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.