Thursday, February 28, 2019

A Yearly Thing

Seems that my landlord has done gone and did it again. 

Last year at about this time, he suddenly decided that he wanted ten million more in rent per year. I said no, and began to look for a small place to move to. I had checked out several and was just looking at another when he called to say, "Oh, wait, I changed my mind." He would stay with the original price as long as I contracted for two years. 


One year later, he has again changed his mind. Again, he wants ten million more per year. What happened to the two year arrangement agreed to last year? Well, he seems to have forgotten. 

As it happens, however, Louis still has the phone message record of the agreement. She has sent this to him and neither of us has heard back as of yet. 

Now, if a renter agrees to a two year contract and then decides to back out, there is a penalty. But perhaps landlords are not under the same obligations. 

In any case, the saga will continue to unfold. Or unravel. However it may be. 


The most curious thing about Michael Cohen's testimony before congress is that it's not curious at all. It's not shocking or revealing, not a bombshell, because two-thirds of the American people already knew the things that he has spoken of to be true, in the same way that we knew his previous lies, as well as the lies of all the other Trump henchmen, Flynn, Manafort, Stones, Gates, and on and on, to be lies. We knew these things through the human property of common sense. We knew these things through intuitive sense. It is no surprise to find that Donald Trump personally  arranged the hush payment to a porn star. Of course he did. We already knew this. We never thought any differently. It was obvious. And our collective response to his denials from the  beginning was "Yeah, right." Because we are all human and we know what it is to be human. We are not surprised to find that Trump's school and college records had been suppressed by threat, because it has always been clear that Donald is not, after all, a "stable genius". To echo a former vice-presidential candidate, "I knew a genius, Mr. Trump, and you are no genius." We have all known very bright people. And then we have seen Mr. Trump, who is barely able to manage the English language. Is it a revelation that Mr. Trump is a racist, with a clear disdain for people of color? Please. We've heard about Charlottesville. We've heard about the 'shithole countries run by black people.' We've heard the shameful Obama birther conspiracy. We've heard about Mexican rapists and killers. Are we surprised to find that Mr. Trump is a crooked businessman, a cheat, a con man? Hardly. This has been common knowledge for decades. Two-thirds of us have always been perfectly aware of the picture Cohen has painted. And then there is the remaining one-third--those who also know this testimony to be true, but simply don't care, for their devotion, ironically, is of the same nature that had previously driven Mr. Cohen, and for which he has now repented. They are committed to protecting Donald Trump no matter what. To this end, therefore, Republican congressmen at the hearing focused on damning Michael Cohen for the crimes he has already pled guilty to, and for which he will soon be jailed, in order to deflect from addressing the crimes of their president--the very point of the hearing! Cohen warned at one point during his testimony that those now making the mistakes that he himself had made will ultimately find themselves paying the same penalty. I hope that he is right, at the very least, about that. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Commission and Omission

"All moral evil," writes Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston college, "consists in being what we are not or not being what we are." 

I had to let that sink in. It kind of dashes by quickly while you are reading and you have to say, 'Wait a sec … what was that again?' 

What Kreeft, a Catholic, has done here is to restate the doctrine. in very simple, accessible terms, of sins of commission and omission. And he does the same for many of the complex ideas dealt with in his book, Doors in the Walls of the World, Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story

Who has not endured the shame at some moment of being what he is not? Likewise, who does not regret the moment when he failed to be what he is? 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Rules and Regs

One gets so accustomed over time to the way things are done here in Indonesia that he forgets that many of them don't make much sense. Take the rules about motorbike ownership, for instance. I think of this just now because I'm currently having to do my yearly motorbike registration. But the thing is, a foreigner cannot buy a motorbike in Indonesia (nor a car, for that matter). But of course, everyone needs a mode of transportation, given that there is basically no such thing as public transportation. Therefore, he must buy his bike through a friend or other relation or representative. He then has a bike, and a registration under the name of the buyer, but he cannot renew the registration without help from the actual owner to the extent that the owner must once a year provide documentation of citizenship in order to renew the registration. It's not as if anyone at all is unware of this procedure; and, in fact, I'm sure that if you don't know anyone, the dealership will nominate someone for you. Either that, or you can just buy from a private party who doesn't care about any of the above and drive without a registration. Given that all of this results in no one being without a bike or car, what's the point in the run-around to begin with? 

Naturally, one has to have a license also. Well, technically. Again, why would one be acquiring a license if he owns no vehicle? Oh, I suppose it would serve as permission to drive someone else's car or motorbike--but then, you're already driving someone else's car or motorbike, aren't you? 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, folks. Don't even get me started on what is required to qualify as a foreign resident here and what is actually observed! 

It all works out in the end because realistic efforts are made on many levels to make it work out. Yet one wonders why things have been arranged so as to require the efforts in the first place.  "There's a way around that" is the Indonesian motto in all walks and endeavors of life. 

Don't worry, be happy. 

Monday, February 25, 2019


I have had the flu for about two weeks now, thought it was just about over, felt pretty good really, and then yesterday it reared up and delivered a knockout blow. Sudden high fever, coughing, profound fatigue, nausea, body aches from head to toe. Slept most of the day, and then most of the night. Feeling a bit better again today, though rather like one who has been recently run over by a car. Of course the flu also causes havoc with MS, or MS with the flu, not sure which. So I'm hoping that I can find something interesting to watch on the laptop today. A good movie, perhaps? But no Trump news. Can't take it in this condition, as nauseating as it is on its own without the addition of flu. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Thing That Fell From the Sky

I was sitting at an outdoor cafĂ© yesterday down in Sanur sipping at a caramel pudding cappuccino (or some such frivolity) when suddenly something fell from the sky, or rather from a high limb of the tall tree beneath which my table was situated, and smacked to the pavement near my feet, glancing first off the tabletop umbrella. 

