Friday, December 28, 2012

Little Bits of Joy

Yesterday evening, after the rain, I took a walk.  Upon passing a house a few blocks from mine, I came upon a little boy, peeking out from his front gate.  "Hi!" he said. "Where do you come from?"

Upon learning that I could talk, the boy immediately ran to call his sisters, who also came to the gate to see the marvel. A tall, talking white man from a far country.

"Where do you come from?" they asked. "Where do you live?  How long have you been here?  How old are you? What religion are you?"

On learning that I am a Christian, each stepped forward to shake my hand and wish me a Merry Christmas. It was the first time I had heard the greeting the whole season through.

We talked about the fruit on the nearby trees. This one was bitter. This one was sweet. This one was not eaten, but used for medicine.

We parted then, after sharing these basics of conversation.

"See you tomorrow," they said, all three. "See you tomorrow, mister."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happy Holidays

Christmas in Bali. Or not. It's hard to tell.

The truth is, they don't really have Christmas here, given a population that is 95 percent Hindu, and the other part Muslim. They are aware of course, at shopping centers and supermarkets, that this is a big holiday for western folks, and so they make an attempt at setting up various Christmas displays -- trees and Santas and such-like. But it's just not the same.

So the season comes along with a bit of an empty, homesick feeling. One has a persistent vague feeling of missing something, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But frankly, it's a bit like that in America now as well -- the holidays having been gutted of their original meaning by stress and money and commercialism and political correctness.

"What ever happened to Christmas," as the song goes. "It's gone and left no traces ..."

Except this this:

"Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them,"Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

Merry Christmas, All.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Overnight in Ubud

I had a rare experience in luxury this weekend when I traveled to Ubud Green Resort to do an article for Bali Style Magazine. Green, of course, is the big catch word these days -- if it's green, it's good. Or anyway it couldn't hurt. In any case, we got our own private villa, with a second story unit for our friends, complete with swimming pool, AC in every room (good, given that the outside temperature was 42 C.), two big screen TVs, two King beds, free Balinese/Indonesian cuisine, and a general red carpet sort of treatment (in the hope that I would write a good review). Oh, and hot water. This may sound perfectly urbane to the reader, but the fact is I have no hot water at my house. Most people in my income bracket don't. What we have is a showerhead that doesn't work and a large receptacle of cold water, with which we drench outselves from a small plastic pail. And so yes, the hot water was good too. It was great. Yes, the weather is hot enough on its own, but there's just something about a nice warm shower or bath. Or jacuzzi. Two years since I've had a warm shower, folks. Imagine. I believe I took five showers during our two day stay. Oh, and one bath.

After Ubud we drove up to Bedugul, high in the central mountains, which provided one of the strangest experiences I've ever had -- a change in temperature within the space of two hours from 107 Fahrenheit to about 50 Fahrenheit. Quite jarring, that. A shock to the system. Aside from the temperature change, it was also raining -- cats and dogs. Torrents and floods of cats and dogs. And so we took shelter in a popular warung that serves only fish from the nearby lake, and we watched the rain, and listened to the cannon-like thunder, and gazed at the traffic jam on the street, and the river of rainwater beneath the traffic jam. Fun times. And really tasty grilled fish. The general plan in conclusion, after the three hour drive back to the south coast, was to revisit the place this coming summer -- at which time I will be able to write more as I see more.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Lying around. Lethargic. Aimless. I'm lying on the bed this morning just thinking how meaningless things seem sometimes. Thinking I ought to re-read Ecclesiates, just for the comfort of knowing the feeling is nothing new. If Solomon felt the same, I must be in good company at least. 

I'm thinking back over my life, of all the mistakes I've made, of all the stupid things I've done, of all the little roads and branches that led nowhere. I'm thinking that there has been no cohesion in any of it, no plot, no theme. In every circumstance I find myself marooned -- trying to arrive, trying to return, trying to finish and trying to start, waiting to live where I find myself this moment, as always in every phase and every time -- for all the pieces to fit, all the lines to connect, for the mold to finally set and become its own intention.

What would this look like, I wonder? Peace? Security? Rest?

I look back on so many good intentions that just turned out wrong somehow. What can they mean now if stillborn, undone, unsuccessful? How could I have been so wrong about things I felt were so right? Or what contrary fate has dogged my most ardent efforts? Or did I simply, in every time and in every effort, fail to try hard enough?

That last, yes. I suppose the fault is to be found in that last.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kopi Luwak at Last

Finally had the opportunity to sample Kopi Luwak this weekend. At a usual price of Rp. 300.000 per cup (30+ USD) it's a coffee generally experienced only by the rich and and priviledged. But at Bali Pulina, in the uplands near Ubud, this 'exquisite' treat is offered, by the extra small cup, for only Rp. 50.000.

Kopi Luwak, for those who do not know, is made from coffee beans harvested from the droppings of the civet -- a ferret-like creature with a wolf-like face which roams the jungle thereabouts. Sound appetizing? Well, most truly special things are like that. Monkey brains, for instance. Eels. Snails -- sorry, escargot. Caviar. Beetles.

Happily (as I think, anyway), I have the tastbuds of a pauper, saving me from strange affections such as these (and saving my pocketbook as well). In short, I was unimpressed with the civet droppings. Tasted no different from Kopi Bali to me, which comes straight from the plant and not the intestine and bowel. But there's no harm in trying (I hope), and one should always expand his knowledge of such things where possible -- so that he can speak from experience rather than simple prejudice.

Friday, November 9, 2012


A friend tells me of having read a story today in the Sanur Rag about a Balinese man having intercourse with a chicken. I should note that he killed the chicken first, though I will not hazard an opinion at this juncture on whether this renders the act in essential any better or worse, except to say that it was probably better for the chicken. But this is only a guess. Who can fathom such matters?

It's not an unheard of sort of incident in paradise, although the animal involved is usually of a more substantial nature -- a cow or a pig being considered more attractive matches. Or at least as far as practicability goes.

It must also be noted that in most documented cases these animals have been guilty of turning into beautiful young women -- at the critical moment anyway -- and thus luring their unsuspecting prey to the dishonorable act. Wouldn't you know it? It's always the woman's fault, even when she is a cow or a pig. Or a chicken.

We know that the chicken is dead (God rest its soul), but what must become of the man is not yet known. Some action will need to be taken of course -- a ceremony and a general cleansing of the village in question. It may also be necessary to eradite further chiekens if those are found suspected of similar transformations.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Okay, so this is significantly hotter than hot today. I don't know what to call it. The end of the world? Hell on earth? Basically all I can do is sit in the bedroom where the air-conditioning is and marvel at being hot anyway. Sweating profusely, so that all my hair is wet -- and I don't even have any hair. On my head, anyway.  The hair in my ears is wet. The hair in my nose is wet. I've taken off all my wet clothes and now I'm getting the bedsheets wet.  Beautiful Bali, practically paradise.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cop Stop

So get this, folks -- I'm driving up the highway this morning, headed for Hypermart to grocery shop for the week, and along comes this policeman on a motorbike.  He points mem over to the side of the road, just on the siding by the police post.

Following orders, I take a quick inventory.  Helmet: Check.  License: Check. Registration: Check. Following road rules:  Check.

"So what's up?" I ask.

"Where are you going?"


"Left or straight."


"Ohhhhh.  Why you in the left lane then?  Left lane must turn left."

"I wasn't in the left lane."

"Oh yes."


"Hmm.  Let me see license."

He takes a good long look at my license, taps it with his finger.

"Hmm, not good."

"Oh yes, good, very good. Just fine."

"Oh ya?"


"Where you get those sunglasses."


"I try yes?"


He tries on the glasses. Looks around.

"You give to me."

"No, cannot do."

"Yes, you give."

"No, was present from my wife. No can give.  She be very angry.  She is a terrible bitch."

"Oh ya!"


"You must simply fuck her hard then."

"Oh ya?"


"Okay, I'll try. But you still can't have the glasses."

"You must give."

"I no give."

And so on and so forth.  Where are you from. Wherre is your wife from.  How long have you been here. Where do you live.  How much you pay for these glasses.

Realizing at this point that he will get no money from me, nor will he get my glasses, he returns the glasses and asks if I have a second pair.

"You bring those next time, yes.  I meet you here.  You bring more glasses."

And so it goes.  Life on the island of Bali, practically paradise.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Depression 2

I was gladdened to find this morning a comment from a friend on my previous entry regarding "depression." I call her a friend, though I have never met her -- but this is what friends do, isn't it -- whether you've met them or not -- they take the time to say something, and they cause you to recognize that someone out there is listening, and even cares. 

My friend chides me gently about my (mis)use of the term 'depression' -- and I deserve that, so I don't mind.  Really, I'm more peeved than depresssed.  I'm more lazy than depressed.  Adjusting to events and realities that do not coincide with my own plans has never been my strong suit.  Transitions, adjustments -- yuck. 

At the same time, I'm still not convinced that clinical depression is a symptom of MS.  I mean, being a bit depressed by the troubles caused by MS would seem only natural -- again, a circumstantial reaction rather than a brain chemistry disorder.  Oddly enough, I find very little about MS to be depressing in my own case.  Of all things in my life, it seems the least depressing.  In fact, I kind of like it.  It's interesting.  And it is no fault of my own.  This helps to put the blame for various failings on something outside of my control -- whereas I have no choice other than to hold myself accountable for failings that cannot be ascribed to the disease.

