Gone with the Wind Revisited

“Your love is an hallucination.”

My young student in China wanted to discuss Gone with the Wind, wanted to take months to read and understand it.

I read this book when I was about twelve years old, about the same age as my student, Xinlin, in Shanghai. The story engaged me completely but I have to wonder now what I understood.  I can still see the grey book cover and feel its weight. Now, I have finished it again, a process stretching over months.

I can remember when Atlanta was a sleepy place just beginning to be recognized as the capital of “The New South.” A friend and I passed through, experienced “Underground Atlanta” which was an innovation in city planning at the time. We attended a lecture by photographer Jerry Uelsmann at their cultural center, which was a knock off of Lincoln Center in New York, a good one. We walked on Peachtree Street, the main thoroughfare which features so prominently in Margaret Mitchell’s world. It was, ironically, the street that killed her. She was hit by a drunk driver as she tried to cross it.

A lot has been said about Gone with the Wind. Most people know about it from the movie, which is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Everybody, almost, has seen it. The book is over six hundred pages; it took Mitchell three years to write it, and the manuscript was destined to be lost. She was discouraged and had basically given up finding a publisher. Only happenstance or serendipity saved it, got it to the right person who was captivated immediately.

Gone with the Wind was a sensation and made Margaret Mitchell famous beyond imagination. But, despite all the glamor and attention given at the time, I don’t think this novel is considered as highly as it should be. Some candidates for “the great American novel” are: Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Moby Dick. I just spent some time looking at several lists citing candidates for this distinction. Gone with the Wind is not on any of them. And yet to me, a lifelong avid reader and English teacher, Gone with the Wind is better than any of them.

So why has this masterpiece been ignored over time? Racism is the reason. It is always there, the question of race and America’s history of four hundred years of slavery. In my view, however, the novel is mostly about other issues. That being said, the black characters in the novel are important, their vernacular language captured  beautifully my Mitchell who knew them so well.  Mark Twain also heard that special speech in perfect pitch. Was any northern writer ever able to do that?

As I was reading Gone with the Wind again with my student I kept mentioning to her how the issues in the book are still so alive today, issues that are important for her as a young woman growing up and issues that are very important for anyone trying to understand America.

I have spent time in the south and I like the south even if it doesn’t like me. “We don’t like y’all,” is the way it was put to me by an ex-girlfriend from North Carolina. A teaching colleague of mine from Mississippi (we were working at an international school in Bangladesh) told me, “They changed an economic system; that’s all.” The culture itself didn’t change, not much. For example, this is from a few years ago as remembered in Wikipedia.

The Unite the Right rally was a white supremacist[5][6][7][8] rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, from August 11 to 12, 2017.[9][10][11] Far-right groups participated, including self-identified members of the alt-right,[12] neo-Confederates,[13] neo-fascists,[14] white nationalists,[15] neo-Nazis,[16] Klansmen,[17] and various right-wing militias.[18] Some groups chanted racist and antisemitic slogans and carried weapons, Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols, the ValknutConfederate battle flagsDeus vult crosses, flags, and other symbols of various past and present anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic groups.[24] The organizers’ stated goals included the unification of the American white nationalist movement[12] and opposing the proposed removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s former Lee Park.

This shameful craziness does not represent the south and yet it does in some ways. The issues are still alive for many people there. They still love their confederate heroes. They remember the history or reconstruction bitterly. And they have an awareness that six hundred thousand people died.

And for Margaret Mitchell, this terrible war was recent history indeed. She had living relatives to question. She heard the stories over and over. One of the most important and interesting aspects of the novel is the description of antebellum life, plantation life, the life at Tara and the other plantations in Scarlet’s domain. Forget for a minute that it was built on the backs of slaves. What else is new? Nineteenth century Russia was the same, maybe even more, all supported by serfs. I think the wealth the upper classes accumulated would embarrass the southern plantation owners.

The kind of genteel, honorable life and culture described by Mitchell before the war is a thing of great beauty. Period. We can see them riding their horses to visit each other, dressing up for parties, elegant dinners, courtship games going on all the time. It is a lovely picture.

