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!

Reading Literature Through The Cinema

While their cinematic approaches greatly differ, these film directors – Neil Jordan, Bernardo Bertolucci and Oliver Stone – share one thing in common: they are all published writers. Neil Jordan started out as a short story writer. His first published collection of short stories entitled Night In Tunisia won the Guardian Fiction Prize. He has since written a number of novels, last of which, Sunrise with Sea Monster, was published in 1994. Bernardo Bertolucci came from a literary family. His father was a renowned poet and he himself aspired to be a poet, which he became and won a prestigious prize in Venice. As a favor to Bertolucci’s father who had helped publish his first novel, Pasolini installed Bertolucci as his first assistant for Accattone. Bertolucci’s career in film was set for good. Oliver Stone published a novel entitled A Child’s Night Dream in 1997 and never thought twice about writing novels again. He stated in an interview that he didn’t believe in the future of novels.
There is always this kindred connection between literature and films. The three examples illustrated above shows one fact: that most writers who switch over to the celluloid seldom publish another novel. They still write for sure, but mostly screenplays. (In a bizarre twist, actors tend to do the reverse. They started out as actors and began publishing after establishing themselves in the film industry: Ethan Hawke (Ash Wednesday), Carrie Fisher (Postcards from the Edge), and Steve Martin (Shopgirl). And they continue to publish new literary works as if this were their new-found ancillary career!)
The new batch of films based on great literary works – Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais (made beautifully by Jacques Rivette as Ne Touchez Pas La Hache), Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – proves that Oliver Stone might have made a premature statement about the future of novels, but one would have to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that his prediction about the future of film industry is indisputable. Aside from one or two disasters, see Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, most great novels have been successfully adapted for the screen. Atonement, Ne Touchez Pas La Hache (Don’t Touch the Axe), and Brideshead Revisited, along with the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil (renamed There Will Be Blood), will undoubtedly soon join other film classics of all time such as Gone With The Wind, Doctor Zhivago and such modern classics as Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ishiguro’s The Remains of The Day.
Ian McEwan enjoyed the success of Atonement with a knowing smirk. He made no bones about the success of the film to have anything to do with his novel. He should know better. His other novel Enduring Love was also adapted for the screen but didn’t turn out as well as The Atonement. While I doubt if Gabriel Garcia Marquez would let any of his novels to be be made into a film again after the disastrous result of Love in the Time of Cholera, I believe both McEwan and Ishiguro would continue to sell the film rights of their novels. Even the persnickety author like Philip Roth allowed himself to enjoy a modicum of success from his novels’ adaptations: The Human Stain and Elegy (based on The Anatomy Lesson). Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie wrote about his frustration over the years to put together a workable screenplay from his famous novel, Midnight’s Children.
I suppose fiction writers know the electrifying power of the screen. They know how their works translated into films can reach out to more audiences worldwide than their novels can ever hope to achieve. They also know that if the adaptations fail at the box office, the film director is to be blamed, not their novels. As such, there is a lot to be gained from allowing their novels to be adapted for the screen.
But why are film directors so obsessed with adapting from novels? Some go to great lengths to take the challenges of such impossibly interior literary works as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (The Hours) and Roth’s The Human Stain. Maybe the novels, unlike hastily put together screenplays, provide fuller characters in more comprehensive settings. Or maybe just as the actors, after years acting out roles, try their hands at creating characters in fiction, film directors want to challenge themselves by bringing novels alive on the screen.
Whatever the case maybe, literature and films seem to be entwined in a symbiotic relationship that goes way back to a handful of hunters and gatherers around a bonfire telling each other a cracking good yarn. In modern days, these same men and women watch themselves tell good yarns on the screen. All the same, damn good storytellers are required to start the fire.

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

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.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

I hate writing poems. But here’s one, inspired by Michele Placido’s film, Un Viaggio Chiamato Amore, A Journey of Love.

Don’t Hold Your breath.

Nothing passes
From what I peeled
And raked

Of what remains,
Of what is lost,

Immensity claims all

To hell with East and West,
Whichever first,
North or South

All directions disperse

To hell with images
Which hark and hail
Like unbidden postcards
That knock, knocking
On bolted doors

To hell with words that ring
And rankle like tinnitus;
A disease believed to infect
Those who overly listen,
Those who don’t
Erratic beats of the heart
No less

Harsher, more incorrigible men than I,
Loosen themselves in ritualized weals,
Hollow conundrums that thrash and shriek;
While I, snout in
Combobulation, breathe with this
And that, this that, that then this,
That is just bunk

So here’s what you can and should,
Again the proverbial incants,
When to add and subtract
Being clearly impasses
And letting is oh such a dastardly word
That trembles, that howls
Inside inns of feeblest breezes

What then?
Says the obstreperous of obstreperous jerks
As if Frost’s bifurcations
Dutifully bifurcate
Each stead you imitate

Still stillness, a question naught
That beggars still nonetheless

Away then distillates of distillations,
Instill mightily
Till all else apart
You depart
And I, timorously,
Irremediably, build
A part.

Jakarta, October 5, 2009