Thursday, February 23, 2012

Every Curtain That Rises Must Fall

I can’t stand grade school plays. I know it sounds mean and un-parent-like, but there you have it. At least I’m honest -- although honesty itself may as well have saved its breath for all the difference it has ever made where my attendance at these tedious, interminable events is concerned. I don’t think that I’m alone either. I would bet that fully 70 percent of otherwise decent parents detest these theatrical extravaganzas in the same way that they detest receiving a summons for jury duty in the mail, and carefully maintain therefore an airtight reason for excusal.

Take my wife for instance (noting that I resist the Rodney Dangerfield punch line). She cannot possibly attend the play because she works. Overtime, if necessary. Feigning painful disappointment, she tells the boy that she cannot come, but assures him that Dad will be there -- which is a thing meant not so much for his consumption as for mine.

This season’s dramatic offering involves a presentation of favourite fairy tales and fantasies, and my son’s class has chosen The Wizard of Oz. I know this in advance because he has mentioned just 22 hours before the rise of the curtain that he needs a Tin Man costume. From this alone one gleans an appreciation of the careful effort and preparation that go into these programs, along with a pretty sure estimation of what one has gotten oneself into.

So I spend the eve of the big show shopping for tin man stuff. A funnel for his hat, silver spray paint, long gloves to cover the arms, and so on. Try explaining these needs to shop clerks who speak not a word of English. Try explaining that you’re turning your son into a tin man.

On the big day I arrive at 9 a.m. sharp, for despite my preceding efforts to pin down the hour in which my son will actually be on stage, the teachers have stubbornly refused to divulge this information. If they have to sit through it, so do we. I am hoping of course that my son’s performance will be first in line, allowing an early escape, but suspect, given previous experience, that they will save the best for last. With resignation therefore, I insert myself between the white-bloused shoulders of two proud mothers in the second row to the last, where my heavy sighs and occasional snoring will be a nuisance to as few people as possible. Teachers in the meantime bustle officiously about, as grave as ushers at a joint session of Congress.

The first play involves the three pigs and the big bad wolf. I can’t really hear what the children are saying, but I know the story pretty well. For this reason I cannot help but wonder why a story that features three pigs and one wolf has nonetheless required the presence of fifty-two children on the stage. Why, moreover, is the wolf wearing orange pyjamas?

Auditory problems have been ironed out by the time the next skit starts by the introduction of five additional microphones turned to full volume. Now, it can be pretty generally agreed upon that no Indonesian should be given a microphone to begin with, but to give one to a child is a sin pure and simple. Volume at a certain point ceases to clarify and begins merely to loudly obscure. Such was the case this day, wherein all that was uttered by the little thespians was turned to an ear-piercing quacking sound, which itself was further obfuscated by the raised voices of all the proud mothers who had soon tired of the tedious program and turned to one another for endless gossip and gab.

I couldn’t hear the title of the next play, but I think it might have been Titus Andronicus. Either that or Alice in Wonderland. I can almost swear that at one point I heard one of the tykes exclaim “These words are razors to my wounded heart!”, but then later on I found myself fairly convinced that another had said “Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!” Ultimately this theatrical selection wrapped up with a dance performance to the tuneful, albeit rather pointless lyrics of Dynamite, by Taio Cruz.

Three hours into the 90 minute program I wake with a start and push myself straight in my chair. I‘m hot, sore, diaphoretic, short of breath, and I swear privately to every god I can think of that I will never again attend one of these functions, even if I have to drink poison. Blaring across the stage is what appears to be a deadly battle between Egyptian-looking soldiers with Jell-O moulds on their heads. Martial trumpets and drums stab to the inner ear while countless children die horribly on the points of wooden spears, and are afterwards ministered to by long-haired girls in flowing white dresses. Which is something I found rather touching.

At last count, as far as I had been aware, there were six grades in my son’s school; and yet it seems clear that six or seven had been added on top of these, for as soon as one set of children marched off the stage, another set marched on, with no end in sight. I see the three bears, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Hanzel and Gretel, witches and magicians, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. How much of this was real and how much the stuff of troubled dream, I cannot say. All I know is that at some point a kind member of the exiting audience woke me, and that I was able at long last to rise to my feet and to utter my own heroic, well practiced line:

“Free at last, free at last. I thank God I’m free at last.”