But in any case, thank you, Scatterbrain, for reading, and for listening, for caring and for commenting.  Cheers!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Some few years ago when I was writing the initial draft of Everyone Here is Jim Dandy I addressed the subject of depression in people with MS. More particularly, my investigations centered on whether depression is or could be a byproduct of MS due to neurological changes in the brain, or whether depression is just depression pure and simple -- playing no favorites. If I remember correctly, I surmised the latter case to be the more likely. Everyone gets depressed, and the most common type of depression is of a situational nature -- something has gone wrong, a failed love affair, a broken heart, trouble in the workplace, trouble with the wife, trouble with illness (any illness), financial trouble (oh, that’s a good one). Trouble in River City.

I’m thinking about this again because, frankly, I’m depressed. And I don’t think this is the fault of weird brain chemistry or short-circuiting. I think it’s because I’m going broke. In fact, I’m sure it is. And that’s depressing. It’s depressing to live in paradise and be broke at the same time. Even more depressing is the thought of having to leave paradise because you can’t afford to live there anymore. And I’ll tell you this, folks -- if you can’t afford to live on the island of Bali, you have got to be very broke indeed.

But there you have it. Little did we imagine when we took my life savings and moved to this little island on the other side of the world that this chunk of money would be gone within four years. The plan had been for it to last until I began to collect Social Security. Oh well, back to the drawing board. I am three years short still of Social Security, and so this math don’t add up any better than Mitt Romney’s.

What to do? Is returning to the United States an answer? It somehow automatically seems so, but that is no doubt because one is simply remembering a stable situation from the past and imaging that it still exists somehow -- as if it had simply been left behind like a suitcase in storage. It is with a sinking sensation then that one realizes in a suddenly very real way that time has marched on, the world has changed, nothing has been preserved. You can’t go home again. In short, Oh shit, I fucked up! Nope, I can’t walk back into Providence Medical Center and start my old job again. In fact, at 59 years of age, I doubt whether I could walk into any place in America and start any job whatsoever.

What to do, what to do? Work in Bali? At what? Driving a taxi? Picking up white rocks from the beach at Ketewel to sell to the warehouse down the road? Shoulder a shovel and join the guys on the Bypass as they wait for a truck to stop and take them for a day?

Hmm, this is sounding more depressing by the moment. Because it is more depressing by the moment.

How about if I go without eating for a year? That should save a bit. Or maybe quit cigarettes. Or on second thought, no. Some things are indispensable.

I haven’t a clue. That’s the depressing thing. And it’s a scary thing too.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

New Directions

Been a while since I wrote anything here. I guess that's mainly because these entries, for the past year or so, have been articles that also appeared in The Bali Times newspaper. My efforts had been focused on producing a weekly column for that paper, into which I put considerable effort. Mysteriously, however, The Bali Times suddenly disappeared some weeks ago, then reappeared a couple weeks later in a new form, minus any of the editorial columns that had previously appeared (most notably mine and Vyt Karazija's second page columns). Nothing was ever said to either of us by the management of the paper - we simply disappeared! The paper now consists of straight, rather abbreviated news pieces which can be read in the Jakarta Post or the Jakarta Globe, plus a four page insert in Bahasa Indonesia (apparently with an eye toward that rare Indonesian reader who prefers to spend 10,000 Rupiah for four pages to 6,000 Rupiah for an entire newspaper).

In any case, a recalibrration of intent becomes necessary such that I may begin to fill these blog pages with something new.

In addition, I had recently been working on my book, Everything Here is Jim Dandy (living with MS) for publication on, and that proved to be a time consuming task. None of these things are as easy as they look on the surface, and so a certain amount of struggle was involved. But that's done now and the book has so far sold one copy, earning me a grand total of 3 dollars and 18 cents. I've not yet decided where to spend this windfall.

My agent back in the States spend nearly three years trying to sell Jim Dandy to a publisher, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Thus sounds the death toll of poor Jim, consigned now to his lonely grave in cyberspace. Too bad. I think the book might have been enjoyed by many MS readers, and really by readers in general as well, since it's focus was not on MS alone but on MS as a symptom of life as we all face it. But anyway . . . .

So, where to go from here? We'll have to wait and see. At this point in time, I haven't the foggiest.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Book Now Available Online

Finally I can invite my visitors to read my book about living with multiple sclerosis (and life in general).  The book is called Everyone Here is Jim Dandy.  You can find this at

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Almost There

I've been struggling for some time now to get my book onto Create Space, but I think we're almost there now.  The book, about living with MS, is called Everyone Here is Jim Dandy (just like this blog).  The main trouble has been with downloading my Word file for the book onto createspace, which itself is because my subscription to Word expired long ago.  It was therefore necessary to use the kind services of my agent in the US -- many thanks to Neil Salkind for his tireless attention to my tiring requests.  Once the thing is officially complete, I will post a link on this blog so that readers can find the book in 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Trouble Comes in Threes (at least)

The last few months have been right rough on me.  First off I was bitten by some sort of poisonous insect. I like to call it a spider (laba-laba in the language), but in fact I did not see the insect (due to the fact that it had used the cover of night to carry out its dastardly deed), and so I really should not cast such aspertions on a single critter type.  I have called it a spider many times, and I guess that's because spiders have this negative sort of reputation, like Americans in Java and elsewhere throughout Southeast Asia.  He's an easy target, is the spider -- always the first one pointed to -- and so I apologize for my own rush to judgment.  It could just as well have been a centipede or a cockroach or a beetle or some random Egyptian guy from California.  Well, admittedly the latter would be unlikely -- but you see my meaning.

In any case, this bite on my calf from an anonymous insect became infected (or came with an infection, who knows?), so that by the evening of the first day the wound had grown from the size of a pinhead to the size of a silver dollar, and had turned an angry purple-red, with a dilated staring eye of yellow pus in the center.  Sorry, that's just how it was.  Aside from being ugly, the thing hurt like hell and got worse with each day (and with the application of each home remedy), such that the pain ultimately extended deep into the muscle and made walking -- an activity already comprised at baseline by MS --  an exercise in agony, and pretty much the next thing to impossible.

So I went to the hospital -- something to be avoided in Indonesia almost as religiously as the spider itself.  Or rather, the anonymous insect.  In fact, I went to the hospital every two days for the next two weeks for what seemed an endless series of poking, scraping and re-bandaging operations, until finally the wound was pronounced healed, though the scarring permanent.

No further insects have invaded my bed, nor the sactity of my sleep, but I did see an actual spider on the wall above my kitchen door last night -- unmistakable in this case, for a spider seen is a spider indeed.  And this was a major spider, folks -- a serious spider -- the epitomy of that sort of horror which gives the spider in general it's fearsome name.  I do not exaggerate -- this spider was the size of an oven mitten, this spider was the size of a frying pan.  It was black and generally splayed out with crooked legs like jointed steel.  Oh my God!

Oh my God!

What should we do?

My son, the first to see the monster, has retreated in a stumbling rush to the dining room.  My wife, while affecting scorn for our cowardice, moves rather quickly to the bedroom nonetheless -- an act which, to me, seems particularly inappropriate, for I am convinced, for some reason, that dealing with spiders should be in the domain of the wife.  Don't ask me why -- it's just something I have long taken for granted.  It's just something that seems a part of the wifely realm.

In any case, I am left on my own.  I must face the thing, eradicate it, or allow it to roam as it will (and the latter option is clearly unthinkable).  For a moment I imagine that this in fact may be the very spider that inflicted the poisonous bite on my calf, and that revenge is therefore within my grasp.  I soon realize, however, that this giant creature cannot have been the one that had previously climbed into my bed.  Were that the case, I surely would have awakened, the way I used to do when my labrador jumped onto the foot of the bed.  Clearly the enomity of the spider at hand would preclude the sort of stealth that would have been necessary to creep between the sheets with me.

In favour of a hand-to-hand confrontation, I decide upon a chemical attack through the use of a nearby cannister of Baygon Anti-Nyamuk, Lalat & Kecoa spray -- a mosquito, fly and cockroach preparation that, according to the can, is cepat, efektif & Tahan Lama (fast, effective and longlasting).  It seems the perfect thing where this laba-laba is concerned.

You will note, as I did, that "spider" is not mentioned among the intended targets of this spray -- and I must say that the spider itself appeared to note this as well -- for while he did not like the first couple of aerosol blasts from the cannister, neither was he prepared to die as a result.  Instead he ran with all eight legs down the wall and straightaway across the floor toward my feet -- bare feet at that.  Further blasts of the noxious spray slowed but did not halt his progress.  And  yet I stand my ground, despite the forward progress of my enemy, despite the choking cloud of Baygon that has begun to envelop us both.

This is when my son's shoe flies in.  Just the shoe, no foot or leg attached.  And it scores a direct hit.  Robin Hood and his arrow could not have done better.  The thing is dead, stone dead, without further twitch or convulsion, shot straight through the brain by a Reebok.

A cheer of victory arises from the depths of our lungs.  We embrace, we dance in celebratory elation. Such triumphs in life come event by event.  We know well that there are other enemies like this one - brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces -- but for now the day is ours.  Let tomorrow bring what it may.

This is what I was about to talk about, actually, before this giant spider derailed the narrative.  I was talking about the misfortunes of the summer, to which I will now return in relaying the particulars of the traffic accident which followed immediately upon the infectious spider bite that we started with. 

In was evening, though still light, and I was driving  home to Biaung from Sanur -- about a twenty minute trip.  There is but one road that traverses the south coast of Bali, and this road is known as the 'Bypass' -- a curious name, because it bypasses nothing. Rather it shoulders its way through just about everything and necessarily conveys just about every person, bike, motorbike, car and truck from Candidasa in the east to  Kuta in the south.  One generally picks his way rather laboriously through the traffic until he passes the KFC in Sanur -- and from that point straight on to Biaung it's every man for himself, at the fastest speeds possible. 

