The Jakarta Post - JPlus - - Short Story -

LIV­ING IN A BOARD­ING HOUSE is not al­ways fun. Yes, it brings a num­ber of ad­ven­tures you can’t buy, in­clud­ing hav­ing to take a bath with bot­tled min­eral wa­ter when the board­ing house’s wa­ter pump is bro­ken ( be­cause the su­per­in­ten­dent was not there to help us fix it). Some­times, I also have ac­cess to ex­cit­ing real-life drama of adul­tery and ca­sual in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships (my board­ing house is uni­sex) sim­ply by leav­ing my bed­room door ajar.

But be­ing a spoiled brat who grew up in a com­fort­able 1,000-square-me­ter house with fam­ily mem­bers who looked af­ter me, hav­ing to squeeze my­self into a threeby-three bed­room is quite an or­deal in it­self — not to men­tion the fact that in this place, anonymity is the only ac­cept­able so­cial cur­rency. In short, no one gives a damn about whether you’re happy or sad, dead or alive. Be­cause of this, I of­ten feel lonely and un­com­fort­able. I of­ten de­test hav­ing to come straight to my shoe­box af­ter work, de­spite how tired I feel from com­plet­ing my daily tasks.

These past few days, how­ever, I can’t wait to get back to my lit­tle shoe­box straight from the of­fice. I have started read­ing a clas­sic Amer­i­can novel called Stoner by John Wil­liams. Be­ing frus­trated af­ter spend­ing few months of read­ing a num­ber of lack­lus­ter lit­er­ary works, I fi­nally dis­cov­ered a novel that is so pow­er­ful it sucked me into its own black hole of a story.

Its cen­tral premise re­volves around an English lit­er­a­ture aca­demic called Stoner who, de­spite the mis­for­tunes that be­fall him, at­tempts to be a good per­son and find hap­pi­ness in both his pro­fes­sional and per­sonal life. He, un­for­tu­nately, can­not seem to find the hap­pi­ness that he wants. His cruel wife, who sub­se­quently uses their daugh­ter to make him suf­fer, treats him coldly; his ca­reer path isn’t as good as it seems and when he does find true love at the age of 40-some­thing, he doesn’t have the courage to end his mar­riage and pur­sue what he truly de­sires (this book was writ­ten in the early 20th cen­tury, though, a time when the dis­so­lu­tion of a mar­riage was con­sid­ered a shame­ful fail­ure). Life is what hap­pens to you while you’re

busy mak­ing other plans, so went the song John Len­non wrote for his son, Ju­lian, in “Beau­ti­ful Boy”. That’s very true. While Stoner never planned to be­come an aca­demic and ini­tially wanted to work in his par­ents’ farm, I used to want to be an aca­demic. I knew this to be true dur­ing my first days at univer­sity, nine years ago. When I grad­u­ated in 2010, un­for­tu­nately, the cam­pus shifted its pol­icy: in­stead of hir­ing aca­demics with bach­e­lor’s de­grees and send­ing them to post­grad­u­ate cour­ses, they wanted peo­ple who al­ready had mas­ter’s de­grees in­stead.

I didn’t have money to con­tinue my stud­ies at the time and since I didn’t have a plan B, I was con­fused as to what vo­ca­tion I should take. So I be­came an as­sis­tant lec­turer and re­searcher for quite a while, be­cause I thought re­search would be a good field for me. I got a taste for it and dis­agreed with the rigid cor­po­rate life. I left af­ter two months. Then I taught In­done­sian lit­er­a­ture and psy­chol­ogy for grade 11 and 12 stu­dents at Gandhi Memo­rial In­ter­na­tional School. I was happy and stayed there for a year and a half, but then, in an im­pul­sive de­ci­sion upon dis­cov­er­ing a job va­cancy at The

Jakarta Post, I de­cided to be­come a jour­nal­ist. This vo­ca­tion seemed to agree quite nicely with me and, nearly four years later, I’m still here. As the years went past, I be­gan to love what I do im­mensely.

I spent al­most two years look­ing for the right fit be­fore I fi­nally got the job I re­ally love. It doesn’t al­ways work that way for ev­ery­body, though. My friend’s fa­ther, for ex­am­ple, al­ready knew the job he wanted at the ten­der age of 10. He has been work­ing hard to pur­sue that am­bi­tion. He was en­rolled at the right school, got his first job at the age of 18 and re­mained faith­ful at his job for al­most 40 years. He did a great job and ex­panded to other re­lated fields as well.

His high in­tel­li­gence and unchecked self-con­fi­dence, how­ever, can col­lide and morph into ar­ro­gance some­times. A few years ago, dur­ing a din­ner party with his glitzy and suc­cess­ful friends, des­per­ate to charm them, I fool­ishly told them of my spo­radic work ex­pe­ri­ences. Then he, the Al­pha Male of them all, mocked me: “Wow, am-aaa-zing, how many types of work have you d-ooone?” The re­mark was greeted by laugh­ter at the din­ner ta­ble. Thin-skinned and in­se­cure as I was at that time, I felt fu­ri­ous and em­bar­rassed by the dis­play of mock­ery. I had be­come a joke at the din­ner ta­ble.

This was why, when I in­ter­viewed an ahli mi­nat bakat, or a psy­chol­o­gist spe­cial­iz­ing in guid­ing chil­dren’s vo­ca­tion ac­cord­ing to their tal­ents and in­ter­ests for an ed­u­ca­tional ad­ver­to­rial a year ago, I went into a dis­cus­sion with my edi­tor, which then be­came a curhat

co­lon­gan (heart-to-heart) mo­ment. “It’s amaz­ing when one al­ready knows what he wants to do at the age of 10. I can’t do that. I spent too much time find­ing the right job, not hav­ing a plan B, wast­ing so many years of my life. Had I started ear­lier at jour­nal­ism, I’d prob­a­bly have been more suc­cess­ful at this job now,” I told him, re­fer­ring to my friend’s cool Dad.

“Yeah, but know­ing what you want at the age of 10 and hav­ing a life­long ob­ses­sion for it may also be a dou­bleedged sword. Your friend’s fa­ther was lucky; his was a rare case. But what if you can’t achieve your am­bi­tion? You’ll be crushed,” he replied.

Then he told me to look around: “How many peo­ple ended up where they thought they were go­ing to be?”

He’s right. My col­leagues at the Post have di­verse ca­reer back­grounds: some start­ing out as fac­tory su­per­vi­sors, bank cus­tomer ser­vice of­fi­cers, nurses, teach­ers, priests, etc. be­fore swerv­ing into the me­dia in­dus­try. This di­ver­sity in pro­fes­sional and ed­u­ca­tional back­grounds is what makes jour­nal­ism a fas­ci­nat­ing world. My edi­tor then in­structed me to for­get my friend’s fa­ther guf­faw over my in­abil­ity to make up my mind.

What Stoner, my own life ex­pe­ri­ences and the ex­pe­ri­ences of those around me have taught me is this: we don’t al­ways have Plan B or Plan C ready in our pock­ets and it’s OK to take de­tours. Like what my friend Ira Wu­lan­dari tells me all the time: hu­man des­tiny is never lin­ear.


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