Not your usual school day

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 26, 2017 – 12:00am

I teach a subject under the Communications Department at the Ateneo de Manila University. It is called Special Topics in Performance and Practice. It is mainly a discursive class tackling diverse topics. The discussions are about World Music, the history of OPM, the Filipino bilingual experience, Filipino humor, Myths and Symbols, and the Creative Mind. We end with a conversation on the relationship between performers, writers, makers of products — anyone who makes a pitch to any audience — and the people who subscribe or buy into them. It answers the questions: “What is the promise?” and “Why do we buy into them?”

I give lots of assignments to my students. Some of them are reflection papers, but the more interesting assignments are the experiential ones. By this, I mean I assign them to do things that will drive the point of the discussions beyond an intellectual discourse and into real “felt” experience.

For example, part of the creativity module talks about how we can actually and proactively set the tone for the kind of day we want to have. On a certain day, I assign the girls to show up in long gowns for the class, and the guys are asked to wear shoes that don’t match, short pants, and a coat and tie. I then ask them what the experience is like walking down the school corridors dressed up differently from everyone they see. It is an exercise in one’s power to break routine and create new experiences. I had a female student who wore a chador, and it was such a personally moving experience for her. It made her feel empathy and compassion for all Muslim women everywhere.

Throughout the semester I give unconventional assignments and homework.

The last assignment I give at the end of the semester is a lot of fun. It is, in a sense, a summary of alI the lessons from the various subjects we’ve discussed in class. World Music and OPM talk about how people contribute and share music that reflects themselves, and how one needs to come from one’s local setting to be able to contribute in a universal way. The bilingualism module talks about how we switch languages depending on the subject and the person we are talking to. We live in two worlds that we cross back and forth between many times a day. We “wear” two cultures.

The creativity module presents five rules that one must apply in real life. It takes the subject of creativity away from a mind exercise and into a real-life application. The subject of myth talks about old and new symbols and narratives that we as a people connect to and which help us make sense of the world.

The underlying values in many of the subjects are about having authentic experiences and being conscious and present to them. It is not just about having an intellectual discussion that you forget once the course is over.

For the final assignment, I ask my students to take me, their teacher, to a place where I have never been. I tell them that the place I wish to be brought to is their world. In four minutes, they must show me something that I have never seen before.

I ask them to present one thing they are very passionate about. I ask them to do so with the aim of helping me to know them better while surprising and delighting me, or giving me an experience of shock and awe in the process. I ask them to share something about themselves and present it in the most interesting manner.

It can be a daunting experience for many of them. They must go inward and share something of themselves. It is a big challenge. They must not only present something they are passionate about but must do so with creativity, truth and passion.

I had one student who loved baking cookies. What she did was recite the recipe in rap form accompanied with a beat box, and then gave out cookies for everyone to taste afterward.

Some students who appeared to be shy and introverted throughout the semester would surprise everyone by breaking into a Broadway song and dance routine.

I have seen students recite poems, do soliloquies, dance, play the guitar, sing, etc. I had one student who designed bags and shared her story about how she managed to sell them in big outlets and establish her own brand.

I had another who shared her love for photography by showing her favorite sunset photos and explaining how she took them. She also gave away photos after.

One of the most memorable presentations was from a male student who was a cross-dresser. Throughout the semester, he would show up in class dressed however he felt on the particular day — sometimes as male, sometimes as female.

During the last day, he showed up as a male. Before his performance, he explained to us how he had to come out twice to his parents, first as a gay man, and second as a cross-dresser. It was traumatic for him and for them, he said. For his presentation, he sat down on a chair in front of a mirror and put on makeup while the Disney song Reflections played. When the song reached the central part with the lyrics, “Who is this girl I see, staring straight back at me? When will my reflection show who I am inside?”, he stood up and in one bold, flawless motion tore off his male outfit and instantly transposed into a woman in a flaming flowing red dress.

It was breathtakingly executed and the performance was shining with authenticity. He got a standing ovation from the class!

