Archive for January 2010

Ogori and the May 2010 Elections

January 31, 2010

Sunday morning in Jakarta is my day for writing the first draft of my evaluation report.

I am psyching myself for this, recalling what many prolific writers have told me when I asked them about their methods. “Writers find all possible excuses to avoid writing. Just write.”

I don’t. I first read my e-mails. Then Facebook. Then my blogsite, including the comments and the links.

After reading a couple of blogs about the presidential candidates for the May 2010 elections, I read a very short blog from Seth Godin about  Ogori, a unique cafe in Japan.

Ogori (and generosity)

(Someone) writes about a cafe in Japan with a simple rule: You get what the person before you ordered (and paid for), and the next person gets what you ordered.

Take a few moments to think about that.

Would you go?

What would you order?

Is this an opportunity to give, or an opportunity to take…

I think we have Ogori opportunities daily.

Intrigued by the idea, I checked the blog that he cites. Here are excerpts, slightly edited:

The Ogori cafe looks innocuous enough, but holds a surprise in store for its patrons. In a nutshell, you get what the person before you ordered, and the next person gets what you ordered. Thus, if you’re in on the game, you can choose to be either a generous benefactor, and treat those that come after you – or try your luck at being cheap. Either way, it’s an interesting experiment that explores surprise, kindness and encourages interactions.

As I (the blogger) sat down to enjoy my surprise Appletizer, a Japanese woman approached the cafe. She could read the large sign at the front, and got advanced warning of what she was in for. Before deciding on what to order, she quietly snuck up to me to ask me what I had ordered, knowing that it would be her unwavering refreshment destiny. The staff put a quick stop to her trickery, and I didn’t answer.

Regardless of what she ordered, she got the orange juice I ordered a few minutes earlier. But here’s one of the moments that make this experiment cool: She actually chose orange juice, just like I did. So she got what she wanted. Ogori cafe synchronicity!

Before we left, there was one last thing that had to be done.

Mike went up to the cafe, slapped down a couple thousand yen (~$25), and ordered a little bit of everything: some ice cream, some snacks, some candy, some drinks, a Japanese horn-of-mysterious-plenty intentionally set up as a shocking surprise for the next lucky customer. (After his order, Mike received single iced coffee.)

As we walked away from the cafe, with just the right amount of delay, we heard an extremely excited “Arigato goazimasu!! Thank you so much!!” yelled in our direction, from an ecstatic mom and her equally excited young son. They truly appreciated the surprise.

It was so worth it.

If the Philippine presidency were an Ogori resto, the next occupant of Malacanang would get what GMA has ordered, and the president after the 2016 elections would get what the 2010 winner would order.

That’s their problem.

But it is also our problem, since we pay.

Padang Restaurants and Thomas Aquinas in Indonesia

January 30, 2010

Midnight in Medan, I think back to my two weeks stay in Indonesia, and my neurons establish synapses between padang restaurants and Thomas Aquinas.

It was Arthur, my host from the Center for Popular Education, who explained to me the unique feature of a padang restaurant. I had wondered aloud why the waitress did not wait for our orders. Instead, she served us dozens of dishes, filling the whole table, even piling some dishes on top of adjoining dishes.

“Are we supposed to eat all of these dishes?” I asked. “Will they charge us for all?”

Arthur smiled. “No, they will check afterwards which dishes we consumed and charge us only for those,” he explained. “They will also charge us proportionately for those dishes we do not completely finish.”

He added that it is only padang restaurants that do this. The name comes from Padang, the capital kota of Western Sumatra.

In an earlier chat, Girlie urged me to blog about my visit to Indonesia. But there’s so much to blog about! The images and stories I have of Indonesia are like the dozens of dishes in a padang restaurant.

There’s no way to blog about all of them. And no need to. Just pick a few.

But which few?

That’s the connection to Thomas Aquinas. One of my favorite aphorisms from him is “Quidquid recipitur, recipitur secundum modum recipientis.” Whatever is received, is received according to the capacity and interest of the receiver.

His Latin aphorism is a translation from the Greek of Aristotle. But that’s another story.

The fruit juice I ordered, upon the suggestion of my host, was terong blanda. Interesting name, literally “Dutch eggplant.” I asked why Indonesians call the Dutch blanda. After some discussion, my friends confessed they didn’t really know. I did not ask the follow-up question on why the fruit is called Dutch eggplant. I simply assumed, with some mischief, that it is elongated and large. Wrong assumption, it turned out.

