Thursday, January 26, 2012

Today's Weather -- Scattered Frogs?

There are a lot of frogs in Bali. It’s the next thing to a Biblical plague. Not that I have anything against frogs, or any intention of casting insult upon their kind. I employ the Biblical reference only to convey the idea of a great multitude, and also to suggest that they may be falling from the sky. There’s nothing wrong with falling from the sky either, if they prefer it. The point is that there are a lot of them, no matter where they come from -- and there seem to be more than ever during this present rainy season. 
I take this coincidence of frogs and rain to be pertinent as well, and both causative and complimentary in some essential way. It may be, in other words, that the rain causes these amphibians to spring forth in abundance at the proper season, like crocuses or chrysanthemums, providing as it does a nurturing soil and a productive earth; or it may also be that they have actually been somehow seeded in the clouds and come pouring down admixed with the island’s famous torrents of rain. In support of the latter theory I advance the notion that a significant portion of what hits my helmet whilst I’m riding in a rain storm seems quite clearly of a heavier composition than mere water. There is the constant tapping sound that we associate with raindrops, and then there is the interspersed THUMP, which cannot be rain, but must be a foreign object of some kind. A frog, perhaps.

Such happenings, though tending toward the extraordinary, are not unheard of. In 1873, for instance, Kansas City, Missouri was deluged by frogs dropping from the heavens during a violent storm. Again, in July of 1901, Minneapolis, Minnesota was pelted with a squall of frogs and toads. After these amphibian rains let up, a variety of frog species littered the earth, three inches deep and covering an area of more than four blocks.

The citizens of Naphlion, a city in southern Greece, were surprised one morning in May, 1981, when they awoke to find small green frogs falling from the sky. Weighing just a few ounces each, the frogs landed in trees and plopped into the streets. The Greek Meteorological Institute surmised they had been picked by a strong wind. It must have been a very strong wind indeed, as the species of frog so fallen was native to North Africa.

As mentioned in the Grecian version of this event, the favourite explanation of science for the phenomenon is that of the freak tornado or typhoon, which, as we are told, whisks up all the frogs in one place and sets them down in quite another (preferring, apparently, to keep the community intact rather than scatter its members far and wide; and preferring also to transport frogs rather than parking meters, trash cans, tricycles or children). That this miraculous accident could have happened numerous times in disparate locales is surely as marvellous as the frogs themselves. Or, as my son, an adolescent at the time, once said, “When people hear about things that don’t make sense, they make up explanations just as dumb, and then straightaway forget it ever happened.” From the mouths of babes? Well, I reckon that’s the ultimate point of science here. When in doubt, blame it on a weather balloon, or some reasonable facsimile.

Perplexing as well is the fact that I often find these frogs, having once by whatever method descended or sprung forth, sitting on my front porch. I cannot for the life of me explain how they got there. Two steps must first be ascended to get from ground level to the front door. The height of the first step is one foot. The height of the second is 7 inches. Each frog that I have found at the door has been no taller than a thimble. I cannot believe, and I do not believe, that such a diminutive creature could have leaped a full foot in the air, nor 7 inches either -- and yet here the critter sits, 19 inches all told from the ground! It is quite impossible, you see, and leads naturally back to the theory of a decent from the sky.

I will say again that I have nothing whatsoever against frogs. Many are the boyhood days I can remember when my friends and I would chase and snatch frogs from the shallow waters of the high mountain lakes we so loved. Buckets of them we would collect, and salamanders and mud-dogs -- just to see how many there were in our world -- and then count them, and release them and watch them go. Strangely, they have all but disappeared from those lakes in the modern day. Scientists say it has something to do with climate change. For my own part, I suspect that they were picked up by a freak storm and deposited here in Bali. So it happens that I am always glad to see these old friends at my door, here on the other side of the world. If you ask me, these unassuming creatures have suffered unfairly ever since the times of scripture, wherein the Lord God Himself is recorded to have said “I will smite your whole territory with frogs.” If He didn’t like them, why’d He make them in the first place? No, as far I can see, they do no harm. I just wish they could be a bit less baffling in their ways.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is This Really the End?

