Friends from a long time ago

We all are a member of some sort of groups on Facebook whose members are people we have not seen for ten years or more. Aside from the occasional informally organized reunions that take place once every two years during the Christmas season, we ‘ve never truly caught up with most of these people because we’ve already moved and treaded on with our own individual journeys. Holding on to the past will simply slow down our ply forward.

I’ve recently received notification on Facebook about a photo taken more than eleven years ago of the Delta platoon of my high school CAT program. It was a very old photo taken by our high school’s official photographer scanned for the sole purpose of being uploaded on Facebook. For throwback Thursday said one of the hash tags.

delta

I was not in the picture but was tagged by one of the private cadets on the photo who’s a classmate. He is now working in the Middle East. He’s a family man. His profile picture on Facebook is that of his beautiful daughter, smiling innocently at the camera. Had I taken a similar path as this classmate, I would’ve already had a child of my own, and my Facebook page would be less a celebration of  the self than about my child.

I was my high school CAT corps commander. The conversation about the photo revolved on an incident that happened one Friday afternoon more than eleven years ago. It’s a funny banter about a control freak corps commander who found them hiding in one of the classrooms of first year students, foiling their effort to evade the unforgiving 4pm brigade formation under the still scathing afternoon sun. Of course they never forgot to mention the number of push-up they had to perform as punishment for their act.

I joined the happy exchange. My tone was that of a nostalgic old man looking back with a satisfied smile at a past long gone.

Versions of the story varied a little; some people I couldn’t recall to be there had sworn they were. Our memories being less stable than the ground we tread on shake uncontrollably most of the time. Every time we retrieve data stored in the mildewy recesses of our minds we struggle to recall. But we always allow for so much leeway, for some inconsistencies in details, for contradictions because this is how memory works. We invent, recreate, imagine. However, we seldom care. The past is for all of us to define.

But what bothers me more than the many versions of that incident is the apparent feeling of distance. My participation in the conversation on the page felt forced. My fakeness was so palpable I was ashamed of myself. The language they used, the slang from eleven years ago which they still pepper their sentences with sounded dated. Nothing changed it seemed to most of us.

That classmate who posted the photo said I was furiously shouting at them that afternoon. I was very mad, he wrote.

I laughed. How could I be so passionate about something that my memory has failed to store?

This is what eleven years does to all of us.

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The taste

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You know the feeling. That instance of impact of slightly reheated slimy coffee that has gone untouched for three days (or you don’t know how long it has been standing there, really, breeding colonies of bacteria and fungi), on your unsuspecting tongue, well not exactly unsuspecting as you are still able to keep a semblance of a well-kept apartment, so you have an idea what you will get yourself into and probably how long it has been since the last time you brewed coffee; still you go on as it doesn’t matter now.

You have an interesting idea in mind, something unique, life-altering if only it were given an existence that can be grasped by the senses, your computer is on, Michael Buble is filling the place with his velvety singing.  You just need your cup of coffee to complete the feel, so you can finally see in writing that idea gestating in your mind for the past thirteen minutes and is now ready to be C sectioned or be given birth naturally (This metaphor bothers me, but I think it sounds nice. I’ll wait, fifteen minutes, perhaps. If it still sounds interesting to me after reading my final draft, then the metaphor will stay).

But your cup. It is giving you that gnawing awareness, warning you, of a forthcoming melee. Between your stupid self and the radioactive content of your mug.

But you had it before, back when a 3-in-1 would do, back when you didn’t know the difference in taste between a five-peso-per-sachet mixture of sugar and artificially flavored coffee declaring itself “Italian taste perfected” and the overpriced but definitely more decent tasting signature coffee sold in a nearby coffee shop chain which high school students from an exclusive Catholic school located across, wanting to look cool, sip affectedly with a stick of cigarette in between fingers during breaks from their dull afternoon classes.

You know how it tasted. How evil it tasted. That mixture of 3-in-1 dissolved in tap water heated below boiling point gushing from your dorm’s rusty 1950s lead pipes. You know how it tasted after having stood on your study table for two days undisturbed, ants free diving in it, vacationing while their queen lay waiting for her loyal worker ants to bring back the loot.