Well, one of the key rules of the road in Bali is to assume always the worst case scenario -- that the man in the Toyota SUV, for instance, has no license, nor the slightest comprehension of the mechanics of driving -- that this other man driving the Honda Vario has no brakes and this one on the Kawasaki is not sure which side of the road he should be on  -- that this dumptruck driver has no brains, that this bus driver has no side-view mirrors, and so on.  I forgot this rule that sunny July evening, and so when the light turned green at the Padang Galak intersection and every truck, car and motorbike lept forward onto the next stretch of open highway, I lept as well -- and after picking up full highway speed, found myself about to run my bike, and my life in this present world, smack-dab into the back of a hugh yellow truck. 

The truck, you see, was not equipped with functioning brake lights.  This is something I should have  known in advance.

Now it is important to note that where driving a motorcycle is concerned, the motorcycle does not stop on a dime in the same way a car will -- for the motorcycle itself stops, but the driver proceeds onward, quite suddenly divorced from the motorcyle, over the handlebars, some distance through the air, and then comes to rest (if you will) on the unkind pavement.  It all happens within a matter of seconds -- the recognition of impending doom, the throwing on of the brakes, the brief flight through the air, and the impact with the pavement.  This leaves you in a bit of a fog at first.  You are not sure where your motorcyle has gone without you, nor in fact are you quite certain of where your body has ended up.  And yet you rise -- an automatic response, unless your legs happen to be broken -- you brush yourself off, you search about for the errant bike -- and then, coming suddenly to full consciousness -- you get yourself the hell out of the middle of the street and the path of the oncoming traffic.  People here don't like to stop or slow down, although they will, with some irritation, try to go around you.

I had landed squarely on the right side of my ribcage and also opened up my pant leg and my skin at the right knee.  But it seemed okay.  I retrieved my bike and my person from the pavement and soon was back on my way home, thinking 'Gee, that was lucky -- I could have been killed.'

It is only later when the pain sets in.  Adrenaline had at first muffled the seriousness of the injury, shock had tricked the body into a sense of well being -- but by the time night fell I knew all too agonizingly that I was seriously fucked.  Suddenly every rib seemed to have been crushed in a vice, my right shoulder seemed to have collapsed, all the muscles in my upper torso had gone into a state of red alert and evinced now an angry, excruciating response.

Back to the hospital I went.  By now the staff was becoming quite familiar with my presence.  There he is again.  The white guy who can't stay out of trouble. These Americans are strange creatures, are they not?

My motorcyle mishap happened in the first week of July.  It is now September 24th and I am finally almost free of the pain.  Almost 12 weeks, my friends.  Twelve weeks of groaning and grimacing.  Twelve weeks of trying to lie on my back, on my left side, on my stomach -- and failing in all.  Twelve weeks of holding my ribs, gulping handfuls of aspirin, and shuffling about like Walter Brennan from the Real McCoys.

And then came the flu.  Or in my case, the super flu.  Now I know that trouble always comes in threes, so I was not wholly unprepared for a third misfortune, whatever form it might take.  Nonetheless, it has not been pleasant -- for the coughing, hacking, sneezing and sniffing that has accompanied this flu have been acutely counterproductive to the healing of my ribs -- combining together to exact extraordinary demands of my overtaxed bones and muscles -- which shout, ever so vexed, give me a break! (so to speak).

Four weeks of the flu now, and still going strong.

Why then has it taken so long for me to recover from these injuries and maladies, common enough on their own?  This is what I begin to wonder.  Is it merely old age, and a body less capable of routine repair?  Or does this have something to do with multiple sclerosis?  Hmmm. 

Well, when you think about it, an immune system that is preoccupied with attacking itself must therefore have little time to pay attention to those things it had been originally designed to fix.  Moreover, an immune system that has damaged the central nervous system, fried myelin sheaths, severed various nerve connections and so on, has necessarily compromised otherwise efficient processes of of natural healing, right?

It's funny -- I think very little about MS on a day to day basis.  I am used to the troubles it causes habitutally.  This seems merely my life, the way I am.  It takes time to remember the perniciousness of the thing.  Who, after all, takes 12 weeks to heal from a fall?  Who?  The person with MS, of course.  Who gets colds and flus so easily, and suffers with them four and five weeks at a time?  Why is it that my wife contracts the same flu and yet is up and about again in five days. 

Multiple sclerosis.  Oh yeah, now I remember.  I have multiple sclerosis. 

And I begin to understand through this trio of troubles what is meant when they say that MS does not itself cause death, but may often be a contributing factor.  Sure it can.  I see that now.  The dice are loaded, the cards are marked.  You come up to bat, you kick the dust from the plate, you take your stance and watch the ball leave the hand of the pitcher -- and then suddenly realize in one rather cold moment that the scoreboard shows already two strikes to your name.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jakarta Riots

So now the idiot mob spreads to Jakarta -- how disappointing is that?  Especially given that it should have been pretty clear by now to all but the most obtuse that all this trouble over a cheap-ass movie, insulting not only to Islam but to any thinking human being, was but an excuse for the fomenting of murder and mayhem, and ever so coincidentally on September 11th.  Come on, people!  How many times will you let yourself be turned to pawns, to be pushed about by the few, the extreme, the sick, the haters, happy to leave the blood on your hands?  Stop a minute, think it through . . . do you really believe that one film made by a small handful of nuts is the same as a policy statement from the American nation at large?  Do you imagine that it was submitted for approval to Congress and signed by the President himself?  Have you read the newspapers, seen the television reports, or have you only listened to the shrill madness of the man on the street with the megaphone?  Think, for Christ's sake, and for Mohammed's sake too!  Innocent lives are too precious to be sacrificed on the alters of blind ignorance.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Newspaper or Comic Book - You Decide

Indonesian newspapers are a ready-made treasure trove for the weekly columnist. He will never want for news of the most recent government foible, the latest gaffe, the hottest new religious squabble, the riotous or the ridiculous, murder and mayhem. It may be, as author Stephen Crane said, that the newspaper in general “is a symbol; it is feckless life’s chronicle, a collection of loud tales concentrating eternal stupidities.” This is nowhere in the world more apparent than in Indonesia, for I am convinced that the Indonesian newspaper stands apart from the crowd, head and shoulders above the commonplace drone.

Just pick up a daily paper and see for yourself. Do you not, upon reading, feel something akin to a bygone child-like passion for the colourful amusement of the comic book? Everything is so simple, so stripped to the essential, laid out in black and white, as stark, uncompromising and unflattering as old Kodak photos.

There’s something of a purity here that we do not see in the wide western world. Here the fat is sloughed from the ungainly creature, the bones laid bare, and we see at the most basic level how it moves, what it wants, how it creeps and runs, how it gathers and feeds. We are fascinated, alternately amused and horrified, outraged and unsettled, because deep down we know that what we are seeing is our own escapades, unclothed, unadorned, extraordinarily exposed, devoid now of pretence and sophistication so-called -- all those layers of political correctness and passionless political and social conditioning that have left us with the dim-witted impression that we really are above all these hatreds, brutalities, banalities, vanities, shams and mockeries that combine to make up the lesser part of the human condition.

It is not, you see, the reporting of the news that makes it so raw. It is the news itself, because it is real, it happened, ridiculous as it may seem -- and therein lies the fascination. There is no way to wrap it in the finery of jargon or to obscure it with intellect or smooth it with verbosity. George Orwell visualized, in his novel 1984, a language that he called “newspeak” -- a deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state. This in fact is what we find in America -- feather-stuffed pillows and confectionary dainties fluffed and served to a sleeping populace.

It’s different in the real world -- in Indonesia, that is. Here we read of the extremist Muslim thugs who launched the holy fasting month of Ramadan with a rampage through shop and restaurant districts, wrecking the establishments of those morally recalcitrant others who had felt no need in themselves to observe a tradition or a rule not their own. We read of an inability on the part of civil authorities to stop the well anticipated disturbance, and wonder at the consistent failure of these states of official readiness.

Having fed, then, the appetite of the flesh, like a bear about to go into hibernation, the mob fades back to the cave-like shadows of mental and physical idleness for fasting, only to re-emerge at the conclusion of prayer and introspection in another place -- Sampang, East Java -- to exact an even more harsh and deadly penalty on their heretical Shiite neighbours, burning, ruining, ravaging and dispossessing in the good name of Allah. It’s like Christmas and New Years rolled into one, a celebration throughout, with fireworks at the beginning and the end.

Government spokesmen variously condemn or rationalize. It is reprehensible says one. It is the fault of the police says another. It is a family feud says a third. And the President says the fault was in a lack of intelligence. Ah how true! Each minister makes his attempt at damage control, and yet each ends up sounding as ridiculous as the incident itself, for the events are too cruel, too naked, too inexcusable to be tempered by the impenetrable rhetoric that might work in America or Europe.

How wonderful is this? How like the old western movie lynch mob, the throng of angry villagers marching up the storm lashed road to the gate of Frankenstein’s castle! How oddly refreshing, how disturbingly meaningful compared to the outlawing in America of Christian displays at Christmas time, the name of God from the school curriculum, the erection of a cross at the school shooting site -- the smug, proud, papery rampage of the secular mob and the impotent whimper of the dispossessed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

--Mark Twain

On a recent Sunday in late August my wife turned 35 years of age. The subject of age has been on my mind ever since. This in itself would seem to indicate that age matters, and yet I cannot remember it mattering so much in the past. It certainly didn’t seem to make much of an impression when I myself turned 35 -- on me or on anyone else -- and so I’m wondering why the same number when achieved by my wife seems unusually significant. Is it my age that makes this number magical, or is it hers, or indeed is it ours in combination -- which would put us, together, at 93, and thus most likely together in the grave as well. Is she, therefore, by adding another year to her life, causing us to grow dangerously old? And if so, how can the process be stopped, or at least checked? By marrying a younger woman? I wonder. The math in favour of such a move would seem solid on the surface.

