The Un-sequel

Did I hear something?

Is anyone there?

I know it has been a year since I’ve spoken to anyone. 

It’s not as if Pope Sixtus IV has a will of his own. I’m dead, again, unless I’m renewed by the force behind the novel, Pope Sixtus the Fourth.

Yes, I’m awake. I swear I heard something. It could only mean one thing. Disruption in the region of my consciousness. A literary earthquake! Let me check if I have Dexter’s or the Sardine’s numbers.

[dials on an antiquated land-line phone]

Come on, answer.

Dexter: Who the hell’s this?

Sixtus: Is that any way to address the Pontiff?

Dexter: Your Excellency, sir. Why are you calling me in the middle of the night?

Sixtus: I know neither day or night.

Dexter: Right.

Sixtus: It doesn’t sound as if I woke you up.

Dexter: I just returned from a book party.

Sixtus: And I wasn’t invited.

Dexter: You weren’t in it.

Sixtus: YOU were in another novel!

Dexter: Yes. A sequel to Berthcut & Sons.

Sixtus [snickering]: A sequel. To a book that no one read.

Dexter: A few people read it.

Sixtus: I bet not a double digit number. What’s the Amazon ranking?

Dexter: Let me look it up. [pause] It’s at 11,571,396.

Sixtus: That might be the number of books available at Amazon.. What about the Kindle edition?

[pause]

Dexter: There’s no rank.

Sixtus: That means he didn’t sell any Berthcut Kindle books.

Dexter: I remember being read once. Then he revised the book.

Sixtus: It’s truly pathetic. Worse, to have a sequel. What’s the title?

Dexter: con-Glom-er-a-tion.

Sixtus: What?

Dexter: Sic!

Sixtus: Why?

Dexter: It’s about a conglomerate.

Sixtus: I mean: separating the title into syllables.

Dexter: He didn’t tell us.

Sixtus: And why is “Glom” capitalized?

Dexter: That’s the name of the play.

Sixtus: What play?

Dexter: The play the book is based on.

Sixtus: I know the author has written plays based on his stories and even from Berthcut & Sons. In fact, he has two plays based on that novel.

Dexter: And a script for a television show.

Sixtus: None of them are in this new book.

Dexter: No. It’s new material.

[pause]

Sixtus: Wait, wait, wait. I remember. He was writing a play, Conglomeration. It had three separate sets on stage.

Dexter: That’s it. There’s us, Berthcut, on the stage right side. On center stage is Dalmy Brothers Altar Goods, who runs Berthcut. Then on stage left is the offices of Cerulean Enterprises, the conglomerate that bought out Dalmy Brothers.

Sixtus: So, he turned the play into a novel.

Dexter: No. He kept the play. There’s a subtitle. “A novel in the form of a play.”

Sixtus: You have to be shi. . . .

Dexter: I wouldn’t lie to a pope.

Sixtus hangs up the phone and weeps.

Selling Oneself

Pope Sixtus IV: Congratulations to the Sardine in resuming A Sardine on Vacation. I’m sure its ten to twenty readers really missed it the last couple years.

Sardine: Thanks, Pope, for mentioning it, but the remark about my readership was uncalled for if not unchristian.

Sixtus: I should have said one or two thousand?

Sardine: Maybe one or two hundred.

Sixtus: Not much difference than ten or twenty or even fifty.

Sardine: I never had the biggest audience. That’s the reality of Internet literary magazines. Although the column aspired to be a newspaper feature with hundreds of thousands, even millions of readers.

Sixtus: Even in a world of diminishing newspaper sales?

Sardine: The column may have eventually been relegated to a digital slot in the newspapers future Internet incarnations.

Sixtus: It wouldn’t have stopped the exodus from newspapers?

Sardine: It would have been an antidote to the lame newspaper humor propagated by Dave Barry, Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, and others.

Sixtus: A formidable task.

Sardine: Sample columns and a proposal were sent to every newspaper syndicate and many newspapers. No response except form-letter rejections.

Sixtus: They know what works.

Sardine: They held onto what was familiar. My columns had creative pluck.

Sixtus: Feature syndicates don’t give a pluck. How were yours different?

Sardine: Two ways, primarily. First, the column would never refer to current events and refrain from what newspaper readers expected from a featured piece, preferably located on the op-ed page.

Sixtus: Mother of God, have mercy on this naïve fish’s soul.

Sardine: Second, the columns would start in one direction, and subtly turn to another, hopefully eliciting a delightful surprise from the reader.

Sixtus: Why would you do this? What did you expect to achieve?

Sardine: I wanted the readers to realize that the Sardine feature was a sanctuary from the noise in the rest of the paper.

Sixtus: You thought that an editor was going to occupy space, near the Editorial Page no less, with a column that would alienate most newspaper readers.

Sardine: The Sardine is an alternative to the usual, obvious crap.

Sixtus: That’s like the Pope telling Christians not to obey the Ten Commandments. Where would the Church be then? In the shitter with the Gnostics and Zoroastrians.

Sardine: You didn’t follow the Commandments.

Sixtus: That’s different entirely. I broke them to maintain the Church’s strength. You would have lead newspapers even faster to the digital and destruction.

