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Unfurling the Sails of Time


Changes happen in time. That’s obvious. But how often do we willfully choose to disregard the part about time? We choose instead to accept these most common and contradictory statements: change is inevitable and those unprepared will soon find themselves unmoored in the future. Both statements appear to make sense, that is, until you pose this overlooked question: if change is inevitable, shouldn’t we also assume by the unpredictability of changes that it’s impossible to prepare for them? Granted that there are indeed things we could prepare for. For instance, at the first ominous signs of a storm in the offing, there are viable and sensible options at one’s disposal to brace for something of this nature. Still, we’ll not be any more prepared for the when or how or where the storm will strike. The weathermen would likely show you convincing charts of a prediction, the precipitations, the cyclones, and so on, but at the end of the day they will not bet their lives on the precise minutes or seconds of the actual event. Neither will they be able to know with any certainty the intensity of the strike. We have in this instance erred by the acceptance of the first statement, that which we know, for the assurance of the validity of that which will happen.

Changes are manifested over time. They are always already have been. In other words, they are always retroactively visible. This truism, Change Is Inevitable, has been shown to us as far back as when Heracles first walked into the river and stated, “One never walks into the same river twice.” While this is established knowledge, we often overlook to pursue this other more significant question, one that is indisputably the root of all changes: that is, the question of Chance.

To illustrate Chance, let us go way back to 1932, to a specific place, Hollywood Boulevard, and a specific woman, then unknown to the world, in the person of Muriel Pearson, a.k.a. K’tut Tantri, Surabaya Sue, Vannen, Mrs Manx. A Scottish American woman who, on a wet afternoon, probably at the lackluster stage of her life, happened to stand before the poster of a film, Bali, The Last Paradise, outside a small cinema on Hollywood Boulevard. This instance, out of the many instances of her life, was far and away from any association to an island named Bali. And yet this instance presented itself to her in the shape and form of Bali and the seizure of this instance would totally transform whatever she had been up till that moment. She would take a ‘fat cargo boat’ transatlantic to an island in the Pacific Rim. Upon her arrival there, she would be adopted by a Raja in Bali and became the confidante, and later the lover of the Raja’s son, Prince Anak Agung Ngurah. In 1936, she would build the first of a series of hotels in Kuta Beach and played a significant role as an hotelier in the pre-war tourism industry there. When the Japanese invaded, she was imprisoned and tortured, and later, after her release, she ran blockade-busting missions for the resistance movement, then became Soekarno’s scriptwriter and propagandist against the returning Dutch, earning her the sobriquet Surabaya Sue to the world at large, the Merdeka Mole to the Dutch Intelligence. In 1960, she would write a book, a memoir described as a romance, Revolt in Paradise, and became known internationally. In the ensuing years, she tried unsuccessfully to have her book made into a Hollywood film. An ironical fact that, because had the film been made, she would have returned to where she had started: a Hollywood film.

The pragmatists would perhaps speculate that K’tut Tantri’s life after that eventful encounter with the film, Bali, The Last Paradise, was due to her choice. To the superstitious, it was her fate. To the intentionalists, it was her character. Such speculations based either on the determinisms of the self or those that conjure up the divine for the ineffable are of course not uncommon. But there is more to it than all that put together. There’s something out of the ordinary taking place when she encountered the Hollywood film. Something powerful enough to uproot her from out of a known world, America, into an unknown new world, Bali. From a regular Scottish American, Muriel Pearson, she had turned into an extraordinaire, K’tut Tantri, the Joan of Arc of Indonesia. There’s then in this sense an intra-worldly transmigration, which suggests that there is not just a world, but worlds.

In an event of this nature, there is no going back. The paradigm has shifted. The new has arisen in the rupture. Nothing will remain the same ever again. In any case, this has nothing to do with choices and least of all intentions. Fate is simply a homonym for the failure of description of this nature. A person in the grip of an event brought about by Chance is like a person backed against the wall with no other options than to carry on with whatever that is presented to him or her. A path is opened up. He or she has no knowledge whatsoever of where this newly projected path will lead to. To stay back can only mean to deny the event. To take a step is the only way to fill in on the void opened up by the rupture, so that a name is to be inscribed and a purpose projected. Fidelity to the event, by stepping up courageously to what the event presents, albeit one’s always shrouded in unknowingness, is the only way to ensure that whatever that has happened will not fade away into oblivion.

Throughout the entire ordeal, while K’tut Tantri was in this new world, she had never once thought of abandoning it. She persisted in her fidelity to the event, at considerable risk to her life during the Japanese occupation.

“Instead, she renounced the life of a white person for the second time and took up the hard life of the Indonesian guerillas. She can and does go where she pleases among the Indonesian people, by foot, by car, or by train, in perfect safety, the only white person able to do so. Everywhere she is greeted with smiles and cheers, upraised hands and shouts of Merdeka, low bows and respectful tipping of hats. If night catches her in some remote spot she makes herself comfortable in the native compounds with limited facilities at hand. She’s known, and trusted by the peasant folk, nobles, and officials from one end of Java to the other.” Vern Haugland, “Introduction to K’tut Tantri.

