Saturday, June 30, 2018

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo. I’m gripped.

Megan O'Grady of Vogue summarizes the plot.

At the center of the novel is Hero (short for Gerónima), a daughter of privilege who was once destined for a high-status life as a doctor, but who ran away instead to become a medic for the New People’s Army, an insurgent Communist guerrilla group. A decade later, with a pair of broken thumbs (as well as less visible torments, like her rejection by her upper-class parents), she arrives in Milpitas, California, a San Francisco suburb where her favorite uncle, Pol, lives with his wife and 8-year-old daughter, Roni, a pugnacious playground feminist with a ravaging case of eczema. It’s the early 1990s, and as Hero comes slowly back to life with the help of Roni and her family (and eventually, a pretty makeup artist named Rosalyn), we see a larger community’s way of life, conveyed in the kind of sharp-edged noticing—“bruja” faith healers, Nestlé formula as breakfast staple, a clay model of a Spanish mission built on a pizza box—that’s second nature for those well-accustomed to code-switching between class and culture.

I hope she writes another book soon.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Happiness and emptiness

Cancer Institute, where I go to work. Photo credit: CJ Tagal

Here's a beautiful piece by my friend and colleague, Fred Ting, whose blog is fascinating.

After long, draining days of seeing patients from different walks of life—people with different masses from different social classes, people whose tragedies became worse because of various herbal remedies, I realized that the discipline can not only lead to compassion fatigue but may even suck the life out of me—sometimes leaving me empty, but happy.

I don't feel empty but drained. I feel like I am where I should be.


Friuli Trattoria, an old haunt

Manong and I were in Quezon City last night and, while waiting for the traffic to die down, we had dinner at Friuli Trattoria, an old restaurant along Maginhawa Street. (By "old," I mean it was in existence during the years 2004 to 2009). The food tasted the same. During college, eating at places like this was a luxury, reserved for special occasions, with probinsyano friends from the dorm who had enough saved weekly allowance to buy the barbecue chicken pizza, ravioli, and a glass of Coke. It still felt like a luxury last night, but the issue was not money but time. How often do I get out of my way to visit old haunts like this after a long day at the clinic? The familiar waiters, the karinderya feel, the noisy chatter of UP students with tattoos and earrings and thick-framed glasses—I felt quite at ease. How far the Lord has brought me and my brother—and my probinsyano friends! I look at my life and see His hand designing the tapestry of my history and future.

Friuli Pizza at Maginhawa Street

Friuli Pizza at Maginhawa Street

Friuli Pizza at Maginhawa Street


Lamy 1.1 mm italic nib

Lamy 1.1 mm italic nib


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The tragedy of today's education

Graduation season is around, and Patrick Deneen's piece is a thoughtful reminder.

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

He ends with this.

They won’t fight against anyone, because that’s not seemly, but they won’t fight for anyone or anything either. They are living in a perpetual Truman Show, a world constructed yesterday that is nothing more than a set for their solipsism, without any history or trajectory.

I love my students – like any human being, each has enormous potential and great gifts to bestow upon the world. But I weep for them, for what is rightfully theirs but hasn’t been given. On our best days, I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself. But even on those better days, I can’t help but hold the hopeful thought that the world they have inherited – a world without inheritance, without past, future, or deepest cares – is about to come tumbling down, and that this collapse would be the true beginning of a real education.

This is, I realize, the first time I've posted here in a while. Thanks for dropping by.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Colon cancer stage IIIC.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A colleague received this bundle of joy at the Cancer Clinic. Our patients are the most generous.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The stark emptiness of the prosperity gospel

I've had the pleasure of reading Everything Happens for a Reason: And Others Lies I've Loved largely because of Bill Gates's recommendation.1 The book is written by Dr. Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the History of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. In 2013 she wrote  Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013) where she explored the beginnings of the health-and-wealth teachings that remain entrenched in American religious life. These doctrines—mostly based on the premise that God's will for Christians is that they always hold financial blessing and physical well-being—have creeped in so many local churches, even in the Philippines. Prosperity gospel revolves around faith, prayer, positive thinking and speech, donations, and miracle crusades; by having these elements, people can persuade God to deliver them security and prosperity.

Dr. Bowler, in her deeply personal and affecting autobiography, reveals that these teachings are hollow when exposed to the scrutiny of suffering. This she realized when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She would undergo chemotherapy and immunotherapy, would grapple with questions about her illness or whether she would live for her next cycle (on Wednesdays, in a hospital in Atlanta), and would question her faith in God.