Another Dutch connection came up in our conversation. The Center for Popular Education had just co-sponsored the publication of a book about Amir Sjarifoeddin, the prime minister of Sukarno. “The book is based on a doctoral dissertation that was banned from publication during Suharto’s time, “Arthur informed me. “But Indera Nababan found a copy in the Netherlands, and managed to have it published.”

Amir Sjarifoeddin has been accused as a communist, and he was eventually assassinated by the military. But the book’s author interprets his life and struggle for Indonesian independence as driven by Christian convictions. That led us to talk a bit about the idea of a “Christian left” including its Philippine version.

Arthur says that there are records that Amir was a member of the PKI, but he also had definite Christian convictions. He was still a Muslim when he studied gymnasium in the Netherlands, but converted to Christianity after his return to Indonesia. Some of the influences were his association with Christian youth circles and a progressive Dutch pastor who spent a lot f time with them.

He gave me a copy of the book, and it has reinforced my decision to learn Bahasa, so I can read about this interesting life.

The other evening, at another restaurant, someone came to our table to greet me. “I heard your voice and it sounded familiar.” he said. “I have studied at the Asian Social Institute in the Philippines, and later at the De la Salle University.”

I suddenly remembered where we met. “It was during my 2007 visit, and we met at the Medan seminary, where I was invited to speak,” I told him.

During that visit, I was told about the seminary’s interesting history. It was set up to train pastors for the numerous Christians in Medan who did not have the benefit of religious instruction. The reason there were so many Christians who needed pastors was the mass conversion after 1965 of members and sympathizers of the PKI who sought to avoid persecution.

More than a decade after the 1998 reformasi, the labels “communist” or even “leftist” still carry the burden of the past. The idea of a “Christian left” is not necessarily less suspect.

I think of my many conversations during this visit  – with organizers and leaders of  workers who seek to establish independent and democratic unions and federations, and negotiate for decent wages and safe working conditions; with community leaders and teachers who help returned migrant workers collect unpaid wages and seek justice against those who have cheated or abused them; with activists who help farmer leaders fight for land reform and promote sustainable agriculture; with veteran fisherfolk leaders who seek to enforce laws against trawlers.

Their energies inspire and evoke memories of the popular energies that flowed in the Philippines after EDSA 1986, seeking to fill the newly won but contested democratic space against those who sought to restrict it.

9 Ways to Live Longer, Better, Happier

January 24, 2010

Girlie and I have just been chatting, and she asked about the tips for a healthier life which we had watched sometime back on TED.

“I think I read about it in Presentation Zen,” I told her. “But I will check later, to be sure.”

That gave me a chance to listen again to the TED talk by Dan Buettner based on a project he did for National Geographic. They studied communities where there is a much higher percentage of people 100 years old who are still active and healthy.

The three communities he describes are 1) in the highlands of Sardinia, 2) in the northern islands of Okinawa, and 3) a Seventh Day adventist community in California.

From these three communities, he distilled 9 factors that explain why.

He says that genetic factors contribute less than 25% to our prospects for longevity. The rest is culture and lifestyle.

I thought of Inay whose death anniversary is on February 13. She lived till 89, though she was bed-ridden for almost a year before that. That’s 25% of my prospects, I presume. But my father died when I was only four, so that might reduce my prospects, and I can’t do anything about that. But I can still do something about culture and lifestyle.

So what are the 9 ways?

Presentation Zen is one of my favorite sites, so I will use its more succinct summary, slightly edited. I like the way it has “chunked” the 9 ways into 4 mantras. Pop psychology tells us that the average human mind’s capacity for short-term recall is only for a maximum of 7. That’s supposed to be the reason why telephone numbers have seven digits (before the celfones).

Mantra One:  Move Naturally

1)  You don’t need a formal, rigorous exercise plan. Instead, design a lifestyle that is fundamentally active. We’re designed to move. Walk, do yard work, whatever. Do exercises/activities that you enjoy.

Mantra Two:  Have Right Outlook

2) Slow down. When you’re constantly in a hurry and stressed out, this has a negative impact on your health. Limiting negative stress is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.

3) Have a clear purpose. The Japanese call it “ikigai” 生き甲斐 (lit: life + value, be worth while). You must have a passion, a calling, a purpose. Your reason to get out of bed every day.

Mantra Three: Eat Wisely

(4) Drink a little (wine) everyday.

(5) Eat mainly plant-based foods. Small amounts of meat and fish are OK.

(6) Hara Hachi Bu: Eat until 80% full. Do not eat eat until you’re stuffed.

Mantra Four:  Be Connected With Others

(7) Put family, loved ones first.