Sardine: I thought the papers could live with a dissenting voice. That’s how I framed my cover letter. The column by its very nature attacked the basis for a newspaper’s reason to exist.

Sixtus: That’s a hell of a way to sell yourself.

Sardine: The column wanted to avoid selling itself. It wasn’t asking readers to accept its view of the world.

Sixtus: An anti-salesman.

Dexter: Hey, that’s how Gerard described me in Berthcut & Sons.

Sixtus: Who’s that snot-nosed over-educated college graduate?

Sardine: He’s the trainee at the religious goods store.

Sixtus: The one who drove Gerard nuts.

Dexter: I think Gerard or someone in the shop called me the anti-Christ of salesmen.

Sixtus: You’re proud of that?

Dexter: No, your highness.

Sixtus: Your “Holiness”.

Dexter: Yeah. What it means is that the Sardine and I are cut from the same cloth.

Sardine: I wouldn’t go that far, junior.

Dexter: I’m pretty much the representative for the author in Berthcut. And you’re virtually indistinguishable from him.

Sardine: We’re way different.

Dexter: I don’t feel so bad now.

Sixtus: Well, I do. Knowing there are two of you out there who don’t know how the world works. Both of you would have been chewed up in Renaissance Italy.

A Time to Blog, A Time to Unclog

A Sardine on Vacation: I think he’s forgotten about me.

Pope Sixtus IV: How long has it been?

Sardine: August.

Sixtus: Hasn’t anyone asked where you were?

Sardine: No one reads the column, or so few read it. He put it on a site no one could find even if they looked.

Sixtus: Tell him.

Sardine: He knows but doesn’t do anything about it. Like he’s satisfied with getting five readers.

Sixtus: That’s admitting a defeat. (Pauses.) Wait. You said August. That’s when he started working on two new projects.

Sardine: He can’t get one done in less than ten years.

Sixtus: Working every day.

Sardine: He had tome for this blog. And the ones where you went on vacation.

Sixtus: He’s making a big change in the Sardine articles, Maybe, he’s unsure about the new approach.

Sardine: Don’t defend him. I’m a vital part of his identity.

Sixtus: He’s writing a novel and a play. Finished a draft of the play and typed 100 pages of the novel.

Sardine: Why are they suddenly so important? If he finishes enough Sardine articles, he could put together another book.

Sixtus: The novel is one he started ten years ago. Only wrote twenty pages. And the original idea for the book came from a long story he wrote for a college creative writing class.

Sardine: Like he can’t get over his first love!

Sixtus: That story was the turning point in his life. His teacher and, soon to be, mentor, Paul West, thought highly of the story. He used West’s recommendation and the story to get into Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Sardine: What’s it about?

Sixtus: What? You’re expecting a plot?

Sardine: Give me something to hang onto.

Sixtus: The original story dealt with a man and his servant of twenty years. They had never seen each other the entire time. For some reason, the servant quits and the master, Tony, falls apart, his life becoming paralyzed.

Sardine: Why didn’t they see each other?

Sixtus: Tony had a complex. He thought he had a giant head. He was ashamed of himself.

Sardine: Was it a disease? Like the Elephant Man?

Sixtus: No. The reader’s led to believe it’s all in Tony’s mind.

Sardine: Well, after forty years, how did the story get updated?

Sixtus: The core of the thing is retained. A rich, reclusive man who avoids people. His servant. Now, the John DuPont story, the one who killed the wrestler. The subject of a recent movie. Foxcatcher. Tony kills his servant, a lifelong friend, and then goes back to his mansion, which the police surround. A 48-hour siege. This is the closest it gets to the DuPont affair. The novel’s present time takes place during the siege and a trial afterward.

Sardine: Is that it?

Sixtus: I’m lucky to know this much.

Sardine: What’s the other thing? A play?

Sixtus: A very long play. A sequel to his novel, Berthcut & Sons.

Sardine: Only he’d write a sequel to a novel nobody’s read.

Sixtus: Like continuing the Sardine articles!

Sardine: The Sardine articles were meant to go on. The premise is to have the Sardine commont on everything.

Sixtus: Except current events.

Sardine: There’s enough going on that’s interesting to speak about.

Sixtus: I can be his outlet for some current events.

Sardine: How much more can he write about the religious goods store experience?

Sixtus: He’s been writing about it since 1974.

Sardine: I wasn’t conceived until 1983. When did you materialize?

Sixtus: Around 1996. He wrote a play about me, a short one, fifteen minutes. Based it on my chapter in Pope Sixtus the Fourth.

Dexter: Aren’t you going to mention what the play’s about?

Sardine: Berthcut & Sons’s “ace” salesman.

Dexter: I manage the shop. In fact, I’m turning a religious goods shop into a sporting goods store.

Sixtus: Sounds interesting, if a bit secular.

Sardine: Why?

Dexter: Selling religious goods is boring.

Sixtus: I’ve had a keen interest in the merchandise, obviously. But I would think religious people are easy to deal with.

Dexter: They’re as bad as everyone else. Trying to beat down prices. Looking at stuff for two hours and then not buying a thing. Worse than deadbeats.

Sardine: Does Gerard still work there?

