The Gates of Hell

july blog chicago

Chicago June 2017

One of the things I did not foresee as a result of traveling to urban-planned cities like New York, Boston and Chicago was how it tends to reinforce what a former supervisor once put to me decades ago: “things need not be the way you have gotten used to.” At that time, his context was that he did not have to live life the only way he has gotten used to which was to stay in Manila and raise his kids here. He has since  successfully migrated with his family to Canada where he enjoys a better quality of life.

It’s a thought that has become more and more tempting to entertain these days  as I realized to my dismay that my visiting nephews were spot on when they  blurted out: “I’ve never seen anything worse, Uncle!” This was after a usual 30-minute drive that took us 4 hours (i.e., 10pm to 2am) to complete on a Friday night. Definitely a significant regression from their parting comment when they last visited the country six years ago: “They don’t practice road courtesy here in the Philippines, Uncle!”

Back in 2013, best-selling author Dan Brown drew a lot of flak for depicting Manila as a city of “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, horrifying sex trade.” Thus, compelling one of the key characters in his book Inferno to remark: “I’ve run through the gates of hell.” 

Alas on most days, “gates of hell” is an apt description of Metro Manila especially for those of us who do not call Ayala Alabang or Dasmarinas Village our home.  Its two major thoroughfares  EDSA and C5 offer compelling testimony to the metaphor.  Volumes of vehicles beyond the capacity of the road.  Undisciplined drivers who would create 6-lane queues in 2-lane roads. Motorcycle riders who weave around vehicles like they were on drugs. Pedestrians who cross anywhere they wish even if a pedestrian overpass is 10 steps away.  Drivers and passengers who throw their litter outside their vehicles.  Petty thieves who have a field day grabbing tablets and cellphones from unsuspecting passengers who seek to drown their anger and  boredom by immersing themselves in social media.

july blog phil star metro manila

EDSA Traffic – Photo Owned by Philippine Star

Cursing the Darkness

How did we get here?

A recent  engaging conversation with my Uber driver led me to one realization. We created this monster for ourselves.

We Filipinos put a lot of premium on “diskarte” or finding a way where there is none.  While this is a praiseworthy attribute of gritness in trying times, it has become our weakness as well as a city if not, as a country.  Case in point:  motorists doing counterflows on their own and drivers forcing their vehicles into lanes that are already clogged.

This, rather than lack of infrastructure, coupled with our lack of discipline as a people are ultimately to blame for the hellish nature of Metro Manila traffic.  I often get warned about tourists from mainland China who visit Hong Kong being rude and all as they don’t fall in line.  We are actually that way most of the time in our roads.  The unwritten rule for many is – me first before you. Motorists not giving way is more of a rule than an exception.  You signal that you are turning 200 meters before the turn and vehicles from behind will make sure you don’t make that turn because they want to get ahead of you.  Your hood is already positioned for your left or right turn complete with the recommended turn signal and oncoming traffic will still try to squeeze their vehicles to block you. Pedestrians are about to cross where they are supposed to and oncoming vehicles would speed up to cut into their path.

And then there’s our  motorcycle riders who would put Evil Knievel to shame. It never ceases to amaze me how most of these riders would  weave in and out of their lane like they have protective body armor around them which they don’t.  There was a time when the middle of the  road was a safe haven. Not anymore.  Even if you are supposedly entitled to your right of way, you would need to move to the right to give way to oncoming hordes of motorcycle riders who rule over the middle of the road.

Not to forget, there’s also our undisciplined drivers of buses and jeepneys who behave like they own the road.  They drive outside their designated lanes and stop and pick up passengers wherever they please.  Over the years, my family and I have memorized parts of EDSA where there really is no traffic but where their unchecked practice of hogging the lanes creates one: Balintawak exit,  EDSA Munoz, SM North EDSA, EDSA-Cubao underpass, Guadalupe and Magallanes interchange.

Our buses are daily reminders of the favorite go to food of many Filipinos: canned meat and sardines.  Thanks to the fact that during rush hour, commuters outnumber buses. As a result, conductors and drivers could easily exceed their daily quota. The practice of  reminding passengers who are already standing to please move back to accommodate more people is a given. Never mind if you could literally exchange faces already with other passengers.

As for our government, while I tip my hat to patient and determined traffic enforcers assigned all over the metropolis to ensure that we somehow survive our daily bouts of hell on earth, I have yet to see something that justifies the steep taxes that  it takes from our hard-earned salary every 15 days.  Our MRT and LRT break down every day. But because they are left with no other alternative, majority would patiently queue at MRT and LRT stations for  a kilometer or more.  When the current administration asked for emergency powers to solve the traffic in the metro I excitedly listened to the senate hearings to know more about their master plans. Unfortunately, all I heard was what the previous administration did incorrectly and pie-in-the-sky solutions like putting in place cable cars all over the metro and imposing coding schemes  2 days out of 5 days.

The endless cycle of unrepaired roads and roads under  repair with no prior warning and no advice as to completion target along with the still unsolved queue of license plates and driver’s license cards are a  continuing  testament to how much catching up our government has to do with respect to the withholding taxes that they systematically deduct from our salaries. Meanwhile, our senators, congressmen and other government VIPs continue to insulate themselves from our traffic problem with their assigned traffic escorts and security detail.

I often wonder why foreign investors continue to be optimistic about the Philippine economy and why real estate developers continue putting up condominium units and shopping malls. Don’t they realize that one day, the volume of vehicles on the road will get to a tipping point where you are literally better off walking to and from Makati or BGC than taking a vehicle even if you live in Quezon City or Taytay?

july blog new york

New York June 2017

Despite the fact that we have quite a number of alumni in this country from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and other Ivy League schools abroad, despite the fact that we have been blessed with our own fair share of the best and brightest intelligentsia, for reasons that still escape me, no government administration has successfully solved our worsening traffic situation.  Isn’t this the city that houses our top universities like UP, Ateneo and La Salle? Isn’t the Asian Institute of Management found here?

