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Rational Self-Defence

A Legacy


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) My regular readers probably know that I am, to all intents and purposes, a single father of a seven-year-old boy. As such, I spend virtually my entire waking life trying to make sure that my son has a safe and happy childhood. Under our unique circumstances, that proposition is even more challenging than it is for most parents. For one thing, I am 60 and JJ is 7; as well, I am fighting a 128cancer that keeps popping up in unexpected places; JJ also has a classic case of ADHD and is being assessed for placement on the autism spectrum; JJ is of a visible minority and as such is bully bait; our financial situation is precarious as a result of my having had to withdraw from the world of full employment for several years. and because of the over $250,000.00 I spent (mostly on bribes) to acquire the paperwork necessary to get him out of Indonesia and to confirm his status as my son. Nevertheless, my main concern every single day is that I am providing JJ with a good role model and a safe and happy life.

            All that having been said, I am starting to develop a counterintuitive hypothesis: that a happy childhood can have a negative impact on one’s adult life.

mental-health            Having offered that hypothesis, it’s only fair to state at the outset that I cannot claim to have had a particularly happy childhood. My mother was, for most of my childhood, an undiagnosed and untreated manic depressive, and my father, being a narcissist, was a  a control freak. I loved them both very much and acknowledge that they both heroically struggled with their mental illnesses, and that they did the very best they could as parents. I was their sole caregiver in their final years and watched them both succumb to Alzheimer’s; I was there when they each breathed their last. I learned during that stressful period just how tough their own lives had been. Nevertheless, my childhood was not exactly idyllic.

My soon-to-be ex-wife, Yolanda, on the other hand, had a very happy childhood. Her parents are extraordinarily kind people and devoted parents. She has two brothers and a sister who all love one another and consider each other to be their best friends. She was tropical-villagebrought up in a village in a tropical paradise where childhood activities included swimming in the Indian Ocean, a pristine beach being just a short walk from their home, playing in the clove and nutmeg orchards, coaxing monkeys to eat from their hands, and visiting extended family and neighbours who populated the village. Moreover, the Indonesian child rearing paradigm is extremely attentive to the desires and autonomy of children; their wishes and desires are taken into consideration in every decision that might have an impact on them.

But here’s the thing. Adults with memories of nothing but happy times and positive relationships when they were growing up seem to have no reason to question what they accepted as truth when they were children. For those people, lessons learned in lessonschildhood are eternal truths. What their parents did or said while bringing them up is rarely contested, as there is rarely a sense that they may have been less than perfect.

On the other hand, I have said many times, only half jokingly, that my surest guideline for parenting is to ask myself what my parents would have done in a similar situation, then do the exact opposite. Because, even from a very early age, I was aware that my parents were simply wrong about many things, I was never tempted to believe that simply because they asserted or believed something, it must be true. The result of that was that I was always sceptical when I was asked to accept something simply upon someone’s authority. I learned early on to look for evidence in support of claims. I learned to recognise that an expert’s opinion on a matter within his field is evidence but an uninformed and unsupported opinion is just that. I went so far as to major in and then to do graduate work in philosophy because it is founded upon critical thinking and rational analysis of propositions.

I contrast that with those people who had perfect childhoods and would never think of old-wives-talesrejecting their parents’ wisdom. Yolanda, for example, is convinced that the worst thing you can do if you have the flu or even a cold is to drink any cold or iced drink. Her parents taught her that and other Indonesian old wives’ tales as fact when she was a child. Why they did, or where that idea came from is a mystery to me, but it is unquestionably true to her. I often self-prescribe ice cold lemonade when I have a flu; my thinking is that I need liquids, the cold will keep my temperature down, and the vitamin C can’t hurt. Yolanda’s mum tells me that cold would be a shock to the afflicted throat. And that’s the end of it.

There are countless examples of other more or less harmless beliefs that Yolanda and her siblings accept unquestioningly; from their marvellously kind and decent parents, for instance, they learned that eating beer-and-duriandurian (my favourite fruit in the world) with beer is sure to kill you. Having consumed the two in great quantities on many occasions, I’m happy to report that it’s all bullshit. The problem is that some of the well-meant but utterly false notions that children pick up from their parents are not entirely harmless. And the inclination to accept those notions isn’t balanced by any inclination to apply critical thinking to them.

In Indonesia, everyone has a religion; 90% of the people are Muslims and the majority of the rest are Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus. If an Indonesian were to ask you what your religion is, answering that religious_map_of_indonesiayou have none would make no sense. It would be like telling them you have no name, or that you were not born anywhere; one’s religion is a defining characteristic of every person. Consequently, people from wonderful childhoods generally accept their parents’ religion completely uncritically. And that acceptance of the religious beliefs of good parents is not only an Indonesian phenomenon; most people here in the West who claim to have a religion, have the religion of their parents. And among those who share their parents’ religion and feel comfortable enough with it not to spend a lot of time agonising over their faith, my observation is that most will cop to having had great childhoods and to having great respect for their parents.

There are lots of things I would like my son to accept unquestioningly. I’d like him to believe, for one-raceexample, that violence is wrong, that being kind to others should be at the very foundation of his character, that there is only one race, the human race, and all members should be accorded the same respect, that knowledge, understanding, and curiosity are preferable to ignorance and intellectual complacency. However, most of all, I want him to learn to apply critical thinking skills to anything he is asked to accept as dogma.

It seems to me that the things I want him to weave into the fabric of his personality, the decency, kindness, and tolerance, are more attitudes than factual propositions; they can be modelled rather than taught. I therefore have the responsibility of living my life with those ideals in mind, and I must be in a position to articulate them without hypocrisy if their suitability as values ever needs to be discussed. But critical thinking can be taught.

conspiracy-theoristsI need to teach JJ to respect people even if he can’t accept their beliefs. He doesn’t need to respect erroneous claims of fact, but he has to understand that people have a right to be wrong. I also need to ensure that, if people try to proselytise some crackpot notion like young earth creationism, or a denial of anthropogenic climate change, or chemtrails, or Barrack Obama’s Kenyan citizenship, he has the critical skills to see through the bullshit. He needs to know that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, not just extraordinary conviction.

In short, I’m hoping that I can give JJ both a happy childhood and the intellectual ammunition even to dispute my claims when I am in error. And crucially, I want my son to have the intellectual firepower trump-fibscombined with the strength of character to survive in a post-truth world in the event that Donald Trump’s message of evil and hatred prevails this November. Since Donald Trump announced his intention of running for the presidency, truth, facts, reason, and human decency have been under assault; everyone is going to need the skills of intellectual self-defence. Being able to separate the truth from hyperbolic fact-free statements will be more important than it has ever been. I will not have the person I love the most in the world succumb to the coarsening and dumbing down that Trump spearheads.


Life With JJ

Thoughts About Fatherhood



(VANCOUVER ISLAND) My son JJ just graduated from Grade 1 and is now home for the summer.  I remember being that age, when the two months of summer school holidays stretched out in front of me like a nearly infinite time, and the idea of being able to do all those things that going to school precluded was intoxicating. Of course this was all in the first week, before boredom set in and moping around Summer Holiday Swithout direction or goals was all that seemed to be available. I didn’t have the Internet to babysit me for hours at a stretch and video games were still uninvented, but there was TV and there were books; nevertheless, the phrase “I’m bored!” became something of a mantra. Being his age is tough; a year or two more will make a big difference. When he’s just a little older, he’ll be independent enough to gather a group of friends and, as a group, find plenty of trouble to get into. But right now, with me being a single father, we are inseparable and he needs me or, in a pinch, another adult he knows, to be within view, or at least earshot.