Newspaper writers and editors -- and especially copy editors (an inimical breed of their own) -- are a curmudgeonly, bitterly sardonic sort of creature, or at least I found them so during my short stint at newspaper work in the late 1970’s. I think this is simply because they are exposed to entirely too much “news,” and because no news is new news, nor is it very often news at all, but merely regurgitate matter that has already been around the block a few times. In short, it is the same news, re-masticated, re-digested and reproduced. It is like a daily, monthly, yearly diet of rice (something we know about here in Bali). You can throw in some colour, you can add a dash of texture, you can mix in a chicken or a pig or a pineapple, and give it a kick with a dollop of sambal, but ultimately and essentially it is still only rice, and rice, and more rice. It’s there, it happens, we consume and digest it -- and then it’s there all over again.

This is not the fault of the newspaper itself, or of its writers, editors and copy editors. It is the fault of . . . well, of the news. It bears such a strong resemblance to itself, you know? There is nothing new under the sun, Solomon said. What has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again.

Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.

The young, blissfully callow reporter will take a bit of monotony and think it the most marvellous thing. In a passion, in a fever, he does his research, he writes -- and when he gives his masterpiece of reporting to the editor, the editor sighs and grumbles and asks whether the piece can’t be given a twist of some kind. Can you make it sound like something new?

But of course he can’t, because it’s not. His article has already been written by every reporter who formerly sat at his desk.

It is because of this general malaise then, along with a coexistent hunger that will not relent -- for something fresh, untold, unprecedented -- that we have waited with bated breath on the arrival of 2012 and its promise of bringing along the end of the world as we know it. Now that would be news!

We used to joke at the paper, when someone was ill or gone away on vacation, that the world might end in the meantime, and he will have missed the story of the century. But now it’s no longer a joke -- for we are told by the ancient calendar of the Mayans, surely as wise and noble a source as one can find -- that the heavens and earth will surely pass away by December 21st of the year.

Of course we have heard similar predictions in the past; most recently, for instance, from Christian broadcaster, Harold Camping, who had slated the end first for May and then for October 2011. In case you weren’t paying attention (or have been sick or on vacation), this did not happen. Nor did it end back in 1989, when aliens were to come, and then Christ as well, and all true believers would rise on clouds of glory in heaven. Presumably, newspaper writers would have been left behind to record the event, collect interviews, and such-like. My girlfriend at the time believed this so fervently that she called me at midnight to say goodbye. Again, you will be aware by now that the prediction was premature.

In fact, there have been numerous predictions of doomsday among Christians, from the apostle Paul to the present day. But here is something different, unused, unworn -- the sacred word of the ancient Mayans. What else could add such authenticity to a prophecy than the mystery of the long-lost, primordial knowledge of a dead and buried civilization? What had they to gain by lying? And what have we to lose in believing?

American author Walker Percy once surmised that modern human beings are psychologically in need of a fairly certain faith in an impending doomsday. Under this condition, life is bearable. The drudgery, the struggle, the sadness and desperation are tempered and softened by the thought that tomorrow it might all end, not only for oneself (that, after all, is guaranteed), but communally and for all existence. The “bomb,” therefore, supplied hope for decades. No matter how hard life became, there was still hope of an escape, for tomorrow might well bring nuclear Armageddon.

Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking.

But then the cold war ended, and we had to look for hope elsewhere; and elsewhere was inward, and inward was spiritual, and spiritual turned extremist and extremist turned savage, so that we found ourselves ultimately in the shoes of mad Colonel Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

How many times has the world been on the brink of extinction, only ultimately to disappoint? Already there are a number of spoilsports out there doing their best to refute the sacred promise. They say that the Mayans made no such prediction. They say that the hieroglyphics have been misread. They say that it’s all a ridiculous sham.

