Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Just when the mosquitos have finally had their fill for the night, the baby wakes me up. I've had perhaps an hour of sleep and an hour of sleep-dancing with mosquitos. But when I pat her bum and lull her back to sleep, I'm as fresh as the moon. 

I climb back in to bed with my phone and check the internet. Oh, the internet. How much I hate thee. There are minute tweets reminding me of all the things wrong in this world that needs to be righted by my 140-character opinion. There are articles on flipboard specifically in the lifestyle category specifically in the fashion and home and cooking category that keep me besotted, wasting away in a virtual puddle of my own urine, imagining all the clothes and chairs and cheeses I have yet to try.  There is instagram's daily reminder that other people's lives are perfect and busy and pretty and edgy and consistently filtered, the latter showing a flair for principled artsiness that is lacking in my own, baby-filled of late, account.  The internet tells me not what I need to know but what I've missed out on knowing. 

Of course there is no shortage of interestingness in my life but to what aim? If reduced to a tweet or a square frame, it becomes as interesting as the next person who feels self-interesting.  Although I don't feel self-interesting, which is a lie, the sheer drive of competition pushes me over the edge and I become the worst type of person: the better-than-yours type. 

It is fodder, it is foul, and it is completely, utterly, unavoidable, because even if I convinced myself I am sharing my life for purely innocent reasons how can I really trust that my arguments have no ulterior motive?  There is a space in my head that could be filled with all manners of things and so it goes and fills itself with all manners of things on some kind of autopilot.  As if to say that if it had always had this option from the start, it would have sought out the easy graphic flippable things that may be interesting for the faceless public instead of the messy scribbles, classic lit tomes and hardbopping jazz tunes of my childhood that truly twang my heartstrings. 

I will come at it again tomorrow because I must prove that I am different from the rest of the world through the same social media behaviors everyone in the rest of the world are using; daily and forever imprinting that fact through my trail of interesting internet activities.  The digital thirst overwhelms my better sense of analog being. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


When you stop writing you get rusty, and when you look at the blank white screen again it is not warmth you feel but terror.  Mind blank, fingers creaking.  I hate TV, I hate the iPhone with all its colorful apps bringing me information that I need not digest in order to consume.  In a way it is like fast food.  Consuming but not really digesting anything because after all what is in it but chemicals and flavorings.  

I’m supposed to write an article about mix-religion marriages, something intelligent and insightful on why it is important and particularly feasible to achieve in Indonesia.  The earliest recollection I have of this issue is perhaps when I was 20, back in a friend's house, practicing for the competition selections with a red-headed foul-mouthed Irish woman we all adored to bits.   She would talk of human rights from behind her cigarette smoke and make it sound natural and rebellious at the same time.  One day without prelude she said, “you know what Indonesia has got to fix guys? That whole having to marry with a person in the same religion thing.  Come on, guys.  That is against human rights.”

The thought had never occurred to me that it was a mistake, let alone it being a matter that could violate the ICCPR, so I was slightly taken aback by this.  And then at the time I shrugged it off, thinking, “foreigners”, and then didn’t really give it much more thought.  I wanted to graduate, get married with an intelligent Muslim boy, and have an exciting career that would still allow me to raise children. 

A few years passed and the country changed.  Slowly, but perceptibly.  Maybe I changed too.  I traveled, I lived in a foreign country, I dated different men. I met people who were profoundly kind, profoundly interesting, profoundly thoughtful and wise, and lived like they enjoyed life.  It is apparently not true that God punishes those who do not pray 5 times a day, at least not on earth.  Maybe they might still all go to hell one day, but it is a hard conclusion to come to.  At best, it feels very unfair.  They all had their faiths handed down from their parents and the cultures they were brought up in, like myself, so how is it that these kind, gracious, and happy people ought to be burned in hell for not choosing the right religion?   There was absolutely nothing inherently mistaken about their values. 

I found peace among these people.  They sought meaning in life by being of value to others, and they never burdened themselves with guilt when enjoying a dance, a glass of wine, a sexual experience.  Happiness wasn’t the ultimate notion of heaven, but was the incremental daily happiness achieved by being with soulmates, living to appreciate and nurture the world, respecting people and earning respect.  They spent charity not because it was required but because it was the right thing to do.  They respected elders not because they were coerced to do so but because their elders were truly respectable.  They loved not because of God but because they simply felt love and they knew it to be sacred.  And what made me most shocked was that they did not judge.

I have always lived in a country of judges. And when I came back, I found that they had multiplied.  They judged my thin hair, how dark my skin had gotten, how much weight I’d put on.  They told me to find a husband. They asked me if I had dated foreigners, and if so, whether I had sex with them?  More and more of them wore the hijab, got married and changed into a person who had nothing better to do than to be religious and overshare stories of their little toddler children who had just finished reading the Qur’an (in Arabic) from cover to cover.   

I suppose the bitterness of my tone and the way I stereotype suggests that I fall under the suspicious category of being a liberal. Maybe I have a bigoted hatred towards bigots.  Mother recently quite randomly asked me how it was that Mr. Six could possibly marry a catholic girl.  She wondered out loud why he wasn’t “thinking long term”.   I told her of course he was thinking long term.  I told her he first needed to wage a battle with himself and fight the values ingrained in him over the course of his lifetime.  And when that was done he then had to wage a battle with his parents to gain their consent.  I told her it couldn’t have been a decision he took merely for the short-term benefit of it.   Not surprisingly she was unimpressed by my answer.  She said, “but what about the children?”

