Friday, March 30, 2012

An Education in Citizenship

In last week’s column I mentioned my purchase of a bilingual language book called “Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan” (which translated means “education in citizenship”). I spoke in that article mostly about my own difficulty with learning the Indonesian language, but I’d like to say something this week about the actual contents of the book, which turn out to be as strange to the western point of view as the title is to the western tongue, leaving both mind and tongue to work quizzically at formulations that defy articulation within the framework of the conventions we bring from the west.

The first section of the book (vol. I) deals with differences in gender. We are told that mankind consists of people who are male or female. Mr. Mijan is a man, Mrs. Mijan is a woman, while Andi is a boy and Ani is a girl. So far so good. Mr. Mijan is tall and handsome; Mrs. Mijan is beautiful and elegant. Well, okay.

Andi, the boy, stands upright, wears trousers, and wants to be gallant like his father. Ani wears dresses and wants to look beautiful and elegant like her mother.

Can you tell yet where this is headed?

Sometimes a girl likes to wear pants, the text explains. Ani likes to wear pants when she plays outside because they make her feel more comfortable and free -- and I quote: “Nowadays women wear pants. It has been common indeed.”


And here it comes.

“Although a girl likes to wear pants, a boy does not like to wear a dress like a girl. It is not proper for a boy to wear a dress.”

Now there’s a statement that is both wonderfully clear and wholly inappropriate as far as modern education in western societies is concerned. A boy can’t wear a dress? The hell you say! Of course he can. He can wear anything he wants. He doesn’t even have to be a boy if he doesn’t want to be. Don’t go confusing us with these black and white notions -- in this brave new world, anything is possible (and everything too).

The volume goes on to instruct that there are certain activities that are appropriate for the male and certain that are appropriate for the female. The male, for instance, may be found repairing roofs, hefting shovels, pounding nails, whereas the woman’s place is in the kitchen and in the laundry room. The male wields the hammer and the hoe, the female the mop and the broom.

Now, for a person unfortunate enough to be as old as I, social mores like those presented in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan are not really foreign after all. At first impression they may strike us as foreign (as well as laughable), and yet if the mind has remained constant enough through the long decades of social conditioning, we will remember our own early years of instruction, the Dick and Jane books, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins -- books which taught the same morals and mores as found in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan. The significant difference is that the latter was published in 2010, whereas the former were creatures of the last mid century.

Most of us who have come to this country from afar are aware of having travelled not only through space but through time as well. We step from the plane into both the orient and our own back yard, circa 1959, where boys wear pants and girls wear dresses, fathers are gallant and mothers are elegant, where men are men and women are glad of it, and so on as far as clich├ęs can be extended. We find ourselves impaled upon a double edged sword, both edges of which are keen and true; and what we have learned through the decades and what we knew from the beginning are now laid neatly open in halves side by side. Neither the one nor the other knows for certain to whom it belongs. We are shocked by the sudden re-emergence in force of a set of notions we have come to see as antiquated and inappropriate, even humorous -- and yet we are aware of some strange sense of propriety, right or wrong, residing in what we have learned to reject and shun. We call these notions truths, we hold them to be self-evident, when all they really are is easy. Life promises, once again, to become so very simple.

But it is not simple, is it? Much as we might like it to be, it is not. It is just this, in fact, that we have spent the last decades of our lives learning. It is this that progressive societies strive to acknowledge. And it is this that Andi and Ani will learn in due time as well -- that the world is made not of factory pegs and slots, but of fabulous beings, no two the same, each more unique with every inspection.

Grow up well, little children. Do no harm. Love one another. That’s the lesson in citizenship for today.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Paralyzing Event

