Friday, October 28, 2011

Obstinate Is As Obstinate Does

People are obstinate. There you have it. The encapsulation, in three words, of human behaviour. I reckon it ought to be the first sentence in every psychology textbook.

Take Saddam Hussein, for instance; a poster boy for obstinacy if ever there was one. Here we have a man who preferred to let the world believe he had weapons of mass destruction to simply allowing inspectors to enter his country and reveal that he did not. What was the result of this obstinate behaviour? Well, ultimately he was hung, wasn’t he? After being pulled, rat-like, from a hole in the ground, dirty, haggard, pitiful, ruined. Of all possible outcomes, Hussein managed to achieve the very worst.

Ring any bells? Of course it does. Moammar Khadafy, Hussein’s mulish compatriot and contender for the throne, refused to heed voice of his people and was of course just recently pried from a grimy drainage ditch, beaten, shot and killed.

Do the obstinate learn from these examples? Of course not. Otherwise they should cease to be obstinate (and thereby disprove my theory). But in fact there are more candidates waiting eagerly in the wings -- in Syria, in Yemen, in Iran and elsewhere -- granting awareness of recent events not so much as a nod, as if they will somehow do stupidity right this time around. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical, is it? But I guess that’s my point. People are obstinate. We are made that way. Hard-wired, helpless, doomed.

Take the Christians in Bogor, for example. What? The Christians in Bogor? You mean those from the Yasmin church who persist in holding services on the sidewalk outside the building from which they’ve been barred? Those who stubbornly wait for the obstinate mayor of the town to obey an order from the highest court to desist in prohibiting them their service in that place? Yep, those are the ones.

We are inclined to rebel against that which seems unfair, to throw out the chest, to lift the proud fist, to proclaim our cause to be right and holy. We don’t like being pushed around, and by God we’re not going to budge an inch.

But hold on a sec. Did not the Lord himself point out that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head? What’s all this fuss then about one street and one block in Bogor? What, other than obstinate pride? Lets think it through. Where is The Church? On this block alone? In this building alone? Does it reside in a legal document, or is it written in the deed to this particular tract of land?

“Where is your kingdom?” Pilate demanded of Jesus.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” he answered.

Where is it then?

“Where two or three are gathered in my name.”

No mention of a building there, or a temple, or a church, but only of human fellowship.

Do I excuse the Muslim hard-liners and their curious, senseless coveting of this same patch of earth? Not at all. One thing about obstinacy is that it is equally available to every race, religion and creed.

“We want this church building to be gone next week,” Ahmad Iman, head of the hard-liners, has said. “If it still stands, we will bring it down.”

Really? Is it that important? Is the foundational coherence of your beliefs so weak that you must fear and dispel a few Jesus freaks? Or are you merely offended by the presence of this sort of infidel trailer trash in your neighbourhood?

Oh well, that’s okay. There are people in America who feel the same way about black folks. They’re called the Ku Klux Klan. They wear white robes with pointy hoods and shout things like God is great and nigger go home. Sound familiar?

We who are not Muslims do not know the Muslim scripture, nor do the Muslims know the Christian. If they did, they would know that Christianity has from its beginning thrived on persecution. What better way then to make many more than to persecute the few?

Do you want that church to go away? Try ignoring it. At the very least peace may be had, and no one need be harmed.

Ah, but that would be less than obstinate, wouldn’t it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Trip to the Salon

The common American man is not in the habit of going to the salon for a pedicure, or a manicure, or any other kind of a cure. That's just the way it is. There are barber shops for men. You go in, you wait your turn, you talk about sports, you get your hair cut, and then you go on about your business.

There are exceptions, I suppose. The Wall Street broker, for instance. The corporate lawyer. The fashion conscious pimp from the hood. But by and large we just don't do the whole salon thing. It is frowned upon. In fact a man may justly fear the censure of his fellows if the news gets around that he’s hanging out in a foo-foo beauty salon getting his toenails and fingernails pampered and snipped, filed and polished, soaked in lavender elixir, and so on.

Well, things are different here in Bali. Men do get pedicures. They do get manicures. They do get cream baths and the occasional facial.

Nonetheless, given the traditions with which I am familiar, I was reticent when my wife demanded that I get a pedicure. It wasn’t just the macho aspect of the thing. It was shame. Yes, shame. My feet, you see, are not normal. For one thing they are old. And some of the toes are crooked. And some of the nails on the toes are as thick and yellow as weathered patio tiles. I’d turn them in for new ones in a hot minute, but one can only imagine the cost of new feet these days.

