Wednesday, January 31, 2018

You Can't Go Home Again

One tests the water, sticks a toe in here and there, to see, in this case, how cold it is. And to be honest, I'm finding it fairly cold. 

I'm talking about the possibility of returning to America--for a visit, that is, and to see what may happen from that point. But (again, to be honest), even a visit seems more and more a dead end, a waste of time and money. 

There are people I would like to see ... but I think there are not many who would like to see me, or who really care one way or another. I guess I am thinking of things that have passed away. They have not passed in my mind, in my memory, but these things that I remember are just that: memories. They are more alive in my mind than in the real world. 

You can't repeat the past, Nick Carraway famously said to Gatsby in Fitzgerald's novel. 

"Can't repeat the past?" Gatsby answered. "Of course you can!"

But Carraway was right. You can't. You cannot repeat it, you cannot revive it, you cannot repair it or reconstitute it. Because it doesn't exist. 

You can't go home again. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Beach Walk

Well I’ll be darned, the weather cleared up enough today to allow a walk on the beach. Started out at Stiff Chile and walked up to Mertasari. Stopping now at a place called Genius Cafe. Luckily for me, you don’t have to be a genius to get a coffee here. I know, because I asked them, and actually confessed straight out to not being very bright. You do have to be patient, however; and what finally shows up is not so much a coffee as a candle holder. To add insult to injury, smoking is prohibited here, even though the entire place is open air. This makes the coffee experience more of a trial than a pleasure. So it will be goodbye for now and forever to the Genius Cafe.

A Brief Encounter

Although most of the Sanur beach front is now crowded with upscale hotels and villas, along with the outlying restaurants which generally block access to the beach itself, there is still a stretch of the old style plyboard warungs, dress and hat shops and local massage tables which have now become quaint rather than the norm.

For my own part, I find this stretch distinctly preferable to all the rest of the manicured, foo-foo garbage. You cannot pass through this stretch with...out talking to a half dozen people, certain in the unassailable hope that you must want a hat or a shirt or a massage.

One leathery, middle-aged woman chases me down the path.

“Massage?” she says.

“No. No thank you.”

“Come look at my shop?”

“No, thank you, Ibu. Just walking.”

“Wait, Tuan, wait!” she says. “No massage?”


She takes my arm, leans in conspiratorially. “Special massage” she says.

“Oh. Special?”

“Yesss, Tuan.”

“But who will give this special massage? You?”

“Me! Hahahaha. Noooo! Young girl. Pretty girl.”

“But I want you.”

“Hahahaha! No, Tuan!”

“No?” I say, with dramatic disappointment.

“I have a husband.”

“We no tell husband.”

She laughs again, and blushes, I think. She’s heard this story before, but usually she’s the one telling it.

Oh well, we had fun. We had a laugh. And next time, she’ll probably know me.

Sleeping Dogs

Let sleeping dogs lie (a verb functioning as a proverb when used in the imperative mode, etymology unknown). 

A strong enough piece of advice on the surface, but letting sleeping dogs lie should not mean to let the dog itself die as well. One ought to at least check for a pulse or hold a tasty treat beneath the critter's nose to gain a reassuring sign of life. What has transpired in the past, through the influence of a time and its troubles now left behind, should not be allowed to be the measure of the present. Events that may have caught us up in the past, and the words and the actions that were products of those events, should have become as obsolete as the butter churn. People change, they grow, they learn. Nonetheless, there are those who find the erection of prisons easier than self-edification. The figures of the past may be locked up for life, tried, convicted, and filed away for eternity. For myself, I find forgiveness more useful, and I find these old dogs as pleasant as ever, as long as one does not poke the old wound.

The Deep

There’s a place in most rivers where the deep grows still, far downstream from youthful headwaters, late in its journey to the sea. There’s a place where all these waters become one and cease their struggle against the land. Here, in the deepest parts, the river rests and considers itself, and the essence of all things it has known in its journey comes to rest in this deep as well.

Monday, January 29, 2018


I used to have this strange thing going on in my head with numbers when I was a youngster, and even up to the time I was in high school. The number 4 was particularly significant. It was a "good" number and everything had to be done or counted in fours. This was not a common superstition or a lucky number sort of thing. It was a strange fixation on 4, an obsession, such that it sometimes distracted me from actually functioning normally. Similarly, the number 3 was bad. I could not bear to see things in 3's--three coins on the table, three pencils on the desk, three carrots on the plate. Three had to be escaped by conversion to 4 or 2. Multiples of 4 were good, multiples of three generally not. I was aware of this consuming fixation at the time, and I was aware that it was not right, and yet I was compelled in some deep and unreasoning part of myself to attend to the fixation, even if it meant being inattentive to other, more important things that were going on--such as what the teacher was saying in class. I would count to four over and over in my head, I would touch things four times, and would quietly say words four times. 

I don't know how this compulsion finally left me. The demands of higher functioning as I grew older? A more willful awareness?  I'm not sure. And still, I will sometimes catch myself giving the number 4 an automatic, unwarranted significance, although it now seems instantly odd rather than powerfully compelling. 

In a way, looking back, it has given me some small insight into how the brain can 'malfunction', so to speak. I know something of the torment, and the tyranny, suffered by one who has OCD. What is inscrutable, inexplicable, is where such compulsions come from. How does it occur in the mind to attach a magical, and a critical importance to a number? What is happening, or has happened, in the mind when we find ourselves attaching such compelling yet unreasoning significance to something which, in and of itself, has no significance? 

I read once about a woman who started to go somewhere in her car, but straightaway, upon seeing a dog in the road, wondered whether she had hit the dog--and although she stopped and looked and saw no injured dog, she could not stop herself from driving around the block again and again to make sure on each passage that she had not hit a dog. Finally, she had to simply go home and give up on whatever trip she had planned to take. 

How very strange it is, and yet how very real. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018


Every once in a while, the bule here in Bali will be requested to do an interview by a student enrolled in study for language or for the travel and hospitality industry. In the interview, the student must use English and must comprehend English in his or her interview. I had one such interview this morning with a student of English through an old friend by the name of Iluh. The student's name is Risweni. I always enjoy doing these interviews, and I respect the student's desire to learn and to be able to communicate in "the universal language". Sadly, the educational system in Indonesia is such that very few learn to speak any English at all--unlike, for instance, Malaysia or Singapore, in which many are able to speak some English. This is a difficult situation for the Indonesian, because the Indonesian language is really only spoken in Indonesia (although Malay is similar and has many words in common). The Indonesian is therefore limited in business and in travel unless he or she gains some aptitude for English. 

