Monday, August 25, 2008

McCain Para sa Mahirap?

Published August 25, 2008

Joseph Estrada's famous political battle cry will probably not work for John McCain, not with this Republican presidential nominee's definition of rich as someone who earns at least $5 million a year. But in a way, McCain faces a dilemma similar to the one that got Erap in political hot water – home ownership.

When the online news site, Politico, asked McCain how many houses he owned, his answer was puzzling: "I think – I'll have my staff get to you. It's condominiums where… I'll have them get to you."

It was not exactly a response to inspire confidence among Americans, many of whom are on the verge of losing their homes or have already lost them. Then there's McCain's idea of a rich person. In Philippine terms, being middle class or poor to McCain means someone who makes less than 18 million pesos a month (which could exclude many residents of Ayala Alabang.)

I'm sure many of us would want to have McCain's problem -- to have so much money, and so much property, that you've lost track of how many houses you have. Remember Dely Ataytayan's famous role as Dolphy's super-rich mother-in-law in 'John en Marsha' and how, whenever she needed money, she would ask her maid Matutina to sweep around the house for cash scattered throughout her mansion?

Suddenly, in a presidential race in which race had played a prominent role, class has become an important issue. This is not surprising as many Americans reel from rising gas and food prices, eroding home values and a cloudy economic future.

To be sure, the two men vying to be the next American president are both millionaires. But while Barack Obama is pushing to impose higher taxes on the rich, defined by his campaign as those earning roughly $150,000 a year – or 565,000 pesos a month – McCain has been for maintaining the current administration's tax cuts which many consider unfair to middle class and poor families.

Filipinos are, of course, familiar with the way issues affluence and poverty are used in politics. You’ve heard of the senator from a prominent and very rich political family portraying himself as Mr. Palengke. The current president even once embraced the supposedly insulting monicker, Gloria Labandera.

And an election season is simply not complete without politicos, most of whom live in
Manila's exclusive communities, trying to portray themselves as men or women of the masses by belting out the latest pop tunes or dancing like fools on a makeshift stage.

Joseph Estrada topped them all, of course, with his “Erap para sa mahirap” slogan despite the fact that he is actually a man of means. He eventually found himself in trouble when the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported that he owned more than a dozen real estate properties, including some palatial homes.

It’s unclear if McCain's own housing dilemma will have an impact on what has been a glaring irony in American politics.

The Republicans have been known historically as the party of America's elite, who are more likely to push policies meant to protect big business and the affluent. But over the past two decades they have actually won sizeable support from the poor and working class, especially whites. And they did this by portraying the Democrats, who have traditionally enjoyed the support of unions, minorities and the poor, as being out-of-touch, intellectually arrogant and elitist with all their talk about equality, diversity and justice.

Obama's own slip-ups during the campaign served to reinforce this perception. There was his infamous remark describing some working class Americans as being so bitter that they cling to guns and religion. Then, in a hilarious campaign misstep, Obama once asked a group of
Iowa farmers, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff." Now, that would be like a Pinoy politician asking voters in Payatas what they think of the price of baguettes at Greenbelt.

But the Obama campaign pounced swiftly and strong on McCain's so-called "personal housing crisis." And expect the Democrats to highlight other major differences between the two. After all, while they are both rich, McCain's links to Richistan are deeper and longer. So deep that he apparently thinks someone who makes just $1 million a year – or five times less than the threshold he set – must be facing serious economic difficulties.

On the other hand, Obama became rich only recently, mainly from writing two bestselling books. He grew up in a lower middle class household, raised by a single mother who struggled to support her family. Then, as I mentioned in a previous column, Obama also has had intense encounters with the faces of extreme poverty in
Indonesia and Kenya, and even in the inner city communities of Chicago -- places where not knowing how many houses one owns would be considered a form of extreme cluelessness.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fearing bears and feeling small in Yosemite Valley

Published August 11, 2008

As we started our hike up to the camp, I couldn’t help but worry about whether we had removed every little bit of food from the car. Did I miss a stick of French fry stuck beneath one of the seats? Or was there a piece of candy one of my sons had hidden in a backseat pocket?

