Existential Song

You’re looking for clarity and meaning, but this world, baby, offers neither.

Yet, while I acknowledge that life is meaningless, I still choose to live; that choice makes me one of Albert Camus’s “absurd heroes.”

I’m squeamish about calling myself “hero.” But maybe, by not choosing suicide, or by not choosing the artificial meaning offered by religion—by choosing to blindly pluck meaning from the small moments of my life, by happily taking on the Sisyphean task of dragging the proverbial boulder up the hill that keeps on rolling down for all eternity–maybe I should sit a while and accept the fact of my “heroism.”

Maybe people like me are people like Lampedusa’s il Gatupardo: your life’s crashing down all around you, yet you bear it all with solemn dignity. Traditions die, memories taper into nothingness, gray areas govern the edges of our time, but like Lampedusa’s Leopard, you choose to move on rather than die with the empire in your head.

Maybe, my decision to choose life amid all these makes me incredibly brave, after all. In an absurd sense.

You just don’t realize it, but life’s always a race for some little thing—a race that’s often not really about getting there first, but about not being left behind. In a nice world, it would be great if we all arrive at the same time. But even simple orgasms don’t happen that way.

Maybe you just don’t realize it, but life’s about little fears. Fear because you know you won’t always be intelligent. Or pretty. Or cutting-edge. Or cool. You won’t always have that body that attracts countless suckers. You won’t always win. You won’t always be brilliant. You won’t always be able to smile for every single dawn or dusk that comes your way.

Because you can’t stay forever up in that tower gazing for new incoming waves, for paradigm shifts. Eventually, time and circumstance will force you to go down and mingle with those you used to deride. Eventually, you’ll be weak and helpless. Eventually, somebody has to bury you.

And in the face of all that is meaninglessness. And in the face of such meaninglessness are “absurd heroes” that quietly, silently plod through their days, creating, thinking, loving, remembering. Or trying to forget.

Then you keep going back looking for clarity and meaning.

But this world, baby, offers neither.

(Originally posted on my old beloved blog, The Skirmish of Dark and Light, in March 2006).


Ennui Session No. 8

Sometimes, mornings are like a nosebleed.

Some mornings, you feel you don’t wanna write this novel anymore. Some mornings you feel you’d rather write a 50-page treatise on the rings of Saturn. Or the mating rituals of Cuban earthworms.

Friends tell you you’re now living the “good” life. Now you’re calling the shots. Now there’s no specter of a boss casting shadows behind you. Now, you have those two sharp teeth and you’re sinking them into the soft neck of Life As You Want It.

And you wonder: Why does it feel like a frigging nosebleed?

To find true happiness, says a character in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Invisible Monsters, you have to be like this animal, cut open with all its vital organs quivering and glistening (imagine intestines, liver, pancreas), everything dripping and pulsating. The only way to true happiness is to risk being completely cut open. And somehow, somebody will come to sew you back up.

Like a dutiful kid, I usually keep that in mind. Don’t pretend. Say it straight even if you write it with blood from where your fingernails had been.

But a nosebleed is a nosebleed is a nosebleed. And usually, no one comes, and you take a needle and thread and sew yourself up. And some mornings, I wake up staring at the ceiling trying to filter, weed out, draw a flimsy line between what was dream and what was memory. Which was nightmare and which was real life. Some mornings, I ask myself if there is any difference.

Happiness is cutting yourself open. Completely. But the more I do that, the more my innards rot from sepsis of the fourth order. What little I understand only condemns me to play the patron saint of all the losers in this planet. My empty wallet and empty heart force me to speak for all mediocrity, for all inarticulable smallness, for all those who can’t speak for their own disappointments.

Some mornings, I walk out that door and tell the world Pummel me. Crush me. Send a missile because I’m standing on Ground Zero. Like that rich Chinese lover in Marguerite Duras’s novel, I tell the silent world to destroy me completely. It’s easy; I’m so much weaker than you can possibly imagine.

When I first came here, I intended to take the universe. Now, I’m giving it all back. It’s about time. It’s beginning to end.

It’s all yours.