It is helpful, too, for me to share the difficulties of learning a second language and to see how other people are dealing with these. There are certain forms in English that just aren't the way things are said in Indonesian, and the same is true the other way around. I said for instance, "If the landlord doesn't want to make a deal, I will have to move." The phrase, "I will have to" does not translate well to Indonesian, and Risweni was trying to understand this as one word. In Indonesian, you would say "Kalau begitu, saya harus pindah", or "If so, I must move". There really is no conception of "have to" in the sense of "must". 

Upon concluding the English segment of the interview, we moved mostly to Indonesian, as the native speaker simply expresses things more comfortably in the native language, and of course it is the same with me for English. The most difficult thing, really, is hearing fluently. I regularly read in Indonesian, and I have a recognition of the words in print which forms a meaning in my mind--but seeing the words is much different than hearing them. This is why one tries as often as he can to enter into conversation with native speakers. It can be uncomfortable, and you may have to said "What?" fairly often, but little by little you become more able. 

For me, it is a fascinating and a rewarding occupation, as one is naturally drawn toward meaningful communication such that one may form meaningful relationships. 

The Girl Before

Of course I was already familiar with that saying by Mies van der Rohe, “Less is more”, but I hadn’t appreciated just how sensual less could be, how rich and voluptuous.
--JP Delaney, The Girl Before

In a recent interview with the New York Times, the author of The Girl Before, as well as multiple other fiction titles under other pseudonymous names, explained the use of a pseudonym as two fold. 1) The initials, JP, do not identify the author as either male or female, thus discouraging a judgement of narrative content and viewpoint based on gender, and 2) the pseudonym discourages comparison of the novel at hand with other novels by the same author, thereby discouraging comparative evaluations and expectations.

Of course, one can discover the identity and true gender of the author easily enough, and one may thereby determine which other books the author has written; but many readers will not bother with this sort of research, counting the brief, gender-neutral bio at the end of the book sufficient enough, and even those curious enough to find out the facts will still, I think, retain an impression of the author's intended anonymity and freedom from gender judgements. In other words, the author makes the statement from the outset that this book is by someone named JP Delaney, who has ideas and designs of his own which are quite apart from the ideas and designs of narratives written by the same author under different names. 

I find this an interesting and reasonable sort of tool for an author to employ. So often, the novel by a woman becomes instantly 'a woman's novel' and the content is thenceforth filtered through the reader's impression of how women tend to think or feel, and, of course, vice versa for the male author. Similarly, a writer who has written one or more books will be with each new effort weighed against the previous efforts. The author of Gone Girl, for instance (Gillian Flynn), will be expected to write something like the very popular Gone Girl. One may become cornered, in a sense, by his own established identity, with the reader expecting to 'read something like this author always writes', and the author feeling that he must satisfy those same expectations. 

Aside from all that, The Girl Before, as far as I've read, is an excellent and inventive psychological mystery, which itself has something in common with the author's demand for a blank canvas in its exploration of minimalism in architecture and in life and experience. I'll say no more for the time being, except that the novel promises, as I reach page 70, to be well worth the read. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018


My personal narrative is becoming more complicated, such that it resists a nutshell sort of summary. Of course, there are few who can honestly explain their situation in a nutshell, and yet for a general, social sort of exchange, there is often a "Readers' Digest" version that may be rendered.

When, for instance, people would ask "How did you end up in Bali?", it was fairly simple to explain that I married an Indonesian woman in America and by-and-by we decided that it would be a positive change for us, each in our own ways, and also together, to relocate to Indonesia.

Now that we have separated, however, and she is living with another man, the neat nutshell story kind of crumbles. 

So, what am I doing here, after the original connection has been removed, the original intention--a life together--no longer applicable? 

I am not even sure that I myself know the answer. 

For one thing, I'm lazy. I don't like the idea of moving, whether the destination is a mile away or on the other side of the world. I prefer to set down roots and then sort of become a part of the tree, like a moss. And even if the tree is cut down, the moss continues to thrive. 

There are many things that I like about Indonesia. I like the people. They are simpler on the whole than Americans, more open, more friendly, more accommodating, more gracious. I like the feeling of community--a sort of interconnectedness, a mutuality that, in America, has fallen apart and become mutual suspicion, distrust, angst, cynicism. I like the fact that you can walk out anywhere at night and not have to fear being assaulted or robbed. I like the unspoken rule of common sense over inflexible ordinance. In general, I like the weather--and when it comes to complaining about the weather, I would rather complain about heat than about cold. I like that when you get stopped by a policeman, you can dicker and laugh and joke rather than put up your hands and hope he doesn't shoot you. Of course, they don't carry guns, anyway. I like that the beach is 15 minutes away from my house.  

The truth is, I don't know if I could fit in to America anymore. Considering a return there seems at present mostly a matter of facing various problems and discomforts. I think that at the very least I would need some haven to shelter in, someone to receive me and to care. And I don't see that that exists. 

I guess that between being alone in Bali and being alone in America,  I choose, for the time being, the former. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Coin Toss

If you’re anything like me (and you probably are, in the sense I’m about to mention, anyway), when you undress at night for bed, you remove all the items from your pockets—wallet, keys, loose change, comb—and drop them on the dresser or table. Nothing uncommon about that. We perform hundreds of such actions every day without having to think about them. However, when I went to return these items to my pockets after dressing this morning, I could not help but notice that the coins were neatly lined up in two rows, the top row containing three coins, the bottom four. Or perhaps I should not say ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, for the assignment would be arbitrary and would depend upon one’s perspective. In any case, there were two rows, each row neatly laid out, with visually equal spaces between each coin and with each row corresponding to the other in positional symmetry.

One may suppose any one of three things: 1) that the coins simply fell in this manner at random when I dropped them on the dresser the night before, 2) that I carefully arranged the coins when I dropped them, and have simply not remembered having done so, or 3) that they were arranged by some other force outside of my knowledge or will—say a ghost, or a flesh and blood agent who had entered the house during the night whilst I slept in order to carefully position the seven coins.

Now, the feasibility of #3 seems very distant indeed, so far so as to be absurd. Even if you disregard the fact that the door was locked and would have required a forced entry, you’re still left with the very unlikely supposition that an intruder bent on arranging coins is loose in the neighborhood.

Number 2 is only slightly more possible. I am forgetful, I will admit; but on the other hand, I have never been given to arranging the position of inanimate objects (or even animate ones). Any one of my wives could tell you that. The refrigerator could be in the middle of a room and it wouldn’t bother me, as long as it was plugged in. It is difficult enough for me to arrange for the dirty socks to go into the laundry basket rather than a dusty corner. Therefore, if I were to do something so perfectly unusual for me, I am inclined to think that I would remember the act, which itself must have required particular attention, given the apparently premeditated symmetry of the thing.