There is something about a religious society and a conformist culture that fears anomalies so much.  Mother thinks I’m reckless, whereas I think I’m just better informed.  What's different here may be commonplace somewhere else, which therefore begs us to reconsider calling something different "bad".  All the other articles I’ve read about mix-religion marriages can’t help but discuss the morals of the issue.  Vehemently leaking out phrases like “Our country is based on God and religion,” and, sarcastically, “if the country wants to legalize mixed marriages they might as well officiate atheism”.

Now I’m going to write that article and it’s going to be informative and argumentative, and it's not going to mention morality at all, not once.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Repentant Populars

Highlight of the weekend was last night, getting dolled up for a wedding.  At the hairdresser I met my friend, and then in comes Mr. Right's ex, and her boyfriend in tow.  We were all four of us sitting in a row getting pampered for the same wedding party, it was funny.  My beautiful friend complained about how she spends far too much money on hairdressing because everybody is getting married all the time.  She said that she swore she was going to skip going to the hairdresser this time but then heard that her boyfriend's ex was going to come, so damn it, she had no choice but to move her ass to the hairdresser.  As she said this I studied Mr. Right's ex, getting her lovely tresses of wavy hair tossed to a silken fold.   I realized I like being around competitive young women.

The wedding was nice and plush at the five star four seasoned hotel. The carpet was softly thick and unnoticed by the many self-aware guests that arrived in pairs and drones.  The food beckoned stronger than the bride and groom, steaming fragrantly, proactively approaching noses with scents of peking duck, wagyu steak, and salmon en croute.   The bride and groom were perched high atop a stage at the far end of the room, before a backdrop of drooping red flowers and glittery gold sequins.  There they will stay for 3-4 hours, to be congratulated by thousands of familiar and unfamiliar faces. We mingle from 7 pm and towards 10 pm when the crowd had thinned, we were tired and thirsty.  No wine is to be found, alas, because it is not our culture.  The music is becoming upbeat but the most that anybody is doing is nodding their head, raising a shoulder, one half-hearted hand in the air.  Because it is not our culture to dance at a Javanese wedding.  Eventually the bride and groom dance to a little tune, a cute moment to be remembered privately, to be photographed, but not shared by their guests.

I don't mean to make conclusions about culture's blame on the character of a nation, but it should be quite obvious at least that free-style dancing makes one less strung up.  This country is a mystery to me, a familiar mystery that feels like home.  The people are so casual, so laid back, and so beholden of their social norms.  We don't particularly concern ourselves with what other people do, we don't go into confrontations every time someone upsets us, but we do notice when someone seems different than the rest.  We are friendly and judgmental, sociable and racist.

Last night we met an attractive young couple not yet in their thirties, who were recently married. Our friends describe them as "gaul tobat", or for lack of better translation, "repentant populars".  I asked them what that meant.  They explained that the couple, especially the girl, was once upon a time quite the party people, frequently seen in clubs with pretty friends.  But a year in advance of their wedding, the girl stopped clubbing and wanted no parties, not even a bachelorette. The bride had "repented" from being "popular" in preparation for marriage life. Her groom, he tagged along.

I did not quite understand this.  There had to be some better explanation.  When a person "repents", it is usually from a perceived sin, but I fail to see the sin in this case.

I am a result of some kind of oppression, with liberal philosophies tinged with anger at other people's choice of self-oppression.  It bothers me when it shouldn't, it bothers me while others are perfectly happy and peaceful with their choices.  But it should bother me if they whisper, like so many do, of other people who have not "repented".  If they whisper about those poor souls who have not received the kind of enlightenment and closeness to God that they have found to be ideal for themselves. If they judge me in any way, then I will judge them as stuffy idiots.

Of course it's none of my business, but I guess I can't help being a little disappointed that a person who has experienced the freedom of dancing chooses to go back and become the silent observer in the traditional wedding.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On smartypants

"Smart" is overrated.  For everything that the word stands for, whether it is academic achievement or stunning logic or street experience or photographic memory or walking encyclopedia or just being a plain old lucky ass, the word does not mean half as much as what people appear to think it does. But I'm not saying anything new here.  In fact I'm just repeating what many have always been saying over and over again.

The Queen Boss did the most ridiculous thing today: she skipped lunch.  At 12 noon the meeting seemed like it would almost be over and dismissed for lunch.  There were gentlemen and gentlewomen sitting in that meeting who had not had a morsel to eat since the morning.  But one thing dragged on to the next, and by 1.30 it was clear that we had all missed out on lunch at the time that such lunch would have been customary to be had. But out of courtesy or out of shyness, nobody moved a muscle or raised a point about lunch.  At the end of the meeting, the Queen Boss simply ordered lunch for everyone, and excused herself to get to the next meeting in the other room.

I was indignant.  First, I had been deprived of a timely lunch.  Second, the person responsible had made it complicated for me to hate her for it, because by setting herself as an example it was as if she was nudging me to take note.  "Lunch?", she titters haughtily, "who needs lunch when we have so much exciting work to do?"   That was the vibe I was getting from her.  I did not like that vibe.

