Category Archives: Essays

May I Borrow Your Books?

Here’s a simple request from a friend who stops by the house and peeks into my study room at the chaotic piles of books lying on the carpet beneath my desk, or from a few eager readers who pick up a few names of writers in an engaging conversation over a glass of wine.
It should be a harmless request, by any measure of a friendship. For after all, don’t friends exchange gifts, help each other out with money, chores and often times go to the ridiculous length of covering up our minor embarrassments?
But these are not just books, but Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire, Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Gombrowicz’s Diaries! Even those bent out of shape by mounting pressure of newly acquired books, each and everyone of them has been selected and picked with triumphant cheers out of neglected shelves in a bookstore somewhere in the world or in a second-hand bookstore somewhere in the city, or from an outdated list of an online bookstore. How am I to say yes? With the resignation, but an anxious heart, that these same books might not find their way back to my dust gathering pile? Or with the boundless joy of the first person passing around great masterpieces to another? And how am I to say no? One look at those eagerly awaiting eyes of the borrower is enough to make me feel repulsed with shame. After a lengthy pause, my answer is the now rehearsed refrain, “No, but I’ll buy them for you.” Which is certainly a quizzical answer to a harmless request, but the most I could do under the circumstances, and in consequence of which, naturally, I have to order those books.
This sense of commitment, bothersome in most instances, arises nonetheless from a strong conviction that this writer friend should read these books; they are good for them. And if out of lack of the means or resources to procure them, now that they’ve found them in my collection and I don’t do anything about it, I’m the selfish fool to deprive them of the opportunity. It’s enough of a burden on my conscience to goad me endlessly to get those books right away.

I couldn’t put a finger on this troublesome bug until recently when I picked up a new issue of the New Yorker. It happened when I was in my teens in a North Sumatera city. A renowned Chinese American author, Maxine Hong-Kingston, was invited to talk in a small American library, and I had the opportunity to show her my writing and talked to her about writing and books. She told me to find some good writings in New Yorker. I had never heard of this magazine before. The American librarian who happened to overhear our conversation told me she subscribed to the magazine and would lend some to me. Weeks later when I still didn’t receive the magazines, I made bold to visit the librarian in her office. In a rather begrudged tone, she told me she hadn’t finished reading them yet. Embarrassed, I beat a retreat. I didn’t hear from her again until months later when I received a dozen old issues of the New Yorker. In a pithy note, she apologized for the delay and told me I could have them because she was moving back to the States.

I can only assume now that it must have been hard for her to part with those prized magazines she had enjoyed so much, but now that she had to leave town the magazines must have been a cumbersome addition to all the freight that needed to be shipped out. I was in a sense the fortunate inheritor of a pile disposed of more for pragmatic reasons than largesse of an altruistic soul.
I naturally don’t blame this librarian for her need to cling on to her magazines for as long as possible, but I certainly don’t share her ‘charitable’ spirit. I would like to believe that my obsession to get hold of books in my possession for my friends who dearly want to read them hails from a different source. It is, I believe, from understanding the urgent need of another reader for fabulously good reads.
Over the years, I have had as much joy in receiving and giving out books, but very rarely I’ve invited them to my home and to my library. I would still occasionally urge them to get a book or books, or order for them, but let me be the first to tell you this: this business of sharing good reads is really a tiresome habit.

A version of this article was published by The Jakarta Globe, January 2009

The Thing About Food

Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside (Mark Twain 1835-1910)

What is food to one is to others bitter poison (Lucretius 96 bc -55 bc)

It’s easy to speculate from the two quotations that Mark Twain must have enjoyed his food with gusto, easily the healthier eater of the two writers. In an age when time is always on short lease and fast food joints prevail, Mark Twain would have been overwhelmed with delight the kinds of choices available right now. I do wonder though what his comments would be about dieting and fighting a losing fight against obesity, problems that seem to preoccupy most Americans in the last two decades.