The war that landed on them changed everything. And Mitchell describes it in excruciating detail garnered from  the oral histories of relatives who were living witnesses to it. And out of that calamity, emerged one of the greatest characters ever created,  Scarlet O’Hara. She survived it all and against all odds.  I loved her all the way through six hundred pages despite her character weaknesses and failings. Rhett Butler, who cares?

Plantation life, reconstruction, carpetbaggers, bloody battles: all of these are worth their own essays. That is how rich the book is. But, I read this book with a young woman in China and we took our time. And for her, for all of us, there is something central to this work that might be missed by people focused on slavery or the war.

What drives Scarlett so restlessly? It starts in the beginning and ends at the end, her love for Ashely Wilkes. As my student, Xinlin, and I talked over the weeks and months about this story I often kept asking her why Scarlett loved him at all. To me he seemed like a big nothing really, good looking perhaps, but not a lot there. And Scarlett, well there is more there than you could find in ten people, which is why, of course, Rhett was so attracted.

Scarlett’s love for Ashley is a hallucination which she realizes it too late at the end of the novel. Finally the scales fell of her eyes and she could see him for who he really is, a rather weak character lost in the new world created by the war. This realization is the great triumph of her maturation, the attainment of her mature self. This is the real story of Gone with the Wind.

We all do this. We make up a person and love that person without any idea who the real person is behind the illusion we have created. Our desires and our needs are so great, and our romantic fantasies so rich, that it is often impossible to see clearly when “the blood is up” and we are vulnerable. When you are hungry, anything looks good, to put it crudely.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

 June 21, 2022

Goodbye Sebastiano, The Last Chapter

           The following summer I received a letter from Sebastiano. He was in New York and I called him, got his address, and was on my way into town, driving the family Mercedes at breakneck speed. In those days I prided myself in how fast I could get anywhere in Manhattan and back out to Pelham and I never had an accident. But now, because of my excitement I let my guard down, something that can be fatal in New York especially in those days.

          I got to the address at 90th Street and Third Avenue, six blocks south of where Harlem begins, parked the car, and got out all in one motion. As I headed to the intersection to cross, five big tough black guys, all dressed in identical white shirts buttoned to the collar, emerged from the shadows. The biggest one asked me for a match which is often the interaction that precedes your death. Normally, I would have seen them even before I parked.

          New Yorkers know how and when to cross the street. They practice avoidance for survival. But now I was wide open. As I reached for the match, I heard Sebastiano bellow from the window of his apartment on the second floor across the street. He could see what was going on. Hanging out the window and sporting a wife beater tee shirt a la Stanley Kowalski, what he communicated was that if those guys touched me, he would literally jump out of the window and kill them. The African-American brothers looked at each other, let me light the leader’s cigarette, and faded back into the shadows.

          Sebastiano was living with a dancer, a tall willowy beauty who was also a very nice person and obviously in love with him. It’s amazing the bond created by orgasm. Did I say living with a dancer? He was living off a dancer. Somehow, he never was able to get his own talents focused in a way that produced anything more than survival money.

          He and his girlfriend and I did a few things together and I managed to get him some work on the soap operas. A few months later, he was living with an African-American woman, another real beauty, who was about to become a model in Oleg Cassini’s stable. One night we accompanied her to the famous designer’s house where she had been invited to “audition.” Sebastiano and I paced the streets for a couple of hours until she finally emerged, slightly the worse for wear. I think she passed the audition.

          And that was the end of our story, because here in New York our lives were very different. I was still in the protected, if dysfunctional, warm bosom of my family and still a college boy while Sebastiano, as usual, was barely maintaining by living off women who were attracted to his wild personality and to “the brute”!

