Sunday, November 15, 2015

On Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, the End We Work for and the New Beginning We Dream of

I woke up this morning to a flood of text messages asking me if I had read about the bombings in Paris. Barely awake at the outset, I was instantly driven to full alertness by the pain in my chest caused by the CNN article I was reading. It spoke of over a hundred casualties in France–lives taken by men masquerading around as servants of God. I messaged nearly everyone I knew in that country, or otherwise checked their safety status on Facebook and pried on their profile for any signs of activity to check if they were alive and physically unharmed. Why do I specify the harm I was worried about as “physical”?  Well, I suppose anyone living in and around Paris would suffer from some sort of harm after something like that happens. In fact, this harm even extends across the globe. This harm affects us all. Only sociopaths and those with emotional illnesses will refuse to feel at least some amount of pain or commiseration from hearing news like that. Even as a Vipassana practitioner who has trained himself to live with the concept of Earthly impermanence, my chest was filled with sorrow and it still is. It is hurting very badly right now as I am writing this.

Each response contributed small chunks of relief to my pain until I gave off a big sigh earlier tonight when I learned that all my friends and acquaintances living in France are well. But even that did not make the pain go away. A sigh for your friends is a sigh for your friends, but I still feel for those who may never get to sigh the same way I did. I think of those who may have had to sit in tears, staring at an unoccupied chair during their Saturday breakfast because their partners/children/parents/friends never returned home after the concert or their night out. I think of people who have had to cry themselves to sleep while staring at the ghostly shadow cast by the curtains on the side of the bed that belonged to their partners who have instead been laid to rest elsewhere, never to wake the next morning to greet them with a kiss and a smile.

On top of all this, there were other bomb blasts elsewhere in the world—in Beirut where over 40 people died, and another one in Baghdad where over 20 died. This made my level of pain shoot up to an almost unbearable level. Why did it never show up as a priority post on my Facebook and Twitter feed? Is the world so utterly defeated and hopeless about the Middle East that bombings there turn very few heads and gain little media attention? Has the world suddenly calmed down and accepted mass murders in places like Iraq and Lebanon as normal phenomena not worthy of sympathy (or prayers)? I refuse to accept this. And this isn’t just because I’m a peace worker and I have spent time in the Middle East but because, goodness, West Asians are no less human than Europeans. This brings back to memory the sheer indifference of social media about the massacre that happened at a school in Kenya in April where 147 people were gunned to death by Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based extremist group. Did Facebook activate its Mark as Safe feature? Did the Twittersphere and Instagramsphere fill up with hashtag rallies? Ponder on this really hard.

While I'm on the topic of gravity, I'd like to touch the issue of numbers because this seems to be a common defence for people when asked about why nobody talked about the last two days' events. They say things like: "Oh, but they didn't reach a hundred deaths, Ludwig." "But, Ludwig, there were less than 50 deaths in each of those blasts." And the absolute worst: "Ludwig, in Paris, there were over a hundred dead and they weren't just French; an American girl was killed, too! You know how Paris is such a tourist magnet." Really? Should I go ahead and remind you of the Kenyan tragedy? What's the difference between bombs killing 20 or 40, and rifles taking over a hundred lives? One life lost to a gunshot or blast or stabbing is already too much. We even wail at deaths caused by natural disasters. In any case, mothers will still be weeping over their deceased children’s clothing. A husband somewhere will still be hugging his dead wife’s favourite scarf. Unframed photographs will still have blots from the tears shed on them. Why? Because lives were lost unnaturally—violently. That’s the bare truth. And we don’t say American Lives or European lives or Arab Lives or African Lives or Christian lives or Muslim lives or Jewish lives or Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Pagan lives were lost. Human lives. Lives of people who had mothers and fathers—of those who may have had brothers or sisters, or sons or daughters. Lives just like yours. Just like mine.