It was odd to worry about such things in one of the most beautiful places in the world. A Berkeley friend of mine had called Yosemite Valley “God’s home.” My kumpadre Persi is so impressed with the wilderness park, located about three hours away from the San Francisco Bay Area, that he goes back country camping there several times a year.

I’ve never been the roughing it up type, but when he asked me to join him recently for a weekend backpacking trip to the valley, I immediately said yes. It didn’t take much effort to invite two other friends – my brother-in-law Alex and our good friend Richard – to join us.

It wasn’t exactly the ideal time for a Yosemite trip. There was a fire raging west of the valley. But it was far enough not to be a real concern. It was also the middle of the tourist season, which meant hundreds of camera-toting visitors in cars. But we weren’t going to the tourist spots. We were headed for the wild, not that deep, mind you, but deep enough to be away from the tourists and their cars -- and also deep enough to run the risk of encountering Yosemite’s longtime residents: bears.

A Yosemite park ranger emphasized this point to us, as he stressed a basic rule: Don’t ever, ever, leave any food or any drink, or a cooler even if it’s empty, or any scented items such as hand lotion in the car. Or else, a curious and probably hungry bear will smash your car window.

Stricter precautions must be taken in camp. We had to rent a black container the size of a watermelon, called a bear can. That’s where you are supposed to put your food, such items as toothpaste and lotions, and even food waste. You then lock the can and hide it in a spot away from the camp -- where a bear may later find it, try to open it and, having failed, simply walk away.

Bears generally stay away from, and are even afraid of, people, we were told. But they’re drawn to food, so it’s best to make sure to not be close to anything edible out in Yosemite, especially at night.

I was thinking of that as we settled in for the night in our tents at the camp at May Lake.

We had spent the day admiring the beauty of the lake at the foot of one of Yosemite’s many massive rock formations. We had hiked around the lake, stepping carefully on giant boulders and logs, and even took a quick swim in the cold water. After dinner by camp fire, we turned in.

It was then that I started to worry about unwanted visitors. I suspected the others did too. After all we were Manila-bred Pinoys spending the night in a beautiful, but strange, place where hungry animals were hiding deep in the woods and the massive rock mountain.

But we heard only each other’s snores that night. Alex later said he had heard a rustling sound at one point. But we couldn’t be sure if the bears had paid us a visit.

When I woke up that morning, I felt relieved but also somewhat disappointed. An encounter with a bear would have made the trip more exciting. But as the sun rose and its rays turned the massive rock into a mountain of gold, its reflection glowing magnificently in the still water of May Lake, my disappointment quickly dissipated.

“Gumagaan ang loob ko pag andito ako (I feel at ease when I’m out here.),” Alex said. I agreed. Persi kind of explained where that calm comes from. “Parang pakiramdam mo maliit ka lang dito, ano (You feel small out there, don’t you)?” he said.

Among gargantuan mountains of rock in Yosemite Valley, one does feel insignificant, but in a good way. You are reminded that you are but a small part of a bigger whole, and that whole is magnificent.

A Silicon Valley CEO I wrote about five years ago had told me about a similar experience. To find renewed strength and perspective in running a software company in a highly competitive industry, Radha Basu sometimes turned to a place where she felt small and humble: The Himalayas.
"It's you and the mountains," she told me before her trip in 2003. "Oh, man, you feel so humble. … Nature is big and you are small. You can plan all you want, and nature decides there's going to be a blizzard -- man, there is not a whole lot you can do. You really do learn about the smallness of what you are -- that you are part of a much larger picture."

Sometimes, that feeling doesn’t just come from being in the wilderness.

This month, we remember the 25th anniversary of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination which was followed by a historic funeral march when a million Filipinos paid him tribute and spoke out against dictatorship. I remember that day, when I was but a speck in a mass of humanity, sending a powerful message to a tyrant and the world.

The hike down the mountain in Yosemite Valley was easier and, having consumed our food our packs, a bit a lighter.

When we reached my car, I had another reason to feel relieved. The windows were intact.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel