The Ghost in the Machine
"Wait," I said, unwilling to be narcotised 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.
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 narcotised 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
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
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 allow
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 I 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
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
I was halfway to work the next morning when I turned the car radio back on, hoping
to miss the end of All Things Considered, 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 neighbours 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
"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
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 Street, 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
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
"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 come out."
"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 cancelled. 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.