She is very smart.  But she really isn't, you know?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

On portfolios

Met up with the girls the other day and I blend in nicely.  My voice takes over a more lilting tone, with correct exclamations over trivial anecdotes delivered prettily.  I'm drawn to them like a moth to flame every once in a while, to admire their glossy hair, to bask in the childish glory of befriending the Pretty Ones (which I achieved since 10 years ago, but which I haven't seemed to have gotten over), but mostly to just maintain enough presence to not be left out.  They like going to Disneyland, they like donating to orphanages, and they like their jobs.  It does not seem that we have much in common but that minor glitch never gets in the way of a good gossip or the latest news on where to buy nice bedding. 

I like to think that I can just weave myself in and out of this and that group flexibly, but to be honest I spend far too much time obsessing over things that don't make sense. The more they don't make sense, the more that I am drawn to them.  In this city, the stories I store are what keeps me going. Mostly the stories don't inspire, they make me angry or sad.  In this now tranquil place in my head, anger is most welcome and entertaining, whilst sadness is muted and rendered invisible to others. 

Perhaps there are some exceptions to that.  Cherry briefly mentioned that her best friend had married disastrous Mr. Nine's best friend, and that she saw him from time to time.  I asked how he was, as is the default response in the face of these types of information, but suddenly didn't care to know. I told her that I never feel like deleting anyone from my history, but I would make an exception for him. It isn't anger, or disappointment, or regret, or grudge, it is just a blank apathy - the way I feel about a waste of time. The girls laughed and told me that they have way more than one person they would like to delete from their portfolios. 

Mr. Right said something the other day, very recently.  He said my exes are interesting.  Not that he had delved into an investigative frenzy on each and every one of their characters and personalities.  He's just a little creepy like that.  He doesn't have permitted access to this blog or any other protected account that I own. He just quietly pieces things together without making a fuss about it. It's either that or he secretly hacks into my accounts. But we had made a pact very early on that evidence obtained by unlawful means is inadmissible, so I'm not too worried. 

He said they are interesting, or that my relationship with them is interesting, because none of them can replace each other. I said, "come again?"  He said they all filled this space in me, but different spaces. They are each different and unique enough to me to be able to do that, without replacing anyone prior. And each one gains certain privileges that the other doesn't get.  Perhaps this is normal, but I suppose it is the first time I've heard it summarized in that manner and it took me a little by surprise. I know I jealously guard the memories like precious jewels, and they are indeed, all separated definitively into differently-hued crystals.  I say jealously, because certain moments still leave pangs of sadness that I can't explain very well, sadness that specific times at specific places don't last and cannot actually physically last.  I liked the fact that, by making that observation, he is calmly aware that he is not, could not, and should not, replace those.

The thought then occurred to me of whether anybody had ever felt like deleting me from their portfolios. C'est la vie, I suspect so, with a sad refrain that is hedged by the buoyancy of an ever-moving life. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


The Queen Boss has been in Paris for a month, accompanying her kids to French lessons so that they might properly enroll themselves in fashion and culinary school in the near future.  Of late, she has taken the opportunity, or rather she has abused the white space below every email that she sends out to us, and turned it into a miniscule vessel for the outpourings of her troubled soul.  She frets. She complains. She perspires stressful beads of sweat in her cooled Paris apartment because she has not worked for a month and is therefore losing her mind.  She implicitly begs us, it seems, to send her work but which she cannot do either because she refuses to hire a housekeeper for 80 Euros a day such that she has to do her own house-cleaning and it is making her arms quite physically lose all feeling to the extent that she had to get herself checked to the doctor to make sure that everything was alright and the trip to the doctor and whatnot is cutting even more time out of her schedule to work.

We talk about her in suppressed giggles in office hallways, then we turn away and silently feel sorry for her.  We make secret pacts with ourselves that we would never turn into a clinical workaholic. We return to our cubicles and log on to tripadvisor, imagining our own little version of a trip to Paris once we had earned enough money to go. Then we realize we have to work in order to earn the money required.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Filled - with secrets.

His family was the same as my family, was the same as any common Javanese family I guess.  The thing that bothered me were the questions, and as far as Indonesian contemporary idioms go the question is phrased in the most delightfully hilarious way: "have you filled it up yet?"

I could think of various ways to respond, various ways I would love to respond:

- Absolutely stuffed. Today it's chicken. Yesterday it was chasiuw pork.
- My brain? I'm still working on it. Please pray for my intellect, auntie.
- Why, did you try to call me? Dammit I am always running out of phone credit. Sorry.
- Omigod have YOU?

Some of my aunts preserved a happy delusion and just decided it on my behalf.

"So, how many months are you in?"
"Am I what, auntie?"
"Somebody said you're pregnant."
"I'm not."
"Well somebody said you were."
"Wow. I feel like a celebrity."
"So you're not?"
"Well then just amen it, God willing."

Some of his aunts would simply place their hands surreptitiously on my stomach and look into my eyes with their hopeful glassy questioning eyes, which I look right back into because bitch I have worked my abs. I might, under any other situation, feel extremely harassed and invaded upon.  However these gentle harmless women are just looking forward to the next milestone in life, in other people's life. For them to pounce upon joyfully and give their unsolicited blessings to.  I did not have the heart to tell them I was stalling their joy on purpose.

When the food had almost run out, which it never actually does, we took pictures. Oh no, aunt blinked, let's take another one.  Here comes uncle who was in the bathroom this whole time! We must take the picture again. Can cousin please shift a little to the left because he is obscuring obscure half-cousin thrice removed? One very last picture. Done! We warmed up our stiff smiling muscles and turned to file out of the cramped photo plot chosen for having steps and decorative plants hedging each side. As we did this an elderly uncle grabbed Mr. Right's arm and said, "Hey you, I need to talk to you. Come meet me outside."