Dexter: Yeah, but he fights me all the time. I’m glad he’s there, though, to take care of the customers. I don’t think I’ve waited on one in the past year and a half.

Sardine: So the play repeats the tension between you and Gerard.

Dexter: It’s much more that that – and why the first draft is nearly 150 pages.

Sixtus: Who’d produce something that long by an unknown author?

Sardine: He probably doesn’t care.

Dexter: The play has three settings, all on stage at the same time. There’s us, on the stage right side. On stage left is Dalmy Brothers Altar Goods, who runs Berthcut. Then in the center stage is the offices of Cerulean Enterprises, the conglomerate that bought out Dalmy Brothers. Hence, the title: Conglomeration.

Sardine: I don’t think you can do it in a black box theater. Not even the Susan Roberts or Wilma theaters in Philadelphia.

Sixtus: Just in case they took an unknown author, the staging logistics would kill any chance of it being produced.

Sardine: You might get a small circular theater with chairs that spin around to see the action when it occurs.

Dexter: I’m just a character. Don’t bust my chops.

Sixtus: You’re based on a younger version of the author.

Dexter: So? The Sardine’s based on his misanthropic views.

Sardine: We can’t all be based on a pope.

Sixtus: Wait. Look there!

Sardine: Where?

Sixtus: In another file. He’s started the new Sardine column.

Dexter: Maybe he needed this one to get it going. Like it was a laxative.

Sardine: That sounds like a backhanded criticism.

Sixtus: Just be happy you’ll have a new column soon.

Pope Sixtus on Vacation, Part 4

The worrying is over. Time to reflect on this (nearly) relaxing trip to Cabo San Lucas. Traces of irritation remain and will be dealt with later.

The trip to Baja’s tip wasn’t meant to be an experience of Mexico. Pope Sixtus only left his resort thrice, and not for very long periods.

  1. A cab ride to Pueblo Bonita Sunset, on the Pacific side of Cabo. Estimated time at location: 3 hours. Activities: buffet breakfast and a ninety minute Time Share sales pitch. End result: learned that the Pacific Ocean is too rough for swimming; told that there are dozens of golf courses in the immediate area, an area which is virtually desert (rainy season in September and October); lastly, in response to a question about the source of water for the Cabo environs, is told that it comes from desalinization plants (locations undisclosed).
  2. A cab ride to the Cabo marina where the Pope made reservations to eat a highly touted restaurant. Estimated time: 2 hours. Brief encounters with a) a man trying to induce the Pope to take a fishing excursion the next day; b) a young boy trying to get Sixtus (an obvious man of means) to buy a toy car that the boy pushed against His Holiness’s back; and c) the restaurant, despite the urgency of its demand to make reservations, had no more than three tables filled during the duration.
  3. A cab ride ten minutes north of Pueblo Bonita Blanco to another highly touted restaurant, which also featured an urgency to call ahead for reservations and, like the other place, had a distinct surplus of empty tables. Time: 2 hours. Observations: a view of surfers in the Sea of Cortez; outdoor dining, usually shunned by the Pope but this time proved very pleasant save for the harsh rays of the setting sun for forty-five minutes.

Experience with the Mexican people, while done in Spanish in most cases, was relegated to cab drivers, hotel personnel, and restaurant employees. These were never unpleasant moments, which in itself made the Pontiff self-conscious and a shade uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the unnaturalness of constant pleasant interactions that started to have an abnormal but palpable pathological feel. All three types of people dealt with had special if extreme imperatives: do not irritate the customer. One complaint from the Pope or a general complainer, like the Asshole mentioned earlier, meant certain employment death for a man or woman who couldn’t afford to miss a day of work, let alone not have the job anymore.

The Pope’s minor problems and anxieties having been documented, it would not be unnatural for him to lash out at anyone who disturbed his placid mental state. But not to someone’s employer or immediate supervisor. And definitely not to some kid’s parents. Nor would the Pope show disrespect or temper loss at the time of a particular problem.

Thus, using the power invested in his Office, Pope Sixtus IV wants to pronounce judgement and sentencing upon all transgressors. It might seem harsh or an abuse of power to send a man, woman, or child to the auto-da-fe. Sixtus comes from a harsh world. You don’t upset a supreme power (check out Herodotus’ stories about the merciless Persian monarchs, Darius and Xerxes, who nearly make Josef Stalin seem like a piker – and make the Pope seem like a sweetheart).

TO THE FIRES:

The Asshole (whose very looks bothered the Pope and might have gotten the guy bastinadoed!)

The two boys throwing the football (they knew they were playing with fire tossing the ball like that, and had they hit someone else in the head, they would have gotten the same punishment)

The unknown person responsible for not having the wheelchair available at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport

The parents of the child who cried for most of the flight from Dallas to Philadelphia

The cab driver who charged too much when the Pope was driven to the marina restaurant (Sixtus had been told the fare would be twelve pesos, but the driver wanted eighteen; avoiding a confrontation, he paid the eighteen but didn’t give a tip)

The Time Share Salesman (yes, he had a job to do, perhaps an even thankless one considering that the Pope didn’t want to buy anything and had just come for the buffet and a three-hundred dollar discount on his condo bill; but the fellow exhibited visible perturbation and didn’t escort the Pope back to the lobby to get a return cab to the Bonito Blanco)

The Chef who made a Caesar salad out of four leaves of relatively limp romaine lettuce

The architect and/or proprietor of the restaurant above the Sea of Cortez (they kept the interior so ill-lit that His Holiness didn’t see the last step going into the men’s room and took a tumble that could’ve been catastrophic had he not been holding onto the railing)

 

Regarding this last episode, which occurred on the last night, the Pope had visions of ending up in a hospital, not making the flight, and walking with a limp.

