I remember when you came to my school. Your shoes were so shiny, and they squeaked when you walked. Your uniform was neat and crisp with its badges and buttons. Your belt shone too. It was so reflective, and it had all these little cases and buckles. I wondered what they were for. Secret compartments were cool. The walky talkie squawked intermittently in unintelligible codes. You towered over us. And your dog was so big, his ears straight up in the air as he sat there still as a statue.
We were seated on the floor, but we all straightened our backs to get a better look as we said in unison, “Good morning, Officer Jones.”
You talked to us about your job, how you like to help people, how you wanted to stop the bad guys, that you were there to help us if we ever needed it. You told some funny stories, and you let us pet your dog. I was a little scared at first, but his hair was soft and he looked at us with sensitive brown eyes. I remember thinking how impressive you and your dog were. I wanted to help people too. I wanted to be like you and have a dog like you and stop bad people too.
As with all things, though, I grew up. When I turned 18, I was 6’4″ and no longer held those illusions of elementary school. I had not thought about your visit to my classroom in years, having long since changed my interests. Sometimes I felt silly for wanting to be a police officer. It’s as with all my peers, white and black. We all go through that phase, don’t we? I want to be a fire fighter. I want to be a police officer. We all want to help. In our innocence, that’s what first-responders represent. But I now no longer entertain those notions.
I am what people perceive me to be, a large black man and for those who don’t know me, maybe I look scary. I still feel like that third grader inside, though. I still would like to pet that dog, and I would still like to stop bad people from doing bad things.
When did I become the bad person, Officer Jones?
Yesterday was the 25th of July, el Día de la Constitución en Puerto Rico (Constitution Day). It is a big holiday very much like the 4th of July in the US. We began it going to the funeral mass of, get this, the brother of the husband of the sister of Laura’s father. You get that? It all boils down to el hermano del querido tío Benny. I call him Tío Benny too. We always gravitate towards each other during family functions and end up talking compost and farming and whatnot. I’ve learned a lot from him. So when we heard his brother had died, it was a given that we would be there.
This is how Puerto Rico is. Cousins removed – cousins of cousins, cousins through marriage… they’re all primos and we all celebrate and share together. I sometimes feel like an outsider, but still, I appreciate watching and pretending. I suppose it’s as close as this gringo can get.
The funeral mass was held for Pedro Alberto, a local school director and beloved character in the town of Guayama in the southeast of Puerto Rico. The mass was packed, the homely strange, and the words spoken few, but everyone was there, extended relatives from all branches. My wife’s parents were there. We were there with our four children.
As is my usual manner, I contemplated my place in the assembly, the upsides and the downsides. On the general downside of having a huge interconnected family, we attend a lot of funerals. There are so many extended relatives, you just can’t help but be called upon to go and show support. It’s not pleasant, certainly. Who wants to face their own mortality, be reminded of it regularly. Can’t we all pretend that life just goes on forever?
For the kids too, do we really want them to be here? Is it too hard? I don’t think it is, in fact, I think it’s good for them. It is probably good to be exposed early, to get to know pain and mourning and the loss of a loved one, because it will find them later in life, and they should be accustomed to the process. “Javier, this is the mass for Tio Benny’s brother. I’m sure he misses him. You would be so sad if you lost one of your brothers, no?” Yes, he said, and I know he appreciates his brothers. They all hugged each other and gave each other kisses. Such cariño; it brought a tears to my eyes.
There’s an upside too, more in line with my previous post about beauty and pain. Life is beauty and pain. Living is painful, but life is beautiful. A funeral mass is the acknowledgement of that duality. There is relief for the dead; the long journey is over. There will be no more tears to cry, no more pain to endure. You are dead, you finished your work. For the living, the frailties of the departed loved one become less important as time passes, until la vida is purely sanctified and beautiful.
This mass, this ritual is the coming together to process and find acceptance, to deal with the passing and in the end to say, “It’s all good.”
When it was over, I was tired, but at peace. I thought it fitting that we celebrated this Constitution day doing something important, something that I feel is the best part of the Puerto Rican culture, la familia.
We have passed from religion, to family, and now we finish with another typical and important part of Puerto Rican culture. I will leave it here so that we end on a light note with our bellies full and smiles on our faces.
We stopped in Guavate and ate lechón, slow cooked pig on a spit, with rice and gandules, mofongo, amarillos, yuca y morcilla.
From family and religion to the tasty pig, it doesn’t get more typical than that.
“Hey Daddy, what is this song saying?”