I condemn these murders just as you, dear reader, would. I cry foul over people who have the audacity to use the name of God to commit senseless acts of violence and crimes against humanity, but I’m not going big on expressions of censure. There are several opinions going around the internet about theories of accountability and I will not jump into that pond. Let not my lack of indignation, however, lead you to believe that I don’t feel strongly about condemning violence and murder. If anything is as strong as the pain I feel, it is deep and seething anger. But I will not allow it to consume the bulk of this piece of writing. That has already been done by countless writers all over the world and I feel no need to publish my own version of the same thing. I am writing this to express something quite the opposite: hope.

Tonight when I sleep, I will probably have a nightmare with flashing images of a café in Paris where people get shot and bleed from their heads and torsos. But it will only be a nightmare. It’s bad but not as horrible as the reality that some people are forced to live in. I’m sure a few, if not all, of them would gladly trade their reality for my nightmares if only to put a stop to their very real suffering. At least it only takes an hour of meditation to rid my mind of the horrors of a bad dream. Real life is much crueller for a lot of people and it takes way more to ease their pain. It takes going through the end and beginning anew. This “end” may be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It can mean ending your relationship with what was once your home by moving away and starting fresh elsewhere, as refugees are aiming to do. And, sadly, it can even mean the end of this life by voluntarily embracing death and beginning the afterlife—if you believe in that sort of thing.

But what “end” do I really mean? I speak of the ultimate end of global violence. Not just bombings and murder. Not even just the end of beatings and bullying and things like that. This “end” extends to the destruction of every form of violence, physical or otherwise—the end of war, of subjugation, of hate, of the concept of “us and them,” of social injustice and of all forms of inequality. Only when this happens will a new beginning emerge. Only when this happens will we truly have peace. And not “peace” that constitutes ceasefires, treaties, or laws providing appeasement. I’m talking about real, lasting global harmony where justice is the norm—where poverty and excess are things of the past, where guns are nothing but museum artifacts and knives stay in kitchens and gardens. I’m talking about a brand new day when people wouldn't need to pray to ask for peace but instead pray to be thankful for it—where love, kindness and compassion are the answers to “What religion do you subscribe to?” I know this will probably not happen in my lifetime. Probably not in my children’s or even my grandchildren’s lifetimes. However, I believe it will happen. As long as there is a single person in this world who genuinely believes in peace and walks the path of universal love, there is hope.

Friday, October 16, 2015

I haven't shaved my head yet and here's why...

It's October, the month for the Global Awareness of Breast Cancer and support for the advancement of its medical research. I usually shave my head around this time to show solidarity for those suffering (or have suffered) the illness. However, I have intentionally put it off until the week is over because I do not want to be mistaken as a supporter of Rodrigo Duterte's candidacy for the Philippine presidency. I do not condone summary executions and human rights violations and I am NOT sorry.

Politics is about choosing lesser evils, I know. And I further acknowledge that Duterte has major plus points for me because he supports progressive ideas such as divorce, mandatory reproductive health education and same-sex marriage. However, I draw the line at killing people. In my book, that qualifies neither as a progressive idea nor a lesser evil--most especially without fair trial. I was and still am a staunch advocate of the abolition of the death penalty and I am not about to passively recant my position by voting for someone who delivers capital punishment on a whim.

I have many good friends and family members who support him and if you, dear reader, are one of them, I still have FULL RESPECT for you and your choices. I do not intend to create a rift between us just because of our differences in political opinion. Just don't push me to adopt your views because the chances of pigs growing wings and taking flight is much fatter than me shading that ring next to Duterte's name.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Two Years Since 7.2