It was Sun Tzu who sagely recommended that we choose our battles with care; and as this particular issue seemed important beyond common measure to my wife, I ultimately took Sun’s advice, ceased in my struggles to free my elbow, and let myself be led to a chair.

With many apologies in advance, I removed my shoes and exposed my horrifying feet for all to see. And all did see. And then called in others to see as well.

This is where the talent of the professional manicurist truly rises to the surface. Without gasping, without shrinking, without fainting or being ill, the young woman kneeled before me, caressed the two wooden doorstops that have long masqueraded as my feet, and assured me--and with a straight face too--that they were not so very terrible. They simply needed a little help. They needed a little care.

And so she went to work. To my surprise no heavy machinery was needed. No drills or chisels. Rather, with small instruments precisely fashioned for such tasks, accompanied by a studious nibbling of the lower lip and a working of the tongue around the corners of her mouth, the young woman snipped and scraped her way to an artful restoration of something resembling real human feet. My hermit toes peeked from their yellowed blinds and did, as I believe, smile in gratitude and amazement.

Now it was time for a head massage. That sounded pleasant enough. There’s nothing very obviously wrong with my head. It’s not crooked, chipped, discoloured, nor otherwise a source of particular embarrassment to me. I relaxed therefore into a new chair and awaited the soothing touch of a new practitioner, while my wife did the same with her own head.

Who knew that a massage could be so excruciating? Or that the fingers of a masseuse could be so like crowbars? The girl had digits of iron. They were hard, dense, digging digits. Her thumbs were like shovel blades, deftly separating nerve from muscle, muscle from bone, man from boy. Through every digging pass I fought back tears, fought back groans, fought back the desire to bolt from the chair and run out the door.

And yet, glancing to the left upon the face of my wife, I found there an expression of perfect repose--eyes closed, jaw relaxed, lips turned up in sleepy smile.

How was it possible? I had to this moment thought myself a man and able to bear rigors beyond any woman’s endurance. But oh my God, my head, my head!

“Enak?” the girl asked.

“Oh yes . . . Sooo good,“ I managed to whisper in reply.

I cannot say that I enjoyed the pain, nor that my head felt improved in the end. I say merely that I survived. And that I learned one thing.

The beauty salon is definitely not for sissies. It is for the brave, the strong, for those who endure. And even for Americans too.

The Other Side of Paradise

I was doing a bit of exploring one recent day, following a few of the lesser known ways--thereby knowing less and less where I was---when I happened upon a small bridge spanning a small river. I noted that smoke or mist or steam was rising from beneath the bridge and curling over the railing at the top.

Hmm, what is this, I pondered as I passed on by? Steam from a hot spring such as those we have back home in the Pacific Northwest? Or perhaps the brush on the riverbank has caught fire. That could be bad. Or maybe it’s just a campfire. Maybe people are fishing down there and then cooking their catch.

Well, I turned my bike around after about a city block’s worth of indecision and went back to see what sort of marvel this might be. Bali is a marvellous island, right? Full of beauty, both natural and of man’s own making. You never know what exotic new sight you’re going to stumble upon.

Parking on a gravel siding near the entry to the bridge, I soon found a narrow path which led through brambles to the verge of a bluff above the river. Looking down from there into the shallow river gorge I found not a hot spring, nor a local fisherman’s fire, but a roughly pyramidal mountain of garbage rising from the middle of the stream, and afire. The mound coughed moiling clouds of smoke, from milk cartons, wooden crates, cardboard boxes, palm fronds, beer bottles, diapers, window frames, wheelbarrows, plastic bags, newspapers, bike fenders, grass, dirt, tree branches, stone--you name it. Garbage is limitless. It goes by all names. It has a beginning, and yet no end.

Though interesting in itself, this was distinctly less than I had hoped to see. Or more, rather. And the sight struck me instantly as perfectly emblematic, a poster board picture of the real Bali, the place we live, as opposed to the pristine paradise of the travel brochure and slick magazine; for that latter has long since retreated, to the guarded compound, to the exclusive beach front, to the high hill, cliff, and jungle canopy where it is tended by resident monkeys and birds.

