Thursday, January 18, 2018

Old Man

I am the old man who sits on the porch and watches people go by. I am the old man who tosses bits of sausage to the neighborhood dogs. I never thought I would be the old man who sits on the porch and watches people go by. But here I am. And it’s not so bad. I watch the neighbor girl run by with her friend, both in bare feet. They are not girls, really. They are young women in the prime of their youth. They are taut and lithe and bright and shapely like fresh yellow roses newly bloomed. They nod and smile as they pass. In Bali, you are required to nod and smile, to acknowledge older people, and the bule, the European or American, is often afforded an extra bit of honor, for we are tamu, guests, and it is culturally important to be accommodating to guests. In the meantime, the big fat brown dog lumbers into the driveway, looking fatter than ever, and panting because the midafternoon is hot.  I fetch her a sausage from the kitchen, and fill her bowl with cold water. Now the girls come back with a small band of boys tagging along. These boys, though the same age, school friends, no doubt, are clearly lagging behind the girls in the maturing process. They are ragged and scruffed and ruffled while the girls are neat and pressed and tidy. The boys are rowdy, exuberant, excessive. The girls giggle and fold their arms. “Hello, Mister,” one of the boys says. The others nod in concert before returning to their performance for the girls. In America, people don’t say hi to old men on porches. They wonder why they are there. They seem vaguely suspicious. The big fat brown dog, vaguely suspicious herself, gives the young folks a wide birth as she waddles back toward her home. The late sun has descended now to the treetops and rolls down lazily from one limb to the next. It will be evening soon, and time for a coffee, and time for a slow and thoughtful cigarette. The truth is, I like being the old man who watches people go by. The truth is, I can be nothing else.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


I met a young woman here some years ago during a time when I was combing Sanur for coffee spots that were cheap but cozy. During the course of that search, I happened to stop in at a place called " Bahagia". This was a rather large establishment, generally devoid of customers, but I found that the price of coffee was quite good, and the coffee itself was good, and the waitress, Imas, was delightful. She was new in Bali, originally from Java, and had come here for employment, which is very typical of girls from Java. She was keenly interested in learning English, and was also keenly interested in finding a husband (again, typical). I wasn't available in the latter category, but we became friends and I helped her on the way with her English. I discovered also in the course of our conversations that she was being paid dirt cheap wages and was compelled to work seven days a week.

"Imas," I said, "don't you know that you can find work in almost any restaurant here and make twice as much money?"

"I don't know," she said. 

"Well, of course you can. Your hours here, and your wages, are ridiculous!" 

"But what can I do? I'm scared. I don't know anyone."


"Yes. Can you help me? Can you get me another job? You know a lot of people, yes?"

Well ... no. Nonetheless, I began to ask around, and I found several places that were looking for waitresses. Before long, I was able to take Imas to an interview at a place called "Chill It", run by a Norwegian ex-patriate. Imas was hired on the spot, and was now making almost three times the salary she had made at Bahagia. 

Not only was she making more money, but she began to meet more men, and little by little we saw less and less of one another. We stayed in touch through social media, and I followed her story of multiple suitors and multiple disappointments. Each time, she fell madly in love; and each time ended up crushed. One prospect, as I recall, was found not only to be already married, but sharing a room with a prostitute when Imas cheerily, and unexpectedly, showed up one morning. 

Finally, however, I see that Imas is engaged to be married. I had noted through Facebook that she was often visiting a man in Australia, and now that man has proposed, and Imas has a ring.

Good on her, as the Australians say. She worked long and hard, she learned English quite well, brought her little daughter from Jova (who had been living with her parents) and now seems set for a fulfilling and a comparatively opulent life. A happy beginning, and a happy ending, I hope. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Epic Fail

I have trouble recognizing people I know. This can lead to uncomfortable circumstances, because Indonesians have memories like elephants. Someone may greet me with open arms and a big smile. “Pak Will! Apa kabar? Tumben ya!” Yeah, tumben, as in Who the hell is this person? How does he know my name? How does he know my son’s name? How does he know where I live? How does he know me even though I’m wearing a motorcycle helmet? One time, I had a fairly long conversation with a girl sitting at JCO and when she got up to leave, I said it was nice to meet her. She informed me, politely, that I already know her and that we had met a number of times. Good grief. Just this morning when I was entering Starbucks, a young woman smiled at me and said Hi! I thought she was just being friendly, and so I nodded in a brief, friendly way and moved on. Turned out that she is the girlfriend of one of my Barista friends, I have met her several times, and in fact had been chatting with her online just the night before. Oh dear. And so I end up looking like a snob, or, worse yet, a complete idiot. Clearly, my brain is broken.