A strange thing happened the other day.  Not strange in the sense that it was unusual, but strange in the sense that it was significantly more severe than usual.  I had come home from driving my wife to work in Denpasar and I felt suddenly fatigued beyond description.  All I wanted was to get to the bed and lie down.  As soon as I did, and closed my eyes, I fell almost instantly asleep.  About an hour later I awoke to find that I could barely feel my arms and legs, and had this comprehensive feeling of numbness all through my body -- my chest, my stomach, my neck.  It felt as if all the blood had been drained, that my own body had become foreign, heavy, rock-like, a shell.  On the one hand my most urgent desire was to simply go back to sleep, for the fatigue was still overwhelming; and yet on the other hand I felt that I needed to move,  to get up, walk, shake myself, push.  Choosing the latter, I paced about the house for a time, still feeling heavy, disoriented, tired.  I went out to the porch, lit a cigarette, sat down in a chair, and felt within minutes that I might simply grow into the thing, like fungus or dry rot; and there was the urgency again to rise, to move.  Little by little normal functioning returned, the blood flowed, my arms stopped tingling, my feet found their way.  It was altogether an unpleasant experience, and another meeting with MS that was more intimate than I've been accustomed to of late.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bahasa Indonesia -- A Language of Men or Ducks?

In my continuing effort to demonstrate conclusively and for all practical purposes that I cannot possibly learn to speak the Indonesian language I will occasionally, under the influence of some ill-founded optimism, buy a new lesson book and set to work with renewed, though short-lived enthusiasm, having decided that the fault is not with my brain but with the quality of the learning material available. In two years I have managed to progress from class 6 to class 1, and succeeded, rather spectacularly I think, in learning less with each effort.

My latest purchase was of a book entitled “Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan.” I had at first no idea what these words meant, but the volume attracted me for two reasons -- the one being the singularly tongue-twisting title itself and the other being the fact that the contents of the book are presented bilingually in English and Indonesian. The latter case made reading the material in Indonesian rather easy -- really one does not have to read it at all -- and the former afforded me with the opportunity to employ the tongue-twisting title, once my wife taught me how to pronounce it, for every occasion and in any manner -- in song, in chant, as a blessing or as a curse, in kindness or in anger, while cooking, while showering, while sleeping. It simply rolls off the tongue for every purpose imaginable.

“Good morning, how are you?”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan.”

“Did you remember to buy the potatoes?”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan.”

“You’re an idiot!.”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan!”

You see? Here are two words which, as long as kept isolated from the whole of language and meaning, provide a most wonderfully complete, not to mention stylish, response for every occasion. Or they did so until my wife told me what they actually mean and thereby spoiled the fun. What pendidikan kewarganegaraan means, as it turns out, is “education in citizenship.” This makes the phrase, sadly enough, of little use in Indonesia, and of no use at all in America or Europe. I’ve begun, therefore, to cast about for an equally attractive, yet more functional phrase for chanting and singing, and I invite the reader to send suggestions.

One will often hear it said that Indonesian is a simple language. It has no past tense or present tense or future tense, they will say. It’s all inferred according to context. It’s a child’s language, a primitive construct -- an idiot’s language, as my English friend says (who, curiously, cannot speak a word of it). But I disagree, and do so on the grounds that any language that operates on the basis of inference, without proper verb tenses or denotation of time, is a mystery of the purest kind, a thing to be sorted out by sages and mystics rather than a mind as common as mine.

Deepening the inscrutability is that fact that Indonesian as taught in the school books is never in actual practice spoken. In other words, the language that the common Indonesian people speak is not Indonesian at all! You can test it for yourself. Just try saying something out of a lesson book. They will stare at you blankly, as if you had spoken Swahili. And then will set to chattering and blabbering in whatever language it is they are really speaking -- which, according to them, is Indonesian, but according to your school book is certainly not. Herein is my exasperation made perfect -- for my studies are rendered not only frustrating, but entirely pointless.

Take the word “buat”, for instance (from the verb “membuat”). Your school book will tell you that the word means “make” or “made.” But your school book has lied -- for the word in everyday practice means almost anything and can be employed for almost any purpose. I have heard it first hand from my wife, and when I tell her she is wrong, she merely laughs. On the positive side, however, the novice in language may feel with fair assurance that if he says “buat,” he has uttered something pertinent to whatever subject is at hand.

Throughout my studies my most useful tutor has been Donald Duck. Donald’s comics are available at Gramedia and I buy one once or twice a month. Donald, you see, has read his school books, and speaks proper and appropriate Indonesian, in the best Disney tradition. What he says may be stupid, but the important point is that he says it correctly and with an appreciation for the reader who has learned correctly. I come to him for clarity and for comfort. It may be, in the long run, that Donald Duck is the only Indonesian speaker I will ever understand; nonetheless, I take heart in the accomplishment, however meagre, of having forged a functioning connection in the language, if only with a cartoon duck.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Moving Story

I’m moving. Again. For the third time since I arrived in Bali two years and a month ago. For me this has become a defining characteristic of life on the island. Not a desired one, but a defining one nonetheless.

