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Are we missing something?

I miss libraries.

Here in Indonesia, libraries are as rare as safe drivers and clean water. It’s not because people don’t like to read, or because they like to live dangerously at high speeds, or because they love the idea that toxic substances are freely available at the turn of a handle.

When credence is given to the misguided notion that unrestrained capitalism is a benefit to anyone then we will see the demise of education, healthcare, and public safety. When we allow corporate interests to dictate education and to funnel public monies into programs that benefit their bottom line, we allow human decency and dignity to be kicked to the kerb. We allow our future to be stamped with best before dates, and then left to rot on the shelf.

Obviously, greed and shortsightedness are not the intellectual property of the Indonesian archipelago. We see these wonderful expressions of boneheaded stubbornness in every hovel, hamlet and high-speed hub on the planet.

Without independent sources of information, books provided and made available by libraries, we have little chance for the current or the next generation to be intellectually curious, environmentally aware, or woke in any measurable sense.

Common sense, intellectual curiosity, and basic decency may have always been rare and whimsical creatures, but perhaps we shouldn’t willingly turn away as they’re kicked to death. Please don’t take this as a pat on the back if you have libraries. If you’re not using them, if you’re not supporting them, and if everyone does not have access; then they’re no longer libraries. They’ve become warehouses, or even worse they’re mortuaries waiting for the bodies of lost knowledge and hope to be claimed by uncaring relatives.

A Library
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The Casual Cruelty of the Status Quo

This problem has been on my mind as the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre came and went, with scant notice from the media and very little reaction from social media.

A video just appeared on a friend’s Facebook feed.  The short news clip shows a Muslim man walking over to a woman, who was sitting nearby and slapping her repeatedly. The other people in the room do nothing. More importantly, the men do nothing. Let’s be clear, this is not a Muslim issue because I’ve seen variations of this casual and brutal disrespect happen in Canada, the US, Indonesia, Korea and in China. There is a certain segment of the male population that thinks it’s their right, perhaps even their self-appointed duty, to abuse, whether verbally, mentally or physically, in order to ‘educate’ women.

I know very well that I am not speaking to this self-deluded legion of self-entitled maladjusted mouth-breathing misogynistic cowards. I know that the people who actually read this may not completely agree with me, but in the process of listening and responding there may be an epiphany. The problem is that women are living in fear, are being hurt, are being systematically brutalized, are being abused, are being raped, and they are being killed. The hope is that we can stop accepting this behaviour as the status quo, while highlighting and changing toxic attitudes and behaviours.

As a young boy growing up in a small Canadian village I saw things that intimidated me, but that I felt powerless to deal with. I saw women and girls slapped. Sure lots of people get slapped, but somehow it seemed more personal, more vicious when it happened to a girl. One night at a Christmas concert our music teacher was cornered by one of the fathers, who then proceeded to inform her that he was available to give her another baby – presumably right then and there as he had her pinned to a wall. This was a man with an already large family and an obviously high opinion of himself. Even to a child, the aggression and the fear were palpable. The fact that I was standing there seemed to take the wind out of his sails. On another night a dashing Romeo took his aggression out on his common-law wife’s car with a shotgun.

Over the next few years, I saw fights, casual mistreatment, and tacit acceptance. I lived in Toronto, and spent a couple of years in the US before going back to school and finally moving to Asia. It was in South Korea that I saw the way a society can enshrine privilege and abuse and consider it a cultural prerogative. I was walking back from lunch with a female Korean teacher. An elderly man, perhaps ten years older than I am now walked towards us. He slapped her across the face, then this gem of humanity preceded to lecture her on her clothing. She was wearing a blouse, a short jacket, and a skirt just below the knee. She said nothing when I asked. I did nothing because I was in shock. No excuse. I just didn’t react. She only said that in Korea old men can do what they want. Another time we were sitting with a group of teachers, some local some western and then a couple of Korean men walked into the restaurant. This engaging, intelligent woman suddenly became a flighty, airheaded parody. Later, she said it was expected.

Expectation, good or bad is often a personal thing. During a spate of attacks on women in Toronto in the early-90’s tensions and fears were high. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) which provides bus and Subway service for the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) had wisely and thoughtfully provided a means for women to request to stop anywhere that was comfortable for them. This one night I was on my way home from work on the bus.  The cul-de-sac where I rented a basement apartment was not far from the area where at least one of the attacks had occurred. It was late and I was in my normal oblivious after-work state. I saw my stop. The woman ahead of me had gotten up so I had no need to ring the bell. I made my way to the door. The door opened and we both exited. The woman took one look back at me and she was off like a shot. When I got home I was bummed out. After a few minutes, I accepted that she wasn’t running from me but from the stranger. I felt bad that she couldn’t feel safe. I was still bummed out by the idea of frightening anyone. Fear is not something you want to inspire, no matter where you live.

In Indonesia, a few months before I arrived, a young woman had begun dating a foreigner. One night she was murdered outside the bar where she waitressed, by her ex-husband. He used an axe and he received six months. In 1998 a number of women were raped and murdered in Jakarta. No one was ever charged. At least one government minister said something to the effect that public rapes were unlikely because speaking from his own perspective; he wouldn’t be able to sustain an erection with people watching.  Make your own judgment on how this atrocity was eventually dealt with.