Instead of turning away at the first peril, K’tut Tantri persisted in this world. She reinterpreted the odds at every point she encountered and re-transformed herself to meet these odds. Since her arrival in Bali, she had turned herself into a recognized figure, first through her association with Prince Ngurah of Bangli, later as an hotelier. She was known along with a coterie of artists such as Walter Spies, Le Mayeur, Miguel Covarrubias and Colin McPhee as the fervent promoters of the island to the West. They were most probably responsible for Bali to be discovered as the Lost Eden. It was due to their presences, illustrious guests such as Margaret Mead, Charlie Chaplin and Cole Porter soon came to visit. Unlike her contemporaries, however, who in their separate ways evacuated promptly from the island at the news of the impending Japanese invasion, K’tut Tantri stayed on and got involved in the national resistance movement. Her courageous act manifested more likely out of her faith to the world she had been transplanted in rather than through any other considerations. We see again that at every point of the truth procedure of an event a re-affirming act takes place at a crucial point and in consequence the elevation in the post-evental movement. K’tut Tantri at this juncture turned from a familiar figure in Bali into a widely-known personage throughout the country and beyond.

Chance has thus in an event been subjugated into the banality of daily procedures. While changes are the procedures of banality, slowly visible retroactively by recount, Chance is contingent. There are no discerning patterns by which to decipher its being. There is no way to predict its appearance. A throw of the dice, says the great poet Mallarme, will never abolish Chance. This statement from Mallarme may very well explain why until today we can’t figure out the turns of events since K’tut Tantri’s rise to fame and her eventual dissolution, from her many failures to have her book made into a Hollywood film and her general dismissal from the annals both of Indonesian and world history to record her contributions to Indonesian independence. By all accounts, to this date, she is considered, if anything, a footnote in the island where she had discovered her Utopia and to the rest of Indonesia, a myth.

To understand Chance and the many changes that take place as a result of an event, it’s best perhaps for one not to speculate on the meaning or meanings strung together from the many strands of changes that take place in a life. There is as such no precautionary tale to be constructed from a path taken. What there are, thus plausible to speculate, are the manifestations in consequence of an event. The constructions of every act at every point in the fidelity to an event make themselves visible at first locally and then observable globally. Meanings are construed always retroactively, and usually disproportionately annexed to those who enact the acts of an event. Mallarme has already warned us when he says, Nothing Will Have Happened, but the Place. As such, the many consequences of an event are but the lot allocated by Chance for a person to see it through faithfully to the end. The courage to take one more step in the projection opened up by an event makes these manifestations possible in place. These manifestations, the realized acts constructed from changes, are what make it possible to describe a life. Not from its totality, because to do so, one would inevitably impose one’s autobiographical construct on another’s historiographical life, but through the dissemblances at each point of a life so a new opening is possible to be reconstructed. And thus a life is not fixed invariably in time, but is always congruent with time.

A paradigm shift in this sense can only be understood when one takes into account the role of Chance in an event, by whose sheer force, in fidelity to the newly minted name of the event, an intra-wordly transmigration is possible to take place. Only those with courage, unfazed by the odds presented by the unknown, seized as they are by something totally out of their ken, will the first steps toward a new horizon be paved. We call this rare breed, mavericks, innovators, or game changers. Believe me, they will be just as puzzled and unaware and frustrated as any one of us as the event presents itself. But those whom we will retroactively recognize as such are the ones who take those courageous steps forced upon them.

They are the ones who unfurl the sails of time. We can admire their breakthroughs, but can’t hope to emulate their endeavors. We’re, however, awed and ultimately inspired by their courage.

The Maestro and His Apprentice: A Play In Two Acts by Richard Oh

ACT 1 Scene One. Midnight. At the studio. The Maestro, with a white singlet on, wrapped round in sarong, stands before a blank canvas, staring hard. A paint brush in one hand and in another a cigar, whose smoke curls up and evaporates into the cone of light that is cast down from an over-hanging lamp. Outside the cone of light impenetrable darkness reigns. He stares at one blank canvas, puffs at his cigar, and lifts his hand as if he is about to start painting but at the last minute pulls back his brush and goes back to staring at the canvas.  Then he moves on to the next canvas on which displayed an unfinished sketch of a penis. He again stares at it and then moves on to the next and the next canvas, all showing different stages of his sketches. After several attempts he hurls the brush away and walks off in disgust toward the front of the stage. He plops down, buries his head in his hands and groans. Then he straightens up, spreads his legs and stares at his crotch.

Maestro Nothing good comes out of this endeavor. Only heartache and disappointment. The heart’s roiling with the desire to paint but the hand refuses to comply. There’s nothing in the head. A blank sheet of nothingness, waiting to be filled with the excitement of colors, with strokes of life.  But there’s nothing. Except for this smothered soul crying for the mercy of the first break of light that brings with it the promise of yet another day.  Another torturous day to watch and wait for this limp and useless thing to awaken. (He looks down, crestfallen at the limp penis)

He walks over to the low table and picks up the harmonica and tries to play it, but could only produce jarring dissonant notes.