Sometimes it’s a lot easier to dream of an alternative life in urban-planned cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.  No wonder I now hear of parents who openly encourage their children to seek citizenship abroad.  Take the example of my officemates’ parents. They live in a millionaire’s enclave in Metro Manila. Yet they constantly remind their son to aspire for citizenship in Canada due to quality of life issues. They just can’t imagine how their grandchildren would survive Metro Manila in the coming years.

Lighting a Candle

What to do?

Depending on how determined you are to put an end to your daily bouts of gates of hell experience, here are 10 alternatives to cursing the darkness and surrendering to despair.

Migrate to your city of dreams

As they say, “if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, get out.”  This is the most radical as it involves a literal uprooting of oneself. But if your heart and mind are into it, nothing can stand in your way. This would entail lots of research as to which city this is as well as the requirements to make such a migration happen. Lest you forget, you need to ensure that you will be economically productive.  I actually have a friend who pulled this off quite successfully. She spent months getting interviewed for jobs in New York before finally landing one.  Today, she is gainfully employed in the city that never sleeps and living the American Dream despite Donald Trump’s presidency.

Migrate to provincial cities

Yet another one which is less radical but just as significant would be to transfer residence from Metro Manila to provincial cities like Tagaytay, Nuvali and Lipa down south or San Fernando, Clark and Baguio up north.  The thing is these cities have also started to show signs of following in the footsteps of the traffic hell of Metro Manila. Compared to EDSA and C5 on most days though, these cities offer a welcome respite.  Hopefully, their city governments would learn what not to do from the urban mess that is Metro Manila.

Renew your ties

You can also use your time in traffic to renew your ties with your friends and relations.  If you’re driving, make sure you leverage your car’s  Bluetooth so you won’t get fined for using your cellphone while driving or worse figuring in a traffic accident.  If you’re commuting, there is always texting, Viber and Messenger to catch up with your relatives and friends and schedule that much delayed reunion and get-together.

Meditate

One of the blessings of the internet is that  now more than ever, there are more apps that you can download which promote mindfulness. Easily, there’s Buddhify, Headspace and Calm. These are very affordable apps which provide guided meditation suitable for driving and commuting.  They do not only offer productive retreats from the traffic, more importantly, they help you center yourself to take charge of your life.

Learn

You can also use the traffic to listen to audio books if you’re driving. If you’re commuting you can watch podcasts and instructional  YouTube videos to learn a language or a new skill. Quite  a number of Ivy League schools have also invested heavily on making their courses available online. Easily, there’s Berklee, Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton among others. There are also one-off webinars which provide certification credentials that you can add to your resume.

Leave early to exercise

If you really hate wading through traffic and seeing the worst side of Filipinos as drivers, commuters and pedestrians, wake up really early. By really early, I mean 3:45am.    This way, you can head off to the gym and vent all the negativity of living in the metro to your exercise of choice.  By the time you finish your workout, you would have skipped traffic hell and even have a lot of time to prepare for the day by enjoying a morning cup of coffee while you strategize how your day would go.

Catch up on your playlist

Again, thanks to the information superhighway, your time in traffic is also the best time to catch up on your favorite musical artists. For the record collectors, there’s Discogs – the world’s largest online store for used and rare recordings of al formats. For contemporary singles and albums, there’s Amazon. In the Studio with Redbeard is the ultimate go to for the classical rock enthusiast while Rolling Stone and Spin for those who wish to experience the best of both contemporary rock and classic rock are excellent websites.

Take Uber or Grab and sleep it off

Forget about what our government is not doing, and focus on what is available despite the LTFRB. Leave your car at home and take Uber or Grab. Check out how trustworthy the driver is through his/her past ratings and always send a text message to your family  detailing the make and plate number of the car you took,  then sleep it off.  Not recommended though for those who sleep like “mantika” (i.e., used cooking oil)  as you could fall prey to  petty or even  heinous crimes.

Use Waze

Drive smart by leveraging the power of GPS-based navigation through the streets and alleyways of Metro Manila. By inputting your destination in  Waze before leaving your parking or your garage, you spare yourself from the hassle of trying to figure out when and how in the world the traffic would end.

Work from home

Finally, as a result of the worldwide movement towards work-life integration, more and more companies are encouraging their employees to engage in alternative work strategies. In our office, for example, our senior leaders encourage us to deck at least 1 to 2 days a week to work from home. Thanks to the power of technology, anyone in the office can easily reach you to a point where it’s as if you’re actually in the building. You not only get to have a break from Metro Manila traffic, you also help the environment by lessening  your carbon footprint.

july blog boston

Boston June 2017

When all else fails,  remember that  there is no such thing as a perfect city. There are only trade-offs.

I remember my conversation with a  cab driver from Singapore. When he learned  I was from the Philippines, he launched into a spontaneous it’s-more-fun-in-the-Philippines conversation. When I offered that in Singapore everything works and there is so much order, he offered that it’s better in the Philippines since you can say anything against the government and still live the following day.  When I pointed out that there is no traffic in Singapore, he countered that the Philippines is much better because it has so many spectacular resorts compared to Singapore. When I shared that I’d rather live in Singapore given the choice because of its access to cutting edge technology, he pointed out that Singapore is so small that they’ve ran out of places to build homes to a point where they now build underground and even under water. In contrast, the Philippines is much bigger it’s just that people tend to concentrate in the urban centers.

In the end, maybe Dale Carnegie is still right in this day and age: “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.”

Perhaps one day, our gates of hell would eventually be our gates to heaven on earth.

Never Say Never

tri

There is a Filipino exhortation that goes: “Wag kang magsasalita nang tapos.”  Roughly translated in English, it means, never speak with finality.  Back in the day when I was starting to run, my dreams were a lot simpler. From completing my first 5k, I wanted to eventually do a 10k, a 21k and ultimately,  a 42k.  Whenever someone would bring up the subject of  trying out multi-sport or triathlon, I would often say, I would never get into that. My reasons were quite iron-clad or so I thought at that time.

