When I was 13, my father took me on a trip for work, first to Sydney Australia for a conference on Indonesian art and culture and then to Bali to do a little research for a book. We had gone before as a family, but this was my turn, after my sister and older brother had gone themselves. The pictures are hard to look at now, my father jaundiced and old, me fat, greasy-haired, and hating myself with the type of passion that is reserved for the very young. But it was my trip, my turn, and not everybody gets to take their turn. Only the lucky few.
At the conference he introduced me to some dissidents. I knew of a Western academic or two who had found themselves unable to get a visa into the country, having been too public in their criticism of the Suharto regime. Their risks were mostly professional. But, you know, there were Indonesian people we knew for whom the risks were greater, and you would be surprised today, in this new regime, despite everything, how much people are still at risk. Many people would prefer the past stay buried.
One of the guys there, a long haired young Javanese hippie of a kind I knew well, was a friend and would banter with my dad in the usual way. He kept asking my dad to buy him a guitar. He would come up to where we sat in the morning as we ate shitty dry scrambled eggs and deliciously bad sausage and say “Les Paul! Les Paul!” and they’d speak in that mixed style, shifting seamlessly between Bahasa and English in the way I always found inscrutable. And the final joke, every time, was that my father would respond “Stratocaster?” and he would put his hands in the air and say “OK, OK, good enough.”
Anyway, Sydney was fine. My dad had told me for months that summer in the United States was winter in Australia and to pack warmly, so I brought one pair of pants and a long sleeved tshirt as a concession to his quaint notion that the tropical paradise of Australia could get cold, and when we got there it was freezing and when he discovered my lack of clothing options he sighed and grumbled and took me to an army navy store to buy the jacket you see above. Secretly he was pleased, mind you, to have this opportunity to grumble affectionately. During the day he would go to panels and I would wander over to this arcade and play games, then grab some fried chicken for lunch. I remember being struck by the fact that I could have been in any big city in America, were it not for the birds, the bizarre Australian birds.
One thing that sticks out was his worry, when practicing his talk, about his plan to open the panel with a recitation in Kawi. It was surprising; my father did not betray professional or intellectual insecurity, ever. He was an emotional man but I am sure I will never meet a more self-possessed person in my life. Even when he was sick (and by then he was always sick) he was the only person in the room. But he was worried about the recitation; he was afraid nobody would get it. He ended up reading it and he said it went alright. And then the conference was over and we journeyed inland a bit and saw beautiful places and I held a koala awkwardly for a souvenir photograph, and then it was time to fly back to Bali.
He chuckled as we got there and told me that I was permitted, as all returning visitors to Bali did, to say “it’s not like it used to be!” But it was more or less as I remembered it, and when we emerged from the plane I still felt the humidity descend onto my shoulders like a blanket, and we still went to the Borneo Bar and the Hey Cafe in Sanur, and he still would drink Bir Bintang even though he was strictly forbidden from doing so. Back then, before rabies came and they swept them from the island in a mass euthanasia campaign, there were these packs of wild dogs, and they were not quite dangerous but were worrisome. He told me to not be afraid and they would leave me alone. I was struck by how true it was, how much power there was in the insistence within myself that I was not afraid – it was visible, in the dogs, the minute I’d steel myself and project strength, they would lower their tails and skulk away. In time I would learn about body language and pheromones, and in time I would learn that you can do the exact same thing to most humans, and in time I learned why you shouldn’t.
Eventually we made our way inland to his dear friend Sumandhi’s village, and I got to look at his giant catfish, which was always a thrill. Pak Rajeg, Sumandhi’s father and my father’s great teacher, was still with us at that time. And that first night I laid down on a mat as they talked, laughing and chatting for hours into the night. It was all perfectly foreign to me – the seamless switching there was between Bahasa and Balinese, even – but I still could not have enjoyed it more, hearing distant sounds of gamelan, the smell of the fried plantains they’d snack on mingling with the spicy scent of the kreteks they smoked, my father’s laugh. I laid on the mat and took in that perfect sensory overload and thought about the pretty tits on the topless women at the beach that morning. I was 13, remember.
