Culture

Angels and Demons and Popes

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Sculptures at the Trevi Fountain. Photo by Ivan Bertona on Unsplash

Why Rome should be on your bucket list

Recently I watched Angels and Demons (2009), Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel. It’s tolerable. Tom Hanks as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is bland — but then we don’t really care, because Langdon isn’t the reason Angels and Demons is remarkable: it’s the fact that the story is set in the culturally rich city of Rome.

I’ve been to Rome once, in 2007, and I still get violently nostalgic and paralyzing daydreams of my visit there. It was there that I realized what a paradoxical city Rome is, and how it should be part of anybody’s bucket list.

St Peter’s Basilica. Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash

It is a melting pot of cultures. For conservatives, it is of course the epicenter of faith (and power): it’s where the Pope lives (well, technically, no; but Vatican City and Rome are geographically too close and confusing that you can say the Vatican is Rome). It’s also a place where there’s a church in every corner, with artworks by Renaissance masters as well as relics of saints. And for liberals, it is a hub of freedom and license — even the birthplace and home of bacchanalia.

So it is perfectly normal to smell incense inside Santa Maria del Popolo one moment, and then fumigation-level cigarette smoke in the next, as you exit. Don’t be surprised to see couples smooching down Circo Massimo’ sloping fields…after your short walk to the Basilica of St John Lateran. And don’t forget: that Roman air you’re breathing? — it’s infused with essences from laws enforcing divorce, abortion, and euthanasia. All this contrast and heterogeneity is, for me, strangely…beautiful. It echoes words from St Paul’s letter to (precisely) the Romans:

Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.

Also, Rome is a city-size “museum”. Once you’re there, you won’t really absolutely need to enter any museum, because there are museum-level sights even if you are outdoors: Castel Sant Angelo, the Colosseum, Piazza Spagna, Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, even the Tiber River. Just get a good Internet connection and consult Google Maps and Wikipedia entries about the places you’re visiting (but don’t believe Wikipedia too much — it’s like your regular tour guide who mixes facts and rumors).

Castel Sant Angelo along the Tiber River. Photo by Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash

But by saying “Rome is in itself a museum”, I’m not saying “don’t go to museums”! The most cherished treasures still are in well guarded enclosed rooms, most famously the Vatican Museums (again, I’m considering the name “Rome” quite loosely here).

A visit to the Vatican Museums is worth the queues and the euros. Inside you’ll find roomfuls of masterpieces, including those by three of the four Ninja Turtles: Raphael, Leonardo, and Michaelangelo (Donatello has a ciborium at St Peter’s Basilica, though). The most overwhelming part of the Vatican Museums tour is certainly the climax — the Sistine Chapel. Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment and the Biblical scenes on the chapel’s ceilings are simply dazzling. From afar, the characters seem alive and three-dimensional. This part of the tour is best when there are few visitors — when you can dare lie on the floor and marvel at the famed ceiling…and the fact that this very room has produced popes in the last 500 years.

Sistine Chapel ceiling. Photo by Aaron Logan on Wikimedia

For me, however, the foremost reason Rome is just absolutely #1 on my bucket list is this: it’s the center of Catholicism, the Pope’s home (don’t get me started on the jurisdiction stickler-talk). If you can, visit Rome during Holy Week. Nothing beats an Easter Vigil Mass with no less than the Pope at St Peter’s Basilica. In the darkness of that Holy Saturday at St Peter’s 11 years ago, I shuddered thinking about the tumultuous history of the Church, filled with sinners and saints; the unbroken succession of 266 Bishops of Rome, from Peter to Francis; the many artists and intellectuals who have drawn inspiration from this timeless city aptly called Eternal; and, of course, how Robert Langdon, the boring symbologist, saved the day, again.

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Culture

Dear Government, this is how to make our daily commute less hellish

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Photo by Bash Carlos on Unsplash

10 suggestions harassed commuters secretly love

Because I hate Grab’s monopolizing schemes, I now advocate other means of public transportation.

But Metro Manila’s public transpo situation is, of course, the one you can expect in hell.

So, for whatever it’s worth, here are 10 suggestions on how government and operators can make the daily ride through hell less infernal.