Naturally, I was startled, as were two schoolgirls passing nearby, who granted the thing a shriek before continuing on their way--but more startling than the noise the falling thing had made was what I saw, or indeed did not see, when I looked to see what had happened; for what I saw on the pavement near my feet did not immediately register as any particular thing. I expected to see a bit of the tree itself, a stick or a branch or a slab of bark, but my eyes identified none of these possibilities. What they recorded, just at first, was something amorphous, a pallid grey/green, somehow gelatinous seeming shape. I leaned forward to get a closer look, for the thing was just not registering. What was this deep sea sort of entity that had suddenly fallen from the sky? 

Well, the longer I looked, the freer the thing became of its must-ness of being a stick until it was able to gradually resolve into being what it was. And what it was was a squirrel. 

There, after all, is the head, and the long, bushy tail, the striped brown coloring, the little eyeball and the little ear--there, the squirrel-ness of the thing in its entirety. 

But why had it taken me so long to categorize the thing? How had it so long persisted as mere blobbishness? 

We tend to think of the eye as an organ which sees and does its own comprehending according to what it sees. Like the lens of a camera. Point and shoot. But of course it's really not that simple. Information is not being processed by the eye but in the brain. The eye, which knows nothing on its own, merely relays what it has recorded. It does not comprehend the information any more than a tape recorder comprehends what is on a tape that is being played. 

This said, how has it happened, in the case of the squirrel, that my brain has interrupted the image of the creature in such a jumbled way? It wanted to see stick, the eye was not transmitting stick, and there was nothing on the instant with which to replace stick. My brain's answer was an amorphous nothing, vaguely green or grey. Was it of inanimate matter or was it alive? No interpretation was offered. There did seem to be some movement, but perhaps the movement was that caused by a breeze on a leaf. Was the thing a leaf? 

But I know leaves, and I did not see a leaf. I did not see, at first, anything known.

Now, what did I see? Was it the visual representation of the brain's answer of I don't know? Was the grey/green shape an essence rather than particulate matter, an ectoplasm. Had the squirrel been on the verge of death and was this cloudy, nameless thing the rising up of his soul (and, for that matter, was he called back to his body by my eventual ability to identify him)? Or was this merely a failure to communicate, a damaged transmitter, a fried bit of myelin, a whisper of Alzheimer's? 

Well, in any case, the happy news is that the squirrel laid there on the pavement for about ten minutes, began at last to blink its eye, then to twitch its tail, and then, coming fully awake, to squawk out what may have been litany of curses before suddenly jumping up, leaping to the chair, and to the table top, and thence to the trunk and high limbs of the tree. I don't expect to ever see him again. In fact, it had been difficult enough to see him just this once. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Do I Know You?

It happened again. A woman who fairly often comes into the Plaza Renon Starbucks, whom I have seen dozens of times in the past, who always drops a smile and a hello when I see her, came in today, said hello, asked how I was doing, and I had no idea who she was!

How can it be? How has this piece of memory dropped completely out of my mind? Why has it done so? 

After answering her greeting, I searched my mind for who she could be, how does she know me, how do I know her? I shuffled through a ream of possibilities--an employee from another Starbucks? An employee from this Starbucks? Someone in my neighborhood? Someone from a grocery that I frequent? An old friend of mine? An old friend of my wife's? Like looking for Private Ryan's name in a mountain of dog tags. 

At last, perhaps ten minutes down the road, the missing piece fell back in place. It was that woman I have seen dozens of times in the past. That woman who always smiles and says hello. Her name is Rizka, I think. Where the piece had gone, I do not know, nor do I know how it suddenly found its way back. 

Did she understand that I did not know who she was? Did my face look blank or dumbfounded. I don't know that, either. 

Dozens of times in the past, I have instantly recognized the woman. Dozens of times we have shared greetings. How can it have happened that today recognition completely fell through the floor and into a dark and webby void? 

Catch 22

Did I mention my fixation with receiving a Medicare card? I don't remember. It's kind of silly, really, given that I cannot use the card in Indonesia anyway, but I guess it's a peace of mind sort of thing. You know, I thought it would be good to have the card at ready should I suddenly take seriously ill and need to be rushed to a hospital thousands of miles away. They could sew the card to my ear, or tag it on my big toe, and life-flight me to the USA. 

Well, I said it was silly. 

But anyway, I finally received my awaited piece of mail from Medicare yesterday. Initially, it was my understanding, as imparted by the SSA website, that I would receive the card "a couple months" before my 65th birthday. When my birthday passed with no card, I called SSA, waited 50 minutes for a rep to answer, and was ultimately told that my card had been sent on the 25th of January (two days after my birthday). I would receive it in about 10 days, the rep told me. In fact, I received the mail on February 21st. 

Opening my piece of mail, I found no card. I found a message stating that cards were no longer being sent outside the United States and its territories. The letter stated that I could get my Medicare number and print my own card by filling out the form below. 

The first question to be filled in on the form below was "What is your Medicare card number?" 


I then contacted Medicare through the chat feature on their website to ask how I could fill in my number on the form if I did not know my number.  

The rep, Eugene, said that this was not something that could be discussed online. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


I once had a literature professor, lecturing in 'The English Novel' , who opined, rather crudely, that writers are people who like to carefully roll their shit into little balls before disposing of it. She might have just said that writers are anal retentive, which I guess was her point in the first place, but hey, there are some oddball professors out there with their own methods of imparting wisdom, or their version of it, anyway. 

