the persistence of being earnest

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Sometimes I swear it is easy to just give up whenever the universe is sending me signals that it doesn’t care about what I’m trying my best to accomplish—machines breaking down halfway towards a deadline, people in public places moving at a glacial pace, the omnipresence of cigarettes despite a rather stern warning from a doctor and a desperate new year’s resolution.

Why do we insist so thoroughly on persevering despite the odds? Why do we even give a rat’s ass? According to very wise biologists, there is such a thing called “biological imperatives,” a neat term that refers to the needs of living organisms to perpetuate their existence and defend themselves from harm and death. Survival and the desire for a better quality of life are two of these biological imperatives.

It is an enlightening fact, really—considering even bacteria and other lower life forms practise this sort of behaviour. Take street cats for example. Theirs is a cruel world and they go through a lot of undeserved brutality—an unhealthy diet of sewer mice, madmen throwing them into the air by the tail for no logical reason other than a sadist source of entertainment, the ever-present danger of being rounded-up and slaughtered for dimsum.

Yet we don’t see them dwindling in numbers and we definitely do not hear them whining about feline troubles—they just sharpen their claws and prepare for the next encounter with a bored kid.

Scientists say we humans are no exception. Hard-wired for survival and drawing from an evolutionary experience of about 200,000 years, we try our best to raise the middle finger to the universe whenever faced with obstacles. And by “raise the middle finger,” they meant that it is natural for us to transcend the limits of our persistence—especially those artificial rules imposed by a social order perpetuated by so-called leaders of the pack.

There is a vast amount of empirical evidence to support this claim. Though we also go through a lot of terrible things that street cats would probably never consider trading places with us, there are many members of our own species who uphold not just the imperative of survival but also the biological need to improve life by working collectively.

They are farmers at Hacienda Luisita. They are union labourers. They are student activists. They are those who have taken up arms, because history tells us change is possible and necessary amidst crisis.

This high level of evolutionary adaptation is inspiring—so inspiring, in fact, that it makes me sick of myself whenever I am tempted to complain about my own often petty, bourgeois concerns. For once, I guess #YOLO might just make sense. “You only live once.” Why not fight until the last breath?

I think Darwin himself would have been proud. I have always thought the guy was awesome.

(First published in the Philippine Collegian, Issue 21)

on hipster arrogance, Harry Potter, seppuku, Zayn Malik, and JRR Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 3 January 1892 - 2 September 1973
“Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations.” – The Silmarillion, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 3 January 1892 – 2 September 1973

I proclaim myself shamelessly as a Tolkien hipster in the worst ways imaginable and at every possible opportunity which presents itself.

Throughout high school, I secretly scoffed at schoolmates who were still mooning over Harry Potter and who were yet blithely unaware of the many homages Rowling pays to Tolkien’s superior legendarium. By the time I reached college, and during my three-year stint at the call center pits, I have successfully nursed this arrogance into a full-fledged conceit which conveniently allowed me to entertain vile and altogether unfair thoughts about people who have so far failed to read The Lord of the Rings at least once during their teens. At a screening of the new adaptation of The Hobbit, I strained in the dark through my 3D glasses just to stare and, thereafter, sneer at the empty faces of people upon whom the sheer grandeur of Petersen’s loyalty is completely lost and wasted.

And then yesterday, I forgot that it was the birthday of no one but J. R. R. Tolkien himself—this person who had discovered an entire new world and history and then presented it to us in nothing less than the most exquisite detail and the most beautiful language so that we may write rambling praises in such awfully constructed sentences like this one, this person I have so prided myself on admiring so much, this person I hated to discuss with people whose idea of Elves remains as fake as the Cottingley fairies. I suddenly knew shame—shame and disgrace, such as many of those Japanese samurai who succumbed to seppuku. I have failed. I am a fraud. I am humbled.

If I were a hormonal teenaged girl who forgot Zayn Malik’s birthday, I would have worn a hoop of rope around my head and hung myself right here in my room in no time—though, of course, not before announcing it via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. (“This here is a rough, cruel coil of rope in washed out tones of sepia. Good bye, life.”)

Luckily, I am not a hormonal teenaged girl who forgot some cute hot cute celebrity male’s birthday. Also, as the dwarf in another great fantasy series says so shrewdly, “Death is so boring—especially now with so much excitement in the world.”

So I spare my own worthless life and carry on being the hateful Tolkien fan that I have become. For today, though, I am all humility and remorse and dishonour, and I will let myself do something wise and proper by sharing some of the most breathtakingly beautiful lines ever penned by Tolkien. This serves as both an apology and a lame lame tribute to the man and nothing else would do but to admit that, despite my awful bourgeois hipster attitude, the greatest works of art would never fail to capture all minds and hearts with terrible wisdom and beauty.