Now, it may be, as in #1, that the coins simply fell as I found them the next day and that the vertical and horizontal symmetry as well as the equidistance between each coin in each row, each row in relation to the other, was purely accidental. It just happened that way. One may presume that among the nearly countless times one drops his coins on the dresser, there will be one in which a sort of perfection of Platonic Form is achieved.  Well, one may, if he really wants to.

There is much that may be in this manner. The dragonfly that occasionally hovers in the corner where Sparky (the dog, now deceased) used to sleep may do so coincidentally (and time after time). It may be that the little bird with the yellow head that hopped onto my toe the other day (quite unlike any bird with any color of head) did so quite randomly nonetheless. Of the thousands of times he has landed, in the thousands of spots, this time he just happened to land on my toe. Never mind that I had just the day previously been writing about little birds with yellow heads pecking at ashes in a firepit (else we must presume causation between what I wrote and the appearance of a bird similar to the ones I wrote about). On the many occasions that another bird altogether defecates from the high branches of a tree, there may be that one time which finds me sitting directly below his perch, and thus the accidental target of his bodily expulsion. That I had for weeks been suffering a relentless headache, and that the headache suddenly vanished when the bird shit on my head, may be nothing more than a coincidence appended to a coincidence. Maybe. Of the many times that one sees a wild deer in the forest, there may be that one time when the wild deer suddenly and explicably turns into a tame deer and quite unlike a deer accompanies you on the trail, suffers being petted, hangs out with your party while you picnic. The fact that it actually happened so can only mean that it could happen so.

But why?

Accident would say that there is no why. And yet the very nature of the thing seems to demand our attention. Why have the coins fallen just so, when nature itself resists any such symmetry? Why does the dragonfly not hover in some other corner? Why did the bird, who so appeared like the bird I had written about, land on my toe rather than anywhere else in the world? Why did the deer discard his very nature, which would have compelled him to leap away in frantic bounds, and instead walk with us side-by-side without the least hint of reticence?

I suspect that there is a fourth option. I suspect that the world is full of meaning in each moment, and that this sort of meaning speaks a language of its own, a language that we cannot speak, yet nonetheless  know. I suspect that the cosmos both knows and seeks us, and seeks us for our own sake. The language is not reducible to words, interaction is not reducible to concept. It is not there to be explained, but rather to be observed, incorporated, ingested, treasured. In such a way, the spirit feeds and grows, and learns the whereabouts of the greenest pastures and of all the most potent seeds.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Lights Out

Electrical outages seem a fairly common thing in Renon lately, and the most recent ones have been fairly lengthy—four of five hours at a time. These tend to render life rather less than amusing. I was, for instance, about to watch a movie tonight and enjoy a bag of popcorn, but of course the internet is out, as is the microwave. Here is where modern technology—the bag of microwave popcorn—comes into conflict with the realities of a third world (excuse me, developing) country—the inability to use the microwave and thus pop the popcorn. I can, however, use the laptop, as long as the battery holds out, which will be, according to my icon, 6 hours. Oh joy!

A very long time ago, this used to be a common enough occurrence in my old home town of Portland, Oregon, too. From time to time, the power would go out. In fact, during what came to be known as The Columbus Day Storm, in 1962, the electricity in our house was out for two weeks! Try and beat that, Indonesia! Of course, for young boys like my brother and I, this was all a great adventure. One got to use flashlights and lanterns just as if he were camping, and fewer baths were required, given that my mother would need to heat the water and carry it to the tub on the second floor. My parents, being avid campers, had all the necessary equipment—Colman Stoves, Colman Lanterns, flashlights, plenty of canned goods, and so on. So we camped out, and rather enjoyed it all (although when I say “we”, I mean to indicate only my brother and myself). As an extra bonus, schools were closed for some time! And you couldn’t beat the electrical outage when it came to games of hide-and-seek or rounds of ghost stories.

Come to think of it, I use a gas stove here in Bali, as most people do. I can just dump the microwave popcorn into a pan and pop it in the old-fashioned manner, right? But hold on … there’s still no wifi connection.


Poor Puppy

I feel sorry for the dog next door, and I feel sorry for me, too--for, you see, our fates are in at least one aspect intermingled. 

But let me start from the beginning. 

A while back, the people who live next door bought or otherwise acquired a dog. She is just a young dog, perhaps six months, but already a large dog. There is one middle-aged woman who seems a permanent resident there, and then others who have come and gone. There was what seemed to be a husband or a partner at one time, but he has gone (or rather, was rather suddenly and violently ejected). There was a young man, whom I took to be a son, but he has also gone, leaving only his motorcycle behind.

Most recently, there has been a young man and a young woman, who seem to be a couple, and the young man would seem to be the owner of the dog. Whilst he was there in the house, he would pay a fair bit of attention to the dog, playing with it, taking it for walks, and such like. But now he has gone as well, along with the girl, and only visits the house each morning to feed the dog. 

The dog itself has been kept in the carport--a rather restricted space for a young, active dog--but for the past two weeks or so, she has been tied to a chain perhaps five feet long in a corner of the carport and the young man has set out a pile of dirt or sand for her to sleep on. Why this chain is necessary, when the dog is already contained in the carport, I cannot fathom.

And so this healthy young pup has thus been confined most the day long and all the night long. During the nights in this season, it often rains quite hard, and it becomes rather chilly outside, and so she does what most dogs would do--she cries and howls. The older woman, the permanent resident of the house, seems oblivious to this pitiable canine sorrow, and yet I, and likely the other neighbors are keenly aware of it--for we are awake and have nothing else to do but listen.

Now, I'm certain that it will be apparent to most folks that this young dog ought to be running and playing and meeting other dogs and not just sitting on a little hill of sand in the corner. Why these people have purchased a dog, I cannot understand. One hopes that they will find a happier situation for her before long. In fact, one may have to speak to them about it. One may even have to be downright blunt.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

As I drive my bike up Jalan Tamblingan, five Bali dogs race across the road, not looking both ways, each on the tail of the former, tongues wagging, ears flapping, flying down the lane toward Sindhu Beach. It has been raining heavily and now the shop owners are out on the walk, sweeping leaves and twigs and petals to the gutter. The air smells of curry and onion and motor oil and rain. Three schoolgirls tiptoe through a puddle and a car passes by and splashes water and they scream and hug one another and laugh and then run and the dogs come flying back up Tamblingan, the same dog still in the lead. while the dark browed thunderclouds scrutinize the scene. One wonders whether it will rain again.

Family and Friends

Yesterday, my almost-ex-wife invited me for lunch at her place in Sanur, and the table topic happened to fall upon absent family members—and by “absent”, I don’t mean those who have passed to the sweet hereafter, but those who have made themselves absent for whatever reason of their own.