I don't know how accurate the woman's observation was, but I've always retained it, for some reason (maybe because I'm anal retentive?). But I tend to resist such generalizations, and I can't help but reject the notion that a love for words and for the arrangement of words is somehow akin to manipulating balls of shit. Perhaps the crass nature of the professor's observation says more about her own internal response to a talent that she admired but did not herself possess. Was it a matter of painful envy which in turn gave rise to a need to degrade? Who knows? 

To me, writing is like music. You listen to it in your head and then you put it on the page. You are, in some sense, transcribing something that is already there. At the best of times, it discovers itself as you engage with it. It becomes more than you meant for it to be, more than you initially knew it to be. As a composition progresses, it finds its own next notes, finds the harmony intended. Factual matter, the skeleton of the thing, melts into the freedom of invention. You begin with a memory or an event, with some solid experience, and the thing (memory, event, experience) begins to speak more fully of itself until, finally, it tells a story that is both different from what you originally intended and more completely, more truly what you intended. You have in short, through process, discovered what you did not know to begin with. 

I once published a short story in a literary periodical. The editor of the magazine was quite captivated with the story, and was certain, as she conveyed to me in a letter, that the events of the story had actually taken place in my life, just as I had written them. They had not, but I didn't have the heart to tell her so. 

In the same way, people will occasionally recognize some event or experience or personage and then feel alarmed when the subsequent narrative departs from their recollection of actual facts. They have made the mistake of thinking that a piece that mentions a "fact" must adhere to all the facts, as if it were an autobiography rather than a creative invention. But the fact of fiction is this: that every event, every experience, every incident is just an individual note, each with its own destiny in the music that ultimately appears. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Unknown

I know of a certain woman whom in fact I do not know who has been to most places in the world I have been to in or around the same time I was in those places. I do not know her name. I do not know what she looks like. I am simply aware through peripheral writings and accidental information that we have often been in the same places at more or less the same time, and moreover this coincidence has extended throughout our lifetimes, from childhood to at least the most recent decade, ranging from the wilds of Oregon to barren Manitoba, to Northern Virginia, and to the island of Bali. 

Why? How does this work? Is this simply why coincidence is called coincidence, or does coincidence itself become something more complex, something that strives toward meaning, something that carries out its own search, becoming mysteriously personal? Are we connected in some fateful way, parts of some knowledge yet to materialize; or are we citizens of two parallel universes, the wheels of which routinely touch and spark a brief light in the blackness of the void? In this world, do we fail to coincide because of ill-fortune, the failure to look to the right when we should have looked to the left, or do we fail in some things because we were never meant to succeed? 

Who are you? Why are you following me? What did you mean by basking on my stone under the same summer sun in the same blue sky after the frigid atoms of the water had warmed themselves on our mutual skin? 

Monday, February 18, 2019


I read in today's Jakarta Post a second article concerning Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second largest Muslim organization, and its efforts to mobilize its millions of members to further the concept of moderation (al-wasatiyyah) in order to stem the tide of the religious extremism which has resulted in the rise of intolerance and hostility toward minorities. 

I like that. 

"It is time," said Chairman Haedar Nashir, "for major Islamic groups to 'pay' for their mistake by engaging the community more and instilling the values of religious moderation, which include fairness, kindness, mutual respect and tolerance." 

"We now need to disseminate a counter narrative," he continued, "showcasing the tolerant and peaceful aspect of Islam to fight against rampant hoaxes and hate speech." 

Sound familiar? Ring a bell? Well, it should--for we in America are also under attack by intolerant, hateful sects of so-called 'Christians'--the Christian right, the moral majority--spreading hostility and fanaticism in just the same way, infecting politics and civil discourse with bigotry and paranoia and just-plain-bad-religion at the expense of fairness, kindness, mutual respect and tolerance. 

Would that the Christian community in my own country could form such robust and focused opposition to the extremism that is an insult to faith itself. 


Memory is a strange thing, especially where it is mitigated by MS. It is difficult, sometimes, to decide what has been forgotten in the normal way and what has been erased by MS. 

Recently, I was telling my ex-wife about my visit to the American consulate here in Denpasar, describing how surprised I was by the high security measures and so on. 

"Well, you've been there before," she said. 

"No, I haven't!" 

"Yes, you went with me and Sasha a couple years ago when we had to renew Sasha's American passport. Don't you remember?" 

Well … no. Not at all. I was quite certain that I had never been there before. If I had, why would I have needed to use my phone navigator to find the place? Why would the place itself have seemed as new as a different planet? And yet, her narrative made sense. The facts were on her side. The details that she recalled were perfectly convincing and likely. 

I had been to the consulate before. The experience had merely been erased. And it was not something that could be revived by pertinent information, as is often the case with something that one has forgotten in the natural way. There was no, "Oh yeah, that's right, now I remember."  It was simply gone, as if it had never happened. 

Entire swathes of my life are simply gone in this manner. I can remember but small bits and pieces of this or that decade. At the same time, I will remember events from childhood--even common sorts of events--as if they had happened yesterday. For instance, I was watching an old Abbot and Costello movie last night (it had popped up in my suggested viewing from YouTube, which seems to calculate my interests better than my own brain does). The movie was Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The curious thing is that I remembered this movie frame by frame, knew what was going to happen before it happened. Moreover, I remembered sitting on the floor by my brother, remembered the room we were in, remembered that we were eating popcorn, remembered the things in the movie that we laughed at and the things we talked about. This must have been nearly 60 years ago. On the other hand, I can watch a movie now and remember so little of it that watching it again is like watching it for the first time. 