  • “It is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Iluvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.” The Silmarillion, The Music of the Ainur
  • “Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that came down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien” The Silmarillion, Of Beren and Luthien
  • “‘I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen… I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number… I am he that buries his friends alive and drown them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me… I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.’” – Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit, There: Smaug’s Lair
  • “A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.”  The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark
  • “Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!” A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’ A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.’ ‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’ Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I!’ The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
  • “’And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of a Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark but beautiful and terrible as the morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love me and despair!'” – Galadriel to Frodo, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mirror of Galadriel
  • “My name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” – Treebeard, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Treebeard
  • “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor, and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.” – Faramir, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Window on the West

on game of thrones season 2 episode 6

I had hoped to write a mid-second season review of Game of Thrones last week, but the world outside the one-meter radius of my laptop somehow managed to get in the way, and now I find myself left with only the sixth episode to blog about and a sadness that might rival Tywin Lannister’s disappointment upon the birth of his son Tyrion the Imp.

But then again the Lord of Casterly Rock had no idea the Halfman would “grow up” to become such a fascinating creature and my regrets are nothing really more than just a lame attempt at an introduction. In other words, here’s a rundown of some of the most interesting stuff in Episode 6, listed by chronological order:

1. Joffrey Baratheon may have been a character designed primarily to elicit pure contempt. Theon Greyjoy, on the other hand, seems destined to be someone you couldn’t thoroughly hate only because he’s such a sad little person. In this scene where the turncloak tearfully beheads one of the Dwarflords of Middle-Earth Ser Rodrik Cassel, one can’t help but feel sorry for this poor boy who had to suffer so much from so many personal issues.

“Darn it. I was held hostage by a nice family for years and then my own squid of a father calls me a ‘doll’ in front of my little sis. If there were any shrinks in Westeros, I wouldn’t have to let this all out on you, you know.”
“Darn it. I was held hostage by a nice family for years and then my own squid of a father calls me a ‘doll’ in front of my little sis. If there were any shrinks in Westeros, I wouldn’t have to let this all out on you, you know.”

2. Many people have said it already and I will say it again with utter disregard for redundancy: this Arya Stark girl actress is beyond awesome. Where in the Seven Kingdoms did they get her? In this scene where Petyr Baelish arrives suddenly to Harrenhal to see Tywin Lannister, Arya does her best to make sure Littlefinger does not recognize her as the the other wolf pup who got away.

“Oh my gods. Petyr Baelish. Shit shit shit shit shit.”
“Oh my gods. Petyr Baelish. Shit shit shit shit shit.”

3. And then someone threw a lump of cow feces at Joffrey’s face. And Tyrion “kingslaps” him. I never knew I was capable of such gleeful laughter.

“OH NO YOU DIDN’T.”
“OH NO YOU DIDN’T.”

4. In the book series, Robb Stark falls in love with some girl he knocked up after some battle in the south—the Lady Jeyne Westerling, with her “chest-nut curls” and “heart-shaped face.” But the TV show’s writers apparently had a better idea and invented this mysterious Talisa of Volantis who works for the Red Cross. HBO thinks it’s a superior match for the King in the North, but Lady Catelyn Stark doesn’t seem to agree.

“Robb, my dear? I will hit your head if you do not stop ogling the young Mother Teresa.”
“Robb, my dear? I will hit your head if you do not stop ogling the young Mother Teresa.”

5. As for Ygritte the Wildling woman’s first appearance in the show, Jon Snow did look positively enchanted, which is just as well. I mean, who wouldn’t?

“You know nothing, Jon Snow. As for me, I know how to move my hips and I have this sort of sexy, breathy voice.”
“You know nothing, Jon Snow. As for me, I know how to move my hips and I have this sort of sexy, breathy voice.”

6. Now the only disappointment from the episode, I guess, comes toward the end, when the show’s writers made Osha buy her escape from besieged Winterfell by sleeping with Theon Greyjoy. That was a terrible, terrible thing to do, because in the books, Osha freed herself and the two Stark boys through sheer cunning and courage.

“They made Margaery Tyrell appear as if her feminine qualities were her only means for success. Why should I be any different?”
“They made Margaery Tyrell appear as if her feminine qualities were her only means for success. Why should I be any different?”

7. And then finally—and this isn’t part of the sixth episode—but listen to this little something and tell me that these kids are simply adorable. I will kill anyone who would say otherwise.

