In the midst of chaos, follow your truth

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 27, 2014 – 12:00am

There are many people I know who are in a near catatonic state over what is going on in the world.

They are the walking wounded, depressed and stunned and close to shock, living with a deep pain, a feeling of helplessness, as the news gets more depressing each day.

There is that awful war in Syria that has decimated its population. It has been going on for a couple of years with no resolution in sight.

The Ukraine is in crisis. A Malaysian Airlines plane was recently shot down by Russian-supported rebels who have access to sophisticated state-of-the-art weapons of destruction from Russia. As many as 298 lives were snuffed out in that crash.

Israel has not stopped bombing Gaza where, to date, over 700 have been killed, many of whom are women and children.

In Iraq, the ISIS terrorist army is taking control of the country. In Uganda, gays struggle with a new law that has been passed declaring homosexuality illegal under pain of death. Meanwhile, China is saber rattling and scaring its neighbors with hegemonic designs on their territories. And the economies of Europe are in near shambles.

One gets the feeling that hardly anything is right in the world.

I feel my heart getting weary and hopeless. I know many people my age feel the same way. After all, we are the baby boomer generation who just want peace, love, harmony and all that is good in the world. Many of us still hold these ideals close to our hearts.

And as we enter into our twilight years, we see many things that our generation built, which we thought helped promote a better, more peaceful world, just crumbling to waste.

In their place, we see dead bodies strewn about, refugee camps, prejudice, violence even against women and children, intolerance, destruction everywhere. We are also seeing the return of dictatorship and fascism in many places.

What happened? How have things gone wrong with the world?

Some people have become so short on patience and tolerance and so fixated on avenging perceived historical injustice. There seems to be a hardening of positions everywhere. In the realm of religion, many Christians and Muslims support extremist positions that rationalize violence against those who do not share their sentiments. The enmity that started centuries ago between races and religions is still playing out. Women, children, gays and lesbians suffer from forms of religious prejudice everywhere.

It’s amazing in a perverse way what people are capable of doing in the name of God.

In politics, the battle over climate change has not abated, with all sides unable to reach a true consensus on what should be done. The deniers, many of them conservative right wingers largely influenced by the Bible, refuse to heed the call to end fossil fuel consumption and move on to more sustainable ways to generate power. What more proof do they need before they wake up to an environment that is has been altered and is increasingly hostile to humans?

The economic system is as unfair as ever. Greed rules.

The Pope was right in pointing out that people are more important than profit and that the economic system must be overhauled to create more jobs that give people a sense of security and dignity.

The violence against women and children is often perpetuated by religion, culture, politics and greed, although there is a growing consensus that something needs to be done to stop it.

What are we supposed to do in the midst of all of this chaos? Many will throw their hands up and simply say there is nothing we can do. The system is powerful and who are we to stand up and go against something we cannot resolve? Such a question can stun you directly and put an end to any call to do something. It has and continues to disempower a lot of people.

But it has also challenged a few who refuse to listen and instead follow their truth to the beat of a different drum, among them, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ninoy Aquino, Malala, Mother Teresa, to name a few. The real call of the times is to be steadfast and fight for what we believe in, not to flinch and surrender to forces that are out to disempower us. Often, I look at the world and see that it has been shaped into the image and likeness of other people’s dreams. Except for a few familiar things here and there, I hardly see my own imprint on it. Could I have “lost” it by not doing enough?

You have to hand it to the negative forces in the world, they are doing the hard work needed to fulfill their dreams and mission. But even as we see them as evil, angry people who will do anything to have power, we can learn something from them.

We must work as hard as they do to be able to counter them. We must get angrier than them, but let it be anger that serves the good. Anger is not always a negative emotion. It has its purposes. In the right context, anger is a great ally. It is a call to do something, to act. It is the fuel for what we need to do. It is a reminder that our boundaries are being violated, and a wake-up call that tells us we cannot continue to tolerate what is going on.

Stephane Hessel, a diplomat and a concentration camp survivor, wrote, “If you want to be a real human being — a real woman, a real man — you cannot tolerate things which put you to indignation, to outrage. You must stand up. I always say to people, ‘Look around; look at what makes you unhappy, what makes you furious, and then engage yourself in some action.”