Coda: Thank you for being with me as I relived my adventure in Spain, an important chapter of my life. Sometimes at night, unable to sleep, I count the times I could have been killed one way or another. I count it as grace that I came through and am still strong and healthy at age 77 (next month). Being a risk taker has rewards but I don’t recommend it. Be well, do good work, and stay in touch. Ricker

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

From The Painting of My Life at Amazon

Goodbye Madrid Hello Customs Chapter 27

          But that was later. Now, I was saying goodbye to Sebastiano, to Ruth, to my friends, and getting ready to be the big surprise at my mother’s fiftieth birthday party. Ted, (the highway patrol/ FBI man), warned me indirectly against bringing any kief back to the states. Sebastiano had most of it anyway but I kept about six ounces in a plastic bag flat between my stomach and my belt. I was excited to share it with my friends back home.

          I shipped my motorcycle to New York and went to the airport with Sebastiano. It was a warm goodbye with promises to see each other in New York. Since my father was a big-shot television producer there was a chance I could get him some work.

          After an uneventful flight I was in New York passing through customs once again. On the other side of the barrier, I could see my father waving eagerly, excited that the “birthday present” was extant and viable. I worked my way through the line and a perfunctory baggage check and headed for the exit to greet my father. But before I got there three men in plain clothes stopped me and said,

          “Mr. Winsor? Please come with us.”

          “What’s the problem?” I asked.

          “Nothing, we just need to ask you a few questions.” They led me to a room right off the main customs area, one of those rooms made famous in any number of movies where interrogations and torture are featured. A bare light bulb dangled from the ceiling. Nothing was on the walls and for furniture only a desk, a chair and a couple of benches. They went through my luggage again.

           “Mr. Winsor, can you tell us which countries you visited?”

          “England, France, Spain and Morocco,” I answered, barely whispering the last country.

          “Morocco Mr. Winsor? Did you buy any marijuana there?”

          “Frankly sir, I did. My friend and I bought a little matchbox of it. You may know that it is not illegal there. Alcohol is though.”

          “Is that all, Mr. Winsor? Did you smoke it?”

          “Yes sir, I did and frankly it made me sick. I didn’t want to have anything more to do with it.”

          “You know, Mr. Winsor, we had a guy in here a while ago who had been in Mexico for a couple of years and we asked him if he smoked marijuana. You know what he said? ‘Sure man, doesn’t everybody?’ We sent him away for a long time.”

          The customs cop with the loafers, white socks, and flattop haircut smiled as he told this little story. Then he looked at me and said, “Now we are going to search your person, Mr. Winsor.”

          “My person?” I gulped.

          They took off my suede sport jacket and looked in the pockets and checked the lining and it seemed they found a few flakes of kief but nothing substantial. Then “white socks with the flattop” got down on his knees in front of me and, beginning at the ankle, patted me down, first up one leg and down the other. In the process he put his hand on the belt area of my stomach almost as if he knew what was there and pushed right on the six ounces I was carrying.

          My breathing stopped. Maybe my heart stopped. Time stood still. And then, somehow, he moved on. Is it possible he didn’t feel it? I have never been able to know if they just missed it or if they knew I had it but decided just to scare me and not skewer my life. Once this all began, of course, it took no time for my mind to flash a picture of boring Ted, the highway patrolman writer back in Madrid and his part in this. He had taken an avuncular interest in me. Maybe this was his way of teaching me a lesson and saving me at the same time. Or maybe they just missed it.

          They let me go and I walked out to greet my father who was anxiously waiting and wondering what had happened. He had rented a limo for the “birthday surprise” and as we moved toward Manhattan and the Harvard Club, where I was to spend the night, hiding before the party the next day, I sank into the seat and pressed my pale face against the cool glass of the back seat window. My father was so absorbed in his own excitement about bringing me back as a gift to my mother that he didn’t notice the emotional undercurrents swirling around in me.

          I was, in fact, the big surprise and happy to make my mother happy. More than a hundred people filled the country club to celebrate my mother’s birthday. She was so highly respected and loved. And my friends were glad to see me and get high and evolve from being beatnik wannabees to nascent hippies.