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Who'll Stop the Rain?

My wife doesn’t like the rain. She finds it to be both wet and inconvenient. It is especially wet and inconvenient when ones only available mode of transportation is a motorbike. And I will concede that much. Clearly, having to drive a motorbike through Bali’s torrential rains -- or having to be conveyed upon the back of one, which is the situation in her case -- is distinctly less than pleasant. One might compare it to going through a carwash with the top down, or climbing into the bathtub fully dressed. I’ve purchased for her one of these long rain jackets of course, but even these do not completely protect the clothing and body from the effects of full submersion.

When I first came to Bali, two Februarys ago, I saw but little rain throughout the ensuing year, and surmised therefore that rainfall in Bali was rare and brief. I went swimming nearly every day in the sea, baked my exterior as brown as pumpernickel -- micro-waved really, for the effect was that swift -- and then dipped my body anon to the cooling surf, and on doing so emitted, I believe, a satisfied hiss as the water touched my superheated skin. I took dozens of photos, mostly of the sun, and sent these back home along with happy declarations to the effect that I had found, at long last, paradise.

Two years down the road it seems to have been raining since November 1, 2011, and I’m becoming damnably sick of the stuff. In order to appreciate the depth of my disenchantment it will be helpful for the reader to know that I was born and spent 55 years in the State of Oregon, well known for its rainy season of about 11-½ month’s duration. Native Oregonians, as the old saying goes, are born with webbed feet, like a duck’s. In fact, one of our University football teams is known as the Oregon Ducks. We are also known as the Beaver State, although any beavers that may have once existed there have long since been turned into hats and shawls. In any case, I had, when I came to Bali, fifty-five years of rain under my belt, which seemed more than ample for any one lifetime.

But what is my wife’s excuse? Indonesian by birth, she grew up in Jakarta, then worked in Bali, then moved to Arizona (a State which is hotter than all the islands of Indonesia put together), and experienced after that a mere eight years of immersion in the giant puddle otherwise known as the Pacific Northwest. What does she have to complain about? What are a mere eight years compared to fifty-five?

Ah, but complain she does. Maybe it’s because her years in Indonesia conditioned her toward the expectation that the sun ought sometimes to shine. Maybe it’s just because she’s a woman and therefore cannot help complaining. It occurs to me just now that my mother also complained about the rain -- and she surely should have known better, having endured it from the day of her birth in 1926.

Everybody talks about the weather, as Mark Twain observed, but nobody does anything about it.

And yet I feel this same expectation in myself. Just yesterday morning, for instance, when the time had come to drive my wife to work, it started to rain -- not just to sprinkle, mind you, but to piss down, in sheets, in blankets, in duvet covers. This is the habit of the weather in Bali. It has been carefully calibrated by the gods of the island to coincide with my wife’s coming and going.

As I waited for her in the driveway, I noted her to briefly poke her head out the doorway, and then pull it back again and disappear within. After a time I came to see what had become of her, and found her slumped dolefully upon the couch, feet hanging over the edge like a child’s.

“What’s wrong?” I said. “Won’t you be late for work?”

“I can’t take this,” she answered. “Now I need to roll up my pants, or change to shorts. And what about my shoes? My shoes will get wet. One million rupiah, turned to garbage.”

“But I think it’s stopping now, Honey.” I returned to the porch, gazed beseechingly at the clouds. “I think we have a window here. Let’s go while we can, ya?”

Morosely, she mounted the bike and we started out, steering clear of puddles and lakes and streams and reservoirs.

By the time we reached the intersection with the Bypass, the rain had started again, and with renewed vigour at that. We stopped, opened the seat, and retrieved our rain jackets. She threw her helmet.

“What?” I said, running after the thing.

“I’m not happy,” she said.

“Well then . . . What?”

“Well then, DO SOMETHING!”