Mr. Right nodded respectfully.  When the uncle turned to lead the way, I watched Mr. Right ducking down to ask his mother, in silent mouth-forming words, "who is he?"  The mother silently mouthed back the name of uncle something or other. This was probably no help in terms of identifying the relevant position of this uncle in our family tree, but at least it was something. They left to speak in a private room.

I asked his mother, "who was that?"  He is apparently the second husband of a second cousin of the father. His name was something, but they called him something else. They call him habib.

"Not sure.  I think he practices mystic rituals."
"Come again?"
"Well they call him habib."
"What kind of rituals?"

She shrugged, had no clue. They were in there for a while and when they came out, Mr. Right just smiled at us. In the car we demanded to know what uncle habib-something wanted to talk about.

"It's a secret.  He told me not to tell anyone."
"What. Don't. You can't do this."
"I am serious.  He told me an ancient secret that is contained in three Old Scripts. He told me to practice it at particular times of the month, from 5 to 9 pm, and from 5 to 9 am. That is all I can say."

We stared at him.  His mother twisted around in her front seat to stare at him.

"Practice what?"
"I can't tell you. It's supposed to be a secret that I can't tell anyone."
"Well what is it for?"
"It's for me to be able to unlock something. It gives me a certain advantage."
"Well why you? Why did he choose to tell you?"
"He said that it seemed like I might need it."
"Well maybe he can just... see these things."

The exasperating man would not give us any more details. He just smiled serenely every time we asked more. In the car we talked about how these things would happen. His mother recounted a time when Mr. Right was a toddler, and a chinese shopkeeper where they were buying their furniture just suddenly turned, in the middle of showing them the different varnish color options that the wooden credenza can be polished with, turned to the little boy and said, "Has he brought you luck?  He is going to bring you a lot of luck."  We recounted still another time when a man that Mr. Right had just been introduced to by a friend of a friend of a business friend, suddenly stared past him for a long while and said, "You are a descendant of one of the sultanates of Jogjakarta, am I correct?  I can see that.  You have many protecting you."

Later that evening we met with his family from the other side, from the father's side. The mother told the story to Uncle Smarty, who actually does these things for a living, who actually makes money out of giving people spiritual counseling.  She demanded he "look" into it.  Uncle Smarty took out his pendant, a small black crystal hanging from a short black cord. He swung it like a pendulum and looked at Mr. Right.

"What do you think?" asked Mr. Right, calm and smiling.
"It's alright.  But be careful."
"Well, the power will be a good thing to have. But they cannot be controlled."
"Ah. I see."

"What? What is it? What power?"  asked his mother.
"That's all I can say." said the uncle.

And with that, the swinging pendulum vanished. End of conversation. Mr. Right and Uncle Smarty seemed to almost nod at each other knowingly before diving into other topics. Between chinese shopkeepers and sultanate descendant protectors and habibs and some Uncontrollable Power of some sort, it was all too much to bear.  But the rest of us had no choice but to bear it.

Later that night as we had snuggled into bed I entreated him one last time.  I asked him whether he still wouldn't tell me what the habib had said.  To my surprise, he squealed with laughter.

I narrowed my eyes in suspicion.

"What is it," I said.
"Fine. I'll tell you what he said."
"Tell me."
"Are you ready for the truth?"
"Tell me."

He sighed.

"OK. He gave me tips on how to get you pregnant."
"What. The. Fuck?"
"Please note that I did not lie. Everything I said was true."
"True how true?"
"He actually did say this was an ancient secret from Old Scripts. Apparently, ancient secrets say we need to do it 10 days before and 10 days after your period."
"Between 5 to 9 am and pm"
"Yes. And it is supposed to be a secret because he didn't want to offend you."
"Damn right this is offending me."
"See? I told you he 'sees' things."
"Very funny. And he chose you because..."
"Because he thought I might need the advice, given that we've been married for almost a year."
"...and Uncle Smarty said you can't control the power!"
"Specifically he said 'they' can't be controlled. Haha. I think that is very succinct."
"Oh! Eeew."

I've just had enough of all this.  In terms of invading privacy, having barely-related habibs reciting ancient script secrets on how to productively get laid just breaks down my borders of tolerance with,...  uncontrollable power. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Orphan Express #2

Ramadhan is coming up and with it the tide of good bearings, positive givings, and bright intentions.  Keep your calendar close! Save the dates! Iftar feasts! High school reunion! Middle school reunion! College reunion! Office reunion! Cooking class reunion! Obscure taekwondo gang whom you haven't met in five years reunion! 

The tables will be groaning with sweet tea and dates and the roads will be swelling with hungry eagerness. Beggars will hit the jackpot as normally apathetic individuals attempt to collect as many divine brownie points as they can by being generous, knowing that the points will be multiplied by seventy, exclusively this month only.

The girls are also getting excited.  Apple wants to celebrate her birthday at the orphanage, bringing food and donations and having a little pray-together with the orphans. She wants all the girls to donate money and Cherry, Peaches, Plum and Pear are all so supportive that they immediately transferred the money within half an hour of the request.  I am about to do the same but maybe later when suddenly Apple declares that she is going to use the money to buy donations of empty writing books, religious books, kerudung scarves and peci caps. As if just the act of giving wasn't religious enough, such that at least 75% of the items donated had to be for religious purposes too.