Purveyors of junk foods have been intensely litigated for causing unnatural increase of cholesterols, premature developments of breasts among teenage girls and obesity. The intensity of these litigations could well match those leveled against tobacco companies. The reality nonetheless remains pretty much the same: children and adults still gorge on junk foods and fast food chains occupy more square meters in any prevalent malls. Meanwhile, the public relations machines of these food companies money their ways out of every conceivable fix and reduce concerned issues into mere rumors.

The interesting offshoot of this situation is the rambunctious growth in the numbers of vegans, vegetarian restaurants, organic food chains, diet bestsellers, Botox clinics and health food related talk shows. These days anyone who is in the market for a diet book or healthy living must be confounded by the amount of choices proffered. The male readers of this column will be the first to testify how much headache they have to suffer with this added problem about food. “No, honey, you look just fine. Swear.” “Ah come on, a few kilos will make you so much sexier, sweetheart. Really.” “Hey, seriously, you’re not going to buy another book on diet, are you? You’ve got a library of these books at home!” “You call this food. Where’s the meat?”

Maybe we should blame Oprah for this mess. Opinions about ideal weight among Oprah’s audience shift to the tune of her erratic weight. When Oprah gains weight, big is beautiful. And now, as she has successfully, again, shed some kilos, she promulgates her success by introducing another weight-loss book. In either case, Oprah swings from profit to profit with her weight. Aficionados of her talk shows are so much the worse for their checkbooks.

Mark Twain should be entitled to chuckle at this preposterous situation. For didn’t the most recent research show that it’s not what we eat that causes weight gain, but our mind that in fact controls our weight? Now here’s a theory that makes a lot of sense because it can be proven easily from our own observations. Any person who has had first hand experiences with financial or love-related problems will tell you weight loss is a matter of course. Hypochondriacs and worrywarts tend to be skinny people, whereas happy-go-lucky people are inclined to be plumb and good natured. And prosperity and happiness hand in hand contribute to one’s growing pouch and easy-going nature.

If we follow this train of thought, we should pretty soon come to the inevitable conclusion that food is never the enemy. Our body is made to ingest food in proportions that suit its needs. To force the body to ingest a miniscule or gargantuan amount will only cause it to react adversely. My youngest sister was once fed a nauseating amount of noodles at an early age. The traumatic experience has lingered in her memory. In consequence, she shuns noodles like a plaque. A German friend once told me how he prolonged his father’s life by approximately ten years, by encouraging him to eat plenty of red meat and other rich diets, all prescribed against by the doctor for his high-blood pressure and heart problems. His father lived a robust life till the age of 85.

I’m all for those vegans, or women who are determined to have great figures, but I doubt if everyone is cut out physically for it. A careful study of our family albums will be sufficient proof of what we shall end up in our twenties and forties. To fight against our genetic codes is almost certainly hell-bent toward disaster. Any attempt at cosmetic surgery or injecting unsavory chemicals to shape our figures will likewise produce only temporary narcissistic satisfaction, before more of the same treatments are required to revert to conditions prior to the treatments. It’s a vicious circle and a horror story we’ve often been acquainted with from women with deep pockets, now unfortunately saddled with misshapen figures.

Passions, I suspect, are the true ingredients of good health. Our passions are like fuels that prod us to engage life actively, thus burning all the excess fats and jolting us out of inertia that stump the rejuvenation of our cells that ultimately open doors for illnesses and dementia. Check out the farmers in the remote areas in Java. Most live longer lives with perfect teeth and well-honed bodies. City slickers like ourselves who might have little time to spare in the gyms should alternate our sedentary lifestyle with more picnics at the zoos, participation in charitable or community events.

No amount of vitamins – which incidentally have been denied time and again by researchers to have any discernible benefits for our health – can beat pleasurable and mind-engaging activities. I suspect a game of Scrabble, or a game of chess, against a sharp opponent will do so much more for your heart than a handful of multivitamin tablets. You’ll want to beat the sucker at his or her game so much that you’ll wrack your heart and mind at any cost.
Good food, not necessarily of the gourmand variety, definitely plays a key role for good health. A small portion of well-prepared dish will satiate all your senses and give the kind of satisfaction no amount of lousy food can ever offer. It’s never about the size of a meal but how well it is dished up. No wonder most good chefs are rubicund and slightly rotund; they eat little meals, but what delightful little meals!

