A Tuesday with Mitch Albom

Two of Mitch Albom's popular and best-selling books | Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita
Two of Mitch Albom’s popular and best-selling books | Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita

I was such a huge fan of Tuesdays with Morrie, the New York Times bestseller about professor Morrie Schwartz’s lessons on dying and death, as experienced and written by his student, Mitch Albom. Like many of Albom’s readers, I had always regarded him as an inspirational writer whose works are “must-reads” and “must-shares.”

So imagine my surprise (and elation!) when I got a call from my Rappler editor, asking if I would take on an assignment interviewing Albom during his trip to the Philippines. My answer was inelegant, and started with: OMG!!!

Fast forward to that afternoon, and I was fortunate enough to have been given 30 full minutes with Mr. Albom. We talked about his latest book, The First Phone Call from Heaven; his trip to the Philippines to rebuild libraries in Haiyan-flattened communities; his thoughts on success and fame; what keeps him grounded; and what he thinks of death and dying, seeing that he’s written a number of books about them.

Mitch Albom and Me ;)
Mitch Albom and Me ;)

My latest article from that interview is now out, and I’ll share an excerpt here:

“Tuesdays with Morrie was a book that most people didn’t want. I only wrote that book to pay Morrie’s medical bills,” Albom confessed.

“Everywhere I went… they told me, ‘No.’ ‘It’s a stupid idea.’ ‘It’s boring.’ ‘It’s depressing.’ ‘You can’t write it; you’re a sports writer.’ Almost everywhere I went, they told me, ‘Not interested.’ And I only pushed because I was trying to pay Morrie’s medical bills, and I couldn’t take no for an answer.”

Albom’s love and respect for his teacher, coupled with his dogged persistence, paid off. Tuesdays with Morrie not only paid for Morrie Schwartz’s medical bills, it also went on to sell 14 million copies in 41 languages worldwide, and was later on produced into a television movie by no less than Oprah Winfrey, winning 4 Emmy Awards. The book has also spun an Off-Broadway play and has been able to fund a number of charity efforts as well.

I shared a lot more in that piece–and will sharing a bit more in the coming days. In the meantime, I hope you can take time to read the full article… and I hope that you’ll be as inspired in reading it as I was when I wrote it. 🙂

Mighty Aphrodite (Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia)

NOTE: This is a late post, and I apologize to my editors for not promoting the November 2013 issue of T+L Southeast Asia early enough. But between dealing with the aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) plus all the traveling we did in November, there hasn’t been much time to catch our breath!

"Mighty Aphrodite" in Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, November 2013 issueMighty Aphrodite

A young woman in the Philippines has made it her personal mission to save the seas. By Niña Terol-Zialcita

(Published in the November 2013 issue of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia)

Many little girls dream of becoming mermaids. Not too many, though, take the mission to heart.

Philippines-based Anna Oposa is different. Her business card reads “Founder and Chief Mermaid of Save Philippine Seas,” and at the tender age of 25, she has already helped expose a smuggling ring that poached the country’s waters for corals, sea turtles and other precious marine species; started an independent movement to protect aquatic resources across the archipelago; and taken her mission to the international stage as a Young Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum. This woman’s love of the ocean is so deep, all she’s missing are flippers. Here, we dive into her underwater and on-the-ground pursuits.

Which came first—your love of diving or your passion for conserving the environment?

When I was 19, I volunteered in a cleanup dive to be exempted from an exam, and I saw diapers underwater. That’s when I told myself I needed to do more.

The interests complement each other perfectly. I am reminded of what needs to be conserved every time I dive.

This is an excerpt only. To read the full article, grab a copy of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia’s November 2013 issue.

The November 2013 issue of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia | Click on the image to visit their Facebook page to see more great content and cool promos
The November 2013 issue of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia | Click on the image to visit their Facebook page to see more great content and cool promos

2 Pinoys among 10 Outstanding Young Persons of the World (Rappler.com)

(Published in Rappler on September 17, 2012)

MANILA, Philippines – Two Filipinos were among those named as Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World (TOYP), an annual search by the Junior Chamber International (JCI), otherwise known as the Jaycees.

