Saturday, August 14, 2004

Football and Driving

Football and Driving

After a very tiring week here in Jakarta, I have one day to rest and enjoy Liverpool's first match of the new EPL season. I am not sad about Michael Owen's departure to Real Madrid because I think part of Liverpool's dismal form for the past two season has been due to the fact that the game they play relied too much on him, which in the long run is not healthy for the team. Owen's playing style has also become a bit too predictable for defenders--which was why he didn't make much of an impact in Euro 2004.

To me, a Cisse-Baros partnership is a much more refreshing and exciting one than the Owen-Heskey pairing that we've been so used to in the past. Milan Baros has been a Kop favourite for the past two seasons, but he wasn't given much of a chance by Houllier who somehow thought he wasn't ready yet. Freed finally from an Owen-centric style of play, let's hope the new manager Benitez will have the freedom to bring refreshing changes to Liverpool's game.

I am not as fanatical a football fan as I was when I was a teenager and I don't get a chance to play the game anymore. But while I was driving on the highway a couple of weeks ago in KL, the thought occured to me that my experience in playing football actually helped me a lot as a driver. How?

When you play as striker, you develop a very good positional sense--you are always very aware of where you are in relation to the defenders, the goalkeeper and the goalposts. You are always attempting to elude your opponent, by running into space, by being quicker in anticipating both the flight of the ball and the tackles that are flying in. A good striker instinctively develops a 360 degree view of his surrounding and is extremely alert of all movements.

Safe defensive driving means that you know where all the other cars are on the road in relation to yours--not only the car in front of you but also those behind and on the left and right of you. You know what is the right speed and distance to maintain to anticipate any unexpected movements. You are constantly vigilant, not only of your own driving but also of the other drivers' actions. You are able to predict what they will do and take avoidance action first. All that is computed in real-time instinctively.

These days I try to avoid driving whenever I could; unlike playing football, I don't find driving an enjoyable exercise. To me the thrill of scoring a goal is far greater than roaring down the highway on the Ultimate Driving Machine with a hot chick beside you.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Lessons from the Two Gunawans

Lessons from the Two Gunawans

I always learn something from the people I meet daily--friends, customers, casual acquaintances and even complete strangers. Last night I shared a bottle of wine with my old friend Gunawan at the hotel lounge and listened to him talk about marriage.

Gunawan has been a married man for almost two decades now and is blessed with three lovely children. But surprisingly, his view about marriage is completely negative: "Trust me...", he'd say with a seriousness that begs attention, "...marriage is a prison".

Instinctively, when anyone expresses such strong opinions, my sense of balance would prompt me to take the opposite side: "Isn't having a beautiful family and a loving wife all the happiness that a man could ever want?"

But Gunawan feels that the price to pay is too high. He thinks that most people marry for the wrong reasons--family pressure, desperation, fear of old age and loneliness. Being married still doesn't guarantee happiness; it is a never-ending struggle with your partner over petty things like money, image and power. Everyone is naturally selfish and it is often one's spouse that has to bear the brunt of one's true colours.

To me, at least outwardly, Gunawan seemed like a happy and successful family man but his views sounded rather extreme and are perhaps not representative of all married men. Furthermore I have seen many other happily married couples with lovely kids and I am inclined to believe that the institution of marriage is one that works, given that both parties are determined to learn and self-correct themselves along the way. But of course, being single myself, I am not speaking from experience. Things are often easier said than done.

Today, I met another Gunawan--this one is a taxi driver, who took me home from Daan Mogot back to my hotel in Kota. Being stuck in the jam with him for over an hour, I had a good chat with him. Gunawan hails from Madiun, in East Java. He has been working as a taxi driver in Jakarta for over ten years. And like my good friend Gunawan, he is also married with three kids. While my middleclass friend lives in a luxurious bungalow in Pondok Indah, this working class Gunawan lives in a shanty village near Bogor.