It’s a Spark

It’s a spark, the spark of life, catching something, stopping time.
That is what photography is, what it can do.
I selected pictures for this book that caught something fleeting, important.
Nobody did that better than
Henri Cartier-Bresson and so I humbly
dedicate my book to him.

Take a look at my other books on my Author Page at Amazon.com
https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00GU143TW
My focus now is on writing and sharing my visual work on my blog at WordPress.
It is titled “A Search for Meaning” and is at:
https://rickerw.com/
Please follow me here to get updates on essays I  write about various topics. I keep the essays short!
My publishers in Olympia, Washington are Alec and Gabi Clayton at https://mudflatpress.com/
They can help you get your books published and teach you  the craft as they did me.

Ricker Winsor, Surabaya, Indonesia

In 1969 I was in Tapachula, Mexico working on the film, Bridge in the Jungle

with Katy Jurado and John Huston, directed by Poncho Kohner.

Zionist

         We grew up as Zionists in New York in the years after WWII. Even though there were few Jews in our town, Pelham Manor, the few we knew were smart and decent. Micky Schwerner came from our town, went to high school with my oldest sister. He was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan  in Philadelphia, Mississippi while trying to help black people register to vote.

          That is incidental. What is not incidental is the fact that, as a little boy, my first exposure to naked bodies, other than my parents, was seeing piles of them pushed into ditches by bulldozers. They were the murdered victims of Nazism. Those newsreels were played over and over and over again.

          As I got older and more involved with New York City and photography and the arts, I met more and more Jewish people. Some had numbers still tattooed on their arms, from the concentration camps.

          At that time Leon Uris’s book, Exodus was popular and many of us were caught up in the idealism and excitement of Israel, a new homeland for the Jewish people after the holocaust.

          We all admired David Ben-Gurion and Gold Meir and many others who led the early country and defended it passionately.

          There never has been co-equality and hardly even co-existence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What I know about Palestinians is that they hate the Jews and want to “push them into the sea.” Since the Israelis are highly developed and disciplined, have all the weapons, and know how to use them, it seems to me that the Palestinians should adjust their attitude.

          Not only do the Israelis hold all the cards but they also control the water. This might be the most important of all. Israel is a beautiful, lush country and Palestine is a desert by comparison.

          One card Israel does not  have is the suicide card. Apparently, the one thing Palestinians can do is blow themselves up and take as many Jews with them as possible. I still remember the “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in my thinking. A pregnant Arab woman got into a big Jewish wedding and blew up about fifty people including herself and her unborn child. Any kind of sympathy I might have had for the Palestinian cause disappeared.

          Currently there has been more violence in the West Bank and Gaza, ugly violence, with lots of people killed and many buildings destroyed. I am always shocked to think of all the effort it took to build those buildings, and now to have to build them again.

          It is ever the same. What could possibly change it? As long as the Israelis think the Palestinians hate them and want to destroy them, they will keep making sure that can’t happen.

          Note: Some of my friends were shocked by my thoughts, “dismayed” was a word I heard. It is only my perspective, one perspective, but also a history of how I came to feel the way I do. That is all we have, to express it as we feel it and experience it. There is dualism before non-dualism to be philosophical about it.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

It’s All Bullshit

   The writer and activist, Grace Paley (RIP) was someone much admired by almost everyone in the progressive/left community. We knew her in Vermont and one day a group of us were rehashing the tribulations of the peace and freedom movements of the sixties. In response to something she said, I replied, “I am too cynical,” to which she countered with, “Don’t be cynical; it’s too expensive.” I have thought about that often over the years.

          It is so easy to give up on the world, to think it’s all bullshit, that everything is a lie, that money and power control it all, and there is no truth either knowable or worth seeking. Are there only two choices? Is it either “all bullshit” or, for the new-age person, “all is one.”  My take is “Fuck you, it’s all bullshit. Fuck you, all is one.” To me, those easy outs, either one of them, is avoidance, giving up on the struggle to resolve the contradictions of life.

