Sunday, June 27, 2010

Would Jesus Wear a Uniform?

I was driving the National Road, as the paved highway is identified on the Biliran map, engaged in an argument with myself. As is often the case, I have no facts at my disposal so I simply concoct the different points of view in my brain.

Why do Filipino public school kids wear uniforms, and is it a good or bad thing?

In the US, public schools generally do not require uniforms. Church or private schools often do.

There are some good reasons for uniforms. For example, they ensure consistency of dress so poor kids don't get caught being poor. Rich people can't wear stylish shoes or other expensive trappings and thereby put down less glamorous classmates. If poor people can't afford the uniforms, they can just stay home and fish.

In the US, uniforms are sometimes used to suppress gangster style dress and the bloodletting that comes with over-the-top macho showmanship.

Uniforms also offer a rallying symbol. Hurrah for the good old green and gold; one for all and all for us.

Another reason, neither good nor bad, is “that's the way we've done it for a long time”. Well, actually, if you are pro-change, that is a bad reason.

There are some other bad reasons for uniforms. They iron everyone into the same cloth and suppress individual expression. They cost more money than last year's jeans and big brother's hand-me down shirt. They look goofy if the popular style is short and the required hemline is long. If one looks like a goof, one often feels like a goof. Then one starts BELIEVING inside that one is a goof.

I won't say anything about the militaristic formations schools demand as their kids line up prior to the start of the school day to salute the flag with pledges or songs. All that is lacking is a mandated goose step past the principal's office.

Many schools in the US take the half-way approach, publishing a dress code that allows both individual expression and prudent garb. For example, dress hemlines must drop below the knees, no gang colors allowed, no sandals, no armless t-shirts, and so forth.

In the Philippines, I see overdone authoritarianism as a huge problem – check the surly attitude of service people in government offices and many retail stores - and, of course, its obverse is relentless obedience that takes the form of lack of creativity, lack of ambition, lack of protest, and lack of risk-taking.

The uniforms seem to me to be reflective of a national mind-set that young Filipinos are not expected to think or act for themselves. They are not expected to be responsible in choosing their dress. They must follow the rules laid down by the elders. Alas, the elders are predominantly a bunch of big egoed, money-bound power-mongers with zero sense of compassion, generosity, concession for the common good, or public service perspective. To argue with or disobey these power-pips is a huge personal affront to their Big Egos, provoking threats, goon squads, and on occasion, weapons. They likely prefer kids be jammed into uniforms and their mouths stuffed with cotton to suppress any kind of intellectually bound objection to the way the Egos manage things.

Now again, I have no facts, so I could easily be wrong. Remember, I am just arguing with myself.

Perhaps the schools are churning out thousands of independent thinking, ambitious, talented go-getters. They are just all going overseas to go get, leaving the stiffs to care for the local economy and social values, the latter featuring the shooting of journalists, coddling of criminals, trashing of paradise and other upside down thinkings.

I do know the school kids all look alike, undistinguished, as I drive past them on the National Road. I fear they are made to bend to a consistence of appearance and thought, not driven to get outside imposed limits, not driven to challenge and create and excel.

I put 2 plus 2 together and can't help but come up with 4. And 4 falls way short of being a 10.

And, no, Jesus would not wear a uniform. Nor did He require his disciples to look, think, or act alike. He believed in the wholeness of spirit not the limitations that occur when an individual's spirit is stuffed into a container.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chameleonic Thinking

Interesting, the spell checker did not flag “chameleonic”. I thought I was making up the word, meant to mean thinking like a chameleon.

All of us have ego, eh? We are self-confident of our understandings most of the time, and our opinions flow from that confidence. If we are shown to be wrong, we tap dance out of it some way, never quite having to strike the realization “I was inadequate to that task”. We go on as confident as before, leaving our errors behind in the dust of time and other people's forgetfulness.