JJ, after just one week of summer, has reached the point where he hangs around repeating his bored mantra. It may be even more difficult for him, because all he really grasps about what I do every day is that it doesn’t involve me getting suited up and heading to an office or worksite. As far as he knows, video_games_1while he’s at school, I do pretty much what he would do, given a lack of direction: spend the day online. Naturally, he fully expected to pull me away from the keyboard so I could spend the extra hours provided by summer vacation with him.

In the first week of the summer, I got him used to the idea that in the time between driving him to school at 7:30 am and meeting him at the school bus stop at 2:10 pm, I actually did stuff. He’s starting to grasp that in that small window, I manage to put out as much as 2500 words of finished copy; research, write, illustrate, and post up to 1500 words for; do the laundry, dishwashing, meal prep, and housecleaning; and deal with personal correspondence. He is wise enough to begin to grasp that all that stuff needs to get done despite the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer being upon us. Unfortunately, he also seems to think that my schedule should be reflected by him lying on the couch with his concentration fixed on his tablet watching video game reviews by an assortment of social outcasts, for the bulk of the day.

JJ bike 1JJ having just recently mastered the art of riding his bicycle without needing a steadying hand, I had assumed that we had created a sure-fire pastime for summer days. I hadn’t realised that my watching him ride is as important as him riding in the first place. Living in a very rural area, the friends he is used to seeing daily are scattered and are mostly miles away; just playing with them requires planning and working out the logistics. I’m tempted to be selfish and get some of his friends’ stay-at-home moms to take him on to hang out with her kids for several days of play dates, but the truth is, I can’t reciprocate and take several, or even one, of their kids and spend the day breaking up fights, keeping them out of danger, and feeding a variety of different tastes and appetites. Well, I probably could, but I just don’t think I’m equipped to handle it with the grace and fortitude I’ve seen their mothers demonstrate. So we struggle along, me encouraging him to do something active, him responding that he needs me to join him in the activity. My work suffers a bit, and I’ve adjusted my routine to work more at night in order to spend more of the day with him.

But the extra time I spend with him has made me think a lot about what I want for him in his life, and about what’s important, and what’s just about me wanting a surrogate. Because I love him with a fierce, profound, intensity – a kind of love that, before being a parent, I had no idea existed and would never have thought myself capable – I want him, above all, to be happy. And because my son is very special in his capacity for empathy, his sensitivity, and his inclination to love others, I worry that the world is going childcareto hurt him. Until now, I have protected him from the sharp corners and sharp elbows that are everywhere in this world. But that time is coming to an end; he needs to be prepared to meet the world on its own terms, a little more each day.

I want, as I said, above all, for JJ to be a happy child, and ultimately an adult with a sense of joy in his life. That’s hard for me to help him with because, as one who has suffered from bipolarity  (manic depression) all my life (although only recently conclusively diagnosed and, even more recently, treated and controlled), normal, healthy happiness isn’t something with which I am very familiar. I cannot intuitively relate to the healthy happiness of a well-adjusted child. My memories of my emotional states in childhood are garbled and morbid. But I most certainly know when my little boy is happy or sad or frustrated or angry; and with my relatively newfound emotional equilibrium, I am able to employ parenting strategies that seem to work. They work because JJ and I are so close that we hardly need verbal communication to understand one another.

I’ve given a great deal of thought to how I want JJ to grow up, and to what I’d like him to grow into. I’m not entirely sure of a great many things but there are some absolutes that I consider crucial and which I stress in all our interactions.

Above all, I want JJ to be a good man. I want him to be kind; I want him to consider, in everything he does, the impact his actions will have on others; I want him to be inclusive and accepting of others’ differences; I want him to commit random acts of kindness; I want him to go to bed every night and ask himself whether he has contributed to the net overall happiness in the universe. I want all that for JJ because it is morally the right thing to do; and on a pragmatic level, I know for certain that he will be change-the-worldhappier in general if he has a sense that he has done good things rather than bad.

I want JJ to be strong. I want him to know that real strength doesn’t consist in beating or dominating others but in conquering his own inclinations to do harm. I want him to have sufficient self-respect to be able to stand tall and refuse to be dominated by others; I want him to be prepared to be in a minority of one if those around him are wrong.

I want JJ to discover what he is good at and what he is passionate about. I want him to nurture that talent and that passion, and eventually develop a strategy to make a living doing it. But I also want him to be curious, to read or otherwise teach himself about everything that he might find interesting or intriguing; I want him to develop a lifelong habit of looking into things that arouse his interest. I want him to develop critical thinking skills so that he doesn’t fall victim to those who would attempt to persuade him of falsehoods. I want him to recognise that despite his love for humanity, there are people out there who spread lies, who sell hatred and intolerance; I want him to be intellectually and emotionally prepared to reject their views.

I want JJ to be a man of his word; I want him to believe in integrity and honesty in all his relationships from business to romantic. I want him to be loyal to his friends and always live up to his commitments to them. I want him to help his friends, and even strangers, to the very best of his ability and not expect reciprocation. I want him to realise that being in a position to do something kind and helpful for NoActOfKindnessIsEverWastedsomeone is a privilege. I want him to recognise that the smallest gesture or act of kindness can have profound and unforeseen positive consequences.

I want all those things for JJ because I genuinely believe that if he can embrace those things as essential aspects of his adult character, he will be a happier person, a person who will have few regrets and who will be able to look himself in the mirror and be comfortable. I want those things for my son because I don’t believe that human interaction is a zero-sum game. On the contrary; every one of us has the capacity and the power to improve the world in a small way, every day we breathe of the atmosphere we all share.


Job Actions and a little thinking

Solidarity, cuz the union keeps us strong

VANCOUVER ISLAND BC – Today is supposed to be JJ’s first day of kindergarten.

I have been eagerly anticipating the day after Labour Day for several reasons. JJ has spent the first half of the summer commuting with me to the Cancer Centre in Victoria for my daily radiation treatments, and the second half hanging around the house, spending far too much time playing electronic games and surfing the kids’ areas on the Internet while I recover. Today was supposed to be the day that all comes to an end. New friends, lots of socialised activity, and the beginning of his journey through academia.

It was supposed to be something of a new beginning for me as well. Not having been well enough to work for about a year now, my cancer journey has arrived at a point where we know there is some microscopic malignancy somewhere, but we must wait and watch until it is detectable. I am feeling the return of some minimal quotient of energy, so I was looking forward to sitting down at the keyboard and pounding out a few articles to send to my most reliable editors, to outline a new book, and to have a few hours every day during which I am not immediately responsible for a very curious and active five-year-old.

It was not to be, however; the British Columbia teachers union is on strike and the government has locked them out.cupe

This presents a bit of a challenge to me, both in practical terms (what to do about JJ) and in intellectual terms (I am and always have been a union supporter). The practical aspects are only logistical issues and not very interesting…I can work around them. The intellectual aspects are the ones that have me at the keyboard while JJ is watching SpongeBob Squarepants.