Well they may be right. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of our mutual demise may prove greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, I’m going to stick with the Mayans for the time being, and right up to December 21st. I figure they are as deserving of the chance to be right as anyone else has been. And besides that, it makes me feel safe, somehow.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Looking Back to the Present Day

In his latest novel, 11/22/63, author Stephen King wonders what might have happened had John F. Kennedy been spared assassination at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald and lived to serve out the term or his Presidency. For myself, I wonder why we always use Oswald’s full name. Is there another Lee Oswald we might confuse him with, such that the middle name, Harvey, must always be included? It’s a small point, but a point of interest to me -- of more interest, actually, than the plot of this tedious novel turned out to be.

Nonetheless, the book got me to thinking. What if there had never been a John Kennedy, or anyone like a John Kennedy? What if Kennedy had never existed, and therefore never stepped forward to lead the nation through those critical times during the early 1960s? What would our society be like now had our government and its leadership been devoid of moral integrity, courage, conviction, and a commensurate will to implement the values of the majority? What if Kennedy had bowed to a small though loud fraction of society out of fear of offending, or of losing votes, or of confrontation, the spectre of trouble? What would America look like now?

It would look like Bogor, in Java. It would look like Ambon, Aceh, Sulawesi. In short, it would look like Indonesia.

In Aceh dozens of “punks” were arrested by regular and Shariah police. They had committed no crime, other than the crime of being different. Their heads were shaved, their clothes were confiscated, and the punks were then taken to the Aceh State police school for “re-education.” Re-education? Hmm. Where did we last hear that sort of thing? From Nazi Germany? The Khmer Rouge?

In Java several members of the Ahmadiyah sect, considered heretical by mainstream believers, were murdered by equally heretical extremists. The perpetrators of this crime received prison sentences of 3 to 6 months, while one Ahmadiyah sect member who sought to defend himself received several years. Why was nothing done? Why was justice not served?

Once upon a time in America, and, as fate would fortunately have it, during Kennedy’s presidency, a man named George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, sought to defy the law of the land and the will of the majority, not to mention the direct order of the President, by barring a black student from registering at the University of Alabama. Wallace said that the people of the State of Alabama expected it of him. And in fact, some of them no doubt did. The white ones, anyway. Wallace himself went to the front steps of the University, inspiring a mob to do the same, all for the purpose of upholding a social convention of intolerance and bigotry sewn deep in the Southern soul, and yet foreign, even despicable to the wide majority of Americans.

Sound familiar? Well it should. For here in Bogor, Java we have a mayor who stubbornly refuses to return to the Yasmin Christian church its house of worship -- this despite a Supreme Court decision ordering him to immediately do so. Here we have a mayor, not unlike Governor Wallace, who proudly discounts the will of the majority, not to mention the central tenants of Pacasila behind the Indonesian government, in favour of the loud but few -- those extremist Muslims who gather every Sunday at the Yasmin site to shout slogans, raise fists and tote placards as if they had nothing better to do with their time and energy. It’s ironic, given that Islam shares many of the same beliefs with Christianity -- the belief in Jesus as a great prophet, that he was born of a virgin, that he did great works, performed healings and miracles, and that he was raised to God’s side in heaven, to return one day. Do they even know the foundations of their faith, these people? Or are they victims merely of the same sort of social intolerance and ignorance that afflicted George Wallace and the people of Alabama?

What would Kennedy do? What did he do? Say a few words of general censure? Express a hope that all would turn out well, while privately wringing inactive hands over the prospect of losing votes or offending special interest groups (as Presidents in certain other lands have been known to do)? No, Kennedy upheld the law, took decisive action, insisted on personal and moral integrity, as well as the duty of every elected official to obey the law. In short, he sent a contingent of the United States Army to Alabama, thereby removing Mr. Wallace and his mob from the scene rather than the lone black man. Moreover he set an unmistakeable precedent -- that the only thing deserving of intolerance, be it racial, religious or cultural, is intolerance itself.