Today in 2013, while I was enjoying what was supposed to be a 2-hour extension to my usual 8-hour slumber, silently thanking the Muslims for affording the rest of us Filipinos another day of relaxation as they celebrated the Feast of the Sacrifice, I was awakened by a violent tremor. For nearly half a minute, right after discovering that walking or standing up was not possible, I held on to my bed post as images of the ground swallowing the house and ending my 23-year Earthly existence flashed through my mind. Thankfully, my whole family lived through the disaster and our home in the city was left intact. Others were not as fortunate. During its 34-second stint, the quake claimed homes, bridges, churches and 222 human lives, leaving some of us survivors to literally eat dust before we could begin to pick ourselves up. It has been two years since then and Bohol has largely recovered but some things may never return to the way they were. Bridges and homes have had to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch. And goodness knows you can't put coral rocks back together if they've been pulverised. A billion sacks of rice and the whites of two million chicken eggs will do us no good this time. We have all had to live with changes--some more difficult to accept than others--but at least our spirits are strong. That has been proven true. The earthquake and the subsequent Super Typhoon Haiyan, which happened less than a month later, were stark reminders of the sheer impermanence of Earthly existence and the utter futility of the identities and labels we carry around and destroy each other over. In the end, we are all just people. Yesterday, we were born; now, we live; tomorrow, we die. Whether you believe in anything beyond death, why should we say we are more important than another person when our skulls are just as easily pierced by a spade as any other man or woman walking this Earth? Why raise our sense of value over our fellow human beings'? We are all of the same substance, anyway.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Your Attention, Please!

In a largely globalised world shaped by a myriad of different and constantly changing opinions fed to us by mass media’s various manifestations, it still comes as a surprise to me how certain indubitably significant events and places could possibly be overlooked.  I went to the Indonesian provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh a little over two years ago and bore witness to the effects of both past and on-going conflict between civilians, armed militant groups and the government, and it baffled me how something as globally attention-worthy as that could possibly have escaped me for the last 23 years of my life.  The only time Aceh was ever in my face on a news item was after it was levelled by a devastating tsunami back in 2004, but that was it.  In part, I could probably be blamed for not digging into the world of global concerns enough, but, in my defence, not enough people and media are talking about it.  And while I didn’t have any qualms about learning of the stampede that happened in a temple in India or Iraq’s first free parliamentary elections since 1958, it just struck me painfully how a struggling place that could have used a little more attention from the world was only afforded it when the worst possible thing happened and yet again deprived of it when the world thought it was over.

I recently visited the southern terrestrial lump of the Philippines called Mindanao to visit the United Religions Initiative’s (URI) cooperation circles (CC) there and to witness a culmination activity for the International Peace Advocacy Month of September.  Mindanao is another place that has so much global attention-worthy on-goings yet is constantly overlooked unless another American or European disappears there.  I’m over giving analogies like “Aceh is to Indonesia as Mindanao is to the Philippines.”  The two may have certain parallels but one can only derive so much information by relying on them. Besides, they both lack attention on the international stage, anyway.

Now, admittedly, one can’t grasp what’s going on in an area unless they go there and listen to locals' stories and immerse in local life, but wouldn’t it at least be helpful if more people were to give the place a little more attention?  I admit that I, too, was largely ignorant about Mindanao.  I live in the Philippines and yet I know very little more than my foreign friends who only ever hear or read the word “Mindanao” on their governments’ list of places to avoid.  It’s sad but true.  And I think this lack of understanding is the reason why it’s so easy to make assumptions about the place.  There’s a saying that goes, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and it’s true.  This little knowledge is what causes presidents to declare all-out wars, armed independence fighters to be branded as terrorists, and certain people to be collectively perceived as inherently violent simply because they profess a particular faith that is different from that of the country’s majority.  It’s sad, really.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Glory of Instant Fame and the Gore After the Instant Fall

I remember about five or so years ago, I'd marvel at how mesmerised a lot of Filipinos were by the voice of Charice Pempengco.  She was such a joy to listen to--hitting those high notes and diva-ishly belting out lofty pieces like it was nobody's business.  I'm not gonna lie: though I wasn't particularly a fan, I did acknowledge her talent even though a lot of my closest friends couldn't care less.  She was an instant sensation!

