Monday, January 24, 2011

We Interrupt this Broadcast for the Following Announcement:

Well shut my mouth. Various pursuits, mostly unwelcome, take me away from entries here for the time being. Finalizing the latest issue of Bali Style, for instance. Chances are one could just leave the thing the same from issue to issue and no one would notice, but of course that's not my decision to make.

House hunting also is taking up time--but we are hot on the tracks of one today, so will keep my fingers crossed. Of course, after that it will be moving that keeps me busy.

So many details, so little time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Sunshine Cure, 1

Of this at least I am certain, that no one
has ever died who was not destined to die
some time.
--St. Augustine, The City of God

There is so much that leads up to every little thing in life. No one thing stands wholly apart from the rest. It is never so simple as that. The line is continuous, like the line you see on a heart monitor, and although the spikes and the dips, the peaks and the valleys seem to stand out--and do stand out in their own way--they remain part of the same line, and their meaning lies within the context of the entire line.

Where do we begin, therefore, when we set out to talk about a single event? We like the notion of suddenness in life, whether the subject be negative or positive. I was just sitting here doing nothing, we say, when suddenly the heavens opened and blessings descended upon me. I had given up on love, I was no longer even looking, when suddenly this woman, this man, appeared. I was minding my own business, just the same as ever, when suddenly my heart stopped, when suddenly the cancer appeared, when suddenly the aneurysm exploded in my brain.

I will say therefore, knowing the same to be essentially untrue, that I awoke one morning in the spring of 2007 to find that suddenly my left foot had died. I had done nothing to cause my foot’s demise, or so it seemed to me at the time. I had not so much as stubbed a toe or stepped on glass or twisted an ankle, or even clipped a nail in the recent past. Why then had my foot died?

This I wondered as I sat on the edge of my bed. My side of the bed, that is. My wife was yet sleeping on her own side. Had the dead foot itself awakened me? But how can the dead wake the living? Lazarus in reverse? From the grave my foot said Come forth?

Maybe you have slept on your own arm in the past, and awakened to find the thing quite absent. You pick the arm up with your living hand from the other side, marvel at the sensation of having lifted the arm of someone else altogether. But of course you know it is your own arm, as familiar and well beloved as any other part of your body; and you also know that this is a temporary anomaly, for it is something that happens, and has happened before, and will no doubt happen again in the future.

You marvel, as I say, at the sensation of death in a member of your body, and yet remain comforted by the full confidence that the feeling in your arm will soon return. You are 99 percent certain of the thing.

I wonder if this might be the seed from which Mark Twain’s well known story of the Golden Arm arose.

Once 'pon a time dey wuz a monsus mean man, en he live 'way out in de prairie all 'lone by hisself, 'cep'n he had a wife. En bimeby she died, en he tuck en toted her way out dah in de prairie en buried her. Well, she had a golden arm -- all solid gold, fum de shoulder down. He wuz pow'ful mean -- pow'ful; en dat night he couldn't sleep, caze he want dat golden arm so bad.

There is no doubt that we want that golden arm back--the precious one, the one of value, the one that lies temporarily dead on the bed sheets.

Who took my golden arm!

And so we wiggle the fingers, difficult at first, but sure enough sensation begins to return. Using then the good arm and hand, we shake the slowly awakening, temporarily foreign appendage. Feeling crawls up from wrist to forearm, forearm to elbow, elbow to shoulder, and by and by the old arm returns, able straightaway to do all the old arm things it had done before.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Christmas in Sanur, 6

Later on we went to the Carrefour shopping mall, the French franchise in Indonesia. We looked at an artificial Christmas tree with an open umbrella as a stand--this in order to catch artificial snowflakes shot from small tubes at the top of the tree.

And I’m losing it now--minute by minute. Whatever happened to sleigh bells and mistletoe?
Whatever happened to the snow outside and the warmth of a crackling fire within. To the manger on the mantle, Jack Frost on the lawn, and the hoofs of tiny reindeer on the rooftop? This seemed a decidedly un-Christmassy sort of thing, the beating of one churchgoer, the stabbing of another. This story, and that also from Sumatra of Christian community members forcefully expelled from their homes because they were using these as places of prayer. God forbid!

And yet was it really so unlike Christmas, or had I merely misplaced Christmas in my search?

At Carrefour we looked at food--Christmas breads, sliced cheeses, crackers, pastries. Sugar plums and figgy puddings.

Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods . . .

“They have persecuted me,” said the Christ, “they will persecute you also. They will treat you this way because of my name.”

Whatever happened to the singing, the songs we used to know?
Whatever happened to Christmas, and when did it disappear?