“I don’t know, Javier. It sounds nice, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually listened to the words.”
“I don’t like this song.”
“Is it saying something bad?” I asked, thinking perhaps he had picked up on some offensive lyrics or something.
“No, it’s just that this guy’s voice is weird. It sounds like he doesn’t have good breath control.”
I laughed. “Javier, you would know better than I. Your choir training makes you a subject matter expert.”
“But I think he is singing that way on purpose. I don’t think he can’t sing well, it’s just that he is going for the effect.”
“Well, it sounds bad. I don’t like it.”
I explained that perhaps his affected style was to convey an intimacy with the audience, a lack of polish to engage, to not set himself apart from those appreciating the song. It wasn’t a beautiful performance, I agreed, but there was something I liked about it. It hit me like a slow jam around the camp fire with friends. It did bring me in close and didn’t chase me away with vocal acrobatics.
“So Javier, you’re right, probably, but it’s hard to say who is right and wrong when it’s a question of why a person likes a song or not. Your opinion is probably as valid as mine. I like the song. You don’t. Who is wrong? Sometimes that’s the problem when people argue about things like this. We’re having a good discussion, but just saying it’s bad, probably isn’t the best way to talk about it.”
Javier furrowed his brow. I could see that he was calculating a response. He always pauses before he says something profound.
“Daddy, this guy is doing a good job of singing badly.”
It’s the little things, suddenly spending lots of time with mom, deleted photos, inspirational memes about new hope, new challenges, new directions. I know those posts are for you.
I hit “like” on a picture with the children.
Maybe it’s a job change, a move. There are the inevitable appliance purchases, selfies, lost weight.
I pick through it. I notice it. I read between the lines and I think I can see what has happened. I don’t know why it has happened, but I see you. We’re no more than acquaintances at this point, perhaps dear friends in the past, but I don’t know if you’d feel comfortable with me intruding to offer a kind word. I don’t know how “out” you want to be. Besides, I could be wrong about everything.
I hit “like” on a new outfit.
I remind myself that nothing on social media is accidental. Much like a scripted crime thriller, everything has a purpose. You are vague for a reason. Everything is deliberately done, even what old photos remain. Besides, your closest friends probably already know, don’t they. I am not one of those.
I hit “like” on a “hang in there” comment.
I arrived at the Plaza de Armas late on Monday, a bit after the noon hour, thoroughly drenched from the inside out, woozy from the heat, and probably a bit dehydrated. It was a miserable ride, but I made it. I leaned my bike against a tree and fell into one of the park benches, elbows on my knees. I caught my breath and decided to eat my lunch at that moment and relax in the breeze in the shade of the trees. I took a sip of cold water and greeted the folks around me. Buenas tardes.
The one who self-professed to know how to handle his money and his wife, was sitting behind me, there with his cane. He was by himself today. There was another man in front of me, who was very loud. He spoke as if through a bullhorn and with a strange accent. I think Cuban, but I can’t be sure. To his left was a woman recounting the tale of her dear friend who was enamorada, in love, with some man. “I told her, be careful. He is not what you think he is, but she is in love.” She carried on a bit, she is this, she is her friend, she is that, “and I told her, be careful, but she does not heed me, because she is in love.” She repeated this punctuation no less than three times. I desperately wanted to know more. Who was this woman? Who was this man, fascinated I was by gossiping tales of the love lives of the 70+ set. I am a gossip whore – sue me.
But I never got to find out, as the first drops fell big and fat on the hot concrete. Just a few at first, and I continued eating my sandwich, unmoved. I was already soaked from sweat anyway. El cubano and his woman friend got up, held newspapers over their heads and dashed for shelter. She excused herself and was gone, but el cubano moved under an awning to wait it out. The one behind me who handled his wife and money simply sat.
Then the rain came in buckets, an aguacero, and the plaza was now inundated. I decided that it was time to move, and grabbed my bike and sought shelter in front of the old alcaldia (the mayor’s office). From my vantage point across the plaza, I watched the one who handled his wife and money stand up as if to move, but he didn’t. He remained there, bent a bit, resting on his cane. He shuffled six inches to one side, then six inches back, half turned, frozen. Do I go, do I stay? Is it worth the effort? It was decided, and he remained motionless beneath the downpour. I thought that maybe I should bring him an umbrella next time I come by. That would be nice, I thought. He could manage his wife and his money, but perhaps he needed some help staying dry.
