The Ghost in the Machine – A Cautionary Tale
It all started a couple of years ago on a Saturday afternoon. I turned on the radio to listen to the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcast, forgetting that Parsifal was scheduled. Being comfortably settled in a stuffed reclining chair, I was too lazy to turn the radio off. Besides, nothing can put you to sleep faster than Wagner. No sooner had the music started than I conked out. A couple of hours later, I woke up with a terrible toothache. The first act of Parsifal was still oozing from my speakers. I called my dentist who agreed to see me immediately; the weather was too bad for golf, which explained his availability. A few minutes later, I was in his chair after having had enough X-rays to cure two cancers.
“Root canal,” he said after looking at the films.
“You always say that,” I opined. He ignored my comment and proceeded to fill a syringe with enough anesthetic to make me numb to the waist.
“Wait,” I said, unwilling to be narcotized for a week. “Turn on the radio.” He did. The first act of Parsifal was still on. “God never made a pain that could stand up to that,” I said pointing to the radio.
The dental work took an hour. I felt nothing. Wagner’s slow, slower, and slowest tempos had turned my brain to Jell-O. I wondered if I shouldn’t have opted for the anesthetic after all. When I left the dentist’s office, the first act of Parsifal was still coming from my car radio which I always leave on.
After entering my house, my jaw started to ache. I turned on my stereo, set the volume as loud as my three amplifiers (1200 watts) and six speakers would reach allowing me to get the maximum anesthetic effect that the first act of Parsifal could deliver. It worked. I was immediately numb. Three hours later, the first act of Parsifal still not concluded, I figured could handle any residual pain sans Wagner. I turned off the stereo and went about my usual Saturday night activities.
On Sunday, I stayed home. Monday morning, I got into my car to drive to work. The radio started up as usual. The first act of Parsifal was still on. Strange, I thought, I don’t remember it being this long. But I really had never paid much attention to the opera, so maybe it was just a little bit longer than the rest of Wagner’s oeuvre. That evening as I drove home, the first act of Parsifal was still coming from my radio. Now I was sure something untoward was afoot. I turned the radio off to allow my brain to clear sufficiently to analyze what had happened. No explanation came to mind.
When I entered my house, I was afraid to turn on the radio for fear that the first act of Parsifal might still be on. But eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I turned the thing on. You can imagine my relief when not a trace of Wagner emanated from my speakers. KOHM was in the middle of a Frank Bridge festival. Thus, the problem seemed solved even if I could not explain it.
I was halfway to work the next morning when I turned the car radio back on, hoping to miss the end of whatever NPR was playing when to my amazement I encountered the first act of Parsifal. It now hit me that my car radio had contracted a persistent infection. I had heard about people being infected by Wagner, but never a machine. What might the cure be? The only thing I could think of was to put the radio at prolonged rest. So I turned it off, planning to keep it inactive for at least a month. Again I was amazed; it wouldn’t go off. Not only would it not quit, but the first act of Parsifal was now coming from every position on the dial. The infection had spread. The only way I could make the thing shut up was to turn off the ignition. That was not a long-term solution, however. In fact, it proved not to be a short-term fix either. When I turned off the ignition upon returning home that night, the first act of Parsifal continued to drone from the car’s speakers. What was I to do now? You could hear lugubrious leitmotifs all over the house. If I moved the car out of the garage onto the street, the neighbors would probably call the police. After a while, my dogs started to howl, the cat ran away, the parrot went permanently mute, and all my tropical fish died. I had to get rid of the car, but who would buy a car that was chronically infected with the first act of Parsifal?
After the worst night of my life, I called the National Kidney Foundation. They have a program that accepts used cars as donations. They were really interested when I described my almost new car, until I got to the Parsifal problem.
“This type of disease is outside the purview of the NKF,” said the foundation’s spokesman. He then hung up the phone before I could beg him to take the car.
The only course was euthanasia. I took the car to my vet and had him put it to sleep. It was a total loss. I immediately bought a new car, but only after trying out its radio. To my relief, the Frank Bridge festival was still being broadcast by KOHM.
When I got home, I turned on the TV to watch Sesame Sweet, but the picture tube was dark while the first act of Parsifal snaked from the set’s speaker. The first act of Parsifal was also on every radio and TV in the house. It was even on the house’s intercom. I had destroyed the car too late to prevent contagion. I turned off every device in the house attached to a speaker and darkened the house. The place was quiet for a few days. I felt comfortable enough to turn the lights on. The calm persisted. At six the next morning, my alarm clock went off as usual, but instead of the electronic beep, I was roused by the first act of Parsifal. Like a string of firecrackers, every speaker in the house took up the first act of Parsifal in a sequence of belching tubas and guttural barks masquerading as singing. I dressed as fast as I could and fled my contaminated house.
What was I to do? Burning down your own home is illegal – I think. Before I could ponder my predicament further, the first act of Parsifal came unbidden from the speakers of my new car’s stereo system like quicksand at a Tupperware party. The revelation of Oedipus’s descent was a mere bagatelle compared to the emotion that this sound provoked in my breast. My old car had infected my house, which in turn had infected my new car. I was in an abyss of despair. I abandoned the car in the middle of the road and walked to work.
The rest of the day passed like the final recollections of a drowning man. I couldn’t go home knowing what was waiting for me there, so I checked into the cheapest motel I could find hoping that it would not have a radio or a TV in it. Even at $12 a night there was a television set in the room. Of course, I didn’t turn it on. In fact, I unplugged it and left it in the parking lot.
I finally fell into a frenzied sleep, seething with primal fear. Then I awoke with a shudder. A sound filled the inside of my head; it was the first act of Parsifal. It was coming from the fillings in my teeth. They were acting like a crystal radio. I had become Parsifal positive. Despite the hour, I called my dentist. He was quite huffy about being disturbed at such a premature time until I told him that Wagner was coming out of my teeth – and not just any Wagner, but the first act of Parsifal.
“I’ve heard about cases like yours,” he said, “but I never thought I’d see one.”
“You haven’t seen it yet,” I said, hoping to encourage him to prompt action.
“Okay,” he said, “meet me at my office in 20 minutes.”
I was there in five.
“I’m afraid there’s only one thing that can be done for you.” The dentist was gowned and gloved; he wore a lead apron and protective headgear and leggings. He breathed through a portable oxygen apparatus. His office music system played Rossini overtures which he felt would protect the place from the infection. “All your teeth have to
“Will that cure me?”
“Who knows,” he shrugged, “but it’s all science has to offer.”
Two years or so have passed since I last showed signs of the first act of Parsifal.
I’m toothless, homeless, carless, and on permanent leave from my job. I won’t be allowed back until I’m symptom-free for at least five years. My health insurance has been canceled. My friends and family have abandoned me. I am a shell of a man.
Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Wagnerians.
Kurtzman NA: The Ghost in the Machine – A Cautionary Tale. Lubbock Magazine (August):34-35, 1997.