Let us pray

If you are interested in Rosita’s latest conditions, go to the last part of this letter.

It was two months since I wrote my last letter in this series. No one needs to be reminded that the sun still rises from the east and the Earth constantly revolves round it with or without my letters. Indeed, there were quite a few things I would like to discuss since my last letter to you, ranging from the colourful to the lack luster, from Spain to Taiwan, from Alistair Cooke to Peter Ustinov, from politics to entertainment, from democracy to the ideologue, from fingerprints to visas, and from news to fiction.

To name a few, and not in any order, we had the Hutton Report from which no one has yet to evolve as winners, although we have seen plenty of losers, and everyone is watching whether Michael Grade would make the grades; we had the bombing of a passenger train in Spain, followed by mass demonstration which led to the toppling of a government; we had the entertainment world celebrating the 76th Oscars with plentiful one-liners from Billy Crystal and Oscar winners and presenters such as Peter Jackson and Julia Roberts, and the bashing TVB got from irate viewers, myself included, who were denied the live broadcast of the final and most exciting awards; we were warned of the imminent demise of Friends and Sex and the City; we saw the meteoric rise of John Kerry in American politics, making him the earliest confirmed Democratic challenger in the past 40 years; we were treated the comical and farcical election drama in Taiwan; we saw in broad daylight the taking of Diaoyutai by seven Chinese activists, their arrest and repatriation and the diplomatic rigmarole which followed; and locally, we were bombarded day in day out by the seemingly endless debate on patriotism and constitutional reforms, which arguably had spurred NPC into deciding to deliberate on the interpretation of a part of the Basic Law; we had the media and the police arguing over the definition of excessive force; and of course, we had the world’s greatest Sevens.

One supposes that all these are a lot better than what happened last year this time when we were having SARS. Don’t worry; I am no going to discuss them all in this letter, except for one.

I refer to the death of Alistair Cooke end of March, less than six weeks after the broadcast of his last episode of Letter from America. Tony Blair described him as a remarkable man and one of the greatest broadcasters of all times, while a BBC radio controller said he was the greatest in BBC history. He certainly had had a long and distinguished broadcasting career spanning nearly six decades. What started off as a 15-minuter stop-gap magazine programme turned out to be world’s longest-running speech radio programme, lasting 58 years, filling more than 717 hours of broadcast in 2,869 shows, and at the same time bringing immense listening pleasure to so many worldwide.

I was rather affected by Cooke and hence his death. I started listening to his broadcasts from Radio Hong Kong some years back as a young executive, normally in the car going to or leaving work. Initially, and before I knew he was British, I was amazed why an American could speak perfect English and with such gentility and conviction of life. Sometimes, I would stay in the car for the end of his programme before rushing off to the next appointment. I find his voice soothing, sincere and authoritative. More important, the voice was matched and one might say surpassed by the rich and colourful contents and the diversity of the subjects discussed. As a young man, I was simply fascinated and touched. He seemed to have access to all sorts of information and people at all levels. He knew everything: he knew about the two world wars, battle strategies, diets, cultural conflicts, leadership, politics, elections, the two genders and how they interacted, and so on. I have learned a lot from him, and many people of all ages everywhere have probably picked up more: his style, his devotion to work, attention to details, dedication to facts and respect for all professions. I read that in all the 58 years, he had only missed three weeks of broadcast. Such dedication is rare commodities these days and likely impossible to emulate. For more details on this legend, go to the BBC website or any search engine.

I actually began writing this letter after Alistair Cooke announced that he would not resume his Letter from America broadcasts, for health reasons, making his 20 February issue the last one, which he wrote in bed, propped up by his usual three pillows. I was already rather saddened at the time. I said to myself that this was the end of an era. People no longer do such beautiful things with such sensitivity, assiduity and consistency on a continuing basis. I had wished that he would then be able to enjoy the finer things New York could offer, have more time to gaze out of his large floor to ceiling windows, enjoy the freedom of a world without deadlines and enjoy life generally. I said I could write about him later. I was wrong and I should have known better: he was rather fragile after his last illness and he was 95.

Still on broadcasting, recently I inadvertently caused an electronic broadcast of a letter to owners of all the addresses in my computer, but first I must premise that many of these addresses had simply found their way to my computer as opposed to being sought out by its owner.

