How dare the Catholic Church in the Philippines!

Polo Gomez, 43, wore a crown of needles holding what he said was his own HIV-infected blood during a protest against the increasing prices of AIDS treatment, in Mexico City, on June 18, 2008. Mexico City which hosted the International AIDS Conference.
Polo Gomez, 43, wore a crown of needles holding what he said was his own HIV-infected blood during a protest against the increasing prices of AIDS treatment, in Mexico City, on June 18, 2008. Mexico City which hosted the International AIDS Conference.

“He’s only 22, very young, but spends all his remaining time in the government hospital,” my Thai friend told me in halting English.

“If only he had been careful.” I said.

Somebody who is as young, as inexperienced as that friend of a friend doesn’t deserve to die, only if he practiced safe sex or altogether abstained from having sex. But knowing that the latter is difficult, if not impossible to do, he could have opted for protected sex.

He contracted the disease amid Thailand’s rigorous campaign to use condom as protection from AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections .

From 1984 to 2007 in the Philippines, the number of registered cases reported was 3,061, with 2,754 persons still alive. But according to the Department of Health and the World Health Organization, the actual figure could be higher, accounting for unreported cases since the stigma of having AIDS causes those with the disease to die in silence or infect unknowingly their partners. In 2007, these two health agencies estimated that there are around 7,490 people living with HIV in the Philippines, an increase of 1500 from the 6,000 estimate in 2002.

In an article published on the Philippine Daily Inquirer entitled ‘Change in behavior, not condoms, will stem AIDS’. dated August 28, 2008, Pangasinan Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ Commission on Family and Life, said promoting the use of condoms would be “dangerous and ineffective.”

He was reacting to a statement by Health Undersecretary Mario Villaverde, who said last week condom use was one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of AIDS and HIV.

Also, two senators—Edgardo Angara and Pia Cayetano—have called on the government to strengthen laws on AIDS prevention and control, including more seriously educating the public on how to avoid it by using protection, such as condoms.

But Aniceto relayed the view of the Church in a statement yesterday: “We are constrained to express grave concerns over the press statement attributed to Undersecretary of Health Mario Villaverde that the Department of Health will now promote the nationwide use of condoms, allegedly as a means to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Condom use will not effectively protect one from contracting the virus, the prelate said, adding that a prophylactic is not 100 percent foolproof.

“It is the duty of the DOH never to propose for general public use any prophylactic that could increase the incidence of the disease it is supposed to prevent,” the archbishop said.

“It is, therefore, irresponsible, imprudent and dangerous for the department to declare that the use of the condom, without any change in unhealthy sexual behavior, will prevent seropositive cases from transmitting HIV/AIDS to their seronegative spouses,” he said.

The writing on his chest says "VIH-SIDA EMERGENCIA NACIONAL," or "HIV/AIDS National Emergency."

In this case, we see two public entities, the government health agency and the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines conflicting over the control over the people’s private spheres. The former for reason of public health security as in the disease is difficult to contain once in its more advanced stage so finding ways for its prevention is a more rational approach; the latter, on the other hand, is vehemently against the use of condom on grounds of morality.

I see it as a myopic vision of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. The prevalence of sex outside marriage, premarital sex, or other forms of “immoral” sexual activities such as homosexual acts might as well mirror its utter failure to educate Filipino morality, its failure to make its parishioners understand that sodomy will send those who practice the act to hell, its failure to do what it is primarily tasked to do–teach morality (but ended up moralizing).

Now it is embarking on a grander scheme of changing public policies as if these policies are their papal nuncios.

When will we start educating people to be responsible as regards sex when all the parishioners are already dying of AIDS?

It reminded me of a statement made by Friedrich Nietzsche a century ago:

There are people who want to make men’s lives more difficult for no other reason than the chance it provides them afterwards to offer their prescription for alleviating life; their Christianity, for instance.

Does this hold true? Does the opposition of the Catholic Church in the Philippines to legalize the use of artificial contraception to curb population explosion, which is one of the major reasons for the downward spiraling of not only the economy but also the standard of living of the Filipino family, an attempt to make the lives of each Filipino miserable just so the Church can show its charity? Funny. But with things going on now, nothing can be more true.