And as for his arrival home, what can one say about the Philadelphia airport? He waited for his bag for forty-five minutes and, of course, the person with the wheelchair was late (but at least she showed up), but as there wasn’t a flight to catch or an awaiting vehicle to transport him, the Pope didn’t send those responsible for delaying him to the stake. But, perhaps, next time. . . .

Pope Sixtus on Vacation, Part 3

One half of one percent of the time Pope Sixtus came to, stayed at, and returned from Cabo San Lucas amounted to the accumulated time he felt distraught. Yet, at the time and in retrospect, it felt as if it were ninety-five percent. The reason: simple worry.

A special kind of worry at first. What might be deemed “anticipatory expectation”. This meant he had begun worrying about all the worrying he would do as soon as he booked his room and flight.

Sorry for the redundancy. Anything planned for this trip had the less than a remote chance of going sideways if not straight down. It started two months after booking the flight when the airline contacted him that there would be changes. Most egregiously, he would have to wait six hours in Dallas-Fort Worth for a flight change. Two more changes in the next few weeks placed his departure at 5:20 A.M., back from 7:30. Now he had to worry about not getting enough sleep. When he received the emails, he half-anticipated the flight to be cancelled.

Only the start of a burgeoning of potential problems:

  • Would the wheelchair be waiting when he debarked in Chicago, Cabo, Dallas, or back in Philadelphia?

[Note: the Pope is very very old and, despite relative good health, he can barely walk one hundred yards. The distance to baggage handling and customs and, especially, to connecting flights, can add up to more than a mile. The benefit of getting through security and customs quickly is a bonus he thanks God for.]

  • Would he get through the Mexican airport without being harassed by dozens of Time Share salespeople?
  • Will he get to the pool earlier enough to secure a lounge chair under an umbrella to avoid the merciless Mexican sun?
  • Will his luggage arrive at the sundry destinations – the opportunity for it to be lost or diverted increased during flight connections?
  • Will there be a whining baby or irritating brood (two or more ages three to twelve) in his vicinity on the plane?
  • Jet lag.
  • Did the restaurants record his reservations?
  • Will the taxi driver try to cheat him on the fare? The Pope didn’t mind losing a few pesos. It’s the principle of Being Taken as if he were a clueless tourist, which he certainly could have been.
  • Being on time for the shuttle to the airport on the day of his departure.
  • No one would be playing loud music at 1:30 A.M. next to his suite. The Pope hates confrontations unless the Swiss Guards are near.
  • Stuck in the middle seat on the plane – one never knows when an airline will not honor a reservation request.
  • Spending too much money.

The last might have been the most annoying. No matter what he bought at a shop, ordered for breakfast, got drinks at the pool during happy hours, charged on a credit card for dinner, there was a lingering feeling that he paid too much. No luck trying to tell himself that it’s only a few dollars difference between, say, the Special and a regular entrée on a menu. Always a tinge of regret (not quite guilt) after each purchase, which has the larger effect of curtailing what he would buy. More than once he skipped lunch and subsisted on peanut butter crackers and a bottle of water.

Never, never, never did he feel that he got a bargain. The two-for-one drinks around the pool seemed to have more ice and less liquor. And he realized – not that this helped – he wasn’t paying that much more than he usually did at home. Nor did he take into account that, as a Pope emeritus, so to speak, he had access to unlimited Church funds. One always felt as if the natives were out to rob him.

There seemed little time to relax, really, and ample time to worry. It was nearly, but not quite totally, enough to make him stay put in one’s place, be it a domicile or a crypt at St. Peter’s in the Vatican.

Pope Sixtus on Vacation, Part 2

One thing the Pope was determined to do during his time in Cabo San Lucas was  situating himself around the pool around 8 a.m. before anyone else and securing shade from both umbrella and a palm tree. At that moment, however, he couldn’t gauge who would decide to sit near him. On paper, the pool area looked inviting with the azure Sea of Cortez less than a hundred yards away with lounge chairs awaiting to embrace the body comfortably under an umbrella or cabana.

Over the entire week, he plopped his ancient butt at one spot or another and at no time did he receive complete satisfaction. One travels to get away from the familiar – relatives – or just people in general.Only, those people of the general variety also plopped their butts around the Pope and, invariably, some were jerks, assholes, children, or jerks and assholes with children.

The latter two categories were the problem the first couple days. A pair of ten to twelve year olds, in particular. The twelve year old made his presence known by climbing onto some artificial rocks, out of which a small waterfall flowed into the pool. He wanted to jump into the water which was only four feet deep. The kid’s eight to ten feet up, waving his arms – “hey, watch me, watch me” – and made ready to jump. His father called out.