I have always maintained that to be as objective as possible in a contentious issue, it is best if proponents of either side of the dispute have no personal stake in it. Objectivity is best obtained if the commentators ain’t got a dog in the fight. However, in the absence of an arm’s length objectivity, disclosure is the next best way for a commentator to start. In this instance, I have a dog in the fight. So there you have it. In labour disputes, my default position is pro organised labour. And I have a little boy who is sad because he can’t start kindergarten as promised all summer. In this instance however, I am inclined to fault the teachers’ union to some degree.

The management–labour relationship is best seen as a straightforward buyer–seller relationship. Management is buying and labour is selling labour. A strike is nothing more than the seller refusing to sell his commodity, labour, at a price management wants to pay. By withholding labour, the seller causes financial harm to management by ensuring that the product being manufactured by labour and sold for management’s profit is unavailable; labour stops making widgets and management has no widgets to sell. Management suffers a financial loss (as does labour) and he who blinks first loses and a new contract is signed and business resumes as usual.

That nutshell description of the archetypal labour dispute is all well and good and my Marxist economics professor would be proud that I grasped it so clearly. It doesn’t however cover the teacher’s strike now closing schools in British Columbia.

The problem is that management is, in this case, government. And government has no widgets to sell so there is no financial damage being done to management by the teachers withholding their labour. On the contrary, the strike is a bit of a windfall; there will be no disbursements from the education budget until the teachers blink and go back to work. In fact, such a savings is the government experiencing that it is buying support from the public by offering to pay the parents $40.00 per day per child for as long as they are affected by the strike.

This, while welcome to a parent like me, is a blatant ploy to curry favour with the public. The forty dollars will pay for some daycare for the children who have no school to attend, thus easing a bit of the burden for parents who have work to go to. Meanwhile the teachers are doing their level best to recruit parents to join their job action and to write letters to editors and members of the legislature. The tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of the parents is a sure indicator that this job action hasn’t got any body by the balls – except maybe the teachers themselves, since their strike fund won’t last for much longer.

This whole notion of a strike has the idea of job actions skewed. The withholding of labour is supposed to be felt by the people who control the purse strings, not the customers. Particularly if you’re trying to get the customers to support your action.

A far more effective job action on the part of the teachers would have been not to strike in the classic picket line and cardboard sign manner, but rather to approach the situation with a little recognition of the parts the various stakeholders have to play. Perhaps the teachers could have stayed on the job (and payroll) but just give the students free time all day. Send them off to the playground, to the library or gym. They could sit at their desks reading, colouring, drawing, or texting their friends. This would inevitably result in a lockout and the teachers would be the victims and not the aggressors; an ideal spot to be in when binding arbitration is brought in. The parents would be considerably more sympathetic as the kids would still be at school during the work day and the parents would endure considerably less upheaval.

As it stands, the teachers are striking primarily for smaller class sizes and additional help for special needs children. And yet the strike is causing massive inconvenience to their natural allies in the dispute: the parents. Ironically, the real villain in the piece, is the government that denigrates the importance of education and that squanders money on one boondoggle after another. Nevertheless, believing the parents (voters) to be on their side, that government remains tightfisted when it comes to our most important resource – our children – and are winning the hearts and minds of the poor beleaguered parents.
So, teachers, I’m with you. I won’t cross your picket line, and I’ll even stand with a picket out of solidarity. But, hey. You’re smart guys and girls, aren’t you? Try to think job actions through before you walk off next time, will you?


Always look on the bright side of life…


Some things in life are bad
 They can really make you mad
 Other things just make you swear and curse
 When you're chewing on life's gristle
 Don't grumble, give a whistle
 And this'll help things turn out for the best...
...always look on the bright side
 of life...
Always look on the light side
 of life...
If life seems jolly rotten
 There's something you've forgotten
 And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing
 When you're feeling in the dumps
 Don't be silly chumps
 Just purse your lips and whistle
 - that's the thing.
 And...always look on the bright
 side of life...
Come on.
Always look on the right side
 of life...
For life is quite absurd
 And death's the final word
 You must always face the curtain
 with a bow
 Forget about your sin - give the
 audience a grin
 Enjoy it - it's your last chance
So always look on the bright side
 of death...
a-Just before you draw your terminal breath...
Life's a piece of shit, when you look at it
 Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
 You'll see its all a show, keep 'em laughin as you go
 Just remember that the last laugh is on you
 Always look on the bright side
 of life...
Always look on the right side
 of life...
C'mon Brian, cheer up
Always look on the bright side
 of life...
Always look on the bright side
 of life...
Worse things happen at sea you know.
I mean - what have you got to lose?
 You know, you come from nothing
 - you're going back to nothing.
 What have you lost? Nothing.
Always look on the right side
 (I mean) of life...
what have you got to lose?
 You know, you come from nothing
 - you're going back to nothing.
 What have you lost?
Always (Nothing.) look on the right side of life...
Nothing will come from nothing ya know what they say?
 Cheer up ya old bugga c'mon give us a grin!
 There ya go, see!
Always look on the right side of life...
 (Cheer up ya old bugga c'mon give us a grin! At same time)
There ya go, see!

(Eric Idle)

VANCOUVER ISLAND – Continuing my project of focussing on the 10% of things excluded by the Pagun Principle , I want to talk about an extraordinary day my family spent with an extraordinary man in an extraordinary place.

The man to whom I referred is Bruce, one of the volunteer drivers for Wheels for Wellness, the organisation I mentioned in my last article. Not only does Bruce volunteer his time and energy to drive people with serious illnesses to distant medical appointments, but he works with his local community on a host of environmental preservation and rehabilitation projects, and he does all this while he is on a disability pension for a life threatening condition he endures daily.

The place to which I referred is Campbell River, British Columbia, a town about forty-five minutes up island from our Errington home.

The reason the day we spent there was extraordinary goes back to my last day of commuting with JJ to Victoria for my radiation treatments. The last radiation appointment, I discovered, is treated by everyone from Cancer Centre staff and doctors to volunteers; it’s called graduation day and everyone celebrates. In my case, Bruce was driving us back to Errington and asked if we liked to fish. I said that sure we did, but I haven’t had a rod in my hand for years and JJ has never even tried to fish…he likes the idea in principle only. Bruce said he’d call us if we’d like to go fishing with him in Campbell River and he’d take care of all the details; just bring our bodies and he’d provide all the equipment and take us to the best spots. Gee, that would be wonderful, we told him, and promptly filed the invitation under “Generous and Kind Offers that are Quickly Forgotten”.

To some surprise on our part, Bruce arrived at our door early one morning the following week. He was driving a Wheels for Wellness van and had one patient/passenger riding shotgun. Turns out that he had misplaced my phone number and had wanted to set up our fishing date, so he dropped by on his way to Victoria the first time he had to pick someone up anywhere near our somewhat isolated home. He even brought donuts to make up for the “inconvenience(!?)”

That night we talked on the phone and set up a date; he offered to come and pick us up, but we assured him that I was up to driving. A few days later Yolanda, JJ and I packed up some food for everyone, a cooler full of beer and extra clothes for JJ and we headed for Campbell River.