Does the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines to the use of condom to prevent AIDS a ploy to make the lost sheep find their shepherd, or so that the prodigal son can repent and the goodness of the father be exalted?

If we look at the issue on moral grounds, the Church will always have its way. 80 plus per cent of the voting population are adherents to Catholicism, at least as stated on their baptismal certificates. And the Church can always make use of this fact to pressure the Legislative, for 80 per cent of votes is enough for members of the Philippine legislature to deal with Satan (unintended pun) or the prelates.

If only we transcend the un-winnable moral grounds and look at the rational side of the issue.

It is easier to convince a man to use condom (that is if it is available and he knows where to get it) whenever he wants to have sex than to convince him to abstain from having sex because his soul will burn in Hades.

It makes more sense to persuade an Overseas Filipino Worker to use condom while having sex in a faraway land than to tell him to be a good Christian and therefore must not have sex outside marriage.

It is more sensible to tell the youth to practice safe sex than to tell them that premarital sex is immoral, for after all they will still do it.

The use of artificial methods to protect one from conceiving, sexually transmitted infection, or AIDS makes more sense than waiting in vain for the people to espouse the kind of morality taught by the church. It’ll never be a good idea to see people not following the Church’s teachings suffer from hunger because the family members are too numerous, from AIDS because he had sex with so many men, or poverty–all because of the absence of a clear-cut law on the production, distribution, and use of contraceptives in general. Hell has its proper place and proper time.

Let’s give them the choice.

My Thai friend emailed me this morning that her gay friend just died because of multiple organ failure last night, the usual result of AIDS.

Very usual.

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Having fish as pets, again: my affairs with these swimming creatures with orange (or whatever color) scales

I had six orange-colored groupers (I assume) before when I was in college which I bought from one of the lines of illegal pet shops beside Atrium mall in Iloilo. Originally, they were fourteen, but because of over crowding in the small aquarium I borrowed from my landlady, the death toll was so quick that in the span of three days only nine survived. The ailing three died eventually leaving the six bright orange small fish.

I in fact gave them names–they were Marley, Soledad, Trining, Mayang, Carlito, and Carlitito. I know it was dumb to give them names since they all look the same, and they are fish. Fish, unlike dogs, cats, or turtles, do not lend themselves to the fairly idiosyncratic and idiotic human tendency to name their pets. But giving my fish names made me responsible for them; as I associate human attributes to them, my conscience wouldn’t bear not providing them their needs to survive. I was like their father.

They managed to survive 8 months. All of them died of asphyxiation when my landlady overfed my fish. I asked her to look after them when I left for Malaysia to study, but when I came back, the sad news of their tragic death left me in despair. They could have lived longer, say 20 years (I’m trying to be funny), if not for the negligence or paranoid-because-the-fish-might-die-of-hunger thinking of my landlady. By the way, one of  them was named after her.

So this afternoon, while strolling the busy streets of Hanoi on my bike, I happened to pass by a pet store and saw these beautiful fish you’re seeing now. After a short negotiation for the price, my Vietnamese, thank God, is already capable of answering the high demands of the art of bargaining, I got them, plus the fish bowl and the plant, for 60,000 dongs. Not bad, I think.

There’s an orange, bright red, creamy white one, and black one that looks like pregnant. When I was very young, I had this illusion that all fish I caught from the nearby drainage were pregnant because of their bulging abdomens.

I have not thought of giving them names, yet. Maybe they will like it if I give them Vietnamese names. I’m considering Nguyen, Huong, Duong.

One more thing, fish do not require careful attention from me, which I will not be able to provide them on a regular basis; nonetheless, at the same time seeing them swimming inside the bowl, feeding on the plant or the flakes I give from time to time, can divert my attention from reading and writing once in a while.

They’re a breath of life inside my room where unwashed clothes, books, and papers are littered all over. Well at least, aside from me, there are four other organisms inside my room, five, including the plant.

A welcome sight.

Being homeless

For the entire of my conscious life, I cannot remember to have stayed in a place that I could truly call home. I recall that this personal diaspora started when I was four years old.

