Labor

My little son has screamed again, fat tears
are springing from his eyes            fount of his grief
and mirror of my rage             too long in years
ignored: ringing phone, barking dog. Belief

that all the trivial things will find relief
next pay check. But these hours no one counts
waiting for him to fall asleep.           My shift
begins, and all the myths           they will amount

to this          a smile taken into account
in paintings of the woman and her child.
All these advertisements for milk astound,
my life looking serene and calm             and mild.

Did I not choose this? Do you see me mourn?
Does not each of us choose this
to be born?

A date with Lady Liberty

I’m on the last few days of my 22-week stay in the US; a few days ago I undertook what may be my last trip to Manhattan for now. Though I often visit my family in New Jersey, which is a convenient drive or train ride away from New York City, I’ve actually rarely hanged out at the Big Apple, except for this past month. Thanks to at least two invitations to meet people there, I finally learned to ride the subway—and all by myself, too! Since I’ve already seen the museums several times over, as well as watched a number of Broadway shows, this time around I made my first pilgrimage to two touristy essentials: the Empire State Building (recounted in my last entry) and, more recently, the Statue of Liberty.

Lady Liberty was so special, I thought a separate entry was in order.

First, as a tourist attraction, the statue is so clichéd that even though you haven’t been there, you feel as though you already have. I took my time going to see it, proudly thinking that I was above all that. Then my aunt, who lives in Long Island, set a date with me to tour NYC; she asked me where I’d never been to. So I thought I might as well see the most famous symbol of New York—indeed, of America itself.

IMG_1836

You know that Sean Bean meme from The Lord of the Rings movie where he says, “One does not simply… (insert insurmountable task here)”? It came to mind after my experience of visiting the statue. One does not simply visit Lady Liberty. Thank God I had the foresight to get our tickets in advance, via the Internet. Without a pre-purchased ticket with a scheduled check-in time (i.e. time of going through the airport-style security process prior to boarding), you will have to stand in a circuitous line of the hapless clueless. It would probably take you two to three hours to finally board the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island (the ticket covers both). If you arrive as a walk-in tourist at the headquarters of Statue Cruises at Castle Clinton in Battery Park—accessible via the Bowling Green or Whitehall subway stations—you may find that the tickets for the day will have sold out by early afternoon. In any case, if you don’t get an earlier-than-2-pm ticket, you won’t have time to fully explore both islands. In the case of my companion and myself, we already had our tickets in advance, and yet—owing to the sheer number of people lining up for the ferry to and from Liberty Island—we simply missed the last trip to Ellis Island. Oh, well! This was all my fault, as I typically lingered too long at the gift shop.

She was worth all the frustration, though. Just seeing her across the Hudson from downtown Manhattan is amazing enough. Approaching from the ferry—watching her get bigger and bigger, jostling with the crowd of excited selfie-takers on the railing—you lose your breath. She stands on a pedestal that’s actually taller than herself, and enclosed by a star-shaped fort. Disembarking from the pier, we approached her from behind, noting the raised instep of her enormous right foot, poised to move. We made our way toward her front, listening to the free audio tour as we travelled down the perimeter of the island. To the left, we saw fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline and the historic immigration building of Ellis Island. (During the heyday of European immigration to the New World, the first thing people saw from the harbor was Lady Liberty. Her architect, the French sculptor of colossal monuments, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, chose to put her in that particular island because this was how he meant her to be seen.) As we progressed, she loomed larger. She was a sight that no photograph could do justice to. However, the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the base of the statue, attempts to convey her meaning and magnificence:

IMG_1828

Bronze statue of Emma Lazarus on Liberty Island

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I learned from the audio tour that Lady Liberty was a gift from France to the US, to celebrate the centenary of the latter’s independence from Britain. I also found that she was full of symbols: the seven spikes of her crown stand for the seven continents; her torch stands for wisdom and enlightenment; the book she carries bears the date of American independence, i.e. July 4, 1776; and the broken shackles at her feet stand for freedom.

Since the statue has a height of 305 feet—her fingernail is the length of a person’s forearm!—one might wonder how she was made and transported. So I read up on that. Bartoldi began with a smaller-scale model that stood at four feet, which they made progressively bigger plaster casts of, until they could make copper pieces out of the final-sized model. A scaffolding was constructed for the assembly of the pieces, each of which was attached by metal beam to a sturdy inner iron skeleton designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). She was first completed and displayed in France, disassembled and shipped in pieces to the United States, stayed for months in boxes while Americans raised money for a proper pedestal, and then finally reassembled and inaugurated on October 28, 1886. Her full name was Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.

I gleaned a couple more interesting trivia from the audio tour. The first is that the copper statue was originally the color of a US penny. It took twenty years of oxidation for it to develop its green patina, which actually protects it from the sea air. (Misled by the color, all along I thought she was made of stone!) The second trivia is ironic and sad. Apparently, women were barred from attending the statue’s inauguration ceremony, so the suffragists—the first wave of American feminists—staged rallies by circling the island on rented boats! So much for her name and what it stands for. I guess even though the most important symbols of civilization are female, this doesn’t necessarily mean that women themselves are afforded a high status. In fact, even now—decades after the peak of the women’s liberation movement—a great mass of women are still not free in all the ways that count in many parts of the world. It takes a long while for the most hopeful symbols to be translated into actual practice. In fact, it’s a never-ending process.

*  *  *

My encounter with Lady Liberty had me thinking about two kinds of freedom: freedom to and freedom from. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a specific and controversial example concerning women’s oppression. Many women in less liberal societies may have freedom from the male gaze, in the sense of donning protective head coverings. However, they may also lack the important, positive sense of freedom to express their own sexuality or to make choices about their own destinies. I remember a juvenile poem I once wrote and which was inspired by the sight of a couple of lovebirds (“loved birds”?) once kept as pets by an aunt in Pasay City. In their protective cage, these birds had freedom from feline predators and slingshot-wielding children. They may even have freedom from want, since they were fed regularly. But they had no real freedom to fly. To use radical feminist Marilyn Frye’s metaphor, sometimes we’re so used to the individual bars that we fail to see the entire cage for what it really is… or that we are inside it.