Maestro (He sighs and lays the harmonica aside)  Even in the depths of despair one cannot find consolation in music. Years of practice have produced squawks and squeals of insult. I’d better stop or else the turtledove will wake up, thinking I’m mocking her.

Scene Two. Morning. The Maestro is sprawling asleep in his bed with the cage of turtledove hanging down from the eaves of his window. There’s a knock on the door. When no one answers to it, the knocking becomes more furious. After a while, an old lady rushes out to the center of the stage.

The Maestro’s Wife What could be so urgent at this early hour? (She shuffles to the door and opens it) What a pleasant surprise, Pak Yudi! Please come in! Come in!

Pak Yudi (With a proprietary air he surveys the studio. He looks disapprovingly at the blank canvas on the easel and glances across at the old Maestro who is sprawled on the bale snoring fitfully.)  How is he doing?

The Maestro’s Wife (There’s disappointment in her tone as she speaks) You can see for yourself, Pak Yudi. He’s fit as a bull. Sleeps by day. Stays up all night, walking to and fro in the studio, talking to himself. And this is what I find every morning… a blank canvas.

Pak Yudi walks over to the gazebo, followed closely by the Maestro’s Wife. For a moment they stand over the sprawled Maestro, looking over him as though a couple of physicians were examining a patient.

Pak Yudi Will he be ready with the painting?

The Maestro’s Wife (Replying with alacrity) No doubt about it, Pak Yudi. He will deliver. You can count on that.

Pak Yudi I certainly hope so, Madame Maestro. This is not the sort of collector we want to disappoint. The stakes are too high. There are one billion reasons, and all of them inspiring I am sure, for him to make the delivery.

The Maestro’s Wife You’re absolutely right, Pak Yudi. One billion rupiah. How many zeroes are there in a billion rupiah?

Pak Yudi Lots of zeroes, Madame Maestro. You must make sure the painting will be delivered on time, to be exact one week from now. I’ll do what I can to keep the Japanese collector amused in the city.

The Maestro’s Wife (Lapsing into a dreamy state of mind) Zero. Zero. Zero. Sounds so very sexy. Sounds exactly like a cash register being opened. Zeckring. Zeckring. Zeckring.

Pak Yudi (Looks over the old woman with grave concern) Madame, are you all right? Get a hold of yourself. (He seats the old woman on a chair)  That’s better. This is an important client, Madame. One does not come by this kind of opportunity very often. It will be a shame to let it slip by. You must do all you can to encourage him to get this assignment completed on time. We don’t have much time left.

The Maestro’s  Wife Zeechkring. Zeechkring…

Pak Yudi Ma’am, are you listening to me?

The Maestro’s Wife (Recovering from her reverie) Oh yes, oh yes, Pak Yudi. Don’t you worry about it.  I’ll make sure he delivers. Zeckring. Zeckring. What heavenly sound!

Scene 3. Afternoon. The turtledove croons ceaselessly. The wind chimes by the window rattle and clank, the mosquito screens float softly. The Maestro wakes up and sees his wife parading before him in sexy lingerie.

Maestro (Scantly giving her a look, he mumbles) Damn the chatty bird. Crooning. And crooning without end. What’s so great about the day for either a man or a bird to crow so joyfully? (He looks down at his penis and groans) Where else the one bird that is expected to rise up to the occasion…(He whistles at his penis)…decides instead to remain asleep, slumped down like a beaten old cock, world weary, seen all the fights, now resigned to withdraw in his cage, unmotivated, limp as a dead eel.

The Maestro’s Wife Good husband, dearest, what ails you so early in the morning? You grumble like a man whose bird has just flown away.

Maestro (In soliloquy) How could she joke about things like that?

The Maestro’s Wife Take a sip of this freshly brewed coffee and let me help you relax. (She passes him the cup of coffee and starts massaging him. After a while she turns him around on his stomach and mounts on his back.) Nice? How about this? Like it?  One thing for sure, your old lady hasn’t lost the touch.  (The Maestro wriggles and cringes, feeling tickled. Then the Maestro’s Wife sits still, as if a thought has just dawned upon her and she leans down and whispers into his ear) Ya? Ya? Ya?

Maestro No. I said no. Seriously.

The Maestro’s Wife Yes, oh yes, please yes husband.

She pulls down the mosquito screens. We see shadows tussle behind the screens as the Maestro’s Wife tries to seduce her husband.

The Maestro’s Wife (Sternly) Try to relax a bit, good husband or this bird is not going to fly.

Maestro What can she do? There’s not even a flutter to suggest the slightest hint of life in this thing. This bird is definitely not going anywhere. It’s a goner. (At this the turtledove starts to croon.) Oh shut up!

There’s a long tussle, in which the Maestro appears overwhelmed. Occasionally his head emerges from the mosquito screens.

Maestro (Looking distraught) Ampun! Ampun! Ampun!

Apparently all her hard work has yielded no result. In a flash of fury, the Maestro’s Wife yanks the mosquito screens back up and dismounts from the bed. She drags the rattan chair to the window and plants it there and sits down, arms folded, legs crossed, looking out the window like a spurned woman.