“Get down from there. You’re not allowed to do that.”

The kid didn’t move.

“Get down,” the father yelled louder.

His son jumped into the water, made a big splash, and wasn’t hurt. The father lightly reprimanded him from afar and the episode was done.

Fifteen minutes later, the kid jumper was tossing a small football to his younger friend. They’re in an open end of the pool, not bothering anyone in or out of the water. A few minutes passed and the younger one had moved near the Pope. Between the two boys was a small island with plants, palms, and the aforementioned rocks, and they started throwing the football over the island.

Sixtus was reading a book on the development of aristocracy in ancient Greece and vaguely noted the ball being thrown but was totally absorbed in the book.

Another few minutes passed.

Suddenly, a faint shout broke his consciousness.

“Look out.”

The football had gone well over the reach of the kid, hit the lip of the pool, and bounced into the Pope’s forehead, knocking his miter to the ground six feet away.

Sixtus startled the surrounding sunbathers with a batch of expletives.

The younger kid looked at him and said nothing. The other kid disappeared for a moment. The parents responsible didn’t openly acknowledge ownership of the twits and their actions.

“Can we have our ball?” the younger boy asked.

The Pope wanted to throw the ball onto the roof of the restaurant beside the pool area. Instead, he told the kid to get it himself.

“And take it where you won’t hit someone.”

No apologies. Nor did the older kid come into sight.

Personally, he thought they might have been aiming at his miter.

[For those wondering why he chose such a headgear for vacation, the Pope had mistakenly expected vacationers to honor a distinguished elder. One needed to cover his balding head from the vicious Mexican sun, so he went to a shop and bought a bucket hat.]

**

Day two by the pool proved less adventurous but just as perturbing. Although it didn’t start out that way.

Occasionally, he met a nice person or couple. Like Bob and Donna (didn’t get their last name). They were on their last day and waiting by the pool for their shuttle to take them to the airport. They had come to the resort complex because their own time share resort had been knocked out by a hurricane the past October and hadn’t reopened. They came to the Pueblo Bonito Blanco (a white building) and had a great time. However, they also thought the lounge chairs were too close to the pool and they couldn’t sit on them for more than an hour without incurring ‘keister lock’. Besides the fact that there was little space between chairs, which were too low to the ground as well.

Otherwise, they got away from the Blanco pool and went to the next building, Pueblo Bonito Rosa (Rose colored building). The Pueblo Rose had been built in 1994, Blanco in 1988. A new resort, Pueblo Bonito Sunset was just opening (the Pope would visit it later). All their meals were great and they suggested Sixtus head a few miles up the coast where he could sit outside overlooking a wonderful view of the Sea of Cortez and enjoy great seafood.

When they left and Sixtus proceeded to continue reading the book on Greek aristocracy, a man entered his consciousness and henceforth would be mentally noted as “the asshole” or, as time went on, “my asshole”. For it turned out that Sixtus and this man would not meet once but several times during the next five days.

The Pope didn’t like the way this guy looked and talked. A sort of cubed head, slightly stocky, the man talked incessantly to his wife and, especially, his children. The two older daughters, whom he called ‘beautiful’ and ‘pretty’, were probably his spawn from his first marriage because his wife didn’t look much older than thirty. His son, approximately ten or eleven, was generated by this second marriage. The son swam around the pool, occasionally, kicking up a storm in the process, to which his father scolded him.

“You might get the people wet” and “Watch out for the people sitting by the pool.”

This was certainly an improvement from the weak discipline enacted by the football thrower’s father. Maybe this parent wasn’t a bad guy. The Pope, at this point, thought well of him but didn’t desire a conversation.

A few minutes passed and suddenly the father himself jumps into the pool and creates enough splash to reach the Pope’s book.

“What the hell are you doing?” he barked at the suddenly playful father.

“No need to get hostile,” he responded.

“You got my goddamn book wet.”

“We’ve all paid the same to be here,” he reasoned.

“What?”

“You shouldn’t really use that tone of voice. We have as much right to be around the pool as you.”

What was he saying? The Pope’s to blame for responding to being splashed? Hadn’t this very asshole (at this point, the assignation stuck in Sixtus’ head) told his kids not to make a big splash? Was this jerk even remotely aware of his blatant hypocrisy? If it was hypocritical. Insincere might have been the better word.

The asshole sat near the Pope for another three hours. The Pope tried not to look over and not to hear him, especially the fawning over his daughters. No avail. That’s all the Pope did. Heard every word the guy said. Watched every movement of him and his kids in the water. The Pope might have read twenty pages of his book but remembered nothing. He wanted to throw the book in the water rather than try to reread it. And when the man left with his brood, it was past two o’clock, the sun was at its hottest. Sixtus wanted to jump into the pool himself, except by this time the water was too warm to provide any relief from the ninety degree weather. Instead, he ordered another pena colada.

Pope Sixtus on Vacation

Not necessarily emulating the Sardine, Pope Sixtus needs to leave the cramped confines of contemporary issues and controversies. He has a plan.

First, he must get beyond the borders of the United States. Being the most efficient way to avoid references to news reports. Unfortunately, CNN is on every cable package in every resort around the world.

