Christmas in Puerto Rico


I grew up in a thoroughly assimilated American household. I didn’t know that I was different until some kids bullied me in Elementary School, taunting “Ah so, Mena!” It was very confusing to me. Was I Chinese? No, my mother assured me, I was Puerto Rican. What was that, exactly?

I knew that my mother spoke to her mother in Spanish, and that I had spent my fifth birthday in Santurce, staying with my mother’s Aunt Ven and visiting my Aunt Alice, a Dominican nun who was assigned to a convent in San Juan. All of my mother’s siblings spoke to their mother in Spanish, while my father, whose parents were both born in Puerto Rico, never spoke Spanish. I’d say that this was confusing to me, but in reality I was perfectly comfortable being a suburban white boy whose life’s soundtrack occasionally included Spanish. And since this soundtrack didn’t include subtitles, I didn’t learn the language until I became an adult.

In the meantime, there were holiday visits to my grandmother and grandfather’s apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There was Mother’s Day with my Grandma Felicita, and Father’s Day at Grandpa’s house, but the real treat was at Christmas time, when we visited both homes on the same day. I couldn’t care less about the turtleneck sweaters I would inevitably receive as gifts. The true star of the day was the Puerto Rican pastele.

Always a good eater, I feasted upon pasteles with great zeal. My mother, half Puerto Rican but not a gifted cook, never made them at home, so I only ate them when I visited my grandparents. They passed away in the late 70s and early 80s, and I haven’t had a pastele since then.

Being a thoroughly assimilated American adult, and married to a very gifted cook, I enjoy the food of many cultures, but I long for a Christmas beneath the flamboyan tree, breathing in the fragance and relishing every bite of a homemade pastele.

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Lost Wages


I can’t think of too many things more surreal than spending Thanksgiving in Las Vegas, so naturally that’s what we did this past year. Our true reason for being there was the Las Vegas Invitational basketball tournament; everything else about Las Vegas was a bonus.

We didn’t gamble. Apart from attending the tournament’s four games, we ate a lot of good food and basically watched people interacting with machines and monitors at the casinos. I also wrote quite a bit, some of which I’ll share here.

morning sun —
a small dog
in a travel bag

waiting to board
high rollers
and their baggage

jet lag:
the time between coffee
and beer

now boarding
all of the passengers
more special than me

delayed departure —
they called me
a late bloomer

friendly skies —
the pilot wishes
he had better news

all night long
the slot machine

waking from a dream
a golden pyramid
in the desert

Thanksgiving morning —
grandma cleans house
at blackjack

Thanksgiving buffet
I eat
my feelings

double shift —
the cocktail waitress serves
a whiskey sour

one day after Thanksgiving
Santa wears
a cocktail dress

Black Friday
what happens in Vegas

final nightcap —
a drunk couple’s
angry conversation

Vegas midnight —
row after row
of flashing lights

Vegas midnight —
the serenity of a
broken slot machine

the art
of the deal
with the devil

magic trick —
the weekend

desert night —
an adult book store’s
guiding light

above the Vegas haze
Nevada moonlight

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Why I don’t celebrate Columbus Day


First off, my employer doesn’t give us the day off, so of course I’ll drag myself into the office on Monday like everyone else. But beyond that, there​’s the whole notion of celebrating the “discovery” of America, as if there wasn’t already a vibrant patchwork of indigenous cultures already thriving in that exact place. It would be more accurate to celebrate the day Europe arrived in earnest to invade the Americas, enslaving or executing those not annihilated by disease. How festive!

Now I know what you’re thinking: it’s my white liberal guilt talking. Granted, Casper the Friendly Ghost envies my pale complexion, but beneath this pampered pastiness is a pair of surprises to many: first, I’m three-quarters Puerto Rican. Second, thanks to the miracle of modern DNA testing, I apparently have about 10% Native American blood by way of Puerto Rico, in other words, Taíno. And the Taíno people have, let’s say, a very special relationship with Columbus.

When Cristoforo Colombo sailed the ocean blue and landed in the Bahamas, he was greeted by curious Taíno villagers, whom he described as

“a physically tall, well-proportioned people, with a noble and kind personality. They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will … they took great delight in pleasing us … They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.”