It all began some months ago when a friend sent me an email asking me to update my contact details in a rather peculiar, but seemingly systematic manner. The software was not exactly the most user friendly I had come across, but since the request was from a friend, I duly complied, and in the process, found that I had subscribed to the services of Plaxo, which is free. In the next few weeks, Plaxo would ask me to select a few addresses on my computer for updating. I began with five to seven addresses, but more often than not, I simply ignored the dialogue box or asked Plaxo to come back in a week’s time. Then, a few days ago, in an unguarded moment, Plaxo asked me whether I would object to having all the addresses on my computer updated. It was seconds before dinnertime and Rosita was waiting. I clicked yes and promptly joined Rosita for dinner. I could not recall what we had for dinner, but I remember reading the message left by Plaxo afterwards. The company had sent a message to each and every one of the over 3,600 addresses on my computer.

What happened afterwards was even more interesting and could be a reflection of the sort of friends I am keeping. Well, I did not exactly get 3,600 replies: some addresses are obviously invalid or outdated, but I dealt with quite a lot, and I had to open a folder to store them. Invariably, these replies fell under one of the following categories.

First, the efficient and business like executive. They replied promptly in a no-nonsense manner and probably as promptly had gone onto the next file or project. The first reply actually arrived before I finished dinner, from an ex-colleague, who was still in the office, working for a thankless constituency.

Second, the long-time-no-see friend. Apparently, they were rather happy to hear from me, and they tried very hard to send me the details along the format Plaxo prescribed. Half of them ended up sending me their updates in their own emails.

Third, the who-are-you and bordering on irate. They questioned how I obtained their addresses in the first place, totally unaware of the state of technology in which they were. I tried to be polite with this group and would gently remind them that life is too short for one to lose one’s temper on things one does not understand.

Fourth, the is-it-you-John friend. These were normally not the hi-tech lot and included a sub-category of suspicious computer users. They would either seek confirmation by email that I had sent them the email; some used a land line to call me; or would ask whether the information they were about to provide would benefit Plaxo rather than me.

Fifth, the I-hate-Plaxo group. They would send me an email telling me they had spent ages trying to fill in the form; many failed; and ending up sending me the details in a separate email, as the second group did.

Sixth, the I-only-replied-because-it-was-from-you group. These were real good friends and were ready to stake a lot on their friends. A few actually suggested tea or lunches.

The last group comprised those who had yet to reply and possibly never would. No one should blame them for being too careful with emails and the Internet. These days, I typically receive 50 to 60 junk or unsolicited emails each day. The built in software would screen out half to two thirds of the messages and attachments that are suspicious, leaving behind a note that they had been treated or deleted. This means that I routinely delete most of the emails on sight every time I check my inbox. Some friends have used this as an excuse for not operating an email system, but everyone would agree that this is not practical. Despite the rubbish, the unsolicited advertisements, the invitation to visual sex and all the junk, the email is still an effective mode of communication and is here to stay. One avoids it at one’s own perils.

Let me now update you on Rosita’s latest conditions.

She elected to go on a new oral chemo regime from the beginning of this year. Things seemed to be alright: the side effects were not obvious and reasonably mild. She could go about her daily routines, including line dancing once to twice a week, had lunches with her friends three times a week and had been rather cheerful, except that she had been coughing. Later on, the coughing became more severe. She woke up in the middle of the night, panting for air. She could not breathe freely. The coughing tired her out, dampened her appetite and she began to lose weight. Her voice became weak and squeaky, and she could not eat most food. However, weekly checks on the lungs showed nothing remarkable. The lungs had been clear and well.

Towards end of March, test results indicated that the chemo regime had not been effective and that the cancer cells had been active, particularly in the liver. The doctor decided to take her off the regime, and effectively, all the drugs she had been using, and began to look for symptomatic relief. An x-ray plate on the trachea area suggested that there were cancerous growths inside, which could explain why she had been coughing and having eating problems. She was put on radiotherapy immediately, for five days. The therapy apparently unblocked, at least partially the trachea or esophagus. She has regained a lot of her appetite, but has yet to regain her voice.

The doctor then went on to discuss longer-term measures. There are not many choices left. Her liver functions are deteriorating at an unacceptable rate; and at such rate, she might not be fit enough to fly to the West Coast for Lawrence’s Commencement late May. It was suggested that another course of chemotherapy might help. The regime would involve weekly intravenous injections of drugs, each treatment lasting four to five hours. The prospects are neither good nor tempting. We were given a week to decide. That was last Tuesday.

So my friends, it is time for prayers again, talking of which Rosita has decided to take up catechism lessons again with a view to getting baptized. She had had regular lessons from a very kind and learned Jesuits priest for nearly a year before the same priest married us two. We now plan to resume after Easter, and we believe it would help her, particularly with support and prayers from our friends. So, let us pray together.

Talk to you soon.

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