We talked about our son (her son, my stepson) who has apparently decided to speak to us as seldom as possible. Whether this actually has anything to do with us in particular, or whether he’s just busy with school and videogames and TV, we don’t know. But two things had happened in close concert. One was that Sant Louis, his mother, had asked if we could call and visit with him (and been basically shunned) and the other was that he had failed to call or even send an online message on my birthday.

One remembers raising the boy. One remembers entertaining him and teaching him the things he would need to know, and paying for his food and home, and cooking the food, and taxiing him here and there and seeing to his school and paying for his private school in Bali and caring for him when he was sick and teaching him to ride a bike, and so on and so forth ad infinitum—but one cannot think for the life of him what he has done to be shunned.

Nor did I receive any birthday greetings from the four children from my previous marriages. How odd it seems. And how hurtful. It is a lonely, crestfallen feeling.

It was at this point that Sant Louis mused that I was the only real family she has. I who am no longer even married to her. And this made me think of a brief episode from the Book of Matthew. Jesus is speaking to the multitudes, when one of his disciples informs him that his mother and brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to him. “Who is my mother?” Jesus asks in reply. “Who are my brothers and sisters?” He then stretches out his hand to those who are with him. “These are my mother, and my brothers, and my sisters”.

Who was it that did greet me on my birthday? Not my children, no, but my friends—here in Indonesia, and back home in America—the very same friends, in fact, who do not need a birthday or any other reason to show their kindness, but show the same as a matter of course and on a regular basis, because I am important to them, and they are important to me. Is blood really thicker than water, or is this quenching water of friendship richer, after all, than blood?  Is not the true measure of relation to be found in caring?

Of course it is painful to be forgotten by our children. One feels inclined to protect his or herself—to be angry, for instance, or to withdraw his own love, or to complain and remonstrate. But it is better for us simply to have a broken heart, for only the heart that is broken can honor the love that is freely given. Only a broken heart can remind us of the enduring, unconditional fullness of our affection.   

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Birthday Thoughts

Every morning when I go out for coffee, I bring my laptop along with me, because one never knows when it's going to have something to say--and you can bet that if I don't bring it, that will be the time that it wants to speak. So I bring it along and open it up and set it on the table beside my latte and wait. Of course, often enough it has nothing whatsoever to say, but just sits there and stares at me. Sometimes, it will pipe up about something inconsequential, like the weather--although I shouldn't say "inconsequential", because in fact we had such a violent storm last night, with a terrific light show and booming thunder and an absolute flood of rain, that this has surely been "consequential" for many. The only consequence at my house was the loss of the internet connection, but certainly many must have lost electricity and suffered from swamped streets and ground floors. It is being said today by many folks I know that this was the greatest storm they have seen during their time in Bali. I would agree that the weather here can indeed be quite "weathery"--thoroughly awesome in its intensity, with cannon-like thunder that actually makes you jump even though you know from the lightning flash that it is coming. The only comparably violent storms I have seen were in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

So, it's my birthday today, and my laptop sends me a smattering of generic good wishes from various acquaintances, who have themselves been reminded by their own laptops or phones--Today is Richard's birthday! Send him good wishes! Oh, yeah ... well, okay. Happy Birthday, Richard! Social media is good at reminding us to be social. And if you forget someone's birthday, it's not your fault. It's the fault of your software. So far, my birthday festivities include having a free coffee and then having lunch with my ex-wife. I can barely contain my excitement. The good news is that good old Iadi has just started his shift at Starbucks and has brought me a second free coffee. I am loved, after all. 

Monday, January 22, 2018


Very often when I make a negative comment about Donald Trump on an article read through the Facebook platform, I will soon receive an instant message request. This will always feature a picture of a sexy young woman, named Taffy or Angel or Darlene or what have you, and will say something like "Hi!" or "Hi, Richard, can you friend me?" These of course are from a hacker--an angry person, probably an overweight male, who has read and objected to my comment. Rather than debating the point, or merely being quiet and moving on, these folks are driven by an unnatural desire to reach out and hurt someone--their intent, in this case, being to break into one's Facebook account and friends list and fill it with trash or porn or what have you. It is yet another example of how people can take what should be a good thing--Social Media, the ability to communicate with people around the world, freedom of speech and the exchange of ideas--and turn it into a bully's game of intimidation and assault. I find this sort of thing depressing and disheartening and painfully typical of the deteriorating state of American society and manners. Of course, I suppose the answer is just not to comment at all. Forget the idea of meaningful debate or conversation. Hell, for all I know, these hackers are Russian anyway. In any case, they are anonymous, and anonymity is the perfect invitation for some to be at their very worst. It appeals to the secret sociopath in those who are inclined in that direction to begin with. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018


Things have gone from bad to worse. It used to rain whenever I went to Sanur. Now it rains no matter where I go. Hell, if even rains if I don't go anywhere at all. My effect on the weather has gone from coincidental to universal, and I don't know how to stop it! 

Seriously, though, I don't like to be in the house when the maid is in the house. I feel like I'm in the way, and apparently I am. It seems like she wants to clean wherever I happen to be standing. Kind of the same dynamic as with the rain. Wherever I go, she cleans. 

So I pulled on my long rain smock, buttoned up the neck and sleeves, fired up the scooter, stared at the rain for a while, causing the same, it seems, to pour down even harder, fastened my helmet, set my teeth, and set off on the seven minute drive to Starbucks at Plaza Renon. It was to be the wettest seven minutes of my life (if you don't count swimming).

Ah well. I 've got my hot coffee now, and a dry table, and I shall camp out here until the rain stops, or until they eject me--whichever comes first. 

I've been thinking lately about being sort of an accidental stranger in a strange land, an alien in a country that has nothing to do with me. The original reason for my being here, my original connection with the place, has run off with another man, and the son whom I raised has long since returned to America, and yet here I am, without apparent reason, like a piece of luggage that didn't make the connecting flight to wherever it was supposed to go. 

Why am I here, without anchor or sail or compass or crew?

And yet it occurred to me this morning that this sense of alienation is not so much a new experience as it is an old acquaintance, for even at home, I have often felt not at home. I have often felt like an alien among my own people and in my own country--what did they, or it, have to do with me? I felt like I was on the outside of the world, trying to find a way in, a place where I would fit. For periods of time things would seem to coalesce, but then would just as suddenly evaporate, as if they had been nothing more than compelling shapes in a fog to begin with, and I would find myself unmoored again. 

I have, however, found one familiar thing in Indonesia, something to ground and reassure me. I have found, here, America. Not the America of the present day, which must seem alien to most folks my age, but the America of my youth, a place of simpler forms and friendlier manners, a society of interconnectedness and a mutuality of common sense.  