I think this is a fitting reflection at the end of my visit to the US. In less than a week’s time, I shall be back in Manila, where I live and work. I count myself among the lucky citizens of a very poor country, since I am part of the educated middle class and am blessed with a stable job and a supportive family. But my heart breaks for those millions of Filipinos who truly are the people whom Lady Liberty is addressing. In my country, the majority of the population lives in circumstances that are unimaginable for anyone from the First World. Many do not have freedom from violence, hunger, and poverty, much less the freedom to be educated, to travel, and to follow their life’s purpose.

As an intellectual infected by what theorist Benedict Anderson calls “the specter of comparisons,” I have been tempted numerous times to just abandon ship. I’m not saying though that people from poor countries ought to move to richer ones, which can be part of the exploitative cycle, really. In an ideal world, I think the true solution should not be mass emigration, but national debt forgiveness as reparation for the sins of colonization. (My, that was a mouthful! Just channeling my depressing lessons in Macroeconomics.) Ultimately, perhaps the ideal world that Lady Liberty beckons us to is less a place or country than a state of heart.

IMG_1846

View of downtown Manhattan from the ferry, en route from Liberty Island

From the heights to the depths, and back again: My year abroad

It’s the second week of spring, and my sabbatical is coming to a close. Soon I’ll be returning to teaching after an extended break, which I had spent travelling, attending conferences, and sleeping the mornings away. My school gives me the option of taking a paid year off for research once every seven years (the Hebrew word shabbath means the seventh, or rest, day). Alternatively, I can also take a trimester off once every four years. I had opted for the former, dreaming of an adventure similar to that recounted by Elizabeth Gilbert in her 2006 memoir of soul-searching, Eat, Pray, Love.

Some things did get clarified for me. The foremost concerns the import of travel, with which I have a love-hate relationship. Friends of mine who are zodiac aficionados tell me that as a Sagittarius, I’m supposed to be a free spirit: spontaneous and fun-loving. This puzzles me because I can go for weeks just padding around the house in a bathrobe, perfectly content reading, watching videos, or playing iPad games. On the other hand, I do sometimes manage to rouse myself for a typically well-planned excursion. Like my course syllabi, my trips often follow a day-to-day schedule. It doesn’t sound very Sagittarius-like, but it works for me.

Ms. Gilbert divided her book into three parts, describing her experiences in different countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia. Each place embodied a personal theme for her, i.e. food (“eat”), spirituality (“pray”), and romance (“love”). The countries I’ve been to during my vacation also don’t seem to have much in common except for the accident of my presence. I was just one of millions of tourists, after all. However, as the Romantics see it, the character of a locale is a mirror of the consciousness that gives meaning to it. Here’s my take on the chapters of my life spent exploring England, the Netherlands, and the US.

High fantasy

I’ve always suspected that I was a Londoner in some past life, and my visit to the place confirmed it for me. The spiritual love affair with it may have begun when I was a kid, reading my first paperback of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The collected volumes I owned, published by Bantam, sported sepia covers: A man in a bowler hat strolls along cobblestoned streets, or drives a buggy through the fog. In Heather Nova’s haunting ballad, “London Rain,” she croons, “Nothing heals me like you do.” I adore dreary weather, the sort that calls for a cup of tea or a trench coat with the collar hiked up. The English seem to have an innate despair tempered by a sober, keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude. You can hear it in their accent, which has you yearning for some underlying meaning beneath the clipped officiousness. If London were a man, I’d like to muss his hair, perhaps mess with his cravat. There’s something about the place that speaks to my own well-ordered veneer, layered around a kernel of emptiness. London is my inner drizzle.

Image

If London were a man, he would be Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

When my sister showed me around the city (a systems analyst, she once lived there for some months, working on a project), it was the last days of June. But the sky had a winter pallor, and the Thames was a silvery snake that bore our boat on its rain-splattered scales. From the paradisiacal Kew Gardens, we travelled eastward on the water; past the M16 headquarters fictionally blown up in the last James Bond movie, past the factories and riverside brownstones of Battersea. We glided under the occasional bridge whose unique name was emblazoned on its arch. Of all the bridges in London, only one claims to be London Bridge, which, ironically, is nondescript and easily outshone by the gilded Tower Bridge.

Image

Giant waterlilies (the largest in the world) at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew

Image

Approaching the M16 headquarters

Image

My sister Terri, as our boat passed by the English Parliament

Image

The Tower Bridge

One thing I truly appreciated about London is the free admission to museums. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, which specialized in art and design, and of course, the not-to-be-missed British Museum. From the outside, its grimy neoclassical façade looked underwhelming, but inside were the treasures amassed by the British Empire during its glory days. I was particularly curious about the infamous “Elgin marbles,” pried off the ruins of the Parthenon in the eighteenth century. Lord Elgin, British ambassador, bribed Turkish officials—then-occupiers of Greece—to let him ship back to England sculptures from the pediments and other pieces. To this day, the British have not heeded the numerous appeals by the government of Greece for the return of the marbles.

(I had seen the Parthenon; during the previous year, I was able to visit Athens and the Acropolis. After the explosion of Turkish gunpowder foolishly stored in the building in 1687, it was catastrophically destroyed, hence becoming ruins for the first time in its almost two millennia of history. Before that, it was a fully functional structure that had served not only as a temple for Athena, but also as a church and a mosque. Now all you can see are hopelessly mismatched remains held together by scaffolding. It was still majestic though, because of its size and graceful lines and strategic placement on that beautiful plateau. The new Acropolis museum, a glass-and-steel structure with a panoramic view of the Parthenon itself, showcased the surviving sculptures from the eastern and western pediments, as well as what were left of the friezes and metopes. These pieces had been removed from the site in order to protect them from the elements. In the museum, they were arranged according to their original placement in the temple.)