All this figuring, I might add, has taken a remarkable amount of mental effort, and the calculations have proven exhausting and frustrating to the point that I have returned again and again to this matter of ageing as somehow causative, casting suspicion anew on some detrimental association with the passage of my wife’s birthday.

Now, if there is a 23 year difference between my wife’s age and mine (which I believe there is), then when I myself was 35 my wife must have been 12. It seems a vast expanse, does it not? It also seems at least vaguely inappropriate. I think that we can all agree that a 12 year old female is yet a child, while a 35 year male has long been a man. Such arithmetic in this case would appear to point to unseemly, even evil sums; and yet the numbers themselves have not changed.

Clearly, therefore, a great and essential difference must exist between 12 and 35 as opposed to 35 and 58, despite the fact that the numbers in between are the same. How is this possible? I conclude that the true magic must lie in the number 23 rather than the number 35. In fact, it makes all the difference in the world. If you add 23 (the aforementioned magic number) to 58 (my present age), you will come up with 81, which seems a much farther cry from 58 than 58 is from 35 or 35 is from 12. Wouldn’t you agree?

Strangely, as I proceed in these possibly tortured computations, and light upon the number 23, that same number rings a little bell of its own, barely audible to be sure, such that I am inspired to look the thing up on the internet.

Twenty-three I find (and now remember too) is the title of a 2007 American film starring Jim Carey. The plot involves an obsession with the number 23, leading in turn, as do most all obsessions, to madness. Carey’s obsession is not an original invention of the character he plays. Rather it derives from a longstanding theory about the number itself, known as the 23 enigma, first popularized by novelist William S. Burroughs. On the most basic level, 23 is a prime number -- the ninth prime number, if you’re counting, and the smallest odd prime that is not a twin prime. Twenty-three is also the fifth factorial prime, the third Woodall prime, and it is an Eisenstein prime with no imaginary part and real part in the form of 3n - 1. Go figure that one out.

Nor does 23 limit itself to mathematical distinctions. We find it extending in seemingly odd ways to any number of disciplines, popping up Leprechaun-like in science, religion, music, sports, popular culture and so on.

What I personally conclude from this is that my own arrival at the number 23, given the computations above, is not so much an accident as it is an unearthing. Clearly the needful number was there from the outset, just waiting to be noted and extracted, like a key in a mound of coins or bottle caps. Moreover it is a happy discovery in that it places us individually in a youthful category, while combined we are still at the early border of middle age. In short, we are proven to be securely in our prime. For now, anyway. I guess there’s no telling what will happen should my wife decide to get older again next year.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Indonesia Receives the First Annual Elmer Gantry Award

Elmer Gantry, the 1927 novel by American author Sinclair Lewis, tells the story of a good natured hypocrite with a gift for charisma. Wherever he goes and at whatever he does, Elmer ultimately fails because his projects and his affections, his goals and his methods are essentially dishonest. Yet, of each failure, Elmer manages to make a brief success nonetheless in that he achieves the approval of the particular constituency of the moment -- if as a salesman, of the buyer; as a suitor, of the pursued; as a preacher, of the flock. He is charlatan and champion, leader and liar. In fact, Elmer himself believes with all his might in every scheme by which he is apprehended, and applies an eloquence to each new ideal that is perfectly suited not only to his own ear but to the ear of those who would believe just as fervently. Having risen to the role of a Christian Revival preacher, Elmer becomes a man of the highest moral fibre on the surface, even as the façade disintegrates by the moment under the influence of the true leaven of his nature -- which is, after all, only our shared human condition.

Having typified the protagonist of the novel as such, I would suggest that a numinous quality attends the type such that we may apply it archetypically to larger bodies and concerns, such as State ideologies, governments and the leaders of governments.

In short, I propose that we make an award after the name of Elmer Gantry -- a sort of blooper award, a worst in show award -- and apply it, in this initial bequeathing, to the government and religious leaders of Indonesia. The quality of hypocrisy demonstrated at the highest levels surely deserves international recognition.

The examples are many, just as an actor’s roles are many, and so we must pare down the entire body of laudable performances to just a few of the most recent shining examples -- ones that stand out among the crowd in a particularly obvious and repugnant manner.

I’m thinking of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s recent expulsion from Israel, to which he had travelled for a meeting of representatives from nations of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He and certain other NAM members were disallowed entry to that country and sent back home to their respective lands.

Outraged (and perhaps not a little embarrassed), the Minister hastily prepared a statement in which he bitterly complained of Israel’s “flagrant violation of the principles of international law,” vowing, in a rather impotent way, that Indonesia would not “succumb” to Israel’s “bully-boy” tactics.

But hold on a minute, Marty -- aren’t you forgetting something, and rather glaringly so? In fact, Indonesia does not recognize the State of Israel -- joining herein the august company of such countries as Chad, Cuba, Iran, Syria and North Korea. Moreover, citizens of Israel, carrying Israeli passports, are not allowed entry into Indonesia. And so why, again, are they supposed to allow you in to their country (you know, the one that doesn’t exist, according to Indonesian policy?) As the Israeli foreign minister put it, “We have cleared entry for representatives of countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel and we have not cleared those which do not.”

Pretty simple, isn’t it? It is merely your own policy turned back again. You yourself have said that only a state that is in “flagrant violation of the principles of international law” would disallow the entry of peoples from other countries. Remember? Therefore the country of Indonesia is guilty. and guilty first, of the violation of the principles of international law.”

Well of course you remember, and thus has the Elmer Gantry award been bestowed. Herein lies the purest form of hypocrisy: to declare an objection to the very thing that you yourself allow. It is nakedly ridiculous, almost universally hilarious, and so congratulations are due. Good work.

Really, it just kind of hurts to be ignored, doesn’t it? It just kind of hurts to be exposed and made little. Isn’t that what Natalegawa’s outrage is honestly about? It is in fact the only response available, save repentance, to the real bully-boy who has just been cut down a notch -- a hallmark ingredient of the same hypocrisy that led him down a blind alley in the first place.

Well, as I have said, many others in government have made their own contributions to Indonesia’s award winning performance. We hear over and over of Indonesia’s commitment to human rights, its insistence on tolerance and protection for all religious and minority groups, its rejection of discriminatory practices. This is the official line and it sounds pretty good on the silver tongues of politicians and Imams.

What to make then of the blind eye that is turned on the plight of minority sect members such as the Ahmadiyah Muslims? What to make of the harassment, abuse, expulsion and even murder that hounds their peace as protected citizens of the nation? What to make of the local government sanctioned closure of Christian churches in Bogor -- first of the Yasmin church and now of the St. Johannes Catholic church in the same locale -- where neighbourhood members, by the way, have expressed by written petition no objection to the church’s presence? What to make of the government’s sudden concern over the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in the face of its disregard for its own suffering constituents?

Well, you make an award. What else can you do? Awards and recognitions, like the Nobel Prize, may at the very least bring attention to the matter, and may in turn cause some small fissure in the walls of the ivory tower of hypocrisy. And who knows, maybe next year the Elmer Gantry award will go to another country. We who live here, and care, certainly hope so.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

What are they afraid of?

It is always the first question that comes to mind when I read of reactionary religious mobs, shrill pronouncements, pushy protesters, violent vigilantes. What is it that they fear? If their religion is, as they say, the true way, the unassailable word of God, a sanctuary of eternal peace and assurance, why should what is therefore false become the cause of such a paranoid stir? Should not the misguided, ignorant or otherwise obtuse among us be rather the objects of pity than hostility? If truth be truth, what legitimate threat can lie in falsehood?

Or is God Himself unsure, unable, and therefore in need of human assistance? Is His a conditional truth, a weak-kneed stance which must teeter and wobble in the face of dissention? Is this what is truly believed, or rather feared, among the faithful?

Again and again we see the arm of man applied in the defence of an all mighty God -- whom, it seems, is after all more ostensible than all mighty. The Ahmadiyah must be banished or put to death, the Shiite must be jailed or expelled or at least kept silent, the church must be closed, the parishioners harassed, the Jew must be denied and his passport disallowed. In fact, according to the list of the six recognized religions of Indonesia, he does not even exist.

In Bogor an order of the supreme court of the nation is ignored and the Yasmin church there remains closed to this day, its doors locked by an obstinate mayor and an ever redundant FPI mob which shows up every Sunday just as religiously as they might do at the mosque (and might have better done, for that matter).

In Sumatra the longstanding Batak congregation is barred from the free use of land which they own, because their intention is to build a church, and the presence of a church would cause . . . well, who knows what horrors? “Not in my town!” one man declares. “If a mall instead, or a parking lot or a warehouse, okay.”

In Cikeusik, western Java, three Ahmadiyah sect members are killed, dozens beaten by locally sanctioned thugs and fanatics. These Ahmadiyah’s, you understand, have departed from true Islam in the belief that traditional Islam itself has departed from Mohammad’s original teachings.

Therefore they must be killed? Why? What are the killers afraid of? How is it that the surety of their own belief is so fragile in the face of another?

Is it not ironic that a faith that so suffered from the Christian Crusades of old now embraces the same brutal and malicious agenda? No greater damage than this was ever done to Christ; and no greater damage can be done to Mohammad, wherein love becomes hate and truth its victim.

And during the holy month of Ramadan the hate increases. Not content with fasting for their own sake as a means of worshipping Allah, some believers (and I use the term loosely) take to the streets to attack businesses and other private parties which have failed to observe the fast. Restaurants are trashed, bars destroyed, employees beaten. Some can fast from food, apparently, but not from bloodshed. What is the psychology behind it, if not fear? Do they imagine that violence will make their holiness apparent, or that people, once beaten, once injured, once ruined, will see the shining truth of their tormentors’ religious cause?