We should mildly discredit Lucretius’s words on this matter about food, unless you suffer from an acute case of certain food allergy. Food to my mind is like most things in life: the more adventurous your taste, the better you stand to gain.

This article was published May 29, 2009, in Now Jakarta!

Being Sound of Mind and Body

Let us start with a simple assertion. There is no longer a safe bet on the best way to health. We can be a health freak, eating right, beating on the programmed treadmill machine three or four times weekly, a teetotaler, well informed of the efficacies of teas over the neural cell growth-repressing alcohol, or a faith-level nonsmoker, fully inculcated with the danger of the nicotine, the world being what it is this moment, there’s no telling what would trip us along the way. There is always a new strain of virus in the offing: a new lineage of measles virus, the XDR-TB, drug-resistant tuberculosis, the avian flu and now R1N1, a new strain of influenza A, widely known as the Swine Flu. On top of these pestilences, we’ve got the ever-persistent Flavivirus dengue virus that wreaks havoc on a daily basis to deal with. These ills afflict us indiscriminately, irrespective of the precaution or the care we take of our body.
Our body, in which we’ve invested so much care and attention and of which we have always considered our best forts against external invasions, is in reality our most vulnerable liabilities. It is not only exposed to the vicissitudes of external threats, but is also constantly waged against by a cortége of internal dysfunctions: leukemia, prostate cancer, aphasia, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, just a few forbidden names that come to mind. If this were not nauseating enough to give pause to our thought, consider the ironic fates of those, the healthiest among us, whose lives have been claimed by lung cancers and heart problems. And I haven’t even begun to talk about social and environmental hazards!

We have so far discussed about our health as if it had to do only with our body. The fact is anything but simple as new findings shown by the renowned neurologist Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens. Our mind and body are so closely wired that our consciousness depends not only on our fully functioning bodily parts but also on every part of the organisms in our brain. Failure in any of these organisms will greatly affect our consciousness, the way we remember the past, familiar faces, language, and our identity. These organisms depend on the homeostasis of our body: they survive because of the precise temperature and balanced environment in our body. A slight change in this highly regulated system will take a toll on the processes of our consciousness. This fact is enough to keep us forewarned about the importance of always keeping our cool even in the most unpleasant circumstances. More importantly, it reiterates the importance of our consciousness, because there is really no point for a life without it. Once this light is switched off, there is only darkness (especially if our extended consciousness is impaired by severe Alzheimer’s disease).

We may take heart, however, with the fact that we are living in the most scientifically and technologically innovative age. News of advancements and breakthroughs are constantly heralded about the cure for cancer, Aids, new advancement on stem cell implant, neural functions and antidotes for countless diseases. New body-aid devices are in productions to help us see, hear, feel, remember, and walk better. The unfortunate thing is that these innovations always present themselves belatedly and at tremendous costs.

So while you’re preoccupied with keeping your body sound by regular fitness and strict dietary regimes, think which part of you that truly commands you to do all these things in the first place, and to keep track of your experience and make you start all over again the next day.

Previously published in Now Jakarta, August 2009 issue.

Culture Is A Spurned Mistress

Culture is a spurned Mistress in a country where Colin McPhee came to pursue his lifelong dream of learning the gamelan music and later yielding his studies to the world to usher in the middle way of atonal music, in a country where Adrien-Jean Le Meyers, Walter Spies, Antonio Blanco found the ideal place for their truest expressions, in a country where Clifford Geertz, Benedict Anderson, later followed by countless anthropologists, came and are still coming to study the unique diversity of her cultures, in a country where Robert Wilson encountered I La Galigo and was impelled to bring it to world acclaim, and still in his footsteps, this June, another maestro, Evan Ziporyn will present a trial run of A House in Bali as an opera in Ubud before showing it to the world. Considering the suitors that never stop wooing this irresistible lady, why does she remain spurned in her own country? How many more years and how many more expatriate suitors should we wait before our lady gets her deserved attention from her own master?