If I had not seen all this, I probably would have been more awestruck upon entering the room of the Elgin marbles in the British museum. Instead, all I kept thinking was that everything there belonged with the other parts that weren’t, which were either in their true home in Athens or in various museums all over the world, such as the Louvre. Alas, the full glory of the Parthenon can be complete only in the mind.

Once we had our fill of museums, my sister and I made our way up the London Eye, the world’s largest Ferris wheel, which gave us a telescopic view of the city and the river that wound through it. And I found that it was possible to rise above it all, until I was one with the sky.

Image

The British Museum

Image

Hall of the Parthenon marbles

Image

Sculptures from the pediment of the Parthenon

Image

View of the Thames and Parliament from the London Eye

After London, I travelled to Oxford for an interdisciplinary conference on the subject of forgiveness. I had never been to a quainter place than that university town. Castle-like buildings dating from the medieval ages dotted the area, where tourists and students alike mingled. At a bus stop, a red-haired teenager who reminded me of Ron Weasley gave me directions to my inn. During a conference break, I circled the park around the majestic Christ Church College, where Lewis Carroll studied. There was a nearby Alice in Wonderland shop, and my visit just happened to coincide with “Alice Week.” J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Oxford dons, are also associated with the place. I got the sense that I had stepped through a corridor between menhirs and somehow time-travelled to the heyday of fantasy: Middle-Earth, Narnia, and much further back, Camelot. This was England for me.

Image

Christ Church College

Image

The Alice in Wonderland store

Image

Strolling around the university town

Orphic journey

In the Netherlands, I attended another conference, this time on the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. It gave me an excuse for an extended visit with my sister, who lives and works in Eindhoven. Her apartment was three hours away by train from Groningen University, the conference site. Eindhoven by the way is an unassuming city that grew around the headquarters of Phillips Electronics, and, after my conference, it proved to be an ideal base for visiting Amsterdam.

The land of tulips and windmills (and bicycles and wooden clogs) did not quite call to me in the way that England did, and the language was gibberish to my ear. But I was impressed by the profusion of museums, especially in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I only had time for the Rijksmuseum and the Groningen Museum. I also appreciated the engineering prowess that made the country livable, considering that about a third of it is below sea level. This genius for building is showcased at Madurodam, a miniature park in The Hague. My sister’s boyfriend took us there, where we marveled at replicas of famous places, crafted at a uniform scale of 1:25. These included the Delta Works, Schiphol Airport, the Red Light district, castles, cathedrals, skyscrapers, train stations, shipyards, bridges, even a flower farm that manufactured a tulip pin if you fed the machine 1 euro. Kudos to the Dutch; it’s not altogether surprising that during the Age of Exploration, they were a major sea power.

Image

Listening to philosopher David Ihde, the keynote speaker at the Paul Ricoeur conference at Groningen University

Image

“Emotional Detox: The Seven Deadly Sins” by Marc Quinn, at the Groningen Museum

Image

The Kitchen Maid by Johannes Vermeer, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Image

Feeding time at the seal sanctuary in Groningen. A sea gull slyly looks on.

Image

A traditional windmill we passed on the road in Groningen

Image

Madurodam, the miniature park at The Hague

Image

A model of the Rijksmuseum

Image

A model of St. John’s Cathedral at Den Bosch

Image

A model of the Red Light District

Image

A model of Schiphol Airport

Image

A miniature tulip factory

Image

My souvenir from the tulip farm

England was the rain, the Netherlands the rainbow. For what does it take to survive and thrive in the nether regions? To suffer tens of thousands of casualties during a deluge, and by necessity, to build a dam in the middle of the sea? I’ve seen my share of floods where I live, where the poor drainage system reflects the nadir of city planning. So it was inspiring to visit a place that ably and constantly protects itself from reclamation by the sea. I thought that it was not unlike me during the lowest point in my life, not too long ago. When I think of Amsterdam, ribboned by canals, I think of my own tributaries of tears, and the quiet miracle of not having drowned. At the end of his journey to the underworld, Orpheus may have looked behind him and lost everything, but he followed the light and made his way back up.

The no-name place between high and low

By far the place where I stayed longest was, of course, New Jersey. Since my father came to live and work here more than a decade ago, and my mother followed, I’ve been visiting frequently. New Jersey is often the butt of jokes; the last Captain America movie even makes fun of it as a very unlikely tourist destination. For many, it’s just the halfway place between the more exciting Pennsylvania and New York. I don’t necessarily agree, though I won’t talk much about it here, because the traveler is silent about the place she goes home to at the end of the day.

Since my sabbatical allowed me to extend this year’s US trip, I was able to visit one of my best friends from high school, who makes her home in Topeka, Kansas. My cousins had teased me about going to the Midwest, intimating that there was nothing to see there but cows and tornadoes. (Un)fortunately, there were none of the latter, although my friend and her sister took me to the Museum of Oz; there was a tornado in Dorothy’s story, wasn’t there? All the ribbing about Kansas aside, I spent an amazing four days there, hanging out with my good friend, whom I hadn’t seen in two years, and her family. We watched movies, shopped, and ate at restaurants like we used to do in the Philippines. She also took me to Kansas City which somehow reminded me of Philadelphia, with its old municipal buildings and skyline that could rival that of any northeastern city. Particularly memorable was the Kansas City Public Library, whose adjacent parking lot was bordered by the spines of gigantic books. (American public libraries are one of the reasons I deeply regret not living in a first-world country.)

Image

My friend Les, her dad, and two daughters at the Kansas City Public Library

Image

Plato shelved between Bradbury and Twain

Image

Made like tourists at the entrance

Image

Inside the library

Image

Wintry plains

Image

Outside the Oz Museum

Image

Les’ sister Grace with their dad, Tito Oskee

Image

“Wicked” memorabilia

Image

At the Olive Garden with Les and her family

They say every Filipino has family or friends somewhere in the US. I’m glad this was true for me; in New York City, I was able to reconnect with a friend of mine from my college days, whom I met through the DLSU Aikido Club. She now works in Manhattan as an immigration lawyer. She took me to the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State building, and the 9/11 Memorial. (We skipped the museums this time, which I had already seen some years back.) I did so much walking, I developed subungual hematoma in my left big toe! It was worth it, though. New York City may not be as beautiful as Paris, as elegant as London, or as grand as Rome. In fact, most of the time it reminds me of a much bigger Manila, which it may likely equal in grime and crime. Still, it’s New York. I remember the last time my family and I drove into the city—my sister spontaneously hummed Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” Empire is right: when my friend and I went up the observatory of the eponymous building, we were treated to a spectacular 360-degree view of Manhattan. My favorite angle was the downtown side, which showed the southern tip of the island with the World Trade Center memorial building and Liberty Island in the distance.