(8) Belong to a community. Many in his study belonged to faith-based communities.

(9) Belong to the right tribe. Hang out with people with healthy habits, physical, and emotional ones.

Like me, you must have read every item on the list, though scattered in different articles. What interests me in the 9 Ways is that they are based on a cross-cultural research across three continents. The only caution I have is that there are no communities representing the Global South. Can the 9 Ways be practiced in situations of grinding poverty and injustice? Will the stress of seemingly endless struggles overwhelm?

This afternoon in Jakarta, the 9 Ways resonate with me, as I take a one-day break from a full week’s schedule of meetings and field visits, and prepare for similar week that starts tomorrow.

Number 1 coincides with the first in a list of 12 Brain Rules, though the latter is about learning, rather than health. John Medina explains that our brain evolved while our ancestors walked a couple of miles every day. Hence, movement is needed, not just for health, but also for learning. This is especially true for those who have greater kinesthetic intelligence.

Number 2 doesn’t need an unrealistic unloading of all stressful work and schedules. What it asks of us is to set aside some time every day, even if only 15 minutes, to take a nap, meditate, do Body Talk, what Girlie calls “tunganga.” I think of the wisdom in some institutional church practices, like morning meditations, monthly recollections, annual retreats, and sabbaticals.

Number 3 reminds me of Daniel Dennet’s aphorism that the secret of happiness is to find a cause great enough that one can devote one’s life to it. But the 100-year olds interviewed in the study mention simpler reasons to get up in the morning. A fisherman wants to continue fishing. A karate black belter wants to continue his routines. A great, great, great grandmother wants to take care of her great, great, great grand daughter.

Number 4 is something I will propose in tonight’s chat with Girlie. We should be able to afford an occasional bottle of red wine, and we do enjoy a drink together before we get drowsy. I wonder what substitute is available to those for whom red wine is not available or affordable?

Number 5 gives me some comfort, though it has taken me a lifetime to overcome my childhood aversion to vegetables. But I like fruits, and fish.

It’s number 6 that I have started to practice, to good effect. Presentation Zen proposes a cross-over application to people (like myself) who are often invited to speak on a variety of topics. Don’t overload your slides and your talk. Give people space to digest what you offer and add their own ideas.

Diet and exercise and relaxation and purpose are, to a great extent, our individual responsibility. Numbers 7,8, and 9 are a reminder that our individual well-being is intimately connected to other people.

One of the striking findings of the cross-cultural research is that  their communities celebrate old people’s wisdom and value them. And the old people have a group of close friends with whom they share their bounty and whom they can depend on in time of any need.

The obverse is that isolation kills. But so does constant contact with toxic people.

It’s sunset in Jakarta. I offer a silent prayer of thanks for all the people who have been blessings to my life.

Alternative Learning System: FAQ

January 24, 2010

Almost every day, when I check the blog stats, the blog post on with the biggest number of visitors is the one on Alternative Learning System or ALS.

I am posting this short blog to answer the mounting number of comments, actually queries, on ALS. I apologize to those who have expected individual answers to their comments. I do not usually respond to the comments on my blogs.

FAQ 1: Where can we find the results of the latest ALS exams, administered last November 2009?

Answer: The official results are supposed to be posted in the DepEd website. When I checked the other day, there are no results posted yet.

I can understand the impatience and frustration of the learners and those who have helped them. I have told my contacts in the Bureau of Alternative Learning System (BALS) of DepEd about your many comments and complaints, and urged them to post the results soonest. But so far, no results have been posted.

A point of clarification to those who have vented their frustration on me (I had to delete the more insulting comments). I am not a DepEd official, and have no power at all over when the results will be posted.

My involvement in ALS is as the head of E-net Philippines, a civil society network that does advocacy for Education for All, which includes ALS. Many of our member NGOs offer ALS in cooperation with the DepEd and the LGUs. They are also still waiting for the results to be posted.

So what can we do, other than wait?

Keep asking and following up with whoever is your contact in the BALS and DepEd, including those who have helped you join your learning group in ALS. Any form of pressure on the DepEd can hasten the posting of the results.

FAQ 2:  I want to enroll in ALS. How do I join?

Answer: There are three usual options. 1) Contact your local DepEd (the district supervisor’s office, or even the principal of the local public high school). They are supposed to offer ALS to those out of school youth and adults who want to join. They also have a budget, though limited. 2) Contact your local government official (barangay captain/councilor, or mayor/vice-mayor,councilors). Many LGUs offer ALS in cooperation with the DepEd. 3) Contact an NGO or development agency working in your community. Ask if they offer ALS as part of their programs.