The “silent majority” elects officials for one mission only -- to give them a voice. Now it’s high noon in Indonesia, and therefore high time that those governing the country remember the common people who put them in office, and actually do something that is in accordance with the will of their constituents. In other words, stop hiding, stop running, stop procrastinating -- Speak up! And if you cannot obey the laws of your own country, then move aside for someone who can. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On the Common Bali Flu and the Treatment Thereof

Having a cold in Bali is not fun. I’m not saying that having a cold anywhere is fun, but it seems, in my limited experience anyway, decidedly less fun in Bali than anywhere else in the world. Maybe this is because a cold seems so out of place in the tropics. And maybe that’s why they don’t call them colds here, but the flu. It is not, after all, cold in Bali but hot, and so they should rather call them “hots“ if anything, but then that would be likely to lead to a further confusion over terms. Can you imagine people going about saying they have the hots? And so they call a cold the flu instead. It is not the flu that we know in western countries, for the flu where we come from is something significantly more than a cold and is attended by pyrexia, myalgias, arthralgias, nausea, emesis, and of course coughing and sniffing and hacking and blowing. Having the flu -- the real thing, that is -- the all American flu, so to speak -- would be immeasurably worse than having a mere cold, which I have already said is not fun in and of itself; and it is on this count alone that we can be thankful for the typical Balinese cold, otherwise wrongly called the flu.

You may have guessed by now that I have a cold. What you probably would not have guessed, however, is that I have had a cold for a long time now. About two years, I reckon. As far as I can place the thing, on a rough timeline, I contracted this cold just after arriving in Bali in February of 2010. I suppose many will accuse me of gross exaggeration in this, but I am convinced that it is so, and as a witness call I my nose and the testimony of a persistent congested cough -- or for that matter my wife, who in all respects is dead sick of the thing. My cold, I mean.

People will say that one catches more colds here in Bali than in America or England or Italy and so on, but I disagree. We catch but one, and that only shortly after our arrival here, but that one on its own is good enough to speak for many. Mine, as I have suggested, has been perfectly long-winded without needing the help of any other cold, and I may as well say prolific and eloquent as well where the common characteristics of a common cold are concerned.

One cold, two years. How is it possible? I’ll tell you how. It’s because the thing settles in, makes a home in the cosy rooms and corridors of your lungs and the various branches of the respiratory system, and then actually rolls over and falls asleep now and again, rather like a noisome beagle who tires of barking for a time, only to awake again when the spirit beckons and start its barking all over again. It sleeps, it rests, it gathers new strength. It burrows in somewhere -- the spleen, the oesophagus -- quite enjoys itself for a period of a week, or even three weeks, or four, and then leaps back to troubling you all over again, and with renewed vigour, like a persistent sprain or an ex-wife -- in no way diminished by its brief vacation, or rather that of its victim.

Over time we come to count on this cold with a sureness exceedingly rare in this life. It will not leave nor forsake you, nor fail ever to be present, especially at the most inopportune times, for which you had, perhaps, other plans.

There are medicines for this cold, available at any drug store or Circle K, each brand being concocted of mysterious ingredients guaranteed overall to make the symptoms of the cold considerably worse. We take these medications religiously during the more active periods of the illness, desperate wretches that we are, and enter thereby a singular state of dull somnolence quite beyond the symptomatic talents of the cold itself. One amazing side effect of these pharmaceutical inventions is the onset of clinical narcolepsy -- an aptitude of medicine not known by any other science to date, though of dubious worth. Nonetheless, it is clear that where medicinal decongestant modalities are concerned, Eastern medicine has far outstripped the feeble preparations available in the West.

Now, if you go to the doctor for this affliction -- not the medicinal one, but the viral -- you will invariably be told that you have “masuk angin,” meaning literally “entered by the wind.” This will make you feel somewhat better for a time, as it is rather poetic, and is certainly preferable, for all concerned, to being exited by the wind. You will come away feeling special somehow, as if you had something with a bit more pride, like consumption for instance, or high functioning autism. Anyone can have a cold, and often does. But this is not a cold. It’s masuk angin!

Enjoy therefore, and relax, don’t hurry. You and your Balinese cold will have the leisure of a lifetime together.