When we arrived at Bruce’s house on a beautiful sunny full acre in the hinterlands of the Salmon Capital of the world, he was waiting for us. He had put together several rod and reel combinations including both spin casting and fly rods and one especially easy to use set for JJ. After meeting his delightful wife, Heidi, we were off to check out his favourite fishing spots.


JJ giving me a few pointers

We settled on a spot on Campbell River where the pink salmon were running. These fish were returning from their sojourn in the ocean and were on their final journey up the river where they were born to spawn and then to die, replacing the nutrients in the stream with their own decaying bodies. As anglers we were there to take advantage of the mass final migration of these 5-8 pound pinks. Bruce hadn’t led us astray. We’d get a hit on virtually every cast and pretty soon we were landing some of these feisty and determined fish.

What we hadn’t anticipated though, was JJ’s reaction. I knew he was sensitive and very soft hearted; we had seen a deer hit by a car on the highway to Victoria and he had been inconsolable. For hours he had cried and kept asking if a doctor would fix him up. But Wednesday’s reaction was unexpected. He was as thrilled as any five year-old have been when Bruce first hooked a seven pound fish. He was dancing with eager anticipation as Bruce fought and reeled in the salmon. He was rapt while Bruce pulled the hook on the landed fish. But when Bruce went to bop his catch on the head to kill it, JJ freaked out.

Apparently he hadn’t connected the dots. That the fish needed to die in order to be cooked and eaten was something he hadn’t considered. He cried and cried that the fish couldn’t go back to its family and that its mother would miss him; he saw me and Bruce as brutal savages and wouldn’t speak to us even between sobs. He expressed his angered protest in a way that made perfectly good sense to him.133 He got naked and refused to wear clothes until we stopped fishing.

Bruce, however had the situation covered. We went back to the car and drove on the backroads that lead to the fish hatchery. Bruce then explained simply and patiently to JJ that every fish that was born in this hatchery spends several years in the ocean and then makes a trip upstream on the river of their birth and then spawns and dies. He explained that every one of the countless fish we could see from the shore of the river just below the hatchery was destined to die in the next few days and, in fact, there is a danger of over-spawning. Sport fishing, he explained, was necessary to maintain the balance of nature; that these fish had been hatched specifically to be caught and eaten.

Big Bruce and Little JJ

Big Bruce and Little JJ

The upshot was that we ended up with two beautiful pinks that we took home and cleaned. We ate one that night and the other one is in the freezer waiting for the right occasion. JJ was happy, Yolanda and I were happy and we had a great day that ended with us having a new friend.

I’m afraid I’m getting a little sunny in my last few pieces. Let me assure you that I am not turning into some 21st Century Dale Carnegie. I still see the flaws, faults, and failures of our species and they appal me just as much as they always have. I am seeing things this way at this time simply because, with the deaths of my parents, the various medical problems I’ve encountered, financial setbacks, and all the other slings and arrows, I need to focus on some positive things. And with people like Bruce, places like Campbell River, and an absolutely remarkable son like JJ, seeing the 10% of things that are not crap is all too easy.

Gun control: the ultimate no-brainer

Happiness is a warm gun


VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – The United States Supreme Court has affirmed the right of citizens to bear arms. Although proponents of an armed citizenry feel that such a decision brings an end to the discussion of gun control, there are a few things that need to be noted. Firstly, the second amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, but is not absolutely clear as to how that expressed right should be implemented. The phrase in question reads as follows:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. 

Gun control advocates have frequently argued that this should be interpreted to mean that a country should have a standing army to defend the state. The counter-argument was that the framers of the constitution meant that the people themselves should have the right to be armed. The Supreme Court apparently bought the counter-argument despite the “well regulated militia” phrase, so that’s the end of the battle over the constitutionality of the right of a US citizen to have firearms.

Supreme Court: Empty Chamber?

The second point though, is that the Supreme Court doesn’t determine whether that right should exist; it determines whether the right does exist. That determination means that if there existed sufficient public support, and political courage in the country’s leadership, a constitutional amendment could address the epidemic of gun ownership in the most heavily armed civilian population in the history of the world.

But the third, and perhaps most important point is this: no right, constitutionally guaranteed and protected or not, is absolute.

Freedom to bear arms, despite the protestations of the NRA, is no more absolute than any other right protected under the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Free speech certainly isn’t absolute; there are libel and slander restrictions, restrictions on disseminating classified information, making false emergency calls, uttering threats, and dozens of other limitations to where and when the right to free speech may be exercised. The right to life? There are more inmates on death rows in the US than any other country on earth. The right to liberty? The United States has a higher number of its citizens in prison, mostly for non-violent crimes, than any other country on Earth. Virtually every criminal law ever enacted can be construed as a limitation on somebody’s right to the pursuit of happiness, the third in that sacred trinity of guaranteed rights. It follows then, that reasonable limitations could be placed on the right to bear arms, without requiring a constitutional amendment.

The NRA’s rhetoric that the constitution assures them that there ought to be no restrictions, limitations, or even controls exercised over the Second Amendment right to bear arms is nonsense. 

The justification for placing limits on acknowledged rights is invariably the harm to others that can result from the unfettered exercise of those rights. The exercise of free speech, for example, can have a negative impact on the feelings and finances of others. Since finances and feelings are acknowledged to be important, libel, slander, and defamation laws are in place to restrict citizens from exercising their free speech when it can affect them negatively. The right to life, arguably the most fundamental right of all, can even be curtailed if it in some way is seen to benefit society for that right to be taken away from someone. A military draftee can be ordered into combat at the risk of losing that life, if it is deemed to be better for society as a whole. One is said to have forfeited one’s right to life in death penalty states if convicted of a capital crime. All of these justifications for limiting, restricting, or even removing a constitutionally protected right employ some version of the harm principle.

Are ya feeling lucky? Try to say your ABCs!

The paradox is that the most vocal supporters of society’s license to suspend even the right to life tend to be the people who most adamantly oppose any limitations on the right to bear arms. While a conservative hardliner might passionately advocate for the death penalty – the deprivation of a fellow citizen of his right to live – he may very well advocate every bit as passionately for no restrictions whatsoever on his and his neighbours’ right to bear arms. That inconsistent application of the harm principal is at the centre of much of the mayhem that is the undercurrent to life in the most firearm obsessed country in the world.

Having established that placing limitations on legally protected rights is precedented and reasonable within the context of harm reduction, we have to consider just what restrictions on gun acquisition and ownership would be appropriate in the United States of America. To do that, it is perhaps fair to consider the specific claims of the most vocal opponents to gun control and try to come sort of accommodation.

The NRA objects to restrictions on firearms because they claim that would have an unfair impact on hunters or those who keep weapons for self-defence.  Fair enough. Say what you will about hunting, it is legal, and it is traditional in some areas. One can even argue that hunting ought to be done with bows and therefore guns are not necessary. Nevertheless, let us compromise even though every compromise increases the number of deaths by firearm that will occur. Let us accept that hunting rifles and shotguns ought to be permitted. Assault rifles, semiautomatic shotguns, high capacity magazines…none of these are necessary for hunting or self-defence. And surely a background check before one is permitted to buy a lethal weapon isn’t too onerous. A licence that assures the public that one has basic firearms safety training is clearly reasonable. A registry is not even a restriction on firearm ownership, so let’s have a long gun registry where each weapon has its ballistic fingerprint filed in a database available to law enforcement. What legitimate hunter or person intending to use a firearm only in self-defence could object to any of these steps?