After a few minutes the rain slowed to a trickle, and the people emerged from their shelters, old folks shuffling back to their haunts, the tourists moving along in their chatty little groups, looking up, taking pictures. El cubano came back to his bench, and the one who got drenched, turned from where he stood, wiped it of the puddles of water, and sat back down, his pants thoroughly soaked.
What is art? Laura and I have been discussing this subject passionately for the past twenty-something years. I can’t say we’ve arrived at any firm conclusions, but let me throw one more log on the fire right here.
We were visiting the Art Museum here in Puerto Rico a few months ago and I found myself in front of this painting. Here’s the best image I could find with the artist, Francisco Rodón.
So I walked up a winding staircase and came upon this huge painting of Luis Muñoz Marin, first elected governor of Puerto Rico in the Puerto Rico Art Museum. I was moved. It was beautiful, exquisite, composition, colors, impactful. First there came a slight choke, then full on tears running down my face. This is silly, I thought. What is wrong with me? Am I having a stroke or something. Sheesh, get a grip, Jim. I wiped my eyes and tried to focus on the details of the portrait, the rivulets of color flowing and gathering in little pools and the patchwork of earthen colors, like seen from high above, farmland, the very face of Puerto Rico. I peered into the tired eyes of Marin. I have done so much. I have seen so much. I am tired. I wish I could have done more, but I am old now. There is pain in the painting, palpable pain. But it is beautiful too, compelling. I could not tear my eyes away as I experienced the entirety of Puerto Rican 20th century history.
I didn’t try to dissect it in that moment. I couldn’t, a mess I was, overcome with what poured out like a tidal wave. It was all I could do to just stay afloat for the ride and try not to drown. It wasn’t until a few months later, reflecting on the experience, and after attempting to explain it others, that it hit me.
This piece is beauty and pain. The best art, like life, is beauty and pain.
To contrast: too beautiful, too pretty, too sweet; it’s a simple gumdrop, a sugary treat bursting in your mouth and gone. Shallow sentimentality doesn’t stay with you, does it? It won’t nourish you. At best it’s a way to mark time, a momentary distraction. Here we have majestic paintings of mountains, beautiful morning lit scenes leading to a little brook, and some pretty flowers. It’s nice, and matches the drapes too. Would that work its way into your soul?
Rodón, could have done this painting much darker, austere desaturated colors, darker shadows, sunken eyes. He could have rendered the patches all angular and jagged. He could have scrawled some political slogan across the middle, an ugly reminder of tribalism in politics. He could have defaced it to “really get in your face.” He could have done so many things if all he wanted was to thrust pain and dissonance upon us, but he knew that there was beauty there too. He painted with such tenderness for Luis Muñoz Marin. Cariño. He made me see beauty in this old man after his life’s dedication, of the battles won and lost, of progress, of mistakes. It was worth doing, but it was hard.
Now, too painful, too cynical, and you risk losing yourself to despair. And suffering for suffering’s sake is a pointless exercise. It will find you, trust me.
Think about art, and if you are honest with yourself, you will find that it does need to be beautiful. It needs to be terribly beautiful, not pretty with little pastel sailboats hung over a couch, but terribly painfully beautiful. And it must challenge you, but not for the sake of shock alone. Art shouldn’t just throw shit in your face and say, see? that’s what shit smells like. Isn’t it shocking? Too cynical, and it loses its measure of humanity. Pain is real, and all people know it. We humans are acquainted with pain in all its varieties. Art should elevate the dialog of pain, not just use it like a cudgel. That is for the lazy and the shallow. An artist’s job is to capture authenticity, and it takes a reverence and sincerity you can’t fake.
Like most everything these days, home appliances come with printed circuit boards tucked away in various corners of their interiors. These control and logic boards rein over everything from the temperature, to water usage, cleanliness, etc, all to achieve an Energy Star rating. They do the same job with as few resources as possible. The only problem is that you have to throw them out after a couple of years.
It turns out that the heat and humidity of tropics is murder on the electronic guts of modern appliances, ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines. Sure, they’re more energy efficient, but then you have to get new ones every few years because the cost of repair is nearly the cost of the appliance as new. Sigh. How environmentally sound and efficient is that?
Anyway, so our dishwasher started acting up, first not draining properly. At first I thought it was clogged, but it turns out that the drain cycle was just not being triggered properly. The cycle would not complete due to some control system problem. I took it apart, checked what I could check, studied the electrical circuit diagram, went online and found the part. $150 but I couldn’t get it shipped to Puerto Rico without jumping through hoops. Sigh again.