First, I was happy to simply work towards increasing my mileage progressively. Second, I was intimidated by the attendant costs of investing in triathlon equipment and training. Third, I could not picture how in the world, training for one could possibly fit my already demanding schedule as a husband, a father and a senior manager in a multinational company.

All that changed when I got injured and I stumbled onto several well-researched readings about how triathlon is positioned as  a perfect way to actually improve your running. Even more compelling was the assertion of experts about the therapeutic impact of multi-sport training to injuries sustained in the course of running.

Three pivotal  moments eventually convinced me to seriously consider the possibility of giving tri a try.

The first one was when I first completed my 21k race in 2015 by way of the Manila leg of the Milo Marathon.  I bumped into an actual triathlete who did his 21k with an impressive finishing time.  He enthusiastically encouraged me to give multi-sport a try because  it’s more enjoyable than running. He also credited it for his improved 21k finishing time. I remember him saying,  “now that you’ve completed your 21k, you can easily transition to triathlon because you have a good foundation in running. Forget about marathons,” he said with conviction.  “They’re too long and boring.  Triathlons are more fun and fulfilling.”  When I countered that I did not have the time to get into the sport, he reasoned that you can do the bike rides at home on weekdays and just do the long rides on weekends.  The swim part is what I need to carve out time for.  The feasibility of actually following a triathlon training routine intrigued me. But at that time, it was not enough to distract me from targeting my first 42k.

And then  I got injured several times. From shin splints to runners knee, from ITB Syndrome to plantar fasciitis, I experienced them all.  Somehow through practice and training, I eventually overcame all of these injuries  but it was my bout with Achilles tendonitis that had the most adverse impact on my recent races.  Even worse, I started experiencing cramping during the last 2 kilometers  of my 21k races. After I overcame cramping in the course of my 22-week marathon training, it surfaced anew during the 33k segment of my second marathon.  It was in the course of reading about injury prevention and management while preparing for my second marathon that I started to ask the question: what if I actually gave triathlon a try?  Who knows, these experts might just be right all along?

The final clincher came by way of the Nike commercial that featured the Iron Nun Madonna Buder. If she could do over 40 triathlons within her lifetime and she started late running, perhaps I can do, too. Within a few weeks after chancing upon Sister Madonna’s Nike ad,  I stumbled onto a book that explained triathlon from a philosophical and inspirational  standpoint. I am, of course, referring here to Scott Tinley’s very engaging Finding Triathlon. Each of the chapters that comprised Tinley’s book progressively convinced me that this was indeed one life project worth investing serious resources on.

And so here I am gearing up for my first sprint distance triathlon happening in June.  I’m quite confident I can nail the 5km run segment. The 900 meter swim is where I’m having a lot of struggle visualizing.  Although I’m now able to complete a variety of swim drills, I continue to experience serious problems integrating the breathing part.  Related to this, I also need a lot of improvement  in  kicking more efficiently and twisting my hips enough to allow me to inhale more efficiently.  Without a doubt,  swimming is my weakest link as an aspiring triathlete. This is precisely why at this point, I’ve practically invested a lot in it in terms of training.

As for cycling, given my growing up years biking, I was not surprised when a cycling veteran complimented me on my good sense of balance during our cycling drills. It is the mastery of gear shifting and the confident use of cleats that I know I need to work on. I also have no idea yet with regard to the efficient use of  a bike trainer at home. This should allow me to achieve the target mileages I should go for to prepare for my first sprint distance triathlon.

Alas, the fact that I’m still reeling from the frustration that accompanied my second marathon got in the way of my plunging headlong into my triathlon training.  That, along with my realization that I owe my body some serious rest, made me distance myself from running for practically a month.

And so even as   I find myself at the starting point  of a full-blown sprint distance triathlon training, questions and doubts hound me.  Am I an April fool in the making? Will I make it in June? Can I actually swim free style by then? Will I master gear shifting and pedaling with cleats in time?  Will I have enough left to complete the 5km run after the swim and bike segments of the race?

If I go by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s exhortation, the outcome need not be belabored.  “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Let us begin.

Move On

tbr2017k

“Life is  like  a box of chocolates,”  as Forrest Gump once put it,  “You’ll never know what you’re gonna get.”  Take my second stab at the full marathon last February 19, 2017. Up until the start of the second half which is where  my coaches point out  the real marathon starts, I was still hopeful that I would beat my personal best from 2016.  Alas, what played out was not what I thought things would turn out to be.

To be sure, one can easily argue that, notwithstanding my more elaborate marathon preparation this year compared to my preparation for my first marathon, my 2017 race results is clearly a failure. Numbers, as they say, do not lie. But, more than a week after I crossed the finish line, I am all the more convinced that it would be grossly unfair to me and those who helped me cross the finish line a second time to dismiss it as such.

You see I just recovered from a serious case of what is called the ITB Syndrome. Even worse, as I began training for my second marathon, I had to endure what turned out to be an  Achilles tendonitis on my right foot.  This was precisely why I decided to sign up for a series of therapy sessions and a triathlon coaching program. In my effort to figure out how to overcome my injuries, I came across several readings which pointed to triathlon as a tried and tested way of strengthening the runner’s legs even as it ups the ante of endurance training by introducing the runner to two other disciplines: swimming and cycling.  Part of my therapy session was a video analysis of my running form.  The year before I really appreciated the insights occasioned by the Chi Running video analysis that I invested in.  I was hoping to arrive at even more instructive insights.  I was not  disappointed as  I discovered through the analysis that my  left leg apparently  had faster ground contact compared to my right leg. To address this, I was advised to try two things: form the letter T with my thumb and forefinger to ensure my arms were not crossing when I ran and improve my cadence by investing in a metronome.  The theraphy sessions provide by PACE Prehab managed by Coach Francis Diano along with my determination and drive to stick to the 22-week plan designed by Coach Jim Lafferty,  The Bull Runner Dream Marathon (TBR DM) founder Jaymie Pizarro and Coach Lit Onrubia which in turn was modified by Coaches Noy Basa, Al Gonzalez and Pao Leano of Inside Track Athletics gave me hope  that I would not only  triumph over my injury. I would eventually achieve a PR this year.