Rapes and gang rapes happen here.  Acid attacks are not common here, but they have happened. Sometimes the attackers are men, sometimes they are females. They are always reprehensible. This is not an attempt to equivocate, because although men are victims of violence … we do not live in constant fear. Our interactions, public or private, are not nuanced and underscored by a lingering dread and uncertainty.

My wife, her mother, our daughter and our granddaughter were driving one day when a becak (a pedicab) crashed into the car. The usual crowd of jackasses formed demanding money and compensation. Then it escalated. Those surrounding the car began shouting that the women would be dragged out and raped. My daughter didn’t wait, she gunned the engine and the crowd moved. When they got home they were understandably in shock. Our granddaughter was thankfully too young for the incident to register. I doubt my wife and daughter have felt truly safe since that day. Should they have called the police? Why bother?

In China, there were a few incidents that marred an otherwise wonderful three years. As a school Director, I often dealt with parents and students and the occasional visitor. Most of these meetings were polite, some awkward and some confrontational. As often as not it was a mother who had her view of education or why the teacher needed to be changed. Logic or facts were not their concerns, only their opinion and need to assert power. Occasionally there would be a father walking through the school smoking or a stranger sight-seeing. These moments had to be dealt with quickly, to point out school policy or to assess risk.  One afternoon I was placement testing a student when one of the course consultants (front desk staff who set up appointments, registered students and were the front line with parents) burst in. She informed me that I had to deal with a father who was being difficult with one of the other course consultants. I asked her to take care of the students and ask the father to come into my office. First I met with the young woman who I soon saw had been crying. Over a cup of tea, she told me that the father was angry that his son’s teacher had been changed. She had been told that an emergency at home(the teacher) had meant a scheduling change. Our student’s father didn’t like that. He felt he should be able to choose the teacher. He then began to insult this woman and her mother. These insults soon became graphic and demeaning. I asked her to step out and I spoke to the father.

He was positively upbeat. He swaggered into my office and plopped himself down. I had a small glass table with two chairs off to the side of my desk. The table and chairs were best for a placement test environment, as they were non-threatening.  Later I had a moment to reconsider, that with this individual, threatening may have been the way to go.

My guest sat calmly, a curious mix of arrogance and expectation.  I had the senior consultant with me and I was prepared to have her translate. As it turned out, my guest had serviceable English so communication wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, communication is not always inclusive of understanding. I told him that I was aware of what he had said to the consultant. His response was, “Welcome to China.”

“Excuse me?” I was incredulous.

He repeated himself with even more obtuse gusto than before.

“What you said was wrong, and it was hurtful.”

He replied that that was the way he spoke to women. The senior consultant had to translate a few things, or rather try. He was on a tear and was switching between Mandarin and English rapidly. He was not, as you learn to do when someone is translating, speaking in shorter bursts then pausing for your translator to absorb, deliver, then for the listener to respond. He was in effect not allowing our translator to present that information. His body language and facial expression showed only contempt.

I finally said, “While we are happy to have your child here, we don’t want you here if you continue to behave rudely.”

His response…? “Welcome to China.”

My response, no less obtuse, and just as confrontational, “You’re not in China here. You’re in my office. This is sovereign territory and there are rules.”  He stopped for a second and blinked. I wasn’t part of the club. I’d seen the response a few times before. He had had an expectation that I would back his misogyny; that I would get with the program, and then there was the sudden insight that it wasn’t going to happen. He left my office without a word. His son stayed in the school.

A few months later I was leaving the office to meet my wife for lunch. It was a winter afternoon and I thought leaving early and taking a brisk walk would do me some good and allow me to spend time with Emily and our son Wyatt who was almost 10 months old at the time. Our apartment was about 10 minutes’ walk from the school so I was down the stairs and almost halfway there when I saw Emily on the other side pushing Wyatt’s stroller along the wide, almost deserted sidewalk. Although it was winter, the streets and sidewalks were clear under the cold steel grey skies.  Emily, who was focused on Wyatt hadn’t seen me and had started making her way across the crosswalk. Beside her were two young men, one tall, the other short and stocky. As soon as Emily began crossing the shorter one moved. He was moving quickly towards Emily and Wyatt. I moved. I was almost on him before he noticed and then he stopped, turned quickly on his heel, and fell backwards. I admit that the sharp stop and turn looked painful and I was happy for whatever pain he may have inflicted upon himself. His partner was already gone. I grabbed the stroller and moved Emily in front of me. A leather jacket and a long winter jacket over it had made me appear a good deal more menacing than how I presume I appear. Emily had been completely unaware.