I love Apple and it would be callous to question her choice of philanthropy on her birthday, so I asked her: "Can I directly donate books?"

She said of course, "of course of course". 

Perfect.  I am going to give those orphans exciting things to read.

Monday, June 24, 2013


The AA did not stand for "Alcoholics Anonymous" but instead it stood for "Anti-Alcohol".  They had assembled a small gathering on the second floor of an obscure restaurant that sold burgers with too much mayonnaise. Free t-shirts and sweet tea were passed around by a woman in a hijab, swish swash went her yards of robe as she moved gracefully about.

The distinguished speaker of the night hailed from a university and had prepared an academic presentation of his academic research on the academic correlation between alcohol and crime.  His words were impressive, peppered with terminologies, telling of percentages, and ultimately proving after the course of 30 minutes the previously unknown fact that most criminals have, in fact, been found to drink alcohol. Not necessarily before each crime, but in general.

A member of the audience wants to speak, clears his throat, is handed the microphone.  He speaks with a volume that is full of conviction. "Everybody knows, young people old people, everybody knows that the country, this country, has conducted a state crime. A state crime, because they have done nothing, they have closed their eyes to this alcohol, they see it as an ordinary thing.  But they know that alcohol damages the nerves, the neurons in our body, from top to bottom!"

Another member of the audience rises. He says, "Alcohol destroys a generation, our generation.  But the government will do nothing about it because in fact they are siding with the capitalists! They are always siding with the capitalists!".  He has frustration in his eyes and anger in his voice.

A man was invited up to the front and introduced as a distinguished member of the parliament. He gave paternal words of support and encouragement for such a worthy cause. His party is perhaps alone in supporting the draft anti-alcohol bill, but with continuous support for his party and God's will, there may be victory yet.

Their lady patron chimes in a closing remark with a moving story.  She tells of how she has seen with her very own eyes, kids at the seven eleven buying beer and an energy drink, and then switching the contents of the energy drink bottle with beer.  They are in fact drinking beer and we all know that this is a destructive drink and something must be done to stop this continuous degeneration of our generation.

I've always believed that insecurity (against the unfamiliar), plus conviction (at the level of blind faith), plus ignorance (of actual knowledge), equals a sad sad discussion.

Monday, June 3, 2013


A lack of sleep, brilliant skies, my desk so clean and minimalist it has an almost Scandinavian feel to it.  I have not been losing sleep over work except if you count the times I worked until midnight because I did not work the day. My eyes are puffy and red today, like I have been crying. But I cannot remember the last time I cried. Oh actually I do.  The last time was when I lay in bed thinking about mother, at a different home on the other side of town, and how she must be very very lonely. The guilt was horrible and sad. I cried silently, wishing that I was less loved and less pain-inflicting. 

Today my puffy red eyes are without explanation. Probably an allergy, or lack of calcium, or something. Probably the new expensive mascara I wore on the weekend. Lazy morning weekends consisting of closed blinds with no errant sunlight to break my sleep, no other voice to pierce the dark. Flapping about luxuriously in between four squishy pillows and his warm heat. Hugging him, getting uncomfortably warm, turning away and hugging bolster, getting boringly cold, back to hugging him, repeat ad infinitum until I become thirsty or hungry for substantial actual food and not just soul food. My new expensive mascara stares back at me from the morning mirror with a beautifully tragic hangover look that is the result of no hangover whatsoever, just the unfortunate trap of being hugged before I had time to wash my face. Endless sleepless nights just talking and not walking. This tiny paradise where dreams and ideas are made but the effort to materialize them can wait another day. 

I get to it eventually, the work that must be done. I am an apparently smart and responsible sort of thing. I can apparently count on my inner panic to settle in at some point to clear the mess that I have made. The contracts, the emails, the press interviews, the magazine shoots of late, the presentation slides for my lecture, the "reach-outs" and "shout-outs".  Fine, snap, done, next.  I can decide my fate for the day, my clothes to wear, my causes to act upon, without a single intervention and I am liberated to a fault. The only thing standing between me and the thing that I want most is that shadow, that shadow of doubt, that pulsating gloomy mess that shrouds my vision from what I could possibly really want to do.

My sleepless nights are filled with enjoying the moment and dreading the morning.  Because the morning is when I have to make decisions.  The morning is when I have to tell myself: Go to work. Face the traffic. Stop browsing "beautifully written" articles. Stop procrastinating on color combinations for the kitchen. Stop staring out your window imagining half-baked story plots.

"You know what you really are?" he said.

"What am I?"

"You're an artist."

If I were an artist I would have at least gotten some of the ideas done.  Instead I am traipsing about town in my mascara and dresses, acting like the brainy professional with a passion for activism.  But I am happy tonight and yesternight and I will be happy tomorrow night, voluntarily sleep-deprived and puffy-eyed.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Joy of Reading

Mysteriously perturbed by the sudden multitude of blog entries in recent years dedicated to "the joy of" or "how to" or "why" read/write/travel.  These entries will usually discuss at length how reading/writing/traveling:

- helps you "discover" yourself;
- makes you more empathetic;
- inspires you;
- takes you "out of your comfort zone, which is trust me a good thing";
- reminds you of the oft-forgotten "here and now".

The very use of the phrases "how to" or "why", implies that the said action is something that needs to be promoted, or taught, in order to be followed by a vast majority of people.  Which further implies that the vast majority of people do not yet engage themselves in such action. Reading, writing, or traveling, is therefore a rare activity to most of the internet-literate mankind.