Speaking of the WTC, I still remember that harrowing day more than ten years ago. At the time, I was living in New Jersey. Suddenly, my dad came home from work and we turned on the TV and it was full of horrific images. They say that 9/11 was the most media-covered event in history. By contrast, the spirit that pervaded the memorial was the opposite of the fear and cacophony of that day. Where the towers once stood were huge marble pools with thirty-foot waterfalls, on the borders of which were inscribed the names of the victims. The 9/11 museum in the corner was still under construction. Looming over the whole complex was the new WTC building. There were no grand monuments; it was a place of quiet reflection. I learned that during victims’ birthdays, people would insert flowers into the letters of their names that were etched into the marble. Then I realized that the remains of many people had not been found, and the memorial site was in effect their gravesite.

Image

With my friend Emma at a deli in Manhattan

Image

In front of the New York City Courthouse

Image

The Flatiron Building at Madison

Image

And then suddenly, this

Image

The famous bull at Wall Street

Image

Mural dedicated to 9/11

Image

The North pool at the 9/11 Memorial, where the North Tower used to be

Image

Names of 9/11 victims

Image

The new World Trade Center building

Image

The famous wall relief at the Empire State Building’s art deco lobby

Image

On top of the world at the observatory of the Empire State Building

Image

Manhattan, downtown view

Lately, I have been fascinated by ruins. There was a time in history when they were quite a fad, particularly for English lords who would journey to continental Europe for their Grand Tour. Back then, only the privileged few had the means to make a pilgrimage to the remains of our ancient heritage. Over time, of course, the middle class arose, tourism became the domain of backpackers and seniors, Western civilization itself was deconstructed, and the very idea of ruins was de-romanticized. We can no longer think of them in terms of past glory; after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, and 9/11, ruins now stand for war, colonization, the ravages of technology, the problem of evil.

Nonetheless, a part of me remains a Romantic at heart. I treasure the places I travel to, less for my presence there so much as for their inevitable absence at the moment of my leaving. Paradoxically, what makes something finally ours is that it’s no longer there. Even these words, I guess, are the ruins of my year away: the phantom pain in my toe, the marble fragment, the missing towers, the stranger’s name etched on the stone.

Special thanks to Terri-Ann dela Cruz, Mary Grace Mamolo, & Emma Ramirez for some of the above photographs! 

On the Walter Mitty type

Image

I recently saw Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a movie very loosely based on a short story by James Thurber. Despite the mixed reviews of critics who weren’t very impressed by Stiller’s film, taking issue with its divergence from Thurber’s original text, I found it quite heartwarming and endearing. (The story, first published in The New Yorker in 1939, had already been made into a movie in 1947. Incidentally, the author himself had not liked the latter because its premises were very different from his own conceptions.)

Thurber’s tale centers on an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary man who just happens to have an extraordinary imagination. The character doesn’t do anything about this, precisely because his energies are focused inward. The conciseness of the short story form showcases the difference between Walter’s active mind and the inactive, boring world of the everyday, in which he does things like wait for his wife to finish her appointment at the salon. It is this contrast that imbues his fantasies with memorable cinematic qualities. Obviously, this effect is difficult to convey in a 125-minute reel, unless you turn it into a plot-less art piece. Instead, the movie relies on a conventional heroic arc that has Walter integrating his imaginative fancies with action that makes a difference to others. He changes as a character.

Retrofitted into a 21st-century context as a “negative asset manager” at Life magazine, Stiller’s Walter is a drone who organizes and files film negatives. When an important negative goes missing, he must track down the reclusive photographer who took the picture. Entitled “The Quintessence of Life,” it is supposed to grace the cover of the magazine’s last print issue. This aspect of the movie allows it to exploit a photography idiom about capturing the moment versus living it. Walter, after all, is more likely to zone out than abandon his comfort zone. As he is forced to go on an adventure, his dreamlike world starts to mesh with actual events, realized through impressive computer-generated graphics and a rousing musical score. The film’s conventional style and one-too-many product placements, in my opinion, do not detract from its fundamental likability.

For me, its major selling point—as is the case with Thurber’s short story—inheres in Walter’s character. To typecast him (literally) in terms of Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of psychological types, he is an introverted intuitive. His energies are focused inward, since he thrives on reflection and reverie. He also perceives possibilities more than actualities, to the point of being thought of as a total weirdo. In an interview, Jung has this to say of the introverted intuitive: “… he has intuitions as to [the] subjective factor. Of course that is very difficult to understand. Because what he sees are most uncommon things. And he doesn’t like to talk of them, if he’s not a fool, because he would spoil his own game by telling what he sees. Because people won’t understand it.” I think many may be able to relate with Walter because the child within is a dreamer, without whose dreams nothing important could truly happen. And who’s to say that they aren’t already happening, even if only in one’s head?

Letter from an attic in New Jersey

Satellite image of typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, from businessinsider.com

Satellite image of typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, from businessinsider.com

It’s been two years since I was last here in Union, New Jersey, where my parents, green card holders, reside. My father is a freelance carpenter and home remodeller, and the house they’ve been living in–I noticed when I arrived a couple of weeks ago–has become cozier and more sylish. I was surprised to find out that some of the furniture, made of wood and glass, were freebies from some clients of my dad. My old bedroom was waiting for me with its lovely, light-filled adjacent bathroom, both of which he had constructed in the otherwise moldering attic that the house had come with.

