Sunday, May 31, 2020


As a bit of an addendum to things I've been writing recently about Covid and masks and so on, it is worth mentioning that one of the reasons the virus has not spread so rapaciously here in Indonesia may be that casual touching  or hugging is not common in the culture. Neither handshakes nor hugs are usual forms of greeting, for instance. More commonly, a person will touch his chest and nod, or, especially in Bali, put his hands together in prayer fashion, both of which coincidentally decrease the likelihood of transmission of the virus. Handshakes, or fist bumps, have become more common among younger men, especially when interacting with a male westerner, and yet remain still fairly rare. It is just not a natural part of the culture. This, along with the more habitual use of masks, has likely had a significant impact.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Ring Around the Rosie

There is a very old nursery rhyme sung by children which has often been associated with the bubonic plague:

Ring around the rosie,
a pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.
'A-tishoo', which is thought to have represented the sound of the sneeze associated with the illness, is in other versions rendered 'ashes', which may evoke the burning of various incenses and herbs to protect against the virus.
In more recent years, folklorists have resisted this interpretation, citing the fact that there are many versions of this rhyme around Europe which seem to have nothing to do with sneezes or ashes or death, and earlier versions as well which preceded the Great London Plague of 1665.
Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to me to imagine that children of the time took a familiar rhyme and simply tailored the words to their own situation, describing the marks of the plague, the symptoms of the plague, and indeed the results of the plague (we all fall down).
It says something to me about the ability of children to create happiness even in the face of terrible dread wherever they are gathered together. I wonder what they are saying or playing or singing now as a way of negotiating the Covid pandemic?
We have really so much in common with those times now centuries in the past, as well as with the responses of the people living (or dying) through them, right down to the necessity of social distancing and the question of whether one must wear a mask, the suggestion that God Himself would protect the faithful, and the conceit that the wearing of a mask indicated a lack of faith. This too was directly addressed by no less a man than Martin Luther, who wrote the following:
"I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I will fumigate, purify the air, administer medicine and take medicine. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order to become not contaminated, and thus perchance inflict and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me. But, I have done what he has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely. This is a God fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy, and does not tempt God."
Listen up.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will
be done again;
There is nothing new under
the sun.
--Ecclesiastes 1:9

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Mister Me

I will often meet people online through a particular website for Indonesians who want to learn to speak English, and after chatting for a moment they will invariably say "What may I call you, sir?"

"Richard is fine," I answer.

"No. Cannot. It would be impolite."
This sounds very strange to an American. How could it be impolite to call me by name? And yet there it is. It simply cannot be done. I must be mister or sir or pak or om.

Why then do they ask to begin with?

But, you know, after years here one gets used to it, so that hearing his name alone uttered sounds suddenly odd or improper, too familiar. Richard? Who's Richard? I'm Pak Richard. I'm Om Richard. I'm Tuan. I'm Sir. Who are you to call me Richard?

One becomes acculturated.

Indonesians are an extremely polite, gracious people, and yet sometimes polite to the point of avoiding contention or debate--and that can actually be a problem. Which makes this also something a foreigner has to learn how to manage, the proper way culturally to negotiate a matter of contention.

The culture for an expatriate does not cease to be strange. The strangeness merely becomes familiar.   

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


Funny to see people back home in America making a partisan issue of masks, especially given that here in southeast Asia masks have always been fairly commonly in use. They are worn to protect from harmful elements in their air, especially when driving a motorbike (which is the most common form of transport here). People tend to wear them when they get sick with a cold or flu in order to avoid transmitting the illness to others. It is 'the thing to do' in a polite society. Most people don't need to go out and buy the mask especially for covid. They already have the mask. It is certainly not considered a great imposition to have to wear a mask, for they are in the first place for one's own protection and for the protection of others.