To those who feel helpless and are deeply saddened by the state of the world, go ahead and embrace the feeling with all your heart, empathy and compassion. But do not linger there too long lest you burn your heart to numbness until you cannot feel anything anymore.

Do something, anything, to stoke the fire of action. In your own little space, and with your own little voice, scream as loud as you can. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A good indignation brings out all one’s powers.”

When there are enough voices raised, the world will have to listen and something will be done. This could be our last hurrah.

Our first typhoon

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 20, 2014 – 12:00am

What a storm experience Glenda was.

We’ve all gone through many typhoons throughout our lives here in the Philippines. But I found this last one to be different. It was novel in many ways. And quite personal.

The advisories before and during the typhoon were very timely and accurate. PAGASA’s bulletins were spot-on. The local government units moved early to evacuate people from danger zones They had prepared food in the temporary shelters and made sure there were as few casualties as possible. In some areas, in fact, there were actually zero deaths. This is nothing short of amazing.

While I watched the news, I felt a sense of pride and optimism. Have we as a people finally learned how to cope with calamities by planning ahead? It seems we have. The gravity of the calamities we have been having recently must have done this. More and more, as we become better and better at this, we should be more adept at responding to the ravages of ever stronger typhoons and cyclones with the onset of climate change.

Meanwhile, for Lydia and me, it was our first typhoon experience in our new house. We were both excited but more anxious about how our newly constructed house made of 100-year-old recycled wood and a lot of glass windows would stand up to the predicted catastrophic winds that Glenda was going to unleash on a big portion of the country. I was not so worried about the rains. We had the foresight to build the house a meter above the ground. It would have to take much more than a monster typhoon like Ondoy for the floodwaters to come in.

The night before tropical cyclone Glenda hit Metro Manila, we hardly got any sleep. The otherwise sturdy house we had just built all of a sudden seemed fragile as we tried to imagine the possible impact Glenda would have. Would it survive Glenda intact?

Early morning on the 16th, the rains came. At about 7 a.m. the rains had abated a bit but were replaced by very strong winds blowing and causing all the trees in our garden and those of our neighbors on three sides of our property to sway wildly. The winds intensified even more and soon enough, we saw the trees bending to angles that were unbelievably dangerous and tenuous. Then we heard the sound of the breaking of whole branches amid the din of rain falling on our rooftop.

When I looked out the window of the second floor, I saw practically a whole tree from my neighbor’s yard fall and completely block my driveway. I quickly rushed out to see if my car had been hit. Luckily, the huge tree missed the car by about three feet.

Soon after, I saw a huge treetop fall near the temporary home of the construction workers on the other lot. They all rushed out shouting from their quarters and stood shivering in the rain. It wasn’t too long before Lydia invited them in to our property to give them shelter.

Meanwhile, in our house, we saw traces of water enter some of the frames of the glass windows. That was little, considering the storm was blasting the house with water at 180 KPH winds.

There was also the feeling that the second floor was vibrating a bit, but not enough to get us worried.

Otherwise, the house was quite dry and comfortable. Despite the very strong winds that I thought would rattle the big glass panels of the dining area, it was unshaken and quiet. I sat by a sofa and looked out the glass panels. I spent some time sitting calmly and peacefully watching Glenda ravage our garden. Strangely, it was quite fascinating.

After around three hours or so of non-stop destructive gusts of wind, I felt Glenda weakening. We were coming close to the end of the typhoon.

Once again, we walked around the house to see if any new leaks had appeared. There were none. There were some bits of dust that appeared on the floor which must have been debris falling from joints, nooks and crannies because of the shaking earlier.

An architect I talked to a few days ago said that during an earthquake, a wooden structure generally had a better chance of remaining intact than one made of cement. Wood with steel frames to hold it up makes it a bit more pliant.

Also, a house with more windows can survive a typhoon better. When the wind is strong, simply open windows to ease the pressure by letting all that force simply pass through.

All throughout the storm, we felt safe and protected in a house that was not just elegant and pretty but seemed solid and sturdy. It was a home and a fortress that could withstand Mother Nature’s tantrums.

Expect stronger weather disturbances. Climate change is really upon is. And while an ever-increasing portion of humanity is already suffering from it, the world’s politicians still have yet to take serious, concrete actions to abate it.