The warmer weather came and Wyatt grew. Our granddaughter was in kindergarten and our daughter was working as my assistant. With Grace’s command of Mandarin, I was able to better communicate with staff and parents.  One night we were all having dinner at a favourite restaurant and I looked out to see it was starting to rain. As the skies had been clear we hadn’t brought umbrellas. We were not far from the apartment, so I opted to run out, grab the umbrellas and run back. Our friend Steve tagged along. In less than 15 minutes I had gotten to the apartment, grabbed the umbrellas and was perhaps half a block from the restaurant. Ahead of us, a large crowd was in an almost complete circle. It was as if a sporting event had begun spontaneously since we had last been there. Then we saw a woman sitting on the ground, a man holding her long hair in one hand and shaking his fist at her. A few people were standing closer to them but most just stood in the outer ring. The man was shouting. The woman was in tears and was hysterical. What the crowd was actually doing I can only speculate.

I moved closer. There was no thought process involved. I was operating on pure impulse. I had left three umbrellas with Steve and had a small folding umbrella in my right hand.  As I got closer I saw that the man was about my height but stocky. The crowd had hushed a little and the woman was shifting. “Let go of her,” I shouted. “Just let go.”

I don’t imagine he understood me, but for about two minutes we stared at each other. Then he let go of her hair and turned towards me. He was actually taller but it gave me an opening.  As he moved towards me I jammed the umbrella into his chest and prodded him backwards. It wasn’t what he expected.  I glanced over.  Unfortunately, she had not moved. I added a few more gentle nudges and my dance partner stopped advancing on me. This was good because as a fighter I’m somewhat limited. My fighting is like my dancing, lots of energy and passion, but a bit lacking in technique.

The crowd had split somewhat and then someone came forward with a phone. From what little I understood, somewhat had called the police. Some of the crowd moved away. Steve and I moved off. I glanced over at the woman who was standing but still waiting. Without support from a trusted source, she was unlikely to move far.

I don’t want to infer that women need men to solve their problems, but since men are part of the problem, men need to become part of the solution. We need to get past ourselves, help where possible, and then listen more. Try to be informed, try to be aware, just try.

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Death by a thousand cuts

CEOs and boards preach fiscal responsibility and cost cutting without smelling the pungent irony.

New year, new cuts. New governments, new rationales to save money. New managers, time to trim that fat. Programs are cut, or they are reduced. Job are cut or apportioned among a smaller pool of people. People are downsized. Unlike Antman, getting downsized doesn’t make us stronger or more effective.

No one is expendable. If people are sitting at desks twiddling their thumbs then they haven’t been assigned meaningful work or given the training to see what else could be done. We have all worked in corporate cultures, both private and government, where coasting through the days is routine. This is not because the people are not needed, or that work needing to be done is not available.

Many public parks and streets could be cleaned by workers who are idle or on reduced schedules. Many actual projects could replace unnecessary road ‘repairs’. How many office tasks could be accomplished in lieu of the six-hour meetings? In fact, this isn’t the real issue. Government houses cry budget and cost cutting up until it comes time to boost their own salaries and cash their own pension checks.

CEOs and boards preach fiscal responsibility and cost cutting without smelling the pungent irony. The services that are cut. The help that is no longer available and the individuals, families, and communities that are impacted have little relevance for social and economic visionaries valiantly struggling towards the 18th hole.

Disturbing and Familiar

Watching the president elect’s inaugural address last Friday I was struck by two things; one: that this was a remarkably coherent speech, and two: that bits of the address were eerily and disturbingly familiar.

The coherence was not expected as the President’s streams of consciousness, ramped up by contempt and vitriol, are rarely focused or logically ordered. A recent speech at CIA headquarters supports this opinion.

The president started off well. His respectful tone towards Chief Justice Roberts, Presidents Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Carter were appropriate and dignified. His exclusion of Mrs. Clinton was perhaps not nice, but one wonders if ‘President’ Clinton would have mentioned Trump or Bernie Saunders. Trump then got to the meat of his discourse. In a movie-trailer worthy synopsis, he pointed out the perceived problems with the ‘carnage’ happening in the United States.

He proceeded to isolate the USA, on the way to making it great again. ‘From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.’

The familiar echoes were the ‘giving power back to the people’ and ‘building with American hands’. And then there was the Charlie Sheen moment, when ‘America will start winning again, winning like never before.’ The echoes of Bane, of John Frederick Paxton, and oddly of Bernie Sanders, seem at odds with a speaker, who rarely evokes anyone but himself.

The imagery of an American heartland littered with broken people, rusting dreams, and crumbling infrastructure is not altogether untrue. Coming from the newest resident of the White House, the statements seem a tad disingenuous. To be fair, the image of the 45th president striving mightily to protect people, and using every breath in his body to change the course of mighty rivers may fill some with hope.

Now comes the big moment. ‘Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. We will no longer accept politicians who ‘are all talk’ and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.’ I am reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where the talk is all of ‘not just talking’.

‘The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.’ As if the point needed to be underscored.

That this individual, so long divisive, so long derisive and so often disinterested in anyone but himself, could talk of healing, of racial harmony, of a shared creator. That he could speak of caring what happens to a child in Detroit or Nebraska under whatever sheltering skies he may see in his mind’s eye. These statements can only bring back the impassioned question of Joseph Nye Welch, “Have You Left No Sense of Decency?”.