From the time I stayed with my parents and sibling, that was when I was four, I remember moving houses at least four times, until we settled in the house where my parents are living now.

A member of a mountain tribe in Tuyen Quang Province, a Vietnamese and a Belgian friend with the author (expecting another change of panorama in the next six months).
A member of a mountain tribe in Tuyen Quang Province, a Vietnamese and a Belgian friend with the author (expecting another change of panorama in the next six months).

I am not homeless as defined by law. I am homeless because I have not stayed in a place and to have enough time to feel secure that for the next days, weeks, month, or year from the time of my first day of stay in that place I will not move again and leave the people I learned to love along the way. I feel so volatile, not a part of any community of people.

The most vivid of my memories were those when I was traveling not when I stayed in one place and created permanent connections with the people.

It’s funny sometimes when I’m left baffled as to what to fill in the blank address field for my C.V. for the probability of me changing my dwelling in the next three months is as high as me getting the job. But this fact is more often devoid of any humor. It’s not funny.

It reminded me during one of the many times I said good bye to people I seem not to have the courage to leave. When everything that is left is inside a blue duffel bag containing only the necessary: few clothes, some mementos, a book or two, and my laptop because I have to leave the rest, or throw away. Bringing them will just be too much of weight to carry.

For an individual to really see himself in relation to his environment, he needs to have a home. Something that I, the refugees in Somalian camps, the Kurds fighting the Turkish forces, or the Russian of South Ossettia, or the several millions Filipinos working in almost all places in the world do not have: a home that can provide security, and the necessary community where we can truly experience the support of our families, or the warmth of familiar views.

Being homeless, while seeing the world and its varied personae, detaches one from the experience of talking with loved ones in person, of letting them see one’s hardship, of letting them understand that you’ve never really liked to be homeless, if given a choice. They will never see you mature nor will you see them grow. For both parties, each is frozen in time, nothing added nor deducted.

But god, how I want to have my own home that I will not be required to leave anymore. A place where I can always go back to and rest whenever I feel that the world has gone extra cruel.

Where shall I be in the next six months? Another hopeless attempt to escape homelessness. Very funny.

Beside the red lamp post

“I’ll see you later beside the lamp post where we always used to meet. I’ll wear blue, your favorite color.”

“Just be there on time. I’m going to a friend’s party after you’re furnished telling me this thing that you’ve been wanting to tell me since the last time we met beside that lamppost.”

“I will, I’ve already got enough courage to…”

“Okay, okay, just be sure you keep it short. Bye.”

“…to say it.”

We accidentally met beside that lamp post three years ago. It was raining that day. I just finished with my work in the library when I saw her all wet and shivering standing beside the lamp post. Although I see the red lamp post everyday I go to work, that day it seemed that the crumbling red paint became the brightest red I’ve seen in my entire life. The light was turned on, prematurely, because of the dark sky. The dim yellow light, for me then, was almost enough to illumine the entire of my world.  What used to be a boring, ordinary-looking lamp post suddenly became the most beautiful object in my sight.

All of a sudden, my whole world warped into a ball that surrounded the lamp post. It became a miniscule planet revolving around a star. I felt within me that from that day on I knew that the lamp post and I are one.

I approached her beside the lamp post. I was shivering more because of the unknown emotion inside me than the cool wind and the heavy rain.

“It’s odd.”

“Do I know you?”

“I bet no, but you seemed not bothered by the rain and the wind.”

“Is that your stratagem for asking a woman’s number?”

“Not at all.”

“Then you’re getting in the way of my meditation.”

“Are you serious? Meditation. I’ve never seen you here before.”

The time I heard her speak I knew that the lamp post, me, and she became inter-connected by a universal force that almost too complicated for a librarian like me to explain. All of a sudden Foucault’s pendulum crushed Nietzsche’s Leviathan that caused my anomie as expounded by Emile Durkheim become less difficult to bear. I was happy.

“Can I accompany you home?”

After that first meeting, the second, third, fourth, and all other succeeding meetings we had were all beside the lamp post. Everything was so fast, so harrowing that three years have passed without me knowing her name and she asking for the identity behind my sullen look.