Our house is made with recycled wood and is partly energized by solar panels. These were decisions we consciously made that ought to lessen our impact and carbon footprint on the environment.

After saying a silent prayer of thanks when the storm left, I quietly smiled, remembering the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” While our house was built with old wood and glass instead of brick and mortar, wolverine Glenda’s huffing and puffing still could not blow the house down.

Cultural differences every traveler should know

Cultural differences every traveler should know
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 13, 2014 – 12:00am

The world is not a homogenous place, thank God. There is diversity everywhere from the way people look to how they conduct themselves in everyday life. It’s a multicultural world.

When traveling abroad, it is best to know the customs and traditions of the place you will visit. A foreign traveler may be friendly, open and well-meaning but if he behaves in a way that the people in a host country find objectionable, he may get into trouble.

There are little things or topics one must know and watch out for to avoid downright trouble that may come up in everyday life. An innocent action, an insensitive, tactless remark, an unknown breach of protocol on the part of the visiting traveler can cause great embarrassment, or distress. A little “local” knowledge is not only handy but also important to help you avoid disappointment and may also endear you to the natives abroad.

Here are a few things that are good to know. Some may be obvious while others may get you scratching your head!

1) Toilets — something we take for granted — are not standardized around the world. In Europe alone, bowls come in different sizes and designs. Some toilets have a “landing space” or platform before yesterday’s meal is washed away by the water and flushed forever.

In Britain, toilets are known as “water closets” or W.C.s.

In countries like Japan and most places in the Middle East, one must often squat on top of an elongated, porcelain hole while resting the feet on two footholds on both sides. It is amazing that even old people in these places have no problem squatting probably due to the life-long habit of doing it this way. But thank God, there are also western-style toilets available everywhere.

With regards to bathing, Asians generally like to take daily showers, sometimes more than once a day. Many Europeans can go for a few days without taking baths.

2) In Indonesia, don’t point with the forefinger or pass anything with your left hand. Always use your right with the palm up with the left supporting the wrist.

3) In Thailand, never touch a person’s head. It is a grave insult to do so since the head is the most esteemed part of the body. Also, never cross your legs in company or point your toes to another person. It is considered an insult since the feet are the lowest part of the body.

It is also bad form to enter anyone’s house with your shoes on. You must take them off and leave them by the door.

4) In many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, it is quite common to see two men walking while holding hands. It is not a sign of homosexuality or anything like that. Body language and expressions are just different in many places.

Arabs, for example, like to talk with little space between themselves and the other person, much to the discomfort of Westerners.

5) In India, a nodding of the head back and forth or up or down does not mean or signify a “yes.” A “yes” is expressed by the movement of the head from side to side. This can be quite confusing when you encounter it the first few times.

6) In Brazil, nudity or close to total body exposure is a national sport. In beaches everywhere, women don the skimpiest bikinis or go topless. When I went to Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro years ago, I was quite surprised that women actually seemed to enjoy being stared and ogled at and were not bothered by loud comments from men.

In Arab countries, it is the exact opposite. Women are covered literally from head to toe to intentionally hide every curve, or anything feminine about her. The little areas left exposed such as hands, wrists, eyes, ears, etc. are usually bedecked with gold and jewelry.

I often wonder how little children can find their mothers among a group of such women, but they do!

7) Drugs are a no-no in many countries. Often, drug possession alone can lead to a death sentence. Take this very seriously.

9) Though a country may appear very secular and tolerant, it is generally still taboo to visit churches and holy shrines in shorts or very revealing clothes. Dress accordingly.

10) Finally, in many Asian countries, rice — not bread or potato — is the most popular staple. Not only is it popular but there is also something sacred about the connection between rice and life itself.

The throwing of rice at weddings originated in the east. Rice supposedly symbolizes fertility and abundance. In China, the word rice means “to eat.” In Japan, the planting, harvesting and preparation of rice have religious overtones. A little boy or girl who finishes every grain on his/her plate is called a Little Buddha.

So, in sum, be ready to adjust to the culture of the place you will visit, or do not travel at all.