Here’s how it  actually went down on February 19, 2017.

The Sweet  Half

A running skeptic in the office would often say, what’s the point of running long distances when you can always take the car or get an Uber or a Grab alternatively? He misses the point completely. Running a marathon  is not about getting from point A to point B. It is about the 22-week preparation and the 3 to 6-hour validation of one’s passion, hard work and dedication on race day itself. It’s about the journey rather than the destination, as the cliché goes.

Enjoy the journey I did particularly during the first 21 kilometers  of the race.  The festive atmosphere, the smiles of friends and fellow runners at the starting line  and  the encouraging words of the TBR Dream Chasers were more than enough to pump us up with enthusiasm and excitement as we started at 2am.  The cool temperature, the happy exchange of comments and stories among fellow runners, the endless cheering by past TBR alumni along the course track, the expansive  sky full of stars and, for the first time in  a long time,   my playlist in the background made the experience even more awesome.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the TBR DM experience is really such a powerful experience of pure, unadulterated energy, positivity and affirmation compared to  all the other races I’ve ran for the past 4 years. Nothing comes close.

The Bitter Half

As I  entered km 22, I started to detect muscle tightness on my right calf. It surfaced in trickles to a point where I thought it would go away.  Having gotten a preview of the experience in my past races and my recent LSDs,   I knew what to do.  I did what worked during my training particularly  the 30km practice run.  I ran backward and sideward every so often. I also walked uphill and ran downhill. By km 30, I saw a number of runners doing the same thing. Were they imitating me or did their coaches and teams also teach them the same thing?  I smiled at the thought.

Shortly after  going up the round-about for the second time, I modified my approach to  a 1- minute run, 2-minute  walk to lessen the muscle tightness which gradually became progressive. There was a routine though that I discarded upon my therapist’s  advice (i.e., forward leg swinging and sideward leg swinging), as he said it would just worsen the cramping. By the time, I got to the Miriam College uphill leg of the race course  for the second time, the 1:2 gave way to the lamp post technique I learned from both Coach Lit and Coach Francis. I stuck to this until I got to the u-turn of the Republic Wakeboard leg of the course. To my dismay, that was where the cramping practically  forced  me to stop dead in my tracks.  Remembering my coaches’ advice, I decided to walk.  The tightness appeared to lessen. To my horror, my left toes also started cramping along with my right calf.  Thankfully, I had the good sense to head for the nearest first aid station where I borrowed a foam roller stick. That helped a great deal. God bless the Dream Chaser who handed me a salt stick.

“How in the world could this happen to me despite all my preventive measures on top of following my training?,” I asked myself.  Consider the following: I’ve pumped my body with 500ml of buco juice every single day one week before the race. I was eating bananas daily 2 weeks before race day. I followed my race nutrition plan taking in energy gels  every 45 minutes. I did all the stops to sip water and interspersed the same with Gatorade even if I did not feel thirsty. I lost count of the number of bananas I ate on the race course when the muscle tightness started surfaced.  I followed the metronome setting of  180 strides per minute until it became problematic to do so.

As I made my way back from the junction, I decided to just walk off the rest of the race. I knew my target of  finishing within 5 hours was gone. I just smiled and muttered my thanks to the kind and generous Dream Chasers who cheered me on. I really wanted to run as I passed by them if only  to reward them for their kindness and generosity but I was terrified of repeating  my Run United 3 experience  where I limped to the finish line after I cramped at km 18. A number of the Dream Chasers, it turned out,  were my batchmates from TBR 2016 who gleefully cheered me on: “Takbo, Von, takbo!” “Von, may camera, run!” I just smiled at them after waving  and sharing  that I have cramped.

My heart sank further as I passed by Head TBR Coach Jim Lafferty who was waiting at km 38. I wanted to explain my situation and tell him that except for the week in December when I got sick, I followed the TBR plan like my life depended on it and more but I kept this to myself. I  wanted to thank him for the program  but I was not so sure how it would have come across. Walked on I did until km 39 where I came across Coach Al who was all smiles and who encouraged me by saying: “Konti na lang. Good job!” He also recommended that I try running and walking backwards but I said I’ve done that already.

By km 40, an unexpected grace came my way by way of 2 lady runner friends of Team Bulalo who coaxed me to run by pacing me. One of them, Anne, reminded me that: “lalong bibigat yan.” So run I did out of “hiya.” Surprisingly, the salt tablet may have kicked in along with whatever was left of my adrenaline.  I actually got to run the last 2km without any issues. That I guess was what made me smile as I  capped a bittersweet finish.  I actually ran my way to the finish line despite my cramping earlier.

I teach a module on Adversity Quotient (AQ) which espouses the growth mindset. Stating the thing broadly, it is not what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you that will make you grow and develop. Failure is to be regarded as a stepping stone to improvement. It is not the last chapter of your life.   The centerpiece of the module is what AQ researcher Dr. Paul Stoltz calls the LEAD approach.

Listen to your adversity response

The way I see it, there  are two options available to me.

The low AQ response says: I should be sorry for myself and this failure is massive. The high AQ response says: I should be grateful I still managed to finish the race despite my injury. This failure is but a detour to better things to come.

Explore the origins and ownership

The low AQ response is not grounded in reality. The fact of the matter is that the race results revealed that I need to strengthen my body further and I need to heal completely  to run faster.   The cross-training did help. The techniques taught by Tai Chi and Yoga would no doubt also prove helpful as my coaches in swim and cycling also point to my stiffness and tension as a development opportunity.

Analyze the evidence

The evidence clearly says this setback is not permanent. There are tons of lessons to learn from this which would help me become a better runner and, at the same time, help me gear up for my first sprint triathlon.

