Where Sunday procrastination took me

Yesterday, I found A Pictorial Dictionary of the Animal World, published in 1966. It starts with abdomen and ends with zygote and has many biology terms and pictures in between. I never saw this book before until I was browsing my dad’s bookshelf yesterday. I think it was my dad’s when he was studying English.

In it, there is a definition and explanation of Acetylcholine, which sounded familiar. After I read the definition, I remembered I heard of this term from one of Andrew Huberman’s podcast episodes – a really good science podcast on how our body works and how to use science to optimize our performance and well-being.

Acetylcholine. A substance that has been found in almost all animals possesing a nervous system. It is produced in minute amounts at many nerve-endings when a signal passes along the nerve cell. It appears to be responsible for passing the signal (impulse) on to the next nerve cell or for trigerring off a reaction in a muscle when the signal arrives. Acetylcholine is destroyed almost immediately by cholinesterase. If this were not so, the acetylcholine would go on setting up impulses or reactions and the nervours system would be in chaos.

Michael Chinery. 1966. A Pictorial Dictionary of the Animal World: An illustrated demonstration of terms used in animal biology. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co.

Thank god for acetylcholine in our bodies and other neuromodulators that keep us balanced!

I’ve been experiencing a pull to paper books, printed photos and the internet before social media. This discovery of this more than half-a-century-old book makes me happy. See lopsided pics below.

Today, I planned to write something about my travels a couple of weeks ago, but I got sidetracked by procrastination after finding old pictures from my childhood. This is from when I was in kindergarten. I’m probably around four or five years old here. At that young age, I was timid, anxious, and already felt ugly, perhaps because of my teeth – and started to develop feelings of unworthiness. When I see this picture, I want to hug little me and tell her that she’s beautiful and she matters.

So, of course, after seeing this old picture, I started to want to remember what it was like in the 1980s and 1990s, and my fingers moved to my computer and started to open Youtube and search “Indonesia in the 1970s”. I found this channel with a video of Indonesia in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s – with beautiful actresses such as Paramitha Rusady, Lidya Kandou, and Desi Permatasari.

I didn’t stop there.

I followed what Youtube recommended and arrived at David Hoffman’s channel, a documentary filmmaker who has been filming since the early 1960s.

I watched one of his videos interviewing people on Wall Street in 1979. Their answers about work, government, corporations, and information society resonate today. The difference is that the people’s curiosity and anxiety about the camera.

His channel is a treasure trove of memories. I’ve subscribed.

I plan to shorten my five-yearly blogging schedule

To those who subscribe to my updates, apologies for the sudden flurry of posts entering your inbox. I am updating my personal website and posted some Op-eds that I have published in a couple of publications between 2016 and 2021. Eeck…, I know I have been terrible at maintaining this.

I remember in 2018, I wrote a blog post here after keeping it dormant for five years. And the last post before today was from December 2018! I really did not plan a five-yearly posting schedule.

Perhaps, that’s my personal development and growth cycle. I seem unmotivated to write blog posts on personal reflection or updates when I’m feeling stressed.

I remember the years between 2014 and 2018 were stressful and challenging as I worked to launch The Conversation Indonesia. It was only when I felt like I could finally breathe with the launch of The Conversation Indonesia, I felt compelled to finally share an update on what I had been doing for the past five years.

But I quickly found that managing and growing an organization amid a pandemic and personal grief is also stressful and challenging. It has been a transformative and painful growing process, which somehow took me another five years to graduate.

So, consider my writing this blog post a sign that I’m feeling well and content. I hope that my growth-stress cycle will be shorter or that I will continue to write during stressful periods. Perhaps, if I actually reflect through writing it would not take me five years to gain some wisdom and insight.

Await my next post soon!

Happy Nyepi for Balinese Hindu and happy fasting to Muslims around the world.

My first North American spring

The trees were full of flowers all over the ends of their branches – as if they were blooming. Each flower had soft petals. The trees that lined up next the to garden’s path had petals that formed layers of soft fuchsia. I thought they were cherry blossoms, but they were prunes. Some had four white petals for each flower. These had a funny name: dogwood.

The leaves of the Ginkgo Biloba trees were light green and had tiny dangling curls, also the same colour. I thought ginkgo was a root like ginger, because people market it as herbal remedy for stamina and memory enhancer. But it was a tall wood tree, like an oak.

There was the occasional red Japanese maple tree. The leaves had red triangles, like the Canadian flag. It was the colour of an arid ground just after a shower. When the light falls on it, the leaves becomes almost translucent.

I took the subway from Chelsea to the Bronx to visit the New York Botanical Garden. I read that New Yorkers complain about the subway. Coming from Jakarta, I find them convenient, and also cooling. The air inside the subway is cold. Taking the subway is romantic – for me, a quintessential New York experience.

I arrived in New York from Jakarta, via Houston and Boston. Before Houston, I had to stop in Tokyo and Dallas. I was stopped in Dallas and had to go a special security screening. Before leaving for the US, I had been worried that something like this will happen.