On Christmas night a dinner was hosted at our housing complex by our neighbor, an expatriate Brit, and his Indonesian wife. Generally the man is drunk--and there was in fact no departure from this condition that night--and generally the couple scream and fight their way through their life together, but this night, Christmas night, was different. All was peace and joy. This is not to say, again in general, that the food was good, for there was much more of rice, and noodles, and suspicious looking snaky green vegetables than I had seen in Christmas feasts past. And yet the spirit seemed present, and willing, and the feast was enjoyed above all others--a true picture of Christmas cheer--by Pierre.

Now Pierre is a stout, burly yellow dog with a pink nose, who belongs to the owner of the housing complex where I live--a fact I feel compelled to mention by way of indicating that most of the dogs populating the immediate area belong to no one in particular. The relationship rather is of a communal nature, each animal being known unanimously by name--Jakey, White Dog, Suki, et al--yet neither by family nor rights. But Pierre as I say, of the ample body and pink nose--an ill tempered, rude, unpredictable sort of dog--finding himself in possession of a family and a house his own, and lording his good fortune over his lessers--had found himself in possession also, this night of night’s, of a large black plastic garbage bag containing all the discards of culinary opulence--a thing that was a joy to watch, for someone at least had received his fondest holiday wish.

Some drank from bottles, some picked at noodles and pigs feet on paper plates, but one alone--and that one Pierre--dug in with ravenous, well satisfied passion, minding not the mie goring that hung from his snout nor the rice that snowed his jowls like a beard--saving these only for later, a nightcap to cap the memory of it all.

Was this it then--as simple as this--a meeting of hunger and consumption? Is it possible for Christmas to be got from the bowels of a black garbage bag?

Or had Pierre merely misplaced the thing--a thing already misplaced--and this with perfection I could not myself have so devised?

Do we see, ultimately, best what is by the witness of what is not?

Or did it happen, or does it still, alone in this wise:

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 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. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Christmas in Sanur, 5

In any case, Dewa spoke one day of her experience as a Hindu, and as a young woman beginning to struggle with what she sees as the limiting effects of her religion and of her culture. Hinduism itself is, as a matter of fact, scarcely divisible from culture, the one informing the other and vice versa. Nonetheless, modern notions of freedom and of personal autonomy have swum ashore even on the island of Bali, and so Dewa spoke of the constraints of her society, the chains lain upon her by the traditions of her parents, from the duty of ritual to the expectations surrounding the nature and quality of her own love life.

Moreover, it was her professed opinion that the lion’s share of Hindu people really don’t know what they are doing when they perform their daily rituals and attend to their almost countless ceremonies and temple observances. They are simply acting out of habit, she said--not religiously, in the proper sense, but, if anything, superstitiously. The feast that celebrates the triumph of Dharma becomes no more than an occasion upon which one eats more than is usual--something very like the Christmas dinner. There is more of rice than ritual here, more of potato than of the Prince of Peace.

We are all alike, there is no difference. We all suffer the same poverty, and hide it within a feast.

Ah well.

Foods for the stomach, and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them.


We do not find it in the tree or the turkey. We do not find it in the department store window case or the glasswork ball or the twinkling of lights or a reindeer’s red nose.

Where is it then? And where particularly on Bali?

Whatever happened to Christmas?

Had I left it in America, clinging, like a child at its mother’s side, to familiar scenes and habits? Is it a place? Is it a song? Is it in the drive-by light show--mere electricity, winking on eaves and gables, strung about the shoulders of plastic snowmen and elves, Grinches and Cherubs?

Whatever happened to Christmas? It’s gone and left no traces.

Can it be so? Well, I decided to find out. I decided to find the thing myself--and to conduct my search, having no other option, amidst the sun scorched sands, the traffic choked streets, the dingy warungs, the sellers booths, the stonework icons, the raucous beer bars, all under the blaring, blazing sun that shines by day on my little town, the town of Sanur, on the sleepy side of the southern coast of Bali.

Remember the sight and the smell and the sound,
And remember hearing the call . . .

Ah, but give me something to remember. Give me something new, something to become. That seemed to be the key.

But memories have to start somewhere. If you are new to a place, an alien from afar, a stranger in a strange land, then you must build from square one.

I decided to start with a traditional cappuccino at Luhtu’s beachside cafĂ©.

“Traditional cappuccino?” my wife objected. “What’s traditional about that? You have one every day.”

“Well, not every day.”

“Almost every day.”

“But this is not just any day. This is Christmas Eve day. And that’s what traditional is all about, right? Something familiar, something. Something you remember from year to year.”