“Love thine enemy,” said Jesus, in whom the Moslems believe as a prophet. And Mohammad himself said this: "If one amongst the pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of God; and then escort him to where he can be secure.”

He who has ears, let him hear.

I believe that a sickness of the spirit is clearly manifest in the capers of the extremist periphery and that most good people of any and all faiths are well aware of the evil contained therein. But mere awareness is not good enough. It needs action, education, proactive measures at the level of religious, government and law enforcement sectors.

And yet what we get, so far, from the highest echelons is hypocrisy. Consider the recent statement, for example, from Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in reference specifically to violence done to Moslem Rohingya sect members in Myanmar. “Indonesia,” he said, “has consistently rejected discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or any other reason,” and would “emphasize its opposition to any kind of human rights violations.”

Oh really? You could have fooled the rest of us. What country are you living in, Marty? For while Indonesia, indeed, speaks out in favour of politically and religiously acceptable Moslem sect members such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, the intolerance proceeds apace at home where marginal people of different beliefs and cultures continue to be tirelessly bullied, discounted, molested and disinvested under the very noses of those who supposedly so fervently oppose such violations. High level disingenuousness such as this is simply another aspect of the problem itself.

Let us be brave then, let us be honest; and most of all, let us be active.

He who has eyes to see, let him see.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Mysterious Ways of the Bali Roadway

I’m trying to be polite. I’m trying to be sensitive. I’m trying to observe local culture, traditions and ways with a dispassionately astute, non-jaundiced eye -- but for criminy’s sake, what in the world can some of these people be thinking!
I’m sitting on my Honda one recent morning, ready to exit the Circle K parking lot, right turn signal on, waiting for the traffic to thin on Tamblingan, when a Balinese fellow pulls up behind me, and then parallel to the right side of my bike -- and he wants to turn left! I’m already there, signal on, ready to turn right, and he, instead of pulling up on my left side and continuing on without impediment-- a no brainer, or so it would seem to anyone in possession of that organ -- positions himself such that he must cross in front of my bike or I in front of his. In short, he has needlessly set up a scenario for a collision. What can he be thinking? Why has he done this? Has a malevolent spirit taken control of his senses? Is it a game of chicken? A jousting-like challenge? Or is the man just simply an idiot? And if the latter be the true case, we have a problem, for what this man has done is not rare, but common, as common throughout the population as black hair and brown eyes.

I know we should be used to it by now, but we’re not. Day after day it defies our ability to acclimate, to adjust, to synchronize, to enter the flow. Again and again actions such as those of the aforementioned motorbike pilot leave us with mouth agape. A brand new stupor sends the western mind into a brand new hopeless search for reason, justification, logic, intelligence in what would otherwise seem rampant stupidity.

But it cannot be stupidity, for these are not stupid people. Most of them speak two languages -- the universal Indonesian and their own native tongue -- Bahasa Bali, Sunda, Jawa, Menado, Melayu, Batak and so on, o’er the far flung peoples of the archipelago -- two languages at least, and many of them more, bits and pieces of English and Dutch and French and even Australian. I am convinced that no person can be stupid and multilingual at the same time. Here as well is an inventive people, forged in the fires of hardship and poverty, a quick-witted people, a ready people, a people able to interact with foreign cultures, peculiarities and tongues with amazing ease and alacrity.

And so why has this man, seeing that I am about to turn right, chosen to do the wrong-est thing possible and gone around my right in order to turn left? Why, why, why?

It is perfectly emblematic -- not isolated, but the norm. Why indeed does another motorbike driver try to force his bike between mine and the SUV on one side and the impassable gully on the other? What chance has this manoeuvre of doing other than failing, or perhaps causing injury or death? And yet he will try nonetheless, for it somehow seems to him somehow possible. He has done it this day, and he will do it again and again in various versions, for it is apparent that in Bali the impossible seems always just barely possible, and therefore worth a shot.

Why does the driver of the car, in the midst of the choked chaos on the bypass, reckon that the best way to turn right at the traffic light is to start in the far left lane and then cut across three lanes of traffic within the space of about two car lengths?

Why does the truck driver, roaring headlong at full speed, honk his horn when coming upon slowing traffic rather than decrease his own speed? What is the message here? “I’m in a great hurry, I’m bigger than you, I’m coming through, and I’ve given fair warning?”

Or perhaps he simply has no brakes, or just the thinnest vestige of brakes, and so means to warn the unwary drivers ahead (a method apparently widely favoured over a repair of the braking system).

Oh, and here is one of my favourites -- you know the drill -- you’re about a car length behind the vehicle in front of you, which is about a car length behind the vehicle in from of his, and so on as far as the eye can see, and yet the driver in back of you is revving his engine and flashing his lights. What, again, is the message? I want to go fast and so everyone needs to get out of my way? I own this road? Heads up, folks, I’m about to run you over?

Things such as these have driven sane men mad. In fact I know a few of them. Things such as these have driven other men to the point of dangerous imitation, a sort of roadway Heart of Darkness scenario. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Other men, milder men, merely puzzle and wonder, snug their seatbelts and hold on tighter.

Ah the myriad mysteries of the island of Bali. Who can sort them out?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Inky Dinky Disasters

I tend to be fond of most critters, especially of the mammalian persuasion -- from the lowly gerbil to the lofty dog to the human being and his more intelligent relative the orang-utan. I like fish as well, particularly for eating. But when it comes to critters of the insect world, my affection grows cold.

I can think of no pleasant experiences that I have had with bugs. It‘s not that I expect them to play ball or roll over or have cute, cuddly bug babies. That would be unreasonable. I would expect however, at this late stage in the evolutionary process, that they might manage to be at least somewhat useful, or to contribute in some way to the overall ambiance of existence, like songbirds, for instance, or turtles or frogs -- each harmless in his disposition yet contributing to the world in some sensory or aesthetic way. But what can the bug be said to contribute? How many songs devoted to the bug have you heard, how many great works of art has he inspired, how many statues or monuments erected in his honour?

I find also that bugs are rarely where they are supposed to be. A blue jay may be found in the sky or in a tree, a bear in a cave, a fish in a stream, a snake in the grass, but the bug insists on disregarding natural boundaries and ends up in my shoe, on my dinner plate, under the toilet seat, or worst of all in my bed. What more basic intrusion can there be than this? It is safe to say that one does not, and never will find the bird or the fish or the bear in his bed -- so how comes it that these crawly, creepy, unseemly insects end up there? It is not proper in any other portion of the animal kingdom, and it is not, as far as I’m concerned, a proper place for the spider or the beetle or the centipede either.

Bad enough then that the bug is in my bed, but he must further exacerbate the invasion by biting me whilst unaware in the depth of peaceful slumber. Not satisfied with biting his fellows in their own beds -- of dirt or stone or grass or sand -- the bug crawls from his earthy lair, unto my porch, through my door, through entryway and dining room and thence to the bedroom, this most hallowed of indoor spaces, to make himself cosy between the sheets of my bed, and wait there to spring his evil assault.

I wake in the morning, believing at first that I had enjoyed a good sleep, only do discover a curious itching sensation on the calf of my leg, which on visual inspection turns out to be a red welt with a little white highlight at the centre.

Seen also is a spider or some similar creature in full flight toward the end of the mattress as fast as his multiple little legs can take him. A swift, well aimed reprisal does the nefarious creature in, but the damage is done and he has left his mark, which by midday is the size of a silver dollar, and by evening mountainous with swelling, and throbbing with pain, such that it seems my very heart must have moved downward to reside in my leg.

Ultimately this results in a trip to the Emergency Room. Every effort is taken to avoid this course, hating and fearing doctors as I do. Soap is applied, ointment is applied, green oil, brown oil and bee serum are applied -- the latter of which, according to my wife, can heal even cataracts, if one is crazy enough to put the stuff in his eye -- and yet all treatments, all balms are to no avail. To the emergency room at Kasih Ibu I go, cursing all the way the scurvy little midget that can cause such a colossal nuisance.

I present myself and my wound to the receptionist and explain in the best possible Indonesian I can manage what has brought me here. Some confusion ensues from the outset, for it turns out that I have told them that I’ve bitten a spider rather than been bitten by one. They wonder perhaps, if this be the case, why the spider itself has not presented, but by and by the phraseology is put right and I am told to sit down and wait.

I don’t mind the waiting at all. It’s usual and it’s normal and it doesn’t cause any additional pain. What I do mind, yet cannot avoid, is the painful examination that follows, the poking and picking and scraping at the wound, the whistling of the technician, the sleepy disinterest of the physician, and the fact that I must return to this place every two days for the next two weeks and undergo the procedure again and again like some repetitious torture in a restless dream. Better for all this to have wrestled with the bear, struggled with the lion, grappled with the gator, than to be laid so low by such a miniscule foe as this pointless, dim-witted, superfluous bug.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Land of the Free, Home of the Mad

I find my usual foolishness interrupted this week by a story out of America -- the senseless shooting at a Denver, Colorado premier of the latest Batman film wherein twelve people were killed and fifty injured.

Shortly after the start of the special midnight showing of the film a masked gunman stepped in front of the screen, released a canister of noxious gas into the aisle and began firing into the sell-out audience. His weapons were an automatic rifle, a pistol and a shotgun.

Barely three years out of America, I read these reports with a sinking sense of déjà vu, with a sadness that seems to remember itself and that aches anew in my heart like a keen recollection of a tragic loss, a complex admixture of sorrow and regret and bafflement and anger and hopelessness and malaise.

What has happened here? And what is happening again and again in a country that once was and should always have remained a beacon of encouragement and hope, order and safety, strength and well-being -- an example to the world and a model for mankind? What is the disease that has infected a nation’s psyche and spread through the years like a malevolent cancer -- from Gacy to Dahmer, from the son of Sam to the hillside strangler, from the zodiac killer to the Columbine teens -- this miasma of recurring madness from the darkest side of the human condition that births and rebirths itself so prolifically?