This is the problem, you see--this mountain of garbage in the middle of a stream, burning, smoking, stinking, polluting, and sending little boats of non-biodegradable material on a steady journey to the unhappy sea.

This is the other side of paradise.

How did we get here? That’s the first question. What has inspired people not only to the indiscriminate discharge of trash, but to discarding the same in mountains, and the mountains to the middle of rivers and streams? Is the island without governance, without services, without laws? Is there some strange insensitivity at work in its people that has caused them to despise the very paradise they were born to? Or is it laziness merely, a lackadaisical conviction, or a dream anyway, that the trash will at any moment take care of itself? Or that maybe dogs will carry it away?

 Back where I come from we used to have a slogan. It was posted on highways, in parks and in State buildings. Keep Oregon Green. The phrase was encouraging in itself, for the clear implication was that Oregon was clean already, and that we needed only to keep it that way.

But what are we to do about Bali? Sink the island and start again?

I came here to the tropics to see something new. I had certain visions of what that would be. Oceans, jungles, mango trees, mountains; monkeys and monitors; pageants and parades. But the garbage on the beaches, on the roads, in the rivers, and the drooling of refuse to the shores of the sea . . . Well that turned out to be the surprise of my life. I don’t know what more I can say.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cow Sex


I had other things to write about, really -- in fact a train of things, lined up like boxcars, each packed with its own particular load of goods -- but then along comes this story about sex with cows, as reported in the most recent edition of The Bali Times, and I can’t get the thing out of my mind. Just when the thieving pig, otherwise known as Babi Ngepet, described in the same paper perhaps a year ago, was beginning to lose his novelty, and thus his boorish grip on my daily thoughts, this preposterous bovine tale appears, and my mind lumbers off on the back of the creature, helpless to resume its own way.

But let’s recap first and touch on the salient facts of the matter.

“The incident came to light,” our article tells us, “on September 22nd, when the daughter of the owner of the cow allegedly caught a married local man having sex with the animal in a field.” This, therefore, was not only perversion, but adultery, and would need to be addressed by a ceremony of purification. I’m not sure if both sins were to be covered in the ceremony, or just the one specific to the cow.

A meeting of local traditional leaders and religious figures was immediately called to discuss the matter.

Attending also was a psychiatrist -- a modern touch for an age-old calamity. What to do?

You see, incidents such as this are not unheard of in Bali. In fact, this sort of human and cow hanky-panky has been a recurring problem on the island. In a similar case last year a young man was forced to marry a cow after having sex with it. Pertaining to the case at hand, however, the guilty man, as assessed by the psychiatrist, was already depressed, and so it was felt that marriage would only make things worse.

Now, there is an extenuating factor at play in this otherwise unacceptable romance of beast and man which should be mentioned, lest we conclude the man to be totally bereft of common decency (although we cannot speak for the cow). To whit, the cow had in all cases, by some magic, managed to turn into a beautiful girl. This is strange not only in itself, but also for the fact that such transformations seem more often to work the other way around. In any case, wonderful in its own way is the fact that in Bali, a land of magic and superstition, one can make a claim such as this and be taken seriously.

There was music the man is rumoured to have said, and beauty, and flowers, and bells, and a peaceful field of green-green grass, where a curvaceous maiden, a new blooming bud, beckoned him to come thence and enter with her to the heart of bliss.

The psychiatrist in the case is noted to have said that the man might have mental problems.

And yet we have heard of the Sirens, have we not? And of mermaids and of witchery and of the beautiful and monstrous Medusa -- those ancient, inhuman seductresses who lured sailors to shipwreck and captivity with enchanting voice and song.

“Well, I think I’m goin’ out of my head.
Yes I think I’m goin’ out of my head,
Over you . . .
Moo, moo, mooo-moooo.”

Well, it’s just not quite the same thing, is it?

How does this happen, one certainly wonders -- and not only in the moral sense, but in the anatomical as well. For the largest of men is still rather small as compared to the enormity in the least of cows Did the cow seem a human girl throughout the entire episode, or did the man at some point become sober and realize his mistake? And are men alone afflicted in this perversion, or are women liable also, and saved merely by impracticability?

So many questions, so few answers -- and that’s the hell of the thing. It besieges the mind, tormenting through a repellent dissonance of imagery and inquiry. It’s a puzzle that resists its own picture. We struggle to know, yet can hardly guess; and so we are lost in the redundant folds of the enigma -- until the next interesting animal comes along, anyway.