“But you’ve not yet been here one year.”

“That’s just the point. It will be our first traditional Christmas Eve cappuccino.”

She told me I was full of it, but came along nonetheless.

And the first annual Christmas Eve cappuccino turned out to be pretty Christmassy, I thought. It helped immensely that the waitresses at Luhtu’s were wearing red Santa hats, and wished us merry Christmas as well--and several times at that. The sky was blue, the heat pleasant at just less than a broil, and there was a breeze whispering through the leaves on the trees, just enough to cool the brow every five to ten minutes or so. It was less, I’ll admit, that a Currier and Ives scene, less than the silence of a morning snow, but it would do for starters, and it was better than nothing.

After finishing our Christmas cappuccino (oh, and there was a cookie for each of us as well, about the size of a quarter--which I thought was a nice touch), we then embarked upon a traditional walk on the beach.

Now waves are not drifting flakes of snow, but there seemed something just very slightly reminiscent nonetheless, as they rolled peacefully onto the tranquil Sanur shore, kept time with our pace, spilled their white froth at our sandy toes.

It was the same every day, my wife commented.

Ah, but this was not any old day. This was Christmas Eve day.

“Merry Christmas!” called a couple passing by in the opposite direction, in a decidedly German tone of voice.

“And to you as well!” I returned. “Merry Christmas!”

“Selamat Hari Natal!” an Indonesian woman, also passing, chimed in. “Maybe you want massage, yes? One hour massage. Balinese massage. You like very much, yes?”

But in my mind I subtracted the second part--copied and cut--and clung to the first, pasted it to the day--Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to all!

Appearing also in the Bali Times was the continuing story of two Christians on their way to church--one beaten senseless, the other stabbed in the stomach by a mob of extremist Muslims. The assailants, in part three, had been sent to jail, and their compatriots were now protesting the unfairness of the thing. It was their feelings, apparently, that had been hurt in the first place by this Christian couple headed to their place of worship.

Remember how love was all around? Whatever happened to it all?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Christmas in Sanur, 4

It is all a mistake after all, an imagined affront. How embarrassing for the man who mistook Santa Claus for the son of God. Or then again, maybe it’s just simpler that way.

Toyland, toyland
Little girl and boy land
When you dwell within it
You are ever happy there

But we must not leave the Hindus out of the mix--that 95 percent aforementioned--nor do we wish our objections to suffer a narrowing effect such that we may be thereby misconstrued as betraying a will toward hurting the feelings of one particular group or another. For the fact is that the better part of the Hindu population possesses no more of an informed appreciation of what Christmas is really about than does the Muslim, or for that matter the Christian himself in his modern days. So, as you see, my will is to hurt all feelings, not just some.

I have a particular friend with whom I exchange a knowledge of language--I, being an American, of English, she, being Indonesian, of bahasa Indonesia. We meet two and three times a week, generally at the table outside my wife’s salon, and simply talk by turns, each in that language which he does not know, in the hope, I suppose, whether admitted to or not, that one day a miraculous breakthrough will occur, and that we will, perhaps at one and the same time, find ourselves suddenly fluent. Miracles, after all--and unlike Santa Claus--are a part of faith, and faith itself is the evidence of things not seen. Ours, therefore, is a religious exercise.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmas in Sanur, 3

An article recently appeared in The Bali Times, the English language newspaper here, which seems particular suited toward further delineation of my point, and so I quote verbatim as follows:


The country's top Islamic body has said Christmas decorations in malls, amusement centres, and public places are "excessive and provocative."

Christmas ornamentation has been put up in an "excessive and provocative way," said Muhyidin Janaedi, one of the chairmen of the Indonesia Ulemas Council (MUI).

"It should be done in a proportional manner, as Muslims are the majority here, otherwise it will hurt their feelings," he said.

He said that MUI issued a recommendation urging mall and recreation centre managers to act proportionally in decorating their premises.

"We received complaints from a number of malls' employees who are forced to wear Santa Claus costumes which are against their faith. Such things should not have happened," he said.

"We need to restrain muslims from joining the festivities," Junaedi added.

Against their faith, the man says. What, the dreaded Santy Claus costume? Forced to wear the infidel red hat, the pointy one with the white cotton ball on top? Shiver me timbers!

But what faith is this that the man calls their faith? What faith is it whose members worship a fat man in a red suit, so offending the members of another faith in the process. What is it about Christmas trees, colored lights, excessive shop window decorations that has “hurt their feelings?”

Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!

Ho, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!