Before people get (and I use the phrase advisedly) up in arms over licensing hunters and registering their weapons, let me point out that a firearm has only two purposes: to kill, and to practice to kill. We accept the licensing of cars and drivers, and automobile registration as necessary for public safety, and although cars can be lethal, killing is not their primary, much less their sole purpose for existence.

What remains to be seen is how the NRA is going to defend its radical position in the face of a nation grieving the deaths of twenty 6 and 7 year old children and their devoted caregivers murdered by use of  a semi-automatic assault rifle owned, among other semi-automatic military and police weapons, for no apparent reason by a single mom and proud member of the National Rifle Association. Self defence? Her arsenal didn’t do her much good, apparently.

And let us remember as well that, despite their marketing, the NRA is emphatically not an association formed to represent gun owners or enthusiasts. The NRA is purely and simply a lobbying group financed to represent the interests of the manufacturers of the weapons used to murder innocent civilians, including children in Columbine Colorado, Casa Adobe Arizona, Aurora Colorado, Virginia Tech Virginia, New Town Connecticut….



Christmas is coming

Starting fresh


VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – A phenomenon that I’ve noticed as people live longer is the disappearance of family traditions. That sounds counterintuitive, but it has to do with not having developed one’s own traditions if there are some already in place.

To take Christmas as an example, many young people have maintained as their Christmas traditions, those of their childhoods. I don’t mean they replicate a tradition that was handed down from previous generations, I mean they continue to go to their parent’s home for Christmas until they are adults, even after they are parents themselves; their traditions involve Mom cooking the turkey, Dad carving, and whatever idiosyncratic family quirks that define Christmas as they know it. When Grandma and Grandpa shuffle off this mortal coil, they are particularly bereft at the first Christmas they have to spend on their own; they are at a loss as to how to proceed, and their own kids only know the traditions that they absorbed from their grandparents.

I am becoming conscious of this as Yolanda, JJ, and I prepare for our first Christmas in Canada as a family. We won’t be able to celebrate the season in any traditional Indonesian manner. Goat sate, fiery barbequed fish, squid stew, shrimp fried rice, and pineapple coconut pudding just don’t come together quite as easily here; Black Peter doesn’t come around to terrify the kids into good pre-Christmas behaviour, as he does in Manado and Ambon; and I’m not going to have a Christmas morning Pina Colada under a palm Christmas tree while JJ swims with his cousins in the surf.

I hadn’t had Christmas with my parents in a very long time, having been abroad during the holidays for many years. But we’re here now and for the foreseeable future, so we have no applicable traditions to settle comfortably into. Here in Canada, we have no family, my parents having died before they could meet JJ, and Yolanda’s family can’t make it here this year, so we’re starting from scratch.

We are keenly aware that everything we do is the first step in establishing a new family tradition. Presents on Christmas Day when he gets up in the morning? Or Christmas Eve at midnight? Presents under the tree for days before? Or does Santa deliver them all while he sleeps? Decisions, decisions.

One thing that will certainly become our family tradition was first started when Yolanda and I were here caring for my father during his first Christmas without my mother, who had died in November. That year was Yolanda’s first Canadian Christmas and it was a sad one. My father was clearly dying, we had just lost my mother, we were temporarily but painfully separated from JJ who was still stuck in Indonesia, and we had few friends here as we spent every waking moment caring for my father and settling my mother’s affairs. However in December, we made a little excursion to a tree farm and selected a Douglas fir that was the right size and shape, cut it down, and brought it home. My father, who had been a forestry engineer in his twenties and still had those memories talked to Yolanda about conifers and their characteristics, how to distinguish spruce pine, fir, cedar, and other evergreens; this was all new and exotic for someone who was more familiar with evergreens like ebony, mango, palm, and mangrove trees. It is a bittersweet memory and one that will become part of our family’s heritage as we take JJ out to the same place to choose a Christmas tree.

Amanda, Jeff, and JJ’s 3 girlfriends’ house

Some neighbours have already started to put Christmas lights out and JJ was awestruck when he saw the first stage go on at sundown (which is around 4.30pm here in the Great Green North). We have gone out for walks and he runs around from house to house, laughing and pointing, and saying, “Wow!” or “Huge!” the latest additions to his burgeoning lexicon. He has no idea how elaborate the displays will become over the coming days.

JJ has also absorbed the true spirit of Christmas and recognises the annual rites as the yearly celebration of retail sales and ritual mercantilism. He has become fascinated with catalogues and sales flyers; he can sense, with preternatural accuracy, a publication that contains even a single advertisement for any of: Disney Pixar Cars; any Toy Story figure, but especially Buzz Lightyear; Hot Wheels and related accessories. Where he picked up the ploy of clutching his hands in prayerful supplication and ardently beseeching, “Pleeeeeease?” I have no idea.

Across the street, phase 1

He seems to have lost his terror of Santa Claus. In Jakarta, perhaps because of the shopping malls’ acne and halitosis-ridden skinny teenagers draped in malodourous threadbare Santa suits and posing for photos, he ran in horror and shrieked in genuine panic when he encountered any depiction of the jolly old elf. Now he appears to have accepted that, if he expects to be showered with gifts by Saint Nick, he had better learn to tolerate him. As pragmatic as only a three year-old can be, he is starting to demonstrate a mild fondness for Santa, which as Christmas approaches appears to be evolving into a genuine affection. I expect that by Christmas Eve it will have matured into a healthy idol worship.

Next door: more coming as the day gets closer

I’ve always hated Christmas; that’s no secret. I’m a devout atheist, so I have little affection for the way that the Christians have usurped a pagan solstice celebration, and now accuse non-Christians of having lost the “real meaning” of the holiday; I have no fondness for the worship of conspicuous mercantile overconsumption and nutritional overindulgence; and I find the forced and competitive joyfulness profoundly depressing. I despise the competitiveness that surrounds the gift giving and receiving; I want to blow chunks when I hear the traditional whining about the left “taking Christ out of Christmas” where he never belonged in the first place. I am deeply saddened by the spike in domestic violence and the surge in suicides that are intrinsic realities of the “festive” season.

On the other hand, I like the fact that families spend time together. I thoroughly enjoy giving

The first box of Xmas stuff comes out of storage

presents to my loved ones and watching them as they open their gifts. I like an excuse for a pre-breakfast cognac and eggnog. I like preparing a traditional turkey dinner and taking an afternoon nap while the bird is in the oven. I am happy at any attempts people make to open their hearts to the underprivileged people they ignore for the rest of the year.

So, for perhaps the first time in my adult life I am planning to enjoy Christmas rather than merely endure it. I’m explaining to JJ that at this time of the year we increase the quality and volume of the weekly donation we make to the local food bank; besides the cans of vegetables and packages of pasta, we give some cans of ham and mincemeat as well as some candy canes and chocolates; we’ll take him to buy some toys for the firefighter’s children’s charity. Yolanda will show me how to prepare at least one traditional Indonesian dish, and I’ll prepare a turkey and all the usual trimmings (no Brussels sprouts, though; they taste like boiled Sumo wrestler’s athletic supports). JJ will open presents and dig through his stocking, which will have been hung by the chimney with care; he’ll listen to Christmas songs and practice the English versions; Yolanda and I will have raw oysters and mimosas for breakfast, On Boxing Day we’ll have friends and neighbours over and drink mulled wine and eat canapés in front of the fire while the kids show one another what Santa brought them, and I’ll actually enjoy a time that I’ve never been able to process cheerfully.