They are Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, president of MicroVentures, a social enterprise known for the multi-award-winning program Hapinoy; and Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvaña, Assistant Director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health, University of the Philippines Manila, also known for his work with HIV/AIDS patients in the Philippines.

Benigno Bam Aquino: One of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World (TOYP)
BAM AQUINO: HAPPILY FOR the ‘Nanays.’ Image from Aquino’s Facebook page (via Rappler.com)
DR. EDSEL MAURICE SALVAÑA: Produced a rock concert if only to spread AIDS awareness. Image from Dr. Salvaña's Facebook page (via Rappler.com)
DR. EDSEL MAURICE SALVAÑA: Produced a rock concert if only to spread AIDS awareness. Image from Dr. Salvaña’s Facebook page (via Rappler.com)

Aquino and Salvaña are joining 8 other outstanding young individuals from Botswana, Catalonia, Ireland, Madagascar, the Maldives, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe. They will be awarded at the JCI World Congress in Taipei, Taiwan on November 20, 2012.

This is an excerpt only. To read the full story, visit the Rappler website, HERE.

Jim Libiran: The social auteur (Rappler.com)

Published in Rappler.com (August 14, 2012)

Photography by Catherine So | Rappler.com
Photography by Catherine So | Rappler.com

MANILA, Philippines – Watching Jim Libiran’s movies and listening to him talk with passion about the impact he hopes his work will bring to marginalized communities, you begin to wonder if “filmmaker” is an apt word for the man in front of you, considering his past lives as activist, award-winning writer and Xerex Xaviera alter-ego.

Perhaps “social auteur” would be a better term.

Libiran, whose feature films Tribu (2007) and Happyland (2011) have revealed unique angles about urban poor communities in his beloved Tondo, believes that working on a film gives one not just an opportunity to show real people in real conditions (think “poverty porn”). To him, films offer a concrete channel to provide people and communities with jobs, with exposure and with a real shot at a second life.

He shares, “The question I wanted to ask myself was: how can a film impact a community here and now? Not after the film is made, not years from now, but here and now?”

This is an excerpt only. To read the full article, visit the Rappler.com website, HERE.

Chris Martinez: Bringing Pinoy humor to life (Rappler.com)

Published in Rappler.com (August 13, 2012)

Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido. | Rappler.com
Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido. | Rappler.com

MANILA, Philippines – If you’ve seen or heard of the indie film Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank, 2011)Philippine cinema’s highest-grossing independent film to date, then you will have an idea of the kind of sensibility that it takes to capture a subject so irreverently yet so truthfully.

In the film, 3 film school graduates take on the lofty dream of producing an Oscar-worthy independent film about — what else? — poverty and prostitution in the Philippine slums (in this case, Payatas).

The film shows the young filmmakers experimenting with different treatments, exposing the tired old assumptions and formulas of Pinoy indie filmmaking.

It poked fun at the way the industry moved and looked at itself, and it made audiences laugh with recognition. It also made them think of the way Philippine art cinema kept on presenting itself to the world.

The film broke box-office records at the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and was later on bought by Star Cinema for a wider release. It became the most successful indie film in Philippine history, and won numerous awards for lead actress Eugene Domingo, director Marlon Rivera and screenwriter-producer Chris Martinez.

This is an excerpt only. To read the full post, visit the Rappler.com website, HERE.

Adolf Alix, Jr.: On loneliness and the cinematic experience (Rappler.com)

Published in Rappler.com (August 6, 2012)

DIREK ADOLF ALIX, JR. Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido.
DIREK ADOLF ALIX, JR. Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido.

MANILA, Philippines – Everyone goes through periods of loneliness.

It is a universal feeling — one that does not require a common language or culture to be understood.