A few years after her discovery, her subsequent entry into the battle stage of non-minor-age-artists and her conversion to Roman Catholicism, she seemed unstoppable.  Her fan base sky-rocketed and I was beginning to get annoyed by how everyone at my old office--especially the camp men--couldn't stop blabbering about her.  Even when they'd talk about their favourite topic--Miss Universe--they'd still manage to get Charice into the picture, often describing her with superlatives and calling her "queen."  That didn't sit well with me because, as far as I was concerned, the league of musical queens had Julie, Babs, Bernadette, Lea and Elaine in it among other greats.  How dare they push their teenage queen agenda?  I later brushed it off, of course, coming to terms with the fact that tastes differ.  "What do these people know of real music, anyway?" I said in my head.  Then I gasped.  Was I beginning to develop an aversion for Charice because I was jealous of the attention she was getting which the musical goddess I knew and worshipped didn't get at the time?

No.  No.  No.  No.  No.

Well, maybe.

I remember getting into a petty Facebook argument with a friend once.  He posted a link to a video of Charice singing Carousel's "You'll Never Walk Alone" and captioned it with "I wonder if anyone could do better than this."

I then posted a link to a video of Barbra Streisand singing the same song as a tribute to 9/11 heroes and victims and captioned it with something like, "The youngsters may belt their lungs out but this true diva sings with her soul.  And, yes, this one definitely did better."  I didn't link him to this video; I just posted it on my wall but he reacted through a comment--fully knowing I was attacking his link and his opinion about Charice--telling me to wait 'til Charice ages and saying something quite akin to "she'll be the most sophisticated red wine."  I was, like, "Pffffff! Yeah, right."

As I predicted years ago, it has happened.  She has lost social relevance and she's asking questions like "Do they still love me?" and sort of hinting on Filipino society's general adverse attitude towards LGBTs as the reason for the loss of her fame.  Well, the lesbianism certainly isn't the problem.  Look at Aiza Seguerra.  She can still pull off attention when and how she wants.

And, of course, we still love you, Charice.  You were an instant sensation who brought us joy at one point.  But the thing is, there's a problem with two expressions I used in that previous sentence:  instant and at one point.  The former means you didn't gradually build up your ability to draw attention; you were thrown there by YouTube and Ellen.  The latter, on the other hand, means "not anymore."  The one point you brought most of us joy isn't this point.  It was a point before this point and that point has, sadly, seen its time and vanished.  We still genuinely love you--just not the same way.

I'm sorry this had to happen to you but it was inevitable.  From the beginning of your career as a young belter on Ellen and Oprah, people have predicted that you wouldn't last very long.  Sure, you lasted long but not long enough, apparently.  You still saw yourself fall.  Looking at you breaking down on YouTube videos after your skirmish with your mother about your sexuality lost social attention (I bet you thought that was gonna last a while, didn't ya?) makes me think of what happened to Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond after the era of silent films got trampled on my the "sacred microphones" and the dawn of spoken scripts.

I feel bad for you.  I really do.

A few friends of mine--even a cousin who happens to be a close friend of yours--might jump at the first opportunity to deny that you're losing your mojo and they can do it all they want but they can't do anything fix the bones you've broken because of your fall.  They may wipe the blood away and hide the gore--possibly even help your wounds heal--but not change the fact that you have fallen fast and hit ground very, very hard.  Some people are known to have risen above their fall.  Unfortunately, you aren't likely to be one of them.  This is the age of YouTube and Facebook.  There will be and there are countless others who will achieve your level of fame.  They will come storming in--each dimming your non-existent-to-begin-with chance of ever owning the limelight again.  This is the age of online freeforalls where even the likes of Nicki Minaj can, in less than 10 years, achieve fame and attention parallel to the kind Barbra Streisand worked 20 to achieve.  Of course, it's a different kind of fame.  Babs was never known to strut her stuff to gain the media's eye but, nevertheless, attention is fame and fame is money.