It remains to be seen how this all plays out, but one way or another we’re consciously going to begin the process of creating holiday traditions that will be eagerly anticipated as Christmas approaches in years to come. I will be delighted if JJ absorbs the idea that this time of the year is a good time to reflect on the benefits he enjoys and think about how he can contribute to raising the happiness levels of other people; I don’t want him to experience the annual cynical bitterness and depression that I always associated with Christmas. I want to share with him an inclination to charity, benevolence, and kindness to strangers; since this is the time of year at which lip service is traditionally paid to those notions; it might be a good time to begin to help him make them a part of his life.

Peace and good will to all!


Life with JJ

You’ll never catch a fish if you do it that way…

Patrick Guntensperger

Parksville, British Columbia

Raising a toddler not only teaches parents more about their children, it teaches them about how they became the people they are. Taking care of JJ all day while Yolanda is at work has illuminated a great many things about myself; some things that I always assumed were innate or simply functions of the way I am come into focus and show me that they were, in fact, taught and learned.

 While Yolanda is at work, I stay at home to write when I can and to act as the primary caregiver for JJ between his three mornings per week pre-school schedule. So I clean the house, shop, prepare meals, and do the many things a three year old needs done for him: read him stories, give him baths, argue about whether he can go to the playground in the rain, change the staggeringly malodorous occasional mishap in his pull-ups, and chauffeur him and Yolanda to their various commitments. This arrangement, while it detracts from, even devastates, any possibility of concentrated writing, gives me an unparalleled opportunity to spend time with my son. He learns the basics from me; how to put his socks on, how to handle a spoon, how to pull my finger to produce a fart, how to tidy his room, and all the other vital life lessons. But what I hadn’t realised until I got into this endeavour is how much I would learn from him.

 As I watch JJ acquire knowledge and experience I am profoundly aware of the importance and impact of my input. When I hear him repeat out loud something he just heard me say five minutes earlier, when I hear him employing my expressions and even inflections in his burgeoning speech patterns, when I see him push the button to retract the convertible roof of the car – something he had seen me do only once – I am made aware of how much of our behaviour is learned from those who raise us. And that awareness is a reflection of what I’m learning from him.

 People are constantly telling me, indeed it seems to be common wisdom that one should live in the moment, that one ought to be process rather than goal oriented. In fact, it has only been in the last few years that I realised that there is a great deal of wisdom in that recommendation; it took getting married, having a child, and going through an extended nightmare to become repatriated and set up a home with my family to understand that, while it is necessary to keep a goal in mind, living in the here and now is the only way to maintain balance and any measure of happiness. Had I not made up my mind to reverse my lifetime habit of just focusing on the goal and ignoring the day-to-day, I would have cracked under the pressure of my three year battle to get my son recognised as such and to extricate him from Indonesia’s grasp. Instead, while maintaining my determination and pressing ever onward, I also determined that I would do my best to enjoy the time with my Indonesian family, hang out with my little boy in the swimming pool, travel around the archipelago a little bit, dine out frequently, and generally enjoy the charms of Indonesia that I had vowed I would never experience again.

 What’s interesting is that I had always thought that my goal-driven perspective was a part of my nature, was somehow hard-wired, and that my changing it was a personal struggle with my innate character. What I learned from JJ was that failing to appreciate the moment is learned behaviour and is actually contrary to our natures; as children, the moment is all we really know and we are deliberately taught to shift our focus to future goals.

 Imagine a typical scenario: a father teaching his little boy to fish. The little boy is about three or four years old and has never held a fishing pole before, but is excited about the idea of fishing, and thrilled to be doing it with Dad. Sitting on the dock, the little boy starts waving the rod around and likes the whooshing sound it makes and is fascinated by the ripples made by the bobber as it whips across the water. The predictable response by Dad is to tell him to stop playing with the fishing pole and keep it still if he wants to catch a fish; focus on the aim of the exercise rather than succumbing to the inclination to enjoy the moment.

 And that scenario plays out daily; it may even be the most commonly observed interaction between adults and toddlers. The child is climbing into her booster seat in the back of the car but gets distracted by a seatbelt strap; she pulls on it and lets it retract, then repeats the action, delighted to have discovered a new inanimate object that responds to her intentions. Mom’s reaction? “C’mon, Honey, stop playing around or we’ll never get to the playground”.  At the beach building a sandcastle, the child forgets to up-end the bucket of moulded sand and switches focus to the tactile experience of rubbing the wet sand between his palms. Similar reaction. The most frequent admonishment a child is likely to hear is to focus on the goal and to ignore momentary passing interests.

 Certainly it’s important that children be guided toward their goals and taught that it takes effort and focus to accomplish anything worthwhile; nevertheless it must be possible to teach a child how to achieve goals without robbing him of his curiosity or his wonder at the extent and breadth of the world to which he is being introduced. There must be a way to help a child grow up with a sense of purpose but still maintain the capacity for enjoying life, for recognising beauty, for experiencing sensual, simple, non-directed pleasures.

 We can teach them, as most of us were taught, to forego ephemeral, transient moments of joy in favour of the larger goal at the end of the struggle; the problem is that when they grow up, they might have to teach themselves to reverse those habits in order to maintain their sanity.


One more turn of the screw

Slowly, I turned; and step by step…

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia


One of my favourite  people and Jakarta dwelling expats commented on my Facebook status that I ought to find a fat lady and make her sing. He was, of course, referring to a status announcement I had posted that brought my friends and followers up to date on my quest to extricate my son from this Southeast Asian black hole. I suppose that hearing me whine for the last three years about the process has even affected the patience of those who casually read my bitching and are astonished at the bureaucratic impediments that the fertile imagination of mendacious civil servants are able to erect in order to require bribes to remove.

 The fat lady ain’t sung yet, but I believe I see her in the wings preparing for her entrance.


One major step

JJ’s order of adoption is now official! 3 years and counting….


 As I write this, my long-suffering Yolanda is in South Jakarta sitting in the sweltering open-air waiting area of an RW (or maybe RT…there are two levels and I have no idea which is which), nearly the lowest ranked civil servant in the country. It is now 7.10pm and she has been waiting since 6.30am, the time of her appointment. She is waiting to pay him and then thank him for accepting the bribe that was negotiated over the phone yesterday, when he finally feels that his importance has been sufficiently established.

These parasites are what are known as “neighbourhood chiefs” and do absolutely fuck all except for apply their rubber stamp to any document you present them along with a bribe. They are elected by the neighbourhood in a biannual popularity contest and they invariably complete their tenure as relatively wealthy men. Their imprimatur is required on certain documents; documents that assure higher authorities that you live in the neighbourhood, that you are not a problem in the neighbourhood, and that you are known in the neighbourhood and to the “chief” personally. Long-stay permits require this, police permits, press passes, pretty much everything requires a stamped document from one of these worthless pricks. They do nothing without a bribe.