Yes, it’s piracy, nothing less. We have been struck on the high seas, the ship has been scuttled, the castle has been sacked, and the booty made away with by that jolly old pirate with the pink cheeks, the cherry red nose, and a stomach that shakes when he laughs like a bowl of Jello.

Dastardly, I say! Robbery pure and simple.

We are inclined to agree with the man from the MUI.

But wait . . . What faith are we talking about. What faith is represented by Santy Claus? Why, none, of course. He is neither Pope nor God nor the son of God. He is not a prophet. He is neither Krishna or Vishnu. You do not find his portrait on the church alter or pew. His charge is over eight reindeer, not twelve apostles.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Christmas in Sanur, 2-1/2

It is useful to observe at this point that Bali is about 95 percent Hindu, where profession of the population is concerned--although how Hindu the Hinduism of the 95 percent really is, is a matter its own, and no different a one than the Christianity of Christians or the Muslim-ness of Muslims. All this really means is that ignorance regarding the tenants of ones own professed faith, not to mention the beliefs of other people, runs faithfully at about 95 percent the whole world over. It becomes therefore not only possible, but reasonable to conclude that Santa Claus, sleigh bells, and pine trees bedecked with glass ornaments and twinkling lights are central icons of the Christian belief system--which may, it is generally supposed, have also something to do with a man named Jesus, although likely only secondarily so, given the attention shown to the former trappings as opposed to the latter personage.

Here then is the most telling example of the power of advertising that I know--that jolly old Saint Nick and Rudolph the Red Nosed Rain Deer are more readily recognized symbols of Christianity than Jesus Christ Himself. And the fact that this misapprehension prevails just as persuasively in the West as in the tropical islands of Southeast Asia or the snow cast wastes of Manchuria ought at the very least to strike terror upon the missionary and awe upon the philosopher, for we celebrate not the birth of the man of sorrows, not the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, but toy land and a parade of tin soldiers, rat-a-tat-tat and a-rumpty-tum-tum.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Christmas in Sanur, 2

It is useful to observe at this point that Bali is about 95 percent Hindu, where profession of the population is concerned--although how Hindu the Hinduism of the 95 percent really is, is a matter its own, and no different a one than the Christianity of Christians or the Muslim-ness of Muslims. All this really means is that ignorance regarding the tenants of ones own professed faith, not to mention the beliefs of other people, runs faithfully at about 95 percent the whole world over. It becomes therefore not only possible, but reasonable to conclude that Santa Claus, sleigh bells, and pine trees bedecked with glass ornaments and twinkling lights are central icons of the Christian belief system--which may, it is generally supposed, have also something to do with a man named Jesus, although only secondarily so.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas in Sanur

The first thing to remember about Christmas on the island of Bali is that there is none to speak of. There does exist in general among the local folks an appreciation that a time of year has come upon them wherein Western folks are wont to celebrate, but the exact nature of what these folks are celebrating remains a point of but sparse knowledge and even sparser interest. Ideologically, I mean. There is much already about the Westerner that is unusual, deviant, and this strange parade of colored lights, pointy hats, flying reindeer, and a fat man in a red suit is just one further facet to the mystery, glittering and winking in so many directions that the center of the subject remains enigmatic.

It is, however, at the least common denominator, an opportunity to sell, and so new booths spring up on the beach front, warungs are strung with lights, hung with gold and silver garland, and young girls don red hats with white fleece, and call out with renewed expectation Shopping? Shopping? Come looking at my shop, just looking Mister, yes?

The sensibilities of the West, no matter how unsearchable, all smell of money, an extravagant penchant toward purchasing the most extravagantly worthless items and carrying these away to their own countries for storage in closets or sale in garages. It is the need for needless things, both the will and the wherewithal to waste, that most endears we Westerners to the Third World shop owner and street merchant. It is known moreover that the vacationing Westerner is more acutely inclined than ever to divest himself of riches--to empty his pockets of so much superfluous padding--otherwise known as money--that he may return home victoriously, lighter in both coin and spirit than when he came. Spirit, in other words, is purchased in the form of the bauble and trinket, tucked into the suitcase and carry on, and transported over the thousands of air miles to big houses in small suburbs--little museums of temporary meaning--to dazzle the less fortunate and provide substance for the owner until such time arrives when these things--for they are only and after all things--are drained of lively association, have lost their edge, and have become at last quite purely just as ordinary as they were to begin with, no more precious to the purchaser than they were to the purveyor.

Thankfully for the traveler and the tourist the world is full of exotic islands of every shape and size, and fuller yet of new baubles and trinkets, and so the spirit is renewable through the many years, essentially inexhaustible, a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.

Thankful also is the shop owner and the street merchant.