She once held her head high during the Soekarno era. A spurt of national pride had prompted the reconstitution of culture and the arts in their proper stature, albeit the campaign almost bankrupted the country, but of which we remain grateful and proud till now. But those were the founding days of a nation delirious with hope, a nostalgic era when national visibility in the world was worth any sacrifice. Thirty-odd years of the New Order rule had systematically cleared out what had just been inscribed, leaving only ruined monumental traces to pontificate more about the failures of the past than its triumphant rise. But as what the previous minister of culture and tourism, a certain Mr Ardhike, once told me, when asked maliciously by this writer why the arts and cultures of this country still flourish albeit without due attention from the government. A question that was aimed to cause a few furrowed wrinkles and perhaps a light bulb to flash in the mind about how much more flourishing everything would be with the benefit of a little attention. His remark showed a government officer’s naivety and yet not without a kernel of truth: it’s like the wild growth in the garden, he said; it grows with the slightest blessing of sun and rain. Such is the splendor of our fecund land!

And thus is the harsh reality to be faced with regards to our government stand on the issues of culture and the arts: let there be plenty of sunlight and rain, the rest should take care of itself.

In another occasion, this writer had the great fortune to be seated next to Joop Ave, the maverick ex minister in various past governments. Since he appeared to be in a good mood and a willing listener, so this writer broached the question of why there was not any representative cultural center in the capital. He held my hand like an avuncular mentor hushing a novice in the world of things and drew a deep sigh before launching a heartbreaking tale. A long time ago, in the beginning and the middle of Soeharto rule, he had been offered the Pertamina building for the site of a commanding cultural center. Blueprints were drawn and the Japanese government had stepped up to the plate to build the theatre, but the then first lady had a different idea. She wanted a theatre to be built in her Taman Mini. So the fund was relocated and a private investor, who had just made a fortune selling his company to a telecommunications giant, was recruited to see to the construction of the theater. Today that theater, ironically called Teater Tanah Air, still stands but is rarely used. It brought the private investor to the brink of bankruptcy. Like a gallant son of the nation, he finally managed to pay off all his debts a few years ago. As with anything to do with first scott, the government seems to have the knack of running scott free.

Ten years after reformasi, proud sons and daughters of the spurned Mistress continue unflinchingly to produce impressive works: the Galams, Aguses, Ugos of the plastic arts world fetch prestigious prices in present day auctions; new young writers gain world attention for their boldness to sever with the ho-hum moralistic past and guided democracy; the performance arts, goaded by attention from abroad, attempts to soar with meager means; more independent films are made and flunked out of the market that still feeds on gores and ghouls. But how long will these foolhardy and yet determined drives last is anyone’s guess. Luckily, there are always the generous and welcoming offerings of a Goethe, or an ErasmusHuis and the various kindly hands extending from institutions of the West.

Meanwhile, each successively appointed minister of the culture learns the ropes to remain in office by erroneously thinking tourism is solely about landscapes and mainly about Bali. Watch the current tourism ad campaign for a great laugh: an expat tourist stuffs Indonesian landscapes, dishes and things-to-do in one convenient duffel bag! As if there is no prouder statement to make than it’s cheap and cheaper. While civilizations might not have begun here, there are certainly traces of their beginnings inscribed all over the land to boast about.
The Mistress remains spurned. She has nonetheless grown sullen with disillusion. She sighs plaintively for all to hear, “If not now, whatever!” All things considered, there are after all plenty of sunburns and floods for every searching soul to extract for her art. The new generation belongs to the avenging artists. Ecology, what ecology?

Previously published in Now Jakarta, June 2009 issue.