- 01. Giving It Away
- 02. Mind Games
- 03. Customer Service
- 04. Getting Down to Business
- 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
- 06. The Commission
- 07. Service!
- 08. Instant Celebrity
- 09. The Pinoy Diet
- 10. Life As We Know It
- 11. Doctors’ Borders
- 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
- 13. Half Empty
- 14. Me and My Leg
- 15. Always Be With You
- 16. Going Underground
- 17. Decisions, Decisions
- 18. I Shall Depart
- 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
- 20. A Nod and a Smile
- 21. Not Fighting City Hall
- 22. Stasis in Places
- 23. Fond Farewells
- 24. Parting Shots
The long-time Philippines President-turned-Dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, has been in the news lately. This may seem unusual since he has been dead for thirty years, but Ferdy maintains a currency here similar to that of his US contemporary, Ronald Reagan. A lot of people think he was a monster, and a lot think he was a hero. (Personally, I am on the “monster” side of this dialectic for the both of them.) In fact, the NGO with whom I volunteer grew out of the “People Power Revolution” that ushered Marcos out with a bloodless revolution largely based on blocking traffic on EDSA.
Forgive me for speaking in unexplained acronyms.
Theorectically, “NGO” means “non-government organization”. Actually it doesn’t. If it did it could be used to describe ant farms, jerk-off circles and General Motors, all organizations not of government. I have never heard any of those things described as an NGO. Suffice to say, though, the initials stand for “non-government organization”.
“EDSA” stands for “Epifinio delos San Antonio”, the name of the main thoroughfare through the heart of Metro Manila. In 1986, fledgling NGO’s abandoned their ant farms and other salubrious activities, whatever they may have been, to stand in the middle of EDSA. The local Cardinal of the Catholic Church, a gent named Sin (yes, Cardinal Sin, look it up) got on the radio to urge the masses to hit the streets. Together they thwarted a half-hearted attempt by the Philippines’ army to prop up Marcos.
As a last gasp effort to retain power, Marcos placed snipers atop nearby buildings to pick off the leaders of the peaceful throngs. The sharpshooters weren’t too interested in killing their compatriots — they, too, could feel the winds of change — so they missed their targets purposely. Each time a crack of gunfire would echo in the streets, a hundred thousand Filipinos giggled in unison before dashing for cover. Filipinos presage their “fight or flight” decisions with a giggle, giggling being the universal Filipino response to stress. It is an endearing cultural phenomenon.
In the end, Marcos fled to Hawaii at the invitation of Reagan, ostensibly for cancer treatment. His long and bloody reign ended bloodlessly, without a single fatality. A revolution to be proud of. Marcos died of cancer in 1989.
Marcos is in the news today because there has been movement afoot to relocate his well-preserved remains. Currently he reclines Mao-like in a mausoleum’s plexiglass display case. Some want him moved to a national cemetery notionally reserved for heroes. The Supreme Court, which tends to look at laws rather than notions, just ruled he was entitled to be buried with the heroes. The folks I work with are not happy about that, and truth be told, neither am I. But it is reassuring that somebody is paying attention to the law around here.
Remember Imelda Marcos? You know, Ferdinand’s extravagant showgirl wife with two thousand pairs of shoes? Frank and I have been meaning to visit the museum that houses her shoe collection, which is only about five kilometres from our apartment. In researching this, I was gobsmacked to discover Imelda is still alive and well. Not only that, she is a long-serving Congresswoman! So few members of Congress have proper shoe museums in their honor.
It has been eight weeks since they reupholstered my knee. It hasn’t been as bad as I expected, which is to be expected if you consider that I expect things to be pretty bad, generally.
The worst of it was the first six weeks in a splint allowing no knee bend whatsoever. A straight leg takes up an inordinate amount of space. Transport was a problem. Aside from barely being able to walk, I couldn’t fit in a tricycle or a jeepney — not that I used either often beforehand. Me and my leg would take up the entire rear seat of a car, a taxi or the company van. In this country getting that much space is a rarity beyond luxury.
A few days after getting out the hospital we borrowed a wheelchair to wheel me across the street to a local restaurant. Heavens, a person entering a restaurant in a wheelchair gets a lot of attention — like it or not (and probably not). The host, two waiters, and the manager escorted us to a table, a hush silencing every dinner conversation, even the guitarist stopped playing, all eyes on the cripple. Me and my leg took up half a table for six, the leg sticking out so as to trip waiters with impunity. Good fun.
For six weeks, it was nearly impossible and highly uncomfortable simply to sit. After an hour I would lose all sensation in the lower half of my body, which has its advantages when the missing sensation is pain. But on arising, utter exhaustion would overcome me, sending me back to bed.
Having lived my life dashing between survival-driven tasks and more meaningless ones, staring at the ceiling for a month was a healthy experience. Prior to this episode, my frustration and disappointment with the seething cesspool that is Quezon City was focused on the utter lack of open space or clean air in which to jog or walk. With jogging and walking now out of the question, I wistfully viewed from my bedroom window the clogged chaotic streets with new appreciation. In a strange way I seem to have developed some affection for the place. I could understand, to some degree, how people might become attached to places like Philadelphia, or Baltimore. That’s important, because the modern world is littered with places like Philadelphia or Baltimore, and full of people attached to them.