When I'm 64

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
when I'm 64?"

So, here I am coming up on the 'old age' memorialized in the old Beatles song. Sixty-four. I guess when I was young, 64 would have seemed old to me, but as I grew older myself, and saw my own father and relatives at that age, McCartney's lyrics and their picture of a man at 64 seemed rather exaggerated to me. And the question of whether a husband would be needed at 64 seemed absurd. Of course he would be! And probably more than ever before. But I suppose, as with most of McCartney's lyrics, the sound and the rhythm was the important thing. After all, if you play it in your mind, 74 and 84 just don't sound right, and 54 sounds far too young. 

But anyway, the stupid song has been going through my mind. Because I am about to be 64. 

Sixty-four certainly doesn't look the way I thought it would look when I was 24. This is very likely because the imagination of growing older was bound up with the pattern of what I saw in older folks such as my parents and aunts and uncles. I, too, would be a parent, I assumed, and even a grandparent, as in the song. Grandchildren on your knee--Vera, Chuck and Dave. 

Well, there are grandchildren, from my stepdaughters, anyway. Four, I believe. But I have only met one of them. And that was a long time ago. There is no wife--or rather, there have been three, which are now no longer wives (of mine, anyway). And somehow I have ended up on the other side of the world, single, alone, in a foreign land that I have no meaningful connection to. 

McCartney's 64 year old looks rather cozy, after all. Rather more like I thought I would be, after all. 

I remember writing a poem once upon a time for my second wife. It was titled "Old Woman Wife" and sought to describe her at a much older age, to paint a picture of beauty and character enriched by the years, etched in wrinkles of experience and wisdom. 

She was not pleased. 

Later, she would spend many thousands of dollars on plastic surgery--facelift, tummy tuck, so on and so forth. I saw her in the hospital, and it was a frightening sight indeed. Staples in her head, bruises on her skin, eye sockets purple. My God. I should have never wrote that poem! 

And you know what? She got old anyway, for the money ran out and the tummy untucked and the character of the years reasserted itself, saying No, you cannot fool me

I don't mind being 64. I have no use for being any other age at this point. And yet there is the suspicion that I am not who I am supposed to be. It is not a story I would have written when I was young. And yet, it was written by no one other than me. And there is at least one more chapter to be composed. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Fall River

I am in love with a girl I met many years ago. I do not remember her name. I want to say Mandy, or Amanda, or Marissa. It doesn’t matter. I met her at a place called Fall River. Fall River is in Central Oregon. I was 16, I think, and this was the first and only time I had been there, and so I could not have met her at any other time or in any other summer.

In that place, the land is as dry as paper in late summer and spring-fed Fall River tumbles and bubbles between the thirsty banks, eternally quenching the dry throat of those eastern slopes as they descend to the desert beyond.  I had a broken big toe that summer and it was taped to the other toes on that foot and pressed into my tennis shoe. It was a great, a crippling injury, as teenage injuries tend to be, and sometimes would make walking, when inconvenient, quite impossible. But the cold water felt good on the toe and so I did a lot of fishing, wading through the shallow rapids from one fallen tree to the next, fishing just across the trunks where the water pooled and quieted and gave the trout a place to rest.

Fallen trees were typical in that stream. Maybe their roots grew weak from the unfed soil such that a stiff wind might cause them to fall. Maybe that’s why it is called Fall River. I fished upstream, casting parallel along the break in the water caused by the trunks, and had caught perhaps a half dozen trout by the time I saw the girl on the far bank. She was speaking to an older woman, her grandmother, I thought, and then looking my way. I was sitting on a rock, tying on a new fly, and I watched the girl begin to cross over the river atop a half-submerged log.

Being a chivalrous boy, and one skilled at walking on half-submerged logs, I rushed to her assistance (which she did not need).

“Some of these logs sink,” I warned. “Here, take my hand.”