Do Americans simply have nothing better to do than to assign political meaning to something as mundane as a mask? I happened to see a photo on Facebook showing a man, a woman, and a child together holding a sign that said "TAKE YOUR MASK OFF BECAUSE GOD'S GOT YOU COVERED!" Really? How about taking your seatbelt off too, then? And your bike helmet. And get rid of your child's car seat. And don't bother stopping for traffic lights. Throw away that sunblock. And so on, ad infinitum.

Well, consider Luke 4:9-12:

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. For it is written:

     "He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully. They will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."

Jesus answered, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Cock Fight

Yesterday evening the usual silence of my apartment complex was shattered by a sudden squawking, shrieking commotion. Lights went on, flashlights peered through the darkness, and it was discovered that the dog was confronting a rooster who had entered the grounds. It was one of those roosters that people around here raise for cock fights (sadly enough), and although the dog wanted very definitely to convey the idea that the bird should not be on the grounds, he was having nothing of an actual fight with the thing. Bark and swiftly retreat was his preferred tactic. Not so with the rooster, who continued to throw out his chest, squawk maniacally, and fly at the dog. Nor did the people here want anything to do with this fellow, preferring to retreat to their doorways, holding flashlights before them like light sabers. Holy cow, they said. What the ….

Well, at last someone from up the street came to "collect" the rooster, as, no kidding, it could be heard all over the neighborhood, and return him to his cage. And the dog heaved a sigh and returned to his mat outside my door. I myself don't believe in cock fights. I find them unkind, barbaric. Nonetheless, I'm betting on this critter next time they have one.


Friday, May 22, 2020


I read a report this morning stating that Indonesia will reopen for business as usual in early June, having determined that the best route is to adopt the herd immunity philosophy for dealing with Covid.

They may be right. The fact is that this still developing country possesses nothing like the wherewithal to address the virus as many of the more wealthy, organized, developed countries have done. There is no such a thing as sending relief checks to people, no such a thing for most folks as working from home, no such a thing as an able, smoothly running healthcare system, no such a thing as widespread public cooperation. There is no choice, really, other than the que sera sera philosophy. Whatever will be will be.

So here we go, as it would appear. Wish us luck.

Monday, May 18, 2020

News from Surabaya

I think I mentioned previously that I have a friend, or an acquaintance rather, in Surabaya, Java, who is an ER doctor--and quite a smart cookie too, fluent in four languages, and only 24 years old. My goodness. Sort of the female equivalent of Doogie Howser, I guess. (Anyone remember Doogie?).

But anyway, I had asked her recently for her opinion on why America is so much worse off with the Covid virus than Indonesia. In a delayed response received today, the doctor said she didn't reckon it is worse off.


That means there are 10s of 1000s of cases not being reported here, if her estimation is correct.

Why am I surprised? I don't know. It's not like Indonesia is well known for its fine administrative order and proficiency. I mean, just considering the circus we have to go through every year in immigration just for the renewal of a permit for someone who has already been here nine years, one has to be decidedly less than impressed. So who knows what the real count is? Or do they really even want to know?  

Well, well. At the same time, Indonesia is experiencing the same sort of economic collapse as America, only worse, because internet computer and office technology is just in its infancy here--which means that most folks can't just 'work from home'. Nor is the government about to send money to folks who are out of work. So you can well imagine that if they are not dying of Covid, they are dying of starvation. Still, the country is not opening up as quickly as America has done. Is that because of a wise approach to the future, or is it because they know the virus is hopelessly out of control?

Well … stay tuned, I guess.

Saturday, May 16, 2020


I got a message from my stepson, Sasha, yesterday, wherein he wrote "Hi, Dad. I just want to make sure you know that I love you."  And then he added, "Just remembered a time when I got mad at you at the swimming pool in Portland. I'm sorry."

Well, I have no recollection of 'the time he got mad at me in Portland'. Lol. Likely it made little impression on me at the time. Part of being a dad. Sometimes kids get mad. I know, because I have been through five of them.

But I certainly appreciated his dropping a line just to say I love you. He has always been fairly good about that, even though he is, like all young folks, busy with his own activities and relationships. We old folks have done our job, but it's nice not to be totally forgotten.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Brain Fart

Yet another brain fart.