Yesterday when I went to the Seminyak Starbucks, multiple people greeted me as I did my slow tour of the place. "Hi, Pak Will! How are you?" I did not know these people, I did not recognize their faces. I merely pretended to know them. Oh, hi, good to see you again … whoever you are. Again, on the other hand, I had arranged, a few years ago back in Portland, to meet my old childhood friend, Marc. We had not seen each other in perhaps 40 years--had had no contact whatsoever during that period of time. And yet, I picked him out of a crowd at our agreed upon meeting place instantly. 

How can it be? 

Perhaps a good measure for determining MS erasure as opposed to a natural fading of sharp recollection is in the ability of the normal mental processes to search and locate. The memory, in the normal scenario, is there--it just needs some dusting off, some brushing away of cobwebs, while in the case of something that has been completely smudged out by MS, there is no revival, no retrieval, for the thing has simply been burned away in a flash of erroneous neurologic process and gone up in smoke. It no longer exists except in the testimony of others. 

What remains however (I believe) is an emotional, spiritual sort of comprehension, a deeply embedded assimilation of experience that tends toward wisdom. Somewhere, deep in the soil of experience, the thing has been implanted, and though you can no longer see it or name it, it takes root nonetheless and flourishes beneath the surface.  

I hope so, anyway. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Rare Excursion

I was feeling pretty darn good this morning (wonders never cease), so I decided to drive out to Bali Mall Galeria. This is a goodly distance away, although it seems much farther now than it used to. Back in the day, I would go there pretty much once a week in order to shop for groceries. In those days there were no large markets close to our house in Sanur. I would take my backpack, do my shopping at the Hypermart, then load up the scooter and the pack and be off on my way home. It did not seem a terrific effort then, but it does now. That's partly because I just don't have as much energy as I used to, and partly because of the pain in my shoulders and back, which is exacerbated by the effort required to steer the bike, use the brakes and accelerator, and so on. The point in all this was to go to the large Gramedia bookstore in the mall, but as it turned out, I couldn't find anything I wanted anyway. 

Nonetheless, still feeling okay, I decided to press on another 20 minutes to Seminyak where a fancy new Starbucks has been built. I've been wanting to see it, as well as to see my old buddies who used to work in Renon but now work in Seminyak. I've not been to Seminyak in at least three years--maybe more. 

Seminyak is one of the newer tourist communities in South Bali, tending toward the upper end of the market--wealthy, sophisticated, tasteful tourists, as opposed to the young Aussies, the Bogans, who come to party and drink and carouse in nearby Kuta (a place that I avoid like the plague). 

I was somewhat surprised to find, however, that the clientele in the Seminyak Starbucks was mostly Indonesian. This seems a good measure of how much things have changed in eight years here. It used to be that Western establishments such as Starbucks, or all the foo-foo clothing stores in the tourist hubs, would be populated mostly be bules. But with the rapid growth of a middle class in Bali, these establishments are now frequented by the locals as well, who are now able to afford to frequent them (more able, for the most part, than I am, in fact).  And, well, good on 'em.  

At the same time, it is sad in a way to watch Bali so rapidly modernize and begin to look like any other country rather than like Bali. Little by little, the small shops disappear, the local sellers with whom one would haggle and bargain, the little food stalls--paved over by the logo and the brand name, the fixed price, a sterile sort of sameness. I saw this same sort of transition as I grew up from boyhood, yet somehow it seemed more natural then. I remember from my own youth the corner drug store and the little family owned markets, the corner candy store, the little bakery, all eventually surrendering to the encroachment of Safeway and Fred Meyer and Costco. A convenient, well-ordered sameness overtakes what was quaint. So it goes. 

Perhaps it is time to look for a new island. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Lesser Known Wonder

Of the many exotic sights on the exotic island of Bali, one seldom mentioned is the garbage dump in the public square. I don't know why, because this is certainly not something seen in most countries around the world--as rare as Everest or the mighty Mississippi. Who can fail to be impressed by the towering mountain of breathtakingly odiferous garbage outside the main entrance of the new mall in Denpasar?  Why, it is the very definition of exotic, and yet not featured in any of the travel brochures or coffee table picture books. One feels awestruck, stunned when he stands at the lip of the Grand Canyon or in the courtyard of the Taj Mahal, barely able to comprehend the grandeur before his eyes. It is the same with this majestically rancid peak. It is as strange as a stalagtite, as unnatural as Mt. Rushmore, as mysterious as a sunken cathedral. Who has placed this visual and olfactory malignancy at the entry to a multimillion dollar mall, and why? And how  is it that people can pass on the street, on foot, on bikes, in cars, and seem not to notice the thing at all? It is, in its own way, more wonderful than the mountain itself. 

Politics and Religion

"Politics is now a matter of life and death that breeds political war and fanaticism." 

So warned the leader of Mohammadiyah,  Indonesia's second-largest Islamic organization.

"Politics", he continued, "is no longer regarded as an issue of worldly affairs, which allows room for differences. It is now associated with faith, which is absolute." He went on to warn against the unenlightened implementation of Islam, which could lead to problems such as extremism, intolerance, misinformation, the politicization of religion and also hate speech and hostility. "Religion", he said, "should be a blessing for all  humanity." 

Nice to hear a Muslim leader talking good sense (not to mention sound spiritual doctrine). Perhaps, with our 'thoughts and prayers', certain overly vocal evangelistic Christian  leaders will join him, or at least learn to keep their mouths shut more often. 