But like then, you choose to ignore because there are many things in life that simply can’t wait. A great idea is one of them, unfortunately this time. And so, you sit in front of your ailing computer, ready to tackle the mocking-as-it-has-always-been blank, white space. And you begin typing on. It runs smoothly, your mind, that is; writing never felt this good before. The idea comes out as if it is unencumbered by the circuitous organelle-dotted canal that connects it and the bright and brave world outside.

Then you think, “where’s my mug of coffee?” You extend your arm; take hold of the handle of your favorite mug without looking, your rapt attention on the screen. You bring the mug close to your slightly parted lips. The stench gives you some warning, but you opted not to take heed. Your idea is approaching its most crucial leg, you can almost see the head. Then you take a sip. No, a gulp.

Then you know how stupidity tastes.

Going home

Davao has never succeeded in charming me. I left the city without any feeling of attachment to it. I’m now on a Yellow Bus to General Santos. Anyone who spent his growing up years in this part of the country will always have fond memories of this bus company. For us, these yellow buses are so much a part of our lives that we generically call all buses Yellow Bus.

The trip will take roughly three to four hours, depending on whom one asks. From there I will take another bus to Polomolok and then a bumpy tricycle ride from poblacion to our barangay, which I have not seen for more than two years. If I get lucky later, the tricycle driver may be a schoolmate in high school, or, if our memories will not betray us, in elementary school, and I will have my fare for free. Or if not, we can catch up on what has happened to each other in the past ten years, oblivious of the coughing noise coming from the engine of his tricycle.

Going home has always given me this odd feeling. I feel more like a visitor, a guest at my parents’ house rather than a homecoming son. I itch to fly back to Manila after spending a week home. Two weeks down my supposed vacation, I’m imagining going insane. The slowness of life in Cannery will drive anyone to the edge. It has never happened to my parents and some of my high school classmates who decided to stay, though. But I am sure it will to me. The longest time I spent home since leaving for college ten years ago was two weeks. It’s unimaginable staying longer.

But I’m thinking of doing it differently this time. I will wake up tomorrow to a breakfast of rice and fish I imagine my mother will cook for us. Then I will walk to the pineapple plantation of Dole Phils. nearby to have a good view of the beautiful Mt Matutum. And I’ll leaf through those dated volumes of New Standard Encyclopedia our parents bought twenty years ago and will reread those entries that comprised my early memories of reading.

I want to enjoy the days with my parents this Christmas. I miss them. I will give home another look, and perhaps doing this will let me reconsider staying longer next time. Or maybe, it will help me remember how nostalgia feels.

Here’s to the five years of blogging

I began blogging exactly five years ago. That night of 8 June 2008 when this blog debuted was like tonight; it was raining hard. Traffic of motorbikes scurrying to reach their destinations halted outside because the downpour was just too much to bear for the antiquated drainage system of that old district of Hanoi. The woman selling pho outside our compound was still there, seated in her red kiddie plastic chair serving bowls of steaming rice noodles submerged in that divine broth to stranded motorists who did not bother taking off their colorful raincoats and equally multi-colored helmets.

That night I was suffering from a level of boredom too extreme and painful it was one of those rare times I can recall I cried. I cried a lot. I missed home so badly. I felt invisible because I was indeed living invisibly. For the woman selling pho outside I was just “that” strange ngoui nuoc ngoai, for the rest I was a nonentity.

Writing down about those gamut of feelings  I knew I would never fully capture in writing, I thought, would be the best way for me to at least have some semblance of order during those months when nothing seemed to make sense. (It’s not as if things make more sense now. (Often they still don’t make sense, though I never stopped attempting to understand them.) I was twenty-two then. I could feel I was poised to realize whatever it was I was dreaming of. I have completely  convinced myself then that whatever inconvenience it was that I was going through in that foreign country was a way of gaining a foothold to something bigger. I didn’t know what that something was then, and I can never be less sure now.

I didn’t care that “Going Against the Current” was too corny a title. But it was the first thing that occurred to me. I subtitled it ‘thoughts of a twenty-something.’ I wasn’t aware then that I was having my share of quarter life crises. I didn’t know the term existed. But I knew there was something odd about that whole set-up. Living and studying in Vietnam was not part of my plan then. I only wanted to escape from the banality of my existence right after graduating from college that I was willing to be hurled anywhere, only to find myself hurled nastily in that blah. I was living by myself in that shoebox of a rented place on Tran Hung Dao Street in the old district of Hanoi, which only exacerbated what then was a terminal case of ennui. At that time, it was the aptest title I could think of for a personal blog.