In fact, her balance was better than mine. Lithely, she hopped past me, and reached the shore far in advance, where she waited with her arms crossed.

“My toe is broken,” I explained, limping tragically onto dry land.

And she smiled.

How do I describe this smile? Is it sufficient to say that I still see it even now, in my mind’s eye? That it entered my very soul and curled up therein like a small, soft, warm animal to live forever beneath my skin? Is it enough to say that in this girl’s smile the day, the sun, the breeze, the scent of pine and of wildflower, the cool of the water, the sparkle on the surface were all contained, and moreover, somehow, explained? Her hair was light brown, a honey brown, unpredictable, eccentric, having something in common with the wind. Her high cheekbones were each decorated with several strategically placed freckles, as if she had placed them there herself, just so, and her eyes were brittle and quick and lively and sleek and were the rich, burnt color of a sugar glaze.

And though I was a shy young man, a painfully shy young man, unaccustomed to talking to girls, here I was in my element, strengthened by the camaraderie of the forest and the river and the impossible blue sky, and we talked for hours, this girl and I. We talked about school and home and friends and enemies and likes and dislikes. We talked about everything. And to my surprise—to my unspeakable, triumphant, incredulous astonishment—I found that this girl was just like me. Just exactly like me, but for her beauty, but for the pure budding soft moist freckled and glimmering bubbling over of her soul.

I was in love.

Finally, her father came along the bank of the river and said he had been looking for her for hours. He said it was time for her to return to their camp. He chatted for a moment, and shook my hand, and asked whether I’d like to come back with them.

Stupidly, I said no.

“We might come again tomorrow,” the girl said.

Mandy, Amanda, Marissa? It doesn’t matter.

She did not come back the next day. I rose early and hiked straightaway to “our spot” on the bank, and there I waited while the morning simmered and the afternoon burned and then slowly wilted away to evening. With the tip of a long stick, I wrote her name in the black soil at the edge of the water, and felt the marks of those letters on my heart—not just a name, and never again a name, but a wound, a brand, a scar, a treasure known yet ever unattained.

She would be an old woman now, just as I am an old man. We are still the same. Sometimes I think about how she must be—a wife, no doubt, a mother, a grandmother. I wonder if she remembers me, and I think she does not. Such girls do not remember old things. Such girls are creatures of a thousand moments, and creators of a thousand dreams.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Boys and Bikes

Watching a little boy race around the deserted Starbucks veranda on his little bike. He is perhaps 5, and weaves in and out between the tables and chairs with amazing skill. Definitely ready for his motorbike license. 

He stops by my table for a moment and I compliment his skill.

Ini tempat bagus bersepeda, ya? 

The boy agrees, then races away. Pretty soon he's back again and parks by my table. 

I like your bike, I say. 

Thank you. It's new.

My goodness, the boy speaks English, too. Pintar sekali!

I am reminded of my own stepson, Preston. A long time ago. Just about this boy's size. With a little bike just about this size. And boy could he ride that thing--chubby legs pumping, curly hair flying. 

That was some 25 years ago, but in my mind he is still steaming down that sidewalk in North Portland, oblivious to all but the wind in his hair and the racing wheels on the walk. 

What happened to the years? How very swiftly they have raced away--and yet they touch down again in another place, another time. How eager they are to speak, to remind. 

More on Shitholes

Recently, I read a novel set in Detroit, Michigan; or, rather, what little is left of a part of Detroit. This is an inner city core of ruins, abandoned buildings in various stages of collapse, home to the homeless, to the untended dying, to drug addicts and criminals, gang clubhouses, featuring broken windows, collapsing stairways, raw sewage, vermin. In short, it is an American shithole, and rivals any shithole in the world. And Detroit is not alone. In my own visit to Washington DC, I saw people living on the street, sleeping on park benches, homeless, destitute, and right outside the capital district. Upon a visit to a certain part of the city, my daughter told me to stay in the car and lock the doors. Yes, we have fabulous, “yuge” shitholes throughout the United States of America. We don’t feature them on TV. We don’t advertise them. But we do see the worst of other countries—scenes of war, victims of natural disaster—and we call those places shitholes. Or rather, our president calls them shitholes, and panders to his equally blind and ignorant base.

‘First remove the beam from your own eye, before taking the speck from your neighbor’s’.