In the case of Adolfo Alix, Jr., loneliness has become a subject of exploration and discovery, a theme that has allowed him to stretch the boundaries of filmmaking to see just how much he (and his audience) can discover.

“I read somewhere that one (feeling) that lingers the most is loneliness — sadness,” Alix shares. “I’m not a lonely person, I’m not a sad person; but I’ve realized that many of my films have an introspective quality about them.”

“I like to do films on themes that I’m not exactly familiar with,” he points out. “I like to experiment and try different milieus, different approaches.”

This is an excerpt only. To read the full article, visit the Rappler.com website, HERE.

Raya Martin: The enigma that is (Rappler.com)

Published in Rappler.com (August 1, 2012)

DIREK RAYA MARTIN. Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido.
DIREK RAYA MARTIN. Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido.


MANILA, Philippines – Twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker Raya Martin sure seems to love defying expectations.

His debut into the Philippine filmmaking scene took industry insiders by surprise, as the then-fresh graduate of the University of the Philippines Film Institute was unsuccessful at early attempts to get a job in Manila.

What he got, instead, was a filmmaking residency at the prestigious Cinéfondation Residence du Festival de Cannes in Paris, France — becoming the first Filipino filmmaker to be selected for the program.

That opened up for Martin, like Alice in the proverbial Wonderland, his very own cinematic rabbit hole.

“It was soooo crazy,” Martin recounts. “I was 21, I didn’t know anything, but I knew exactly what I wanted.”

This is an excerpt only. To read the full feature, visit the Rappler website HERE.

Profiles in “Out of the Universe Leadership” (part 1)

(Originally posted in the blog, Out of the Universe)

I consider myself fortunate to be one of the radio anchors of Lider Totoo, the Saturday-morning program on Radyo Veritas that tackles servant leadership through the experience of real leaders working in different fields and different parts of the country. There are few things I enjoy better than listening to great minds sharing their experiences, challenges, and aspirations, and working on this program makes it worthwhile for me to wake up early on a Saturday morning and trek all the way to North Avenue. (And I live in Pasay… so you can get the picture.)

My first interview, held on 11 October, was with Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo, who started public service at the age of 29 (!) and introduced many innovations in government service, including running a website where Nagueños could log in to learn anything about their government and the services that they needed. Through the website www.naga.gov.ph, the people of Naga could look into ordinances and executive orders, view public biddings and government transactions, and gain free access to information that they, the public, had the right to know.

Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo (photo taken from Naga.gov.ph)In 2000, Mayor Robredo won the highly prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, where this citation was presented:

It is sad but true. Democratic government is not necessarily good government. Too often, elections yield power to the few, not the many. Injustices linger beneath the rhetoric of equality. Corruption and incompetence go on and on. Voters, alas, do not always choose wisely. And yet, in Asia and the world at large, much is at risk when democracy founders, because democracy is the hope of so many. Jesse Manalastas Robredo entered Philippine politics at a time when hope was high. As mayor of Naga City from 1988 to 1998 he demonstrated that democratic government can also be good government.

In the wake of his country’s People Power Revolution in 1986, Jesse Robredo responded to President Corazon Aquino’s call to public service. He abandoned his executive position at San Miguel Corporation to head the Bicol River Basin Development Program in Naga, his hometown. In 1988, he stood for election as mayor and won by a slim margin. He was twenty-nine.

Once the queen city of the Bicol region, Naga in 1989 was a dispirited provincial town of 120,000 souls. Traffic clogged its tawdry business district and vice syndicates operated at will. City services were fitful at best. Meanwhile, thousands of squatters filled Naga’s vacant lands, despite the dearth of jobs in the city’s stagnant economy. Indeed, Naga’s revenues were so low that it had been downgraded officially from a first-class to a third-class city.