The author's motivations, stemming from that assumption, is that they wish the general public to be enlightened by their prior self-enlightenment. Or falling one-step short of that, they wish the general public to at least be aware of the author's self-enlightenment. It is a neat fall-back plan.

Consider the blogger who merely wishes to share his/her own amazing experience, without the noble intent of educating the unenlightened masses. They might share an anecdote, a sensation, a view in many words or few, attempting to just document that indescribable experience.  They might post a picture, which could be one of those quiet scenic contemplative ones or could be the one where the author poses in it with shades and a dainty designer bag. The writing is usually very personal and inward, simply a projection of one's impression of the experience. At the very maximum you might find the words, "OMG it was amazing you should all come-here/ read-this immediately!", and it stops there.

On the other hand, "how to" posts and "the joy of" posts attempt to do more than share.  It wants to be motivating and inspiring, treading heavily on thin ice before cracking and falling into the bottomless abyss of preaching. It assumes, perhaps unconsciously, that plenty of lost internet souls perceive reading or writing as something completely alien which they would never have known the feeling of, if they hadn't read the author's blog post.  It first lays bare the "me" aspect of the experience, and then projects that outwards to the general "you", and how "you" will find joy and discovery and meaning and surreptitious moments, because "I" did.

If, for whatever reason, the noble plans to motivate are unsuccessful, the author has at least smugly dedicated an entire social-benefit post to describing what they've read/written and where they've traveled. That is the neat fall-back.

Nevertheless it is beyond reasonable doubt that these motivational posts are extremely popular, perhaps because it touches a personal nerve when the message is "you can do it too". No matter how banal and obvious the experience, it's as if it will not be fully heard until it is forcefully conveyed to you that "you can do it too". It takes the author off a high pedestal of cool experiences into a pretentiously humble ground in which the author is the same as everybody else because "you can do it too".

This is the gist of marketing, that founding of a general vein in which everybody can relate.  But if you're not getting paid to promote reading / writing / traveling, then why would you indulge in such banal, commercial activity?

Thursday, February 14, 2013


My friend directed me to this blog:

Academic Men Explain Things To Me

The blog is full of contributions by female academics, researchers, and students who are frustrated that their intellectual prowess is unrecognized or snubbed by male counterparts. That he commented on her hair instead of her presentation. That he said the exact same thing she said five minutes ago but the professor praised his opinion instead.  That he dared to explain in a condescending tone something that she was an expert on.

After the tenth post I became a little exhausted and started viewing posts at random.  Something was off. I couldn't relate to any of them.  But look how many contributions there are, hundreds! This was the inner-perspective of hundreds of intelligent and achieved women: bitter, angry. And inevitably, falling into the same trap of condescension towards their male coworkers.

I wondered if I had missed something all this time.  In all the years that I have spent studying, researching, working professionally, and working independently, I have never once felt bothered by a frustrating situation of male bigotry.  Not once.  I have racked my brains and not found one.  And this is Indonesia, the land where "Sexy Woman Caught in Hotel with Party Leader" can be an actual headline by a serious media publication, and some politicians make a career-defining milestone out of regulating the length of your skirt.  Am I missing something?

Then I start to recall a few things that did make me frustrated, but for some reason I have never attributed these to male bigotry:

1. My early career in the government was short-lived because my boss was attracted to me, without my knowledge.  From the beginning of the job, his stunningly beautiful wife launched a baffling personal vendetta against me, which I did not know the reason for until after I resigned and he made an inappropriate attempt on me.  Throughout the job he would frequently deny me interesting projects I was capable of doing, simply because his wife was planning on attending and he didn't want to put her in a bad mood.  I suppose if I were a male, or less attractive, this would never have happened. But if my boss were a more honorable man and his wife were a less insecure woman this would never have happened either.

2.  At a party in Cambridge, I met a man from Portugal who decided to lecture me about the human rights crimes committed by Indonesia against East Timor.  I politely listened and told him of recent developments after the downfall of Soeharto, admitting there was still much work to be done but there was more transparency and they are now an independent country since the referendum and there was the truth and reconciliation commission and etcetera. Suffice to say he was either drunk or uninterested in other people's opinions but his own, despite the other person being obviously well-informed. But I don't think it was because I'm a female.

3. As I was about to slice a tomato in my own kitchen, disastrous then-boyfriend Mr. Nine suddenly exclaimed, "Whoa! whoa! whoa! That's not how you cut a tomato! You could cut your finger doing that!  Here, watch me do it."  To which I was completely taken aback because I had been cutting tomatoes since I was in elementary school and had never so much as grazed my skin.  Not for once did I think this was an example of male mistrust over female abilities.  Nor did I think this was an example of chauvinist attempt to maintain male dominance in the relationship.  I simply thought he was an asshole.

4. During my bittersweet glorious days of singlehood I had been frequently advised (often by my own mother, no less) not to display intelligence or academic achievements too much because it might "intimidate men". The discourse is still fresh and hot at the moment, with a recent medieval discussion I caught on twitter last week on the theme of "do men like smart girls?"  The majority answered, "not a priority trait," and some men vehemently defended "smart girls as extremely attractive", and many women chirped in and said something in the lines of, "I'm smart and I can still be loving at the same time."  A very puzzling discourse that wrongly juxtaposes "smart vs. attractive" and "smart vs. loving" and "smart vs. submissive" as if they were different sides of a dead coin that had no power to choose its own flipper.   I still did not think that all this attempt to "dumb down women" was an example of male chauvinism.  Rather I think it is a collective insecurity towards things they don't understand. Men have told me I am intimidating and women have told me I am intimidating. If they all demanded to be comfortable with me they would all be pressurizing me to be dumb, but they don't do that. The decision to be smart or dumb lies in ME, lies in whether I care that they are intimidated or not.  And if I were desperately looking for a man in my life, I might be concerned about intimidated males.  It so happens that I was not desperate and therefore I did not care and therefore I wasn't bothered.

Ultimately I have always been baffled by feminists, especially their eagerness to blame the male gender for all the injustices in life. I admit that there are situations of horror that I may not be able to empathize with, of women who are subjugated by their culture, religion, and society, who are banned from school, punished if they are raped, and stoned to death if they express their love for someone. The people who work hard to protect these women are admirably standing up to not just feminist values but also human rights values.

But female academics being bothered by "mansplaining" is a wholly different matter.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


It rained hard, very hard, on Friday in the middle of December. It was one of those rare times in Jakarta when the rain flew horizontally instead of vertically.  The lightning and thunder were so bright and loud they set all the car alarms off in unison.

It also rained hard on Sunday, but not as hard as Friday.  Sunday was a gloomy grey sky spilling its unstable bowel in distracted drizzles. It lasted all day like a marathon pisser, muddying the streets therefore slowing the cars therefore jamming the city.

But the point is that in between Friday and Sunday, which is Saturday, my wedding day, the sun shined very very bright.  This, too, lasted all day without so much as a drop of rain or a hint of cloud.

After attempting to avoid the boring trap of just gushingly "absorbing the meaning of it" (i.e. it's a good omen, etc.) and then pondering the numerous reasonable, scientific, or supernatural possibilities of how this could be, we came up with the most economic explanation.

You see, there was another wedding in the same building happening that night, except theirs was outdoors, in the pool area.  From the looks of it, it was the kind of wedding featuring white pigeons and red roses and a white pouffy ballgown wedding dress and a groom's outfit so dapper and elaborate it was bordering on fabulously gay. I wouldn't put it beyond them to make every effort possible to ensure their pretty ensemble is not rained down on.

By social standards the most reasonable way to do this is to hire a pawang hujan, which I have been utterly incapable of finding a translation for other than maybe rain-doctor or rain-unmaker (a pun on the term "rainmaker" obviously, but having said that I've decided against using the pun because it refers to something unrelated to rain, whereas what we are discussing here is entirely on the subject of rain).

So, rain-doctor.

I recently found out there are two types of rain-doctor package deals available on the market.  First, you pay premium (something like twice the normal price) but get your money back if it does rain.  Second, you pay a cheaper price but don't get your money back if it rains. Given that the cheaper package would likely be an incentive for fake rain-doctors to proliferate (hypothetically assuming that there are "real" ones), if I were a customer I would pay premium.

I imagine the rain-doctor then checks the weather forecast first. Because obviously, if it is not going to rain, then he can just spend the day sleeping.  If the forecast is rainy, he then proceeds to prevent it from raining.

This is amazing stuff. In all the text books, summoning weather (or dismissing it) is a godly power. And yet here they are, rain gods for hire. With two packages available, and maybe even a discount in the dry season. But wait, it is a little less exciting actually.  Rain-doctors, not being gods, do not make the rain cancel its plans: they simply move it to another place or delay it. Ah. Mortals.

No one knows exactly how it is done, and perhaps if you are a customer you may not want to know what you paid them to do as long as it is done. Other high-end venues have cloud-dispersion lasers (I imagine they can also double as disco lights), akin to high-powered water-jets used to disperse labor demonstrations, or other similar party-pooper technology.  But rain-doctors don't use technology.  They push sticks in the ground and mutter chants and that's basically it.

Whatever the method, one thing for sure is that it is not cheap, hiring rain-doctor services.  Unless you're free-riding on someone else's party rain-doctor.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The latest comical installment to the wedding saga is when mother told me not to smile so wide at my wedding.

"What do you mean?"

"Just try not showing your teeth."


"Because it's not elegant."


"See photos of your friend's wedding in India. Her smile and demeanor was very elegant. She didn't have to look overly smiley and happy."

"She was also somewhat unhappy, Mom."

"But one can express happiness without having to be overly expressive about it."

"Sure. Okay Mom."

It goes without saying that I will show teeth at my own wedding. When she's not looking.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Satu iman

Not long after I met Mr. Right, I gave Mr. Ten a call to tell him that I had met someone and would like to give it a shot.   He gushed the following expressions in approximate unison:

1. "Oh."
2. Respect and admiration that I had been honest at the outset
3. Full acknowledgement that we had never had "a conversation" about our relationship
4. "But my heart is melting a little."
5. "I guess it was only a matter of time"
6. A variety of praises on my virtues that he will always admire
7.  Wishing me happiness
8. and, "Is he Muslim?"

The response was lovely and a little more.... heartfelt.... than I thought it would be, considering the relationship had seemed to be something more of the kind described by Sarah Vaughan when she sang "it was just... One Of Those Things", or in other words "too hot not to cool down".   Response #8, however, made me laugh spontaneously.

It was the kind of classic question I should have expected from a militant atheist, but I couldn't decide whether the question was full of playfulness or full of bitterness. He knows that if I had a choice I wouldn't really care what religion I married into. He knows that I choose to comply with not having a choice.

He doesn't know that Mr. Right had a bitter fight with his parents over his ex-girlfriend's religion; and another bitter fight when his parents asked "is Stella a Muslim?". That he's read all the religious texts and decided they were all essentially leading to the same purpose; that he doesn't pray five times a day because he finds no peace in it and therefore no sense in doing it; that he believes faith is something sought and gained and experienced personally instead of swallowed from what preachers say and imposed on others; that he chose to be with me not because we are religiously compatible but because he thinks we are spiritually compatible; that he knows enough about himself to explain the above clearly, calmly, without frustration.

Mr. Ten didn't know these things and, really nobody would know or need know. But in this society of religious expectations and uniformity, on the surface of things I am doing it exactly by the book.

And so after I had finished laughing I answered, rather guiltily, "yes he is a Muslim."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

One Dress

Did you hear about the girl who ended up having four dresses on her wedding day?

Dress number one was all aglitter with sequins and crystals so dense that it could hardly be lifted by dainty bridal hands.  But the Queen thought that the cutting was coarse.

Dress number two was full of delicate lace and breezy tulle that you could see the wearer's skin through its filmy gauze. The Queen lifted her chin high and ordered the dressmaker to have it ready in three weeks, but you never know with dressmakers. You just never know.

Dress number three was made of silk imported all the way from the land where Marcopolo was born, in a shade exactly three shades darker than white and two shades lighter than gold.  But the Queen was so efficient, the fabric she bought was not enough to glide comfortably in.

Dress number four was made of silk the shade of exactly one shade lighter than gold. The Queen has not seen it.  The dressmaker declared in all his wisdom and all the bright green he wore from the tip of his collar to the tip of his sneaker shoelaces, that this was the fabric of all fabrics.

"The Queen will just have to deal with it," thought the Princess.

Monday, November 5, 2012


I went to a few poetry readings and have read out some poems a couple of times. They are becoming more frequent in Jakarta, which is a phenomenally good thing. But writing poems is not the same as reading it, is not the same as reading it out, and is not the same as listening to it being read out.

When I listen to it being read out I have a problem with accents.  Accents intrigue me too much it is distracting.  Instead of wondering what she means by "swooping gracefully, splattering gravity", I wonder why the roll of her "r" is implacable. The entire gesture of her voice imposes itself on me and forces me to wonder what she would sound like if I had a normal conversation with her. I become distracted by guesses on character and upbringing, I become unable to entirely enjoy the words.

Some poems lose their meaning when being read. There are phrases that you need to look at, and close your eyes, and look at again, and let it wash over you so that you can make sense of it, or make what you like of it. This cannot happen when you're listening to someone reading it once quickly through.

Some poems even lose their magic for me when being read.  I was listening to Sylvia Plath reading out A Birthday Present yesterday, and I didn't like that her voice did not match the voice in my head when I read the poem years ago.  I thought how surprising it was that she sounded more English than American, which led me to wonder whether Americans back then generally sounded less American than they do now; or whether that was just her husband's influence.  She yearns for death but sounds harsh and stern. I thought she would sound broken and brave.  But perhaps that is what is interesting - she doesn't yearn for death, she demands it.  I wasn't entirely happy with how it messed with my existing imaginations. In any event, T.S. Elliot reading The Love Song is even worse. I suppose people are more expressive these days so it is unfamiliar and disturbing to hear the stiffness of the past.

What I do enjoy about the poetry readings I've been to is that nobody discusses the poems afterwards like I'm doing now.  Because that would have been really boring. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Here's a story I heard from a friend recently.

In the process of selecting underprivileged children to provide scholarships to, she came across a family with two children. The mother is a busker, a street musician; the father does odd jobs here and there. They insist on putting their kids into private school, which costs Rp.350,000 per month per child.  They complain that they can hardly pay the fees.

"Why do you put them into private school?  You do know you can put them into public schools free of charge, right?", asked my friend.

"We don't believe in public schools. We want our children to receive very good religious education, so that their religious values are deeply embedded.  We hear the public schools are not very good about religious education," said the mother.

Over the course of the conversation, my friend explained to them the scholarship program and how they might become eligible for it.  After listening to her intently this is how the father responded:

"As a Muslim, we must accept the intentions of those who wish to do good in the path of Allah."

My friend was taken aback and exasperated that he had the air of someone who was doing her a favor, with the fanciful wisdom of a saint.  She saw him as an ordinary man with a lack of competence over his family's financial management. A family deluded into believing that religion can solve everything and magically guide them into making the proper decisions in life. A family who has squandered many opportunities on poor choices.

But there was more.  There was this sense of entitlement, bordering on arrogance. Not to be confused with a peaceful and serene acceptance of their fate. Not to be confused with a humble gratitude of whatever life gives, no matter how small.  Theirs was an attitude of being poor, therefore being entitled, to be on the receiving end of what God obliges the wealthy to give away.  

Admittedly many of the wealthy are also arrogant. They expect their hands to be kissed (literally) and the poor to pray for their continuous prosperity / happiness. Happens every year during Ramadhan month at orphanages, overflowing with food bestowed on them by people who wish to reap 70 times more blessings by doing something good in the holy month. The little children are taught to kiss our hands and pray for us and thank us for the rice-boxes. The remaining 11 months at orphanages are dry and without event.

There is something very banal and commercial about the whole thing. Like a supply and demand of religious brownie points.