I have been watching, lately, old episodes of the Andy Griffith Show. Y'all remember Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife, Gomer and Goober Pyle and Howard Sprague, and Otis and Floyd and Opie and Aunt Bee, right? Well, the thing that strikes me in watching these episodes of American life in the 50's and early 60's is that while they are as quaint and antiquated as can be in regards to America, they pretty well describe life as it is in Indonesia. Everything moves at a slower pace. Social conventions trump strict business at every turn. You don't just stop in at the local store for a carton of milk--you stop in for a carton of milk and a conversation. If your motorbike has a flat tire, someone stops to help you. If you're taking a walk and you meet someone on the way, they don't look away or walk faster. No, they stop to chat and maybe walk with you for a ways. Everyone watches out for his neighbor, and God help the thief who gets caught red-handed. 

How ironic it is that I should find home in this sense in a country on the other side of the world and among a people who speak a different language. How strange to find so much of the familiar in such a foreign place. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018


I remember a time, I think it was in 2004, when my second wife was going to give me a surprise birthday party. She told me in advance, so that I wouldn't be too surprised. She invited a number of people, her brothers and sisters, but I think the whole point was to get her daughters to come from Portland from Atlanta and New York. As it turned out, the daughters could not come, and so my wife cancelled the surprise party. It was the only surprise party that I ever almost had. By the time my next birthday had rolled around, we had divorced, but this had nothing to do with the surprise party that never happened. Nor was the divorce itself much of a surprise. It had been happening for quite some time. 

The Meeting

The three men are sitting at the table, two older men, one younger man. The younger man is delivering a pitch. He's selling something. He is prolific, intense, ambitious. He has a goal. But the older men have the money. The young man talks very quickly and smiles often. The older men do not smile. They listen judiciously, adjust their spectacles. It is raining hard and the rain is cascading off the edge of the roof but they are oblivious to the rain. At the table behind them, a young woman, half Chinese in appearance, sits with her shapely legs crossed, talking on her phone, oblivious to the men and to the rain and to the drumming of the rain on the table umbrellas. 

Friday, January 19, 2018


There's a warm wind up in Renon today, shoving the shoulders of the huskiest trees and billowing in the Starbucks table umbrellas. More people have come here than usual this afternoon. Perhaps the wind blew them in. And there are a goodly number of white people--not a common sight in Renon. Outside the tourist districts, the hotels, the beaches and the restaurants, one sees few white people. The Renon Starbucks is known, even among other Starbucks employees, as a spot for locals. People come here and order one coffee and sit for a long, long while, which is typically Indonesian of them. They come in pairs or in groups, seldom alone (unlike this bule). I do tend to stay longer these days, as when the weather is cloudy and off-and-on rainy, there is so little else to do. Would that I had something more interesting to write, but my head is rather empty today, and I think I might be hungry.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Old Man

I am the old man who sits on the porch and watches people go by. I am the old man who tosses bits of sausage to the neighborhood dogs. I never thought I would be the old man who sits on the porch and watches people go by. But here I am. And it’s not so bad. I watch the neighbor girl run by with her friend, both in bare feet. They are not girls, really. They are young women in the prime of their youth. They are taut and lithe and bright and shapely like fresh yellow roses newly bloomed. They nod and smile as they pass. In Bali, you are required to nod and smile, to acknowledge older people, and the bule, the European or American, is often afforded an extra bit of honor, for we are tamu, guests, and it is culturally important to be accommodating to guests. In the meantime, the big fat brown dog lumbers into the driveway, looking fatter than ever, and panting because the midafternoon is hot.  I fetch her a sausage from the kitchen, and fill her bowl with cold water. Now the girls come back with a small band of boys tagging along. These boys, though the same age, school friends, no doubt, are clearly lagging behind the girls in the maturing process. They are ragged and scruffed and ruffled while the girls are neat and pressed and tidy. The boys are rowdy, exuberant, excessive. The girls giggle and fold their arms. “Hello, Mister,” one of the boys says. The others nod in concert before returning to their performance for the girls. In America, people don’t say hi to old men on porches. They wonder why they are there. They seem vaguely suspicious. The big fat brown dog, vaguely suspicious herself, gives the young folks a wide birth as she waddles back toward her home. The late sun has descended now to the treetops and rolls down lazily from one limb to the next. It will be evening soon, and time for a coffee, and time for a slow and thoughtful cigarette. The truth is, I like being the old man who watches people go by. The truth is, I can be nothing else.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


I met a young woman here some years ago during a time when I was combing Sanur for coffee spots that were cheap but cozy. During the course of that search, I happened to stop in at a place called " Bahagia". This was a rather large establishment, generally devoid of customers, but I found that the price of coffee was quite good, and the coffee itself was good, and the waitress, Imas, was delightful. She was new in Bali, originally from Java, and had come here for employment, which is very typical of girls from Java. She was keenly interested in learning English, and was also keenly interested in finding a husband (again, typical). I wasn't available in the latter category, but we became friends and I helped her on the way with her English. I discovered also in the course of our conversations that she was being paid dirt cheap wages and was compelled to work seven days a week.

"Imas," I said, "don't you know that you can find work in almost any restaurant here and make twice as much money?"

"I don't know," she said. 

"Well, of course you can. Your hours here, and your wages, are ridiculous!" 

"But what can I do? I'm scared. I don't know anyone."


"Yes. Can you help me? Can you get me another job? You know a lot of people, yes?"

Well ... no. Nonetheless, I began to ask around, and I found several places that were looking for waitresses. Before long, I was able to take Imas to an interview at a place called "Chill It", run by a Norwegian ex-patriate. Imas was hired on the spot, and was now making almost three times the salary she had made at Bahagia. 

Not only was she making more money, but she began to meet more men, and little by little we saw less and less of one another. We stayed in touch through social media, and I followed her story of multiple suitors and multiple disappointments. Each time, she fell madly in love; and each time ended up crushed. One prospect, as I recall, was found not only to be already married, but sharing a room with a prostitute when Imas cheerily, and unexpectedly, showed up one morning. 

Finally, however, I see that Imas is engaged to be married. I had noted through Facebook that she was often visiting a man in Australia, and now that man has proposed, and Imas has a ring.

Good on her, as the Australians say. She worked long and hard, she learned English quite well, brought her little daughter from Jova (who had been living with her parents) and now seems set for a fulfilling and a comparatively opulent life. A happy beginning, and a happy ending, I hope. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Epic Fail

I have trouble recognizing people I know. This can lead to uncomfortable circumstances, because Indonesians have memories like elephants. Someone may greet me with open arms and a big smile. “Pak Will! Apa kabar? Tumben ya!” Yeah, tumben, as in Who the hell is this person? How does he know my name? How does he know my son’s name? How does he know where I live? How does he know me even though I’m wearing a motorcycle helmet? One time, I had a fairly long conversation with a girl sitting at JCO and when she got up to leave, I said it was nice to meet her. She informed me, politely, that I already know her and that we had met a number of times. Good grief. Just this morning when I was entering Starbucks, a young woman smiled at me and said Hi! I thought she was just being friendly, and so I nodded in a brief, friendly way and moved on. Turned out that she is the girlfriend of one of my Barista friends, I have met her several times, and in fact had been chatting with her online just the night before. Oh dear. And so I end up looking like a snob, or, worse yet, a complete idiot. Clearly, my brain is broken.