After seven years of living in it and continuously improving the place, my dad is ready to sell–or the bank is, anyway. The rising mortgage has made owning a house so close to New York City impractical. My parents plan to rent a place if and when the house is sold. The last potential buyers who had come by, a Vietnamese couple who looked to be in their 30s, had a lot of questions for the realtor. I hoped they were pleased with the interior. From the outside, the house looks as unassuming as its neighborhood on Andrew Street, which is tucked behind a high brick wall that borders the I-94 highway. The porch is crammed with dad’s tools of trade: machinery, materials, parts of things I can’t name, all too heavy–he claims–to store in the basement and transport to his van, so he leaves them there. Anyone who comes by would think that this could’ve been MacGyver’s home.

But when you pass through the threshold, you’d realize that as a man who has a particular skill working with his hands, MacGyver puts a lot of care in his surroundings. The gleaming wood floors invite you to come in, softly illumined by suspension lights that come with a ceiling fan. A huge LCD TV dominates the living room. The kitchen is spacious, its marble counters and mahogany cabinets stocked with enough food to last through a zombie apocalypse. Beyond sliding glass doors is a back porch where, during the summer, we would hold barbecues with family and friends. Three clay deer, plant containers during summer and spring, sit placidly on the railing. A fourth has fallen safely to the leaf-covered ground, usually forgotten until my mind’s eye compares the scene with an old photograph of me and my dad. It was taken one December, gleaming white where the snow blanketed the leaves and my fur-lined coat reflected the light. A row of sweet-faced deer sat behind a man with a curly riot of salt-and-pepper hair, and a woman who resembled him in every respect but for the waist-length straightened black hair.  

I left the Philippines on the eve of a supertyphoon, which is still making headlines for its horrific aftermath in the islands of Leyte and Samar. Entire coastal villages had been leveled, and from Google Earth they look like clumps of wet matchsticks. Pasay City, in Metro Manila where I live, had been spared, although my apartment had seen its share of waist-deep floods. But so much worse than a place occasionally submerged in water is one that has been blown apart my the wind, or washed away by waves from the sea. Being a typhoon refugee must be like being a soul wandering in purgatory, stripped of a body… or a turtle whose shell has been broken into, skin exposed to teeth and claw. Would we be human without our houses? I think of the soot-covered vagrants I seem to see everywhere, from New York City to Naples to Manila, sleeping under bridges, weaving in and out of traffic for handouts, rummaging through garbage. Don’t we spend our lives working to build a house where we hope to die in? We measure success and security by the quality of our dwelling places: their character, their facade, their contents, the sturdiness of their walls, the water-tightness of their roof. I know that this house of my father’s embodies him in the way that sinew hews his bones to other bones, the stairs connecting the floors like ligaments, each room a vital organ, the rarely-seen basement collecting his unconscious fears. At night when my bedside lamp illuminates the attic, it is as though the lightbulb of an idea pops on, and the house thinks. The house dreams.

I know it would be an insult to true refugees to say that my parents, younger sister, and I had been refugees all our lives, always living in temporary places, not knowing if the current country is the home country or the adopted country. To say that one is already home sounds too final: my parents are applying for American citizenship. My sister may immigrate to the Netherlands, where she lives and works. In five months when my sabbatical from school is over, I will return to Manila, teaching philosophy in the university where I graduated from. Perhaps “home” is the poor country where to merely be an existential refugee is to be among the lucky ones, for it means you will always have a home, for as long as you could afford a flight out of somewhere. Is the planet earth our home, where the deniers of global warming live side-by-side with lone voices who predict supertyphoons, and are ignored? Or is “home” that one art that Elizabeth Bishop has written a poem about, our entire lives villanelles of loss–cycles of suffering that we must master? The tomb we have been longing for since leaving the womb. The tell-tale fragments of shell. The beached ship. The wooden plank that has drifted out to sea, then washed ashore.

Aside

Where I Boldly Went: Explorations into Star Trek

I recently saw Star Trek into Darkness, the second film in J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. The first movie, which came out four years ago, hadn’t made much of an impact on me, probably because (1) I’m not really a Trekkie, and (2) the whole time-travel scenario was somewhat confusing. To my pleasant surprise, Into Darkness turned out to be my favorite kind of film: action-packed mind candy. Relieved of the burden of having to explain Abrams’ alternate universe, it highlighted the humanist philosophy that the original series was known for.

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Captain James Kirk and Mr. Spock

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Captain James Kirk and Mr. Spock

Star Trek, the syndicated 1960s TV show, used science fiction to offer a covert critique of the issues that defined America at the time. These include the Cold War, the Vietnam war, the feminist and anti-racist movements, etc. In the same vein, Abrams’ film is easy to read as a sociopolitical allegory about the post-9/11 era. It features a stateless adversary who resorts to stealthy attacks against a hegemonic order. The story itself resonates with archetypal ideas about good and evil, the struggle between them, and their often murky borders.

I was intrigued enough to do my research. Apparently, Star Trek’s 47-year history has seen five television spin-offs, including an animated one; twelve movies counting Abrams’ contribution; and voluminous literature in the form of novels, comic books, and fan fiction. In the most recent big-screen adaptations, a time-travel plot device creates an alternate “Abrams-verse.”

In Star Trek (2009), the Romulan Nero, whose planet has been destroyed when a nearby star goes supernova, accidentally goes back in time when his ship is swallowed by a black hole. He is bent on vengeance against Ambassador Spock, who has failed to prevent the catastrophe that befell Romulus. Nero’s appearance in the past leads to the death of Tiberius Kirk, father of the future Captain James Kirk, thus creating new destinies for the crew of the starship Enterprise. (The operational metaphysical theory here assumes that if a person travels to the past, the prime timeline doesn’t change while a parallel one comes into existence.)