Robredo began with a strike against patronage. He introduced a merit-based system of hiring and promotion and reorganized city employees on the basis of aptitude and competence. He then moved against local vice lords, ridding Naga of gambling and smut. Next, he relocated the bus and jeepney terminals outside the city center, ending gridlock and spurring new enterprises at the city’s edge. In partnership with business, he revitalized Naga’s economy. Public revenues rose and by 1990 Naga was a first-class city again. Robredo’s constituents took heart and reelected him.

Spurning bodyguards, Robredo moved freely among the people. By enlisting the support and active assistance of Naga’s NGOs and citizens, he improved public services dramatically. He established day-care centers in each of Naga’s twenty-seven districts and added five new high schools. He built a public hospital for low-income citizens. He set up a dependable twenty-four-hour emergency service. He constructed a network of farm-to-market roads and provided clean and reliable water systems in Naga’s rural communities. He launched programs for youth, farmers, laborers, women, the elderly, and the handicapped — drawing thousands into civic action in the process. No civic deed was too small, he told the people, including the simple act of reporting a broken street lamp. He sometimes swept the streets himself.

Consistently, Robredo prioritized the needs of the poor. Through his Kaantabay sa Kauswagan (Partners in Development) program, over forty-five hundred once-homeless families moved to home-lots of their own. They became part of Naga’s revival. So did a revitalized city government. Applying techniques from business, Robredo raised performance, productivity, and morale among city employees. As a culture of excellence overtook the culture of mediocrity at City Hall, Naga’s businesses doubled and local revenues rose by 573 percent.

Reelected without opposition in 1995, Robredo urged the Naga City Council to enact a unique Empowerment Ordinance. This created a People’s Council to institutionalize the participation of NGOs and people’s organizations in all future municipal deliberations. When obliged by law to step down after his third term, the popular Robredo made no effort to entrench his family. His advice to would-be leaders? “You have to have credibility.”

In electing Jesse Robredo to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his giving credence to the promise of democracy by demonstrating that effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people.

What struck me most during the interview was Mayor Robredo’s answer to our question about the legacy that he wanted to leave the people of Naga, and whether he feared that, as a last-term mayor, his achievements would be overturned by future city executives who might have different priorities and agenda items from those which he had promoted in Naga City since he first took office in 1988.

He said that the milestones they had achieved in Naga City were not his alone–they were achievements of the Nagueños themselves, who now had the power to work with their government because of the systems that had been institutionalized in the city. He said that if anyone tried to wrest power from the people and try to undo all the good work that they–the government and the people, together–had done over the past 20 years, then the people themselves would not allow it. They would not stand for a government that would trample over their rights, and they would make sure that whatever progress they had achieved over the past two decades would not go to waste. Mayor Robredo expressed his faith and belief that the people of Naga would remain vigilant and ensure that good, participatory governance would continue to rule over Naga even long after his term.

Why did the answer strike me? One reason was the mayor’s sincerity in his belief that his constituents are, first and foremost, not stupid. He knows that they had worked just as hard as his government had in ensuring a better life for themselves and their families. He relates that when a tax hike was being considered, residents and landowners even agreed to a tax hike in support of better social services. When citizens agree to a tax hike, it means that they know where their money is going.

Another reason was the mayor’s belief that participatory governance, because it had now empowered the people of Naga, will not end when his term does. Of course, there are risks that a city government with a drastically different agenda will alter Naga City’s course, but again, the people are not stupid. Having experienced their city’s transformation over the years, they will most likely vote for someone who can build on the city’s success. Perhaps, their participation in governance has also made Nagueños more mature than other segments of the electorate.

I admit to learning about Mayor Robredo’s accomplishments very late into my socio-political involvement, but now I am more eager to learn about the systems that have been established in Naga City as a result of his tenure. How much of a role does enabling technology truly empower people? What offline processes are essential to building a truly enabling environment? What management skills must one possess in order to make this happen? Is this kind of leadership replicable, and on a greater scale? Is this the kind of leadership that the Philippines needs? I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I will try to find out.

I suggest that you–believers and skeptics alike–try to do the same.