The book attempts at being coherent; it is divided in nine chapters with a preface that begins with, "There's a branch of Christianity that promises a cure for tragedy. It is called by many names, but most often it is nicknamed 'prosperity gospel' for its bold central claim that God will give you your heart's desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness." But cancer is hardly coherent. My patients tell me that suffering seems to go on forever; but it is a blur, a suspension of time, or, as Dr. Bowler wrote, "life interrupted." Amidst this mess,2 she takes us into her inner sanctum—her husband and son, her adorable friends, her colleagues at work (mostly pastors and would-be pastors)—and see that it is filled with a flurry of activity, laughter, sarcasm, and prayer. Central to her introspection is the belief that God was with her.

What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, "You are limitless"? Everything is not possible. The mighty kingdom of God is not yet here. What if 'rich' did not have to mean 'wealthy', and 'whole' did not have to mean 'healed'? What if being the people of "the gospel" meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.

You don't read Everything Happens for a Reason for theology; if you do, you will be disappointed.3 I have a feeling that I will even disagree with the author on some points of Christian doctrine. However, you read it for its humanity. Dr. Bowler sounded like the charming, funny, self-deprecating, but strongly opinionated lady in church who made everyone feel welcome. Bill Gates wrote that she "has too much integrity as a writer to offer pat answers or magic solutions."

I have always found comfort in words. Books like these—along with friends and family—have been used by God to comfort me in my own suffering and in helping others in theirs. It goes without saying that the book resonates with me deeply in that as an oncologist I deal with cancer on a daily basis, both on professional and personal levels, the latter being more difficult. My father—a cheerful, kind, prayerful, and godly man—passed away two weeks ago. Gastroesophaeal junction cancer. I miss him every day.

The Bible, too, doesn't take suffering lightly. I agree with Tim Keller in his argument that Christianity offers the only unique, truthful, useful perspective on suffering:

... The Christian understanding of suffering is dominated by the idea of grace. In Christ we have received forgiveness, love, and adoption into the family of God. These goods are undeserved, and that frees us from the temptation to feel proud of our suffering. But also it is the present enjoyment of those inestimable goods that makes suffering bearable.

In another paragraph Pastor Keller writes that Christianity "empowers its people to sit in the mist of this world's sorrows, tasting the coming joy."

Like Dr. Bowler, I sigh and groan and anguish at the sight of suffering and pain. These lines moved me.

But I don’t want ice cream, I want a world where there is no need for pediatric oncology, UNICEF, military budgets, or suicide rails on the top floors of tall buildings. The world would drip with mercy. Thy kingdom come, I pray, and my heart aches. And my tongue trips over the rest. Thy will be done.

The God of the Bible promises another world free of sin and tears and conflict and cancer. Meanwhile, as we live in this fallen remnant of paradise, we sigh in hopeful helplessness and joyful sorrow: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

1I'm subscribed to his blog: so smart and humane and kind!
2I can't find a better word.
3Timothy Keller's Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin Books, 2013) is among the best, contemporary works on the subject of human suffering. You should read it.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

My stash of diaries


On a sweltering morning in Marbel I took out the old, dusty boxes beneath what used to be my bed. Where was my stash of old journals, the very same diaries my father used to read secretly, much to my dismay, to which he told me, “They were good”? Looking for forgotten things in our St. Gabriel home was—and still is—laborious. My journals were no longer in the small Rockport shoebox I had put them in last year; they were already in the top cabinets, inside a carefully sealed plastic bag, its clean, difficult knot a reminder of my father’s obsessiveness to cleanliness and organization. Our caretaker, a close cousin of my mother, said, “Ah, your Tatay must have transferred them there.” (My inability to tie my shoelaces properly—at 30 years old!—must have frustrated him.)

I brought home with me two pocket journals—affordable Venzi notebooks with faux-leather covers—their acid-free pages already filled. The most recent had carefully written prayers, including one dated April 17 when I learned my father had an esophageal mass. I was almost certain it was malignant, but that did not keep me from asking the Lord for a miracle. No, the ink—my own concoction of 3/4 turquoise and 1/4 black Lamy—was not stained with tears, but tears were shed, albeit privately, whenever I moved my bowels or took long showers. My brothers are amused by the fact that I cry like someone from the upperclass—“daw sosyal”—while they caterwaul like the proverbial masang tao.

Tired, I placed the two journals in my collection inside the plastic bag in the top cabinet, my often careless scribbles safe from prying, curious eyes.