Stop mixing religion with politics, Nashir said, and focus on assessing the programs of election contenders.

Again, good advice; which, translated to the American scene, means to stop talking about God elevating this or that man to the presidency, for God has nothing to do with it. Politics is a free will pursuit of men toward the object, ideally, of benefitting men. In Indonesia, as in America, people are becoming ever more inclined, and quite undemocratically so, to justify their particular political prejudice by claiming the seal of God Almighty. Whatever else this may be, it is certainly a darn good way to end all political discourse and moderation. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Free Sex

I had mentioned recently the curious absence of Muslim objection to Valentine's Day this year, but it turns out that I spoke too soon. Yesterday saw a number of protests against the day, mostly in central Java, the hotbed of nutcases here. The Iowa of Indonesia, I suppose. There were a number of objections as well on internet platforms such as Facebook. One woman commented that Valentine's Day is a day of "free sex" celebrated in the West, and not appropriate for people here. Who knew? A day of free sex? I guess she imagines that it is kind of like The Purge, except that people run around having free sex rather than killing one another. A preferable sort of riot, it seems to me, although St. Valentine himself would be scandalized, to say the least. 

Funny how people, ignorant of realities, victims of propaganda, come up with these strange ideas about other peoples and countries. And there's a lesson in this as well for westerners who view Muslims (or what have you) through the lens of alarmist tales and popular stereotypes. It was said recently, for example, that "prayer rugs" were found on the Mexican border. Horrors! My initial thought was "But that's a good thing, isn't it? Prayer is a good thing, right?" But the message more generally conveyed was "Eee Gad, there are terrorists on the border and these prayer rugs prove it!" You know, here in Indonesia, I have never even seen a prayer rug. I guess that means there are no terrorists in the most populous Muslim country in the world? Maybe they are all on the Mexican border, right? 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine's Day

Day 6 with the flu, by my calculations, and still feeling fairly lousy. Spending most of the time sitting around the house coughing and watching condensed Dallas Cowboys games on YouTube (though only those that they won, as the losses would be needlessly depressing). Actually, they had a much better team this year than I had previously realized. We don't get to see real-time games here, unless we pay for a very expensive cable service or whatever. The big deal here is soccer, a game which I do not understand nor have any desire to understand. 

Today is Valentine's Day. In the past, curmudgeonly Muslim groups have sought to prohibit celebrations of the day, but I've not heard a peep out of them this year. They seem to have tired of prohibiting Christmas and Valentines and such-like. I myself don't have any very special memories of Valentine's Day. I remember that in grade school we were required to give a Valentine card to each of our fellow students. I remember also that my mother always gave us underwear on Valentine's Day. How she had come to associate the gift of underwear with the day, I don't know. But there they would be on our chairs at the table when we came down for breakfast. Of course, there was always a heart-shaped box of candy as well. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Black Face

I was remembering today an episode from the old Star Trek series. In this episode, Kirk and the crew encounter two members of a half-white, half-black race. Split right down the nose, half the face is white as snow, the other half black as midnight. One of these aliens, as I recall, was played by Frank Gorshin, whom you may remember as a popular vocal impressionist. Also, he played The Riddler in the old Batman series. 

In any case, these two aliens were at odds with one another, and one of them, the non-Gorshin alien, was seeking asylum aboard the Enterprise, pursued by space ICE agent, Gorshin. Timely, right? 

Well, Kirk and his fellow starship  officers were having a difficult time understanding just what the problem was, and as Gorshin endeavored to explain the situation, he mentioned the "obvious difference" between the two.

"Difference?" Kirk questioned. 

"Well, yes. Of course. Are you blind?"

Puzzled looks from Kirk and McCoy. A famously raised eyebrow from Spock, the Vulcan. 

"Well, you are both black on one side, white on the other," Kirk noted. 

"Yes! But I am white on the right side, while he is white on the left!" 

Ah ha! 

So, it was a matter of racial identity; and the superiority, as was implied, of the one over the other. 

I remember another time when I found that my stepdaughter, a teenager at the time, had been instructing her much younger brother that he needed to be "a proud black man". To me, there seemed a couple of problems with this aggressive sort of racial instruction. One was that though they were both half black and half white, the stepdaughter appeared in color and feature to be black, whereas the stepson appeared to be white. I wondered if this might cause a problem for him at his young age, personally and socially, with how he viewed himself and how he was viewed by his peers, who still thought of each other at this age as just kids rather than colors. 

Moreover, it was the desire of his mother and I that he think of himself first of all as a member of Christ, in whom there is no black or white, male or female, Jew or gentile, but all are one. 

And so I took the girl aside and explained to her that we would like the boy to center his identity in the goodness of Christ alone, where all are equal, and equally precious.

This did not go over well, as I recall. She spoke of the necessity of pride. She said that he had to own who he was, and to hell with all this fishy Christ stuff. Lol.  

I've always wondered how people arrive at the idea of pride in race. It's not as if race is something we ourselves have accomplished or achieved. We were simply born that way. What remains up to us, most importantly, and regardless of color, is how we live. Or, as Michael Jackson said, It don't matter if you're black or white

It does matter, of course, to the white-on-the-right-side alien. And it always will. But being proud, in turn, of being white-on-the-left-side seems hardly the answer to me. 

I dunno. Maybe I'm being impractical. Fishy. But isn't there finally a realm beyond race? Will we not ultimately reach the point where racial differentiation is simply ludicrous? Or, as Spock would say, illogical?