This lets the reboot tell fresh stories about familiar characters. In Abrams-verse, they are depicted to be much younger, as the famous odyssey of the Enterprise has yet to begin. We see their early interactions as a team, especially the budding friendship between the swashbuckling Kirk and the coldly logical half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock. There are also the fussy Dr. “Bones” McCoy, the kick-ass communications officer Lieutenant Uhura (who, in this iteration, is in a relationship with Spock), the stalwart Officer Hikaru Sulu, Russian navigator Pavel Chekov, and not least, the comic engineer Montgomery Scott and his silent alien sidekick. Significantly, actor Leonard Nimoy, who originally played Spock, appears as old Spock, lending a strong sense of continuity between the original series and Abrams’ films. As the movie concludes, we hear the familiar voiceover by Captain Kirk: Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

star-trek-2-into-darkness-poster

In Star Trek into Darkness (2013), a mysterious rebel named John Harrison instigates the bombing of a key Starfleet research center and later fires on top commanding officers. Kirk and his crew are sent on an undercover mission to eliminate him, using powerful, newly developed torpedoes. However, Kirk hesitates because the fugitive is hiding in Klingon territory, and any attack could precipitate a war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. After he apprehends Harrison, he also discovers that there’s more to his story and the 72 torpedoes now stocked on the Enterprise. Kirk’s decision to ignore his original directive makes him a target of the formidable Admiral Alexander Marcus. In order to save the lives of the people on his ship, Kirk is forced into an uneasy alliance with his strange prisoner.

The preservation of life as an absolute end recurs as a theme in the movie. But the choices of the characters reveal this to be inherently paradoxical. In the name of saving certain others—one’s child, one’s friend, a crew, a family, an entire world—the taking of lives is perceived as inevitable or justified. This of course points to the tragic relativism of values, which Kirk and his friends heroically struggle against. As Kirk helplessly tells Spock, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.” In this sense, the torpedoes—each of which harbors a surprising secret—represent both danger and safety, destruction and preservation. The ending suggests that, against all odds, there is hope for the latter.

In a way, the principles of warfare have not really changed since at least The Iliad. The differences between then and now are a matter of method and name (weapons of mass destruction, terrorism), but the stakes are the same. Even in an imagined universe where poverty has been eliminated and humans have achieved interstellar travel, the old specters lurk elsewhere in the galaxy, in the form of alien empires or renegade villains who have somehow acquired WMDs. The United Federation of Planets is only the modern (Western and liberal) nation-state on a grander scale. Admiral Marcus represents the consequentialist militarism that cannot think beyond black and white. On the other hand, the tandem of Kirk and Spock represents the union of intuition and reason, without which we can’t even begin to comprehend reality: That we live in a world where resources are tragically limited, duties and goods conflict, and death is inevitable.

All in all, the narrative of Star Trek into Darkness is as rousing as its over-the-top musical score, as awesome as the trail left behind when a starship goes on warp speed. It makes my foray into its overwhelming universe worth it, for after all, exploration is an end in itself.

We Know Who He Is: A Non-Spoilerish Review of Iron Man 3

Image

Tony Stark is hands down my favorite Avenger. He makes the best quips and has the most interesting love story, to say nothing of how Robert Downey Jr. owns him completely. Iron Man 3, which I saw a couple of days ago, does not disappoint in any respect. I love how it takes Stark’s story in a new direction and also (it seems) neatly closes the saga of the armored superhero. The saga-closing isn’t quite as grand or poignant as that of the third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which is on a different level. But all the same, Iron Man 3—co-written by Shane Black and Drew Pearce—feels just right. Its narrative logic arises naturally from the evolution of Stark’s character.

The third film is set in a post-Avengers world, a game-changer in terms of Stark’s global appeal. There are only so many places where a character’s story can take you before the journey starts to feel pointless. After the first two Iron Man films and The Avengers, what challenge is left for Stark to face? He’s already dealt with the moral conundrums that come with being heir to a weapons manufacturing business (Iron Man). He’s done the requisite tango with the ego that every superhero seems to be saddled with (Iron Man 2). To top it all off, he has already teamed up with heroes both human and god who could’ve easily outclassed him, but not quite (The Avengers). In Downey’s three previous movie appearances as Tony Stark, a couple of important aspects of his life continue to change, keeping pace with his personal growth. It’s these sweet notes in the story that keep the melody listenable, like a radio station you don’t want to change. More ever remains to be told in terms of his two most important relationships: with Pepper Potts, and with his suit.

His suit first comes into existence when Stark has had to invent it to escape from a band of terrorists holding him hostage. Later, the expected kinks are dealt with and we see his metal exoskeleton burnished with its iconic colors of red and gold. This marks the beginning of Iron Man’s hero’s journey, the departure stage as Joseph Campbell calls it. During his transition from weapons manufacturer to world protector—apparently two mutually exclusive roles—Stark’s flirtation with long-time friend and personal assistant Pepper Potts begins to simmer. As early as the first movie, the seemingly incorrigible playboy tells her, “You’re all I’ve got.”

Widely known now as Iron Man, Stark improves his suit so that it becomes more portable, coming to him in the form of a briefcase during his memorable showdown with Whiplash on a Monaco racetrack. He also replaces the suit’s palladium core with a more powerful new element that he creates synthetically. (Incidentally, it is this same element that keeps him alive by repulsing shrapnel from his heart. The fatal fragments are first embedded in his chest during an explosion in the first movie.) In keeping with the initiation stage, Iron Man faces dragon after dragon, from Whiplash to a senate committee to his own hubris. His best friend Colonel James Rhodes is established as his sidekick, getting a suit of his own as War Machine. And Pepper becomes the perennial damsel in distress, with whom he embarks on a romantic relationship at the end of Iron Man 2.

When the couple reappear in The Avengers, they are practically spouses, and you get the feeling that, in terms of the love story, the film presents their epilogue. Stark proves that he has conquered his narcissism when he learns to be a team-player, performing the ultimate hero’s sacrifice at the end of the movie. Even his suit seems to have reached its pinnacle of improvement when it gains the ability to deploy from a certain distance. Iron Man 3 thus faces the challenge of picking up the threads of a story that has already seen the return stage. With things seemingly perfectly sewn into place, must some things now unravel?

