Directions to the Madhouse

I’m plotting the logistics of my project in southern Philippines. In this next trip, I’ll have the time to fully dedicate myself to investigating the human rights violations and corruption of the Philippine government and military. When I began the initial research work for this project, Benigno Aquino III was still the president. However, my research scope went all the way back to the Gloria Arroyo presidency. So now the entire investigation spans 3 presidential administrations. Each one of them–Noy, Gloria and Roddy–offers their own unique flavor to the smorgasbord of political ineptitude.

This is to say that I will be hitting each administration hard, regardless of their political party or ideology. This is also to say that I have my work cut out for me. Here’s a sample of what I will be investigating:

+ Theft of international disaster relief donations.

+ Misuse of tax funds.

+ Kidnappings and torture of political activists, NGO volunteers and witnesses.

+ Contract killings of journalists.

+ Assassinations of political opponents.

+ Police bribery and general corruption.

+ Corporate influence on politicians (bribery; kickbacks).

Now with major foreign terrorists establishing their presence in Mindanao, this whole project just became more complicated. I’m technically not investigating them. They’re terrorists. What’s there to investigate? They’re out in the open and showcase their grisly acts with pride. But this makes my field work more dangerous than it already was.

I’m not doing this project for a news company. I’m not even freelancing for a newspaper. The findings of this investigation will exclusively be featured in a bi-annual journal that I own and publish, called Dissertation, and which I will send to various human rights organizations and media outlets. This means I will not have the financial, legal and political connections of an organization like The New York Times, BBC or Al Jazeera English.

I’m on my own. I’ll have to supply my own bulletproof vest (not that I’ll ever wear it anyways). My own driver (which is fine since it’s easy to hire one in the Philippines). I’ll have to establish my own contacts, because I don’t have the expansive catalog of sources and fixers that a large news organization has. This is why I have to prepare everything in advance and make the right decisions now. My margin of error is very slim. I have to be on point with everything I do in this investigation.

 

To Last of Us / The Last of Us

“I loved the water of you, the snake of
you, everything amorphous and short-lived,

as I expected nothing to last of us.”

– Excerpt from Nommo in September, Hannah Sanghee Park

 

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only change forms: sparks create fire; atom bombs create explosions. I thought about this last Halloween, when we visited the family mausoleum. I sat in front of my grandmother’s tomb with a candle illuminating the dark crevices as it slowly melted to death. Since they are buried underneath the tile floors of the mausoleum, there was no choice but to sit, stand or lie above the deceased. It’s not disrespectful; that’s just the architectural design of the afterlife.

I laid down next to my grandmother, the way I did as a child when we used to share a bed in our small New York apartment, the way I laid next to her the morning she had a fatal stroke. I imagined that I could feel the vibration of her atoms. I imagined that it was the vibration of a rocket ship punching the stratosphere, her tomb as my backrest, and we were on our way to the edge of the universe as dark matter expands it. It will be a long ride. Spacefarers Michael and Taciana, grandson and grandmother, sailing through the cosmos.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only change forms: sparks create fire; atom bombs create explosions. I thought about this years ago, while kissing her jugular notch, her straddling me in the backseat of her SUV.

“I’ll make love to you everyday,” I told her when she moved her face closer. She cried.

Words, too, can create fire. Sparks by Coldplay was playing softly through the speakers. I touched the frame of the window.

“This. This is my idea of a perfect world. I mean, not the car, the engineering is shit on this model, but you and me…and Chris Martin lurking somewhere in the background…and nothing else inside this bubble. I want to photocopy this moment and staple it all over my room until it’s completely covered.”

When we finally had to call it a night an hour before sunrise, I remember I had forgotten my eyeglasses in the passenger door compartment. She, still in the backseat, leaned forward to unlock the front door for me. I remember her silhouette, the arch of her back, her hair hanging down over her cheeks. I leaned forward and kissed her.

It sounds juvenile now, but that one simple, short gesture is tattooed in my mind. We’ve never had a normal relationship and something so normal, like a kiss on the lips, gave me a glimpse of what could’ve been if life, warfare, and heartbreak hadn’t gotten in the way.