  1. Make the damn elevators and escalators work. The least one can do to alleviate train riders’ sufferings is make them climb less. And don’t tell me they’re down for some “maintenance work”. Maintenance work for over six months? That’s not “work” — that’s retirement.
  2. Make the damn AC work. Precisely one of the reasons people would rather choose the long queues at train stations is the temporary comfort they’ll get once they’re inside the train — or so they expect. Because, no, the trains are often without air-conditioning that the windows are sometimes opened just to let oxygen in.
  3. Make a map of all jeepney routes and publicize it. Something like the famous Vignelli subway maps — color-coded, geometric, simple. This would help people (including tourists) to plan their trips around the city.
  4. Create co-working-space buses. This idea I got from a fellow Toastmaster, Mark Escay. If we are going to get stuck in traffic for three hours anyway (that’s six hours per day!), why not ride a (presumably premium, members-only) bus with wifi connection, poufs, cacti, coffee, and doughnuts? You’ll get some work done while on the road. (Though, frankly, I wonder why some people need to go to the office when their jobs are already digital.)
  5. Make the tricycles larger. It is dehumanizing to crouch so low and consider it “sitting”. I mean, pigs and chickens have better lot when transported to their slaughterhouse — at least they’re standing with dignity. And get those trikes some extra headroom: nobody wants to get out of them with souvenir concussions.

Now, a short disclaimer, what follows are suggestions which some may find offensive, but actually secretly love with all their hearts:

  1. Ban standing when riding the bus. This would alleviate unnecessary guilt by seated men in this age of gender equality.
  2. Create extra-fast lanes in train stations. I’m thinking slides. So aside from elevators and escalators (and stairs), there should be slides as well, for the chronic latecomers.
  3. Explore installing ziplines along train lines. These are for the daredevils who are late for work.
  4. Devise fart-bombs (FBs) to be used by commuters who are denied rides by taxi drivers. Make the FBs small enough for them to drop in the cab’s back seat as they — denied but undefeated — rush out and look for cover.
  5. Put spikes that automatically emerge on the edges of pedestrian lanes whenever the red light is on. This would discourage motorists from obstructing the crossing pedestrians.

Do you have anything to add to the list? Tell me about it in the comments below.

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Culture

Loco over Coco (2017)

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Photo by Filip Gielda on Unsplash

This Pixar feature is a classic

Coco (2017) is certainly Pixar’s best movie. What drew me to the film is not exactly its stunning visuals, but the emotions you’ll share with the characters.

Little Miguel pursues a dream that brings him to the underworld — the dream of becoming a musician and meeting his great-grandfather. He learns life (and death) lessons along the way, of course.

I’m guessing the film made the most money in collectivist-religious societies like the Philippines (and Mexico, certainly, where the story is set). It’s in these cultures where love for family seems to be most manifested and celebrated. While Mexicans have Dia de Muertos, we Filipinos have Undas which commemorates — to a quasi-festive level — our beloved departed. It’s the same theme of remembering dead loved ones whom, in a sometimes macabre manner, we treat as alive (e.g. talking to their graves and leaving them their favorite food or drink).

Coco (2017) movie poster from Disney/Pixar

I like how the movie pulls you to become part of Miguel’s family. Suddenly I loved Mama Coco (Miguel’s soft-spoken great-grandmother who has severe dementia) — or was it that I just missed my grandmother who died more than a decade ago? Suddenly I felt sad for Hector, who can’t visit the land of the living because nobody remembers him anymore — or was it that I suddenly became conscious of loved ones whom I’ve taken for granted and somehow forgotten? It’s these feelings that make Coco quite the hammer blow to my oh-so-fragile heart.

In the end, Coco reminds us that life on earth is fluid and impermanent. It’s a continuous welcoming and letting go. And it’s sad, really. But then, put into the picture love and memory. The whole drama of life and love and loss unfolds. And it’s beautiful. Sad, but beautiful. But, as the film suggests, there’s no need to lose joy: there is always the hope of ultimate reunion.

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Communication

Why I love Toastmasters

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The best part of organizing speech contests…is not being a contestant 😝 Photo: Zarah Francheska Sy

“It’s an elitist boys’ club that just tries to improve themselves.”

This was how one of the professors I looked up to described Toastmasters — and I thought she was among the intelligent ones who’d do their research first before voicing out conclusions. (She has since descended to a much lower level in my opinion.)

Truth is, Toastmasters is far from being elitist — though certainly there’s a club named Elite and, considering world population, the organization could indeed be deemed elite. Nor is it just for boys: it’s actually for everyone 18 years old and above. I noted a profound prejudice in that professor’s remark. Not worth my time arguing with.

My team once conducted a training on delivering humorous speeches and evaluation speeches. See that range of people who want to become better professionals! Photo: Bruno Tangangco

One thing the professor got right, though, is the fact that well meaning individuals do try to improve themselves at Toastmasters — a motive no less noble than loving someone.

I know, right, I’m triggered! Because, really, Toastmasters — despite all its imperfections (reality check: nothing’s perfect) — is something lovable. Let me tell you a love story:

I first heard about Toastmasters back when I was in Opus Dei (another organization that same professor is so biased against lol — she hates everyone). Someone was teaching us public speaking and he was noted to be a Toastmaster. Like, people hire him to give toasts at VIP banquets?? I remember myself thinking.