When I'm 64

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
when I'm 64?"

So, here I am coming up on the 'old age' memorialized in the old Beatles song. Sixty-four. I guess when I was young, 64 would have seemed old to me, but as I grew older myself, and saw my own father and relatives at that age, McCartney's lyrics and their picture of a man at 64 seemed rather exaggerated to me. And the question of whether a husband would be needed at 64 seemed absurd. Of course he would be! And probably more than ever before. But I suppose, as with most of McCartney's lyrics, the sound and the rhythm was the important thing. After all, if you play it in your mind, 74 and 84 just don't sound right, and 54 sounds far too young. 

But anyway, the stupid song has been going through my mind. Because I am about to be 64. 

Sixty-four certainly doesn't look the way I thought it would look when I was 24. This is very likely because the imagination of growing older was bound up with the pattern of what I saw in older folks such as my parents and aunts and uncles. I, too, would be a parent, I assumed, and even a grandparent, as in the song. Grandchildren on your knee--Vera, Chuck and Dave. 

Well, there are grandchildren, from my stepdaughters, anyway. Four, I believe. But I have only met one of them. And that was a long time ago. There is no wife--or rather, there have been three, which are now no longer wives (of mine, anyway). And somehow I have ended up on the other side of the world, single, alone, in a foreign land that I have no meaningful connection to. 

McCartney's 64 year old looks rather cozy, after all. Rather more like I thought I would be, after all. 

I remember writing a poem once upon a time for my second wife. It was titled "Old Woman Wife" and sought to describe her at a much older age, to paint a picture of beauty and character enriched by the years, etched in wrinkles of experience and wisdom. 

She was not pleased. 

Later, she would spend many thousands of dollars on plastic surgery--facelift, tummy tuck, so on and so forth. I saw her in the hospital, and it was a frightening sight indeed. Staples in her head, bruises on her skin, eye sockets purple. My God. I should have never wrote that poem! 

And you know what? She got old anyway, for the money ran out and the tummy untucked and the character of the years reasserted itself, saying No, you cannot fool me

I don't mind being 64. I have no use for being any other age at this point. And yet there is the suspicion that I am not who I am supposed to be. It is not a story I would have written when I was young. And yet, it was written by no one other than me. And there is at least one more chapter to be composed. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Fall River

I am in love with a girl I met many years ago. I do not remember her name. I want to say Mandy, or Amanda, or Marissa. It doesn’t matter. I met her at a place called Fall River. Fall River is in Central Oregon. I was 16, I think, and this was the first and only time I had been there, and so I could not have met her at any other time or in any other summer.

In that place, the land is as dry as paper in late summer and spring-fed Fall River tumbles and bubbles between the thirsty banks, eternally quenching the dry throat of those eastern slopes as they descend to the desert beyond.  I had a broken big toe that summer and it was taped to the other toes on that foot and pressed into my tennis shoe. It was a great, a crippling injury, as teenage injuries tend to be, and sometimes would make walking, when inconvenient, quite impossible. But the cold water felt good on the toe and so I did a lot of fishing, wading through the shallow rapids from one fallen tree to the next, fishing just across the trunks where the water pooled and quieted and gave the trout a place to rest.

Fallen trees were typical in that stream. Maybe their roots grew weak from the unfed soil such that a stiff wind might cause them to fall. Maybe that’s why it is called Fall River. I fished upstream, casting parallel along the break in the water caused by the trunks, and had caught perhaps a half dozen trout by the time I saw the girl on the far bank. She was speaking to an older woman, her grandmother, I thought, and then looking my way. I was sitting on a rock, tying on a new fly, and I watched the girl begin to cross over the river atop a half-submerged log.

Being a chivalrous boy, and one skilled at walking on half-submerged logs, I rushed to her assistance (which she did not need).

“Some of these logs sink,” I warned. “Here, take my hand.”

In fact, her balance was better than mine. Lithely, she hopped past me, and reached the shore far in advance, where she waited with her arms crossed.

“My toe is broken,” I explained, limping tragically onto dry land.

And she smiled.

How do I describe this smile? Is it sufficient to say that I still see it even now, in my mind’s eye? That it entered my very soul and curled up therein like a small, soft, warm animal to live forever beneath my skin? Is it enough to say that in this girl’s smile the day, the sun, the breeze, the scent of pine and of wildflower, the cool of the water, the sparkle on the surface were all contained, and moreover, somehow, explained? Her hair was light brown, a honey brown, unpredictable, eccentric, having something in common with the wind. Her high cheekbones were each decorated with several strategically placed freckles, as if she had placed them there herself, just so, and her eyes were brittle and quick and lively and sleek and were the rich, burnt color of a sugar glaze.

And though I was a shy young man, a painfully shy young man, unaccustomed to talking to girls, here I was in my element, strengthened by the camaraderie of the forest and the river and the impossible blue sky, and we talked for hours, this girl and I. We talked about school and home and friends and enemies and likes and dislikes. We talked about everything. And to my surprise—to my unspeakable, triumphant, incredulous astonishment—I found that this girl was just like me. Just exactly like me, but for her beauty, but for the pure budding soft moist freckled and glimmering bubbling over of her soul.

I was in love.

Finally, her father came along the bank of the river and said he had been looking for her for hours. He said it was time for her to return to their camp. He chatted for a moment, and shook my hand, and asked whether I’d like to come back with them.

Stupidly, I said no.

“We might come again tomorrow,” the girl said.

Mandy, Amanda, Marissa? It doesn’t matter.

She did not come back the next day. I rose early and hiked straightaway to “our spot” on the bank, and there I waited while the morning simmered and the afternoon burned and then slowly wilted away to evening. With the tip of a long stick, I wrote her name in the black soil at the edge of the water, and felt the marks of those letters on my heart—not just a name, and never again a name, but a wound, a brand, a scar, a treasure known yet ever unattained.

She would be an old woman now, just as I am an old man. We are still the same. Sometimes I think about how she must be—a wife, no doubt, a mother, a grandmother. I wonder if she remembers me, and I think she does not. Such girls do not remember old things. Such girls are creatures of a thousand moments, and creators of a thousand dreams.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Boys and Bikes

Watching a little boy race around the deserted Starbucks veranda on his little bike. He is perhaps 5, and weaves in and out between the tables and chairs with amazing skill. Definitely ready for his motorbike license. 

