured the talent. And while it may not be an Olympic gold medal, well, which would you prefer, as you step onto a 747?

Am I being a killjoy? What’s wrong, after a decade of horrendous news in Puerto Rico, with feeling—at long last—a little pride? Joy, at seeing a hometown girl make the gold?

We live by narrative. We tell ourselves stories about who we are, who they are, what our world is. And the truer those stories are, the better we get on with our lives.

I wouldn’t be writing this if it were just Monica Puig. But while researching this, I found out that Gigi Fernández is the cousin of José Ferrer, the famous actor, and where was his fame achieved? Oh, and he went to Princeton, where he wrote a thesis on French Naturalism, and was a member of the Princeton Triangle Club. He died in Coral Gables, Florida, but he did donate his Academy Award to the University of Puerto Rico. Will it soften the blow if Wikipedia tells you, not I:

The award was stolen after being misplaced during the remodeling of the university's theater. 

Ana Martínez—born and raised in Puerto Rico, graduated from Juilliard—stepped in at the last minute to replace an ailing soprano in Madame Butterfly. The Observer called it “a triumph.”

And now Monica Puig? Or remember all that business of Mónica / Monica Puig? Isn’t it fairer to say that this island produces great talent—Ferrer, Fernández, Martínez, Puig? And that they go off, leave, and make their successes elsewhere?

And if that were the narrative we embraced, we would have to look at ourselves, and wonder what we could do to have…

…our very best stay at home.