PS.  Don’t have a torrent of Game of Thrones Season 2 Episode 6 yet? Download it here.

on game of thrones season 2 episode 1

When I was a kid, we did not have cable and our television was an old machine with two rusty metal sticks for an antenna; we were lucky if the useless junk worked miraculously after a few friendly thumps. As a result, I had never grown fond of television shows as a child and I harboured the pretentious claim that nothing can be better than reading novels.

Of course, I wasn’t entirely right. I know now, because I have since discovered a combination of three things: the Internet, torrents, and the trusty VLC player. This week, I have done almost nothing but replay my pirated copy of the pilot episode of the second season of the Game of Thrones series (courtesy of MSF who gave me a link for the torrent), and I realize once more how, with today’s technology, you could replay the scenes in a story, in a way you could never do with books.

1. Consider this scene with the newly crowned King Joffrey Baratheon celebrating his “name day” by staging a fight tournament. When a contestant gets hammered to a bloody pulp and falls down from the sentries, Joffrey shouts, “Well struck!” And that smirk—it just helps you decide that he is surely the most evil of brats on screen since Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy, doesn’t it? I must have replayed the scene a thousand times, nursing my hatred for this blonde spawn of Satan. I mean, just look at that face.

“They said I can become anything, so I became a brat.”

2. And then comes the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, and his charming one-liners. He offers his condolences to Lady Sansa Stark, whose father’s head was chopped off by orders of his fiancé, the evil child Joffrey. When Joffrey retorts that Sansa has nothing to mourn for a traitor dad, Tyrion rebukes him and defends Sansa so tenderly. Aww. Let’s have that again, shall we.

“Hello there, pretty girl. I’ll save you from Draco Malfoy. Just be patient, okay?”

3. There are a lot of crazy women on television. But none as deliciously annoying as this seemingly mad Wildling woman who was taken hostage by the Starks and into the service of Winterfell. She smiles ever so darkly even when there is not much to be mysterious about, mutters, rolls her eyes, and cocks her head to the side all the time while talking to a major character. Her name is Osha and in terms of possible relatives, you could choose between Bellatrix Lestrange and Sisa. Here is she, giving a dissertation about comets.

“The comet means only one thing: the Dark Lord has returned.”

4. The important thing with medieval courts on television is the talking. There’s the sex, too, of course, and the fighting, and the vast amounts of clothes and drapery. But the talking is a big deal—the subtleties laced with poison, the inane pleasantries, the weird sentence structure. In this scene with Lord Petyr Baelish and the Queen Cersei Lannister exchanging some very meaningful words, the venomous smiles provide perfect backdrop to their charming conversation.

“And how did you two manage to get yourselves hoisted up there in that old watchtower, Your Grace?”

5. Last, who seriously didn’t enjoy that part where Jaime Lannister is tied to a post, scared to death with the prospect of being eaten alive by Robb Stark’s oversized dog. I replayed and replayed the scene until the screen dissolved in greenish pixels. Take that, you little pansy.

“Such big teeth you have, grandmother!”

on wage hikes and ‘math wizardry’

Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte was of course only doing her job when she once boldly dared lawmakers to pass a bill that would effectively scrap the 12-percent value-added tax on oil products. When informed that such a measure has already been filed by Bayan Muna party-list representative Teodoro Casiño in 2010, she promptly apologized the following day. “Good for you, Congressman Casiño,” she says in an interview over the radio.

One can only admire Valte’s humility and her devotion to her job description as the palace’s mouthpiece. Indeed, in her own words, Malacañang “cannot speak for Congress.” In other words, if the VAT is such an annoyance, legislators have the duty to junk it and save everyone else’s time. Why should President Aquino himself meddle with laws when there are so many other things that require his attention?

Just yesterday, in a press conference, as Valte employed basic math operations to explain why the Palace does not support the P125 wage hike proposed by Congress, we once again witnessed the lady’s astonishing capacity to effectively deliver a familiar message from the President: “My hands are tied. I cannot do anything about it.”

The P125 increase is simply not “practicable” and that employers may not be able to afford it, Valte said. According to Malacañang’s computations, the proposed wage hike would translate to a P42,250 annual increase  in salaries. Multiplied by 38 million workers in the country, the hike would result to about P1.26 trillion  in additional cost for businesses—quite a hefty chunk of the country’s economy valued currently at P8.5 to P9 trillion.

“Instead of being able to help the majority, some people may lose their jobs if the legislated wage increase will be this high,” she said, almost threateningly.

It would be easy to buy this explanation—if one ignores a few errors.