I was at the project site for the new apartment yesterday and chatting a bit with my American neighbor to be. He happened to ask out of the blue whether I had been in 'the Nam', meaning of course the Vietnam War.

"No," I said. "At the time I was of age, the lottery was in effect, I had a high number, and I also had a college deferment."


"How about you?"


"Were you in the war?"

I guess I would describe the man's face at this point as showing a mix of astonishment and disbelief.

"Umm … no. I'm not that old."

Oh. Goodness. Of course he's not. Clearly. How stupid of me. He would have to have been no more than three years old at the time!

Lol. Everyday life with my brain.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


Oh my God, I wrote last night to my ex-wife, I almost lost my phone! Again. Unbelievable. What's wrong with me?

MS was her reply.

Well, there you have it.

About this time last year, I lost my i-Phone. I was at the hospital at that time for a doctor appointment and apparently I just put the phone down somewhere. I have no recollection of whether I had left it on a chair, or with my bike, or somewhere in between. Nor did I ever recover that phone.

Ever since then, I have tried to be rather conscious of the phone's whereabouts, because not only are these things very expensive, but they are our connection to much of the world, an essential tool in our everyday lives. If one loses his phone, how, for instance, does he even alert anybody to the fact that he has lost his phone? The contacts are in the phone. The numbers are in the phone (certainly not in my brain). We are connected to the world through our phones. Yes, I can still tell Louis that I lost my phone via her email (using my laptop), but she, like many people, rarely even looks at e-mail anymore.

Well, last night I had decided to drive down to Sanur for a coffee. Strangely, I had a nagging feeling when I set out that this was somehow a bad idea. I usually don't go out at night anymore, but I guess I was just unusually bored last night.

I sat on the bench outside Starbucks for a little while with my coffee and my phone and my cigarettes (takeaway coffee of course, as lockdown is still in effect here), and then headed on home. It was only upon reaching my own front porch that I discovered the phone was not with me.

Instant panic.

Do you know how it feels? Like My God, I've somehow lost my right arm on the way home!

Give me back my golden arm.

How was this possible? Where in the world could it be? I checked the bike compartments about twenty times. I checked my pockets twenty times. No phone. And I became fairly certain that I must have put the phone in my back pocket (which I sometimes unwisely do) and it had surely fallen out on the road somewhere.

I knew it was not at Starbucks, but I raced back down to Sanur anyway. I could think of nothing else but two things: 1) That I was suddenly cut off from all vital connections and communications and 2) That my ex-wife was going to scream at me. (A non-Indonesian cannot buy a phone in Indonesia, by the way. He must have an Indonesian citizen buy it for him).

I knew, as I've said, that the phone was not at Starbucks ... and was therefore utterly shocked to find it sitting on the bench at Starbucks.

How is this possible?

Which leads me back to my original question. What's wrong with me?

But perhaps the more meaningful question is not 'What's wrong with me?' but 'How can I get around what's wrong with me?' Concentration, awareness, does not seem to be working. Shall I chain the phone to myself? I believe they sell chains that hook onto one's belt loop, right? Maybe that's the answer.

Then again … what if one forgets to put his pants on?

Monday, May 11, 2020


I looked in the mirror last night--always inadvisable--and noticed that I am developing jowls. Some men develop their biceps, some their thigh muscles or calves. Some even develop their minds. I develop jowls. And apparently I didn't even have to try. Or at least I'm not aware of having done so.

I have also developed a complete row of bottom teeth. Ah, but I brag. I cannot take credit for these teeth. They were in fact fashioned by a dental lab, after several weeks of sitting in the dentist chair for a series of gooey molds. And (again, looking in the mirror), it strikes me that the jowls, however regrettably so, look more natural on a man my age than the row of straight, white, gleaming teeth.

But of course the purpose of these things is to chew, which I hope they will do at least after a moderately useful fashion once my gums adapt to the hard lower edges of the appliance.