The main difference is this:  Babs has been known to lie low for certain periods of time but then she returns with a blast.  Cher and Madonna have done the same.  Julie Andrews, too.  So has Patti LuPone and many the likes of them.  They all have decided to give it a bit of a rest at one point but their comebacks were all the rage in the lines of show business they are in.  However, when Nicki Minaj falls, she's never going anywhere near where she is now. Her fall will be a real one--not a low hover.  Her fall will be just like yours, Charice.  I'm really sorry about this.  I know none of this is your fault.  This is just how society is.  As a student of social science, I'm looking at this from a purely sociological point-of-view--not from a prejudicial one, as some may assume.  I do think you're a really good singer but you just didn't have the right tools to keep people hooked.  "Good" just doesn't quite cut it.

This is what happens to people who are shot from the ground up the summit of Mt. Everest without caring to learn the art of mountaineering or without at least bringing equipment that will enable them to cling to the rocks and the ice on the mountain top and keep themselves from rolling down.

There's nothing to do but begin the getting over process.  Let me say it again:  None of this is your fault.  Just like how you didn't have to constantly shed bloody sweat for 20 years to achieve that level of fame, you didn't do anything to cause your fall either.  It's just how it is and you just have to live with it.

Of course, I could be wrong.  It's not like I'm a sage or anything.  I'm just a heavily opinionated prick.  I don't think I'm wrong, though.  I COULD BE!  But I just don't think I am.  Sorry.

If you are in the sky because you took the time to grow your wings and you experienced the necessary pain that comes with learning how to fly, you will soar.  You can come down as slowly or as fast as you want but you will never hit the ground and you know you can always fly back up as high as you were before--or even higher--whenever you want to.

If, however, you're in the sky because you took the easy way up and allowed yourself to be catapulted without being equipped to fly, you will fall faster than you rose up.  You will come down with a massive, maiming BANG that will leave you lying there, helpless, incapable of even standing up, left to watch those who are soaring, regretting why you ever decided to get on that trebuchet in the first place.

Yes, the glory of instantly rising to fame is awesome but the pain of losing social relevance, being ignored and, ultimately, forgotten is like having a spoon forced through your abdomen--unless, perhaps, you've somehow mastered detachment from worldly things.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On Speaking Tagalog as a Third Language

I'm a Bisaya--a person living in the Visayas Islands of Central Philippines--and my native language is Cebuano.  The Philippine national language is Tagalog, with a prestige register called Filipino, and, as it was a compulsory language to learn in school, I am fluent in its technical use and its use in formal conversations.  It's useful to a certain degree but not really with anything more than understanding televised national news and literature, and conversing with people in the parts of the country that use it as their native tongue.

Tagalog, although it is the national language, is not my second language but my third.  All schools in the Philippines use English as a standard medium of instruction and all but two subjects--history and Filipino--are taught in the world's most imperialistic language, which is also the language of Philippine government and commerce.  On that note, Tagalog isn't very useful to those who don't speak it as a native tongue.  One might argue that because the Philippines has so many languages, it can be used as a uniting language for us and that if two people who speak different regional languages try to converse, they would use Tagalog.  Nope.  This is simply not true in my experience.  Although it is a bit shameful to admit, if a Waray-Waray speaker and a Cebuano speaker were to have a conversation, they would likely use English rather than Tagalog.

Moreover, since I don't actively try to improve my use of Tagalog, I've been largely ignorant about it's non-formal use.  Even though it was pummelled into me during my years in school, I only learned it academically.  Until fairly recently, I have only ever used formal and grammatically correct Tagalog.  I didn't become street smart with the language until about 4 years ago.  If you speak Spanish, imagine me speaking to you in the Usted Form with a Castilian accent while walking around the slums of Bogota.  Or if you're an English speaker, imagine me speaking to you with the British Received Pronunciation while drinking Guinness in a small pub in Kilcullen.  Yeah.  Kinda like that.