Translation: they were easily exploitable. By his second visit, Columbus began to exact tribute from his gentle hosts, often through violence. By the middle of the sixteenth century, most of those who had not died through brutal treatment or smallpox were the women whom their Spanish overlords took as wives. As a result, there is no surviving Taíno population, but rather traces of Taíno blood in most of those who consider themselves Puerto Rican. So no, I won’t be celebrating Columbus Day.

Not surprisingly, I see this same delusion of conquest in our current administration’s mishandling of the devastation that followed September 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Instead of offering the same level of assistance that followed Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, Puerto Rico was assailed for the poor finances and infrastructure that made such a disaster inevitable. What is often missed is how decades of colonial rule have rendered Puerto Rico without any of the safety nets afforded to fellow Americans in the mainland. Sure, the island doesn’t pay Federal income tax, but nor do Puerto Ricans have a voting member of Congress, or the ability to vote for President. I won’t speak for my Island counterparts, but I would certainly be willing to pay taxes to participate in decisions that have a direct impact on my life.

I could go on about the bombing ranges in Culebra and Vieques, the plundering of coffee and sugar plantations, or the frenzied investment of mainland dollars in lucrative island casinos, but I’ve only got one more day left this weekend, then it’s back to work on Monday…

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the consequence of sound


In what has become an expensive but irresistible habit, I had the opportunity to hijack an hour of airtime from the James Dean Deathcar Experience on WMBR, MIT’s radio station. It was my ninth time pretending to be DJ for one hour, and as always it was both great fun and a great privilege. The playlist can be found here, and an archive of the entire hour-long joyride can be found here. Be sure to buckle up!

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dream sequence – part 72


As is the case with many of my dreams, the scenario was very close to real life: I was in bed, alone, unable to fall asleep. In the dream, however, some kids were horsing around near the house, shouting outside my bathroom window from the backyard and then running away laughing. I finally had enough of this and decided to confront them.

I waited in front of the house, knowing that they’d be running out from the backyard, at which point I’d give them a well-deserved scare. Suddenly a shadow appeared in front of me, at eye level, hovering just out of reach. Startled, I tried to touch it, but my hands went right through the space where the shadow appeared to be.

And then I did another thing I often do in my sleep: I screamed — very loudly — promptly waking myself up, terrified. But in those seconds between the time I started screaming and the time I was fully awake — that seemingly endless state of hypnagogia — I could clearly hear my wife Mary saying to me, from 83 miles away, “I’m very sorry, but I can’t help you now.”

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dream sequence – part 71


On two consecutive nights I’ve had dreams involving parking concessions, and specifically the problems encountered when attempting to use their services. No sex, drugs or rock ’n roll for this dreamer — instead it was all about my 2008 Toyota RAV4 being held hostage with my consent.

We were in a big Manhattan hotel and thought we’d grab our car from the parking garage and drive to Brooklyn for dinner. The hotel pamphlet instructed us to call the front desk with our parking ticket number and ensured us that our car would be waiting for us at curbside by the time we took the elevator down to the lobby. Instead, we joined a growing group of frustrated hotel guests who were all waiting for their cars.

The receptionist explained that there was only one valet worker, and that too many requests had come in at once, meaning that some were waiting over half an hour to be reunited with their cars. Even though we weren’t in a rush, I considered the wait too long and cancelled my request, insisting that we’d be better off taking a cab.

The hotel had a taxi concession just outside the front lobby, a small metal kiosk from which a worker called and organized a steady procession of taxi cabs. When we left the lobby, we noticed an unusual swarm of activity around the kiosk — not just impatient guests like us, but reporters, photographers and curious bystanders.

Inside the kiosk was Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Evidently he had just purchased the hotel, and his Public Relations folks thought that it would be a good idea to snap a few photos of the septuagenarian rocker in an “Everyman” scenario. For one lucky guest, he opened the back door of the taxi and politely escorted what appeared to be a young starlet to her seat. Then he shook hands with the driver and waved goodbye. With cameras rolling, he was all smiles, but once they stopped, he was all business. Bodyguards swooped in and whisked him away — no photos, no autographs, no loitering.

It was around then that I lost my appetite.

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virtual age


Every so often I feel older than my calendar age. While I know I’ve lived a healthy, privileged life, I sometimes suspect that the sun has gone up and down more than the 21,480 or so times some simple math would try to tell me to be the case. On these occasions, I add the ages of my 5 children and my 9 grandchildren to my own to arrive at my “virtual age”. Having just gone through a very busy April and May, that number now stands at 270.

Admittedly, there is zero science behind this musing, but I’ve always preferred math.

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