          One of the brightest guys I knew growing up, John,  became a deep hippie. When I knew him, he was funny and kind. As he got more and more alienated from the establishment and more “out there” in hippy land he became cynical and less kind. He died at age thirty-nine.

          Some years back I met his younger brother, Tom, for dinner in New York. Seeing me, he cried because I had known John well and we were close. Tom said, “His last two years were tough. They were not good years. He got to believe it was all bullshit.”

“Yeah,” Tom continued, “but you still have to take a shit every day.”

          We are in a body, stuck in it but stuck in it for a reason. What’s that? There is a spiritual thinker and writer I like very much, Richard Rohr. He put it like this: “The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.”

          Nobody said this is easy. If it was easy, it probably would not be worth doing. A Trappist priest gave me a small Dhammapada, sayings of the Buddha. It has a triangular copper bookmark and on that page: “Few cross over the river. Most are stranded on this side. On the riverbank, they run up and down.”

Ricker Winsor, Surabaya, Indonesia

My Dove

          Auron’s nurse came into the house and said, “There is a bird in the garden. I don’t think it can fly.” Sure, enough there was a bird, a baby dove, walking around, not a new born, but not ready for the world either. Like Icarus he had fallen from the sky, from a nest high in the big Linden tree shading the house. I picked him up and decided to try to save him, normally a fraught situation ending in the pet cemetery.  I knew that the fledglings  feed from their parents’ mouths. They stick their head into the parent’s throat and eat some mysterious milk-type substance they find there.

          We have some healthy snacks around: roasted almonds and sunflower seeds. My best idea was to chew up some of that, mix it with some water, and do my best to get the baby to eat. With a spoon and some persistence, I got his beak into  the porridge, such as it was. I saw that he opened his beak a bit and took some. Success! But there was a lot more to do before I would be confident, he would live. We got a small cage and I put some of the mash I made plus some water and he started slowly to eat it.

          He  was never tame, never friendly. When I would bring the food and water and open the cage, he would raise one baby wing in  a “ward off” gesture as in  Tai Chi. That was all the defense he had; just to raise a wing. When that didn’t work, he would become panicked and frantic. He would hyperventilate, flapping around hysterically, blood pressure through the roof. Some of his young feathers were getting damaged.

          My job was not a pleasant chore. My goal was to get him to the stage where he could fly and be free. As far as I was concerned that could not happen soon enough. There were still no feathers under his wings but he was getting stronger.

           Happily, he was eating solid food; cracked corn I smashed up, and the almonds and sunflower seeds also busted up by hammer. After two weeks, a bit prematurely perhaps, I took him out in the morning and let him go. He flew across the street and it seemed like he landed in the neighbor’s walled veranda, the kind of place where he might be trapped. We asked the neighbor to check and he was not there.

          Then he was seen at different places along the street. I was happy since I felt he was going to be ok. Over the next few days, I thought I might have seen him with other doves, some about his size, maybe his siblings. I put some food out where his cage had been and also in the street where the doves often feed on things they find and on bits of dry food my wife puts out for the homeless cats in the neighborhood.

          And that was that. Yesterday, after about a week, he came back. Our driver, Romulus, was out sitting under the carport awning as he usually does when he not doing errand and helping with various things, and he told me the bird was back.   The two dogs were out. I went and sat down quietly on the step and held one of the dogs so he didn’t bother the dove. But she didn’t bother the dove at all, like they knew each other, and the dove actually flew down a few feet from me and even closer to the other dog who moved, but not aggressively. The dove smoothly flew away and landed on the gate, then on the garbage can almost right next to me, and then back to the wall where we had been putting out food.  

          “Pak Rom, “I said, “Get some of the food and put it out.” He did and the dove didn’t fly away but ate contentedly. Our maid had to go out to buy some vegetables and she went through the gate right next to the dove. He barely noticed. The same thing happened with my wife. He knew us all. And to me that is the most remarkable thing.     

          During the two weeks he was in his cage he observed everything and knew we were no threat, even the dogs. A renowned naturalist I knew, Larry Killham, an expert on crows and ravens, told me,  “Just because a bird has a small brain doesn’t mean there is not a lot in it.”