 I have dozens of these documents stamped by dozens of these tumorous pustules – for press passes and all kinds of other documents. On each is the personal seal and  sworn statement of a person I met only once….to pay a bribe…that he knows me personally (bullshit) and that I live in his jurisdiction (also bullshit, of course) and that I have never been a problem (true as far as it goes).

Yolanda is going through this charade because we need a court date and we’ve been informed by the clerk of the court in the jurisdiction where we actually live that there are no available dates in the foreseeable future. We need this court date because the last judge we spoke to decided that a separate hearing was required to approve the change of my son’s name to his new family’s name (mine and Yolanda’s) despite his having taken the bribe to hear the motion to adopt and then granting that motion. The supplementary name change motion hadn’t been paid for, so it wasn’t granted along with the adoption as is the usual procedure.

 The statement that there are no court dates available is, of course, a lie… an initial bargaining position for the negotiations over the required “administration fee” to set a date to hear the motion to change JJ’s name (from the Indonesian equivalent of John Doe) to ours. But since the initial position started at “no dates available”, long, painful experience tells us that the required bribe will be astronomical.


Take a goddam nap!!

3 year-olds are the leading causes of headaches in this family. Y & JJ take a break from the pool

So we found a South Jakarta jurisdiction that will hear the motion in our lifetimes; all we need is a dozen documents, one of which requires the stamp and signature of a South Jakarta neighbourhood chief.


All this is being done so we can present the Canadian government (or is it “The Harper Government?) with proof of JJ’s right to citizenship as the legal child of a Canadian citizen. They will then look at the documentation after we have had it written up by the court then translated by a sworn translator, notarised and sent along with a half dozen other forms to someplace in Nova Scotia. Within weeks, I am assured, Part 1 will be completed and the file sent to Singapore. Then the Canadian Embassy in Singapore will require an interview, so either I, Yolanda, JJ, or all, or two of us will fly to Singapore, do our best to persuade some hostile local hire that JJ isn’t a terrorist and that we have genuine plans to keep our son. If he is convinced that these last three years haven’t been an elaborate con, we go back to Jakarta and he will forward the necessary document to our Indonesian consul. Then, with citizenship papers in hand, we apply at the Canadian Embassy for a passport for JJ. That will take a few weeks to process in Ottawa, but eventually he should get one.


Hey Andy...bourbon and coke!

Pool service at the apartment

If everything goes well…the bribes, the translations, the name change, Part1 of the citizenship application, Part 2 of the citizenship application, the passport application and all the unforeseen, we will fly back to Canada so my now 3 and ½ year old son can start his life. Best case scenario…2 months. Worst case scenario… indefinite waiting and expenses. And there is no way everything will go smoothly. There is a fan; there is shit. Without question, the two shall have a close encounter before this is all over. We shall see.

JJ and PAGUN at the apartment swimming pool


Meanwhile we wait. And wait. Of course there are worse places to wait. Not much, but worse.



Thanks for the Memories

Back in the saddle again


JAKARTA, INDONESIA – It’s Monday in Jakarta and I’ve just started to get down to the business for which I came back to the Far East. I’ve made the necessary appointments, placed the needed phone calls and have started what I hope is the final stage in the process that started over three years ago when we adopted my little boy, JJ.

The seedy backpacker Mecca of Jakarta

So I’m sitting in a well-remembered café on Jalan Jaksa in central Jakarta having a pre-lunch Bintang in my customary seat. It’s open to the street and the stifling city air is only disturbed by the slowly rotating overhead fans; although the street has changed…many of the old backpacker haunts and whorehouses have been torn down and gentrification is the order of the day…some things remain the same. The owner of the all-too-appropriately named Memories Café greeted me as though she’d seen me yesterday, although it’s been years since I’ve dropped in here, and the news guy dropped off copies of the Post and the Globe as he always did when I hung out here routinely and wrote for those papers. The same whores, a little longer in the tooth, but still their friendly selves, along with a new crop of young ones, stroll by or perch on the stools at the sidewalk bar, desultorily plying their trade and gossiping.

Groups of genetically identical backpackers, mostly from Holland or Australia, still in their

In front of Memorie's sidewalk bar

Working Jalan Jaksa denizen at Memories

teens and self-satisfied in their shared but grotesquely erroneous conviction that they are deeply appreciated visitors, hang out for hours ordering nothing but bottled water. Each generation is blissfully convinced that the $20 per day that they spend in this impoverished but money obsessed country is like manna from heaven to the local population and remains oblivious to the fact that they are despised for their cheapness and that the smiles they encounter are not smiles of gratitude for their non-existent largesse, but rather culturally dictated expressions employed to disguise their real feelings about strangers. That hasn’t changed.

I turn to the newspapers and am hardly surprised to see that the news, except for minor details, could have been pulled from a Jakarta daily at pretty much any time in the last decade. One of ex-dictator Soeharto’s grandchildren (it used to be that piece of shit’s children…now it’s their piece of shit children) is being investigated for having embezzled billions of dollars from their beloved country. He’s of course ignored a summons to appear before the investigatory board as he’s currently in Singapore, and everyone knows that nothing whatever will come of the show investigation. Remember, Soeharto is the man that historians have described as the most corrupt head of state in the history of the world, and he lived his life in happiness, respect, and prosperity, even after he was ousted; the current president kissed his ring on his deathbed and led the country in a day of mourning for one of history’s arguably most brutal and certainly most avaricious dictators. Let’s also remember that his favourite son, affectionately called Tommy, paid for the assassination of the Supreme Court judge who had found him guilty of embezzlement. Tommy Soeharto was sentenced to spend 15 years in prison for the contract murder but had his sentence reduced five times by the current president (who was one of Soeharto’s protégés) and spent a total of about four years – literally –  in a country club. While he was paying his debt to society for premeditated contract murder, I personally saw him and his entourage of porno models and body guards as they occupied a Jakarta golf course in a moveable party, complete with champagne, cocaine, and golf carts equipped with music systems and very attractive whores.

Meanwhile, both English language dailies report that at least two Islamic fundamentalist groups have promised to disrupt if they can’t eliminate a scheduled Lady Gaga performance here in Jakarta. Swearing that they will die to prevent her from spreading her “satanic message” to good Muslims (like Tommy Soeharto, presumably) they vow to greet her violently in the tens of thousands at the airport and forcibly prevent her from disembarking on their land. The national police who are responsible for granting performance permits have yet to do so; they are, as usual, torn between the enormous bribes the concert promoters will have had to pay and the threats emanating from the peace-loving Islamic forces of good. And as usual, the police have decided to postpone any final decision on the matter…the controversy after all puts them in an ideal bargaining position to push the bribe demands to stratospheric levels.