Second, thus, he must choose a resort most likely to have people who didn’t care about contemporary issues because these people are affluent and inherently lack empathy for the non-affluent. This usually means going to a country with many non-affluent.

Third, and possibly most important, obtain reservations for a non-stop flight to the potential destination. By securing this, with departure, arrival, and return times at the most convenient times, his worries would be minimized. Having made the reservation six months in advance, he felt even more secure.

However, there were no non-stops to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California. Worse, the flight connection would last seven hours in Dallas/Fort Worth. Then two months before leaving for Mexico, Sixtus received notice that his flight be leaving not at 8:00 A.M. but 5:20 A.M. This meant having to wake up at 3:00 A.M. and subsequently feeling awful during the flight, as well as after arriving in Cabo at 5:00 P.M. and missing a few hours by the pool (resting from the flight).

He wanted to bring the pertinent personnel of American Airlines responsible for his displeasure before the Inquisition but decided to hold off until the vacation was over. No telling who else might deserve the auto de fe.

In any case, the Renaissance Pope planned his trip meticulously. He made sure that he got enough sleep the night before and went to bed at 8:00. With some extra sleep on the plane, he could fight back the jet lag. But the airline had one more punch to ensure his wooziness before, during, and after the flight.

At midnight a ringing awakened him from a deep sleep. Sixtus didn’t initially understand the ringing sound. Was it the alarm clock? No, the phone. He checked caller i.d.

UNAVAILABLE.

A cold call at midnight? Instinctually, he would hang up but something kept him from dismissing the unwanted caller. He pressed the green button and waited. Initially, nothing.

“Hello. Hello.”

A mechanical voice clicked on a split second before he was going to press the red button.

It was the airline telling him that his flight had been changed. It would not stop in Dallas/Fort Worth but would go to Chicago where he would connect for the flight to Cabo San Lucas. He would arrive in Mexico at 11:53 A.M. He quickly found a pen to write the information.

Sixtus barely had time to process the information when the mechanical voice asked him to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the changes.

“Yes,” he said hesitantly, not fully understanding the meaning of it all because he was so irritated that the airline changed its schedule five hours before the flight.

Wait, this was a good thing. He’d get into Cabo five hours earlier than expected. The wait in Chicago would only be an hour and fifty minutes. How fortunate! How grateful he felt to the scheduling God and muttered a small prayer.

“Thank you, Lord, for giving me back three or four hours to be poolside.”

Wonderful news often is accompanied by new problems. He had arranged transport from the Cabo airport to his hotel, telling the shuttle company he’d be there at 5:00 P.M.

He tracked down an ‘800’ number for the company but the place was closed, not opening until 7:00 A.M. mountain time. He did the math. 7:00 was 8:00 in Chicago. He‘d be in Chicago at that time, most likely on the plane ten or fifteen minutes before takeoff. Would he be able to call from the plane? Would he be able, after contacting the shuttle company, to change his pre-paid reservation. A cab to the hotel, a forty minute drive, cost much more than $25. He worried he’d be stuck at the Cabo airport for five hours. The nightmare of being besieged by dozens of people trying to sell him something (from time shares to fishing trips) dominated his thoughts until he got on the plane in Chicago.

Pope Sixtus was smart enough to take his Iphone even though he would not be getting service in Mexico. He boarded the plane in Chicago at 7:50 and called the shuttle company at 8:03.

He got through and moved his transit to the hotel up to noon. He blessed the agent with whom he had spoken, offering five-years indulgence.

“Thank you,” the man said. “Would you like to get the all-inclusive package at your hotel?”

Apparently, the hotel owned the transit company.

“How much would that cost?”

“Seventy-five dollars a day.”

“I would have to eat and drink $75 a day. I don’t think I could.”

“Prices can be very expensive at the restaurants.”

“No, thank you.”

“It’s a very good bargain.”

“I have to hang up. My flight is about to take off.”

The agent just needed that last four digits of Sixtus’ credit card number: 1484.

“I believe the Aztecs sacrificed 20000 people during a three-day period that year.”

“Interesting. It’s also the year I died.”

“Have a nice day, Your Eminence.”

(to be continued)

Pope Sixtus Seeks Normality

What’s this Pope Sixtus hears about a new normal? Nothing much in the 21st century is normal to a kid who grew up in 15th century Italy.

He understands in the post-Renaissance era that things must change. This is saying a lot for a guy who was not only Pope but also a mean, unforgiving, maybe somewhat corrupt asshole.

Was it normal to name a few nephews Cardinals at a tender age? Maybe he created his own version of the New Normal – for about fifty years. Well, the term ‘nepotism’ has stuck. It’s normal, psychologically speaking, to push a few of one’s own kin closer to succeed.

In Sixtus’ day, women couldn’t do much in the world. It was abnormal to have them educated or to run a business. Although the latter was not a closed possibility, especially among the cities on the Baltic Sea. But not enough exceptions to create a new normal.

Sardine on Vacation: Don’t you think, your highness or popeness or whatever you want to be called, that the very notion of normal, let alone new normal, is a cliché or, at best, an unworkable concept?

Sixtus: I was about to start the tedious task of defining what is normal.

Sardine: My recent column talks about the Aztecs and human sacrifice. There’s their normal.

