Friday, August 26, 2011

Searching for Paradise

Familiarity breeds contempt, as the old saying goes (to which Mark Twain added “and children”). I don’t know about contempt. But certainly it brings a dulling of the edge, both of ones own perceptions and attitudes, and of the “character” of the place one finds oneself in--yes, that same place that had at first seemed endlessly exotic and new. In short, the longer one is in paradise, the more it begins to seem like Dayton, Ohio. Nothing against you Daytonians or your community intended. I could just as easily have said Phoenix, Arizona or Boise, Idaho, or indeed Portland, Oregon, my own home town. Dayton just sounded funnier--an evocation of that Midwest sort of sleepy-sameness that infects the familiar in general--where, as Paul Simon songfully said:

“Everyday is an endless dream of cigarettes and magazines,

And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories,

And every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be

Homeward bound . . . .”

I remember a time when my younger daughter was just graduating from high school, and was sick to death of “boring ass” Portland, Oregon. There was a big, wonderful world to be discovered outside our dreary city limits--sights and sounds and people and places, Emerald Cities which beckoned with promise.

Philosophically, I counselled that essentially “All the world is a stage,” and “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” I told her that every day is an endless dream of cigarettes and magazines. And so on.

What a fun dad, right?

Well, she decided forthwith on Seattle, Washington--that soggy yet luminous jewel of the West. And then on Atlanta, Georgia. Then on Washington DC. Then on Los Angeles, California. Then on New York City.

She lives now in boring-ass San Francisco, where the golden sun will shine on her (on those rare occasions when it breaks through the fog). She is older now, she is married, and will likely soon produce a brood of children.

Ah brave new world.

And so I tempt her in my old age with Bali--with the idea that paradise really did, and still does exist--knowing full well that this in the end is as much a lie as Los Angeles (the city of angels) or Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love). Why? Because she herself is paradise. She, my children, my wife, my friends. And so I use her old dreams for trickery. Because I am selfish. Because I want to see her again, to touch her, to hear her voice. E-mail and text messages just don’t cut it.

I admit it. I revel is glowing portrayals of what appears to be my happy circumstance--writing home, posting pictures on Facebook--the swaying palms, the silver surf, royal feasts, costume festivals, girls in bikinis, sexy dancers! The responses I receive fortify my glad delusions. “So beautiful! So exciting! You’re really living the life!”

I can’t bear for them to learn that it’s just Dayton, after all.

The fact is, paradise comes in small doses--which are yet large for their momentary savour. Moreover, it is sprinkled liberally throughout the earth--from Bali to Singapore, Congo to Paris. And Dayton, Ohio as well.

This is paradise: A Friday afternoon. They are launching kites at Padang Galak. They come in trucks. They spill out on the sand, setting it alight with their kites, their clothing, their laughter. And down by the sea some young men make a sculpture, their amazing artfulness producing a shapely black woman, every inch of her winking back at the sun, round buttocks raised in lush love-making to an invisible male just beneath the carpet of the endless sand. Three girls pass by, and look back as they pass, and say Hi!, and giggle, and say Hi again.

There is it, just going by. Paradise after all. Catch it if you can.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The News in the News

In the old Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau classic, The Odd Couple, there is a scene where Felix Unger (played to perfection by Lemmon), newly separated from his wife and uncomfortable in his new role as a bachelor, is left in the living room by his buddy, Oscar (Matthau), to entertain two women, the Pigeon sisters--their “dates” for evening--while Oscar departs to mix drinks in the kitchen.
After enduring a painful period of silence, one of the Pigeon sisters tries to break the ice by posing a question to the fidgety, slightly sweaty-browed Felix.

“What do you do for a living?” she asks, uncrossing her legs, sitting forward in a properly anticipant attitude.

“I write the news,” Felix answers.

“Ooooo,” the Pigeon sister returns, appropriately impressed. “How interesting! Where do you get your ideas?”

“My ideas?” Felix begins, obviously nonplussed. “I get my ideas . . . Well, from the news.”

Silly, isn’t it? But I understand what the Pigeon sister meant, just as I understand Felix Unger’s unavoidable reply.

This then is the news in the news. It’s right before your eyes, by the day, by the week, and it tells its own story. One hardly needs lift a finger. It’s just there.

Take the story of the disappearing pig, for instance, as reported in a past issue of the Bali Times (as well as elsewhere). Babi Ngepet is the pig’s name and as is well known throughout the islands he comes to steal your money when you are asleep, out of the house, or otherwise unaware. The pig has been spied and pursued on occasion, but always disappears before he can be apprehended--not into a field or a forest, but into thin air. The delightful thing about this story is that it is reported as news, right alongside the rest of the news--foreign affairs, economic forecasts, disappearing pigs. I infer from this that the aforementioned pig is a fact, and I remain, therefore, watchful.