The Maestro’s Wife This is a calamity. For almost thirty years I’ve shared this marital bed with you. Never once have I walked away from it feeling such a failure. My heart’s broken. I can’t think straight. Tell me my good husband, where have I failed you?

Maestro (Rises and slides over to the edge of bed and sits there, his feet dangling down) Have you never heard of timeout? Take five. Intermezzo. What do I know? It’s a sign of old age. You think I enjoy this? Ask any strutting chauvinist in town. It’s degrading. It’s worse than being infected with gonorrhea. At least that shows you’ve still got it. It’s worse than losing a leg. Without a leg, the thing can still sit up straight. There’s no greater humiliation for a healthy man to feel so limp…like a helpless child whose toy gun has been robbed away from him.

The Maestro’s Wife (Moved by what she’s heard, she turns round and kneels down by

the side of the bed, holding her husband’s leg) It’s all right, good husband.

We’ll just have to be a bit more innovative, don’t we? Let’s try something different.

What do you say, good husband? (She giggles and whispers into his ear.)

Maestro (Looking disgusted, he groans) Oh no, please, ampuuuuuuun!

She climbs up the bed and pulls the mosquito screens down again. We see her climbing on top of the Maestro with a book of Kamasutra in her hand.  Each time she tries a new position, she reads out from the book. Crab’s Position. The Snake Trap Position. The Toppled Goat Position. The Yawning Position. Japanese Style Position. But after a while she stops, catching her breath.

The Maestro’s Wife There’s no use. It’s like flogging a dead horse. (She starts to sob miserably) I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried everything in the book and a few of my own special inventions. Still nothing happens… (She starts to bawl)

Just then the turtledove starts to croon.

The Maestro’s Wife Oh shut up!

Maestro Go on, damn turtledove. Mock me.  Take your best shot. Taunt me. Pick the spot where it hurts most. No man’s a better target than one whose manliness has been stripped away. There’s nothing more left to defend. What there’s but shame and uselessness.

Scene 4. Afternoon. The Apprentice, a smart-looking girl in her early twenties, enters the studio. She passes the Maestro’s Wife who sobs in a corner and looks across the studio and finds the Maestro in bed, his head buried under a heap of pillows.

The Apprentice I see a dark cloud brewing over this house. Have I come at a wrong time, Maestro?

Hearing her voice, the Maestro cranes his head up from the heap of pillows and sighs.

Maestro No lesson today. Go away!

The Apprentice looks around the studio and sees a harmonica on the low table. She goes over, picks it up and after a few runs of the notes she begins to belt out a wonderful bluesy tune.

Maestro (Intrigued by what he hears, the Maestro slowly straightens up in bed) There’s no better solace than listening to a piece of music so beautifully played. What exquisite harmony. She plays it with the playful curiosity of a child and yet with such dexterity and mastery.

When she stops, he claps his hands enthusiastically.

Maestro Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. Exquisite. I could almost feel your soul when you play the music. There’s real gift in there somewhere.

The Apprentice (Looking a bit flushed with the compliment.) I know you’re in a cranky mood, but there’s no need to pick on me with your sarcasm.

Maestro I’m not teasing you. I really mean what I say. You’ve got it. The gift. You should seriously consider pursuing music thoroughly.

The Apprentice It’s not what I want. Music is all play for me.

Maestro That’s as it should be. Play. The more absorbed you are in the play the more beautiful the result. Unlike us, hardened old men who strive endlessly to break new grounds, set new standards. We try all the time to transcend ourselves…in the heat of our pursuit we lose the essence of what we’ve sought for in the first place. In the name of creativity and brilliance we shun what truly pleases us. We forget to be playful. It’s as if the word pleasure carries with it the connotation of distaste. One day we will realize when it’s too late that we finally succeed to alienate ourselves from ourselves. We become estranged from our true nature. When that happens, we’ll become like angels whose wings have been clipped.  We will fall down, groveling on the ground, mere mortals struggling and struggling to fly, but in vain.

The Apprentice I can always go back to music any time I want. But right now I want to paint. I want to be a great painter like you.

Maestro Listen to her. (Then mimicking her tone of voice) I can always go back to music whenever I want. Spoken with the optimistic arrogance of youth! As if time waits for you. Huh! One day you’ll know when time is slipping through your fingers, when you find the crows start to creep up on the corner of your eyes, when the glow of youth is given way to dull maturity…you will know then that time has no time for anyone.

The Apprentice What is it with you today? You growl with an acid tongue and a venomous intent. Are you trying to turn me away from painting? I thought you told me once I got enough talent to make it as a painter.

Maestro Mark my words. I said you’ve got talent. There’s a world between talent and real gift. I have never doubted you can make a name for yourself one day as a painter, but having a name and being great is two completely different things. With music you will soar with your feelings in abandon. You’ll explore planes of emotions you never know you are capable of. You’ll travel in different dimensions. You’ll do all that without thinking about it. You simply revel in it. It’s in you, all around you. It’s a god-given gift. It’s a shame to trifle with it in this way.