Mindset is clearly part and parcel of race preparation. Rest should not be underestimated. Food intake should be scrutinized and reviewed consistently. Being at the starting line an hour before gun start is much better. Strength training is not an option. Flexibility training is just as critical.  Forgiveness of oneself is a grace to pray for. Gratitude and appreciation for those who helped you cross the finish line is a must.

Decide to take action

I suppose this is why the following day,  I readily signed up for my first Triman even as I capped my second marathon day with a 2-hour swim drill which validated my readings once again. Swimming does hasten muscle recovery and is a perfect sport for the runner.

While signing up for another race makes your succeeding efforts more focused and intentional, I strongly felt that part of moving on is to allow my body to get a much needed rest so my injury could heal more completely.  Then and only then could I truly say, it is time to move on. The best is yet to come.

Why Indeed

Possibly the most famous admonition associated with Saint Pio is: “Pray, hope and don’t worry. Worry is useless.” In this day and age of dizzying changes and transformations happening every nanosecond, it is one admonition we who live in the 21st century would do well to take seriously. 9-11, globalization, climate change, digitization, drug wars, Brexit, rationalization, financial meltdown,  Syria, ISIS, Greece…The list is endless. As the classic rocker Don Henley would put it: “In a New York minute, everything can change…” To be sure, given all these,  it is very easy to intellectualize Saint Pio’s counsel.  I propose though that unless and until you are forced into what some existential philosophers call limit situations, you would never fully appreciate what he was trying to drive at when he offered the above advice.

I must say I’ve been blessed to find myself in such a situation a couple of times. It is possible that all this is borne of the challenges associated with entering midlife. Then again, it is equally possible that this is a matter of selective perception – seeing what we want to see in what are objectively random events in one’s life.  Having said that, I’ve been thankfully  blessed to come across some friends who unwittingly offered what to me appears to be the biblical premises of Saint Pio’s reminder.

The first one is from Jeremiah 29:11 and I quote: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” While the original context of this passage was the message of hope and assurance that God wanted to bless the Jewish people with as they had to stay as exiles in Babylon for 70 years, I believe it is not stretching the meaning of the passage that much if we are to relate it to our individual and collective state in the face of various adversities.  More to the point, it easily grounds  the first component of Adversity Quotient which the researcher Dr. Paul Stoltz refers to as control or how one perceives an adversity as either actionable or beyond hope.  One can either look at the problem as a permanent state from which there is no escape  or as a temporary detour from which one could  springboard to better things. Jeremiah 29:11 underpins the latter.

The second one I have been blessed to be gently reminded of is from Matthew 6:26-34  and it goes: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which if you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore, do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear? For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father know that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Again, while these words were addressed to the crowd that gathered around Jesus during his famous Sermon on the Mount 2,000 years ago, its explanatory power resonates loud and clear  in the 21st century regardless of one’s social, economic and political situation. For indeed, just like that, as they say, you could lose it all. Just like that, one’s life could unceremoniously end. Just like that, a relationship could end. Just like that, the unexpected could happen.

I suggest that it is precisely in the context of these three passages that we could fully appreciate the other half of Saint Pio’s admonition which we don’t often hear:  “God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”  With these three passages written hundreds of years apart, one can more confidently sing along to Annie’s “Tomorrow” and play the air guitar to Bamboo’s “Umagang Kay Ganda.” Why worry indeed!

Surreal

In the CD-ROM entitled All This Time, rock icon Sting shares how strange and surreal it was to meet your heroes face to face. This realization dawned on him as he met singer-songwriter legend James Taylor for the first time. This was because Taylor was one pop icon whose albums Sting  used to buy and listen to a lot during  his formative years as  a musician.  Given the preceding, it is not that difficult to imagine how he must have felt when Taylor unexpectedly showed up backstage right after Sting’s concert to engage him in a conversation. They would, of course,  eventually become life-long friends who would sing  in each other’s albums over the years.

Sting’s surreal reflection might as well apply to me when I met not one but two real-life writers who have paid their dues as accomplished craftswomen of the written word. Thanks to their continuing long-running stints with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading broadsheet of the Philippines. I am, of course, referring here to Ma. Ceres Doyo whose column Human Face appears every Thursday in the Inquirer and Neni Sta. Romana Cruz who also regularly writes for the Inquirer on top of her duties as  Chair of the National Book Development Board and her calling as an educator, a book critic, a reading advocate and prime mover of WhereTheWriteThingsAre.  The latter facilitated the afternoon talk which was given by Ms. Doyo on the basics of feature writing.

SURREAL

Since I am a struggling and aspiring writer despite being published 5 times by the Inquirer between 2014 and 2015, it took awhile for me to get my bearings back when I realized I was in the presence of writing greatness.  Awed, blessed and highly favored would not be inaccurate to describe how I felt.  I took in the whole experience like the first time I saw the U2 docu film on IMAX.  Indeed, the experience brought back fond memories of how I felt when I  had the privilege of shaking the hand of Inquirer columnist  Conrad De Quiros during one of the rallies in Makati sparked by the excesses of the  Estrada presidency. The same might as well apply to the first time I got to speak face to face with yet another Inquirer columnist Randy David during the visit of the late philosopher Richard Rorty to U.P. I was instrumental in coordinating Professor Rorty’s visit to the Ateneo by referring Professor David to the Ateneo Philosophy faculty.

 MASTERCLASS

Despite the fact that Ms. Doyo conducted her talk sitting down (as she was not feeling well) and notwithstanding the fact that her Powerpoint deck  could use some millennial aesthetic fine-tuning to keep up with the times, from the moment she opened her mouth and proceeded to walk us through the various stages of feature writing, you knew this was not just a talk on feature writing. It felt more like a master class. I particularly appreciated her many stories and examples from her writing career. She used these to amplify her tips and advice to aspiring feature writers like me.  Among those that seared themselves in my heart and mind were her first-hand experience of being harassed during the Marcos dictatorship, her engaging interview with Chavit Singson, her life-long project of preserving the legacy of Mac-Ling Dulag and her front-seat access to the execution of a serial rapist by lethal injection.

