Saturday, 16 June 2007

Of Serial Killers and Sympathy

Recently, I and my significant other have become addicted to a neat little show called “Dexter”, a television series on Showtime in the U.S. which has gathered some pretty rave reviews, but which most people still don’t know about (as opposed to “CSI” or “Heroes” or “House”). That fact causes a bit of emotional conflict really: on one hand, I think this show deserves a lot more attention than its been getting, but on the other hand, I’m quite certain that if its profile were any higher, you’d have (in this country at least) concerned citizen’s groups moving to ban the show and burn every DVD of it available, legal and illegal alike. You see, for those of you who don’t know Dexter, the eponymous lead character of the show, is a serial killer – albeit one whose particular fetish involves killing other serial killers.

The key to making the series work as a character drama and, for us at least, a black comedy of sorts, is Dexter’s inner monologue and, to an extent, the often incongruous soundtrack that accompanies what would otherwise be disturbing moments of calculated violence. Its hard, for example, to get all choked up over one of Dexter’s victims when one hears cheerful samba music playing the background. It’s the focus on Dexter’s internal thought process that I find really enjoyable in the show however, as we get really an outsider’s view of normal life, and all the spoken and unspoken social rules with which we order our lives. Normal people… puzzle Dexter, and in this I think lies the reason why I find him to be such a sympathetic character.

People, and the routines of life in general actually, are in fact… quite puzzling. There are games we play with each other, acknowledged signs and countersigns we make so that we are able to make situations fit a template, in order to deal with other people piece by piece rather than as a whole. Its much easier to interact with Juan as the Boss rather than Juan as the bundle of memories, regrets, desires and neurosis’ that Juan sees in the mirror everyday – unless he’s playing his own game with himself, which is likely.

There are people who go their whole lives following these rules without knowing about them at all. Others on the other hand, have no idea what these rules are – every situation is new, unique and frightening. Then there are the people, like myself, who see the rules, and have to decide for themselves whether to conform or not.

Honestly? I have no idea which group got the short end of the stick.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Of Echoes and Responses

When people say that they are “Practicing Catholics,” I’ve taken the phrase to mean in general that they observe the sacraments and the high holy days, and in particular, that they go to mass at least every Sunday, whether it be actual or anticipated. While the ‘event’ sacraments like baptism and confirmation are determinative of whether you are a Catholic or not, it’s regularly celebrating the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist which determines whether or not you are ‘practicing’.

Ironically then, as central as mass is to my religion, if I were dead set on converting a non-Catholic friend to my faith, I doubt mass would be my main selling point.

Don’t get me wrong: Sunday mass is an important part of my life. It is one hour where I at least try to focus my mind on God, and whether or not I’m successful, that effort in and of itself helps maintain my rapport with God, just like conversation maintains bonds with other people, even if you sometimes stray off topic. Taking the time out for mass gives me the opportunity to do so, and parts of the ceremony such as the readings ensure that I have no shortage of subjects to reflect upon.

Aside from the readings though, I tend to go through much of the rest of the ceremony on automatic mode. I think I stand on solid ground when I say I don’t think I’m alone in this, and undoubtedly I’m not alone in feeling a certain amount of guilt. The words and forms recited during the mass are the results I’d think, of much reflection, deliberation and prayer, with their own special histories and unique meanings. As can be best exemplified by the Responsorial Psalm, the words in the mass are intended to resonate with us, to, precisely, call forth a response… but the problem is that the words I hear and speak during mass are not the results of my own reflection, deliberation and prayer. I am for the most part unaware of their special history and intended meaning. The result? What one receives from the faithful is not a personal response, but the echo of words of others placed in their mouths.

This may be the reason why some of the most devout Catholics I know are hardly more attentive during mass than your typical diverted teen-ager, the former being as absorbed in their own prayers and devotionals as the latter are in their phones and Ipods. It is not that these devout faithful no longer value the mass or its meaning, it is just that they feel they adhere more to the sacrament in repeating word and prayers of their own choice, at their own pace, individually.

Doesn’t that in itself defeat the very idea of a communal celebration, which the mass is supposed to be? That depends, I suppose, in how you view “community”. Mass has always been something more than a solitary celebration with me, since I invariably go with my family or friends. In our shared professions of faith and joint worship, I see the value of celebration as a community, such as it is.

The same however cannot be said the larger you expand the scope of the word ‘community’. In this day and age where the choice of venue for the mass is determined largely by one’s own schedule and one’s preference in priests, one usually attends mass amidst groups of strangers rather than friends, or even acquaintances. Holding hands during the Our Father and sheepish smiles of ‘peace’ aside, its hard to say that I gain anything spiritual from undergoing the rituals of the mass with a group of strangers with whom I share my religion.

Note in that last sentence I use ‘religion’ as opposed to ‘faith’ and, perhaps, that is why I continue to value the mass as a source of communal worship, even if I fail to feel any connection with most of my fellow mass-goers. That I share a religion with an entire church, with billions of people all over the world and all throughout history… that is simply a matter of fact, and not a source of jubilation. Many of us were baptized into Catholicism before we even knew how to spell GOD, much less know what our relationship to Him should be, and that I was initiated in such a manner may account for my holding of religion to be a tad impersonal. Faith in the meantime, is as personal as it gets. Joining my family and friends in the Holy Eucharist, knowing who they are and knowing that their own faiths, while different, are so similar and so resonant with my own… that is more than a fact. That is a blessing. That is what calls for my response.