Saturday, May 9, 2020

This, That, and the Other Thing

Having a lot of trouble with my shoulder and back for the last week. It's a recurring problem. I just don't know why it suddenly gets worse than usual. I did some stretching exercises, but that seems to have made it worse yet. The only other intervention that I know of is methylprednisolone, which I try to take only very sparingly, as it exacerbates the problem with my stomach and could, if used too often, do a real number on the stomach.

The traffic in Bali is rather heavy today, which we have not seen in quite some time, due to voluntary lockdown. There are still very few businesses open, so I don't know where everyone is going. Heading for the hills? Or maybe they're just trying to get out of the house for a change. But the beaches are still closed, so they're certainly not going there. The grocery stores are open of course, and some eating warungs are open (for the brave).

You know, the people in the complex where I live are quite careful about wearing a mask, some seeming to wear it all the time, and not going out very much, and yet they all order warung food to be delivered by Gojek. Seems a bit counterintuitive to me.

In the meantime, my new kost (apartment) is very nearly finished. AC installed today. Hot water already in. Kitchen nearly done (they still need to move the sink to an accessible spot on the counter). Electric all hooked up. Sometime later (after I actually move in), Louis will arrange the landscaping in the front and the dry garden in the back.

So I have told the owners here that I will definitely be gone by June. It has been a long (longer than expected) process, which was originally to have been finished by early March. I don't relish the idea of actually moving (packing, carrying, rearranging, etc.), but there seem to be sufficient helpers lined up, we have plenty of time to get ready, and I am certainly hoping that it will all proceed more smoothly than the disaster of last year's move). As it is, I can't lift anything anyway, so I will certainly need the help.

Friday, May 8, 2020


Yesterday evening I was having a cup of tea and a smoke out on the porch when my peace was suddenly interrupted by the flying entry of an enormous bug which made a couple of wobbly circles of the immediate area, crashed into a wall, and landed on its back on my tea table. I took this at first to be a cockroach, for, as people familiar with cockroaches will know, the things often end up on their backs, unable to turn themselves over again. It was, however, the most enormous cockroach I had ever seen. Note: I am both fascinated and terrified by giant bugs. So I took a photo of the critter and posted in on Facebook, where one reader commented that this was not a bug at all but a small mouse. A flying mouse? No, I don't think so. As it happens, a friend here had also just recently posted regarding an infestation of a certain flying beetle in Bali and included a photo in his post. Ah ha, that was it! This was not a cockroach at all, but a beetle. Not as bad as a cockroach, but still not someone I enjoy having tea with. In any case, when I went into my room to post my own photo, the critter somehow regained its feet and was gone by the time I returned to the porch.

Thursday, May 7, 2020


I don't like videocalls. They make me feel nervous and uncomfortable. Conversations feel stilted, interrupted by the video itself. I dunno, maybe it's just my age. It's funny, when we were young (or rather when I was young), the idea of a videocall was alluring science fiction. It did not necessarily seem that it would actually be a real thing. It was for secret agents and spacemen. Now that it is here, many of us avoid it. I avoid videocalls. At the very suggestion, I change the subject.

For young people, it is the norm. Of course we're doing a videocall. What other kind is there?

Texting. In fact, I prefer texting.

Nonetheless, a certain young woman in Sumatera, Jesika by name, from the city of Riau, requested a videocall so persistently that finally I ran out of excuses and relented.

She wants to practice at speaking English conversationally, in real time, you see? And I must admit, she has a point. Texting allows too much time to think, to edit what you're saying, to consult a translator app. On the videocall, you must communicate on the instant. For me, that's just another nerve wracking element of the whole deal. For her it is an exciting opportunity to employ a foreign language. And let's face it, in real world interactions, you don't have time to stand around texting your part of the conversation.

Yes, the little whippersnapper has a point.

Anyway, we did the call and I found it surprisingly pleasant. She's a delightful girl, almost 22, of a serious bent of mind, cute little face, big black glasses. For the most part, she spoke English and I spoke Indonesian, which was useful and educational for both of us at the same time. In addition, I got to meet her big brother, her little brother, her cousin, her mother and her uncle. They all gather, she told me, at the uncle's house on Wednesdays to hold school for the children (given that Indonesian schools are cancelled for at least the next three months due to coronavirus).