Only the lamppost knew what was inside our hearts.

“And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you,” said Nietzsche once.

For three years, the lamppost witnessed the love I gave to her which she willingly returned with all affection a female human being can muster. She was my life.

“Now what is it that you want to tell me?”

“I thought you will not come”

“I’m here already.”

“I miss you.”

“I’ve heard that before. Well, yeah, I also miss you.”

“I’m thinking if you can stay longer.”

“I cannot.”

“Then can I hold you, for a while.”

I held her hands, softly at first then the red paint of the lamp post looked laughing at me. I tightened my grip.

“I have to go.”

She was my life. I loved her, and the lamp post. Together they gave reason for my existence.

I banged her head onto the lamp post. It felt so light, in fact, feathery to the touch. The lamp post smiled at me. The chipping red paint became bright again, as bright as the day I first saw her beside that lamp post. Blood gave the lamp post its needed repainting.

I loved her, only beside the lamp post.

The writer and a truly human experience

Without the tangible experience to base my thoughts on, I am, as a writer, useless. I may have the best arsenal of words or structures that are as varied as the infinite arrangement of words in the English language, but without a truly human experience I am, as a writer, a non-entity.

It’s beyond my understanding to look back to the past few weeks of my life and see nothing but actions that repeat themselves. Actions that do not lend themselves to criteria for what truly is an experience, not just any other kind of experience, but a physical experience. Something where all my senses are put in to use. My life seems to revolve around the characters in the books I read. Although they give me an illusion that I am taking part, involved, still I know that these worlds inside these stories will never replace the truly human experience.

For what is a truly human experience?

Is it the grand evocations of all possible human emotions? Is it the actual involvement with actions occurring all at the same time? Is it the passive observation of the conversation, commotions, events happening in a single day?

I am confronted with some questions that didn’t occur to me before to ask myself as a writer and that I am unprepared to give definite answers now. I’ve been trying to start a novel, making a little progress, but I was stricken with critical self-evaluation of my real identity as a writer. I simply cannot continue with this craft unless I am able to renegotiate my reasons, motives, passion, wants, needs, emotions, biases, personal struggles side by side my life as a struggling writer. And it occurred to me that I can never be one if my dialogs are as empty as this one:

Chi oi, I want black coffee, make it extra-strong.

Right away.

She came back with the coffee I love, the blackest black coffee with the ice still steamy cold.

Thanks chi, ca phe cua chi rat tot.

The ah?

How do you make this coffee?

She seemed not to understand me and gave me a baffled, almost ignorant stare.

You look sad, anything bad that happened to you today?

I just miss my hometown. I’ve never gone home for more than six months already. Ha Tay is too far.

So why not take a vacation?

I have to work.” she said with utter resignation. She excused herself and left me.

The female character will have all the reasons in this world to leave the persona in the dialog. He is as dry as the weather during that day, I suppose.

But what will make this conversation a truly human exchange?

If as a writer I do a xerox of what truly happens in real life, merely,  then will that make me truly a writer I envision myself to be, or does truth have to be redefined just so truth can be more truthful?

This is impossible

This is impossible. My friend left the house and went to another friend’s house because there is a power blackout. She has to finish an important paper due anytime soon and she needs internet connection and electricity. I just finished my class and am left outside the house and to myself what to do next. She intends to stay in her friend’s house for the next two hours.

Wanting to escape the heat outside, I come and trap myself inside this café where the price is overly beyond what I am willing to pay for a glass of liquid. The heat outside is unbearable but the money I have to spew for a glass of iced yoghurt and cocoa and several slices of watermelons makes me hotter inside than the heat outside.

Hanoi has this notorious power blackout lasting from five hours to an entire day because the government is embarking on austerity measures that promise to cut expenses.

I have no one to blame, I know, but there are days when everything seems to go against me, making everything too miserable: the crazy traffic jam, the 36 degree Centigrade temperature outside, the rest I’ve been wanting but cannot have, which make me want to blame all these to the first innocent person I see.