As a matter of fact, they do not need to. One of the conceits of the film is that the conflict doesn’t inhere in equipment malfunction or trouble in lovers’ paradise or even in the predictable hero’s faceoff with his own Shadow. There is a new adversary in the person of the mysterious Mandarin, who wreaks havoc with random explosions and killings that he would take credit for on live TV. There is also a new agenda for Stark: how to protect the world and Pepper at the same time, since she has become the most important person in his life. The reappearance of a former lover, Maya Hansen, only underscores the soul-mate level of the Stark-Pepper bond, revealing where Stark’s priorities are. Just when the audience is ready to write Pepper off as the stereotypical damsel-in-distress, a twist near the end gives her character some applause-inducing glory moments. As for the suit, let’s just say that it achieves an unexpected mobility and iterative ability that a philosophy professor can use to explain the whole-to-parts and parts-to-whole fallacies. This popcorn movie dares to take on the grand literary theme of self and identity—in keeping with its tagline, “You know who I am”—something that is cleverly mirrored in the real story behind the character of the Mandarin.

All in all, Iron Man 3 is a thoroughly satisfying addition to a couple of interconnected series, one that cements Tony Stark’s status as a character whose ever-new movies we will want to keep watching. After all, we think we know who he is: someone to be unmasked again and again, only to keep surprising us about who and what he truly is.

Paris, for want of a souvenir

It’s almost been three months since I got back from my trip to Europe. For some reason, I still can’t look at the bulk of the pictures. Memories are so vivid and real, perhaps more so than the journey itself. I knew, going in, that the “in retrospect” moments were going to be priceless. These days, certain things would set off small vibrations in some chamber in my heart, spreading throughout my body: The rose window of a church. A train ride. A brief mention of the Botticelli Venus in my feminist philosophy class. Perhaps pieces of my soul are still lodged in the cracks in some cobblestoned street in Rome. Looking at the pictures would be the final admission of my real location. I’m in my home in Pasay City, typing this in my laptop as the insidious heat rises with noon. If I’m in the midst of a Philippine summer, I must no longer be at the foot of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, or among the shop stalls on an arch bridge across the Arno river, or swept away by the eddy of bodies crowding the Louvre in any given day. I am here at last, fashioning words from the simulacra of reverie.

Look, I’m not prone to missing stuff. This sounds strange given my attachment to certain people and things, sticky like filaments of mozzarella on fingertips. They say the writer is one on whom nothing is lost, as though the surface of your brain were constantly absorbing the particles of experience, down to the last dust mote. So you’re not supposed to miss things; you must carry them. Ét voilà, the secret to being able to say goodbye.

My five days in Paris made me realize that this city has got to be the soul mate of my 30s. In truth, it was all too much, even for an entire lifetime. The mystique I thought would dissipate once I finally saw the place only absorbed me in its own legend. Now I see why the Impressionists painted so many pretty pictures. Or why Sartre and Beauvoir and Camus had to temper all the beauty with talk of death and absurdity, lounging in a café blowing smoke rings. I’d have wanted to do the same, except I didn’t smoke; and even if Les Deux Magots weren’t too crowded, the prices weren’t too tourist-friendly either. So I just posed for a picture in front of the once temple of existentialism.

View of the foot of the Eiffel Tower. All photos courtesy of Mike Lim

View of the foot of the Eiffel Tower. All photos courtesy of Mike Lim

The existentialist cafe

The existentialist cafe

The Louvre pyramid, top view

The Louvre pyramid, top view

The Louvre pyramid, bottom view

The Louvre pyramid, bottom view

At the Mona Lisa salon

At the Mona Lisa salon

Meh.

Meh.

The big wall clock at the Musee d'Orsay, a museum built from a converted train station

The big wall clock at the Musee d’Orsay, a museum built from a converted train station

Musee d'Orsay, ground floor

Musee d’Orsay, ground floor

A metro station

A metro station

View of the Seine from the clock tower, Musee d'Orsay

View of the Seine from the clock tower, Musee d’Orsay

Versailles, outside Paris

Versailles, outside Paris

A garden at Versailles

A garden at Versailles

24311_10151436305084209_2000451084_n

At the gardens at Versailles

At the gardens at Versailles

Marie Antoinette's bed

Marie Antoinette’s bed

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

Of all the mementos I hauled home, I may have unconsciously decided not to include one: A mini Eiffel Tower. Perhaps this was because nothing so small could represent the heights I experienced, milling around the park one cloudy morning as my companion bemoaned the lack of proper lighting. It wasn’t the best day for taking photographs of probably the most famous structure in the world, but it was our final day in the city and our last chance to do this. The steadily darkening clouds finally let loose their angst, fat teardrops of sky falling on my umbrella-less self, on my cursing friend, on the wedding party that absconded in their limousines. (All these wedding photo shoots in Paris! There was another one along the Seine, near the Notre Dame church. The bride posed with her bare shoulders and back in the afternoon sunlight, her breath steaming in the late December air.)

Not a good day for taking pictures

Not a good day for taking pictures

Closeup of the tower

Closeup of the tower

Up its skirt, so to speak

Up its skirt, so to speak

Wedding party

Wedding party

Notre Dame de Paris along the Seine

Notre Dame de Paris along the Seine

Notre Dame, with bird

Notre Dame, with bird

Art stall at the Left Bank

Art stall at the Left Bank

The Eiffel Tower wasn’t as good as any of its billion miniatures, unlike the Mona Lisa (in my opinion). I get it, why some who thought they knew holiness forbade religious icons. Or perhaps I didn’t buy a souvenir because I wanted a reason to return.

Return to the night before that rainy morning, which was New Year’s Eve. For the occasion, train fares were waived. Everybody had the same brilliant idea of holding the vigil for midnight in the same vicinity, i.e. the Champs de Mars. We could hardly squeeze into the train. When it was disgorged, the throng moved two millimeters per minute in the underground tunnel. The possibility of a stampede occurred to me and I thought, I didn’t come here to die like this. Later when we emerged into the drizzly night, it was cold and wet and there were three champagne vendors for every tourist and we had no clue how to walk from the Champs-Élysées to the Eiffel Tower. We could see it in the distance, shooting off a rotating beam, a monstrous skeletal lighthouse marooned in a city. We decided to follow the crowd, at one point walking down an avenue of couture shops festooned with Christmas lights. When midnight was about to strike, the steel colossus loomed before us. Cars were at a standstill on the streets, performing a symphony of honks, in annoyance or in celebration. Disposable cups were already filled with champagne. The countdown started.