The Apprentice Say whatever you want. My heart is not in it. I’ve made up my mind a long time ago to devote myself to painting. There’s nothing I want more than that.

Maestro What a silly girl? You seriously think you can pick and choose, don’t you? It doesn’t quite work out that way, I’m afraid. Most of the time you get whatever is handed to you. And that’s pretty much whatever there’s to it.

The Apprentice I can sense something is eating you alive.  You lie in bed, looking as if somebody has stolen your fire and left you smoldering like embers. You growl like an impotent man burning with desire.

Maestro (He mutters to himself) Look at her. She’s gifted not only with music but insight into human psychology. Is it so apparent?  Am I beginning to look the part of an impotent old artist wasting away?

The Apprentice Stop mumbling like a madman. I can’t understand a word you say. Tell me, old man, what’s truly bugging you?

Maestro What can you possibly do to help an old man? Most of the time
you can’t even decide between a red or a pink lipstick?

The Apprentice Oh…don’t underestimate what the ingenuity of youth could do.

Maestro What has youth got but a thick face and a shameless heart.

The Apprentice That’s right, old man. Now with my thick face and

my shameless heart I am asking you one more time what is ailing you?

Maestro I’m old, remember. I don’t have a thick face and a strong

heart. All I have left is my pride.

The Apprentice Stop whining. I can’t stand it when I see an old man

become a sniveling child.

Maestro But how can I tell you? To let you know, I’ll have to kill you first.

The Apprentice Noooo! (In a mock horrid gesture, then back
in a serious tone)  That serious, hah? Stop clowning around, old man. Tell me the truth.

Maestro It’s written in my fate that I’m surrounded by hard-headed, unreasonable women.

The Apprentice Quit beating around the bush. Let it pour out, the venom, the grudges, the troubling burden…spill it all out. I want to hear every detail.

Maestro (At first reluctant, then he gives in) Oh what the hell, let the whole wide world know. Let them know that the car’s stuck because the stick cannot shift any more. The lighthouse has crumbled down: it is no longer watching over the sea. So there it is, the truth is out. I AM IMPOTENT. Are you happy now?

The Apprentice (Wide-eyed, she keeps mumbling.) Nooo! Nooo! Nooo!

Maestro Oh yes, yes, yes!

The Apprentice Nooo! Nooo! Nooo!

Maestro Yes, yes, yes! How stupid of me! I should have seen this coming. Now I’m the object of mockery.

The Apprentice But it can’t be. You look so healthy and strong. (Then the fact dawns on her again, she covers her mouth with both hands) Nooo!

Maestro I’m now officially the new attraction in a freak show.

The Apprentice Wait, wait, don’t let your emotion take the best of you. Good, calm down. (She appears to be soothing herself much more than the Maestro) Let me get this right. You can’t get an erection. Is that right?

Maestro What new form of ridicule are you concocting now?

The Apprentice Nothing, just checking the fact. But I assume from the displeasure on your face that is correct. Can I ask you a personal question?

Maestro Go ahead. Take your best shot.

The Apprentice You don’t have to be so rude you know. We’re trying to get down to the heart of the matter here. So it’s a fact that you can’t get your penis pointing straight up the sky like Monas Monument. So big deal? Most men your age can’t do it. That’s why sales of Viagra and Irex are skyrocketing.

Maestro (With hurt pride, he says)  I was doing fine without them. And I don’t want to have anything to do with them now or in the future.

The Apprentice But seriously, what do you expect? One last rising out of the sinking Titanic?

Maestro What would you know about matters of this sort? Do you ever own a gun? It’s always better loaded than without. Although you don’t get to use it as often as you’d like.

The Apprentice It can’t just go pffffffeeey, deflating suddenly like a balloon? There must be something that triggered the decline?

Maestro Beats me. You’re the one who’s trying to play private investigator.

The Apprentice Hmm…(She seems to ponder for a moment) drastic situations require drastic measures. What do you say if we play a game of doctor and his private nurse? (She rises and reaches into her blouse and pulls out first her bra…)

Maestro Hohoho… hold it. Are you nuts? You can’t do this. This is illegal! (He follows the Apprentice, picking up pieces of underwear she discards as she makes her way to the back of the stage.)   Oh God, red panties! Stop this nonsense immediately. Please!

ACT 2. Scene One. A clock strikes twelve midnight. In the studio the Maestro is confronting the blank canvas. After standing transfixed for a long time he starts pacing back and forth, mumbling to himself.

Maestro Time stands still when one can’t create. Everything seems to be frozen over. But the shameless heart rages on, unabated, not abiding to reasons. It keeps wanting to try while it’s clear the well is dry. There’s nothing more to be plumbed. Oh Mistress of Imagination, Divine Lady of Inspiration, you’ve never forsaken me before. But where are you now? Sprinkle me with your stardust. Touch me with your divine inspiration. And rouse me (he stares at his crotch) from this wretched slumber.

The overhanging lamp fizzles and then goes out. For a moment everything is shrouded in darkness. Then a powerful illumination casts down from an overhanging lamp. A divine creature clad in a sparkling sequin white dress spins around and then stands still.

Muse What do you want old man, waking me up at this ungodly hour!