Sixtus: And our abnormal.

Sardine: Unless you look beneath the surface of societies. In the mid-1800s thousands of babies in London accidentally on purpose ended up drowned in the Thames. In the 16th and 17th centuries, hundreds of thousands of women were burned as witches.

Sixtus: Witchcraft was a threat to the order of society.

Sardine: Except that there’s no such thing as ‘witchcraft’ as defined and pursued by the church and secular authorities.

Sixtus: That was all slightly after my time.

Sardine: Yes. You just had the Jews burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

Sixtus: That’s something the Spaniards and their beloved monarchical pair, Ferdinand and Isabella, have to answer for.

Sardine: I’m not accusing you of anything. I wanted to illustrate how the normal provides a fair basis to judge actions, like what kind of clothes should be worn or how we should eat, but the normal can be equally oppressive and monstrous.

Sixtus: I guess the new normal means that political parties in your country should have fifteen to twenty candidates trying to secure a nomination for President of the United States.

Sardine: I can’t defend and am loathe to comment on politics. I am a member of the League of Non-Voters. Sometimes the members of the League might discuss who they would or would not vote for, but not recently.

Sixtus: As an outsider, I can’t imagine how American society allows such a. . .farce.

Sardine: We can’t stop someone running.

Sixtus: A guy who made billions selling pizzas?

Sardine: That was in 2012.

Sixtus: How about a guy who’s a heart surgeon? Or a woman who was a CEO? Or a narcissist who touts himself the master of deal making? And two of those three are more popular than some of the governors and congressmen running. The Public IS showing some support for them.

Sardine: A very very small sliver of the public. Trust me.

Sixtus: The problem is that your society tacitly supports the kind of people running. The candidates mirror the public. But that’s not the least of my befuddlement.

Sardine: Didn’t your 15th century society mirror the choice of Pope?

Sixtus: Absolutely. And in most cases we were up for the challenge. We wanted to rule. Some committed grievous acts to become Pope.

Sardine: Alexander VI isn’t here to defend himself.

Sixtus: He had his two cable shows. In any case, what really irks a denizen of political combat is that the majority of the candidates running KNOW they have no chance to win. One, maybe two, could make a decent run. But the rest are doing it for what? Great ideas? That’s laughable. The opportunity to run an empire? You wish.

Sardine: The deal-maker says he’ll create tons of jobs.

Sixtus: When anyone says they create or can create jobs, you can be sure those jobs have substandard wages. It’s all numbers, statistics, calculations. Do you think he cares about the working stiff?

Sardine: Do you?

Sixtus: Not really. I’m not trying to convince anyone I do.

Sardine: No one believes he does. But we’ve diverted from the point.

Sixtus: What point?

Sardine: The new normal.

Sixtus: Anyone running for president. That’s new.

Sardine: A triumph for democracy.

Sixtus: It makes one wish for inherited rulers.

Sardine: That’s partly working in the campaign, also.

Sixtus: Is it an accident he has the best chance to win?

Above It All

Pope Sixtus is worried about other characters from Berthcut & Sons invading this space that was once exclusively his Papal State. He was not overjoyed over, but accepted, the appearance of the Sardine. He even likes him now. But the entrance of Dexter into their dialogue was too much for him. What’s to stop the characters from the books that Castle reads from showing up?

Sardine: We’re helpless to stop them.

Sixtus: In the 1400s, not anyone could join the conversation of intelligent men. The ignorant people were generally not unaware of their own ignorance and stayed clear of theology and philosophy. In today’s barbaric circumstances, people butt in whenever they feel like it. They don’t even want to add anything, just hearing the sound of their own voices justifies them. Like idiots in crowds who wave at the television cameras.

Sardine: You had the power of life and death back them. People were scared to violate social customs.

Sixtus: Maybe we could dwell on topics that either wouldn’t interest the characters, like Dexter or Gerard. Even better, we could talk about things above them.

Sardine: What do you mean “above”? How many angels you can get on the head of a pin?

Sixtus: Not that crap. I mean esoteric stuff. Some of Christ’s most difficult parables.

Sardine: Or Zen koans?

Sixtus: What the hell are they?

Sardine: Stories or anecdotes or images that the Zen Buddhists use for meditation exercises. Haven’t you heard the directive: “Listen to the sound of one hand clapping”?

Sixtus (silent for a moment): I don’t get it.

Sardine: Here’s a better example. It’s called “Cup of Tea”:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Sixtus: I can get my miter around that.

Sardine: Or we could go the way of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus: “The way up and the way down are the same.”

Sixtus: He’s a son-of-a-bitch. His belief in life being ever-present change is too much. If we believed him, the world would be nothing but chaos.

Sardine: He is very challenging. Personally, I’m a Lao Tzu guy.

Instant message from the Sardine’s Pun Pal: “So you’re throwing in the Tao.”

Sixtus: I like him, especially: “Nature does not hurry, but everything is accomplished.”

Sardine: Words to live by – only I don’t think you could.

Sixtus: I appreciate his message.

Sardine: But don’t or couldn’t practice it.

Sixtus: I’m a man of the Renaissance. I believe nature can be improved.