Fast forward four years, 2014, and I was attending my first Toastmasters meeting, at Maharlika Toastmasters Club in Ermita, Manila. A kind old lady heartily welcomed me into the club.

I learned Toastmasters International is a global organization with thousands of clubs composed of people who want to become better communicators and leaders. I learned that various prominent people — from politicians to socialites to beauty queens and actors — are members of Toastmasters. But it was knowing Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) is a Toastmaster that sealed the deal. Lolllll.

A typical meeting at Maharlika Toastmasters Club. Photo: Maharlika Toastmasters Club

At first, I had some difficulty delivering my speeches because of my tight schedule (I still worked in Makati then). But when I began teaching at UP Manila (which was near the club), I began to amble through my Toastmasters journey at a steady pace. What did I begin to love?

  • Veteran members are always helpful, and the mentoring culture can be quite strong. There are members who, without being asked or without anything to receive in return, gently provide you with tips and advice — how to organize your speech more coherently, how to avoid using too many gestures, how to evaluate a speech constructively. And these same people humbly receive feedback, too, during the meeting.
  • Leadership opportunities abound. If you have never led a group of people from various professions and temperaments, Toastmasters is the place for you to learn leadership — particularly leading a volunteer organization. For me, the most challenging aspect of leading at Toastmasters is motivating a team of volunteers (no one gets paid, and sometimes work extends to becoming like a full-time job). The question always was: “How do you motivate this person to work efficiently out of good will?” I figured it takes more finesse to motivate someone without the threat of getting axed or any financial reward.
  • The circle of friends I gained is priceless. Before I joined Toastmasters, I was just slightly friendly — the type who’d wait to be introduced, and not introduce himself (because that might intrude into other people’s bubbles of Daryl-less bliss). But probably because of the introductions I necessarily had to do to guests during club meetings, I ended up opening up more and even joining my clubmates to drinks and other socials. I suppose Toastmasters made me so much friendlier than I ever was. (I still need my me-time, though!)
  • The network of members is expansive. This opened up for me various opportunities professional and personal. And I think it’s simply because of the sheer diversity and number of people you’ll eventually meet in the organization.

We conduct yearly conventions where we select the Philippine representative to the World Championship of Public Speaking. This one was in Davao City last April. Photo: Division L Toastmasters

I will not spend more of your time with the other reasons. But those above are, essentially, what keep me going to Toastmasters meetings…and more.

I’ve just ended my stint as a division director at Toastmasters. That service came as a way of giving back to the organization and of challenging myself and improving my leadership skills. I had to advise 19 clubs and a few prospective clubs. In the end, I saw the imperfections of Toastmasters. But that didn’t lessen my regard for the organization. People are imperfect, and so am I. My challenge now is encouraging ways to overcome the organization’s weaknesses and enhance its strengths. And I guess that’s what it will have to be when it comes to loving an organization: you discover what’s lovable, then embrace it; find its dirt and holes, then try to improve it; and if there’s resistance, love it all the same.

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Productivity

Meditations minus the ommm part

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3 morning activities for a more productive day

There’s a half-hour slot in my morning schedule I call “Meditations” (thanks, Marcus Aurelius!).

It’s composed of three meditative activities which I now consider pillars of a productive day: mindfulness meditation, mental prayer, and journaling. Without these, it seems, I’d feel my day quite directionless, limbo-like, chaotic. You might want to try them.

Mindfulness meditation — or, simply, meditation — involves closing my eyes and becoming conscious of my bodily processes — my breathing, primarily, but also how the muscles on my face relax, and those on my neck, my shoulders, my torso, and so on. (No ommms, though, because that’s too much weirdness I can take.) I normally use Simple Habit to do this; it’s an app with great meditations addressing various issues like stress and insomnia, but also mundane stuff like getting a cup of coffee or taking a break from work or getting ready for sexy time lol. Meditating normally takes 10 minutes.

 

 

Mental prayer is simply reading some Gospel passage and a short commentary on it, and then talking to God about it — or other things like wishing the day would be great or complaining about getting neither Argentina nor Spain nor Germany(!) in the World’s Cup’s Final Four. I use iPray with the Gospel to help me with this. Time allotted: 10–15 minutes.

 

 

Journaling is, of course, just writing down (in my bullet journal) a more coherent version of my thoughts — my hopes and dreams and frustrations and disappointments, but also confusions and conundrums and manifestations of the Inside Out characters. Towards the end, there’s a part where I list three people I’m grateful for (and why), then two things I look forward to in the day (normally my day’s key goal and, often, “sleep”), and finally one lesson I get from Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic book. Allotted time: 10 minutes.

One or two of these may not be useful to you. But I suggest you try at least one. A little introspection — getting to know yourself — goes a long way in cultivating friendship with yourself…and others as a result.

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