Anyway, not actually using Tagalog on a regular basis, it took quite some time for me to learn bits and pieces of the language that are apparently really necessary if you want to survive in a place that uses it.  Among them are the following:

a.)  When someone says, "Wow, ang dami mong alam,"  [Eng: Wow, you know a lot] they're not giving you a compliment.  No matter how deadpan the face of the one saying it is or how nicely it's expressed, it's actually just a sarcastic way of telling you to shut the fudge up.

Someone used this on me after I explained the difference between bisexuality and homosexuality--prompted by her assertion that bisexuality is just homosexuality in disguise.  I thanked her after hearing it and went on about the principles of addressing cisgender people and how to be avoid being offensive.  She repeated what she said.  (i.e. "Ang dami mo talagang alam."  [Eng:  You really know a lot.])  I thanked her again and she left.  Shortly after, a friend, who was also present in that conversation, pointed out that she was actually being sarcastic.  It only hit me then why her grin was too darn big.  She must have thought I was an idiot.

b.)  Po, [a word used to express respect to an elder or "superior"; no direct English translation] is almost absolutely compulsory.

I was never told this in school.  It took a confrontation for me to learn this.  Someone approached me after a forum and said my speech was really rude because I didn't use the word po after each sentence when addressing a Roman Catholic priest.  Right!  That didn't help the guy's cause.  From that day on, I resolved never to use the word with anyone who would expect to hear it.  I am not superior to anyone and nobody is my superior so I will not address anybody as such unless they are really, really kind people and I want to make them feel good!  I refuse to be another brick on a pedestal that boosts anyone's ego.  The most I would do is say things nicely and gently but I'm not going to use a word that would make you feel like you're above me.  You're not.

We Bisaya are generally nice and respectful people but we just express respect by saying things gently, which can be done universally with anyone and everyone.  In our language, which is not mutually intelligible with Tagalog, we don't have a separate word that elevates a person's status in a conversation and I like that about my native tongue.  Sorry, I'm not sorry.

c.)  If you do not know someone very well, or if someone is supposedly socially "superior" to you, it is rude to refer to them in the second person singular.  Instead you should refer to them in the second person plural or even third person plural.  For example:  "Saan ka pupunta?"  [Eng: Where are you going?] should be expressed as "Saan po sila pupunta?" [Eng:  "Where are they going?"; with po in its appropriate place].  Again with po.

d.)  The word tarantado actually means "stupid."  In both my language and in Tagalog, the word taranta (tarantar if expressed appropriately in Cebuano) means "to panic," so I thought adding a "do" after it, like you do with most verbs to turn them into adjectives--a Filipino adaptation of a Spanish grammar rule--would just make it mean "a panicky person."  Nope.  Apparently, it means you're stupid if someone calls you tarantado.  An internet Tagalog-English dictionary translates the word as "flustered."  Wrong.  It really means stupid.  Try being in a street in rural Manila and calling someone that and you're almost sure to get a black eye.

I used it the wrong way on a Tagalog colleague once, telling her, "Masyado ka kasing tarantado eh," after she got rejected from an audition to a singing contest.  I thought I was saying "Because you're very panicky," when I was actually saying "Because you're very stupid."  No wonder she cussed at me and didn't speak to me for over a month after that.  Sorry, we didn't learn such words in school.  I'm glad I didn't use that word too much.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Beauty Pageants

Sorry, I'm not going to "like" your friend's/sister's/brother's/cousin's/neighbour's photos in support of their candidacy for Miss/Mister/Queen/King/Prince/Princess/Jewel/Heart of what-THE-FUDGE-ever.

In case you don't know what my personal stance is on the matter or in case I haven't been clear enough about it, I do not support beauty pageants--female or male.  I think it's shallow and degrading to publicly compare people to each other, chipping down a bunch of people to one or two, on the basis of personal appearance--even with that question-and-answer portion that supposedly gauges their intellectual capabilities as public role models.  Right.  I don't buy that crap.

If you don't share my opinion, I honestly couldn't care less.  Fair play to you.  I'm not gonna lie; I am going to judge you and think you're misinformed at the very least but, of course, we can still friends.