I have been teaching this subject for more than eight semesters now. I have received quite a few positive comments from my students. Some of them said it was a class they will never forget. Occasionally, I have foreign students who sign up for my class. I had one French student whose main track was economics. She changed her life path when she returned to Paris. In place of the office job she though she would be doing, she became a writer, a museum curator and a disk jockey. She told me it was my class that opened her to other possibilities.

As this semester comes to an end, I look at my students and thank them for being a great class. I know I have taken them to a place where they have never been and have raised their awareness and consciousness about themselves and the world they live in. They have learned a lot, and so have I. Just as many of my students in previous semesters still keep in touch with me, I am looking forward to hearing from my latest batch.

I can’t wait till I offer this class again.

How to inspire yourself

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 19, 2017 – 12:00am

People often ask me what inspires me to write songs. I tell them that there have been some special songs that I was inspired to do. Songs about a peaceful revolution, and the birth of my first child were two of them. But not all songs I wrote had obvious or dramatic muses. In fact, many of them were not “inspired” works at all but something I just did because I needed songs to fill an album.

Many of them were melodies in my head that I made years ago and had set aside but then resurrected all of a sudden because they begged to be taken more seriously. Some of them I sat down on the piano and worked on with specific topics or feelings in mind. They were out-of-the-blue creations brought to life in a more deliberate manner.

The best ones were those that were written without fuss. They didn’t take long to write. Almost no pressure. I just followed the flow.

So what inspires me? The answer is everything and nothing.

What I want to actually write about is how anyone can be creative and write stuff even without the so-called inspiration.

Is that possible? Yes, it is.

One of the reasons why we have a hard time finding inspiration is because we always think of it as something that happens or originates from outside of us. In many ways, it is understandable that we see it that way. A beautiful girl comes along from out of nowhere. We get hit by a thunderbolt and fall in love and we feel a glow inside and see the world through rose-colored glasses. We feel so lucky and blessed — as we should. We feel that the heavens made it happen.

Drugs and alcohol can also make us feel “inspired.” Taking them can cause some to open their minds to images and hallucinations that take them out of the ordinary world and inspire them to think outside of the usual. The experience can be terrific and earth-shaking, to say the least. And it can spark tremendous creativity.

The problem with the first example I gave is that it does not come that often. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Life is not always that dramatic. And drugs and alcohol can give you that high, but it can also destroy you. We cannot rely, then, on these two types of inspiration to give us the ability to create when we want or need to on a consistent basis.

What if we try to think of inspiration as something that can come from anywhere — not just from the outside, but even from ourselves?

I speak of a mindset or a state of being that can transform the ordinary and the mundane into something extraordinary. This state of mind is aggressively playful, imaginative and creative that can “see” beyond what most everyone see. It is a mind that can connect what has not been connected yet. It is “conspiratorial” in the sense that it finds patterns, themes, relationships and stories where others might not see anything. One might say it is a mind that awakens to mystery and tries to capture its wonder. It is open to serendipity and sees more of it than most people do. It is both sublime and mischievous, sacred and profane.

You can learn and train your mind to be like this with practice and training. There are rules and methods to use and develop.

But you also need a few leaps of faith to be able to totally internalize this. The very first thing you need is to believe that what you want to create is already there.

Often, I look at ordinary things and events as portals that can lead to bigger experiences. There are hidden gifts to be picked up everywhere. Our job is to find them. From conversations, phrases, emotions shared, facial expressions, practically anything can inspire me and make a world out of it and express it through song.

American writer and potter Mary C. Richards hit it on the nail when she said, “Poetry enters through the window of irrelevance.” In short, nothing is irrelevant. Everything is important — that is, if we care to look closely.

The second leap of faith is about believing that God or the Universe is there to help you. The moment I focus on a melodic phrase that pops into my head, I feel an inner force at work that opens me creatively. My melody can go anywhere, but I feel some sort of guidance that is leading me to bring the song where it is “meant” to go. With regards to lyrics, it works the same way plus I can open a dictionary or a thesaurus to match words that rhyme. Assistance is there. Always. You just have to turn on your awareness.

There was a song I wrote for my daughter Erica when she graduated from high school. It talked about trusting yourself and finding your own path and truth. The lyrics in the bridge of the song went this way:

“Everything you need is inside of you. You’re the fire and breath of your own soul.”