Gunawan tells me proudly that he owns the ramshackle house that he is living in now; it cost him 19 million rupiah (around 9,000 ringgit) and he bought it with a loan from BTN which he has to pay back in 15 years. As a taxi driver who works from 7am to 1am, 20 days a month, he takes home about 50,000 rupiah on a good day, about a million rupiah a month--less than 500 ringgit.

He told me that it is difficult having to support his three kids who are all schooling but they provide him with the motivation to work hard. I proceeded to ask him stupid questions like: Is being a taxi driver a very tiring job? His answer was interesting: "Only when you are not making money. When you have a good day with lots customers, you don't feel tired at all".

He expressed surprised when I told him that I'm still single. It was completely incomprehensible to him. Why? I was ready with my standard answer: "belum ketemu yang cocok".

He told me that married life is a great blessing for you always have someone to share your joys and sorrows with. No one can be happy being alone. (The night before, the middleclass Gunawan had told me: "Only when one is married does one really value the joy of being alone").

I greatly admired the positive attitude towards life shown by the taxi-driver Gunawan; I tipped him generously upon arrival at the hotel and he beamed widely in gratitude.

There's so much that one could learn just by listening to other people's views. I don't bother to judge or to force myself to come to any conclusion. In a span of 24 hours, I have met two Gunawans from two ends of the social scale--and the lessons they have given me are equally invaluable.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The 477-Year-Old Organism

The 477-Year-Old Organism

It took me more than an hour to reach Jalan Thamrin from my customer's place at Daan Mogot. The traffic can be very bad in Jakarta but when you are not driving yourself or not particularly in a hurry, it is quite alright. It gives you the chance to catch a few winks and also do some thinking. In Jakarta, you get to learn Javanese patience; and patience is a good virtue to cultivate.

Not having to drive actually makes one's life very different. You don't feel so exhausted at the end of the day and you actually save time by not having to search for parking. When you drive your own car, time is also wasted having to queue up to pay for your parking ticket; and don't forget time is also needed to walk from the parking lot--usually in some fume-choked basement--to your intended destination. Whenever we estimate the time it needs to get to a place, we normally do not factor these things in. We only estimate how much time it takes to drive from point A to point B: that's the time you'll take if you go by taxi--door to door--and not if you are driving yourself.

Of course, middle-class Jakartans have a way around that--they have their own chauffeurs. Poor folks like me take the public transport. The Busway in Jakarta has been a boon to me; I've been able to zip up and down Sudirman, Thamrin and Kota very easily using this much criticized public transportation system. I enjoy walking too--even though it can be quite a challenge in the polluted and crowded streets of Jakarta.

The bajajs--motorized three-wheelers--are also very convenient when you need to cover short distances. They are everywhere in Jakarta. Tourists are often advised to bargain with the driver on the fare but I noticed that this practice usually encourages the drivers to start with an unreasonably high asking price. Regulars don't bother with that--just pay them what you think is the reasonable fare. If you do it coolly enough like a local, they'll take it. Of course, the amount has to be reasonable.

Ojeks or motorcycle taxis, are another popular form of transport for the working class--even more popular than bajajs, because they can go anywhere. Microlets or angkots--Kijang cars converted into minibuses--are also ubiquitous and cheap. Besides that, there are the regular buses which are alright but one has to be careful of pickpockets and be willing to tolerate the irrritating pengamins. These street musicians will hop in from every other bus stop and attempt to serenade you through your entire journey with bad renditions of Dewa songs.