I had been racially profiled in the US when I was there four years ago. I found out that I had been profiled months after, when I was already back in Jakarta. I read an article about racial profiling at department stores in a feature article (either in the New Yorker or New York Times) and what happened to the people in the story was similar to what happened to me. I was oblivious at the time when it happened. Finding out that you had been racially profiles a couple of months after the event is still unsettling. My ignorance saved the rest of my stay that winter.

But this knowledge now made me worry that something bad like that might happen again. Perhaps I worry myself to much that it came true. The airport security officers at Dallas airport placed me in a corner, fenced with elastic bands, like a cow in a coop. A South Korean guy was placed in my coop too and we waited twenty minutes before they took us to the next security gate. Two women did a full body search on me by patting me on the legs, stomach, chest and arms. Then two old white men began taking out the contents of my bag. My laptop, my bag of cables, my toiletries. Lucky, I packed neat. They ignored me and talked to each other most of the time. They discussed about how best to swab the contents of my bag. They had a small paper that they swiped in every thing on my bag and put the paper into a machine which reads the chemical contents that are picked up by the paper. They looked for explosive materials. They took their time. And one by one the paper didn’t detect anything, until they swiped my toiletry bag. The paper beeped. I had to wait for another 15 mins, because these guys, didn’t know what to do. The guy who came later cleared me and let me go. But it was too late. My flight had left and I had to wait two more hours to take the next flight.

There was a conference about journalism in Asia in Houston. Historian and journalist Janet Steele gave the keynote speech. I loved that I was in a panel with the co-founders of the feminist online magazine Magdalene, and that my panel was all women. Another panelist is a reporter based in Washington for a Chinese TV station. We spoke about how culture affected reporting in Asia. The convenor, Moniza Waheed is a lovely Malaysian who did a really good job as moderator for both my panel and the one with academics, which talked about how the changes in journalism has affected the curriculum and teaching process in the class.

I stayed in a nice hotel across the Museum of Fine Arts that has a free shuttle. When I hear shuttle I think about a van. But at Zaza hotel, it was a black shiny SUV with two long horns on the front hood of the car.

I visited a butterfly garden at the Museum of Natural History in Houston. The air was warm and humid like a nice day in Bogor. Ferns, orchids, ephyphetes, palm, different kinds of strangling leaves were in the green house. And gossamer wings, red, black, white, blue fly above and around you.

I went to other museums too in Houston. My favorite was the museum of fine arts. I saw a 3,000-year-old Aztec carpet that had embroidery of 90 deities eating the head of humans. There was a large section of Indonesian gold that showed jewelry from everywhere from Nias, Java, Bali, Sulawesi, Flores. The European masters Mattise, Soutine, Braque, Picasso. But down in the lower ground, the photography of Raghubir Singh took me away. He took colorful pictures of India, capturing the daily lives of the people in South Asia. Five mustachiod men sat on the sandy ground with pink popsicles in their mouths. Masculine and fragile at the same time. My heart hurt for them. I googled Singh after my museum trip and while there were rave reviews of his exhibition that I saw, I found an article that a group of artists staged a #MeToo protest at his exhibition in New York. An artist said he assaulted her.

After Houston, I flew to Boston. Mikey picked me up with his girlfriend’s car. I slept in their guest bedroom. I didn’t want to be alone in a shitty hotel room in Boston. I was happy to be around friends. Katie is a speech therapist and Mikey now works full time as a teacher. They lived in a nice cosy house with a small backyard with rabbits as pests.

I did a lot of things in Boston: watched a documentary about native Americans trying to deal with the truth about their kids being taken away from their families and weren’t allowed to speak their language. Had drinks and dinners. Met with John Tirman and Ethan Zuckerman. Hung out and worked at TC Boston office.

But New York was my favorite place to be. In Boston, I felt a tinge of homesickness. I missed Jakarta. I felt this when walking from Harvard Square to Magoon Square at Somerville to catch up with Damian. The streets were empty and rows of New England style houses – wooden planks as walls, pointy rooftops – were standing next to New England style trees. The type that turns golden and red in the fall. It was idyllic. Yet, I was uncomfortable with that contrast to Jakarta.

New York is alive and pulsing. The brick colors of the zigurat style buildings with the light green leaf buds of spring, and the array of people walking on the streets were energising. It has tall buildings and lots of people like Jakarta. But better weather and better foot paths to walk on. And a subway, which people in NY complain about, but for me it’s luxury.

I hear a lot of bad stuff about New York. The way people interact socially and use status as currency is sickening. I perhaps wouldn’t love it if I was lonely and without friends or anything to do. But last weekend, it was my paradise.

Bag 1: Errol Morris, Robert McNamara dan Donald Rumsfeld

Yang lekat dalam ingatan saya mengenai film “The Unknown Known” adalah senyum Rumsfeld dan gaya bercandanya yang jenaka. Ia tampak seperti seorang manusia yang tak memiliki masalah dalam hidup. Morris bercanda menyebut Rumsfeld sebagai seorang Yahudi yang paling tidak Yahudi. “Tidak ada rasa muak pada diri sendiri. Tidak ada kebencian pada diri sendiri. Tidak ada keraguan akan diri sendiri Ia sangat berbeda dari saya.” Ia juga menyebut Rumsfeld sebagai seseorang dengan Sindrom Kekurangan Ironi (Irony Deficit Disorder).