(Originally posted on my old beloved blog, The Skirmish of Dark and Light, in March 2006)

Patterns from the Cold

One day in 1963, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam was bored out of his skull at a scientific conference. But instead of screaming “Fire!” or “Vietnam!” and head for the exit to spice things up, he did something only mathematicians would do: he doodled on a blank sheet of paper a spiraling grid of regular numbers—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. Then he circled all the prime numbers—and what emerged made him scratch his head. The prime numbers form diagonal lines on the grid. It looked like some sort of pattern.


The whole thing is now known as the Ulam Spiral, which even today, nobody has yet fully explained.

Often, what strikes humanity into humble submission are the staggering surprises.

Take the circle, for example. Any circle seems so simple; take one look, and it seems clear a circle will be unable to hide anything. It’s just some naked shape. But once you succumb to the seduction of attempting to look at the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, you’re like opening Pandora’s box: you’re met with the maddening complexity of the pi’s endless string of numbers—3.14 off into infinity.

The numbers jump out of the box to bury you under its staggering endlessness.

These mysteries help you understand why mathematicians talk about numbers as if the subject of conversation were the curves of Eva Longoria or Naomi Watts. Mention something like Fermat’s last theorem to somebody like Carl Friedrich Gauss, and the guy would probably have a hard-on. Whisper the Poincare conjecture to Grigori Perelman, and he would probably wet his pants and wax nostalgic. Math is so seductive because, for one thing, it’s like everybody’s Lady in Red—she’s this beauty that seems to be both “easy” and hard to get, both so happily understandable and so deeply confounding. And that’s just the stuff undying romances are made of.

But sometimes, math can be a bitch.

That line was on my mind a decade ago when I had the epiphany I loved calling “The Day the Truth Fucked Me.”

The said epiphany basically says: “Goddamit. I am not a math person.”

This was after I had successfully convinced my father to buy me my first personal desktop computer. This was after I had bought all those pricey math textbook references that were supposed to do to me what spinach did to Popeye: Make me tough and “muscled” enough to face and grapple with algebraic confusions.

I was in my third year as an engineering student. I was on my study table, a three-inch-thick physics textbook parted before me, when the epiphany hit me. I could even tell you what went through my head at the exact moment on that day in 1995; I could tell you how the newly-bought book’s pages smelled, and which cassette tape I was playing in the deck (U2’s Zooropa). But none of these small things matters, really. What matters was that I was quitting; that the following day, I would be dropping all my math subjects. What matters was that finally, I was admitting I was a technical loser, after all. That I would never have Bohr’s insight, or Newton’s precociousness.

But despite admitting defeat, I continued standing outside the fence of the happy party, refusing to just turn my back on it all and walk away; I would avidly consume anything if it had something to do with folks like Stephen Hawking or Richard Feynman or when there’s news about the planned terraforming on Mars. I would pounce on every copy of Discover or Wired, and because those were days I lived on a measly allowance, I would kid my friends that I was devising a scheme on how to steal more copies of these magazines from a nearby bookstore—and usually, nobody would notice I was in fact serious.

My “failure” has been responsible in making me an obsessive bystander, “watching” Sagan or Dawkins do all the work while I root for them halfway around the world, in my room deep in the bowels of the Third World.

But sometimes, I wonder how it might be if I were some math whiz like Maximillian Cohen in Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film, Pi. The main character is a social outsider who believes everything in nature can be understood through numbers. Max is obsessed with patterns.

Although widely criticized for its flawed and muddled Kabbalah and Western math, the film is intriguing enough because of the questions it poses. There’s the layer of meaning that says the universe’s fabric, from the very large to the very small, can be plotted with numbers; step back far enough—like what Ulam did with the grid of prime numbers—and you might see a pattern. The name of God, maybe. The future of the stock market. Or just the little cherished answer to your most personal question.

Sure, you can’t take these things at face value. Especially because each question mankind manages to answer only gives birth to another set of questions previously unimagined. But that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? Because it shows us that there will always be some more “staggering surprises” left lying around in the universe, promising us that we’ll never run out of wonder, telling us that humankind will probably never stop running on the eternal treadmill.