It was also inspiring to realize –  as she was sharing tips on prospective subjects to write about as well as numerous angles and approaches one can explore – that one could never possibly run out of things to write about.  You just need to have the guts to face the typewriter or the keyboard and, to quote her favorite author, “let the drops of blood flow from your head to your keyboard.”  Funny yes  but oh so true.

DOWN TO EARTH

After overcoming the surreal dimension of the entire experience, I  found the voice to engage with Ms. Doyo by way of questions which she encouraged her class to shoot her way.  She answered every single one of them with very incisive insights and in a very inspiring way.  I think it was the poet Maya Angelou who once wrote that after several months, people will forget what it was you said to them but they will not forget how you made them feel.  Thanks to their sincerity and their being grounded in the  reality of their readers and now listeners, both Ms. Doyo and Ms. Cruz reminded me of my favorite teachers in high school and college. They would not only answer your questions with wit. They would also effortlessly complement their replies to your questions with inspiring remarks. Remarks that inspire you to dream bigger dreams. Remarks that goad you to keep fighting, keep trying, keep writing no matter what.

Maybe it was the reason why I ended up being caught by the camera with my eyes closed when I had my picture taken with them. Maybe it was my self’s physiological way of telling those who cared to observe that clearly my mind and my heart at that time could not snap out of such  a transcendent experience.  “Was this really happening?” would not be a bad way to caption the said picture.   In her book entitled Human Face which I requested Ms. Doyo to sign, she scribbled the message:  “Celebrate the human.”  That was what I felt like doing through writing as I contemplated her message weeks after her talk.  After listening to Ms Doyo’s talk and conversing with Ms Cruz about my travails and worries as an aspiring weekend writer, that was exactly how I felt celebrating by continuing on with my blogging, come rain or come shine.

Maraming salamat po, Ms. Doyo and Ms. Cruz. Hulog kayo ng langit.

If You Can Keep Your Head

I have always been fascinated by the flying genius deftly displayed by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger at New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009. You can imagine my delight when I learned that his heroic act as celebrated in his  memoir entitled Highest Duty – My Search for What Really Matters would be turned into a movie. More so when I read that no less than Clint Eastwood would direct the film that would topbill Tom Hanks as Capt. Sully. For months, I looked forward to finding out how these two world-class talents would transform a 315-paged autobiography into a 120-minute film.  And so when we read about Sully opening in our city, we wasted no time catching it on Imax.

Here are 5 takeaways that made us even bigger fans of Sully, and, by implication, Eastwood and Hanks.

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Sense of Purpose

Both in the book and in the film adaptation of the latter, Sully consistently refused to refer to himself as a hero, choosing instead to share the credit with his co-pilot and crew.  As far as Sully was concerned, he was simply a professional aviator who got the job done out of a strong sense of purpose.  To be sure, this strong sense of purpose did not grow in a vacuum.  In the film, Eastwood points us to three compelling elements in Sully’s life that proved pivotal in this regard –  his love of flying during his growing up years, his military aviation training and his wife and kids.  The book though takes us even farther, specifically, to how he was formed and raised by his dad who served in the military and his mom who was a grade school teacher. Both did a fine  job of forming his strong sense of purpose  in words and deeds.  “When we’re not around, we’re counting on you” my mom would tell me. My dad would say, “You’re in charge.” (p. 63.) Being a military man, Sully’s father “impressed upon me that a commander’s job is full of challenges, and his responsibilities are almost a sacred duty. I kept my father’s words with me during my own military career, and, after that, when I became an airline pilot, with hundreds of passengers in my care.” (p. 57.)    And so it was that despite the fact that Sully lived in an age when being a  commercial pilot is no longer as glamorous and as high-paying as it used to be in the old days,  his sense of purpose – to care for both his passengers and crew come rain or come shine – was as undiminished in 2009 as it was when he first flew with his instructor Mr. Cook in 1967.  That the movie was screened during the week celebrating Good Shepherd Sunday all the more amplifies his characteristic  insistence to always  be the first to lead and the last to leave, always choosing to put his passengers ahead of himself every time, all the time.

Law of the Harvest

I like how Director Clint Eastwood uses Sully’s love of running to take us back to critical snippets from Sully’s past. There’s one scene in the movie where Sully catches sight of an F-4 Phantom on display towards the end of his run. It was one run that augured well with his attempt to center himself during a period of tremendous self-doubt. That’s because the F-4 was the same aircraft where he and his co-pilot got involved in his very first   near-miss when he was still  a military aviator. He describes this in vivid detail in the book: “perhaps the most harrowing flight of my military career came in an F-4 out of Nellis…We were at a very low altitude, and I felt the plane move by itself. Imagine being in your car, driving along, and all of a sudden,  without turning the steering wheel, you start veering to the left. It would be a bit shocking.” (p. 121.) Even then, Sully was the take-charge pilot that he was during the Hudson River incident.  Instead of being swallowed by fear, “I immediately pulled the F-4 skyward. I needed a rapid climb  to get away from the unforgiving ground. I had to buy myself time and give myself room. At a higher altitude, Loren (his co-pilot) and I might be able to make sense of the malfunction and deal with it more effectively. More important, if the situation worsened, we would have the time and altitude to be able to recover or successfully eject and survive.” (p. 122.)

In yet another scene in the film where the viewer learns that his career as a military aviator was largely influenced by his teenage years flying crop-dusters in Denison,Texas Eastwood once again turns to running to evoke Sully’s reminiscences of the same.  Lest the viewer think that everything started when he did his first solo as a teenage boy, his memoir reveals that Sully considers himself “lucky to find my life’s passion at a very young age. I have a clear recollection that at age five I already knew I was going to spend my life flying airplanes.” (p. 131.)  Yet another reiteration of how world renowned theater personality Lea Salonga frames her landing the role of Miss Saigon. To wit: a classic case of preparation meeting with opportunity. Make no mistake about it.  Capt. Sullenberger’s feat at the Hudson River was not a flash in the pan. Far from it. It was premised on flying for thousands of hours  with optimal aptitude and passionate attitude.