What stuck me most about this young woman was how childlike she is in comparison to a 22 year old American woman, which indeed is further accentuated by her small village upbringing (a kampung girl, as they say here). Friendly, direct, open, unsophisticated. She is Christian as well, as is her large family, and this is unusual especially on the island of Sumatera. In fact, one will often hear of church closings, lockdowns, and building permit denials in Sumatera. I mentioned this, but she seemed unbothered. We just have church in our houses, she said.

Well amen, sister. Church is not a building, it is a gathering of believers, ecclesia, the called out. Close as many churches as you want to, forbid the stones and the steeples, but the spirit is like the wind. It blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born in the spirit (John 3:8).

Monday, May 4, 2020


A fitful wind is sweeping through Sanur this evening, scouring out the humid days of spring, ushering in the cooler months of summer. High clouds come along on its courses, higher than the dangling near full moon, twirling gently at the treetops like a silver lure. The earth leaps, gulps air, fills its lungs. There is no plague here, there is no illness, the earth has never felt so well. Enchantment lives. Even the ghosts of the land cease their moaning and come out to surf for a moment like kites. And forget.  

Sunday, May 3, 2020


By way of comparison, the death toll in the great London plague of 1665, according to the record of the time (The Bills of Mortality) was 68,596. This number, according to the investigations of later historians, is about half the actual number of deaths from the plague that occurred in the summer and fall of that year. And, again, this was in London alone.

All this happened within the centuries long second pandemic, a period of intermittent bubonic plague epidemics which originated from Central Asia in 1331, which was the first year of what was originally called the Black Death. The bubonic plague killed in all about 25 million people in Europe, almost a third of the continent's population.

On the other hand, the current forecast is that perhaps 70,000 will die from the coronavirus in the entirety of the United States.

Perspective is always edifying.

It was known in 1665, just as it is now, how disease is transmitted from person to person, household to household, and the main remedy was what we now call 'social distancing'. The streets were deserted, businesses closed, fortunes ruined as people hunkered down in their own homes.

For those homes wherein a member of the household was afflicted with the plague, watchmen were set, one at day, one at night, to enforce isolation of the entire household. No one went in, no one came out. Or that was the rule, anyway. There were, however, many cases wherein people managed somehow to slip away unseen or indeed issued forth violently, overpowering the watchman. They did not like being constrained, told what to do, having their personal freedoms compromised.

Sound familiar?

Well, there is much that sounds familiar in reading Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. We've been here before, folks, only more so.

Friday, May 1, 2020

My Three Sons

Watching the old TV series, My Three Sons (things to do during the shutdown). This series ran from 1960 to 1972 amazingly enough--amazing because it's not a very interesting show, comparatively speaking.

This is straight formula situation comedy centered on a single (widowed) father with three raucous sons who are, curiously enough, fairly perfectly anonymous. There is nothing really to set them apart from any other boys, such as was the case with the Beaver and Wally (and Eddy) in Leave it to Beaver, or with Ricky and Dave in Ossie and Harriet.

I remember very little about the show now, probably because it was not much watched in my house. Perhaps it was in the same time slot with something more engaging, I don't know. I certainly did not have a particular fondness for the show as a child. I only remember thinking that Bob, or Bub, or whatever they called him--the live-in grandfather played by William Frawley--struck me as a bit creepy.

As with all of these old, old shows, the best thing about it is the foggy window it provides into those black-and-white times, the strange disconnect one feels now with a world that once seemed perfectly ordinary but which now is extraordinary indeed.

The one unusual thing the show does do, in the episodes I've watched thus far anyway, is to end each episode with a sense of non-resolution, not a pat 'everything-all-wrapped-up-when-the-theme-plays' conclusion, but with a hint of the perpetual irresolution of normal family life.