After further reading however, the problem didn’t necessarily have to be isolated to the control board. It could be in the touch panel circuit. Both together would be over $300 and that wouldn’t guarantee it would solve the problem. As a do-it-yourselfer I can’t guarantee my work. If I have misdiagnosed the problem, I eat the cost and try again. To pay someone else with more knowledge to do it, I would have to chip in another $150-$200 for the work. Now we’re at nearly 80% of the cost of a new dishwasher.
So there I was, the thing wouldn’t drain, and now the touch panel was not working… lighting up in a strange configuration, only turning on and running if the delay wash button was pressed. Then one day it stopped working all together.
Time to get a new dishwasher. And off i went.
Perhaps it was the threat of being replaced. Maybe it had reflected on its life purpose, and got past its existential crisis, maybe it wanted us to reconnect with hand washing so as to appreciate it more. I don’t know, but that stupid dishwasher began to work again. One day, I closed the door and heard the pump motor wind up and suck the dirty water from its bowels. “Well, will you look at that. Do you hear that, hon? This damn thing is draining!” On a hunch, I loaded it up and pushed the delay washer button, and was greeted with a one hour count down. I danced a jig in the kitchen.The boulder had been removed from the tomb, but I did not know what it meant yet.
For a week, we used the delay button to do the loads and things came out sparkling clean. The water drained. It’s a work around, but we can live with it. Then Laura came to me, “I pushed the wash button, and it started up!”
“Really?!” It was too much to believe, unreal, a complete resurrection. I had to see it for myself.
Now the question is how long will we have it. For how long will it walk with us, washing our dishes, freeing us from the hell that is hand washing? I suppose we should rejoice for whatever it decides to give, for it could be recalled at any time. Let’s hope it goes longer than 40 days.
The fat old one that was like a ball gripped his pen and scribbled something on the paper. “Here, hold these,” he said to the other one who was standing. “No, no, give me that, you’re messing up my system. Hold it.” And he snatched a couple back, passed a few tickets to the standing one and directed his pen to the other. “eight, four, twenty-one, seven. I have a system,” he said, “I have it all here.” The standing one and the one holding a little bag with money and papers in it, both chuckled. “Let’s see…” and he added the numbers, shuffled the papers, passed them to the other, wrote some more, consulted his crumpled little green pad with another series of numbers. “You see? I have it all worked out.” And he flashed it briefly.
The man rested his hand on his cane, leaned back and peppered his compatriots with little bits and pieces to match his little papers. “You know, you have to be precise. I have a system, There is an order. Let’s see,” he said again. “The seven must be here, and the eight there. The twenty-one has to be like this and add this way.”
The other two nodded and remained quiet.
“Let me tell you something, my money is my money. My wife said she wanted an ATM. I said, why would you need an ATM? When I go to the ATM, I want my money to be there. Better to get them a credit card, eh?
The others nodded in agreement.
“I mean, my money is my money. I need it to be there when I need it… not for some woman and her capricious spending. Don’t give them money, boys. Keep a tight rein on your money, don’t let them waste it.” He paused, consulting his papers again. “All right, I think I have it all, seven plus eight plus twenty-one plus four…” He repeated it one more time, double checking. “You didn’t get those out of order, did you? Give me those again.” And he snatched all his little tickets back and shuffled them once again, then dispatched them to the one with the little bag of money. “Here you go,” and he handed over some bills. “You see? You have to have a system. The system works. I’ve been doing this a long time. I have it all worked out.”
The other two rolled up the little bag of money and departed without looking back.
We have been watching the TV show Arrow, a live action show about the DC comic character The Green Arrow. The show is sponsored by Microsoft and one can see their products, the unmistakable Windows Metro 8 interface conspicuously sprinkled throughout, with lots of little logos, and other call outs to Microsoft products (Bing etc). This is important, so pay attention.
Scene: Green Arrow is chasing down a bad guy who has someone tied to a bomb that is set to go off on a timer. Green Arrow’s computer expert, Felicity, is tracking some IP address, wireless tower, whatever to help Arrow locate the evil doer and hostage to avert disaster. Seconds are ticking off, the hostage is crying, the evil doer is laughing, monologue-ing. Tick tick tick.
“Where is he?!” yells Arrow into his communicator
Felicity concentrates on her Windows 8 laptop as her fingers dance over the keys, “Just a second, I almost have him.”
“Oh wait,” says Jaimito, “There’s a Windows Update, and it’s restarting the computer.”
We all roll on the floor laughing.