In his column at the Manila Times, Dr. Giovanni Tapang of Agham pointed out that only 54.8 percent of the country’s labor force of 38 million are wage and salary workers. Out of this percentile, 8.2 percent are government workers, 4.6 percent are private household workers, and 41.6 percent (or only 15.56 million) are workers hired by private establishments.

This means that the P125 wage hike, which shall be limited to those who work in private firms, translates, not to P1.26 trillion, but to only around P0.657 trillion.

This slight mistake is enough to make one suspicious, but doesn’t the fact remain that  businesses are hardly making any profit to afford such an increase in wages? Independent thinktank IBON says Philippine employers can handle it—but only if they would agree to a cut in their profits.

In 2009, all private firms in the country had a combined profit of P1.63 billion and 3.94 million employees, according to the 2009 Annual Survey of Philippine Business and Industry of the National Statistics Office. Using these figures, IBON estimates that the total cost of the proposed wage hike will only be P194.9 billion, which translates in turn to only a 12 percent cut in profits.

Beyond these oversights, though, one might forgive Valte for neglecting to do her homework more thoroughly. It must be a very taxing job, speaking for a president perceived by many as… laidback. Look at Elena Bautista-Horn who works for a former president who is currently under arrest and witness some really unfortunate things she has to say to the public.

If anything, the consistency of Malacañang’s press releases amid brewing protests against his economic policies proves something: Aquino might be cautious about bothering businessmen and their take-home money, but he certainly does not get too worked-up about what his real “bosses” want. Neither does he fear the brewing protests of angry people on the streets.

Such coolness under pressure must be admirable in a leader. ▣

on ‘documentaries’ and ‘sweet misery’

There is a scene in Jean Pierre Jenuet’s Amelie in which Audrey Tautou is sitting on her red bed, in front of her green television, watching what appears to be an imaginary documentary about her own sad death. She weeps as it showed footages of crowds attending the funeral procession, as the documentary paid tribute to the noble causes she has supported in life: feeding the poor, tending the sick, etc.

We know of course that Amelie is merely depressed, and this is her way of “letting it all out.” Moments earlier in the film, she is grating cheese for her dinner pasta when she stops suddenly, looks out the window, sees her recluse neighbor having the same exact meal she’s preparing, and decides her fate is sealed.

Why is drowning in misery so cathartic—that momentary tightening of the chest as one imagines a successful suicide, that split-second when your head is clear and you recognize truths you have so far otherwise ignored?

It’s a situation I’m not entirely unfamiliar with. The other night, I lay in bed admiring my bedroom ceiling, dead tired after having a rough day of making myself busy with tedious chores just so I could avoid checking my phone every few minutes for a missed call or an unread text message.

I wanted then to see right away if there are any more furniture undersides left for me to dust, dim light bulbs to replace, or dining table stains to scrub. But the pull of the alternative is simply irresistible. I searched instead through my memory for my own “TV documentary.”

While mine does not involve funeral parades or soup kitchens, I have perfected it by diligently cutting out some of the more awful scenes and adding in some good ones. Of course, in the end, it’s no longer a documentary but a set of disparate short films. Considering the advanced level of despair I had at the time, I picked two of my favorite short films and “played” them.

The first one is set in a rather expensive restaurant—the waiters are dressed in tailored suits and the crystal looked real. Nothing really happens, except I am closely watching two people on the other table. The other is set in a hospital room and I am afflicted with a rare skin disease caused by some unknown strain of virus.

And then my phone beeped and I scrambled for the wretched thing in the dark. When I finally discovered it beneath one of the pillows, I found out that it’s just an automated alert, reminding me I have enough reward points to subscribe to some unlimited texting promos. I threw the phone away and went to sleep.

In the morning, as I woke up, I decided to become a good person with nice thoughts. At least until today when I once again remembered the ingenious Amelie and her indispensable TV. ▣

2011, simplified

There are two familiar ways to write a personal year-end review. The first involves a simple chronology of all the good, the bad, and the ugly, followed promptly by an epiphany and a new year’s resolution. The second involves making fun of myself (and possibly everyone else), which is sometimes nothing really more than an attempt at humor. But either of the two would be easy, and convenient, and redundant, since I have already done both previously.

So I thought: Why not make it a lot easier and more convenient, without having to repeat myself? This year, I tried to condense twelve months into the following illustrations that would help me simplify things, without, of course, having to look forward to the Mayan Apocalypse.

Of course, these do not tell everything. For example, I’m too embarrassed to openly admit how often I listen to Adele and that  everything was self-rated. Also, these graphs are created only using estimates, which means it’s possible that I may have been, I don’t know, a little careless? 

A “Happy New Year” to everyone and may you guys never have to resort to graphs next year.