I wrote this to console myself:

“On Being an Exile”

I have been reading a short essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, and he talked about how being an “exile” brings out parts of our personalities that is unknown to us, and will forever be unknown to us, unless we allow ourselves to be exiled or for us to be exiled by force (which can be in any form such as that of the state, an organization, or the bigger society).

Here, I shall be talking about throwing one’s self away, figuratively, that is, one chooses to embark on the feat of a self-exile. Consciously choosing to leave, and here it means physically deserting anything that has to do with a secure life, and living in a place that is foreign, a place where doing something for comfort will prove burdensome. Barriers will include inability to communicate one’s self, lack of cultural knowledge, ethnocentricity, etc.

Just like all ethnographic researches, the researcher, or as in our case the exiled, faces several stages of coming to terms with himself in relation to his environment and its actors. Roughly, there will be a period of much patronizing and romanticizing, that is, the exiled will think that everything around him is better than what he has left behind. It will be followed a realization that things around him are different and therefore will tax his understanding of all the cultural truths as well as subtleties in his new environment. This will awaken the hidden ethnocentric (and xenophobic) character of our subject which lead to a gap and further distancing from everything around him and creating a world of his own making. Although this may sound pessimistic, this is necessary for the subject to create a giant leap towards understanding and eventually living in harmony with the foreign people surrounding him.

The third period, which I will refer from hereon as ‘distancing’, is a very crucial step because this is where the hidden and repressed selves of our subject surface and thereby allowing different personae to make themselves known to him. Here, creativity, appreciation of one’s former society, and objective probing of the world in general are strengthened and are highlighted.

In distancing, the mind of the subject shifts from a passive, non-observer of events, objects, cultural truths and subtleties, and idiosyncracies into a more active, peering, and critical entity. Interestingly, this also leads to a blossoming of the artistic mind, scientific inquisitiveness, and more understanding of the inner self as well as the emotion. Distancing allows the exiled to have a hold of his world and shape it in a way that can be radical, sometimes, but most of the times more reformative, and in general beneficial. It can be in a form of literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Tolstoi’s novels War and Peace and Annakarenina, or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

It is, therefore, necessary, especially for the young people, to travel and to detach themselves from the mundane and the usual and immerse themselves in a world devoid of comfort and security.

No amount of feigned cockiness could hide the insecurity of my twenty-two-year-old self, of my inability to know where exactly I was heading. Still I treaded on because doing the most difficult was the easiest thing to do. And I never regretted having gone on with the journey. The ride has been exciting and I look forward to more years of blogging. I just hope that when another five years is done, I’d be a lot better.

Vacuum

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for two hours now waiting for something to happen. Occasionally I would check mails, read some Facebook statuses of friends and other ‘friends’ I got no idea how we became friends, and browse random sites that eat up much of my time. I originally planned to spend this morning recording papers of my students, computing grades, and fixing drafts of grad school requirements due next week. But the web beckons with so much promise and invitation the little control I thought I have is of no match to this beautiful hole that sucks everything in, as it feeds on my time like a flesh-eating bacteria lurking on this part of my living room.

It’s a battle that’s waged in many fronts; in fact, I am currently thinking of the best strategy on how to escape this vacuum whose suction is too powerful I predict that I shall waste another precious hour staring at a broken pixel of my screen. Behind me is a stack of dirty dishes waiting to be washed and a bagful of a three-week worth of laundry waiting to be taken downstairs. And how stupid can I be for having allowed it to slip me that the laundry service will be closed until Monday next week? And, I need to mop the floor, dust the furniture, arrange my books, and drop by the library this afternoon to return 10 overdue books.

I have not done this for a long time–staring in front of my computer aware of the the fact that if I stayed here longer than necessary, I shall need to readjust all the other things, miss other appointments, and sacrifice the already little sleeping time I have doing those things I could have already finished had I been not too weak to resist this idleness.