Well, You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Needful Things

Feeling rather proud of myself today. Despite a fried brain and the flu, I was able to function sufficiently well to take care of some needful matters. First off, I needed to find and then go to a photo shop that could do a passport photo for me. Afterwards, I needed to find the American consulate, pick up the proper passport renewal forms and make an appointment to actually come in and renew. Sometimes, just engaging in what needs to be done is the answer to uncertainty and confusion. I guess I've gotten kind of spoiled over the years here in Bali, as it has been easier to leave things to my very able wife in the past, who has no trouble at all with negotiating these administrative matters. But she ain't here no more, so the only one I can turn to is myself, fried brain and all. 

Had an interesting experience at the consulate. For one thing, the guards were the friendliest damn people you'd ever hope to meet--a usual thing in Indonesia, actually, but one that an American never quite gets used to. Really, I was just wanting to make sure that I could find the consulate (in advance of actually having my passport back and being able to do business), but the guards kind of insisted that I come in and say hello! 

"Okay no passport, you come back tomorrow. But come in now and meet everyone!"

So I did. 

Very high security check, too. Empty all the pockets, turn off cell phone, take off belt, surrender wallet for examination. They even examined my spectacles to make sure there was no hidden camera. James Bond stuff. And this was all so that I could meet the employees and pick up a passport application. 

So now I've got all the documents and the photo, and I even have my passport back, and will go to the consulate again tomorrow. Maybe empty my pockets in advance (although, come to think of it, that might arouse suspicion). 

Arriving back home, I sat down outside with a coffee and suddenly had the strangest experience with my eyes--my left eye  in particular. It was like I could barely keep the eye open, and it was kind of wandering around so that everything in the world was double--which itself instantly caused a fairly severe headache and a nauseous feeling. Treated that by going to bed and falling asleep for three hours. In my dream, someone kept saying "Permisi … permisi …" Turned out not to be a dream, but an actual guy standing in my driveway wanting to deliver my passport from my immigration agent.  

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Day 2

Now entering day 2 of the full-blown flu. Ugh. Fever last night caused me to throw off the bedsheets so that the AC could get directly to my skin. Head feels as heavy as a medicine ball this morning. No going back now. Got to just dig in and ride it out. These things, as I've found in the past, usually last about two weeks and tend to finally sputter out with a whole lot of coughing. Well, since I'm having to go through this irritating process of Visa and Passport renewal, I might as well be generally irritated by the flu at the same time. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Technical Difficulties

Every year at this time of the year I must renew my permission to reside in Indonesia, and it seems like there is always some kind of problem. In eight years, it has never been a simple process. There is always a new rule, or something missing, or something additional required, or what have you. This year, the problem is with my passport. I knew that the passport would expire in December of 2019, but little did I know that this would cause a problem with the permit process eleven months beforehand. And although I told my immigration agent a year ago that the passport would expire this year, she didn't bother to tell me that I would need to renew it months in advance so as to not cause a conflict in the permit process. 

So I find myself in a rush now to get to the American consulate next week and see what I need to do to renew the passport as quickly as possible, given that my residency permit will expire next month. 

These sorts of technical difficulties become more and more challenging for me as the years pass, as they accentuate just how far down the slippery slope of cognitive dysfunction I have slid. As I put it in a conversation with my ex-wife, my functionality these days is pretty much limited to a daily trip to Starbucks for my morning coffee and then back home again. When a problem arises, when unusual matters come up that demand timely action and clear thinking, I become very quickly confused, which itself leaves me with a panicky feeling, like Oh my God, I have no idea what I'm doing!

The only thing I can do is to step back, go into one thing at a time mode, admit my confusion, look like a fool, ask for help.  People will not know that I once successfully navigated a demanding career, that I graduated from university with a 4 point average in my last two years, that I raised a son on my own and travelled around North America and published in magazines and was an accomplished pianist and taught English to foreign students and so on and so forth. I can hardly imagine it myself, for here I am, unable to figure out how to find the American consulate and renew a passport. 

To make things worse, I have developed the flu over the past couple days. Started with a sore throat, now joined by a cough, headache, body aches--you know the drill. This all turns the already deep-fried brain to little more than a lump of charcoal. 

I hate February. 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Tree and Braches

"When Indonesia successfully campaigned for a seat on the 2019-2020 United Nations Security Council last year," writes Niuban Balachandran in the Jakarta Post, "it marketed itself as a true partner for world peace, and a 'bridge builder'." 

Why then, Balachandran continues, "hasn't the world's largest Muslim-majority country not yet officially recognized the world's oldest Abrahamic and fifth largest religion, Judaism?"

Why indeed? And why would such a country be given a seat on the security council of a body devoted to representing all when in fact its leaders stubbornly refuse to do so? Not only does Indonesia not recognize Judaism as a religion, it does not even recognize Israel as a nation. 

This whole scenario has always seemed very odd to me, especially the religion part; for if there were no Judaism, there would be no Islam, or Christianity either for that matter. What can they be thinking? We were grafted into the original tree, as the apostle Paul says, and with them partake of the root and fatness of the tree, for the branches bear not the root, but the root the branches. 

If you deny the root, how can there have been branches? 

It's kind of a no-brainer, right?  

Wednesday, February 6, 2019


At first, I thought that the little black dog was just fond of the big fat brown dog. But no, it turns out that the big fat brown dog is in heat. I was surprised, because I thought she was too old for that. In fact, in her own opinion on the matter, she is too old and definitely doesn't want to be bothered with the overactive libido of the male dogs that have begun to hang around the house day and night. The little black dog has simply been more polite than most. Moreover, given that he is still just a very young dog, he has not been quite sure what to do with his intense feelings. Is this thing supposed to go in the ear, or the shoulder, or the neck, or just where? These are the exasperating doubts by which the little black dog has been assailed over the past few days. Nonetheless, he continues to pursue his efforts whenever they seem relatively safe. For instance, when the big fat brown dog is asleep. But then occasionally even he himself tires of relentless carnality and contents himself with tenderly licking her feet or nose. Which, again, is best done whilst she is asleep.  