Does it seem unworldly, too strange to be true?

Well then how about the story of “The Obedient Wives Club,” a Muslim organization which advocates its members become like “first class prostitutes” in the marital bed in order to discourage their husbands from cheating? Maybe one has to be a westerner to appreciate the fullness of the hilarity here. Talk about a cultural divide. Can you imagine the existence of such a club in America, or in England? Get out of town! It might strike a man as funny, but for the western woman it is heresy most foul!

Hypocrisy seems big in the islands; so big, in fact, that we haven’t space here to do more than scratch the surface.

Consider, for instance, the story of the “Islamic Scholars” and their reaction to worldwide criticism of the light sentences (a couple months in most cases, minus time already served) handed down to Islamic extremists who killed members of the “heretical” Ahmadiyah sect in recent religious violence. What was the answer given by the Council of Ulema? Why, a counter-criticism of course (if they weren’t inclined to face the facts--and the videotape--in the first place, why would they be so inclined in the aftermath?).

“Western countries must respect another country’s judiciary system,” the Council said, and then went on to cite the case of Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivic, as if he had provided some kind of legal or moral groundwork. The Council noted that Breivic will face a maximum sentence of 21 years, while in Indonesia a terror suspect would be facing a death sentence.

Ah, shame on us. We had obviously mistaken a time period of 21 years as something essentially different than a period of two months.

Being a body of fair-minded men, the Council concluded with the following:

“It’s okay if they (the western countries) want to have a say, as long as they are not applying any pressure.”

And that’s the news in the news folks. Goodnight.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chaos on Wheels

I'm on a bit of a roll these days about two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, and the half-witted drivers who operate many of these on the roads of Bali. Now don't get me wrong. One can find half-witted drivers anywhere and everywhere in the world. The difference is that they will often be found (and stopped, and corrected, or even arrested) elsewhere in the world, whereas on the island of Bali they are for all appearances free to go their merry and all-too-often deadly way without interference from the police, who are much too busy collecting roadside fines from bule motorists whom (they hope) do not have a proper local license or a vehicle registration or are otherwise lacking in some less than pertinent way. Pertinent to what? Well, pertinent to the actual ability to safely operate a motor vehicle within the parameters of good reason.

Where enforcement of the law does not exist, neither will adherence to the law. This is also the same in every country, state and province over the whole of the wide world, for the mass of men do not obey laws by choice or through some innate sense of moral or communal responsibility, but through fear only along with the experiential effect of negative reinforcement--i.e. the application of a sufficiently unpleasant penalty in the form of the traffic ticket, the court summons, the license suspension or the impounded vehicle. Take away the penalty, take away the threat of consequence, and every man becomes a loose cannon, and therefore a reckless driver.

People’s thoughts and actions are bent toward evil from childhood.

There you have it, from the big book itself. I didn’t say it, God did.

So what are the choices of men in the absence of meaningful application of law?

I will offer a few examples by way of illustration.

The two-lane road becomes a four-lane road, the four-lane road an eight-lane road--despite the visible presence of those funny white lines on the tarmac. Vehicles travelling within the confines of the white lines are not longer in the right, they are merely in the way. And so you go between them, elbowing through like the jammer on a roller derby team. Maybe you clip a couple of side mirrors as you squirt on through, but oh well. Catch me if you can, right?

The driver of the car now betrays his secret dream--that his car has somehow become a motorbike. Darting in and out, from far right lane to curbing strip and beyond, at speeds generally unavailable to the smaller two-wheeled impediment, the driver of the car employs the ever popular nyelip-nyelip tactics of his erstwhile nemesis. Ah freedom! Which in due time very likely ends in serious injury or death to the motorbike driver and whatever passengers, men, women or children, he might be conveying.

Walking on Legian street the other night, my friend and I were suddenly confronted by a motorbike--not because we were walking in the street, but because he was driving straight toward us (and almost through us) on the sidewalk. My friend informed him, with a yet unlearned English sense of propriety, that streets are for bikes and sidewalks for pedestrians.

“Well this is my shop,” the man objected, pointing to the warung just beyond our legally and reasonably positioned feet.

We just happened, you see, to be blocking his way, and the pertinent point has nothing to do with walkways or streets, but with the fact that a motorbike is bigger and more powerful than a person, and so you’d better get out of the way.

Why not? Where law is absent, might is right. It’s the survival of the fittest (or the fastest and fleetest).

Overcrowding on the roadways is a problem. Traffic congestion is a problem. The uneducated driver is a problem. The hotdog youth is a problem. But the root of the evil is man himself, unbridled by the civil responsibility that only law, and the officer of the law, can enforce.