What I really wanted to describe was our natural inner power, our built-in creativity to make anything, even to make our own future and create our own life experiences. While life happens to us, I believe we can make things happen, too.

This creative mindset applies not just to songwriting but to a lot of other things I do. And I know many creatives can relate to this. Magic, enchantment, creation of meaning is always at our fingertips. I know I make it sound so easy. Sometimes, it is that easy.

And with more practice, it becomes easier.

Talking about my generation

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 12, 2017 – 12:00am

Yesterday, I was riding the car from White Plains and as we passed through EDSA on our way to Pasong Tamo, I noticed so many things I never paid attention to before.

There were buildings that had been there before but I never took notice of them. There were some tall ones, too. Some of them stood alone against the sky without other tall buildings near them.

There were also pedestrian overpasses that I just noticed that day.

My wife Lydia was telling me that if I raised my head more and looked around instead of being glued online to my cell phone, I would have noticed all of these things way before. She has a point.

When I look at the billboards along EDSA, I see faces of people that I do not know. New faces everywhere. A new generation of showbiz folks had entered the scene since I ended doing regular television shows.

When I turned my attention to names and faces of Korean personalities on one billboard and asked my granddaughter who they were, she screamed with delight, rolled up her eyes and chided me for not knowing them.

I have stopped getting updated on names of current TV shows, celebrities, new songs, trends, fashion, pop and cultural tidbits. More than half of the people I watch on television are new to me. It doesn’t help that I hardly watch TV except the news. I am totally ignorant of Game of Thrones, Stranger Things and other TV blockbusters that people spend their time on. I hardly recognize anything playing on the radio now, too. I can’t relate to most of the themes, lyrics and melodic lines of the songs playing today. They just don’t grab me.

In the words of my own generation, I have stopped “tuning in” and have basically “turned off” and “dropped out.”

I don’t feel I really am missing a lot even if younger people I talk to are somewhere between being amused and shocked at how alien their celebrities and music are to an oddball like me.

I notice that as people get older, they eventually take stock of what they have gone through, and choose to gravitate around that time in their lives when they felt most alive, powerful, happy and “together.” It is that time when they felt in sync with the world, and everything made sense. They had struggles and won them. It was their time, those moments in their lives when their core tastes in music, culture and values were defined and shaped by their personal experiences. And that specific timeframe becomes the foundation of their adulthood, and will always be a big reference point for the rest of their lives.

In my case, my defining time was between the ’70s to the early years of the new millennia. I was young. I had lots of energy. I felt I could unleash big bolts of creative power and make stuff and achieve anything I wanted. During that time, I wrote tons of music, recorded it all, toured the world with my group and did what we felt were great memorable performances singing the songs we wrote.

I also married and raised a family.

I also participated in the biggest political struggle of my generation that defined my liberal democratic values that I still believe and adhere to today.

It was good that during the prime time of my life, I had a very curious mind. I engaged the world boldly. I was active. I was diving, biking and running. I was also reading a lot about everything and learning life skills that would help me adjust to the changing times. I also traveled extensively and saw the world. Today, I am at least technologically savvy. I also have a solid liberal arts education and mindset that serves me well as a human being living in the modern world and trying to make sense of it.

Time seemed to have stopped for me during the ’70s, until around 2007. It’s like I hopped off of the time bus, settled down and built a life and a home in that neighborhood. The worldview I subscribe to was largely formed around my experiences at that time.

I have caught myself telling younger people stories of that heroic time in our history when we kicked out the Marcoses. And I love telling them how glorious a time EDSA was. And that our great contribution to the Philippines was building a big catalogue and repertoire of OPM songs. I am proud of my generation’s legacy. I know I sound just like my uncles who talked to us when we were young about their defining moments during WWII and the rebuilding of our country after.

I still do feel creatively powerful today but I have mellowed. I like doing other things now. I now write a lot more than I used to. I have also become a teacher and I enjoy that a lot. I still do write music and perform but I am no longer on the radar of the millennial audience that has developed new tastes.

Our defining era is really the foundation of the rest of our lives. What we went through and struggled for helped build my generation’s character. Perhaps it was my luck that the ’70s was a time when we were inspired to produce great music. It was also a time when our conscience and consciousness were awakened enough to shape a bit of our cultural identity and history.