These surprises are just waiting for the next fool, waiting for the next wunderkind to find them.

(Originally from my old blog in 2006)

The Smallest of Things

You can’t really believe most things you see on the surface. Take her, for example. One look at her, and something tells you what you see is just bull; that if you drill a hole through her walls, you’ll find a little girl just dying to be understood.


And usually, her beef is all about small things.

Something strange is happening to me. And me talking like this is “strange” in itself; people who know me would eagerly attest that you haven’t heard and seen weird things in your life if you haven’t met me; and that’s not a “self-compliment”; I’m not trying to be cute like Woody Allen. To be even brutally honest about it, people with whom I’ve closely worked long enough eventually discover how disagreeable I am.

But the thing is, these recent days, certain discoveries bubble up on the surface of your life, discoveries that tell you that somehow, fuck-ups as large as Mt. Everest began life as a pocket lint.

And when these small things get bigger, you’re left wondering like Tony Leung in Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, asking dear Maggie to help him imagine how their spouses’ betrayal began: When did it start? And how it must have felt?

Some months ago, a nursing student committed suicide in her room because her mother didn’t give her P500 to buy a medical textbook. The mother was devastated—everybody was—when they discovered her body, but even more so when they read her suicide note. Suicide. Because of five hundred pesos.

Oh, the humanity.

Somehow, I blame soap operas.

In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, Celie’s a black woman who has never had anybody care for her as a human being. She grows up and gets married to a man who treats her like livestock.

Celie’s not so smart, but she knows enough that to survive, you need “therapy”, even if it’s self-administered: so she ends each night of her life whispering the line, “Dear God,” to the empty space. Each night, she tells the shit of her day to the darkness.

One day, however, someone comes along to buy her a new set of clothes.

A new set of clothes, Celie asks in disbelief, just for her? And she chokes on her tears.

Sometimes, things like that hit closer to right where I stand. There was one afternoon I’m working at home when this old lady came knocking and asking for food. I was annoyed; I thought she was one of those slackers who’d suck the fruits of somebody else’s industriousness. I’ve never been a “good” person, and that afternoon, I was up to my neck with work. So you can imagine how deep I probably was in my vicious Marilyn Manson mood.

And to get rid of her fast, I fished some money in my pocket and gave her the first bill I found—only to realize too late that I was handing her something bigger than I had intended, something like fifty pesos.

Yeah, fifty pesos, when I only meant five. But suddenly, she gazed at the money on her palm, and she wept. Right there, she wept and almost knelt before me in gratitude. I tried telling her that it was nothing; I even laughed to prove it meant nothing to me. But the truth was, I laughed because it shamed me, if a monster could be shamed. I felt cheap.

After she was gone, when nobody was around, I was tearful, too; there was something about the way she broke down that I couldn’t forget it. It felt so real and so staggering, like somebody bashed me in the face.

And Jesus, I thought, I’m so nice. All those kids whose asses I kicked would never believe this. All those people who hate me, they’d come to my house now and shoot me right in my moment of vulnerability.

Before Celie, before the old lady, I never realized that the things I don’t even count could become powerful enough to make somebody break down and weep. Before films like Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less, I lived with a very limited set of beliefs when it came to the question of what mattered.

I had been so fascinated with things that had nothing to do with people’s desperation that for a long time, the stories I attempted writing belonged to that great hated category I’d call, “The Pretensions.”

Well, I’m not there, yet. I still tell friends I’m a bleeding work in progress, and maybe I won’t ever be complete. But being fully aware of the crap I do is probably a nice start. As nice as seeing the small things for what they are, but having the liver to wait there at the end of the road, knowing and accepting how these small things might grow up and devour me in the end.

But I don’t really mind. Like I said to that girl with ten thousand issues I met months ago, I’ll just enjoy, dread, even long for the small things that make up my crappy little life. I’ll enjoy them before they’re gone and leave holes in my heart.

And maybe like what Galileo asked the Vatican about its angst over heliocentricity, I’ll start identifying these small things by asking myself the same brilliant question:

What exactly is your beef?

[Originally from 2006]