Maestro (Gasping in astonishment) Is this real or am I in my mad delirium dreaming this up?

Muse Don’t waste my time, old timer. I haven’t had time to fool around here. You have no idea what I’ve been through. It drives the most patient Saint insane. The kind of dreams they can dream up these days. It’s mind-boggling. The other day a young man dreams to become Michael Jackson! With a special request, he detests children. An old lady is sick of staying home taking care of her decrepit husband; she wants to be a rock and roll star. What’s the world coming down to?

Maestro I have no such lofty wishes to ask of you. I just need to find out from you. What’s happening to me? Have I lost my touch? Are you taking back my gift?

Muse (Indifferent, paring her nails)  Sorry, can’t help you much there. I’m not in the talent department.

Maestro My hand freezes over the blank canvas like a novice who can’t make up his mind. My head is a total blank. But my heart jolts with burning desire. Tell me what to do?

Muse There’s not much I can help you there. It’s not my department. That’s for the guys at the motivation department.

Maestro What are you, some kind of a joker? Have you come to mock me? Well, you couldn’t have come at a better time. Take a good look. The great artist. Once known for his daring strokes and mind-blowing blend of colors. Whose works are collected in the museums throughout the world. What has become of him now? A decrepit old man with a seriously disinterested penis, petrified before the canvas like a statue. All those achievements, they are now vexing reminders of a glorious past that won’t ever be revived. If that’s meant to be, fine, I’ll accept it like a man. But why does this heart still ache with restless and unflagging spirit to create, trying to bring back the magic?

Muse You would rather I leave now?

Maestro No, no, please don’t go. You’re the lousiest person to have a conversation with but I badly need an ear to listen to my grumbling.

Muse continues paring her fingernails.

Maestro I know you’re not in the mood to be of any help, but at least you could give me a clue, an enlightenment of some sort, so that I know what to do with the rest of my life. I tell you it’s no fun being caught in this limbo land between nothingness and a flicker of promise of something.

The Muse makes as if to speak but then stops and goes back to paring her nails.

Maestro Not your department, I know. If I can’t get any help out of you, why don’t I at least see some sympathy, a gentle prod of encouragement. I see instead indifference on your face. What kind of a Muse are you? What is your department?

Muse Sorry, can’t tell you.

Maestro I must be going mad. I’m having the most impossible conversation with a Muse with an attitude and a fixation with her fingers. If you’re not here to help me, why are you here?

Muse You asked for me, remember?

Maestro All right, if you’re not here to inspire or to answer my pressing questions, then perhaps grant me one simple wish.
Muse I’m listening.
Maestro Please make me stop. Lift me out of this hellhole between being and nothingness. Leave me alone and let me enjoy the rest of my life in peace. There are so many things I’d like to do. I have a garden waiting for me to work on. There are so many exotic plants in this world I’d like to get. There are books on butterflies I’d like to pore over. And maybe pick up a game of golf with my neighbor Suwandi.

Muse You know what I’ll say to that, don’t you?

Maestro Not your department.

Muse You’re getting really good.

Maestro (He buries his head in his arms and starts to groan) Oooooh, I’m stuck with a nincompoop who calls herself a Muse. No offense, but I think you’re worse than being impotent. You haven’t got a clue! (When he looks up again the Muse is gone) Aha, there goes the thin-skinned Muse.

Scene 2. Morning. In the kitchen, the Apprentice is seated across the table from the Maestro’s Wife. They appear dispirited.

The Maestro’s Wife (Shrill with hysteria) I’m at the end of my wits. I’ve tried positions that had once proven infallible. But to no avail. I’ve also slyly dropped large quantities of mixtures of Kuku Bima, Tangkur, Sea Horse, cobra blood in his drinks and food. You can see the effect that has done to the old man. (She points at the gazebo where the Maestro lay sprawling in fit-full slumber.)

The Apprentice Maybe we should ask for help.

The Maestro’s Wife What do you suggest?

The Apprentice We need someone with mystical powers.

The Maestro’s Wife Yes, I’ve been meaning to suggest something like that. Let’s get a witch!

The Apprentice No, not a witch! You don’t want to turn him into a cat or anything, are you? We need a medicine man. A man with some magical powers to jolt him out of his slump.

They exit and return moments later with a man wearing a long beard and a turban. The medicine man circles round the gazebo, wafting frankincense over Maestro’s head and then lets it hover over his crotch.

Maestro What’s this? Why’s this man fumigating my crotch? Go away, let me alone.

The Maestro’s Wife (Looking sheepishly) It’s all right, good husband. Go back to sleep. We’re fumigating the house. Clearing it from bad spirits. (She whispers to the Apprentice) If he finds out what we are doing, I’m going to be in deep trouble.

The Apprentice It’s too late to worry about that now.

When the medicine man finishes the ritual, he walks over to the two women.

Medicine Man I’m afraid he’s totally taken over by a female spirit. She’s rendering him useless because the spirit is consumed with jealousy. She wants him for herself.

The Maestro’s Wife (Hysterical with anger)  Make her show herself. I’ll punch the living daylights out of her. What kind of horny spirit is that? Of all the people in the world why does she have to choose an old fart?