Good news from home

A lot of authority figures in Madura, Indonesia painted a picture of an angry intolerant populace of the people. When I asked then Sampang regent Noer Tjahja last year whether he would guarantee the Shiites families, displaced after a mob attack of their homes in Karang Gayam and Blu’uran villages, to be able to return to their land. He said that it was not an option. Noel was adamant that there was strong rejection from the community and that unless the Shiites ‘repent’ and convert to Sunni, “lives are at stake”.

For a year, the Shiites lived in a tennis indoor court turned refugee camp, until just before the Eid celebrations, a mob again harassed the Shiites, and the authorities trucked the refugees into a low-cost apartment complex in Sidoarjo, a city in East Java, outside of the island of Madura. Some 200 people who live from the field as tobacco farmers are forced to move to small flats far from their home town.

But the people proved those who campaign for relocation and segregation wrong, shattering the perception of ingrained intolerance between groups. Even though I am far away from home, I’m so happy to read reports in The Jakarta Post and The Jakarta Globe of reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shiites. The Jakarta Post reported that 50 Sunnis people, including those who participated in the attack, visited their Shiite neighbors and reconciled by signing a peace agreement.

The Jakarta Globe gave a thorough report of the peace process, showing the picture of the peace accord, which states “we have been tired with the animosity and we’re ready to live side by side, respect and love each other as taught by our esteemed Prophet Muhammad.”

The Globe quoted Hertasning Ichlas, lawyer of the Shia community that the Sunni people ” admitted that they had been tired of being provoked every week”.“They finally came to realize that this is only a political game, not a religious issue. They realize that reconciliation is the right Islamic way to solve it.” It seems now the authorities should not have any excuse for letting the Shiites to return to their homes, not when those they claim to speak on behalf of have embraced their neighbors back.

Admittedly, Shia leader Tajuk Muluk is still imprisoned for blasphemy and not one person has been held accountable for last years attack that killed two people. The one person who was arrested, Roisul Hukamah, Tajul’s brother who has personal vendetta against the former was set free of all charges. But just the fact that the two groups are willing to live side by side in peace is a cause for celebrations. Congratulations Sampang!

First Impressions

It’s been three weeks since I left the smog filled Jakarta. I am staying in the quaint New England city of Cambridge, but I first landed in Washington, D.C.

As I step into America’s capital, at once felt a sense of gravity in the city. As a journalist, I try to not be easily swayed by prominence. Famous people are nothing more than human beings; famous things are nothing more than objects, I often say to myself. I take pictures of people I interview, but very rarely — I think I can count only two or three occasions — where I take pictures with them, however famous they are. But, as I walked past the White House, with the American flag flapping on a pole on the roof, a sign that Barack Obama is in the house, I have to admit, I felt excited to be in the same city as he was. I couldn’t resist; I took a picture of myself in front of the White House.

It must be the foreign factor. The White House and the American president are more exotic for me than the Presidential Palace in Indonesia and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Though Indonesians love to believe that Obama is one of us (he likes sate and bakso) given his three-years of living in a Jakarta neighborhood in the late 60s and his mother’s Stanley Ann Dunham’s work there, in the end he is still the president of a superpower that often believes that international law need not apply. The sheer amount of power the U.S. President holds in the international arena is beyond any other head of States in the world. I would be dead-inside if I was not a bit affected by the fact I am in the capital city of United States of America.

Now I am in Cambridge, just next door to Boston, the old historical city where the American Revolution started. I sit in classes in MIT and Harvard, trying to get my head around politics of religion and finding the best method for my research. A writing class with star writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has felt like an indulgence. Reading and analyzing essays in class is like being in one of my favorite podcast, The New Yorker fiction podcast. Although the subject matter is non-fiction rather than fiction, the way Ta-Nehisi helps the class dissect the essays feel similar to what Deborah Treisman and whoever writer is on the show that month.

But the most eye-opening is walking down the streets, exploring the neighborhood and seeing the difference of one street to another. There is a change in style and color of people walking down Main Street that leads to MIT and Windsor Street that leads to the housing projects. Massachusetts Avenue is more “cosmopolitan” with people dressing nicely to go to the pub called Middle East walking side by side with people asking for small change.

Once in a Saturday mid September, a Caribbean Carnival was in full force. The thumping of percussion, accompanies girls dancing in skimpy glittery costumes. The smell of barbecue in the air enticed those who are not even hungry. I hear a foreign language here and there, and an accent, probably Caribbean, among the crowd. Far in the corner are heavy set police officers who seem oblivious to the joy of the carnival. Arms folded, legs spread. The disconnect between people of one city can be seen on the long faces on the pale white cops watching over the joy and laughter of black Americans.