I was warned that the physical therapy part of my rehabilitation would be painful, but aside from the very first session in the hospital, that has not been the case. During my six weeks in the splint, a young therapist named Martin came out to the apartment for sessions three times week, sessions that seemed to me more like “boot camp” sessions given by personal trainers than physical therapy.
A month in bed left me most impressed with the cockroaches of the Philippines. They may not be in plain sight, but they are omnipresent. The cockroaches here can fly, a fact which can be most disturbing to the uninitiated. They seem to appear out of nowhere — then disappear just as fast.
Less exceptionally, the cockroaches are highly industrious and impossible to control. Martin was perplexed at my apology when one scampered across the apartment during a therapy session. To Martin, the idea of being embarrassed for having cockroaches was completely foreign, literally. I might as well have apologized for the weather.
I cannot claim I am comfortable with the critters quite yet. The fight goes on: sprays, powders, bay leaves (?), chalk, traps. I have become accustom to squashing the buggers with my bare hands and feet —which means I scrub my hands and feet a dozen times more a day now.
Every couple of weeks I check in with Dr. Roncalo, the orthopaedic surgeon that re-assembled my tendons. Doctors here do not make appointments. I must assume this is because few Filipino’s have much respect or understanding for the concept of “appointment”. Instead, doctors have “office hours”, usually three hours in the middle of the day, three times a week. Patients just show up and wait, first come, first serve. If office hours start at noon, one best get there by eleven-thirty — or be prepared to wait a couple of hours behind the six other patients who did.
In effect, this practice is not all that different than having an appointment with a doctor who is always a few hours behind schedule. Of course, any decent doctor is frequently behind schedule. I mean, what’s a doctor to do? “I’m sorry, we’re out of time. Schedule something with Helen for next week, and in the meantime see if you can stem the bleeding. Off you go!”
Dr. Roncalo is a most personable man who focuses on buttering up his patients before getting down to business. “Ah, Mr. Kodiak! I see you lost some weight in hospital. You look wonderful! Now, let’s take a look at those beautifully formed legs of yours.” In different circumstances, I might have thought he was hitting on me. As it was, I nodded doe-eyed to everything he said, and now I am typing rave reviews about the man. Clever.
Two weeks ago, I got out of the splint. Now I have an elaborate and expensive knee brace the likes of which my therapists have never seen. They refer to it as “the contraption”. It wraps from thigh to ankle, with an adjustable hinge to allow the therapists to gradually increase the amount of knee bend permitted. I started out at thirty degrees, but even that small allowance made a tremendous difference. Many everyday things — like putting on socks — became do-able again. Hallelujah! I am up to ninety degrees now, climbing stairs, walking a couple kilometers a day, using the elliptical exerciser thingy at the gym, and riding a stationary bicycle. Normalcy is in sight.
The down side of this is now I have to go to the hospital for my physical therapy sessions. There they hook me up to various machines to make sure the gradually increasing bend won’t rip the surgical work to shreds. They keep telling me I must have a high pain threshold, which is a worry since I am all in favor of not ripping the surgical work to shreds. I don’t mind going to the hospital for PT, especially since I can now walk the three kilometers there (and sometimes back, too).
The “down side” to which I refer is having to witness other patients go through physical therapy for problems far more horrific than mine. An elderly lady who fell down a flight of stairs. A young man who kissed a windshield at 90 kph. Darkest of all are the little kids, toddlers who shriek and writhe with no understanding of what is going on despite the staff’s heroic attempts to explain, entertain and distract them.
When I was three years old my mother agreed to take care of a friend’s cat for a couple days. It was a lithe, clean tabby. I loved cats. I started chasing my new friend around the house. The tabby fled under our ancient oil furnace. Eventually it emerged, covered in soot and grime. I decided to give the cat a bath.
While the tub filled, I captured the tabby, and took it into the bathroom. I dropped the cat into the tub. It is one of my earliest memories, watching that cat magically bounce off the surface, bounding with great speed towards my face, claws first. A nanosecond later the bath water was red with blood and my left eyelid dangled, precariously attached to my brow.
At the hospital, they put me in a straight-jacket, which panicked me far more than the injury. Then, without the benefit of any anesthetic whatsoever, a doctor proceeded to sew my eyelid back on. I recall screaming, squirming in the straight-jacket while three nurses held me down as the doctor repeatedly plunged a needle into my open eye.
My mother watched from a corner in the operating surgery. Before long, she threw a fit, demanding they give me some kind of pain relief or anesthesia. The doctor had her escorted out, bellowing at her “Children of this age do not experience pain.” It was an important early lesson for me: people, even doctors, will ascribe to whatever belief system may suit their needs, because children of that age DO experience pain. More to the point, what an asshole.
Thankfully, that hospital, which also happens to be the place of my birth, has long been closed. Today it is a condominium where ghosts of children in agony roam the halls. It was good to see St Luke’s staff were under no such misapprehensions regarding the pain experienced by toddlers. Nevertheless, I found listening to their suffering during physical therapy almost unbearable.
As for the volunteer work, things are returning to a bizarre normalcy, too. One of these days, I’ll get around to telling you about it.
Weirdly, the leg injury experience has left me far more comfortable with the overwhelming work, and my frenetically passionate workmates, and the insanely disorganized way the work is done. It occurred to me just yesterday that I am certainly enjoying this work more than anything I ever did in government, probably more than any work I ever did, period. Maybe that’s because there is no pay involved, so little expectation and the associated disappointment. Or maybe everybody should spend the third month on the job in a bed staring at the ceiling.