Every morning Jakartans come out from their homes--the working class from the outer fringes of the city like Bekasi and Tangerang, the well-heeled from their posh homes in Menteng or Pondok Indah, the Chinese middleclass from their housing complexes of West Jakarta--to participate in this titanic struggle in the streets to get to their places of work. The population of Jakarta city swells up during the day and ebbs in the evening. It is fascinating to watch how the city goes through its daily pulsations; Jakarta is like a living organism and a very resilient one at that--having survived 477 years of wars, riots and natural disasters.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

The Dynamic Equilibrium of Love

The Dynamic Equilibrium of Love

I've mentioned in a previous blog entry how we are all creatures of connection. We yearn to connect to other people; that is why we always want to catch up with friends and also the reaon why we bother to read or watch the news. We want to know what's happenning in the world, we delight in the latest gossips.

As long as information continues flowing between us and the world and vice versa, we are contented. Someone who is permanently disconnected from the world, risks despression and even mental disorder. At the very least, we need to interact with people; even at a very superficial level. The advent of the Internet has provided more avenues for lonely people to connect. Internet chat-rooms are filled with some of the saddest and loneliest people in the world. But at least they are connecting.

Connection--be it physical or virtual--is stage one or "layer one", in geekspeak. Simple acquaintance. But people are usually not contented with that. They need additional "services" on top of this layer. They need care and attention. I'm not talking about love yet--that's layer number three. We want to care for friends and be cared for. People progress from layer one to layer two over time. We know we are in layer two when we belong to a close circle of friends or a clique. Members of a clique will not hesitate to help and support each other.

Layer two works well when there's balance--when everyone gives and takes. Problem arises when individual selfishness rears its ugly head. They are people who do not have a sense of balance or moderation. When they are used to getting something, they want more. They exploit friendship. They seek favour after favour and they end up being parasites. Over time, through their indiscretions, they end up eliminating themselves from their circle of friends.

Layer three is the most complicated one: Love. All families are by definition, layer three systems. Lovers sink and swim in this layer. Here you go beyond the caring and sharing of friendship; it is a stage where the simple accounting of give-and-take does not seem to apply anymore. One gives and gives, unselfishly. That's the ideal state. Everyone gives and does not think about returns. You do whatever it takes to provide for your loved ones and make them happy. That's true love, pure and unselfish. You will sacrifice your entire wealth to bail out your family and loved ones--something which you will never do for your friends. It is as if, your loved ones and you are one organism. If any harm comes to them, your suffering is as great as theirs. Lovers understand this feeling so well.

But imperfections can and does occur all the time in this layer. Why do you think lovers quarrel and families have arguments? It happens when members in a layer three system have not transcended the imperfections of individual selfishness. Sometimes we expect our loved ones to give, but they don't. Or we have been giving and giving all the time and suddenly realise that we haven't been receiving. We feel unloved, even short-changed. Some lovers think the onus is on the opposite party to give, and they, merely to receive. That's an unbalanced and selfish relationship. You see that all the time.

A woman thinks his man is not spending enough time with her. The man gets irritated that his woman does not understand how critical his work is to the well-being and survival of the family. He claims that he is doing it because of love. But to the woman, time and attention is love. Men would want to argue that the woman is unreasonable and not being understanding enough. But then again, the man could be driven by his personal ego and desire for success in his career. He wants to prove to himself and to his peers that he is capable of achieving. He fails to realise that material success may not be everything that the family wants; time and attention is also important. There could a hint of selfishness on both sides.

And because love is such an emotional thing, most of the time, it is difficult for lovers to see clearly whether they are behaving selfishly. You want your partner to behave in certain ways and when they don't, you get mad. How innocently childish we are when it comes to love!

Again, balance is the key. There's no perfect equation. Love is a process of finding that balance, that point of equilibrium where everything harmonizes. At best, it is a dynamic equilibrium--not a static one--requiring constant effort from both sides to maintain it.

Is it possible at all for lovers to even come close to that perfect balance and equilibrium? Well, like what I've expounded in a previous entry, it is a dialectic process that takes time. The important thing is for both parties to understand this and to commit to the process. There will be ups and downs along the way but you take it all in your stride. Then only can this quest for equilibrium become a wonderful journey of exploration for two souls, bound by a sacred bond which we call love.