Curiously, in the fifty-five years preceding my arrival in Bali I moved from one residence to another only six times, and these relocations were generally coincident with some more or less auspicious occasion -- leaving the parental home, getting married, getting divorced, getting married again, getting divorced again. You get the idea. I suppose that if I had gotten married and divorced more regularly, I would have moved more times.

But here in Bali there has been none of that, so far. There have been no changes in marital status that would have brought on another rearrangement of residence, no financial boons nor disasters, no house burnings or necessitating acts of nature, and yet here I am packing boxes once again for our move to residence number three. Three moves in two years, as opposed to six in fifty-five. I’m no wizard at math, but I reckon if you take this alarming rise in the incidence of relocation and apply it to the number of years I have left to live, the result will show that I will still be changing residence far beyond the time of my actual demise.

I should add before proceeding any further that I do not like to move. I am not one who tires of a place and desires a change, hankers after a new locale, covets new rooms, new views, more space or less space. The fact is I hardly notice what’s around me. Pictures may disappear from walls without my knowing they’d ever been there to begin with. My wife can bring in a pottery vase the size of a German Shepherd and I will call it new three months later. I’m oblivious, but I’m happy. And that’s what matters, right?

So why am I moving?

I’m moving because of the apparent conviction of Balinese landlords that the funds I have available to me must triple every year -- a belief which in turns excites the innate greed response and inspires a like increase in rent. It’s funny how these sorts of figures, generally pretty reliably set in America, can be subject to such eccentric variation here in Bali. And it’s not just the rent. No, this can extend as well to electricity and water bills, maintenance costs, damage repair -- not damages you yourself have caused, mind you, but damages that predate your contract by a year and more. Suddenly there are holes in the roof, and money is wanted. During the last wind storm the roof of the car port blew away. That’s on the renter too. This is an idea that the western mindset finds almost impossible to negotiate -- the notion that the common yearly maintenance of a house is the responsibility of the renter and not the owner. I have seen this in force again and again, and yet I cannot fully grasp the thing.

In our previous rental we paid as much as Rp.700,000 a month for electricity and water, only to find upon moving to the next house that the same should have run around Rp.230,000. Is something amiss here? Hmm. Well maybe it was that Buddha statue out front with the flood lights and running water fountain which, as we were told, definitely had nothing to do with our unit.

So here we go again. Time to uproot and replant. Luckily some of our stuff is still in boxes from the move last year and so is not so much in need of sorting as it is of hefting. Who knows what’s in those boxes? Maybe we’ll find out if we ever stay in one place long enough. It could be my unfinished novel. It could be my winter wardrobe. It could be my raisons from Fresno. Time to call the AC folks, and Indovision, and Telcom Sel. Not that any of them will show up very soon. But it’s the thought that counts, and how many times you think it.

Ah, but there’s yet another catch. First we must wait for the tenant presently residing in the new house we have rented to remove himself and his trappings from the same. Did I say residing? I meant squatting -- for even though he has paid but a small portion of the sum owed on rent, he will not be pried loose, having preferred throughout his stay there the tender of vague promises to the payment of actual funds. We have, however, succeeded in entering into negotiations with him at the time of this writing, and hope soon to arrive upon a fair sum for the purchase of his departure.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Another Year on the Island of the Frauds

It’s that time again -- for me, anyway. Time to renew the old Kitas and sign up for another year of merry madness in Bali.

Some of you may have heard that a new law had been passed in Indonesia allowing foreigners married at least two years to an Indonesian citizen to receive a five year Kitas this time around. Well, you heard right. The law was passed. But it doesn’t matter, nor does it apply. Not yet, they say. Maybe next year.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s PID, the national byword, Progress Indefinitely Deferred.

You see, the thing is, the law was passed by the proper governmental body in Jakarta, such that said law is now the law, but that’s all it is, lacking, as it turns out, any vehicle for implementation, the arms and legs of bureaucracy. The apparatus is not in place. There are no forms, no duplicates, no carbon copies, no network of experienced scammers in place, no agreement upon a reasonable levy for bribes and payoffs. Oh, and the agents who presently handle our yearly Kitas -- they know nothing whatsoever about this new law. Never heard of it.