He stops by my table for a moment and I compliment his skill.

Ini tempat bagus bersepeda, ya? 

The boy agrees, then races away. Pretty soon he's back again and parks by my table. 

I like your bike, I say. 

Thank you. It's new.

My goodness, the boy speaks English, too. Pintar sekali!

I am reminded of my own stepson, Preston. A long time ago. Just about this boy's size. With a little bike just about this size. And boy could he ride that thing--chubby legs pumping, curly hair flying. 

That was some 25 years ago, but in my mind he is still steaming down that sidewalk in North Portland, oblivious to all but the wind in his hair and the racing wheels on the walk. 

What happened to the years? How very swiftly they have raced away--and yet they touch down again in another place, another time. How eager they are to speak, to remind. 

More on Shitholes

Recently, I read a novel set in Detroit, Michigan; or, rather, what little is left of a part of Detroit. This is an inner city core of ruins, abandoned buildings in various stages of collapse, home to the homeless, to the untended dying, to drug addicts and criminals, gang clubhouses, featuring broken windows, collapsing stairways, raw sewage, vermin. In short, it is an American shithole, and rivals any shithole in the world. And Detroit is not alone. In my own visit to Washington DC, I saw people living on the street, sleeping on park benches, homeless, destitute, and right outside the capital district. Upon a visit to a certain part of the city, my daughter told me to stay in the car and lock the doors. Yes, we have fabulous, “yuge” shitholes throughout the United States of America. We don’t feature them on TV. We don’t advertise them. But we do see the worst of other countries—scenes of war, victims of natural disaster—and we call those places shitholes. Or rather, our president calls them shitholes, and panders to his equally blind and ignorant base.

‘First remove the beam from your own eye, before taking the speck from your neighbor’s’.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


For some twenty years, I have been bald. This started with my second wife, who decided, as I began to lose hair on the top of my head, that she preferred total baldness to partial baldness. It made me, she said, 'look less bald'. Go figure. My third wife carried on the preference. Kind of a Bruce Willis look, you know. In fact, Indonesian acquaintances noted this and began to call me 'Bruce Willis', or more simply 'Om Bruce'. 'Om' is a word originating from the Dutch colonial period and means 'uncle', although an Indonesian uncle will be called 'Paman'. 

Lately, however, newly adrift from the preferences of any wife whatsoever, I began to grow my hair again; and what has surprised me, after twenty years of baldness, is that I actually do have hair to grow. Admittedly, it is rather thin on top, but grows just the same as ever on the sides and in the back. And it is still mostly light brown rather than gray. 

I have also grown a beard and mustache. For most of my adult life, I had a beard and mustache--right up until my third marriage, to a woman who did not like beards and mustaches. These, unlike the hair on my head, are completely gray, imparting a rather dignified appearance, if I do say so myself. 

So successful have my hairy attempts been that, after a couple of months, I have had to buy a comb! As I recall from times long past, combs are things that are lost on a regular basis, so I will likely find myself buying more combs in the future. 

I've grown a costume for my face, to paraphrase the old song. I've assumed a new identity, or, rather, resumed an old one. 

Friday, January 12, 2018


I live in a country that is surely on Donald Trump's list of "shitholes". Indonesia is a country that has struggled through a long era of colonial occupation by the Dutch, then through occupation by the Japanese during World War Two. It is a country that has been robbed and oppressed by foreign peoples. Even after its declaration of independence, the people were subjected to corrupt rule by their own representatives. For decades, the common people languished in poverty while the few filled their pockets. Little by little, however, the people have taken charge of their government and a thriving middle class has arisen. It is a country, like all countries, that has undergone strife and trouble and growth and improvement. 

What Indonesia is not is a "shithole". On the contrary, the pervasive attitude among the Indonesian people is one of friendship and humility. Do they know that their country still has problems to overcome? Yes. Do they think that it is a shithole? Not at all. 

It is the clearest shame that our president would refer to any country as a shithole, declaring, by extension, that the people of such a shithole do not deserve to be allowed in America. It is simple bigotry fully unveiled, tantamount to stating, in singling out Haiti and Africa while championing Norway, that colored people are not welcome here, while white people are.

And what about America? Consider our crime rate. Consider our slums. Consider the presence of so much poverty in the richest nation on earth. Consider our history of racial oppression--which is still, as it would seem, thriving, even at the very top. Consider the fact that women cannot feel safe walking out at night. Consider our mass shootings--the murder of children, for God's sake! Is America not a shithole of a nation?

Better than insulting others would be to invite all that we can--let them bring their hopes to our shore, their integrity, their work ethic, their admiration, their gratitude--and build again on the worthy foundation that our current president is so intent on trashing.

I believe in the America that Indonesians, even now, continue to believe in, the America that people from all over the world, including Haiti, believe in. It is the America of opportunity, of justice, of tolerance, of integrity, of compassion, of inclusion. It is time for Americans to take a close look at ourselves, to ask ourselves how we would life to be perceived--as arrogant, intolerant bullies or as humble, compassionate friends. We did not choose our place of birth, nor did the Hatians or the Africans or the Norwegians. And yet, we are free to choose who we are as individuals, haling ultimately not from this or that shithole, but from the Creator of all, who created all peoples as equal, and worthy, and beloved. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018


There is magic in the world. It is known through little things. Passing in a moment. Disbelieved. Gone like smoke, yet striking twice like lightning. Something has been ignited. It burns. It remembers. It is a woman's eyes. You cannot plan for things like these, for these are things which swiftly flee. You wait again where magic happened, as if it were a function of place. You wait in vain, forever ready, thirsting for another glance.  

More Rain

A day of mad dashes between downpours. A dash out for coffee, beat the ensuing shower by perhaps 5 minutes. A dash to the post office to pay the water bill. Later, hopefully, there will be space for a dash to the grocery store to buy some food. 

This is probably the rainiest rainy season I've seen thus far in Bali. Every day it rains, sometimes quite steadily. The big fat brown dog is hunkered down somewhere and I've only seen her once in the past five days or so. I note that the new dog next door has been left outside in the driveway. Difficult not to note, given that he howls all day. I gave him a sausage before leaving he house, which he seemed to greatly appreciate. Hungry and lonely. The story of most dogs in Bali. 

So the pattern of late is short trips outside between rain storms, and then watching movies at home. Welcome to life in the tropical rainy season. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sleep, Cognition, and So On

I’ve been waiting on an order for Xanax and Gabapentin, so that I can 1) sleep at night and 2) be in a bit less pain during the day, but both, for some reason, are long in coming. My pharmacist ordered both early last week, and they have still not arrived. Therefore, I’ve not been doing much sleeping, and last night I had to break down and buy the expensive option for Gabapentin at the large commercial pharmacy. I can’t get Xanax from the large pharmacy because it can only be gotten 1) with a prescription or 2) from a local pharmacist who has become a friend.