          I have seen him a few times but each time more at a distance. He seems strong and healthy, proud even as he sits on the apex of the roof of the house across the street. He was never a pet, but magically showed that he was and is aware, with feelings.

Ricker Winsor

Pakuwon City

Surabaya, Indonesia 2020

Raven’s Bread No 1

          Thomas Merton, in one of his many books, said something to the effect that,  “Monks are like tall trees in the forest, silently purifying the air.” The life of the contemplative centers on quiet purification through prayer.

          Among the many Zen practitioners of China and Japan, the ones we know about wrote poems and some also practiced calligraphy. Some taught. Centuries passed away, and still their contributions shine with intensity and truth.

          One of the most famous is the poet Basho from seventeenth-century Japan. He wrote Haiku, a structured form of three phrases. Here are a few:

by moonflowers

a fascinating body

floats absent-mindedly

in summer rain

would you be happy with

the moon’s face

has spring come

or the year gone away?

second last day

          Haiku poetry is deeply rooted in the awareness and appreciation of nature. Many of the Zen practitioners lived far from villages in small huts up on the sides of mountains. There, they faced two common enemies: poverty and loneliness.

          In   contemplation there is no hiding place; we make what we can from our choices. Work overcomes the difficulties and the result can be a gift of beauty to the world.

          The image of a solitary monk living alone in nature is compelling but nature is everywhere, even in the city. And solitude is also everywhere, even in the city. Solitude is a condition of humility and peace. Ironically, contemplation might be more easily attained in the city where one is reminded frequently of what one needs to avoid.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia 2020

Me and Malcolm (X)

This is a Story for You Hermano (for Luis Francia)

          I have wanted to write this for so long but I get tired of my regrets and my shame of one kind or another. These days I try my best to find some shiny nuggets among the dross but mostly come up empty. I succeed most in looking at the clouds or at the sun through the leaves of green tropical trees.

          But back to the other. When I was a freshman at Brown in a sociology class, I wrote a paper about new movements in American politics. I attended the Communist Party Presidential Convention in Manhattan. The year must have been 1963. It was a small convention, about twenty-five people  gathered in an upstairs room somewhere in midtown. I remember the presidential candidate was an albino negro which was different.

          I reported about it as best I could in my notes but my main interest at that time was in a guy known as Malcolm X. I got information about him from magazines such as Jet and Ebony. If I hadn’t been a spoiled preppy of eighteen, I might have sought him out and gotten the skinny from the source, but, as it was, the paper I wrote got a high grade and went into the Sociology Department files. My teacher knew it was important somehow.

          Fast forward to 1987 and I am at “the lonely café” in the Catskills where I ate sourdough pancakes almost every morning before going back to my barn to make cabinets and furniture for rich people like: Larry Rockefeller, Auchincloss (Louis, and his wife, Adele, a Vanderbilt, Babe Paley’s kids, Amanda Burden, and others). Don’t ask! I rejected them all including a Countess in Spain.

          There was a big fat black lady whom I saw several times at the café. She had escaped from the New Age Health Spa ( and fat farm) a mile or so down the road to stuff down some worthy vittles. I liked her without knowing her and finally we had a few words. Something about racism came up.

          “Are the people around here (boondocks) racist?” she asked.

          “No more than anywhere else,” I replied. “I don’t have to tell you.”

          “No,” she said.

          I think she liked that and asked me if I would possibly make a Playground Spinning Wheel for the kids in her neighborhood.

          “Oh God,” I thought, “pro bono for the hood.”

          And I did think about it, not for any humanitarian reason probably, but because of the challenge of building something like that, building it the right way out of steel and serious ball bearings, something that would last forever. And, in my thinking, it would cost a lot of money and effort.

          So, I replied, “I am too busy now working for Rockefeller (true).”

          I don’t remember when I realized she was Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife. Maybe I saw a picture of her somewhere but then I had a full dose of regret.