New Year's Eve crowd at the train station

New Year’s Eve crowd at the train station

Parisian boulevard, New Year's Eve

Parisian boulevard, New Year’s Eve

D&G main store in Paris

D&G main store in Paris

When 2013 finally came, there was an expectant pause. Then unexpectedly, the tower began to glitter for a full five minutes, to deafening cheers. It was cabaret-level garish. It was a cliché that belonged to everyone and no one. And I thought of how it was my 33rd year on earth, my loved ones were scattered all over the globe, and I no longer had enough money for champagne. But baby, I was in Paris and I got it made.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Friendship as soulmate-ship

With Maricar at Chops Steakhouse, Greenbelt 5, 11 February 2013

With Maricar at Chops Steakhouse, Greenbelt 5, 11 February 2013

Lately I’ve been appreciating good friendships. I don’t have very many friends, just enough. This is something I’ve come to appreciate in the landscape of my 30s, when hanging out with a posse of high school or college friends is no longer as doable or as appealing. For one thing, people have jobs or families. A good number of them are in committed relationships, which obviates the impulse to keep in touch with others. And the bigger the group, the harder it is to find a common time to hang out. Increasingly, as I settle into what seems to be an unusually long spell of singlehood, I realize how essential genuine connections are. Not to wax lugubrious, but I do love my handful of best friends.

And only a handful they can be. Excluding my immediate family, I can only maintain up to three intense relationships—four at the most, and one friend will have to be demoted from “best” to “very good.” (These are generous numbers, since I’m not in a romantic relationship. Whenever I am, my buddies would complain that they hardly saw me. I find it easy to lose myself in only one thing, a kind of single-mindedness that I actually wouldn’t want to change about me.)

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a number to describe our optimal amount of social relations with respect to the processing abilities of our brains. Dunbar’s number, often simplified to 150, refers to the limit of stable or meaningful relationships we can have at any one time.

Now, I used to have more than 1,500 friends in Facebook—ten times Dunbar’s number! It didn’t mean I was ten times more social than the average person, only that my career as a college professor happened to land me a lot of friend requests from students. Then there are the obligatory connections to former schoolmates one hasn’t even talked to or seen in decades. However, some weeks ago, just for the hell of it, I decided to reduce my number of Facebook friends to 300. It’s still way over Dunbar’s figure, but I liked the rounded clarity of 300. Like the 300 Spartans said to have stopped the entire Persian army in Thermopylae. The hardy, digital 300.

183799_10151356424099209_203848910_n

In any case, this talk of numbers is ultimately useless in trying to describe the unquantifiable. For example, the length of time you’re willing to wait before speaking while I pause to collect my thoughts. The occasions in a busy week we bother to ask each other how things are going, with the new job, the marital spat, or the financial dilemma. The years together we can look back on, evidenced by pre-digital photographs, high school hairstyles, birthday blowouts, travels out of town or out of the country that we’ve saved up for or swept clean our schedules just to make possible. The years do matter; I’ve had deep relationships that died deaths both natural and unnatural. Longevity is a litmus test for one’s capacity to love. There is something noble and ennobling about a friendship that has lasted through personal difficulties, estrangements, betrayals, distance.

Now they say that the most important relationship you could ever have is with yourself. (Let’s assume this is true, even though my most important relationship is really with my mom.) I’m afraid I hadn’t been the best of friends with me for the most part of my life. During my teenage years, I hated this person. There were also some very dark years in my 20s when I could hardly stand being in my own head. Because of this general unmoored-ness, my relationships had also felt storm-tossed; some became outright shipwrecks, the remains lost in the bottom of the sea. Thankfully, things are different now. I’ve met my soul mate, and this is probably the best terms we’ve been on since forever.

Valentine’s Day is coming in a couple of days. On this note, I’d end with a quote from my other soul mate, Henry David Thoreau. Now he was a man who rocked with the single life. In chapter five of Walden, where he contemplates solitude, he speaks of a paradox, how our true aloneness is really a quality of bondedness with nature. How this primordial relationship has always been there in the background, and all it takes to appreciate it is a shift in attention. This is me paraphrasing him, of course. My own words can never quite capture the sense of the infinite which glimmers in his sky:

This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? …. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another…. Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.

Collecting souvenirs from Walden Pond, Massachusetts, during my Thoreau pilgrimage circa 2010. Photo courtesy of Terri-Ann dela Cruz, sister and best bud

Collecting souvenirs from Walden Pond, Massachusetts, during my Thoreau pilgrimage circa 2010. Photo courtesy of Terri-Ann dela Cruz, sister and best bud

The Other David

He carved me from marble that had already
vanquished two sculptors, a slab that refused
the shape of all intentions, cracks blooming

at the slightest tap of the chisel. He liked persisting
where mere men had given up, and from the start
I felt the full force of his vision

in the hollow triangle above my clavicle, the lean
the ladder of my ribs, the supple knobs of my knees
the swirls of hair at the base of my penis.

He whittled at the perimeter of perfect
till I emerged naked, slingshot draped over
my shoulder and a rock held loosely in my hand.

I had just toppled Goliath. Proof of the impossible?
They put me in the square, all seventeen feet
of me looming at the doors of the Palazzo.

Here I donned the patina of centuries:
bird droppings, grime, tearstains of a broken
gutter. One day they stopped seeing me

as just a statue. I was wheeled to a museum
where someone took a hammer to my left foot,
shattering a toe. Since then I had been

cordoned off, untouchable doll
in the display cabinet, larger than your life.
You can’t even take pictures of me, although

you could buy a hundred million replicas
or download my official photographs.
Lately I have been feeling very exposed.

Previous Older Entries