I've dabbled with fictional writing now and then but was always a “C” level writer when the markets demand “A+”. I continue to read regularly, always packing a tad of envy about how other authors wend a phrase so beautifully. But my latest book goes beyond that. Beyond envy or even admiration. It is one of those rare works where the writer's intellect goes so deep that it is hard to grasp without re-reading the illusive passages two or three times. It is one of those works like Finnegan's Wake or David Copperfield that stretches the brain in ways it has not been stretched before. It is an amazing book.

The title is “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier, translated from German to English by Barbara Harshav. The writing is a little confusing because of the translation, for German cadence meets English half-way sometimes and leaves one guessing about who is really the subject of a particular paragraph. But the beauty is in the reaches of the views on the human condition. Take this excerpt from the preface, English translated from Portuguese:

Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.

Fernando Pessoa, Livro Do Desassossego

Hah! Well, that explains why I can rip Philippine society one moment for mediocrity and lack of sense, and turn right around and express amazement at the depth of beauty and soul that surrounds me. My surroundings are the same, but my inner point of view shifts.

That self-confidence I mentioned earlier is born of our ability to be chameleons of the mind.

Of course, this suggests we are all a tad disingenuous if not downright deceitful, playing tricks on ourselves so that we can play tricks on others. I must remember that and not get so upset at the posturings of blog-writers who seem to me to articulate half baked ideas.

Let me just open the book and type a paragraph I find there. Okay, page 171, right at the bottom.

I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need the luster of their windows, their cool stillness, their imperious silence. I need the deluge of the organ and the sacred devotion of praying people. I need the holiness of words, the grandeur of great poetry. All that I need. But just as much I need the freedom and hostility against everything cruel. For the one is nothing without the other. And no one may force me to chose.

This is the protagonist translating the writings of revolutionary hero Amadeu Prado. Prado is the magnet who drew our reflective hero to Lisbon on that night train.

I am of no organized religion myself, as I find the fairy-tale delusions expressed by the preachers with such earnest conviction a little scary. I love cathedrals for the same reason stated above but I could never articulate their attraction so richly. My favorite cathedrals are in Santiago de Compostella, Spain, where history is written into the architecture of the huge, vertical building, and the one in Cordoba, Spain, with its wild and woolly red and white striped arches. The stained glass windows there push ghostly patches of pink and yellow across the floor and walls as the sun transverses God's little kingdom below.

I just grabbed that random page of the “Night Train” book to make a point. Any page in the book will provoke thinking.

Generally that is a good thing.

It gives us more perspectives, more colors to change into as we argue the chameleon's various visions.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Chickens and Thumbs

I was watching the NBA finals when I was smacked in the face by one stark cultural difference between the US and Philippines. A few minutes prior, I had been watching the news on CNN. The news world has obsessed for two months about the Gulf Coast oil disaster, replete with pictures of oil-covered fowl being scraped of the foul muck that was likely to kill thousands of the birds. This particular newscast featured one family in Denver who sold their home so they could head south to help clean up the coast.

Animal rights activists are a force in the US.

Then, several times during the NBA game, I was subjected to Thunderbird commercials pronouncing the Philippines as “the cockfighting nation”. Sabong was the word used, I believe. The video showed a bunch of orderly, clean, smiling Filipinos, conjures up great patriotic music, and then shows two roosters being squared up to fight. Finally it cuts to a patriotic theme and the Thunderbird close.

The outcome, of course, for one of the birds, is a fate worse than oil.

And I don't know about you, but the cockfight crowds I have seen are hardly the well-moneyed set; they smoke and drink and spit and are grubby. It is the sport of the poor, if you consider it a sport. Were the gladiators vs. lions a sport, in Rome, I wonder?

Much of the social advancement in the US has occurred because of the outcries of the lunatic left, you know - those people arguing for homosexual rights, opposing wars, saving whales and trees, insisting on food labels so consumer can make informed dietary choices, permitting medical marijuana, and other extreme views that seem to me to be essentially of kindness.

I don't get upset about cock-fighting, as I've seen seen chickens swung by the neck until their heads pop off; the body runs around on reflexes for a while as the red red blood spews out the severed neck. Then I dined on the chicken along with Mom's mashed potatoes and wonderful cinnamon rolls. I figure only vegetarians have the standing to protest, and then, only if they believe vegetables have no feelings as they are hacked, chopped, stewed and eaten.