So here we go again. Hand over your documents, your proofs, your own various forgeries and white lies, and most importantly your money -- and then wait.

It has often been asked why this process must be so convoluted, why it cannot be streamlined, made more simple and direct (as it is in so many other countries). Considering in particular that tourism and immigration can only benefit the economy of Indonesia, and especially of Bali, why does this counterproductive confusion of paperwork mazes persist?

It’s all about money, folks; and how much of it can be transferred from our pockets to theirs. If the Kitas process were made simple, or at least manageable, such that the common applicant could unravel the thing, why then the individual could do it for himself. And what then? Horrors! The whole teetering tower of cards must tumble, and the intricate arrangement of agents and middle-men vanish. Make no mistake, there are those who depend upon the perseverance of this confusion for their very livelihoods. Will you take food from the children’s mouths? And what about the monthly payment on your agent’s brand new SUV? It’s unthinkable, unacceptable. It is quite simply the way business is done in Indonesia, from the Kitas to the SIM to the roadside bribe.

Corruption, you say? Well, it’s really too strong a word, isn’t it? It’s just life the way it’s lived, the way things are done and have always been done. Those who are cogs in the machine are glad of the machine, for it churns out their daily bread. Governments can talk all they want about anti-corruption commissions and eradicating graft, just as they can talk about guaranteeing religious freedom and ensuring cultural tolerance, but until they provide something real, in the way of education, opportunity, fair practices and the enforcement of the same, it’s just that -- talk -- and all the progressive words in the world don’t amount to a hill of dung.

Am I complaining? No, not really. Peace, as has been said, is a product of acceptance, and contentment a matter of simply getting in sync. Think about it the next time you get stopped by the police on the Bypass. Think about the wiggle room afforded by the prevailing practices, the chance to negotiate, to dicker, to bargain -- and maybe even get away scot-free. Do you have such an option in the West? Think about the convenience of being able to simply handle the thing on the spot and then be on your merry way -- no ticket, no court date, no filing fee. Voila, it‘s done -- and for what, five dollars? Ten? In America you will pay one-hundred, and more. Need a new license? Just pay the man. No need to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, take a number, stand in line for most of the day and then argue with some cranky clerk who hates his job. And what about the Department of Environmental Quality -- receiving your summons, taking your car through, failing the test, repairing the car, driving it through again, paying your fee. But here in Indonesia -- hey, what environmental quality?

In Indonesia you cut corners -- or rather you pay someone to cut them for you. And so what? Aren’t we here, after all, to enjoy a bit of life for a change, free from the endless tedium of rules that has all but suffocated daily life in the West? What’s the fair exchange for that? If you ask me, it all comes out even in the end.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Back to MS for a Minute

Given that Jim Dandy was just recently nominated as 'Best MS Blog" and granted a spot in the Blognation directory, I suppose I ought to post an entry that has something to do with MS for a change.  The fact is that in hte last two years or so I've written very little concerning MS, preferring to write mostly about my experiences here in Bali, my family life, political and religious matters in Indonesia, and so on.

Why is this?  Am I suddenly MS-free?  No, of course not.  I'd like to say that I am -- that the combined lifestyle balm of retirement in the tropics, the sunshine, and sea and surf have been somehow curative, but that, sadly, would not be true.

I guess the reasons for my comparative silence are multifold.  For one thing, it just kind of gets old.  MS gets old.  Like so many things in the world, at first it is new and interesting, there is an acquaintance to be made, learning to be done.  One suddenly has a new life, unplanned for and unasked for, yet nonetheless new.  There are a lot of questions to be answered.  What does this mean?  Who am I now?  What can I do?  What should I do?  One becomes rather consumed in all the details, feeling his way forward, making new acquaintances -- people one would never have met had they not been sick.  But then the years pass and things settle in and the situation becomes the status quo.

MS becomes normal.  It's the way it is, the way I am.  You become accustomed to the various deficits, at least in some degree -- the aches and pains, the numbness and tingling, the confusion and disorientation.  You don't really remember being without them in any more than a very detached way.  How does disease remember good health, and to what end, what purpose, resulting in what meaning?