I want to blame it to a suspiciously lesbian couple opposite my table who are about to finish their scrumptious lunch and now ordering two bottles of cold Heineken beer. Or the four men three tables to my left wearing their company-issued shirts, eating a company-sponsored meal, drinking Coke, the company they are working for, probably. Or the noisy family of five at the corner who seemed to be eating all the food in the menu. I want to blame this on the lousy chandelier and its yellow glow in the middle of a hot and humid afternoon. I want to blame this on the boring song playing right now that I do not understand. I want to blame this on the paintings littered on the walls of this cafe. These reproductions of still lifes, portraits, and landscapes could look no cheaper.

It’s so easy to blame the world for all the unfortunate events in my life today. Hate could easily seep through one’s heart when from out of nowhere miserable things come one after the other leaving me unable to deal with each of them gracefully. At least I can still write them down, for once that’s good enough.

I just do not want to go out now and face the traffic and the heat outside.

Suicide and the need for spectacle (Part 2)

In the corner of your room a thick, yellow nylon cord you used to pack your things last month when you transferred place looked very inviting, perhaps so inviting that you took it and started to do simple knots forming a loop that can be adjusted like the ropes used by cowboys to catch animals in Western movies you watch with so much interest.

Under your bed is a Baygon insecticide for killing pesky cockroaches you abhor. Well, you also hate the smell of it whenever your landlady spray it in your room every week, but, you all of a sudden, had this unexplainable urge to sniff it.

You turned your head to check the time and you inadvertently saw the bottle of sleeping pills lying on top of your study table, the bluish white label looking too conspicuous before the helluva of books you have not started reading.

You decided to wash your face and while staring at the reflection of yourself in front of the mirror, the light bouncing from the razor gave a slight illumination on your cheek; you thought it was beautiful. You held the razor.

You then decided to open the window and looked down at the traffic below your room in the tenth floor; the careening cars seemed to be smiling at you, inviting you to join their never-ending bustle.

If there is one human activity that fascinates you more than anything else, it’s suicide.

Le Suicide by Edouard Manet
Le Suicide by Edouard Manet

Life, for me, is all about passion. It is the energy that keeps me burning inside and sustains me to be the best in whatever I do. Without this passion life ends. It’ll never be a metaphysical question on my part for going in the realm of metaphysics to explain why I act the way I do and why I see life in a manner that I see it now will not make sense, at least for me.

Suicide is more of a crying for help. It is not the actual desire to die. It is to attract attention to something that has gone hopeless because of solitude, hopelessness, or a protest against the cruelty of life.

Will it ever be justified? I say yes.

Suicide taboo is not universal. Western religions as well as Asian religions (those descending from Abraham) i.e. Judaism, Islam, Christianity condemn it as a crime against life. But in some Eastern culture it is viewed as honorable if not altogether necessary. Result of researches point out that males are more successful in committing suicide more than females although females have more unsuccessful attempts. Being male, lacking a social network where I can open up my qualms, fears in life, being unable to show emotions in a society where males are not expected to show deeper aspects of human emotion, I am vulnerable.

I can never speak about something I do not understand, and here I am confronted with a choice I have to contend with, but something I neither fully understand nor expect to comprehend in this lifetime. Something that we all have to pass through, sort of a rites of passage. But the stake is bigger; it’s not just about being accepted in the adult world-it’s a stake as big and as important as life itself.

Suicide is a personal decision.

Despite being a personal thing it should not be done in a sloppy, lop-sided, undramatic manner. For all, suicide must be tragic. Following the logic used above, for it to be tragic it must involve spectacle. Spectacle, however, is dependent on time. Hanging, slashing, over-dosage, jumping from the building’s tenth floor are becoming passé through the years because of over-use and inartistic way of doing them. The challenge, aside from finding the will to end one’s life, is to make it a statement of the kind of life one had while still alive.

Suicide does not cheapen life, rather it has a higher purpose, more than the perfunctory manner most of us see life. Suicide celebrates life in its highest sense.

I’ve contemplated about it for so many times, but I am being eaten by my passion for life. Living is so much better than dying. And besides, the pressure of making the act very tragic, something worthy of spectacle, is just too much to bear.

But will it ever be an option? I say yes.