Sardine: Lao Tzu isn’t the man for the wielders of power. I thought you’d be a Confucius man.

Sixtus: We could repel others by talking St. Augustine’s moral imperatives.

Sardine: That might seal us off completely from the world as it now is.

Sixtus: True.

Sardine: Actually, I have a plan for the Sardine column that will reduce intrusions from the Logged-in Public, Joe T., Frank, and my other acquaintances.

Sixtus: You’re going to move permanently here?

Sardine: Don’t worry your Pontiff off. Instead of dialogues with the people at hand, I intend to converse with my favorite authors. It might include Heraclitus and Lao Tzu, but also writers like Kafka, Nietzsche, e e cummings, and many others.

Sixtus: They would want to do this?

Sardine: Their parts of the dialogue would be quotes from their works.

Sixtus: Won’t Frank Weathers kill himself? He needs to be in your column.

Sardine: I can’t eliminate him or the others completely. I don’t think the author of the column would let me go that far.

Sixtus: Good luck on that.

Sardine: Maybe you could have your Renaissance friends and enemies join you.

Sixtus: Not those bastards the Medici or Borgias.

Sardine: It might be interesting.

Sixtus: I’ll see what my nephew, Pope Julius II, thinks about it. Before any Borgias stuck their mugs in this blog, regardless, I’d have them go through metal detector and then be stripped searched.

Pope Sixtus Will Not Lie To You

Unlike the Sardine, I will not be shy writing about topical issues. I dove into the Cosby cesspool a few months ago. Hell, I might talk about politics eventually.

(“Who’s Cosby?” A voice echoes from the Grand Canyon of Celebrity History.)

Wait! Wasn’t that “echo” thing tried in the previous Sardine blog? Am I supposed to acknowledge or comment on what is essentially a plagiarizing of my colleague’s literary device?

(                                             )

The parenthetical dead space is what was said to me by a “higher authority” and I am not permitted to repeat it.

In any case, I didn’t need to be reminded that Cosby I no longer a hot item, though a few more accusers have come forward. Apparently, these women haven’t stopped the Coz from appearing in public. He’s either the gutsiest or most deluded man on the planet. I wouldn’t mind being privy to the lies he’s telling himself. For example:

“They should feel privileged that I turned my attentions to them.” Or:

“I didn’t force them to come to my apartment or home.” Or:

“Who got hurt, really?”   Or, especially:

“I’m the real victim in this entire thing. Those women are trying to destroy one of the greatest legacies that an African-American has created.”

Bill gets further wrapped in his ego after each accusation, now near thirty. This will be his legacy. Bill Buckner only needed one error to destroy the memory of his baseball career. And, occasionally, just when you think you’ve overcome the naysayers, perhaps by constructing a chapel that becomes an enclave for Western Art’s greatest masterpiece, historians will unearth every damn thing you’ve done wrong.

It’s not easy, either, to find subjects to pontificate on. I’m ready to give Brian Williams advice about lying to the public when his story goes cold because the anti-journalist Bill O’Reilly was found out to be an exaggerator. I guess it depends on who you work for. Fox News seems to care about ethical standards like the Mafia: first, “stars” like O’Reilly must be rallied around and defended at all costs (slander the accusers); second, the internal values of Fox News are not available for public scrutiny; and third, if you don’t like it, screw you. My kind of people.

Thank God I didn’t have to deal with journalists in the 15th century. A Pope had a license to lie. Catholics believed I could never be dishonest, immoral, or a liar. Just what the audience of Fox News believes about O’Reilly and the rest of that right-wing brood.

The real difference between the Williams and O’Reilly brou-ha-has is that Williams is being punished for being a celebrity when he should have stuck to journalism, whereas O’Reilly is untouched because he’s a pure celebrity. His non-celebrity past is irrelevant. Williams tried to be serious and celebrated simultaneously. His one mis-step revealed many other flimsy stories – funny how these other tall tales never mattered. Supposedly, Williams was angling for an entertainment gig like The Tonight Show. Had he crossed over into the Entertainment Promise Land, established himself in the land of milarky and money, Williams could have said that he parted the Red Sea.

I just don’t get it.

What is it with Americans? They don’t like to be lied to.

They go after politicians not when they’ve done something egregious but when they lie about the egregious act. Isn’t it simple good sense that you want to hide what you’ve done wrong? Was I going to admit, at the time, that I had wanted the Medici brothers dead and put an assassination plan into action?

The same Americans who can’t stand liars also listen religiously to all forms of huckstering (Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins) and advertising (synonym for lying), not to mention propaganda (your favorite news programs, local and national). They eagerly list their favorite Super Bowl commercials, never failing to like horses and babies selling them something useless.

Manipulating and confusing the public is not considered lying. What can be expected from a nation that believed (and some may still believe) that their first President never told a lie.

I’m not saying the Church and its popes have been above this mentality, but we opposed the capitalist idea (by not allowing banks to charge interest) for over a millennia, which should make up a bit for our bad behavior.

This blog is my way of ‘making up’ to a public that has judged me guilty of being a bad pope. I cannot lie to you here. I may not be allowed to, but I really don’t want to. I’m even refraining from selling you anything, except for the occasional book that a certain author has written.