We simply move on.  There's no choice, really -- unless you want to count a life of moaning and complaining as a choice.  We move on in our own wobbly, stumbling, disoriented way. We are our disease, as surely as we are blonde-haired or blue eyed, woman or man, handsome or homely, old or young.  We did not choose, but were chosen.  MS does not define us, yet it does change us, both outwardly and inwardly.  It is the ultimate character of change that lies always within our command.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's Not a Tumor

My wife has developed a shocking appendage on her left hand. It is red, rectangular, and about the size of the hand itself. There is no cure for this curious swelling, no surgery presently available for removal of the growth, and no medicine known that might shrink or eradicate the tumour -- for the appendage of which I’m speaking is not corporeal, but is composed of manmade elements, plastic, rubber, circuitry, a venous system of tiny wires, and God knows what else. The appendage is a Blackberry phone.

I thought at first that it was a temporary inflammation and that it would surely fall away of its own accord in due time, like a wart or a Gila monster, but the thing has persisted now for over a year and I’m resigned, therefore, toward accepting the malady, my only option being to grow accustomed to the presence of the eternal blemish as one might do with a failed tattoo or a gerbil-sized mole. Nobody’s perfect, right? We are all plagued by these little flaws, and can certainly repress our regret for the substandard part in favour of the comely whole.

I must add, however, that it would certainly assist in my efforts to discount the flaw if she would stop her endless fiddling with the thing, for this constant attention to the unlovely part merely heightens my own awareness of the same, bringing it ever before my otherwise compassionate eyes at all times of the day and night, throughout every activity and mutual venture, while eating, while sleeping, while walking, while sitting, while watching a movie or engaging in foreplay. Yes, and worse.

The fact is, she adores her foreign appendage. She caresses it, pokes at it, laughs at it and talks to it, engrossed in its language of beeps and bells. I’ve not seen such fascination since the days when my 3-month old son used to gaze and drool in delight at the mobile that danced above his crib.

Whatever else may be said of the Blackberry (and the I-Phone, and other reduplicating malignancies), it is certain that this gadget has effected and will continue to effect far reaching changes at the core of every society it has infected. Technology is only the tip of the iceberg. In the same way that the automobile is more than just a machine used to convey a person from point A to point B, the Blackberry is a personal accessory, a form of jewellery, a status symbol, a thing of envy and desire for which people will beg and steal, even trample if need be. It simply must be possessed.

Moreover, the Blackberry has entirely altered the dynamics of the male-female relationship. In former days it was expected that a man would talk to his wife or girlfriend at dinner or drinks or through the course of a romantic stroll and so on. Indeed, I used to make little lists of things to say in advance of a date so as not to appear boring or disinterested, and would peek at my list at opportune moments in order to refresh the conversation and appear lively and engaged.

Well, those days are gone, and man’s burden has been considerably lightened, thanks to the incomparable charm and appeal of the cell phone. Try talking to your wife now, when she’s busy at poking and stroking and caressing her handset. I tell you, you can talk to the air till you’re blue in the face -- or at least until she tells you to shut up because you’re interrupting the flow of her digital interactions. Take a look around next time you go out for a meal. How many women are talking to their mates? How many are fixated on their Blackberry phones?

I recall a television commercial that ran in America some few years ago. The commercial went something like this: A man is sitting in his chair watching TV while his wife prepares to go out somewhere. The wife pops in and out of the room to pose various questions to her otherwise oblivious husband.

“Is that what you’re going to wear tonight?”


“Did you remember to buy the milk today?”


“Does this dress make me look fat.”


Well, the shoe is now on the other foot, men. Chances are that you will no longer hear things like “You don’t talk to me anymore,” or “You don’t love me anymore,” or “You don’t even know what I wore today.” Nope, from here on out it’s “Uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Who knew during all these eons of inter-relational challenges that all it would take to truly please a woman was a song of beeps and buzzes and clucks? I daresay the modern home is quieter now, free as it is of the many former gripes and grievances that otherwise required time and attention. One should be content, I suppose. One should count his blessings (or his lucky stars).

And yet I can’t help but feel that something’s missing. That something’s been stolen away. And I kind of miss talking to my wife now and then. I’ll bet she doesn’t even know what I wore today.

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