Critical Thinking

The scene in the film where Sully discusses the value of striking a balance between following flight protocols and exercising a judgment call  reminds me of a recent talk given by Rock Ed founder and advocate Gang Badoy.  In her talk, Badoy decried the dogmatic approach of some overzealoous  employees even in situations which clearly call for a certain degree of latitude. One involved a hotel staff who refused to lend a thermos for making coffee  to a hotel guest who wanted to use it to bathe as it’s against hotel policy. The other involved a nurse who refused to administer an extra dose of anesthesia to a pregnant woman who was clearly in dire need of it given government policy about  patient-anesthesia ratios. Good thing that in both cases, it was Badoy’s critical thinking that fortunately triumphed over dogmatic compliance.   At the time of the flight emergency of Flight 1549 in 2009, critical thinking could be said to have saved the day. Consider how Sully’s thought processes concluded that  there were two options available to him when the crisis set in. One was for the flight officer to fly the plane so that he, the captain would have the time to figure out options available. The other was for the captain to fly the plane himself while the first officer sorted out the applicable trouble-shooting solutions. Sullenberger reflects thus, “Even in those early seconds, I knew this was an emergency that called for thinking beyond what’s usually considered appropriate. As a rush of information came into my head, I had no doubts that it made the most sense for me to take the controls…For one, I had greater experience flying the A320. Jeff (his first officer) was much newer to this type of plane. Also, all the landmarks I needed to see in order to judge where we  might go were on my side of the airplane. I also knew that since Jeff had just trained on the A320, he had more recent experience practicing the emergency procedures. He could more quickly find the right checklist out of about 150 checklists in our Quick Reference Handbook (QRH.)” (p. 211) Can you imagine what would have happened had Capt. Sully blindly followed the first option?

15 Years After

The timing of the movie’s screening could not have come at a more apt day of the year, opening as it did to phenomenal reviews by both critics and moviegoers 3 days before the 15th anniversary of 9/11. As one character in the movie  puts it, “It’s been a while since we’ve heard some good news about New York especially about planes.” More than providing us with a piece of good news about the city that never sleeps though, this Eastwood opus is also a tribute both to the beauty of this awe-inspiring metropolis and the spontaneous compassion of New Yorkers who came to the rescue of US Airways Flight 1549 on that fateful day of January 2009.  From its famous skyscrapers which have adorned hundreds of Hollywood movies to its busy streets brimming with so much energy and diversity, New York City as it is presented in Sully  beckons the moviegoer to visit this great city at least once within one’s lifetime.  And of course no less than Capt. Sullenberger points to January 15, 2009 as yet another great day celebrating the best that New Yorkers have to offer. “In the stress of the moment, there was an efficient kind of order that I found absolutely impressive. I also saw examples of humanity and goodwill everywhere I looked.  I was so moved when deckhands on ferries took off the shirts, coats, and sweatshirts they were wearing to help warm the passengers…I was seeing dozens of bystanders acting with great compassion and bravery – and a sense of duty. It felt like all of New York and New Jersey was reaching out to warm us.” (p. 250-251.)

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Kipling Revisited

Quite possibly, the most surprising revelation of this film even after having read Capt. Sully’s memoir was how unsympathetic and skeptical  the National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) investigators were from the very beginning of their investigation.  That was not clearly explicitated in the book.  On several occasions in the movie, the NTSB sought to point out that Capt. Sully could have saved both the plane and the passengers had he decided to land in the nearest airport instead of gliding the plane and executing a water landing in the Hudson River.  While the whole world outside the investigation room was celebrating Capt. Sullenberger as a hero, the NTSB investigators were keen on proving he was the exact opposite for having done what he did.  That he was having the beginnings of a post-traumatic stress disorder during the investigation period only made the situation even more stressful.  As Capt. Sully notes:  “It took me a couple of month to process what had happened and to work through the post-traumatic stress…They told me I’ve be sleeping less, I’d have distracted thinking. I’d lose my appetite. I’d have flashbacks, and I’d do a lot of second-guessing and “what-iffing.”  (p. 273.) To the credit of Eastwood and his crew, Sully takes us on the backseat of what it means to go through such a harrowing experience as the movie offered various cinematic glimpses of how Flight 1549 could have ended tragically.  Thankfully, in the end, despite the self-doubts and the skepticism that came his way, Sully’s wife and partner, Lorrie observed that, “He is feeling better today. You know, he’s a pilot. He’s very controlled and very professional…I have said for a long time that he’s a pilot’s pilot, and he loves the art of the airplane.” (p. 276.) Reflecting on how Tom Hanks portrayed the steady demeanor of Capt. Sullenberger throughout the movie notwithstanding his self-doubts and the doubts that his heroic actions elicited in the NTSB, I can’t help but remember a poem by Rudyard Kipling. If, according to my  literature teacher, is an eloquent portrait of what it truly takes to be truly human. My classmates and I enthusiastically dissected this Kipling masterpiece line by line in search of wisdom to guide us during our high school years. We were amply rewarded with lessons that would last us a lifetime.  In Capt. Sully’s actions that fateful day in January 2009 as well as the many times he fulfilled his highest duty from the time he flew his first solo to his sorties as a military aviator, from his first commercial flight to his celebrated water landing onboard the A320, we have been blessed with a true to life contemporary reiteration of  Kipling’s admonition.

"If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

Crossroads

The late Dr. Ramon Reyes of the Ateneo Philosophy Department was said to have been in his early 20s when he agonized about which path he would take after college. Shall he say yes to a lucrative offer from a multinational corporation by way of a management trainee position? Or shall he embrace the calling to be a philosophy teacher?  To resolve his dilemma, he had the good sense to seek out the wisdom of one of his Jesuit teachers.  After listening to him, his teacher kept quiet for a moment  before posing a question along the following lines:  “When you grow old and are about to retire and you look back at your life, which would give you greater fulfillment and happiness – to be able to say that you have manufactured thousands of soap bars and amassed great fortune or to be able to say that you have formed the hearts and minds of  leaders and parents and missed out on that fat paycheck?”