It becomes less than shocking. It becomes familiar. It becomes predictable -- again, like a cancer -- such that we find ourselves reading the same news, viewing the same network broadcast. The dates and places have changed, the various particulars, the number of deaths -- but it has happened before, and then again and again, and we know by now, in the most unsettling way, that it is sealed in the land and that it has spread to the core and that it is killing us little by little by little. We are all in that audience, we are all of us victims, we are all of us murdered by the hand that we cannot stop, nor indeed so much as comprehend. What fertile soil has been provided in America, and why?

I am an American -- and I am discouraged, I am ashamed, I am lost, I am heartbroken, I am afraid, I am remorseful. I despair. Three years in Bali, three years from my home, I had almost begun to forget, had almost begun to heal, had almost begun to feel proud again. And now this. Now this.

We see violence in the world, we see violence in Indonesia, we see intolerance and bigotry and cruelty and murder; and we tend to respond with a moral surety, somehow conferred by the western lands from whence we came. We judge from the lofty seat of freedom, tolerance, democracy, social equality and the rule of law.

And yet as a least denominator of reason we cannot fail at this point, having been reminded in this one sad incident which yet remembers the many, that political, that religious, that cultural violence all arise from some concept, some reality which, though hateful and unwanted, yet lies within the realm of sanity. Yes, there is a reason for these more common sorts of deaths and the reason is well within the grasp of the common intellect. Papuans are killed because of political unrest, Ahmadiyah sect members are killed because of apostasy, Moslems in Myanmar are killed because of prejudice, Christians in Jawa are killed because they proselytize, villagers in Bali are killed because of a land dispute, seamen in the South Pacific are killed because of an oceanic dispute. And so on, ad infinitum.

It seems somehow sadly, ironically comforting to know that violence with reason is still the norm, no matter how abhorrent such a norm may be. We are relieved to know, God help us, that people kill with explicable intent. But what is there to say about a lunatic in a mask, a psychotic young man in full body armour who imagines that he is the Joker in a Batman movie, who imagines God knows what of his innocent victims, who arms himself with rifles and pistols and bombs over a period of months, planning, preparing and finally hatching his idiot masterpiece of incomprehensible insanity? What foundation can we invent, what mission devise, what ambassador can we send to the womb of madness?

What to do but wonder and puzzle? What to do but weep, if still able. What to do but query the deaf heavens -- What in God’s name has happened to America?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In Defense of Machineguns

In the JCO parking lot there is a man with a machinegun. He is dressed all in brown and is wearing a brown beret. The machinegun -- or I suppose we would call it an assault weapon these days -- is slung from a strap on one shoulder while the weapon itself is cradled on one hip, stock up, barrel down. You see them in the parking lot, in the shopping mall, in the grocery store and on the street. Men with machineguns, crisply dressed, tidy in their uniforms, tucked and polished right down to the boot toes.

It’s one of those things that make Indonesia beautiful -- from the school girl in blue skirt and white blouse, bobby socks and tennis shoes to the beige and gray clad Barbie Dolls at the Matahari store to the jogging, singing soldiers all in khaki fatigues to the parade of Hindu celebrants marching in white linen. Everyone has an identity, each person his place in life, this daily procession of regimen and community, character and conformity. I am a student, I a soldier, I a civil servant, I a clerk -- and we all, one and many, are the citizenry of vast Indonesia.

The man with the machinegun strikes a pose, feet parted just so, firearm secure, shoulders squared, beret on right tilt, eyes on stolid, patient alert. He has been trained this way, and inspires -- what? Confidence? Assurance? With a dash of apprehension? This is, after all, Bali -- the land of suicidal motorbike drivers, the land of the perennially unlicensed and unlearned, where flying by the seat of your pants is the preferred lifestyle -- don’t worry, be happy, just do it Bali where rules are rumours and laws are idle gossip. Is it really a good idea to put a weapon such as this in the hands of generally questionable authority? Not a popgun, mind you, not a Billy Club or a tazer or even a six-shooter, but a machinegun -- a thing that would seem to be of some import on its own merit.

An automatic weapon on public display tends to be automatically unsettling, especially to those who are newly arrived from the West. Has a war broken out? Civil unrest? Are we invaded by Australia, or is the Al-Qaeda snake slithering nearby?

But in fact it is no big deal; and after three years or so the novelty, the anxiety, the surprise wears off, inspiring thereafter but a passing glance, if even that much. It is one of those things about this far flung island that shock at first sight -- an uncommon, eerie, somewhat frightening sight, such that the wide-eyed newcomer is wont to exclaim “My God, that fellow has a machinegun!”

Now admittedly, policemen in America carry handguns, but these are almost always holstered and look not nearly as impressive as a machinegun. A difference, however, may lie in the actual use of the weapon -- for while I have not seen, nor indeed ever heard of one of these Balinese officers actually using his weapon, the pistols carried by their American counterparts seem to be employed on an alarmingly regular basis, which itself seems generally consistent with an all-American love of bullets and loud noises.

I remember one incident in which a mentally ill man, just recently discharged from the hospital, ran afoul of the law and was shot 29 times while standing on his own front lawn. He was armed, as I recall, with a table knife, and so was deemed a threat to the safety of the public and of the officers on the scene. Whether these 29 bullets (not counting the misses) proceeded from one gun or from 29, I do not recall. I do remember the incident causing a bit of an uproar. And it occurs to me just now that one man with a machinegun could have achieved the same result with considerably less effort, less cost to the taxpayer, and without having to reload.

Reported recently in the local newspapers of Bali was a curious incident wherein a bank guard suddenly drew and discharged his sidearm several times after being startled by his own cell phone. Happily in this case no injuries were inflicted, except to the ceiling. It could have been worse. Just imagine if he had pointed his pistol at the cause of his alarm. And just imagine if it had been a machinegun instead of a pistol!

I suppose there’s something to be said for both types of firearm; but all considered I believe I prefer the machinegun, as long as it comes with the snappy uniform, badges and the boots. It’s killing power alone may deter its actual use, whereas the pistol may appear somehow more likely, and thus more dangerous. But in the end, of course, it’s not the weapon that matters but the man with the weapon. Here in Bali the machinegun remains a striking accessory. God forbid that it should someday become useful.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How I Became An Unpaid Employment Agent

In our continuing search for the cheapest cup of coffee as well as the cheapest mug of beer in Sanur, depending upon the time of day, my friend Mick and I happened one day upon a certain restaurant-slash-bar at the north end of town. It is a rather large place on a rather busy corner just off the bypass, and the establishment itself was rather empty, as most places in Sanur are.

Without going into undue detail on a peripheral matter, I will simply suggest that this is because there are far too many restaurants in Sanur serving far too few customers. The choices grossly outnumber the choosers, such that people, especially those who are on holiday and are thus experiencing a hunger and thirst for the greatest variety of experience that can be crowded into a limited number of days, find themselves faced with nearly inexhaustible options (and we’re talking about Sanur alone, without mention of Kuta, Seminyak, Jimbaran, Nusa Dua and so on). So why not choose that one around the corner today, or that other one down the road a piece. Variety, as the saying goes, is the spice of life -- as well as the lifeblood of the seven day vacation.

Add to this the sad fact that most of the restaurateurs hoping to serve the vacationing bule population have jacked up their prices beyond any reasonable measure -- even for the bule with the legendary bulging pocketbook -- and what you get are restaurants and bars, one after another, attended in the main by their own lonely staff members -- young women who stand or rather wilt at the entryways, cradling menus and smiling sweetly.

Now, I’m not an economist by any means, but I cannot help but think that a surplus of one thing in coincidence with poverty in another (seller to buyer, that is) should result in a lowering of prices across the board. Who, in hopes of attracting a greater share of customers from a limited pool of the same, raises prices? Well, everyone, it seems. Less than three years ago the price of Bintang, for instance, hovered around Rp. 19.000 for the large. Now you find it ranging between 24.000 and 35.000 and more, and the price of a meal has experienced the same sharp increase. Where is the logic in this scheme?

But let’s return to the point from which we began -- to that large empty restaurant-slash-bar on the busy corner in north Sanur. Upon entering therein my friend and I did not find low prices, but did acquaint ourselves with the two pretty waitresses who worked there. I will call them Ani and Ayu, from Java and Bali respectively (some names and places have been altered to protect the innocent from my wife). For some time -- perhaps two weeks’ time -- I and Mick returned often. During this period Mick obtained from Ayu an agreement to marriage (leaving marginally problematic matters such as love, a common language and the fact that he was already married to be sorted out later), and I obtained from Ani a rather astounding tale of robbery and squalor. In short, I was told that these delightful young women were working seven days a week, from 8 o’clock in the morning till 11 o’clock at night, for a grand total of Rp. 500.000 per month.

Is it possible! Is this not slavery? Is this how such establishments stay afloat -- by paying paltry wages to desperate young women who perhaps don’t know any better, or else wise believe that they have no choice? Dastardly! Shades of Charles Dickens and the 19th century -- alive and well on the island of Bali.

Yes, but our meals are included, Ani told me. Not from the menu, mind you -- but of rice and chicken and maybe some veggies.

Well, my first thought was that these girls needed new jobs -- especially Ani, who had no proposal of marriage, spurious or otherwise -- and so I set out in search of the same. For this purpose, our habitual canvassing of culinary establishments in Sanur became at once quite useful, for I had acquainted myself with the ownership of more than a few restaurants and was generally in the know where staffing deficits are concerned. Ani entered her number into my phone and I began my new job.