My generation’s time is passing quickly. It is now the time of the millennials. I am curious to see how this new generation will act upon the world.

Life at 66

Life at 66
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 5, 2017 – 12:00am

Very often these days, I find myself underutilized. I feel I’m not doing enough. At every single moment, time is passing by and it makes me restless. I feel I am wasting opportunities. That’s because I feel I am waiting for things to happen while time passes by and is gone forever.

To some it may seem like I am a very busy person since I wear many hats — artist, teacher, writer, etc. And so I seem to be doing a lot of things. The truth is, I like to do more. Much more.

I am strong and healthy. I am motivated largely because at 66 years old, I feel time is running out. Life is short. Time moves too fast. I want to do many more things before I get t

Yes, I have made a bucket list and I will be doing as much as I can to fulfill the items on it. But I also have this feeling that there are other callings out there waiting to be answered. I know that I have not lived enough yet. There’s still a whole lot of living to do. There are things that are waiting out there for me. I can sense it although all I have are inklings to go by.

Right now I feel like I am in a lull before some big thing is about to happen. And I don’t know what that something is.

Am I being called to do a mission or just being asked to indulge my passions more? Every day, my radar is scanning my life’s horizon, looking for signs.

During the past weeks, I’ve been staying at home mostly. I go to the gym three to four times a week. I teach at the ADMU twice a week. I practice a little guitar almost every day. I meditate occasionally. I spend a lot of time online. I know there is definitely more to life than doing just these things.

There were times in the past when I felt clear about what I wanted to do in life. I was with the APO Hiking Society, and it had a job description and we did what we felt we had to do. And we did it well.

These days, I do not feel engaged enough with anything, certainly not enough to get me focused 24-7.

I know I am more of a doer. I want action. Sometimes, I can be a procrastinator, too, and postpone things for a future time. But aging has changed that. You know that your time is limited and so you make sure that you are focused on the remaining time at hand. Things can’t wait too long.

I see people my age slowing down to retirement. I can’t see myself ever retiring although sometimes, I ask myself why I need to keep busy.

Why do I need to fill my hours doing “stuff”? Why do I have this need to achieve? Can’t I just be happy and calm while in “being” mode? Should I always be doing something? Do I feel defined by the things that I do? Isn’t the state of just being myself as important as what I “do”? If doing is more important, should people who do not have the physical strength or health to pursue their dreams be considered failures as humans? Are we here to always prove something in this life?

I guess it is just my nature to be active and look for things to do. Asking yourself what or how much how much you have done in life comes up more often as you get older. The truth is, there is always still something to do. I often ask why I must still try to fix the world, or respond to the call of doing what I think is right. Shouldn’t we leave that for younger people to worry about? I wish I could say yes. In truth, I can’t.

Even if we can’t solve all the problems of the world, we still have to try. Ultimately, people have to pick up the cudgels, and I am afraid I have always been one among the not-too-many who have not and will probably never go gently into the good night. It would be so easy to just drop out and use the excuse of being too old to avoid answering the call of one’s conscience. But to do so, you also have to be the type of person who can live the rest of your life knowing you are bullsh*tting yourself.

There are many things we cannot change. But I don’t think we should give up trying to change what we can.

When I was younger, I sought to change the way things were because I wanted to alter the trajectory of where the country was heading then. I knew my generation would be living in that future. That future has become the present and is rapidly becoming the past. So why I am still fighting for another tomorrow I will no longer be living in?

At my age I know that more and more often, to be true to yourself means to challenge the ways of the world instead of accepting them passively. It means one may have to be “unreasonable” and even unpopular and choose to stand by the side of truth. You can’t live a real life if your aim is to gather as many “likes” or live for the approval of others. The great temptation is to succumb and say we can’t change things and just give up. I detest that.

This battle between oneself and the world may never be won with finality, but at least you try to change the little corner where you live while you still can. Every ripple you make counts if you want to contribute to the making of a formidable wave of change.

And so here I am waiting out this lull. Eventually, I will hear the call clearly. I know I will still be up for it.