Medicine Man It’s very hard to say in this matter, Madam. She seems to be quite fond of your old man. She could be someone who took a fancy in him before.

The Maestro’s Wife You’re not telling me he’s being possessed by that virago, Ryanti! Damn that woman! Even in her grave she tries to stir up trouble. (She rushes over to where her husband is lying and pummels on his chest) Go to hell, you bitch!

Maestro (Shaken awake and recoiling from the blows) Oiy! What’s coming over you, old woman? What are you doing? You’re trying to kill me?

The Maestro’s Wife Oh, oh, oh I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you my good husband?

Maestro Of course you’re hurting me, crazy old fool. What’s the matter with you? Have you gone mad just because I can’t do it to you?

The Medicine Man (Whispering to The Apprentice) Wait until the clock strikes twelve midnight, then sprinkle rose petals on the bed where he lies asleep and read the Kursi Chapter from the Koran.

Toward midnight the Maestro’s Wife and the Apprentice sneak into the bedroom. The Apprentice gingerly sprinkles rose water and spreads rose petals around where the Maestro lies sprawling asleep. The Maestro’s Wife lights up candles and sets them near each of the leg of the bed where the drapery is tied. Having completed their task, they crouch down and sit at the foot of the bed.

The Maestro’s Wife Sleeps like a log. Didn’t even hear a thing. Now, let’s read the Kursi Chapter from Koran.

They begin to chant. Meanwhile the Maestro starts to stir because he smells something burning.

Maestro What’s the smell? I smell something burning and it’s not from the kitchen. I am familiar with the burning smell from the kitchen. It usually smells of a chicken being burnt to charcoal black. But this is different. This smells like…smells like something near, a piece of cloth…

Then he notices smoke churning up from the bed posters, surrounding him in bed. He gets up on his feet and screams hysterically.

Maestro Fire…fire…

Scene 3. The house has been burnt down. The Maestro, his wife and the Apprentice squat underneath a makeshift shelter overlooking the burnt remains of the house. The Apprentice is consoling the Maestro’s Wife who’s sobbing miserably.

Maestro What’s the use of crying? The house is burnt down. The fact that it’s burnt down because of the stupidity of the both of you, that’s undeniable. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. It’s crystal clear. It’s a sign. A sign that says everything has come to an end. A new chapter can begin.

The Maestro’s Wife What chapter will that be? Without a roof over our heads and you being limp and not painting…(She sobs miserably)…huhuhuh…I can’t imagine what kind of life lies in store for us…

Maestro The kind of life we’ve always been familiar with before you knew success and luxury. Back to the way of life we have always known. A simpler life. Without banquet or credit cards. And no burden on this shoulder to be the best. The most innovative. All the vanity. Freedom at last.

The Apprentice What a loser!

The Maestro’s Wife What’s going to happen now?

Maestro We’ll be fine. Don’t you worry.

The Maestro’s Wife What do you mean not to worry? There’s plenty to worry about. How about this? Where are we going to live now? What are we going to live on? Will you be painting again?

Maestro Forget it. I would rather be a bum than trying my hand at painting again. It’s over and done with. It’s a sign. (He looks up into the sky with both hands raised.) Now I can be whatever I want to be. (He fusses over the potted plants) I am free.

The Apprentice Crazy old man. What are you going to do now?

Maestro There are so many things to do. For instance, on this blackened earth I’ll grow all sorts of plants… A lush new life, real tangible and colorful, not the kind painted or imagined. Look at this plant. Grow, my sweet plant. Grow. It grows by the blessing of the Almighty, no artificial fabrication required.

The Maestro’s Wife (Still sobbing) But we still have to eat. You cannot eat a cactus! When your stomach groans and there’s no food nor a table to eat it at where’s your God? Besides if He’s so generous why did He burn down our house in the first place?

Maestro He moves in a mysterious way. I’ve never been so sure of it till now.

The Apprentice (Sidling next to the Maestro’s Wife) He’s gone plum loony!

The Maestro’s Wife What will become of us now?

The Apprentice We’ll figure out a way to cope with this. Don’t you worry.

The Maestro’s Wife What’s it with everyone? Why are you all asking me not to worry? There are plenty of reasons to worry! How about the painting? All the zeckring, zechring, zeckring…what should I tell Pak Yudi?

The Apprentice Don’t worry about it, will you? I can’t think with you whining all the time.

Maestro Trust me. He will provide. Don’t you worry.

Scene 4. Pak Yudi, the gallery owner, comes to visit. Standing on the blackened ground, he looks around him. He finds the Maestro sprinkling water on the potted plants and his wife huddling under the makeshift shelter and the Apprentice shivering next to a wrapped frame.

Pak Yudi Days ago this was the sprawling residence of one of the most successful artists. Now a pile of ruins. The Goddess of Fortune is fickle and impartial. Good fortune one day, total ruin the next. Such is the way of life.

The Maestro’s Wife It’s gone. Everything’s gone. Nothing’s left.