Straightaway I found a suitable position and shot an SMS to Ani detailing the good news. Her wages, should she secure the job, would be nearly one million a month, and she would work 6 days a week, eight hours a day. Ani’s response to this news, however, proved a bit less than blissful. There were problems. She had no motorbike, for instance. And she did not know where the restaurant was located, for she had been during the year of her residence in Sanur only to her workplace and back home again to her Kos in Denpasar. Moreover, and most importantly, she was “takut” -- afraid -- and would need additional assistance in overcoming this condition. In short, I must personally pick her up, convey her to the employer, and all but hold her hand during the application process.

Ah well, so I did, and the job was secured.

Two days later Ani called me again with news of another friend in dire need of employment.

So it began, so it persists, so have I become a man of repute -- the unpaid personal employment agent of Sanur and South Denpasar.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Dog Story

I like dogs. It may be that I like them better than I like people. I make no apology. I’ve never been done wrong by a dog, save for the one that bit me in the nose when I was 5 -- though in all fairness, he was an older dog, likely faint of sight, and may have mistaken the nose for a sausage or some sort of savoury biscuit. Aside from that isolated incident, however, I’ve experienced nothing other than companionship and love.

So it happens that I often find myself saddened by the lot that has fallen to Bali dogs. It’s a dangerous place for dogs, is Bali, and they often run afoul of various hazards. One dog I had struck up a friendship with was later poisoned by angry people whose motorbikes he had chased too often. Another more recent friend fell into the unfortunate habit of harassing the neighbouring farmers’ chickens. Well okay, he ate a couple. And now he has quite disappeared from the face of the earth. One can’t help but suspect foul play.

One has to harden his heart. What else can one do?

I had a dog in America. His name was Smokey. We had to leave him when we came to Bali. I remember him now, how he would run in circles when someone came home, his own dance of joy, his expression of love. He was 3 years old and never got over peeing on the floor when he became overly excited.

We tried to find an owner for Smokey before we left, but could not. He was a big dog, a Labrador, with enormous paws and strong wide shoulders, and he laughed and played and ran like the wind.

We took him to the Oregon Humane Society the day before we left for Bali. The people there said that they place 99 percent of their dogs, and if there is a dog that they cannot place, they send him to an alternative home until someone will come and see him and love him and buy him.

I remember pushing Smokey from behind while the woman there in the Humane Society pulled him by the leash in the front.

Don’t do it, Smoky said, don’t do it, don’t make me, I want you, I love you.

And I said It’s okay, you’ll see, it’s okay.

Smokey was my friend. He was the best dog ever. When I was sick, when I was hurt, he was with me, and if I was cold he would sleep with his back against my chest. He was warm, and heavy, and so very present.

Smokey had a brother, a Chihuahua named Coco. It was easy to place Coco because he was small and cute and stupid while Smokey was large and rambunctious and devoted. He used to play so very carefully with Coco, letting the little dog bite his ears and nose. Sometimes he would hold Coco down with his forearm and put the little dog’s head inside his mouth. One time he picked Coco up by the back of his little dog shirt and carried him around the house from room to room as if he had found a pet of his own.

He loved that damn stupid little dog.

And he loved my wife’s ex-husband, Albert, because Albert would walk him two and three times a day, and they would wrestle sometimes, and Albert would buy him large bones from the butcher shop and bring them home in greasy brown paper.

Smokey never barked at people he knew except to say Hello my friend.

When my wife returned to Oregon for a time, I kept asking her to find out about Smokey. She said she had tried but could get nowhere. She said Just believe the best, that he is happy, maybe living on a farm with lots of land for running, with other dogs as friends, and maybe sheep, maybe cows, maybe horses, and children.

And so I called Albert instead. I asked him to find out about Smokey. And he did. And he told me.

Smokey loved children. He always wanted to be part of whatever game they were playing. He ran behind them, tried to join in as best as he understood how, and even when they shooed him and said Go away, Smokey would persist, because he loved to have fun, and he loved the way children themselves were like puppies. This anyway is what I believe.

I believe that dogs must surely go to heaven, although I have heard some people say it’s not so. And yet I believe that if God is love, He must love dogs very well indeed. I believe because I must, and must because any other alternative is unbearable. I believe that Smokey is waiting even now, and loves me still, and with the unquestioning devotion that only a dog can muster.

I dreamed of him after moving away to Bali. I dreamed of him often, and then the dreams suddenly stopped. I dreamed of Smokey running to me, jumping up to my chest (my heart) as he so often had, happy, happy, so large, so strong, so very present. There never was a better friend.

And so I wait now as Smokey waits, to embrace again, and wrestle, and play, and then sleep in warmth and comfort and safety when the day wanes to night and the night to slumber, and neither man nor dog must part or ever again wake to tears.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Not Everything in the Waste Bin is Garbage

Found a rat in the outdoor trash bin this morning. At first I didn’t know it was a rat, for its body was half hidden within a Chitato bag, just one end protruding -- whether head or ass I could not on first inspection say. Clearly it was not a comely creature. I thought it was maybe a frog or a lizard or part of a snake or a very large cockroach or merely a banana peel (my eyesight is not good), but a brief conference with my wife concluded the thing to be a rat. Or not a rat, actually, but a similar creature known in these parts as a cucurut.

Having been thus identified -- his cover blown -- the cucurut and his Chitato bag began to move, and in this a second cucurut was disturbed and began to move as well, emerging from the deeper parts of the bin in what seemed a fairly lousy mood, such that it felt compelled to pounce upon the first cucurut from the rear. A brief scuffle ensued. I retreated a few steps whilst my wife retired to the living room.

“Should I let them out?” I called back to her.

“Just leave them.”

“Do you think they would bite me?”

“Just leave them.”

“But that seems so . . . hard-hearted.”

No answer.

So I’m standing there between porch and bin wondering how the critters got into the can to begin with. It’s a mystery not unlike another Bali mystery I have written of in the past -- to whit, how small frogs can end up on my front porch when the steps are far too high for them to jump. That, and now this thing with the cucurut, both seem to defy reason. They defy natural science. They defy physics and every other science.

Clearly the mouth of the garbage bin is far too distant from the ground to be attained by a leap from these diminutive critters, and the proof of the same, if it even needing proving, is readily apparent in the failure of their ongoing efforts to jump out of the bin from within -- which is something they are rather vigorously attempting to do just now. They leap, accomplish maybe half a foot in height, and then fall back to the padded floor of their prison, emitting little shrieks of irritation. In this last I note that these Balinese cucuruts are much louder than the common western rat, and that there seems something almost human in the tone of their frustration. Aduh!

So their predicament was not accomplished by a leap. No way.

What then? Tiny ladders they had constructed in advance? Roman-like siege towers? Ah, but where is the evidence of these ladders and towers? Ropes made of vine, grappling hooks, stacked doll furniture, miniature helicopters? Again, no such machinery appears. The bin is about half a foot distant from a stone wall, itself about seven feet in height, from which they may have dropped like paratroopers, I suppose -- but again, how might they have reached the top of the wall to begin with, and how pull off this seven foot plunge without serious injury, barring the use of tiny parachutes? No, a descent from above seems no more likely than ascension from below.

How then? I simply do not know. Perhaps they were deposited by human hand. Perhaps someone else had them at first in his own bin, did not want them, and so transferred them to ours (but that leaves, at the very least, the question of how they first got into his bin, doesn’t it?) It may be, as is the apparent case with the frogs, that they fell from the sky. It may even be some form of black magic.

In any case, the growing fever of these two little guys’ attempts to escape the pickle they’ve got themselves into -- their rattling and shrieking, thumping and scratching -- eventually chases away my preoccupation with the mere fact of their presence, and I begin to wonder again how I might free them, or whether indeed I should free them. It is not such a simple question. There are moral considerations involved. And there are personal safety issues as well. Do cucuruts deserve freedom? Do they even know what freedom is? And if granted their freedom, how will they use it in the future? Have they learned anything from this present experience? Can I myself, morally, ‘just leave them,’ as my wife had advised, knowing then that they must surely perish (unless somehow removed by the same magic that got them there)?

I approach nearby, peer into their personal pit of hell -- that same which must have seemed heaven in the beginning, now become a heartless grave -- and it stirs something in me, tugs a heart string, touches a nerve of commiseration .

Ah, there but for the grace of God go I.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

You Get What You Pay For

My wife believes in the power of money. It is a matter for her of the surest conviction and faith that any problem can be solved, any goal attained, through the expenditure of appropriate (or even inappropriate) funds. I will admit that this may in some cases be true, given a limited scope of predicament and cure. Say for instance that you’ve been arrested and jailed on a misdemeanour charge and bail has been set at five hundred dollars. Or say that you’ve neglected to pay your house mortgage for the last three months and the man from the bank is coming at 5 p.m. on Friday. Or say that you’ve been stopped by the Bali police and you don’t have a license or a vehicle registration or a helmet. In each case money is the answer, at least in the immediate sense. You pay and you’re on your way.

But when it comes to weight loss, I’m not so sure about the efficacy of the dollar to intervene in an equally successful measure. Call me callow, call me naïve, call me a cheapskate, but it seems to me that weight loss is a matter of personal commitment, grim determination, unwavering resolution, and not a little pain. It also helps to eat less. Is it too simple to say that a program of exercise and diet is the obvious solution in the desire to lose weight?

Not at all, my wife says. That’s why she needs that treadmill from Hypermart. That’s why she needs the HerbaLife Diet regimen. Exercise is easy with a treadmill. And it’s not as boring as these common, old-school type exercises, like sit-ups and crunches and jumping jacks. You can watch the TV while you exercise and hardly be aware of the exertion. The weight simply melts away while the CSI team solves another murder or Joan Rivers murders another Hollywood luminary. And the expense of that special, scientifically researched diet, medically approved by Good Housekeeping magazine, supplies its own incentive in the price alone. After all, who is going to pay that much money and NOT lose weight? It’s a matter of pride. It’s a matter of accountability. It’s a matter of responsible economics.