When I got home, the residue of her favorite perfume, the same one she wore on our first date years before, coated my skin and shirt. It rubbed off on my pillow, my entire bed, until her presence in my dark, empty room eased me to sleep.

Poems About You, About Her, About Us, About Nothing At All

I Met You in New Delhi

I tell people I met you in New Delhi
when I show them your picture
—but that’s a lie.

We’ve never met in person,
yet we used to know each other personally.
The countless letters and literature we shared
across oceans have been reduced to paper craft:
a complex history conveyed in two dimensions
like Kara Walker silhouettes.

They ask, “Where in New Delhi?”
Lodi Gardens, by the ancient mosque,
underneath an arch. I remember clearly.
Your shadow melted with mine.

I’ve never been to New Delhi,
but I’ve walked around the city many times before.
You mapped out the entire geography of my mind
and there is no stone that’s unfamiliar
or street name I don’t recognize.

Butterfly in the Pale Moonlight

Sometimes I can hear
the struggles in her dreams,
even when she breathes quietly.

Her bruises have healed,
but I can see the spots
in the pale moonlight
when half of her body
overlaps with mine.

Leopard, I say.
She says she prefers
to be a butterfly
with patterns that fool predators
into believing that she is an owl
with fierce large eyes.

That way, she says,
she can float to me
without being touched
by anyone else.

Yeats - “Consume my heart away; sick with desire.” (Sailing To Byzantium)
Photo by Michael Raqim Mira. 2013.

Exit Strategy

I drove over 2,000 miles,
hiked up a ravine and
climbed a mountain
just to write you a letter
on my tattered notepad.

This is to say that physical distance
between us is imaginary.
Wherever I go, I find that you’ve
already set my destination on fire.
The collage of black clouds and embers
greet me like shadows and amber light
dancing in celebration of renewals.

Even in the darkest corners
of crudely-drawn continents,
you were bound to light up
the sky sooner or later.
I circumnavigated the globe,
running away from you and
towards you at the same time.

Reminder: over a thousand people
have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Only a handful drowned
trying to escape from Alcatraz.
I guess the outside world
is a much crueler prison.

I thought about this whilst drifting
through the eucalyptus grove in Presidio,
before the whole city awoke,
just as the fog smothered your scent
with the smell of millennia-old recycled lakes.
On a branch was a rare starling imitating
the call of another bird, attempting to migrate
without ever flapping its wings.

Eileen

Perhaps I spoke too soon
when I said I wouldn’t get lost
without you co-piloting our escape pod.
Now my moral compass resembles
a sonar beam looking for monsters
under murky lochs.

I wanted to tell you this afternoon
that I didn’t go crazy yesterday,
that the Fall morning air was sweet,
and the sky was the only thing
blue in my mind.

I had the urge to send you my
daily report on the status
of our shared psychosis;
that it’s been malfunctioning
due to this abnormal surge
of normalcy.

Yet here I am writing you
a poem, confessing that
I’ve been bouncing off the walls
inside the white asylum cell,
inside my mind since we last spoke.

The truth is, normal is something
we’ve never experienced in this
old world order of yes-men,
tyrants and mannequins.

“Normal” is dying with the fireflies
you cupped in your hands
while lost in the Pine Barrens
and resurrecting a thousand times
to share a flicker of light in the darkness
of our mental prison block.

Normalcy is conversing for hours
in two time zones, contemplating
the thermodynamics of our body heat
despite the sprawling American dream
separating the vowels you say
and the poetry I hear.

5 Centimeters per Second

This morning, I realized for the first time
that all those lamentations you wrote
in codes and metaphors about a man
you longed for wasn’t about me,
but the better version of who I could be
and can never become—the one who
was always present by your side while
I was busy colonizing a planet in your name.

How arrogant of me to think
that you would even contemplate
the idea of trading something real,
physical like steady hands
guiding your hips in the dark
for a ghost who only exists in your mind.