I sit here in this humid pleasantly seedy bar, soaking up the atmosphere and quarts of beer, sweating like a hungover teacher on parents’ day, and wait for a return call from any one of the half-dozen or so Indonesian civil servants with whose secretaries I have left messages. It’s a pantomime, really, because years of experience tells me I can wait until universal peace has been achieved and world hunger conquered before any Indonesian government officer will actually return a phone call to someone who doesn’t outrank him. The dance will involve me repeating this series of pointless actions for the rest of the week, and then finally show up at his office where I will sit on a hard-backed chair in the heat and humidity outside his air-conditioned office for the whole day, while he entertains friends, has his lunch sent in, takes a few tea breaks, watches the ubiquitous television no civil servant can live without, and then takes a well-deserved nap at his desk. After a day or two of this, and having established his importance and superior status, he will deign to give me a moment, if only to tell me I’ve either done it all wrong or that it’s not his department. He’ll then offer to help me out “as a friend”; I’ll reciprocate the offer; we’ll arrive at a price; I’ll pay the bribe; he might or might not stamp whatever document needs his department’s stamp, and I’ll be on my way to the next civil servant for a repeat performance of the corruption two-step. In the past, I’ve simply had a stamp made with the appropriate departmental logo and applied it to follow-up documents, but that option isn’t available until I’ve seen at least one original. Benzodiazepines were invented for a reason.

As I was writing that last sentence an old hunched-over man, pushing a wheelbarrow containing an equally old woman, timidly opened the bat-wing saloon doors that form the entrance to this café. The woman was missing a few digits on her left hand and had very little of her right hand or lower right leg; the open sores of leprosy were on grotesque display. The old man stood there pathetically making eating gestures with his hands, but not crossing the threshold. I gave the old man about a hundred thousand Rupiah and with downcast eyes and calling me “Tuan” (Lord), he trundled his doomed (although perfectly treatable) wife down the road to whatever fate awaits those about whom nobody gives a shit.

Indonesia, my heart continues to bleed for you.


Theories of child-rearing: the laissez faire approach

It takes a village (?)
Patrick Guntensperger
Manado, North Sulawesi
Having little but time to spend with my son in the company of my extended family and countless neighbours, I have been in a position to observe childrearing paradigms and methods here in Indonesia.
Of course I have previously seen, as does everyone who spends any time here, how children are treated, and I have had even more intimate experience with those methods during my tenure as a school principal in a school that included students from the pre-school level through to high school. I also have close exposure to the “adult” products of these child rearing techniques when I lecture at universities in this country.
I am less than impressed.
When I first watched the deference, even reverence with which parents and adults in general treat infants in Indonesia, I instinctively put it down to an enlightened, sensitive approach to the upbringing of children. Children are treated in an almost worshipful manner: coddled, carried, spoon-fed and indulged in a way that encourages the casual observer to assume that children are deeply loved. They sleep with their parents from birth onwards, and most school-age children have quite literally never spent an instant alone in their entire lives. A typical child has never heard “no”, or been prevented from doing anything in his or her entire life by the time he or she reaches school age. 
One of the most common sights here in Indonesia is also one of the most appalling: that of a maid or nanny or mother chasing an indifferent toddler around with a spoon full of rice, while the child plays, watches television, or simply wanders about, stuffing the food into the infant’s face whenever an opportunity presents itself. The infant normally seems barely aware of the presence of the spoon wielding factotum and either opens his mouth when he wants more or spits it out when he’s had enough. Feeding this child is an all-day exercise.

Anybody who spends any time here has seen eight-year-olds being carried about by parents in malls; on many occasions I have even seen third graders being carried crying and sucking on a bottle of formula into my school by nannies whom they outweighed. I am happy to report that I instituted a policy that put an end to servants waiting on children old enough to walk being allowed on campus. This was seen by the parents as being harshly draconian. Nevertheless, I still had mothers sitting outside classrooms peering in through windows and jumping to feed their little princes when the class broke for recess. I saw – all too often – children of nine or ten who, in other countries would have been proud to make their way to school with friends via skateboard or bicycle, being transported by 13 year-old nannies riding them tandem on a bicycle.
In toddlers, getting their own way, at all times under all circumstances, seems to them to be a fundamental component of the structure of the universe. Nobody will say “no” to a child. If the child, barely able to walk, pulls on a curio cabinet door to grab a porcelain figurine and starts to cry in frustration at being unable to get the door opened, a maid, mother, or nanny is likely to open the door for her and hand her the objet d’art. When the piece is inevitably dropped and smashed, the explanation as to why the child had it in the first place is, “She wanted it!” That’s acceptable.
Nevertheless, Indonesian adults are human beings. The result is that as the children are commonly permitted to do whatever they wish, sooner or later they will get on someone’s nerves. That results in a sudden eruption from an adult who has finally become exasperated at the annoying behavior; the child of course, is utterly bewildered and dismayed. To the child there is no discernible pattern; what was normal behavior all day has suddenly elicited a harsh response from an adult. The lack of consistency and the complete dearth of limits, guidelines, boundaries, and rules leave the child assuming that all behaviour is permissible and the occasions upon which he is scolded are aberrations on the part of his guardians.
The upshot of this is seen in the culture at every level. The existence of others is barely noted even by adults, unless that other person is family or otherwise very close. Try getting out of an elevator in a crowded building. The notion of standing back to allow passengers to exit is one that never crops up. It is virtually pointless to go to the cinema if one is genuinely interested in the film being shown; one is surrounded by people talking to one another, or texting or carrying on conversations on their cell phones. There simply seems to be no awareness of normal guidelines that would entail the recognition of the existence of other human beings, particularly if those guidelines would imply the slightest constraint on self-serving behaviour.
This pattern is seen in universities and offices; the idea of arriving on schedule for anything is an alien concept. Students arrive late and wander into lectures, waving and shouting to their friends across the hall; business executives are content to have their underlings wait for hours on end until they deign to put in an appearance. All this and so much more (including the country’s endemic corruption, and even the social toleration of appalling poverty, I would argue) can be traced to the upbringing of children.
If a child is raised believing that her every action is acceptable and that every whim ought to be instantly gratified, that she and her desires are the only things that are worth any attention, it is hardly likely that a courteous, philanthropic social conscience is to develop.
My first impression was wrong. The manner in which children are raised here is neither enlightened nor sensitive. It is simply lazy. It is taking the path of least resistance; hardly surprising, since the parents were brought up in the same way.
A typical scenario which we have all seen: a child demands an adult’s cell phone. He is refused. He whines and then throws himself on the ground screaming. The adult gives him the cell phone. Why? It’s easier…it shuts him up. But what does the child learn? His desires are paramount. His desires, if intensely expressed, override any resistance. And where does that lead us?
I am reminded of Theo Toemeon, the once Chairman of Indonesia’s powerful Investment Coordination Board. Several years ago while watching a second grade basketball game at the prestigious Jakarta International School, he went berserk. Not happy with some of the calls made by a fourteen year-old referee, he leapt from the stands and tried to strangle him. During the ensuing melee, one executive from a major oil company had his nose broken and another required several stitches to his head after Theo or one of his body guards reportedly whacked him with a chair. Theo responded to threats of having the police called by telling the crowd that he “owned” the police and, further, that he could have anyone he wished thrown out of the country. The executive with the broken nose soon left the country with his family after having received death threats, allegedly from Theo’s cronies.
The high ranking govenment official later defended his actions by stating that he had become overcome by patriotism (apparently the calls to which he took exception were against

It’s patriotic fervour!

Indonesian students). This “apology” was generally accepted. Although he was soon replaced in his position, the Indonesian government insisted that his move had been planned before the incident and was unrelated. There was no loss of face.

But of course Theo’s justification for his out of control behaviour was sufficient to the minds of those raised in typical Indonesian fashion. He hadn’t, after all, had things go his way; a desire had been thwarted. His response had been conditioned by his upbringing…what else should we expect ?