Monday, February 23, 2009

Lessons Learned

There exists a state of ennui in the Philippines. People are resigned to the reality that Gloria Arroyo will remain in power through 2010. We are however not certain whether elections will proceed at that time owing to the frenetic machinations of our die-hard loyalist legislators.

Many well-meaning Filipinos have declared their utter dissatisfaction with the list of aspiring candidates, all members in good standing of Traditional Politicians Incorporated. A consequence of this revulsion with all things political is the tendency to blame the electorate, the mindless mass of gullible, star-struck idiots fighting for survival every day. There are no tyrants, where there are no slaves. People deserve their leaders. Systemic corruption is a reflection of society. We have heard them all and we reliably nod in assent.

I learned an important lesson in the 2007 election. I learned that good intentions and virtue are no match to methodical preparation and effective fundraising. Both qualities included in the realm of expertise of successful traditional politicians. Our principal disadvantage was we could only campaign in between making a living. We were ranged against colossal campaigners who campaigned for a living. In Darwinian perspective, we were up against the most evolved, the fittest.

If we hope to break away from this power lock of desperation we have to begin preparing now. We need to create alliances with other groups, agree on an inclusive platform with clear and detailed proposals for a national transformation, raise money and awareness because our only chance lies in getting the people to know about us. We understand the sacrifice demanded in serving others. We pledge to serve for one term only not just because we have our private lives and professions to return to but also to give as many Filipinos a personal stake in building our nation.

The 2010 election is ours to lose. If we stubbornly consider ourselves above the tumult and unrest; if we persist in calling the cause lost; if we don’t put our lives on the line and remain amused spectators watching and cheering the next set of suckers march into the arena bristling with lions, then we only have ourselves to blame.

In a more rational time and place, all these moneyed and formidable candidates have nothing to be proud of. They are, without exception part of why our country is so screwed-up. They have all held important and powerful positions that in retrospect mainly benefited themselves, just look around the squalor and poverty surrounding you.

When I learned how to type many years ago, speed was gauged with how rapidly and correctly we could type the phrase: now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. That was another lesson learned.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Silver Lining

My entries have been at their lowest levels since I began 3 years ago. Perhaps I am just following the careening contraction of the world economy, some $30 trillion now. With this amount of money, nobody is unscathed. We are all embroiled in this together.

As usual, we strain to see the silver lining. Our country, lagging far behind in productivity, is faring in relatively better shape than our Tiger neighbors. Translation: we never had much to lose after all. Pathetic, but makes absolute sense.

While governments round the world scramble for emergency maneuvers, we hope remittances from overseas don’t dip too much. We aspire only to remain on survival mode and our professional, political leaders are mainly concerned in keeping the masses subdued.

This should be our chance. This can become our opportunity to gain parity with the so-called First World. What do I mean? The $30 trillion is a reflection of the extraordinary overproduction of junk, non-essential material goods that have provided comfort and diversion to billions of hard working and essentially alienated people all over the world. Think hundreds of millions of vehicles, flat screen televisions, electronic gizmos, excess clothing, overpriced homes, mindless entertainment, bottled water, yes, bottled water is emblematic of the problems confronting us today.

In the US, it isn’t at all exceptional for anyone, including children to own closets full of clothing. Cars and trucks in very good condition are regularly replaced every 2-3 years; most families, it seems, possess the latest technological devices. And in a country where fresh, safe water is in abundance, $7 billion was spent for bottled water last year. It is easy to understand why Mexico consumed about $3 billion worth of bottled water because the availability of potable water is not as widespread compared to the US; it does underscore the tremendous amount of “disposable income” Americans perceived they had before this crisis struck.

Unlike the Philippines, America has excelled in adding value to goods (industrial, agricultural, natural resources) and services (especially military services). Value results in growth and development. This disaster is a direct consequence of negligent financial players who extracted immense profits from “maximizing” value via complex transactions that was, quite simply not there. We sat around a fire, intently listening to a pipe dream, and the hit we took was a giant financial one.

I however have no doubt the US will weather this storm and come out even stronger. This early, savings have increased and fuel consumption has significantly diminished. Not at all surprising corrective measures arising from the most productive nation on earth (in marked contrast to stagnant economies subsisting on remittances exclusively earned from services rendered to citizens of more prosperous countries).

Economic planners dread deflation but this may not necessarily be such a bad turn. The developed world can certainly do with much less. This would be a good time to fast and reflect, find meaning and redirect our lives towards less ephemeral goals. Noble pursuits all but impossible for people already fasting and desperately seeking ways to survive. This is a chance for the Philippines to pour all of its resources towards keeping the youth healthy and nourished, providing high quality education to dispel ignorance, teach values that promote mutual respect and mold responsible, globally-competitive stewards.

Human development should not be measured by the conveniences and distractions foisted by a consumerist society. We need to transform ourselves into enlightened individuals contributing considerably towards the common good.

We should strive to become productive if only to become more introspective as to what’s truly important out there.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ruth, Randy and Pancreatic Cancer

News that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had surgery for a one centimeter malignant tumor in her pancreas was particularly dismal for me. My wife and I were happy when she was named to the court close to the time when our first daughter was born in Brooklyn in 1993 because Justice Ginsburg herself is a native of the Borough. She has also been a model of what a jurist should be: firm in conviction, willing to listen, integrity beyond reproach.

Not very many pay close attention to the pancreas because it is such a quiet organ. We take for granted its endocrine and exocrine functions, responsible for the metabolism of sugar as well as having a critical role in digestion. Not to trivialize the obvious but insulin-dependent diabetics and patients with chronic pancreatitis are obliged to perform life-changing modifications if they want to continue to live. Imagine having to take 6-8 capsules with each meal for the rest of your life or strictly adhering to a meticulous diet and exercise regimen along with insulin shots and never-ending blood tests.

Pancreatic cancer is a whole different matter however. Because there are hardly any established risk factors and there are no specific signs and symptoms, the tumor is often discovered incidentally, in an advanced stage. Perhaps Justice Ginsburg’s history of colon cancer in 1999 prodded her physicians to be extra vigilant in ordering abdominal CT scans, nevertheless the over-all survival rate for 5 years is still 5%.

First time I became conscious of this cancer was when Michael Landon of Little House on the Prairie fame was stricken and died shortly. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Luciano Pavarotti did not last a year. Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze are fighting for their lives.

Before Randy Pausch delivered his “last lecture” in September 2007, I had already been back in the Philippines for more than a year, partly because of what I learned from my patients with pancreatic cancer. Two were farmers, one was a veterinarian, another one was a 45 year old high school teacher. Next to this disease, all physical complaints pale. The brevity of our lives takes on an embossed and immediate character.

Pausch, 47, a professor of computer science and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was invited to participate in a lecture series where top academics, usually those about to retire were asked to reflect upon what truly mattered in their lives and then deliver a “final talk”, about "what wisdom would you try to impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?" Randy Pausch died 10 months later.

To live a more fulfilling life Pausch recommended we try our best in achieving our childhood dreams. What makes his lecture priceless though is it cogently reminds each of us that while we are not yet dying from a terminal illness we all have this incredible chance to transform our lives, find meaning, help others and leave the world a better place.