I wanted to believe that I could,
as a writer, pen a story
about me and you
standing on the shore,
watching the sun commit suicide
in Long Island Sound;
that I could write my fate
so eloquently that I’d convince
myself that it was nonfiction.

Yet here I am with a dollar & a dream,
trying to catch the last train
to nowhere. Maybe I’ll see you there
sitting on a bench reading Borges,
and then turn to me and say,
“What took you so long?”

Notes:

1. These poems are part of Close Proximity, a collection of verse. Forthcoming in 2018.

2. A selection of these poems are in competition for the 2017 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards (Philippines).

In Another Place, Another Time, I Loved You

“You don’t want love. You want a love experience.”

Knight of Cups

In the Tech Age, the “human experience” has become harder to define. Before, the “human experience” meant all of the things that a person experiences as a mortal on planet Earth: joy, grief, enlightenment, fear, anger and lust. These are experiences and emotions that occur naturally through our interaction with the world, with each other, through our five senses. Nowadays, experiencing the joy of listening to a beautiful piece of music for the first time, or seeing magnificent landscapes thousands of miles away from your home, can be achieved digitally.

Through synthetic realities–such as virtual reality simulations or simply photos online–we can feel and think we know the backstreets of Le Marais, in Paris, as if it were our hometown by navigating through it on Google Street View a hundred times.

When we are in love with someone, are we truly “in love” with them or are we actually addicted to the holistic experience of above-average infatuation (as I like to define the term “in love”)?

After all, humans are, to put it simplistically, sophisticated animals that learned to respond to external stimuli through complex processes in our mind (psychological) and brain (physiological/neurological) that was developed via evolutionary adaptation. We’ve also created social constructs, such as codes of ethics based on religion and laws based on those codes of ethics (and perceptions of the state as an administrator of public safety and order–e.g. why it’s illegal to run a red light or corporations are fined millions of dollars for improperly disposing hazardous waste).

Through these social constructs and psychological processes, we’ve evolved to become biological machines that are constantly thinking, analyzing and making judgments every minute or less. So how can we discern what it is love–which to this day still does not have a clear definition–and what is the love experience?

I once thought I loved a woman overseas. We wrote letters to each other, communicated online, and went through ups and downs like any other couple (although we were never officially in a relationship). We both admitted to each other that we “loved” or was “in love” with the other at certain points in our timeline. We’ve known each other for almost a decade. We’ve never met. Was love possible without physical presence, without physical intimacy, without shared memories of actually doing things together in person? Perhaps we were just in love with the experience of what we thought was love.

When I was 19, I wrote a poem about walking through the woods in the northern parts of New England. I was able to depict the scenery in vivid details, despite never having been to New England at that time, due to extensive reading and thorough visual research online. About 8 years later, I finally went to New Hampshire and when I stood on the ridge of a mountain after walking through a heavily wooded trail, I felt a sense of déjà vu.

sfsfdsdf

Did the “memory” I construct through my imagination when I wrote that poem and through web photos overlap with my actual first-hand experience?

I believe that first-hand accounts are important. I believe that seeking genuine experiences are important. If we rely heavily on second-hand information–whether through travel stories from a friend or YouTube videos–we can become susceptible to misinformation, deception and mind pollution. In fact, military and political propaganda is applied using this premise.

On a personal note, I believe that seeking “genuine experiences” like the love experience is just as good as seeking love itself. After all, what is love but an experience, right?

Lawyered Up

My business partner/friend asked me earlier if we should start looking for a law firm to help us with our legal matters in the future. Honestly, I only have two requirements for a lawyer:

1. He has an impeccable track record.

2. He’s Jewish. I want a badass Jew from New York who won’t take any shit from anyone– like the tough Jews I grew up with in Brooklyn–and will fight hard for his clients. In fact, I want this guy to wear a yarmulke when he kicks the courtroom doors open. I want the type of Jew who puts a gigantic menorah decoration on his lawn during Christmas to piss off his Christian neighbors.

That goes for my criminal defense lawyers as well (not that I’ll ever need them, I hope).