Pak Yudi I suppose that includes the painting…

The Maestro’s Wife Everything’s gone…

The Apprentice (Rising with a frame in her hands) Everything that is, except one painting.

Pak Yudi Oh, what a blessing!  How quickly fortune turns around!

The Maestro’s Wife Did he…did he not…

The Apprentice (Whispering to the Maestro’s Wife)  Quiet, let me handle this. Remember the zeroes…

The Maestro’s Wife Oh yes, yes…

Pak Yudi Quick, open it and let me see.

The Apprentice rips the brown wrapper and unveils a painting. The gallery owner turns the frame around. After a while he places the painting on a chair and paces back to look at it from a distance. It’s a painting that consists of two brush strokes; reverse question marks in different colors.

Pak Yudi Extraordinary! He has never painted like this before. This is probably the simplest and yet the most powerful of his works. I’ve never seen anything like this from him. A masterpiece!

Maestro Watch out. The eye is most deceitful. It leads you to see things that are not there.

The Apprentice Quiet, old man. You’ve done enough damage as it is.

Pak Yudi This is excellent. The collector will be very pleased. This is indeed a blessing in disguise. The Maestro is moving into a new dimension. A higher plane of creativity.  I must show this to the collector immediately.

The Apprentice Hold it a minute. We need food and shelter.

Pak Yudi No problem. (He looks admiringly at the painting and then reaches into his pocket for a cellular) I’ll have two deluxe rooms in a first class hotel arranged right away. Don’t worry a thing.

The Maestro’s Wife Who’s worrying? I’m not worrying at all!

Scene 5. In a big new house. The Maestro is in the garden with his exotic plants. The Maestro’s Wife is attending to the Apprentice in the studio. The turtledoves are crooning merrily from their cages from the eaves.

The Maestro’s Wife (She picks up one of the paintings and looks admiringly at it) Each painting is a masterpiece. Worth lots of zeroes. You’re certainly more productive than my husband. Between you and me, I think you paint better, too.

The Apprentice This is becoming tiresome. How many different ways of drawing a question mark?  Even the fun of making mischief is gone. There’s no challenge at all. How can you know if what you paint is truly appreciated for what it is, not what a name represents?

The Maestro’s Wife Who cares? All I know is that each painting is worth a lot of zechkring, zechring…

The Apprentice Unfortunately money cannot satisfy this heart that yearns to make art.

She puts the brush and the palette away and walks over to the low table and picks up the harmonica. She plays the harmonica. The Maestro stops and listens to the music. He gets up slowly and moves closer and closer to the Apprentice.

Maestro Teach me how to play like that.

The Apprentice Teach me how to paint.

Maestro Oh, you don’t need me to teach you. You’re doing very well without me.

The Apprentice You mean these cursory scrawls? That’s not art. That’s not me.

Maestro But that’s you. That’s the real you at play. Now, teach me how to play the harmonica like the way you play it.

The Apprentice How can I teach you? I don’t even know how I play…

The Apprentice continues to play the harmonica. The Maestro sits by her side, absorbed in her music, shaking his head in admiration.

The End

Traveling with Books

I’ve always dreaded traveling. Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not some larded ass who prefers the familiarity of one place to another or some loon with a developed case of phobia for strangers. I’m way more ahead than any one of these fellows. I love the tingling serenity of the cabin, peering out through the plane’s window at the foaming clouds, my iPods plugged in my ears slowly building a mood of ethereal bliss. I love getting lost in the meandering streets of Rome or the perplexing Tokyo underground. I actually love being in another place complete with its various outlandish landscapes and idiosyncratic ways of life. I truly savor all that. It’s the idea of packing my luggage that gets me started anywhere south of excitement. Now, I’m not talking about puzzling over what clothes to put in to suit a certain climate. That never bothers me at all. It’s the thought of what books to bring with me that really gets me in a state of ineffable anxiety.

I read somewhere that Somerset Maugham had always lugged a suitcase full of books wherever he traveled. Lucky for him. He traveled in an age before air travel with the ground stewardess’s priggish glare fixedly at the scale for any sign of gross over limit of the twenty-kilos allowed on a hand-carry luggage. Recently, on a trip to the Byron Bay Writers Festival in NSW, Australia, I ran into such a fierce ground patrol virago. After a protracted exchange, in which I pleaded, begged and when nothing panned out well put down my weight only to be snubbed by her cool superior piercing indifference. I finally pulled out my laptop and my sweater and a couple of books and shoved my hand-carry luggage back on the scale. Smugly satisfied with what she saw on the scale, she issued me the boarding pass. To this day, I’m certain that she gave me a finger behind my back as I pulled my luggage away, with my laptop twisted in my left armpit and the jumble of sweater and books cradled in one hand. My spirits sagging, the next best thing I could think of to salvage any semblance of joy from the impending trip was to pretend to limp to the lavatory, take a leak and stuff everything back into the luggage and trundle it through the immigration and into the plane. That exactly was what I did. Unchecked. When the plane took off, my luggage safely locked away in the overheard luggage compartment and my iPod plugged in my ears, comfortably nestled in the anti static blanket, my mood air born, I began to open a page of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and read with priggish satisfaction.
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