A fourth option is to ask around if there is anyone in your community who has enrolled in ALS, and get information from him/her.

If you have extra energy, I suggest that instead of purely individual effort, you look for others who are also interested to enroll in ALS. Then go as a group to the DepEd, the LGU, or the NGO. If you can contact your congressman or congresswoman, there is a better chance that they will respond to your request if you are a group. Write to the newspapers and call the radio talk shows.

And don’t let the answer to FAQ 1 discourage you.

2010 Update: Like last year, this blog has received many queries and comments about the results of the October 2010 exams. it seems that the DepEd had initially promised the results by November. But based on phone calls to the Bureau of Alternative Learning System (BALS), the test results will not be available until February 2011.

Since it takes time to answer the questions and comments, and we cannot immediately respond to one another, I have opened a Facebook page  – ALS: Alternative Learning System. Check it out and post your comments there, for faster interaction.

Midnight Musings in Jakarta

January 20, 2010

“If you want to fully understand your own country, you must get to know another country.” This was the advice of his professor to Rey Ileto when he was doing his doctorate, which led to his book Pasyon and Revolution.

On my fourth day here in Indonesia, I catch glimpses of the logic of that advice.

I am here with a team of three evaluators, looking into the programs of the PMK, an NGO related to the HKBP, the Batak Protestant Church. Although the PMK started its work in 1983, the period we are looking into is only 2006-2008. But in our conversations with the board and staff, and their partners, we can’t help but discuss their present and future work.

Some years back, I thought of learning more about Indonesia, as a way of understanding my work in the Philippines in a different way.

I told friends, “When I think of my work for social justice only within the national boundaries of the Philippines, I think of myself as part of the majority Christian population. From this point of view, the Muslims in the South are a minority.”

“But if I zoom out to expand my imagined community to the Malay Archipelago, then I belong to a Christian minority in a dominantly Muslim population.”

This shift in majority-minority identity is more than an experiment in placing myself in the shoes of others. It poses the question of how to struggle for social justice in a democracy. This is what we have faced in the Philippines since EDSA 1986. This is what Indonesians face since reformasi in 1998.

Democracy implies that majority agree and decide. If we are part of a majority group – religious, ethnic, etc – then the democratic struggle for social justice is a matter of “arousing, mobilizing, and organizing” our fellow members of the majority.

But what if we are part of a minority group? Even if we are able to get all of our fellow members moving, we remain a minority. If we want to achieve change democratically, we have to learn how, as minorities, we can influence the majority so that the struggle for social justice will be taken up by them.

While toying with these ideas in my head, I realized that the “minority-majority” issue need not apply to being Christian or Muslim. Any group struggling for social justice is a minority, whether under a dictatorship or under a democracy. This is true at the start, and remains true for a long time.

As we exchanged stories and experiences from the Philippines and Indonesia, we realize that in these times, we have to struggle as minorities, trying to influence the majority.

The future seems to offer only the prospect of a long haul, without any immediate promise of significant changes brought about by a democratic majority.

But in both countries, we are not without resources of hope. We have “subversive memories” of a democratic majority coming together, to bring about dramatic changes, even if only for a while.

Understand, then act? Act, then understand?

January 15, 2010

Yesterday at the  workshop of the National Electrification Administration, I was asked to share reflections on their theme for 2010 – “Riding the wave while preserving the legacy,” and also on the idea of “strategic thinking.”

I took off from a sign board I had seen near a river in Zamboanga City: “Activists do not merely complain that the river is dirty. Activists clean up the river.” I had just landed that morning from Zamboanga City and had been driven straight from NAIA 3 to the venue in Tagaytay City.

The message, I told them, reminded me of the “Noah principle.” Some people worry that a flood is coming. Other people warn that a flood is coming. Still others explain why a flood is coming. Noah builds an ark.

The same emphasis on activism is in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have sought to interpret the world. The point is to change it.”

So why spend three full days, just “thinking”?

Well, activists may spend a day to clean up the river of debris, yet need to return a few days later to clean it up again. They decide to mobilize more people to join the clean up. Then they realize that their efforts are better directed at stopping the sources of solid and liquid waste further upstream.

In the bible story, Noah was following orders when he started building an ark. Instead of ridicule, would he not have received resources if there were also people who warned that a flood was coming, and explained why?

And during many  heated activist debates about “What is to be done?” I think that Marx’s famous call to activism could benefit from an ironic reversal: “Activists have sought to change the world. Perhaps they should try to really understand it.”