          I don’t know how different it might have been. At least I could have mentioned my history with the civil rights movement and my research on Malcolm (he was my favorite). And probably, knowing she had some money, I would have gotten involved with the playground project.

          I have been watching the series, ”Who Killed Malcolm X,” at least the first episode. Not sure I can continue as it hurts.

Saludos y un Abrazo,

Ricker

 

The Day the Servants Left

from Ricker Winsor’s book Pakuwon City

            Muslims fast during Ramadan. For a month between sun up and sun down, no water, no food. Caddies pass out on the golf course or quit after nine holes. Some don’t fast and pretend to do so. Some fast quietly. Some swoon dramatically. For the ruling class this Muslim condition creates problems. The rhythm of the game is disrupted. And, at the end of Ramadan, there is Lebaron when they go on Mudik, a journey to the home town to celebrate for a week. We are expected to give extra money to one and all. There is a mass exodus as the cities empty themselves of people. Countless families climb on motorbikes and travel as far as four-hundred miles that way- two adults and two kids on a 100 cc Honda! It’s the biggest holiday of the year. All of a sudden it is very quiet. Six-hundred people died on the road going home to celebrate this year.

            I visited my old friend and college roommate, Mark, and his wife Nicole in Jakarta. She is French and he, American, from Massachusetts. They are permanent expats living a very refined and luxurious life in Jakarta. Every morning begins with fine espresso coffee, and sprouts perched on perfectly poached eggs along with some cereal and yoghurt. The two cooks have been trained to a fine degree of excellence, following instructions and producing the requisite dishes that are organic, fresh, tasty and healthful. Three times a week a personal trainer shows up punctually to help them move their bodies in unnatural and painful ways to create stiffness in soft places and strength where weakness once ruled. After that, they go their separate ways for a while- she to the pool for a mile swim and he to the golf course in pursuit of a lower handicap. Then there is a sumptuous but low caloric lunch and maybe some movies and some attention to clients mixed into the day since they are both head shrinkers and life coaches in different ways. Certainly their life is a refinement of the life available to the wealthy in this part of the world. Their staff totals five which is not so many since I think they had about twelve in Nepal. Other than the kitchen and house team, Kareem and Marney, there is a driver named Bhari and two guards on the gate- one for day and one for night. They all make life easier in different ways. For example, in this part of the world one never picks anything up. If something needs to be picked up one just stares at it for a while and soon a person will pick it up. A jerk of the head in the direction of the object’s destination usually suffices and saves the energy of having to raise one’s arm to point. It is remarkable how quickly one adapts to this style of life.

            Although I have had some experience with privilege at different times in my life I chose to learn to work, having romantic notions about the value of that, of being able to fix things instead of calling an “expert” as my mother used to refer to anyone who had an ad in the yellow pages, anyone who knew how to do any manual labor. And I did learn and truthfully gained a lot of satisfaction from it. I learned carpentry, furniture making, electricity, and plumbing and even had a cabinet and furniture manufacturing business for ten years. I worked as a contractor, did the electrical on two houses, built and renovated four or five houses- the whole megilla. Why then, when I came back from a recent trip and found that my electric power was off in my house, did I immediately and frantically call  people – experts- to rescue me? God love them, they came flying over on motorbikes, fraught with panic lest “Boss” be inconvenienced even a minute more. Looking around, they went to the main switch just by the front door in perfect sight and flicked it on. Experts can do these things! I would like to say I didn’t know about that switch but I did know. When “experts” are around, however, it is easy to forget!