But isn’t time only an abstraction? It’s not something that can be ‘wasted,’ is it? If I sit idly here for the whole day, it’s immaterial because I shall be given another set of inexhaustible time tomorrow (but isn’t the word tomorrow an admission that time is culturally material?). Can time  be given away? Funny how we view time this way as if it’s something that can be saved like money or a broken relationship. Funny how we view our time as a precious entity (so long as it’s our time), as if it’s a currency that can be exchanged. We all feel terrible when we “waste” time. But when we simplify all these abstractions, time will then be all about, in its most fundamental, being here and being dead the next moment.

Should we decide to use it on inconsequential matters–say doing what I mentioned a while ago, writing this post, or reading this post–have we really wasted time? I looked around and saw the rest of the day.

I cannot stay here.

Likes

The much, too much a cacophony of noise on my Facebook page brought me back here on my blog to write again. To do the quieter act of writing that I miss a lot. A writing that’s less angry and bitter. I have gone sick of what seems to be a pressing need for everyone on my Facebook news feeds in expressing his thoughts on almost everything.

Nowadays, one’s silence is considered scandalous, the highest and the worst form of apathy. No one has the right to be quiet anymore lest this silence be interpreted as complicity. Of not doing anything to correct the wrong. I suggest we stop or slow down a little, and ask ourselves where this loquacity has led us. It has made us too busy to listen, too self-conscious, too full of ourselves; oh how we enjoy staring at ourselves being reflected in our witty Facebook status. Our Facebook status has become the quickest way for us to be heard, perhaps the only one thing that empowers us in this space that functions best at deadening our senses. Our only pathetic agency. And the likes are concrete indicators that somehow, somebody’s listening, reducing us all to likes, reducing all existentialist questions to questions of likes.

This ephemerality of our chosen medium, of posts being covered, superseded by other posts supposedly more important than the ones before, not necessarily contending against each other but definitely competing for our fleeting attention, has been a bane to us. This ephemerality has brought us nowhere. Although we have this comforting feeling that as a species we’ve made giant progress, in truth we’re deeper into the void we’re made to feel we have escaped.

We’re still lost, maybe even more lost this time. We’ve lost touch of what we truly value. Reflectiveness is a forgotten value of our time. We’ve all fallen victims to the medium. We fret about concerns of deciduous significance. The present is the only thing that really matters to us. We’ve lost hold of our past. And how we dread the uncertain future. The only thing that’s real is this invented present.

All this because of our grinding desire to be heard now, of a want to express what’s currently in our mind lest it obsolesces the next minute, where we are currently at lest time steals it away from us, who we are currently with lest this person abandons us, what we currently eat. Now this is truly sad. Everything is too important, too important we cannot entrust them to our memories.

Perhaps, this is why I am back here now. I want to relish this page and its beautiful silence that I missed so badly.

Simple sentences and fragments

I woke up very early, at 8. It was very cold. The first thing I did was to wash my face and brush my teeth. I gathered my whites and washed them at the basement. Then I went to the kitchen. There, my books and computer were waiting for me.

It was drizzling outside. A gloomy day. Rainy days vex my spirit.

I boiled some coffee. It would have been in a samovar. If I were in Russia. But I’m in America. So it’s a whistling kettle. Between a samovar and a whistling kettle. There is no competition. A samovar is poetry incarnate. A Whistling kettle is prose.

And how I detest conditionals.

I cooked a cup and a half of rice. I washed it first. Thrice of course. It should be that way. My mother said. The bag of rice was imported from Vietnam. It’s the best variety. A little sticky. Not too wet. Moderately soft. Bright white. My appetite wasn’t with me, though. I approached the table. Opened a book and read. I realized. It was already 10. I stared at the view outside. The falling rain water mesmerized me. I closed my eyes and said a short prayer.

                             

The prosaic whistling kettle announced the conclusion of its reason for being. I poured its briskly boiling content into my cup. Where’s the coffee maker? I seemed to have heard. In case you asked. It’s cracked.

I prefer my coffee black. It’s less fattening this way. I don’t like my coffee bitter, however. So today, it’s black. With a dash of Splenda. I’m already fed up with all the bitterness. Including the bitterness in my coffee. A little sweetness won’t hurt. I guess.

It rained the whole day. I stayed in. I was alone. Everyone left.