I’d like to end this by recalling something attributed to Mark Twain. He once wrote that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Glenda’s manifesto

The media has not picked it up yet. I am talking about the manifesto Typhoon Glenda left behind. It reads:

People of the Earth

I speak to you as a spokesperson for Mother Nature also known by some as Gaia, and other names.

You are on the whole a stupid species. I gave you everything beautiful and wonderfully life-giving.

But your greed is inexhaustible and your denial that All is One is remarkably ignorant, unenlightened and perverse.

Many of you consume too much, way more than you need.
You pollute everything you touch.
You want to own everything
You don’t give a shit about other people
Nothing is sacred to you except money.
You have forgotten the joys of simplicity
You refuse to think of tomorrow
You refuse to try solutions out there that will benefit everyone

Throughout the past centuries, I have been leaving messages but you ignore them.

Let me tell you this. More of my homies will be visiting. Sorry if they don’t have manners you expect nor any regard for you.

This is our world. You only live in it. So show some respect or we will keep coming back more ferociously until you wont want to live here anymore.

Ignoring the news

Ignoring the news
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 6, 2014 – 12:00am

You most likely watch the news on TV, read the newspapers or scour the Internet for the latest events everywhere. Every day, there is something new. And every day, there are things that move, rattle, anger, frustrate, inspire, thrill and rivet us. There are endless stories playing out that are picked up by the news agencies everywhere. It’s a 24/7 thing.

Almost everyone I know on social media can get riled up about this and that and about every hot issue they read or hear about. Everyone has an opinion on everything: PDAF, DAP, corrupt senators and officials, tragedies, disasters, scandals, China, etc., are the current hot topics.

It can get tiring. It’s like a daily ritual. Emotions predictably rise and fall with every hot news item.

But one might argue that news at least keeps people preoccupied with something. They are engaged. What people read either resonates with them, or challenges their view of the world and the values they hold dear. And that, believe it or not, is something that makes them feel alive.

And people behind the news know this. Notice how they deliver news on primetime television complete with music that gives you a certain adrenalin rush, while reporters deliver the content in a hyperactive manner, like the studio itself was burning down.

But there are some days when I do not want to read or watch the news. I detach myself and deliberately ignore media’s power to move me, manipulate and control me. I just feel that too much negativity is not something I want in daily doses. I am convinced there are infinitely more things happening in the world than just bad news, or big colossal events.

I wish people covering the news would notice the glorious sunsets we have been having lately. Isn’t that newsworthy?

Or how come we see so much more news about random killings and violence than acts of simple kindness, generosity and honesty? Sure, there are occasional reports of honest taxi drivers who return money left by careless passengers inside their cabs. I just wish there were so much more of the good stuff to watch or read about.

I admit that I, too, can get seduced by the frenzy of emotions that news and issues instigate. But I am starting to tire of the game, the cycle. I am tired of people endlessly complaining online, of media wailing their sirens at every chance, and commentators on radio expressing indignation, anger (often feigned) over every current issue.

While these may be important, it is equally important, perhaps even more so, that we do not lose our balance as human beings. By this I mean the knee-jerk customary ranting must at times be held in abeyance and maybe not even posted. Another toxic rant is the last thing we need. Perhaps more thought and calm objectivity would help make the world a slightly more livable and kinder place.

The other day, I suddenly found myself in a serene state of peace and completeness. I felt calm. I did not desire nor wish for anything at all. It was so liberating. This happens to me occasionally.

At that moment I had no compulsion to correct or control outcomes, events, people, or anything. I simply “allowed” the world to do as it pleased and I could not care less nor be moved one way or the other. I felt like a solid mountain, steady and unfazed even if the rest of the world was seemingly undergoing tectonic movements. I felt steady, unperturbed and unshaken.

I felt momentarily freed from the shrill call of “duty,” of being someone on a self-imposed mission to try and save the world by fighting along the side of “good” versus “bad.” I felt aloof and above the fray.

That night, I watched the news and felt deaf to its siren call to be concerned, worried, angry, amused, etc. I felt immune to the negativity and the hype playing out on the screen. I felt freed from the bondage of indignation.

I felt my balance restored at least for the moment. I stared at the gore, the scandals and the negativity. The anger, cynicism I usually entertained mentally when the “bad” guys would appear was nowhere.

I turned the TV off.

I smiled and knew there were more things happening in this world to pay attention to.