It is a hard, hard world from some perspectives.

The Philippines is not the only country cruel to lesser animals as a sport.

In Portugal and Spain, they still stick bulls with knives and spears. In the US at the rodeo, they still rope and wrench the necks of young steers; as if – for the steer - having one's chingaderos chopped off is not humiliation enough. In the Philippines, they set chickens against one another to fight to the death and, not even a sport, let hundreds of thousands of disease-ridden, flea-infested dogs roam free amongst the kids. In the Middle East pious folk kill innocent people in the name of God's goodness. There is a sporting event to end all sporting event.

I understand that the genome mapping of humans has shown that Man has about the same number and kinds of genes as many animals; indeed, some animals have more complex genetic structures than humans.

If I think about it, that makes sense.

We delude ourselves if we think we are some kind of higher animal. The main distinction between us and creatures is our opposing thumb and ability to twist grunts into communicable words.

If you drop a dog in the middle of nowhere, he will find his way home. If you drop a human in the middle of nowhere, he will likely die, cursing intelligibly and clawing uselessly at the rocks with his opposable thumb.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Soul, Brother

I enjoy learning of the history of the Philippines, although, as in college, I can take it only in small portions. Some characters certainly stand out, putting their personal stamp on the nation, for good or ill: Rizal, Aguinaldo, Marcos. I think history will dump Ms. Arroyo in the dust bin of largely smaller than life people who wasted an opportunity by putting out propaganda but achieving little. This is not unlike many cheaters in the Philippines who tell stories to rein in the suckers, of which I have been one more times than I care to admit. Truth has little bearing on the matters of these crooks, for their fundamental aim is deceitful, so why would they overlay the manipulation with truth? No, manipulation is overlaid with deceits, one after another to bury the truth in places where it can cause little damage.

But the aim of this blog is not my traditional picking away at the warts of Philippine society, but rather to express an observation recently gained.

Filipinos have more depth of soul than most Americans. I have no statistics to back this up, and am not going to spend any time defining “soul”. It is just my sense of things.

Americans grow shallower by the year as television and consumerism and reality-show relationships diminish the place where soul once resided. It is rather the difference between reading a romance novel and reading Charles Dickens. America is full of shallow romance with less meaning every passing day.

But Filipinos retain their soul, which I would describe as not exactly literate, but of the heart. It is poetic, not always in words, but in spirit. Read the writings of Rizal and others, the passions expressed in Edsa, the awareness of the way the empowered take what is not theirs and give struggle to so many impoverished families. Perhaps it is the ache that is so huge. The sending of sons and daughters overseas, the relentless awakening early to slog on the tricycle or whack roadside weeds or stoop again in the rice fields, and the belief in goodness in spite of what one must deal with daily. Ha. And the mysteries of all the superstitions that haunt the day and night and death and birth and even building a house.

I came to respect the white lady who inhabits the eerie roots of the huge trees on my jungle property in Mindanao. She, to me, gives glimpse of the Philippine soul. Deep, mysterious, complex, mystifying, hard to see, sometimes dark, often full of fun, sometimes a little scary, and arising with passion again and again, in search of the light, no matter the hurdles placed in the way by God and other jokesters.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Of Rocks and Weeds

The bank I worked for was once owned by the British. The Brits are a fun lot, dry of wit and sharp of mind. But they are human, too. I know because one of the top Brits, a very handsome and polished guy, was busy banging the secretary in the Public Relations department. It's not that he had bad taste, for she was a doll, blond of hair, blue of eyes and cheerful of disposition; but she was married. So was he, come to think about it. I guess bent values come with ego and opportunity.

But that is just grits for the swill. I learned a lot from one Brit in particular, a brilliant, arrogant intellectual who had banked in South America before coming to the USA. He was Noriega's banker for a time, visiting him in jail to handle his financial dealings. The Brit banker believed that one should develop a set of principles that stand as guideposts through the chaos of life or business practices. And stick with them.

He did that, and I've tried to do that over the years as well. I find the discipline enlightening, if not always easy.