But there is also a possible riposte from Mao Zedong’s  essay On Practice. He wrote that we can try to understand a pear by holding it, smelling it, analyzing it etc. We understand a pear fully when we eat it.

This morning, a similar question about acting and understanding came up.

I took part in the second planning meeting of the Earth Day Network for this year’s Earth Day celebrations on April 22. At the previous meeting, we had decided on Climate Change as the focus, and took up Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Tony Oposa’s 10 million signatures campaign, but reframed it as a call for “10 million solutions.”

Toward the end of the meeting, someone proposed a formulation whose main part got unanimous approval: Hamon ng Panahon: Climate Change. 10 Milyong Solusyon.

But the next and final line took longer to agree on, and needed a debate and a vote. The initial proposal was Kasama ka ba? I suggested a more direct call, rather than a question: Sama ka na! A flurry of other suggestions followed, emphasizing action. We agreed on Kilos na!

Someone added that we should underline the sense of urgency. We almost settled for Now na! But it was pointed out that the Noynoy campaign had already appropriated that Taglish expression. Eventually we settled on Ngayon na!

After lunch, a small group met to brainstorm further on the communications plan. We agreed that the main content would be a list of actions, big and small: 1001 Ways to Save Mother Earth, eventually pared down to 101 Ways.

Then someone pointed out that Climate Change is not yet really understood by the general public. Should we not start with explaining what it is and how it affects us? Perhaps our list should be along the lines of Did You Know?

That started another discussion. It’s true that there is still so much to explain and learn about climate change. So much, in fact, that our efforts to understand may leave us little time and energy for action.

We eventually agreed on our original focus on a list of actions, big and small.

Anyway, people will ask the reason for the proposed actions, including how they impact on climate change. The list of actions will trigger the explanation.

5 Tips for Starting Your Memoir

January 10, 2010

At last Saturday’s reunion, Ganito Kami Noon, Karina Bolasco of Anvil publications asked me, “When are you writing something I can publish before I retire?”

I promised to write something by next year: “It’s a good target date, since 2011 is 25 years after EDSA 1986.”

In the various informal conversations, I mentioned that 1986-2011 is a much longer period than the period from the declaration of martial law in 1972 and 1986. “We have learned a lot about pursuing revolution (social and structural change) in the political context of a dictatorship. What have we learned about pursing the same dream in the political context of elite democracy?”

When Girlie announced her plan to write 30 stories about people she lived and worked with, some friends asked to join in the writing project.

I told her about writing tips I have clipped from an old Readers Digest issue (March 1999). “You may find it useful,” I said.

1.  Write a memoir, not an autobiography.

An autobiography is the story of an entire life, but a memoir is just one story from that life. You can only ever write one autobiography, but you can write countless memoirs. It’s a much less intimidating project if you view it that way.

2.  Diagram your life.

Some people have one burning story to tell. Others  find it difficult to immediately pinpoint anything. Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, recommends diagramming your life to gain perspective. To do this, get in a retrospective mood, enlist the help of a friend or spouse (martinis also work), and lot your life’s six most significant moments. When you do it thoughtfully and honestly, there will usually be one pivotal event that stands out as particularly intriguing and/or meaningful. If there isn’t, don’t worry. There are many different ways to diagram a life. Try dividing yours by critical choices, influential people, conflicts, beliefs, lessons, even mistakes. Experiment until you find the one story that wants to be told, the one experience that really fashioned you.

3.  Don’t begin at the beginning.

Don’t tell your story chronologically. That’s too predictable. Think of your favorite books. Most don’t start in the beginning. Instead, they rivet you with instant action and intrigue. A good beginning is a tease. It gives the readers just enough action to hook them without divulging the outcome. Then it flashes back to the real chronological beginning and fills in the background.

4.  Use all your senses.

The best writers create vivid new worlds for the readers to inhabit. Yet most budding memoirists produce first drafts that are flat. To transport readers (and yourself), write vividly. This is done through detail, by using your senses to fully recreate a moment in time. You can teach yourself to do this. The next time you’re waiting in a restaurant, a doctor’s office, or even in traffic, notice the various sights, sounds, smells, and textures. It’s what writers do, both in reality and in their stories.

5.  Build your writing muscle.

You have a writing muscle, and it needs exercise to perform well. Set a daily goal of writing 200, 500, or even 1000 words. Set aside a regular time, like early morning, and be disciplined. Don’t worry about making what you write perfect. Just focus on getting the story out. (There will be plenty of time for polishing later.) Above all, relax. A memoir is the easiest type of writing to do well.  You’ve already done the research and are intimately familiar with every character. Now you just need to tell it.


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