Of Hardened Hearts and Premature Grief

There are few things in life more intractable than a stubborn heart patient. Or rather, someone who should have been a patient, but isn’t too keen on the idea of being admitted into the hospital. While for any other ailment, concerned friends and family members might cajole and coerce their loved one to receive the proper medical treatment, or at least check if such treatment is necessary, ones methods are severely restricted when the illness involves the heart. After all, if the potential patient is dead set on digging in his or her heels on the matter, angry words and repeated insistence might serve only to drive his or her blood pressure up, exacerbating the heart ailment, if not causing it if it was not actually there in the first place. That indeed would be the height of irony: trying to pull at your loved ones heart strings for their own good, and in the process those heartstrings rip open a valve or bunch up in an artery.

As much consternation as such stubbornness brings to those who care for an ill individual, I certainly am not in position to cast any stones: My preferred universal remedy is to huddle under my blankets at home, and use the pain or sickness as a refuge from work or school. A hospital visit, with me as a patient, ranks about as high on my list of favorite things as does a visit to a wake, with me as the ‘guest of honor’. Irrational, I know, since the former is clearly a way to prevent the latter from happening anytime soon. Yet the reluctance remains.

Why is it I wonder, that so many of us try so hard to keep ourselves healthy – eating less of the wrong food, making time for moderate exercise – and yet, evince such reluctance to seek professional help when we just might need it. Its almost as if we’re more comfortable dealing with health issues such as heart disease when they are future risks than when there is an actual chance that they are happening, right then and there. Why else would we deprive ourselves of lechon because of our family’s history of clogged arteries, yet continue on with our day despite chest pains and the occasional vomiting – both of which could be symptoms of an on-going heart attack?

Perhaps we’re just loathe to admit that all our healthy-living sacrifices had been in vain, or had come too little too late. There are few things that cause greater chagrin after all, than missed opportunities for pleasure. We would however, miss many more pleasures if we were buried six feet underground. Or maybe its simply the possibility of spending a lot for a check-up that proves unnecessary – yet that’s hardly a good reason. A check-up’s goal after all, when you think about it, is to ascertain whether or not you are in fact sick – and if the results answer that question in the negative, then you’ve still gotten your money’s worth.

Maybe in the end, I and others like me have to admit that this reluctance in the face of possible sickness is exactly what it seems to be: an irrational, often destructive impulse that stems either from (a) a deep seated denial of our mortality, or (b) a fatalistic acceptance of it. I am unsure which is worse honestly.

Kübler-Ross model lists five stages through which people deal with grief and tragedy: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Perhaps people like me are jumping the gun on these stages, even before the tragedy occurs, either by denying the fact that we could have a life threatening illness, or by accepting deaths inevitability before it even stops becoming preventable. Those of us who tend to ‘harden our hearts’ may be well served to remedy these attitudes soon: if not for our own sakes, then for those who love us… If we want to keep them from going through the five stages in the proper order.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Of Bookstores and Dead Words

Bookstores make me very happy. I think the closest I’ve come to religious ecstasy in the last five years was when I touched the bare stone façade of the soon (oh please soon) to be built five-story Fully Booked branch at Bonifacio High Street. Seeing as how I can spend an entire day lost in their (soon to be paltry) one floor sprawl at Powerplant I can only imagine the delirium of having five stories of text to explore. (Well, not quite accurate. I remember literally getting lost in a nine story ginormous bookstore in London, but one can’t quite enjoy the experience as much when one is constantly being rushed by concerned tour-mates who insist that catching the last bus to your foster home is more important than grabbing the complete Lone Wolf series.)

Still, there have been times that I’ve found myself standing in the non-fiction section, in the midst of row upon row of histories, political analysis and psychological how-tos, written by experts and specialists and experienced practitioners whose curriculum vitas read like novels in themselves… and I wonder. I wonder how such often divergent opinions can be reconciled – and if they can’t, I wonder how I would know which author is wrong… or lying through his teeth. And you’re lucky if there are only two opinions. There are some topics where I genuinely think you could take two books, use them as bookends, and fill-in the remainder with a selection of works which gradually lead from the idea in one, to the idea in the other.

What really saddens me however, are the topics upon which everyone seems to agree. Books that suggest substantially similar solutions to societal ills which everyone would agree call for remedies. They come with historical illustrations, data-mined theories and even at times, outlined plans for change, for improvement, for a better world.

Does anyone read this stuff?

You’d think by the blurbs that people did – and what’s more, that they liked them. But take another batch of words, another piece of literature – take your newspaper, and flip through the pages, not just for a day, but day in and day out… and what do you see? What do you see?

Marx once stated that, "Philosophers have always tried to interpret the world, the point is to change it." The noblest philosophies do no good when not put into action. No matter how large the library, how rich the body of work, the most insightful of words do no good when lying dusty on a shelf… or squatting dead in a heart.


You can drown in words.

The Net proves that.

So many words...

If I could remember them all, I wouldn't write them down.

I can't write them all. It would take too long. And sometimes I'm unsure if time spent with words is worth the minutes bled from action.

I can't remember them all.

So some I will place here. Incomplete, but existing. Markers... nah. Hints - better. Even if I recall them, they won't be the same.

Thoughts instead of secrets; Processes instead of products; Attempts instead of perfections.