In short then, weight loss is firstly a matter of personal finances, not personal effort. The physical wherewithal of success has first to be put in place. My daughter once stated the case in a similar manner. She wanted a car but did not have a job, and she could not get a job because she did not have a car. One’s ducks must be in a proper row, you see; a foundational groundwork must be in place.

There are so many things in the world that come with a caveat, or so I have learned from marriage and children. As an example, my wife bought a bike a few weeks ago from our neighbour, for the same weight shedding purpose, and yet the bike has stood untouched in the driveway ever since. I wondered about this, and so I asked why. Having but half a brain, I had failed, as usual, to see the obvious. She could not possibly use that bike, I was told, before purchasing proper gloves, lest her hands end up calloused and thick as sweet potatoes. Note that I say “proper gloves” -- not mittens of the sort you see motorcyclists wearing here in Bali, but leather gloves with holes for the fingertips and a Velcro strap at the wrist.

I should say before going any further that my wife is not fat. She’s not really even overweight. She’s merely 35, and therefore fat in her imagination, overfed by the female fear of aging, suffering from the vague inkling that she cannot remain 25 forever, yet encouraged in the belief that there are ways around this dilemma -- exercise, diet, Botox, plastic surgery, tummy tucks, pills, and money. Mostly money.

To make my own point then, in my customary curmudgeonly, parsimonious way, I decided to go on weight loss program of my own. There would be no great expense, and in fact I would save money simply by eating less. If our son fades away in the bargain for lack potable sustenance, well it’s all for a good cause. For exercise my plan is to use my own feet, legs and arms -- this amazing machine I was born with, and quite without cost.

Breakfast is one egg, one chicken bone, and a piece of plain toast, no margarine. The stuff they call margarine here is really only yellow car wax anyway. Lunch is potato chips and five cups of coffee, a combination that causes nausea till well after dinner, thus quelling any desire to imbibe the same. If I hunger by night, I allow high energy snacks such as Snickers bars, cookies, Ritz Crackers and such-like.

Where exercise is concerned I decided to adhere to the good old fashioned sit-up. No better way to tone and flatten the stomach right? But I find straightaway that something is wrong. This exercise was not nearly so difficult thirty years ago. What happened? Herculean efforts result in no more than three successful elevations from the floor, and then I’m on my back for five minutes of heavy breathing. I try again and my stomach muscles cry for mercy.

What does seem readily apparent after two days and two nights of this personalized program is that this is not working out well at all. I’m hungry, I’m in pain, and I’ve gained two pounds. Better to just surrender to the wisdom of my wife and go with that treadmill after all. If nothing else, it will make for a good towel rack.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


America has been called ‘the melting pot of the world,’ at least in olden time, for its invitation to people all over the globe to immigrate to its happy shores, but for me it can never hold a candle to the variety and variance of cultures and tongues one finds in the sunny environs of Bali. The trouble with America is that people soon become Americans, shedding the uniqueness of their heritage for a new skin, a gray flannel suit of conformity, such that the quirks and traits that made them foreign people soon no longer attain. I knew, for instance, many Indonesians in America, and yet knew not a single one until I came to Bali -- for they had all become Americans, you see? And no one loves America so well as expatriated Indonesians -- its anaemic culture, its disposition toward greed, its worship of money, its love of ‘things’ -- shoes, clothing, jewellery, cars. Charity, community, character -- all suffer under the stress of a rich yet reductive national ethos.

But enough of America bashing for the moment. What I want to say is that here in Bali the Brit stays British, the Aussie Australian, the Frenchman French and so on the wide world of immigrants over -- for in this far flung archipelago a nonnegotiable divide is encountered. The bule can hardly become an Indonesian, and so he must stay as he is, dragging along his cultural and linguistic peculiarities just as surely as his own skin. We don‘t put on airs, or join the PTA, or sit in the seats of government, or reside over Hindu processions. No, we remain perfectly foreign. We are neither consumed nor altered nor absorbed. Our essential frame of reference remains with the culture and character of our countries of origin, and we continue for the most part to speak in our native tongues and to employ our native idioms of language.

Which brings me to this concept of “ish” as employed by the peoples of some western countries to denote some peculiarly uncertain increment of time. It is a strange notion to the American, for we are precise sorts of people. For the American, eleven o’clock means 11 o’clock. Noon means noon. There is no “ish” about it. And yet for the Australian, for instance, and the Englishman and the Frenchman and the Italian, time is not so easily pinned down. It’s fluid, somewhat questionable, somewhat if-ish.

“Coffee at 9-ish,” my English friend says. What does this mean? Something like 9? Two or three minutes before or past nine? At some point during which the general atmosphere of the day seems to resemble 9?

I certainly don’t know, and so I arrive for coffee at 9. And of course my friend is not there. Nor is he there at 2 minutes after 9, or 5, or 10, or 20. I conclude therefore that the term 9-ish has nothing in essential to do with the actual fact of 9 o’clock. I note also that by 20 minutes past the hour I have already finished my cappuccino. Why were we meeting? For coffee, right?

It may or may not be marginally interesting at this point to note that the word “Ish” was one of the first words used to denote a member of the human race, and can be found, curiously enough, in various widely separated parts of the world -- from the Middle East to South America. Adam, in the Hebrew, was called Ish, and in his first words in the Torah he calls the newly created woman Isha. Clearly then, the term has been a longstanding one, and why it never caught on in America, I cannot say. Other well known ishes would include Ishrael, Ishlam, Chrishtianity, Ishmail, Ishstanbul, and Ish-Kabibble. As well as fishes, of course.

Shall we conclude therefore, given the modern use of the term “ish,” that there was something inexact, unreliable, unpredictable about man and the world and the cosmos from the outset? Or is it just the American expectation of precision that is fishy?

In any case, my friend shows up at 9:30 -- ish having meant, in this case, for this day, 30 minutes past the hour. Why did he not say 9:30 to begin with? Why say 9 if you mean 9:30? Ah, but there is that all important, intangible “ish” attached.

“Well hey, Mike-ish. Run into some trouble along the way?“

“No trouble. Why?“

“You’re a bit tardy-ish, that’s all.“

“Not at all. I said 9-ish, did I not?”

“But as you can see, my cappuccino is rather gone-ish.”

“Ah well, have another. It’s still early-ish, ish-n’t it?”

It is agreed then. Next time around I will plan to arrive for coffee late-ish.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Much Ado About Gaga

First off, and at the risk of appearing hopelessly out of it, I will admit that up until the recent brouhaha over Lady Gaga’s performance (or non-performance) in Jakarta, I didn’t even know who the woman was. I had perhaps some vague idea that she was a singer, or a dancer, or Paris Hilton’s sister, or Lady Godiva’s sister, or maybe a recalcitrant member of the English royal family, but other than that it was just a name.

Now, thanks to the FPI and the Jakarta police, I and perhaps thousands, perhaps millions of other hopelessly out of touch people young and old have become aware of Lady Gaga to an extent greater than we would otherwise have purposed or desired -- her music, her poetry, her style, her lipstick, along with the threat she has posed to decent society and impressionable young-un’s all over the world. A destroyer of morals, the FPI says. A tool of Satan, a messenger of decadence from the West, bringing blasphemous lyrics, shameless bodily gyrations (similar to those seen in the locally grown Dangdut) to corrupt the innocent mind of youth, tear at the very seams of social order, wile the unwary to the pit of hell. Yes, lyrics such as these:

Oh, caught in a bad romance
Oh, caught in a bad romance
Ra, rah, ah, ah, ah
Roma, roma, ma
Gaga, ooh, la, la
Want your bad romance

and these:

P-p-p poker face, p-p-p poker face
Mum mum mum mah
P-p-p poker face, p-p-p poker face
Mum mum mum mah

Horrors! Sacrelige! Wickedness! Mum mum mum mah!

Really? It looks more like nonsense to me.

Don’t get me wrong. Nonsense has its own place. Consider, for instance, the John Lennon lyrics for I am the Walrus:

Semolina Pilchard
climbing up the Eiffel tower
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna
Man, you should have seen them kicking
Edgar Allan Poe

Or from Come Together:

Here come old flat top
He come groovin' up slowly
He got joo joo eyeballs
He one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker
He just do what he please

But there’s a difference, right? In Lennon’s nonsense there seems yet some kind of peripheral intention lurking just beneath the surface. The language is sharp, infectious, strangely precise in its imprecision, and vaguely dangerous in its invitation to make connections and conclusions (just look at what Charles Manson made of Helter Skelter!).

But what can we say about “Mum, mum, mum, mah?” “P-p-p poker face?” It seems to me that if this woman and her corporate entourage are seeking to destroy anything, it is not the moral decency of youth but the heritage of integrity and ingenuity in the music and lyrics of the true artists that came before her -- The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater, Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, et al.

Call me old again, but these were artists and performers worthy of significant response, be it admiration or censure, devotion or disapproval. Here were lyrics that challenged through commentary and criticism, through involvement in the real world and the social issues of the time.

Lady Gaga is not stupid. No one makes millions in this world by being stupid. Rather, I will wager that Lady Gaga knows perfectly well how silly she is, and therefore how silly the FPI has made itself, their nation and their religion by taking her seriously. Moreover, she departs the country firmly in possession of the high ground, having chosen the sober course of withdrawal over the risk of subjecting her fans to the violence promised by the FPI -- giving thanks at the same time for the elevation of her ‘art’ beyond any measure it could have attained on its own merit.

And she is laughing all the way to the bank.