In the meantime, a ragged crew of less gentlemanly sorts have staked themselves out on the porch and in the yard--rude, ragged, inappropriate fellows who are given to barking vicious insults at each other, at the little black dog, at the big fat brown dog, at the door, the bush, the chair, the motorbike tire--you name it. It presses the patience even of someone who is as fond of dogs as I. I doubt whether even their own mothers can stand them. 

Where to put it, therefore, becomes in a very real way least among the challenges faced by the little black dog--for he has taken for himself the mantle of Lancelot, sworn to serve and protect his damsel (and possibly mate with her, if certain body positioning puzzles can be overcome). All this chivalry ended in a hell of a ruckus yesterday evening when the big fat brown dog decided to go home, an act which required from the little black dog the proposition of a running battle against outrageous odds. Rather, the ruckus did not end. It merely moved, like a riot, to another locale. 

I will be glad when this period of fertility comes to an end. The neighbors will be glad. There is no doubt that the big fat brown dog will be glad. And I think the little black dog will be glad as well. Either glad or dead.  

Monday, February 4, 2019

More Ruminations

Finally, he could accept everything. In his deepest soul. Tsukuru Tazaki finally understood. One heart and another are not bound by harmony alone. They are, also linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence that does not contain a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. This is what lies at the root of true harmony. --Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami Reading Murakami always inspires rumination in me--most especially, for some reason, with his novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. There is something that touches me on a personal, deeply experiential level--on an emotional plane, I mean. Not an identification with the specific events of the novel, but with the underlying thrust of dissonance, bewilderment, pain, grief, and resolution. Harmony, in a sense, is nothing more than the subjugation of dissonance. It is present from the beginning, but must be groomed and sought after. The deepest, most soul-satisfying harmonies must be discovered. They do not come with the understanding only of one's own repertoire of notes, but with the inclusion, the discernment of the tones outside oneself. Harmony is a work of love, a willingness to bear pain, a stubborn insistence on unravelling the dissonance string by string. It is for the wounded, the fragile; not for the proud or impassive. Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

Sunday, February 3, 2019


"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."
--Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

It suddenly occurred to me this night to wonder whether my son has ever suffered from my choice of a name for him. Holden, after Holden Caulfield, the troubled young protagonist in J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Who knew in 1977, when he was born, that several nutcases would later choose out the novel as some sort of instructional manual on killing another person? 

I was reading the novel in late 1976 and I simply liked the sound of the name. To me, it sounded dignified somehow, and of course different. I didn't want a Jim or a Bill or a Tommy. Nor did his mother. As I recall, she had chosen as a possibility the name Bayard, after a character in a Faulkner novel, Flags in the Dust, I think. Quentin was another of her suggestions. I didn't like that either, and so the name Holden won out. 

Then someone with a fixation on Catcher in the Rye, as well as a fantastic inability to rightly read a novel or understand what he has read, went out and killed John Lennon. Subsequently, there have been several more wackos, carrying Catcher in their back pocket and a gun in their front. 

Curiously, no one is murdered in  Catcher in the Rye. No one even talks about murdering anyone, although I do seem to vaguely remember a scene wherein Holden imagines himself being shot while talking in a phone booth--a sort of dramatic, teen sort of imagination. What struck me about Catcher in the Rye was the central question posed: Where does the trouble really lie, with Caulfield, or with the world itself? It's the same question asked, really, in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Is it the individual man who is disturbed, or is he disturbed because of the disturbing priorities of the society he lives in? 

What's wrong with trying to keep children safe in a field of rye?

In my mind, I was reading about an earnest, introspective young man, a boy with a special fondness for innocence and purity even as he had begun to experience the complex tugging of a tantalizing yet often corrupt world--a world largely peopled by unfortunate children that had fallen from the field of rye. 

"The mark of the immature man," Salinger writes, "is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." 

That's what I liked about Holden. The desire, despite destructive influences, despite the human hunger for worthless things, despite all the harsh, so-called adult realities, to live humbly for a cause. 

It is, again, unfortunate that a few have attached their own mental illness to this book and thrown shade on a great work of fiction, as well as on its reclusive author, who must, I think, be very hurt indeed by these events. Sadly, the more time that passes, and the more generally illiterate people become, the more readily the title becomes associated with psychotic killers rather than with the meaningful narrative that Salinger gave us. 

And so Holden, if you're out there reading, I apologize if the name I chose has ever caused you any discomfort or trouble. Maybe you would have been better off as Bayard or Quentin (though I doubt it). I made the choice with the best of intentions, and, as I have said, before the name was associated with anything other than its own sound. I'll not have the opportunity to have a second son; but if I did have, I think I'd play it safe and just call him Bob! 


Man, I wish I weren't so tired all the time. As usual, I get up at about 6:30, and by 8:30 I want to sleep again. I lie down, thinking that I will just rest for a few moments, and this profound weariness seems to press my entire body. I drop off to sleep like rolling off a cliff. "Falling asleep". That's an apt description of it. My grip slips loose and a fall, and sleep like the dead. I do not sleep long, but I sleep deeply, and getting up again is like climbing out of a pit. I think, I've got to get up, I've got to get moving. I think that this is absurd to be sleeping now when I just got done sleeping all night. 