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In Bob Buford’s Half-Time: Moving from Success to Significance, we find not a dichotomy between the options that faced my teacher but rather a continuum. According to Buford, the first half of one’s life is normally spent in the rat race where the goal is to earn and get ahead. One of two things happens as one enters the second half which he refers to as half-time. A crisis – which can take the form of a death in the family, a health scare, a  financial problem, a career meltdown, divorce, and the like –  comes along which forces you to stop and take stock of your life. Or the status quo is sustained and you continue on with amassing material wealth only to question its adequacy to fulfill you.  Half-Time is addressed to both those who go through crises and those who don’t as they reach midlife.  As Buford would put it: “During the first half of your life, if you are like me you probably did not have time to think about how you would spend the rest of your life. You probably rushed through college, fell in love, married, embarked on a career, climbed upward, and acquired a few things to help make the journey comfortable…But sooner or later you begin to wonder if this is really as good as it gets.” (p. 26)

In this sense, Half-Time offers a refreshing vantage point from which to appreciate Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. All human beings, we learned in Psychology 101, seek to satisfy their physiological needs before graduating to security needs and on to love and self-esteem and finally, self-actualization.  Jim Carrey is quoted to have once said: “I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that’s not the answer.” In a way, Carrey was actually paraphrasing what the Bible tells us: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul.”

Perhaps it may be asked, how exactly does one avoid losing one’s soul? Or to put it more positively, what must one do to gain one’s soul? Buford’s Half-Time eloquently shows the way through a seamless tapestry of personal stories, anecdotes and quotations from Vaclav Havel to George Bernard Shaw, from Blaise Pascal to Soren Kierkegaard, from Henry David Thoreau to Dag Hammarskjold.

Among the  numerous stories, anecdotes and quotations in the book, what stands out the most in driving home the central theme of Half-Time is his citing of  a pivotal scene in the movie City Slickers which starred Billy Crystal and Jack Palance.  Palance who plays the role of a cowpoke issues a wake-up call to the character portrayed by Crystal, a business executive out for a two-week vacation:  “…you all come out here about the same age. Same problems. Spend fifty weeks a year getting knots in your rope then…then you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it. (Long pause) Do you want to know what the secret of life is?…One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean s____.” (p 80.)

To find out what your one thing is, Buford advocates that you start by asking yourself the question that his strategic planning consultant asked him: “What’s in the box?” That is to say, what is that one thing that you love to do and that you are good at which will truly make you happy and fulfilled? “What is your purpose? What makes you tick? What do you do so well that you would enjoy doing it without pay? What is your passion, the spark that needs only a little breeze to ignite into a raging fire?” (p. 82.) How can you leverage on such to serve others and serve God?  Half-Time offers a lot of real-life examples that will make it inevitable for the reader to pose the preceding questions to him/herself: There is the case of Michael Jordan who left the NBA for “a minor league spot on  a second-rate team in another sport.” There is Tom Tierney who left “a seven-figure job as CEO of world-class Bain &Companies to form Bridgespan, which focuses on midlevel nonprofit organizations.” (p. 83.)  There is Peter Lynch who at age 46 “decided to put boundaries on the time he was willing to spend at his job so that he could assume greater control over his life” (p. 124.)

Lest the reader think that finding significance must necessarily entail a 180-degree change, Buford points out that the journey from success to significance calls for a lot of reflection and discernment. Indeed, each chapter concludes with a set of questions meant to help the reader pause, reflect and discern.  By his estimate, it will take anywhere between 1 to 3 years to be able to resolve one’s search for significance.  The objective of half-time is not so much a change in career but rather a change in one’s perspective. “The key to a successful second half is not a change of jobs; it is a change of heart, a change in the way you view the world and order your life.” (p. 97-98.)  Aside from reflecting and praying about what will truly make you fulfilled and happy, Buford recommends what he calls “seismic testing” – assessing your talents and your strengths and seeking the wisdom of people you respect and trust. One must also take stock of the implications of putting a premium on significance even as you explore alternatives to how you are currently living your life. For most people, it is simply  not feasible to turn one’s back on your career and pursue what Steve Jobs calls “that which makes your heart sing” without a care in the world.  After all, most of Buford’s readers have mortagages to pay and children to send to college.  This in no way means you should postpone your search for significance to the time  when you finally get to retire.  The time to start is not someday but today – one step at a time, one question at a time.  Half-Time which has sold close to 1 million copies worldwide offers a well thought-out guide  and template for this protracted inward journey to significance.

The last time a book has had such a profound effect on me was when I accidentally came across Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s book came at time in my life when I was going through several crises. The book did not only equip me to navigate my way through dire straits, it eventually proved to be a very instructive guide in living a more meaningful personal and professional life in  my 20s.  Bob Buford’s Half-Time comes at a time in my life when most of the questions he poses in the book effortlessly  resonate with me even as they disturb and compel me to take action.  More importantly, Half-Time uncovers a hitherto undiscovered layer of meaning in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s admonishment: “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam” (i.e., “For the Greater Glory of God.”“God” writes Buford, “has a wonderful plan for the second half of your life: to allow you to serve him by doing what you like to do and what you are good at.” (p. 89) Pretty radical, if you ask me. It puts to question the conventional separation that we assign to working for oneself and one’s family until retirement vs. serving God and others on weekends or during annual corporate social responsibility events or as one nears retirement.

In the poem entitled “Sangandaan” the poet Jose F. Lacaba reflects thus, “Bawat pusong naglalakbay dumarating sa sangandaan. Ngayong narito ka. Kailangang magpasya. Aling landas ang susundin ng puso. Saan ka liligaya? Saan mabibigo? Saan ka tutungo?” (i.e., “Each heart that travels comes across a crossroad. Now that you are here. You must decide. Which path will your heart take? Where will you be fulfilled? Where will you waste away? Where will you go?”)

 The road to significance beckons. What will you do about it?