Surprisingly, however, I slept like a baby last night, all the way through the night, and woke up at 8:30 rather than the customary 6:30 in the morning. Go figure. I guess I was tiredJ I was in significant pain when I went to bed, and woke up with the same pain in the morning. Just like being married.

So I formulated my plan for the day over a breakfast which consisted of a chocolate-marshmallow cookie. The plan was to 1) take my laundry to the cleaner, 2) stop by the Circle K store for cigarettes and 3) go to Starbucks to do some writing and reading and chatting.

Ah, but my best laid plans, like those of all mice and men, do often go awry. Arriving at the laundry place, I noted that I had forgotten my laptop. Retrieving the laptop from the house and heading for the Circle K, I noted that I had forgotten my helmet. Retrieving my helmet, I head for Starbucks, and noted, upon arrival there, that I had forgotten to buy the cigarettes.

This, actually, is a fairly normal course of events and may be put down to the strange phenomenon of cognitive difficulties associated with MS. In a similar way, the other day, while driving home from the mall, I suddenly had the panicky impression that I had forgotten my laptop. It was not in its usual place by my feet on the front of the bike. Where could it be? I must have left it at the mall! Making a U-turn, I headed swiftly back toward the mall, only to realize just as suddenly that Oh, the laptop is in the backpack on my back! Whew.

Cognitive changes are certainly a very weird part of MS. The National MS Society describes the condition as follows:

Cognitive” means of or relating to “cognition” — which refers to a range of high-level brain functions including the ability to learn and remember information, organize, plan and problem-solve, focus, maintain and shift attention, understand and use language, accurately perceive the environment, and perform calculations.

Cognitive changes are a common symptom of MS — more than half of all people with MS will develop problems with cognition. For some, it may even be the first symptom of MS. Certain functions are more likely to be affected than others:

  • Information processing (dealing with information gathered by the five senses)
  • Memory (acquiring, retaining and retrieving new information)
  • Attention and concentration (particularly divided attention)
  • Executive functions (planning and prioritizing)
  • Visuospatial functions (visual perception and constructional abilities)
  • Verbal fluency (word-finding)

A person may experience difficulties in only one or two areas of cognitive functioning or in several. Certain functions including general intellect, long-term (remote) memory, conversational skill and reading comprehension are likely to remain intact.

Most people who experience changes in cognitive function can use compensatory strategies and tools to help them function effectively. However, cognitive dysfunction is one of the major causes of early departure from the workforce. In very rare instances, cognitive dysfunction may become so severe that the person can no longer function independently.

So, in other words, ‘bummer’, right?

Some of this can be overcome through intention—purposing, that is, to remember that you have probably forgotten something. You take extra time before leaving the house. You take an inventory of what you have with you and what might be missing. You don’t just ‘get up and go’. It’s something one has to practice, because that part of one’s brain that is not really functioning, really thinks that it is functioning, and confidently tells you so. I’ve got it all together, it says. Let’s go!

So, it’s that habit of saying ‘No, you don’t,’ that is difficult to learn—because of course the part of the brain that is failing to function does not remember that it is failing to function.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A Brief Conversation

I thought I had something to say this morning when I first arrived at the usual coffee spot in Renon, laptop in hand. On the contrary, however, the laptop, once opened and fired up, just sat there dumbly staring back at me, quite speechless after all. What was speaking, instead, was the relentless pain in my neck and shoulder, demanding my full attention. 

"Why write rather than suffer?" the pain said. 

"Why make this distinction between writing and suffering?" I retorted. "Are they not the same?"

"Ah, well, if so, then choose what is given rather than what must be sought. Why task yourself needlessly?"

"Because I would prefer ..."

"Ah ha! That's it! You would prefer a more comfortable sort of suffering."

"And a more meaningful."

"Indeed! You say, then, that I am devoid of meaning?"

"I say that you are devoid of depth."

"Oh really? Do say! Have I not already penetrated to the point of silencing your mind, to the point of smothering your will? Oh, empty man and frail shell. I speak to you and you speak of me. If you think this not so, examine your own testimony. And tell me then, which part is empty and which part full."

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Fall of the House of Boughton

Some of you may remember a very old movie (older than I, in fact) called Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House, starring Cary Grant (1948). A more recent movie that is rather like the first is The Money Pit, starring Tom Hanks (1986). In both movies, a young couple has invested in a dream house for their future which turns out to be a nightmare. I remember watching the Cary Grant movie a very long time ago on an afternoon TV matinee. It was my first realization that Cary Grant was actually funny. All that I knew of him beforehand was that he was the one who said, “Judy, Judy, Judy”. Unable to find this online so far, I looked up The Money Pit instead and watched that one this morning. Hanks is also quite funny in this comedy of disasters as a young man trying to hold together a house that is self-destructing all around him while at the same time maintaining a marriage that is far more important to him than the money or the house. “The foundation is the important thing,” the building contractor tells Hanks toward the end of the story. “If you have a good foundation, everything else can be repaired.”

It’s an endearing sort of moral, and it may even be true. But the reason these two movies came to mind in the first place is that upon awakening this morning, after a rather sleepless night punctuated by pains and discomforts for which there seems no end of modulation, it occurred to me that my body is like the cursed house in these movies, falling apart bit by bit, beam by beam, from floor to ceiling to plumbing to wiring. Every evening, I go to bed in the hope that the night crew of time and rest will have mended some parts of the crumbling structure by morning, only to find upon waking that new holes have appeared, new pipes have cracked, that the floors are sagging and the timbers are groaning and that the latter condition is now worse than the former. Oh, the foundation is still solid—I’m still here, aren’t?—but all the parts above ground are tipped and skewed and leaning in quite an alarming manner.

Now, I don’t remember what ultimately happens with the house in the Grant movie. In the Hanks film, the thing is in a seemingly hopeless state, such that even the repairs are in need of repair. But when the foundation of the love itself is threatened, the house no longer matters to either the man or the woman. Repairs are finally effected, the structure made sound, but the foundation, the love that is the very reason for the house, has been undermined. Of course, it all turns out well in the end (this is, after all, a comedy). Love is restored and, with it, the house, the dream, and the future.

Would that life itself were a comedy. Or then again, perhaps it is. In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul speaks of dwellings in this manner: For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.

Some of my troubles may be reparable. I don’t know. If they are, they are only so for a time—and God knows what period of time. Deterioration remains a constant process, relentlessly undoing repair, relentlessly degrading that which has arisen from the initial foundation. The great hope from the beginning is for a structure not subject to dissolution, the eternal foundation sometimes known as love.