            Back in Jakarta with my friends in the middle of their sumptuous life I begin to hear anxious tones and whispers. The kitchen staff will be leaving for mudik, the exodus to the villages for Lebaron the end of Ramadan. For the last three days of my visit we will be on our own without servants. This is serious! I suggest we just check into a hotel for a few days. They like this idea but can’t do it because of obligations to clients looking to them as “experts” to fix their struggles with the human condition. And, of course, everyone else has the same idea so the hotels are booked solid! So we talk and decide that somehow we will “tough it out”. The time approaches. We shop for provisions. Kareem and his wife leave. Life careens downhill. Who is going to cook? Mark volunteers and manages the soft boiled eggs and sprouts for breakfast. Some leftovers for lunch suffice. Not bad. At dinner he decides on a fine meal of salmon and special greens and some other good things. His standards are very high so a meal like this requires a staff- me! I chop and chop and chop!  Nicole pokes a head in the door and says before quickly leaving “You know I like good food but I don’t want to spend all this time on it. I just want to eat it. I am fine with chocolate and cheese and some bread.”

            In fact the meal does take quite a bit of work and produces more dishes than I have ever seen. It is very good but quite late at night by the time it is consumed and then all those dishes!

“When is your kitchen help coming back?” I pleaded. “Maybe we can just throw all these dishes and stuff in the corner for a few days?”

“It’s too long,” Mark says. ”It will attract bugs and things.”

“Oh, “I say, taking a different tact, “Don’t you think they are sick of their village by now?” “Probably their relatives are pestering them for money.” “Can we call them? Probably they miss being here. It’s got to be much nicer here than at a hut in their village!”

Mark says, “We’ll just have to do the best we can. I did the cooking so I would like to be relieved from the dishwashing.”

“Oh, oh,” I am thinking to myself. So I say, “I am not good at dishes. Francine would never let me wash them because when I do they come out dirtier than before.” Nicole had already rewashed something I had tried to wash earlier in the day so I had some credibility.

Nicole says, sighing, “Ok, I will wash them if you dry them and put them away”.

I counter, not giving up,” Listen you know they are missing us very much and wondering how we are getting along without them. How about a helicopter?  Will they take a credit card? ”

Nicole says, “You can’t get a helicopter at this time of year. Everybody wants a helicopter. I say, “Can the pool guy be trained to cook? How about the garbage guy? Maybe he could work up the food chain  …”

            A day earlier Mark had asked me to paint one of the walls in the house- a big mural of a traditional Indonesian village.  I am an art teacher and a landscape painter.

“It doesn’t have to be too good” He said. “ It’s going to be background for some photography I want to do celebrating village life. ”

“No sweat, Bubbie” I said. “I am happy to help you to promote the native culture living close to mother earth!”

            While Nicole and I struggle with the aftermath of the sumptuous salmon dinner he prepared I happen to hear him talking on Skype using his laptop in the room with the painting on the wall. He is talking to his ex-wife, someone I know well since we went to college together and I was the best man at that wedding. They had recently made contact and were interested in resolving some difficulties needing attention after about 40 years. What’s more, she’s one of the founders of the voluntary simplicity movement and quite famous in that- Opera guest, author etc. So while I am drying the multitude if dishes one at a time I poke my head in and listen and understand that what she is seeing on Skype is Mark,  now out of his silk pajamas and stripped down to a T shirt and shorts, with an Indonesian village in the background.

            “Oh yes Vicky” I hear him say,” we have simplified our life and reduced our carbon footprint to help our mother earth. We even make our own toothpicks from trees that have died of natural causes. In place of toilet paper we use the leaf of the Po Po plant just after the seeds have dropped. We use no Po Po before it’s time!”

I am liking this all very much. “Wow” I muse, “This guy can think on his feet!”

Back in the kitchen, Nicole is repeating, just audibly, “Just give me some chocolate and bread. My hands will stink for weeks from these rubber gloves! Merde!”

Mark finishes his call and checks on the progress here in the kitchen.

“By the way,” I mention, “what are we going to do about laundry? I didn’t bring that much spare clothing! ” Normally you throw your dirty stuff in some designated spot in the room and the next day Marney has it all ironed and back in the closet or on the shelf the way God intended it. But now??

“I don’t know,” says Mark who has lived in the house for 6 years. “I don’t know where they keep the washing machine. Is there a washing machine? ”

Ricker Winsor

Denpasar, Bali

www.rickerwinsor.com

From Pakuwon City, Letters from the East 

Mud Flat Press