And so I force myself up and out for coffee, and I write about being sleepy. Lol. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Mule

The other night, I watched a less than satisfactory version of Clint Eastwood's new film, The Mule. By 'less than satisfactory',  I mean to say that I watched it in "cam" version--you know, that slightly sideways, garbley product you get when someone has taken a small camera into the theater and clandestinely filmed the film while snacking on popcorn and clearing his throat every five minutes or so. 

Aside from the sideways garblyness, the film struck me as unusually slow and placid for an Eastwood movie--which in itself is a bit of an accomplishment, given the subject matter is concerned with drug running for a murderous cartel. One automatically anticipates a large dose of bloody murder. There is some violence in the movie, but very little, really--and quite negligible compared to the usual drug running fare.

And it struck me, as I pondered the thing over the next couple days, that this was because this wasn't a drug running movie at all. That part was just incidental. For the Eastwood character, it was just another job. He was an old man who had spent his whole life doing his job, and while doing his job, as he comes to understand, he had missed his whole life. It is about the tender trap of love, the pleasant prison of family, the ironic, though deceptive freedom of work, of occupation. There are those who spend the better part of their lives escaping what they truly long for. 

Eastwood's character finally sees this pearl without price (better late than never), and finds a way to come home at last. 
The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated this story, as well as the way in which it was accomplished. When I find myself  pondering a film days after the watching, connecting the pieces, having the "Oh, yes, now I see!" moment--that's when I know I've seen a good film. 

Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind seeing the non-sideways, non-garbled version when it becomes available.  

Ruminations on a Quote from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

Stand by for English. 

"Dalam hidup kita, kadang ada hal yang terlalu rumit di jelaskan dalam Bahasa apa pun," kata Olga. 

Benar sekali, piker Tsukuru sambil menyesap anggur. Jangankan menjelaskan kepada orang lain. Menjelaskan kepada diri sendiri pun tetap terlalu rumit. Seandainya dipaksa menjelaskan, akan muncul kebohongan."

--from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

This translates to something like this in English: 

"In our lives, sometimes there are things that are too difficult to explain in any language," said Olga. 

So true, thought Tsukuru while sipping his wine. Nevermind explaining them to someone else. They are too hard to explain even to oneself.  And if pressed to explain, what comes out may well be lies. 

Ain't that the truth, as Tsukuru says. There are some things in our lives that are fraught with doubt, or with regret, or with shame, or with mystery. These arise in the heart again and again, and we come up with various interpretations, each seeming roughly suitable at the moment and yet ultimately proving fragile, porous, or downright untrue. 

There are those in the world who are good at fashioning suitable stories, or who are at least perfectly satisfied to do so. In fact, they could not bear the dissatisfaction of doubt and endless rumination. We are all this way, to some extent. All such narratives tend toward self-justification, and toward demonization of the other. There are those who repeat their narrative so often that they begin to recognize the elements of the invention above the actual events that led to the fashioning of the personal narrative. Thereby they acquit themselves and move on. The thing of most critical importance is not the truth--which is an unsettling, unsure, shape-shifting thing at best--but a reliable vehicle for moving forward, leaving the past safely and silently behind. No one succeeds in this completely. But there are those who do a pretty damn good job. And part of this job, necessarily, is putting others who were involved in the troubling events as far away as possible. 

On the other hand, there are those of us who cannot help but see that lies, no matter how convenient and pleasant they may seem, do a certain sort of violence both to oneself and to others. Trouble unexamined is trouble made futile. In examining things closely, we find ourselves less and less absolved from guilt, and we find others less so too, for most human troubles arise from a cooperative effort. One sees one's own shortcomings most clearly, forgives the shortcomings of others most generously. But it is only compassion, mercy, and the willingness to fully understand that can lead to a mature and genuine peace. 

In the novel by Haruki Murakami, the protagonist is deeply troubled, year after year, by a painful event that he cannot understand. He has lost a part of himself to the past and can either surrender the loss to captivity or restore the fullness of his person by taking captivity captive, so to speak. Tsukuru Tazaki, with the help of 'a better angel', is ultimately the sort of person who is pressed on to confrontation and resolution.  

Friday, February 1, 2019

Ritual Reburial

I just read in the Jakarta Post about a strange Vietnamese ancient ritual, still widely practiced, wherein the dead are dug up and reburied after the passage of three years in order to assure a serene final resting place. 

A long and elaborate ceremony is performed which involves sticky rice offerings, boiled chicken, a paper horse for the deceased to ride on, and fake US dollars. The bones are carefully removed from the coffin, making sure that every bone, including teeth, is accounted for (which can sometimes require dental records or the testimony of a family member). If anything is missing, the deceased will suffer in his new grave. If the bones are black an bare of flesh, they are carefully cleaned. If there is still flesh on the bones, it must be painstakingly scraped away. The bones are then placed in a small stone case and the case is reburied in a different spot. Finally, if all has gone well, the deceased is perfectly at rest in a peaceful new place. 

These rituals occur mainly in the North of Vietnam, and are now beginning to give way to a preference for cremation, which is actually rewarded with a government rebate of $130 US dollars.  Many, however, cling to the ritual, in the belief that cremation will caused their deceased beloved to burn through eternity. 

Dueling Sleepers

Given that I've been sleeping later into the morning these days, and given that the big fat brown dog usually showed up at the house at around 6 or 6:30, I've taken to simply leaving the front door unlocked so that she won't have to pound on it and wake me up.  Lately, she is almost always accompanied by the little black dog. This is how I found them this morning when I came out of my bedroom.