Some of these principles are copied from others, but, hey, wisdom is where you find it. Some examples:

Secondary effort, allowed to thrive, will overwhelm primary effort.” If we only do what is comfortable, rather than what is important, then we will soon fail. Appointing a cousin to a job is easier than finding a truly skilled practitioner, and it keeps harmony in the family, and working with the cousin is easier than dealing with someone who knows more than we do, but hiring an incompetent cousin will not get competent work done.

Ask why five times.” We often look at the superficial reasons for things. If we dig deeper, we get to the fundamentals. Only when we change the fundamentals can we get something done. To end corruption, it is important to understand the role poverty plays in forcing people to do what they must do to eat, and it is important to understand the role ineffective punishment – a Judiciary that is bogged down in a backlog of 300,000 cases – has in permitting crime to persist. Do something about these fundamentals rather than looking to stop corruption by shaking a stick at it.

If we were meant to do nothing, to stay the same, God would have made us in the image of rocks. Or weeds that stay rooted, live, and die, achieving little more than populating the globe with more weeds. To grow is to live. One reason the Philippines is a laggard nation is its hardheaded resistance to anything that smacks of criticism, change, innovation or application.

Whoa . . . What do you mean by 'application', Joe? I was with you until then.”

Application is what you do after you have listened to the criticism, agreed that change is needed and thought about what has to happen. Then you DO something about it. Alas, the Philippines is landlocked in a sea of need but couldn't find a rubber boat if Teodoro put his fleet up on the beach. The ability to get from problem to solution is absent, non-existent, gone with the wind.

Take the rampant overbirthing that drowns the islands in a sea of hungry mouths and produces young girls as commodities to sell into the sex trade.

Everyone sees the problem. There is not enough rice, not enough money to go around. Schools are overpopulated and under staffed. Good jobs are lacking. People beg, borrow and steal to eat.

But where is the solution?

The moral pinning of the nation is anchored in the Catholic faith, but the loud and self-certain elite of red clothed robes - or purple or yellow on some days, but always cheerful – somehow connect education and condoms with abortion and loss of life. These self-declared profound people offer no solutions to poverty but make birth control sound as if it emanated from the mouth of Satan himself. Meanwhile many of those precious lives the church is so “pro” are living a miserable existence. The church turns its head on all the coathanger abortions taking place in the ghettos as if these unfortunate women were so many abused choirboys calling desperately for help. To the church, these lives are worth ignoring. But a wayward drop of sperm in a plastic bucket needs their passionate prayers and protection.

And the landlocked elders of the land with heads of concrete, families of mediocre skill, and values of money do nothing.

And the youth go mindlessly from here to there texting and dancing.

No one has a clue about how to end the misery that infests the land. No one has any idea how to achieve, to improve, to grow. How to DO something. The leadership is so many babbling elders pontificating as if they were God's gift to us, and having absolutely no clue as to where to begin. They are lost in a muddle of trees unattached to any known forest. The distinction can be found in the Constitution. The US Constitution is short and pithy, providing the essential rights and responsibilities of citizens and government and leaving intricate interpretations to the lawmakers and courts. The Philippine constitution plagiarizes the US wisdoms, but tosses in a mountain load of minutiae as if wisdom were to be found in the quantity of words rather than the quality. This prized instrument of democracy becomes but another mindless set of authoritarian rules with no reason for being. And it is ignored.

The Philippines, as a collective of government and people, falls way short of its potential. It does not take a rocket scientist or Cambridge sociologist to eyeball the achievement, improvement and growth of the Philippines and say, “Hmmmmm, got a laggard here.”

For stalwart Filipinos who believe this is the way we are and it is not for an outsider to critique it, I can only say, “I agree”. You are what you are, and you need not be anything better. You need not DO anything. That is your right.

Weeds are an important part of the ecosystem.

Standard disclaimer. Wear the shoe only if it fits. There are many good and competent and well-meaning and intelligent and hard-working Filipinos. I'm referring to the others. The Philippines is also drop-dead gorgeous and I wish y'all would stop dumping your trash all over paradise.