Back here in 21st century New York we have been adjusting my medication lately. I have now been in treatment long enough to have accepted this part of the deal: feeling like you’ve got the drugs and dosages right, then gradually realizing that something is not quite right, then you adjust, and you wait to see if you can feel any difference, and the doc says, you know, how’s it going, and then you have to figure that out – how is it going, after all? Eventually you say, aha, this is it, we nailed it this time. And over time things drift, like your rear view mirror slowly falling out of your line of sight as you slouch deeper into a long car ride, until you have to admit to yourself that you need to adjust again.
For me the process of getting my medication adjusted is like trimming the hair on the back of my own neck, like trying to back a trailer down a narrow tunnel.
Not that treatment’s going poorly. It’s about as good as I can imagine it being, all things considered. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I spent much of my adult life resisting medication out of the fear that I would no longer be my true self, that it would change me. Then, when I was too exhausted to fight anymore, I wanted just about the opposite, to be given a pill to cure things just like that, like fixing a vitamin deficiency. And what you learn, of course, is that both of these are pleasing fantasies – medication as a way to stop being yourself, or medication as a way to be your true self. You don’t get either of those. Which is fine. I get a little chemical smoothing of my own reaction to the confusion and disappointment that are the basis of human life, and a safety net against another manic episode. It’s fine; it’s fine. Quotidian. You go in fear of mind control and in hope of profundity and find instead something like getting your oil changed, or at least I do, now that I’m better than a year in. That’s what I’ve come to understand, about these psych meds: how ordinary they are. Their terrible, terrible adequacy.
Near the end of our trip we saw a car accident, a fatal accident. I didn’t really see but it seemed that a bemo took a wide corner and a man on one of those rickety motorbikes lost his control and skidded into that terrifying traffic. My father and others rushed over. All I could see from where I stood was his body crunched under his bike, his hand waving strangely at the frame of it with vague fingers, feebly pushing. A man standing nearby, looking stricken, kept saying in an Australian accent “these things happen, these things happen” to his kids. The rider was dead before they took him away. I have not forgotten him since. Even at the time I think I knew that I would remember, that it would stand in my mind as a marker between what I had already seen, and what was soon to come.
The past has a way of getting in touch with you. The other day I realized that I’m older than my mother ever was.
Today I am engaged in the business of being an adult, and I am impatient, but I am fine. The city has welcomed me with its busy indifference, which was exactly what I needed, to get folded into Brooklyn like a remote getting lost in the nooks of your couch. Some people have teased me for ending up here, after grumbling about Brooklyn for so long, and that’s OK. Now I’m just here – it’s just a place I live. The past four months have been remarkable in the speed with which they have become ordinary. And now I go to the Y and lift my weights and I eat beef patties at Golden Crust and I worry after my dog and I occasionally get laid and I get shocked at how little is left in checking and I rescue my knockoff robot vacuum from where it’s once again gotten itself trapped on a power cord and I go out with friends (yes I have them Twitter!) and I feel gawky at yoga classes and I drink too much beer and I walk endless miles to trains and, god help me, I check the balance on my pension. That kid in the photo at the top might have been shocked to find me here.
And yet despite everything he’s still me. Perhaps the biggest surprise, for him, would be that he could bend life to his will a little bit, and make himself something a little less worth hating. Still I find a part of myself feeling like an American with coke bottle glasses waiting to be let into an Australian arcade. But the world conspires to reveal to me how many people I find beautiful and strange see something beautiful within me too, and despite everything, the nastiness the internet would like to deposit in all of our emotional bank accounts, I am ready and I am unafraid. I am left only to live and to desire, to know those things that I want and cannot have, and to pause someplace waiting until life knows that I am ready for them. Somewhere inside of me the same self-protective wisdom that guided that younger me through all that was left to come still exists, the steady invulnerability to cancer and rejection and guilt and neglect, and I know that it is the same part of me that is profligate in what it desires, the part that once left me curled up on the floor alone, the part that now propels me through welcoming and indifferent city streets, this part of me that is stranger to myself, this fire in my heart.