I considered suggesting she try tapping her heels together three times and saying “There’s no place like home,” but then thought better of it. There was really nothing to do but forge on, and so we did. In silence. Awful, dreadful, deafening silence.

Now the reason I’m telling you all this is to advertise my wife’s need of a car, along with our coincident lack of funding for the same. To that end, if there is anyone out there who wants to sell one cheaply, or better yet simply gift a car, please write to the e-mail below. Or simply park the thing in front of my house. The house I rent, I mean. I cannot, as I’ve said, offer money, but I am willing to trade my soul. It’s not a perfect soul, and has its share of dints and scrapes, but it’s still in usable condition.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Careful What You Wish For

“I like babies,” the waitress said. “I like them a lot. I want to have the baby but I don’t want to have the husband.”

I told her that I was sure somebody would be happy to oblige; and, as she was a comely young maid, I forwarded myself as a possible candidate.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tried to explain my passing attempt at humour, but the more I explained it, the more inexplicable it became. This form of humour often fails to translate to the Indonesian sensibility. A friend of mine, an Englishman, once declared that the Indonesian people have no sense of humour at all. Of course that’s not true. They do have a sense of humour. It simply tends more toward the physical, as when someone falls off a ladder or slips in the mud. It’s a Jerry Lewis, Three Stooges, Chevy Chase sort of humour, and, providing that the victim is not seriously injured, these sorts of accidents are generally considered hilarious. But one does best to steer away from the understated style of jest, and most certainly so where some nuance of language is involved.

“Bercanda kok,” I said. “It’s just a joke.” I waved the thing away, pesky fly that it had become, and started over again. “Just have the baby then, and don’t bother with the husband.”

“But how can I have the baby without the husband?”

Hmm. This looked like another slippery slope, and we’d hardly gotten started. Was I to give a birds and bees lecture?

Happily, her next comments made this unnecessary.

“Here in Bali you must have the marriage. If you have the baby, you get the husband; and if you have the husband, you get the baby. Here in Bali is not like America. In America this is possible because everything is possible.”

“You don’t say! Well that’s good news indeed. I think I’ll go back.”

“When do you leave?”

Onward, onward.

Of course, the young woman is quite correct. In Bali the family unit remains at the centre of society and culture. It is the very hub of life, from which the entire network of daily existence extends. It is the glue that holds the world together, and the world itself a garment sewn whole with the thread of relationship and community. To transgress against the tried and true pattern must compromise the integrity of life and will surely bring consequences both instant and enduring.

And then we have America, where all things are possible, of both the sacred and profane. Sadly, she is quite right on that score as well. We’ve been there, done that, and have now no idea where we’ve arrived. Strangers in a strange land. It’s a confusion of existence that we like to call freedom.

And yet the parameters of morality by which I was formed are not unlike those which infuse the fabric of life in Bali, such that I find myself continually struck anew by the irony of having somehow come home. I return, as it were, from a shattered land to find old sureties reconstituted, and I find myself in many ways more comfortable in this foreign place than in that country of my birth which lies on the other side of the world.

I tell the waitress that America was once like Bali, but she doesn’t believe me. It spoils her dreams. In America there is snow, she says. And Hollywood, and Broadway, and Caesar’s Palace. In America everyone is rich, and because they are rich, they do as they like. They will not believe that I, an American, am not rich. I’ve tried to tell them many times, but they only laugh. I have said that I am as poor as the people themselves, but they will not believe. It spoils their dreams. You’ve just ordered a large Bintang, they will say. And so of course I am rich.

In America babies are had without men. They are had without husbands or fathers or families. Mama’s baby daddy, we say. And significant other. And birth parent. And surrogate donor. The very notion of family is subject to interpretation. We don’t let tradition or moralities, or even love in the common sense, get in the way.

Facetiousness seems suddenly not so funny. I care for the girl, her choices, her future, her family, her island, her country, her baby. I want to explain to this woman what we have learned and know. I want to tell her where we’ve come from and where we are. I want to tell her about the loneliness and despair that lies on the other side of rebellion. I want to warn her not to forget the father. But I cannot do so. My grasp of Indonesian falls far short of the task.

It seems she will have to find out for herself.